The 9 Central American Island Escapes That Deserve a Spot on Your Bucket List

Pristine beaches and jungle adventures await.

When most of us start dreaming of escaping to an idyllic island paradise, our minds immediately play the hits. Maybe you’re picturing the legendary sands of Jamaica’s Seven Mile Beach, or an all-inclusive on the white sands of Mexico. Perhaps you’re craving an overwater bungalow in Tahiti, or the laid-back quirks of Key West. Each is perfect in its way, but they also often come with the byproducts of being so damned popular: crowded restaurants, busy waterfronts, bodyshot-entranced spring breakers, and more.

Central America is often overlooked as a tropical vacation destination, and that’s a shame. Yes, you might need to forgo a direct flight to get there (not always!) and hop on water taxis, ferries, or rickety puddle jumpers to get to your final destination, but the journey is part of the adventure—and the rewards are many when you arrive at some of the coolest and most unusual islands in Central America.

You’ll find world-class scuba diving and the wildest of wildlife, laid-back stretches of sand, eco-tourism, and even posh all-inclusive resorts. So get your passport ready, pack a swimsuit, and prepare for your choice of dreamy lounge spot, adventure-ready jungle, or lively beach town. Trust us—you’ll be glad you made the trip.

colorful dockside houses in in bocas del toro, panama
You can hire water taxis to take you to any of the islands in Bocas del Toro. | KikoStock/Shutterstock

Bocas del Toro, Panama

This group of Caribbean islands on the northeast coast of Panama is a playground for adventure seekers. There are four main islands: Colón, home to most of the action in Bocas, with a small town that has an airport, hotels, shops, and restaurants; Solarte, a jungle escape with luxe rentals and hotels; Cristóbal, where you’ll find a few secluded high-end resorts; and Bastimentos, the spot to visit for the area’s best beaches, surfer-chic hotels, and beach bars. You can hire water taxis to take you to any of the islands, or join an organized tour to spot sea turtles and dolphins. The variety of accommodations in this area is surprisingly diverse, from affordable eco-hostels to $1,000-a-night luxury suites, with tons of cool rentals in between.

To get to the main town of Bocas del Toro on Colón Island, you’ll either need to hop on a puddle jumper from Panama City or take the ferry from nearby Almirante. You can also visit by cruise ship if you’d prefer; Bocas del Toro is one of the stops on Hurtigruten’s expedition to the Caribbean and Central America.

Calala Island
Calala Island is home to just one hotel. | Calala Island

Calala Island, Nicaragua

Ever wanted to escape to your own private island? This tiny island in Nicaragua is home to just one hotel—and available for a full buyout for you and several of your best friends. With just four beachfront casitas, the deluxe accommodations here make this a seriously private escape. The hotel bills itself as ultra all-inclusive, meaning everything from the formal tasting menu and craft cocktails to snorkeling excursions and airport transfers are included in the price. It’s the perfect place to relax in style as you let your real-world worries melt into the sand.

colorful beachside storefronts in caye caulker, belize
Take a stroll through the colorful town in Caye Caulker. | Arterra/Contributor/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Caye Caulker, Belize

Just south of the more famous Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker is the hippie younger sibling of Belize’s island culture. While Ambergris is home to sophisticated resorts and chain hotels, Caye Caulker is home to hostels and inns. Take a stroll through the colorful town, made up of brightly painted cottages right on the water, and treat yourself to a fresh coconut or a pupusa at one of the stands in town.

It’s easy to visit Caye Caulker as part of an organized day trip from Ambergris Caye, but the island is best experienced as an overnight stop (via airport or ferry). And getting to Belize City is shockingly simple too: flights are less than three hours and often under $300 from Atlanta, Houston, Miami, and other hubs, which makes falling in love with Caye Caulker over a long weekend more than doable.

aerial view of corn islands surrounded by turquoise water
The Corn Islands are perfect for those who want to embrace a slower pace of life. | dimarik/iStock/Getty Images

Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Corn Islands—or Islas del Maiz—are truly a picture-perfect tropical island destination situated about 40 miles off the mainland. Of the two islands, Big Corn is where you’ll find most of the action (and the only airport). Don’t let the name fool you, though, because Big Corn is still tiny, with no real town to speak of and a lone road that circles the island. Once you arrive, hop on a golf cart taxi to visit beach bars and chill ecolodges. The pace of life is slow and easy here, ideal for those who want to spend days lazing on white sand beaches or reading in a hammock at the hotel.

From Big Corn, you can make the trip to nearby Little Corn for an afternoon or longer stay. You won’t find any luxurious mega-resorts on the car-free escape, but that’s also kind of the point. If you’ve made the extra effort to visit, you’ll be rewarded with affordably luxury at hotels like Yemaya Reefs, with casitas right on the beach.

aerial view of boat near the colorful houses of flores island in guatemala
Flores is comprised of a few winding streets full of hostels, restaurants, and shops. | Oleh_Slobodeniuk/E+/Getty Images

Flores Island, Guatemala

A tiny island in Guatemala’s Lago Petén Itzá, Flores consists of a few winding streets full of hostels, restaurants, and shops. A backpacker’s haven, this island full of colorful houses makes a great jumping off point for exploring nearby Tikal—one of the largest pre-Columbian Mayan sites in the Americas—as well as Ixpanpajul Natural Park, where you can go hiking, ziplining, and horseback riding through the jungle.

You can find some great family-run guest houses on the island, but if you’re looking for luxury, plan a visit to La Lancha, the nearby jungle resort owned by The Godfather and Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola.

colorful house on top of a formation of rocks on las islas del granada
Lake Nicaragua is home to hundreds of islets that are easily accessible from Granada. | Sam Strickler/Shutterstock

Las Isletas del Granada, Nicaragua

While you won’t be basking in the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean during your visit to these Central American islands, Las Isletas del Granada offer a one-of-a-kind experience.

Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, is home to 365 of islets that are easily accessible from the colonial city of Granada. Hire a boat to take you on a tour of the islands and explore mangrove mazes, monkey hideouts, and impressive private homes as part of a day trip from Granada—or you can spend the night at the deluxe ecolodge on Jicaro Island.

two people walking towards ometepe island volcano nicaragua
Add hiking up Conception volcano to your bucket list. | worldroadtrip/Shutterstock

Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Rising from the waters of the enormous Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe Island might be well-known for its staggering volcanic peaks and lush rainforest, but a shockingly low number of tourists make the ferry trip to explore the 197-square-mile destination. Even fewer take advantage of its incredible lodging options, which range from hostels to the thatched-roof comforts of eco-lodges.

Explore the vast island by rental scooter or ATV—or just hop a bus—and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have as you visit small villages in search of fresh seafood and other local flavors en route to stunning waterfalls and near endless wildlife throughout the biosphere. Along the way, you’ll spy ancient petroglyphs, vertiginous waterfalls, and serene lagoons. And if you’ve got the lung capacity, scaling Conception volcano offers up the sorts of panoramic views that will set up permanent residency in your dreams.

aerial view of yachts sailing on the turquoise waters of san blas islands, panama
The 300-island San Blas archipelago is mostly uninhabited. | Stefan Neumann/Shutterstock
The 300-island San Blas archipelago is mostly uninhabited. | Stefan Neumann/Shutterstock

San Blas Islands, Panama

The San Blas Islands are part of an autonomous region of Panama that’s also known as Guna Yala, named after the indigenous Guna community that lives there. Mostly uninhabited, this 300-island archipelago is a rustic paradise, where visitors are treated to pristine Caribbean waters and abundant wildlife.

The laid-back and low-tech setting gives travelers an authentic castaway feeling (many of the guesthouses don’t have electricity). Relax on the beach, go snorkeling, and dine on fresh fish as you spend the night in an overwater bungalow. Or, you can charter a liveaboard sailboat to take you through the islands, spending the night on deserted beaches. For the traveler craving an off-the-grid adventure, Guna Yala is the perfect escape.

white sand beach on utila island
Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/LightRocket/Getty Images

Utila, Honduras

Reachable by air from San Pedro Sula, ferry from La Ceiba—or either from bustling Roatán—Utila is a laid-back bohemian island that’s less about the beaches and more about what’s under the waves. The island is a magnet for scuba divers from all over the world thanks to its colorful corals and sponges, rainbow-hued schools of fish, sea turtles, and nurse sharks. For experienced divers willing to descend 100 feet, it’s also about the ghostly shell of a wrecked cargo ship, with a ruined hull that’s been reclaimed by nature.

Back on land, Utila is known for its casual beach bars, ATV rides through the jungle, and a tiny town with a charming and welcoming vibe. If you spend any time here, you’re sure to meet somebody who came for a five-day vacation and decided never to leave—whether you see that as inspiration or a cautionary tale depends on your disposition.

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Teddy Minford is a contributor for Thrillist.