Costa Rica and parts of Panama feature filtered water as well as most of the comforts of the area of the industrialized world we are more familiar with and are easy to travel in even for the fussiest vacationist. Costa Rica even features self contained resorts so one need not venture into the "dangerous" unknown nor encounter too many surprises. Both countries also feature great traveler delights. Costa Rica is replete with wonderful water and jungle experiences. There are smoking volcanoes, zip lines, and endless hiking paths. The bird life is a as rich or richer than anywhere in the world. Panama not only houses the fascinating Canal but also jungles and islands where indigenous, traditional Indian tribes still maintain enough of their traditional cultures to make a visit educational and interesting.
It is the rest of Central America where few Americans are encountered. They are outnumbered by Europeans and Latin Americans who visit Guatemala abundantly and are also much more likely to wander through the neighboring countries in that area. Of course there is still a problem with crime in Guatemala, a sure cause for American avoidance, but the country features some of the most interesting colonial architecture in Latin America. The Peten jungle in the North contains one of the spectacular deserted Mayan sites, Tikal. The most colorful market in our hemisphere, Chichicastenango, sits in the rolling hills in the center of the country. And beautiful Lake Atitlan with its smoking volcanoes is not far away. What more could a tourist hope for? Belize is also rather easy to travel about in and parts of the country are rather well developed. The Caribbean area, however, is a place where there is an abundance of poverty with many folks housed in simple huts not dissimilar from places in Africa. Yet the country is worth a visit for its several Mayan sites and its fascinating caves, some of which one can tube through on a lazy afternoon. The beautiful island of Ambergris Caye is but one of the comfortable and attractive islands the country features and offers the visitor just about as much as anyone needs on vacation.
Then there are Nicaragua and Honduras. The former is the more interesting destination for tourists who are willing to brave the challenges of the Third World. Earlier political struggles have kept tourism quite low though things have settled down. In Nicaragua there are interesting islands, lovely colonial villages like Granada and a coastline that equals Costa Rica's yet is far less developed and quite a bit less expensive. Some Americans have been purchasing land along the Pacific coast in the expectation that tourism will increase considerably. Honduras, a former outpost of the United Fruit Company, is also a bit challenging. There is less for the tourist to visit there than in Nicaragua but there are wonderful Mayan stellae in Copan, the southernmost of the important Mayan sites; there are white sandy beaches and great snorkeling on the Caribbean side, and the island of Roatan has become a common port for the cruise ships that ply that part of the world.
In short, for Americans who prefer a short plane trip (no more than five hours to just about any site), a touch of Third World adventure, some fine natural sites in jungles, lakes and mountains, and friendly people, Central America should be a consideration. From extensive rain forests to volcanic lakes, from some of the finer beaches in the world to impressive variations in animal and plant life, there is much to do and see. With no wide oceans to cross, the nearness of the area makes it a good choice for week long trips. As the memories of recent wars fade and the popularization of some great travel destinations increases, I anticipate that our close by neighbors will be seeing more gringos in their midst. In the meantime, you can take advantage of inexpensive, interesting locales without tripping over too many folks from your neighborhood.
Coastline, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua