Top Central American destinations for female travellers

A bio-diversity mecca, cultural delight and coffee drinkers heaven, Central America is a tiny strip offering up some of the most delightful countries I've had the pleasure of visiting.

Like any country outside of your own, a certain degree of caution should always be exercised, sadly for women this is heightened - here are my top destinations for female travellers navigating the wonderful countries of Central America.

1. Panama

Boasting Central America's most cosmopolitan capital City, Panama is a country where you can surf Caribbean reefs abundant with starfish in the morning, dine in the jungle surrounding by sloths for lunch and sip cocktails from rooftop bars overlooking Panama's expansive cityscape by night - it's a dream for any girl with any and all travel preferences.

With the highest HDI (Human Development Index) of any Central American country, Panama's solid income equality growth gives the country a safe and welcoming feel, particularly for female travellers. 

If you're travelling on a budget or looking for luxury, Panama offers everything from cheap jungle cabanas to all of the major luxury hotel brands throughout the city.

Must do spot: 

Bocas del Toro Island archipelago 

Go if you like:

Surfing, diving, snorkelling, relaxing, hiking and generally enjoying the outdoors.

What to expect:

The Bocas Island group is situated on the Caribbean side of Panama, a short one hour fight from Panama City or four hour drive South from Costa Rica.

It's literally teeming with wildlife you'll find everything from dolphins to wild monkey's, sloths and beautiful big starfish. This spot is perfect for the outdoor lover, whether your a surfer, diver, hiking enthusiast or just love kicking back in a relaxed setting -  Bocas del Toro is the place for you.

The main island, Colon, is the central part of this island group with smaller island's all around only a short boat trip away. The major mode of transport in Bocas are tiny boats operated by the locals between islands, these short trips will set you back around a $2AUD per trip and drivers will come and pick you up again at a designated time if you like.

Most accommodation offers up beautiful water front views, this includes the backpackers hostels with water sports the central focus of the area. 

There's an accommodation type for all budgets and tastes with private cabanas tucked into the lush rainforest to very lively backpackers hostels right over the water. It's advisable to not book your entire stay in one spot, book your first few nights in one place and see how you go from there, some local hotels and accommodation types don't have websites so you will have plenty more options once you actually arrive on the islands. 

Getting there:

The Bocas del Toro airport is situated on Island Colon (main island) which also has the biggest array of accommodation types, shopping, restaurants etc - it's a great place to start and end your trip. A short one hour flight from Panama City will likely cost you around $150AUD and might be more in high season.

Alternatively, if you're on a budget and have the time, there are overnight buses available (takes around 10 hours) from Panama City which will bring you to the coast where you will jump on a small boat to get out to the islands, this shouldn't cost more than around $50AUD. 

If you're heading from a Northern country such as Costa Rica, it's an awesome experience to cross the Panamanian boarder by foot. Essentially you will take a bus from somewhere on the coast of Costa Rica to the Panamanian boarder, unload your gear at the boarder, physically walk across a bridge into Panama and then jump back into a bus to finish your journey - it's a great experience and let's you see a lot of the evergreen Costa Rican jungle on your trip. 

Best times to visit:

Panama offers two annual seasons, the dry and the wet, the temperature doesn't vary a huge amount and you can expect that it won't get much colder than 20 degrees Celsius year round. 

The dry season, also the high season for obvious reasons, is from December through until March, this often see's an influx of American tourists escaping winter so you can expect generally higher prices and bigger crowds. This is also coincidently the best time for surf in Panama bringing surfers from worldwide to ride some of it's pristine reef breaks. 

If you're not put off by a bit of rain, the wet season is the best time to travel to avoid crowds and particularly on a budget offers great accommodation and attraction discounts. 

Other worthy itinerary inclusions:

San Blas Islands - further south along the Caribbean coast is the stunning San Blas Islands, made up of 365 tiny islands of which only 49 are inhabited. The San Blas is also famed for it's crystal clear turquoise ocean, it's truly idyllic. 

Panama City - home to the Panama Canal, Panama City is a must do inclusion when visiting Panama. A contrasting city with stunning spanish colonial inspired architecture set against the backdrop of modern high rises of this emerging metropolitan powerhouse. The gateway from Central to South America, Panama City has diverse cultural influences, the varying cuisines are plentiful, it has fantastic shopping from the worlds leading brands, gorgeous local handicrafts and textiles and a general good vibe.

2. Costa Rica

An animal lovers dream, Costa Rica is at the forefront in animal and environmental conservation worldwide and boasts over 4% of the worlds animals species all within this tiny Caribbean country.

With not just one but five native sloths species in Costa Rica it is the perfect country to immersive yourself in nature observation with all animals viewable in their natural habitats. 

Also boasting stunning coastal towns with crystal clear Caribbean waters, spanish colonial architecture and active volcanoes, Costa Rica is not only beautiful but it's a perfectly safe and welcoming place for female travellers.  

Must do spot:

Puerto Viejo 

Go if you like:

Relaxing, hiking, animal conservation, parties & nightlife, surfing, general beach and outdoor related activities. 

What to expect: 

Nestled on the Caribbean Coast approximately a four hour drive from the countries capital, Puerto Veijo is quickly establishing itself as a hotspot for backpackers, surfers and animal lovers alike.

Boasting a central strip packed with funky bars, eateries and cafe's, Puerto Veijo is the place you come for a visit and stay for a while.

Although it does cost slightly more than other Central American countries, Costa Rica has a laid back, relaxed vibe offering up some of the coasts finest surf breaks and the continents best nature conservation.

With a jaguar sanctuary in walking distance from Puerto Veijo's main strip, this little slice of Caribbean heaven is the best spot on the coast to experience the jungle and wildlife first hand and still stay close to the beach and party atmosphere.

Getting there: 

Costa Rica is the capital Central American destination visited by North America's particularly during the dry season, this means there are literally stacks of cheap direct flights from the U.S.A into the countries capital. 

From there the easiest way to get to Puerto Veijo is either by private transfer or by bus, which should set you back no more than $50 AUD one way for the four hour journey.

It's also a great destination to continue south and head directly into Panama, as the Bocas del Toro Island group is only approximately 30kms from the Costa Rican boarder. 

Best times to visit: 

Similarly to Panama, Costa Rica only has two annual seasons being the wet and the dry. The wet season is from December through to March which also coincides with the high season, particularly from American tourists. 

As Costa Rica is already slightly more expensive than other Central American countries, to save your pennies it's advisable to try and stick to the shoulder or wet seasons if you aren't bothered by a bit of rain.

Other worthy itinerary inclusions:

San Jose City - the country's gorgeous spanish-esque capital city is one of the safest and least violent in all of Latin America making it a worthy addition for female travellers to the region. It boasts some of the highest literacy and education levels throughout Latin America and is home to the countries National Theatre and multiple museums offering an insight into the countries spanish colonial heritage.

Volcan Arenal - One of the countries most impressive national landmarks, this once recently active volcano is a fantastic itinerary addition for those who love hiking trails, soaking in natural hot springs and just generally getting away from the hustle and bustle.

3. Guatemala

Although unfortunately branded as a crime heavy destination in Central America, Guatemala is a cultural highlight that does offer a few fantastic spots that are very female friendly. 

South of Mexico, Guatemala is home to numerous preserved ancient Mayan sites. Surrounded with coffee plantations and active volcanoes Guatemala is an infusion of spanish culture and indigenous influences.

Unfortunately the country was still relatively politically unstable well into the 19th century due to it's civil war, remnants of this still very visible in some poverty stricken and hostile parts that can be experienced in the city's capital, Guatemala City. 

Outside of the city however is a totally different story, from bustling handicraft markets jammed pack with multi coloured jewellery and textiles, to cities surrounded by multiple active volcanos oozing brightly coloured lava and hidden roof top bars and clubs - Guatemala has a lot to offer, particularly to the adventurous, inquisitive and young at heart. 

Must do spot:

Antigua 

Go if you like:

Cultural immersion, natural landscapes, hiking and trekking, quality cuisine, museums and architecture, shopping

What to expect:

You'll take a step back in time in Antigua, heavily featuring in stunning colonial architecture, cobblestone streets with brightly coloured vespers a-plenty. 

The locals are truly incredible, giving the city an extremely welcoming and friendly feeling. The major draw cards for the city are the handicraft markets, which are huge and extremely colourful featuring everything from hand beaded jewellery and bags to statues and home wares.

There's also a vibrant nightlife culture emerging in Guatemala which caters perfectly to the backpacker market also.

Accommodation is mostly in the form art-deco home stays and quaint hotels with only limited rooms, this further adds to the level of local interaction which will greatly increase your experience in Antigua.

Getting there:

Antigua is a short hour drive from Guatemala City and this is best done by a private transfer or prior arranged taxi service.

The most easily accessible airport is Guatemala City however it's not advisable to arrive here without prearranged transport to your accommodation, PARTICULARLY for female travellers. 

Transport from the city to Antigua shouldn't cost anymore than $50AUD for a one-way trip, be sure to question and haggle over the price if told it would be more, haggling is socially accepted in Guatemala, so don't be afraid!

Best times to visit: 

Although Guatemala predominately only has two seasons, a wet and dry, this does vary depending on the altitude of where you are. Higher into mountainous areas tend to have a higher degree of rainfall.

The shoulder periods are the best time to head to Guatemala as you'll find less crowds yet still enjoy some prime weather with plenty of greenery. 

Other worthy itinerary inclusions:

Tikal - the major site of ancient Mayan ruins situated in the Northern lowland rainforest area of Guatemala. Surrounding the stunning ruins is also wildlife preserve full with monkeys and birds.

Language in Central America:

Spanish is the main language spoken throughout Central American countries. Although in tourist heavy parts locals can understand and speak limited english, it's a great idea to brush up on some basic phrases and greetings in spanish before you head off.

Currency:

Unfortunately each Central American country has it's own currency, this excludes Panama where you can pay using American dollars. It's worth exchanging some money before you arrive so you've got enough to pay for any cabs, entry visas or incidental costs before finding suitable ATM's or money changers in country. 

Alexis ZahnerComment