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Top 10 Central American beach escapes

Top-tier — often eco-friendly — resorts are reinventing Central America as a world-class beach destination, complete with unspoiled coastlines, coral reefs, and corduroy waves.
Image: Luna beach resort, Roatán, Honduras
The sun sets a dock at Luna Beach Resorts dock on the Honduran island of RoatanDave E. Thesken / AP file
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

Central America has always attracted intrepid visitors in search of unfiltered natural beauty. Now, a set of top-tier, often eco-friendly, resorts is reinventing the region as a world-class beach destination, complete with unspoiled coastlines, coral reefs, and corduroy waves.

WHEN TO VISIT: The region is at its best during the dry season (also peak season), which is usually from December to May, though it varies depending on the exact location. (All prices quoted here are for peak season.) The rest of the year, prices fall but so does the rain. Solitude seekers may want to avoid the holiday season (mid-December through February), when some beaches are crowded with locals.

Ambergris Caye, Belize
A barefoot lifestyle and a love of reggae rule this pocket-size English-speaking nation, which feels more Caribbean in culture than Central American. Ambergris Caye, located off the northeastern coast and a quick flight from Belize City, is a 25-mile-long island known for its soft beaches and car-free tranquillity. Sequestered at the north end of the island, Matachica Beach Resort is renowned for its charm and seclusion. The thatched-roof cabins come with porches for catching a breeze; the turquoise Caribbean waters offer world-class snorkeling right off the dock.

From $265/night, includes breakfast, airport transfers;

Barra de Santiago, El Salvador
With tourism so new here, visitors are often treated more like friends of the family. The country’s Balsam Coast is known as a surfers' paradise, but those seeking solitude should check out the ultra-remote Barra de Santiago, on the northern Pacific coast, a national park with estuaries and mangroves on a broad, tawny sandbar. Inside the park, El Salvador’s first ecoresort, La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge, debuts in style with thatched-roof bungalows set in a stand of coconut palms. In August and September, guests can see thousands of endangered Olive Ridley turtles hatch in the park's sanctuary and then help release them into the ocean. Getting there entails a complimentary 1.5-hour car transfer from San Salvador or, at an extra cost, a chartered plane or helicopter ride.

From $115/night, includes all meals, airport transfers, kayak use;

Bocas del Toro, Panama
With accessible rain forest, lush beaches, and a pulsing capital, Panama is flaunting assets that much of the world didn’t even know it had. Right now, vacationers are hopping the 1-hour flight from Panama City to the rural archipelago of Bocas del Toro, a treasure trove of empty islets and white sand off the northwestern coast of the mainland. At the picturesque Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, guests are lulled to sleep in two-story, thatched-roof cabins perched over the sea on stilts and reached via a long wooden boardwalk. French doors open onto private decks; solar panels are used to generate power. At mealtime, vegetables are plucked from an organic garden, and seafood comes from the daily catch (the chef prepares an exquisite lobster stew). For an extra fee, take a water taxi to the numerous quiet cays and play Survivor for the day, whiling away the hours watching passing dolphins.

From $374/night, includes breakfast, dinner, airport transfers;

Hopkins, Belize
At Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort, a 20-minute flight from Belize City, a couple of hammocks swaying on the boat docks are a signal to come and unwind. Guests wax enthusiastic about the tree house accommodations, surrounded by black orchids and replete with skylights for stargazing (in air-conditioned comfort). Despite the draw of lazy days spent by the freshwater pool, adventurous vacationers can borrow kayaks and bikes, as well as explore nearby Mayan pyramids, waterfalls, caves, and the world’s only jaguar preserve. (With 40 percent of the country protected through private trusts and public lands, nature breathes easy in Belize, at least in comparison to its more industrialized neighbors.) The resort also has its own PADI dive facility, and divers have access to an underwater wilderness that is populated with manatees, whale sharks, and eagle rays.

From $275/night, includes breakfast;

Mal Pais, Costa Rica
Locals would like to keep the villages of Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, on the southwestern coast of Nicoya Peninsula, a surfers' secret. Even so, amateurs and experts alike are welcome to ride the waves here. Development in the area is nascent, so visitors can enjoy wide ribbons of uninterrupted sand fronted by warm tide pools. Newcomer resort Beija Flor weighs in as a surprising good-value retreat. The 11 guest rooms and one villa are sparsely chic and set in a tropical garden. When the surf isn’t up, guests indulge in spa treatments, yoga classes, and sunset horseback rides. The open-air restaurant serves an appealing French-Asian fusion cuisine. Driving to the resort is possible, but flying to nearby Playa Tambor via a local airline from San José is best.

From $60/night;

Placencia, Belize
Situated on the slender Placencia Peninsula that juts off Belize's southern coast, Francis Ford Coppola's Turtle Inn is anything but Hollywood glam (in a good way). Bungalows outfitted with handsome Balinese furnishings and private pools are tinged with rustic details like outdoor showers; entertainment comes in the form of complimentary bikes, kayaks, and paddleboats; a Thai massage at the spa; or simple wooden tables for card games on the beach. The restaurant Mare skews Italian with brick-oven pizza and a Coppola-heavy wine list. Fly direct to Belize City from Miami, Houston, or Dallas in 2 hours; from there, it's a 40-minute trip on a charter plane.

From $285/night, includes breakfast;

Roatán, Honduras
Roatán — north of mainland Honduras in the Caribbean sea and the largest of the Bay Island chain — is surrounded by more than 60 miles of living reef and is one of the most affordable places worldwide to learn scuba. Open-water certification courses last three to four days, after which divers can troll for rare whale sharks. The secluded plantation-style Reef House Resort organizes three dives daily. Non-divers can swim with sea turtles in the saltwater pool or explore the island's west-end beaches. The best time to visit is February through June; fly direct to Roatán from several U.S. cities, including Houston and Miami.

From $290/night, all-inclusive dive package;

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
Lucky for visitors, the remote northwestern Nicoya Peninsula has remained under the radar despite Costa Rica's recent popularity. Like Hawaii circa 1960, the area has wild, empty stretches of pale sand backed by palm and almond trees and only rough roads to get you there. Sumptuous FlorBlanca resort has 10 airy, elegant villas on a lush 7-acre property; accommodations are linked by a footpath, which leads to a quiet beach. Complimentary yoga classes are held in an ocean-facing dojo; bike, surfboard, and snorkeling equipment rentals are included. The resort is serious about environmentalism, meeting the rigorous sustainability standards of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. To reach this far-flung locale, fly to San José and from there, the resort will help arrange a commercial or charter flight, or a (6-hour) ground shuttle.

From $675/night, includes airport transfers;

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
With the buzz of great values and laid-back tropical style, Nicaragua flashed onto the radar and was dubbed the new Costa Rica. Not so fast. Thanks to colonial charm and untouched natural beauty, Nicaragua deserves recognition in its own right. Ridgetop Pelican Eyes ... Piedras y Olas Hotel & Resort overlooks fishing village San Juan del Sur, which sits in a bay rimmed with golden sand on the country's southwestern Pacific coast. The resort boasts starch-white villas set in tropical gardens, with vaulted cane ceilings and spectacular views. Other perks include sailing trips and several infinity pools, which are a welcome alternative to trekking down a staircase to the beach. To reach Pelican Eyes, fly into the capital city of Managua and the resort will arrange a shuttle for the 2-hour ride.

From $240/night, includes breakfast;

San Juan del Sur (outskirts), Nicaragua
Thirty minutes outside the village of San Juan del Sur (see no. 9) and near the Costa Rican border, Morgan's Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge — set up by a French couple as a conservation project — rests on more than 4,400 acres of protected forest, complete with an estuary and private beach. Fifteen primitive-chic bungalows blend into the jungle hillside; each is crafted from a medley of local timber and outfitted with private decks facing west to catch the sunset. Not for acrophobes, the bungalows are connected to the main lodge by a 325-foot suspension bridge that crosses a leafy canyon. Guests dine at La Bastide, which serves Nicaraguan-Asian-French fusion cuisine with many ingredients (like the brown sugar) produced on-site. To get there, fly into the cities of Liberia or San José in Costa Rica, or to Managua, and then take a 2- to 3-hour car transfer to the resort.

From $241/night, all inclusive;

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