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Central America: A cruising guide

Destination Reviews

The region known as Central America is the isthmus which stretches between Mexico to the north and Colombia to the south, including the seven countries of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. This is a lush hotspot of biodiversity, with an extraordinary volcanic landscape, with mountain ranges featuring rainforest and cloudforest, fertile valleys, and two beautiful coastlines, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Read on for your complete guide to cruises in Central America.

Rich in pre-Columbian history, the Central America area was dominated by the Mayans and the Aztecs until the start of the Spanish expeditions to seize the territory for the Spanish empire in the 16th century. The official language is Spanish, but some Mayan languages are still spoken. In Panama, the indigenous Embera Indians still live a traditional lifestyle.

Embera Indian Panama

Visitors to Central America by ship may be enjoying a rather special Caribbean cruise option, the opportunity to snorkel on Belize's barrier reef, an exciting transit through the Panama Canal, and an in-depth exploration of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. There are also opportunities to extend a trip with a Costa Rica land programme.

Belize Blue Hole

For many, a transit of the Panama Canal is a bucket list experience, and with reason. This extraordinary engineering project began workin 1881, but faced numerous challenges with high worker mortality and technical challenges. Eventually it was opened in 1914, owned first by the Americans who finally completed the project, and then under American Panamanian control. In 1999 it was taken over by the Panamanian government.

A huge and fascinating lock system at either end of the canal lifts ships to the level of the Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created by flooding the valley between. Following the building of a wider lane of locks, a project competed as recently as 2016, ships up to 120,000 DWT (Neo-Panamax vessels) are able to transit the canal, where huge cruise ships and cargo ships sail alongside much smaller vessels in a magical experience, particularly for shipping nerds. Make sure your scheduled transit is during daylight hours for full enjoyment. As well as spotting other shipping, you will see amazing flora and fauna through the day including the opportunity to see monkeys, sloths and toucans.

Panama Canal cruise

The lush landscapes and beautiful shores of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize create a Caribbean itinerary with a difference, including national parks and maritime reserves, such as the Jeannette Kawas National Park, a formidable panorama of the biodiversity in Honduras; Les Cayos Cochinos, a small archipelago classified as a marine reserve and located on the world's second-largest coral reef; the green jungle of the Cuero y Salado National Park at the confluence of several rivers; cays where you can explore the treasures of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System; the heart of Garifuna country in Guatemala; and ancestral Mayan traditions in coastal Belize.

Capuchin monkey Costa Rica

Costa Rica stands out as a highlight for Central American cruises, with convenient direct non-stop flights from London to San Jose. A Costa Rica cruise on the Pacific Coast can be combined with an exciting land tour in this beautiful country, with lovely hotels, good roads, stunning scenery and some very exciting activities including hiking, white water rafting, ziplining and more.

Mount Arenal Costa Rica

Our favourite Central America cruises include Windstar's itineraries to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal, and Ponant's in-depth explorations on board Le Dumont d'Urville out of Belize City.

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising. Most recently she's cruised on Windstar and has also sailed with Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal, SeaDream, Ponant, AmaWaterways and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Mediterranean, Danube, Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Caribbean and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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