With a slightly misleading name, Central America actually refers to an area located on the southernmost part of North America. It comprises seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The region, while small, has a lot of attractions for tourists – ancient ruins, cultural activities, a multitude of biodiversity, beautiful Caribbean and Pacific beaches, as well as stunning landscapes, due to the volcanic nature of the region's geology.
The volcanoes in Central America do mean occasional seismic activity and even volcanic eruptions, but for tourists, they mostly mean amazing hiking and sightseeing. Let's take a look at 8 top of the coolest volcanoes in Central America.
1. San Pedro Volcano on Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is one of the top attractions in Guatemala. The lake itself is serene and beautiful, you can go kayaking, hiking around the lake, and visit small local villages where Maya populations live to this day. On the shores of the lake, you'll find a number of volcanoes, but San Pedro is one of the most popular hikes. It takes about 3 hours to hike up, and the walk is rather tough, but at the top, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding landscapes.
2. Acatenango near Antigua
Most travellers in Guatemala visit Antigua, the old capital of the country, which offers much more sightseeing than Guatemala City itself. While Antigua is a bit of a tourist trap, there are many things to do in and around the city, including a number of wonderful hikes.
One of the most challenging and rewarding is the climb up the Acatenango volcano. It's normally done as an overnight hike, waking up to the stunning views from the summit. It's a steep hike, the top is cold to sleep at and even experienced hikers might find it a challenge. But the highlight of the Acatenango hike is the views over the active crater, which if you are lucky, will reward you with never-seen before eruptions of smoke and lava.
3. Boqueron Volcano in San Salvador
El Salvador is a tiny country, with dozens of volcanos that you can visit. But the Boqueron is special in that it's right in the capital city of San Salvador and for those looking for an easy volcano hike – this is it! While the others on the list require quite a bit of effort to get to the top, Boqueron is a short hike up from the visitor's centre.
The drive from the city is only about 20 minutes and the hike is about 40 minutes there and back. The paths are clearly marked and there are wooden steps to walk up, so it's not really a hike per se. At the top, you can see inside the crater, with a bit of smoke rising up. There are also lovely views over the other side of the volcano. At the bottom of the hike, you can find a number of restaurants offering delicious local food, as well as stores with souvenirs.
4. Masaya Active Volcano Park
If you want to see an active volcano up close and personal, then take a tour up the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua. It's reachable both from Granada and Managua, and you typically need to either take a tour or rent a car to go up. Once at the parking lot at the top, you can walk up to the viewpoint of the crater, which is most impactful during the night and evening, as you can see the lava glowing red at the bottom. Keep in mind that you can't stay very long, both because other groups are probably behind you, but also because of the smoke and the strong smell of sulfur.
5. Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe Island
Ometepe Island was one of my favourite spots in Nicaragua. It's a curious place, since the tiny island located on Lake Nicaragua, is basically made up of two separate volcanoes – Concepcion and Maderas. In fact, its name comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language and means two mountains.
Ometepe is a chill spot, with lake beaches, lots of nature, quaint cafes, and lovely views. Most of the people who visit the island, hike up one of the two volcanoes. I went up the Concepcion since I was in Nicaragua during the rainy season, and Maderas just gets too muddy. There are two hiking options here, you can go halfway to the Mirador, or the lookout point, from where you get spectacular views of the surrounding countryside – this is the option I chose. You can also go all the way up to the crater, but this is quite a bit more challenging, and of course more rewarding.
6. Cerro Negro in Leon
Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to go to Leon, since I only had a week in Nicaragua. That said, Cerro Negro is one of the top attractions in the country and one of the most unique ways to visit a volcano. That's because you can go boarding down the volcanic ash on the steep side of the mountain. Your tour will typically start by climbing up to Cerro Negro, taking in the lovely views from the top, and then you will take the short but thrilling descent either using a board or running down the side.
Costa Rica has plenty of natural attractions and among them a number of different volcanoes that you can hike. Arenal, however, is probably the most popular and is easily accessible from the country capital – San Jose. Looming over the town of La Fortuna,
Arenal is located inside a national park that goes by the same name. Hiking here means you are likely to see a lot of wildlife, as well as a variety of tropical flora. The great thing about a visit to Arenal is that you'll have more options than just one trail to the volcano peak. You can go through other trails, as well as enjoy natural springs, canopy tours, zip-lining, rivers, river rafting, caving and more.
8. Baru Volcano
Panama doesn't boast as many volcanoes as its neighbours, and Baru is probably the only one that actually has the conical volcano shape that you are used to seeing. Baru is in a great location, close to the very touristic town of Boquete, which is popular with both locals and foreigners, thanks to its moderate cool weather, compared to the rest of hot tropical Panama.
Close by, you will find some of the best coffee farms in the region, as well as plenty of hiking trails in the hills. But the true hiking highlight in the area is of course the volcano. There are two ways to do the hike, either start in the middle of the night to get to the peak by sunrise or do an overnight hike. The reason for this is that you are more likely to see the main attraction of the Baru volcano in the early hours – a stunning view over both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.
This is just a small list of some of my favourites for volcano hiking in Central America. There are plenty more volcanoes to choose from, plus you can do other hikes through forests, mountains and other trails. Along the way, you will find the stunning biodiversity of the region, the cultural richness and of course, meet the wonderful people of Central America, who will surely make your trip here unforgettable.