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Central America

Central America is bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

In the Pre-Columbian era, Central America was inhabited by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica to the north and west and the Isthmo-Colombian peoples to the south and east. Soon after Christopher Columbus's voyages to the Americas, the Spanish began to colonize the Americas. From 1609 until 1821, most of the territory within Central America—except for the lands that would become Belize and Panama—was governed as the Captaincy General of Guatemala. After achieving independence from Spain in 1821, the former Captaincy General was annexed to the First Mexican Empire, but soon seceded from Mexico to form the Federal Republic of Central America, which lasted from 1823 to 1838. The seven states finally became independent autonomous nations, beginning with Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala (1838), followed by El Salvador (1841), then Panama (1903), and finally Belize (1981).

The sheer variety of options in Central America means that for once the cliche is true-there is something for everyone!The diversity of landscapes,cultures and opportunities excites,entices and for a while just bewilders. The cultural variety is enticing - the pyramids and sculptures of the Mayas & other cultures; the Spanish colonial heritage.

Guatemala

Guatemala is loaded with incredible natural, historical and cultural appeal. As the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Maya, the country is in many ways defined by the legacy of this early civilization. Guatemala today is very much a synthesis of Maya and colonial traditions, fused with the omnipresent influences of twenty-first century Latin and North American culture. Baroque churches dating back to the Spanish Conquest coexist with pagan temples that have been sites of worship for millennia. Highland street markets prosper alongside vast glitzy shopping malls, and pre-Columbian festival dances are performed by teenage hip-hop fans.

Belize

Belize offers some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the region: thick tropical forests envelop much of the country's southern and western regions, stretching up towards the misty heights of the sparsely populated Maya Mountains, while just offshore, dazzling turquoise shallows and cobalt depths surround the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the longest such reef in the Americas, as well as the jewels in Belize's natural crown: three of the four coral atolls in the Caribbean.

Honduras

All too often, Honduras receives short shrift on travellers' Central American itineraries: most visitors either race to see the Maya ruins at Copán or the palm-fringed beaches of the Bay Islands, and skip the rest of the country. And while these are two beautiful, worthy sights, there's much more to Honduras – from the wetlands of La Mosquitia to the subtropical shore of the Golfo de Fonseca, this is a land of inspiring, often untouched natural beauty – and a longer visit will pay ample rewards

El Salvador

El Salvador stubbornly remains off most travelers' radar, overshadowed by its more famous neighbors Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. But this unique destination has many subtle charms and a warm, friendly people that often take first-time visitors by surprise. And since its off the beaten track, it remains relatively untainted by tourism. El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America—only 124 miles long from end to end—and its diminutive size, combined with some of the best paved roadways in Central America, mean that trips to even the most far-flung reaches never take more than a few hours to reach.

El Salvador doesn't have spectacular Mayan ruins like Tikal in Guatemala or Copan in Honduras, but there are some interesting archaeological sites that are certainly worth a visit. The real treasure is Joya de Cerén, just a few miles from San Andres. Called the "Pompeii of the Americas" this UNESCO World Heritage Site provides a fascinating glimpse into Mayan way of life, including the foods they ate, the crops they grew, and their social structure. One of El Salvador's best-kept secrets is its miles of beautiful beaches, with some of the best surfing in the world

Nicaragua

Wedge-shaped Nicaragua may be the largest nation in Central America but, despite recent growth, it remains one of the least visited. Still, many travellers who spend any time here find that Nicaragua's extraordinary landscape of volcanoes, lakes, mountains and vast swathes of rainforest helps make it their favourite country on the isthmus. Compared to the Maya ruins of Guatemala or Belize, Nicaragua offers few heavyweight tourist attractions – almost no ancient structures remain, and years of revolution, civil war and natural disasters have laid waste to museums, galleries and theatres. However the country's colonial architecture is gradually being restored, while its natural riches rival those of better-known Costa Rica. Lovely spanish colonial cities of Granada and Leon are well worth a visit

Costa Rica

Hemmed in between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans near the narrowest point of the Central American isthmus, the tiny republic of Costa Rica is often pictured as an oasis of political stability in the midst of a turbulent region. This democratic and prosperous nation is also one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, an ecological treasure-trove whose wide range of habitats – ranging from rainforests and beaches to volcanoes and mangrove swamps – support a fascinating variety of wildlife, much of it now protected by an enlightened national conservation system widely regarded as a model of its kind.

Though this idyllic image might not do justice to the full complexities of contemporary Costa Rican society, it's true that the country's long democratic tradition and complete absence of military forces (the army was abolished in 1948) stand in sharp contrast to the brutal internal conflicts that have ravaged its neighbours. This reputation for peacefulness has been an important factor in the spectacular growth of Costa Rica's tourist industry – some two million people visit the country annually, mainly from North America. Most of all, though, it's Costa Rica's outstanding natural beauty that has made it one of the world's prime eco-tourism destinations, with visitors flocking here to hike trails through ancient rainforest, climb active volcanoes or explore the Americas' last vestiges of high-altitude cloudforest, home to jaguar, tapir and resplendent quetzal.

Panama

A narrow, snake-shaped stretch of land that divides oceans and continents, Panama has long been one of the world's greatest crossroads – far before the construction of its famous canal. Though its historical ties to the US have led to an exaggerated perception of the country as a de facto American colony, Spanish, African, West Indian, Chinese, Indian, European, and several of the least assimilated indigenous communities in the region have all played a role in the creation of the most sophisticated, open-minded and outward-looking society in Central America. The comparatively high level of economic development and use of the US dollar also make it one of the more expensive countries in the region, but the wildlife-viewing and adventure-travel options are excellent.