Central America is a utopia of surf-centric beaches, volcanic peaks, dense rainforest, and Mayan ruins, all of which can be seen on a good old-fashioned road trip. Self-driving is not the most common way to get around this American subregion due to its reputation for being dangerous and prone to crime, but the actual risk doesn't live up to its disrepute. If you're worried about safety, you can minimize the chances of being targeted by traveling in a local, rented vehicle instead of one you drove from home. U.S. license plates and recreational vehicles tend to stand out. In some places, it is highly recommended—if not mandatory—to carry an International Driver's Permit (IDP).
Managua, Masaya, and Granada, Nicaragua
The 27-mile (44-kilometer) drive from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, to Granada takes only about an hour, but you'll most definitely want to stop in Masaya along the way to see its active volcano. Managua is home to one of two major lakes in the country, Lake Managua, and four smaller crater lakes and lagoons, too, all ideal for swimming. Some of its top sights include the neoclassical Santiago of Managua Cathedral, which opened in the 1930s; Puerto Salvador Allende, the patch of waterfront that leads to the pier; the historic plaza known as Revolution Square; and, a bit out of town, the Chocoyero-El Brujo Natural Reserve, a rainforest with picturesque waterfalls and hiking trails.
On the way to Granada on the NIC-4, you'll pass along the outskirts of Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua's first and largest national park, established in 1979. If you find time to make a pit stop, you can drive nearly up to the crater's edge. The parking lot is only a couple of meters away. Hills dot the landscape, offering impromptu lookout points over the 2,500-year-old volcano's five craters. Though active, it's safe to visit because it only releases gas.
Granada, the final destination on this route, is one of the most tourist-popular cities in Nicaragua. It attracts travelers because of its colorful, colonial-style buildings and cathedrals. From its early years, Granada was a constant target for invasions from the English, French, Dutch, and even pirates, which has led to the unique blend of cultures that you see in locals today. Nicaragua's oldest city is surrounded by gorgeous forests, conducive to hiking or zip lining, and is located near the Mombacho Volcano. Its vast body of water, Lake Nicaragua, is one of largest freshwater lakes in the world.
From La Antigua to the Guatemalan Highlands
This six-hour road trip starts in Antigua, Guatemala. This is one of the last colonial cities in Central America and also one of the best-preserved. The country’s third capital, Antigua, is known for its Spanish colonial buildings and the volcanoes that surround it, including the one that towers over the famous Santa Catalina Arch. This arch is one of the city's most distinguishable landmarks, dating back to the 1600s. The baroque-style Merced Church and Convento Capuchinas are both from the 18th century, hence how Antigua itself became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Outside of the city, head to a remote village for wine tastings and coffee tours, or climb any of the three surrounding volcanoes. Stay in one of the beautiful colonial-style hotels for a night or so before moving on to Quetzaltenango (nicknamed Xela) in the Guatemalan Highlands.
To get there, you'll leave Antigua via the RN-14 and make a left turn where it meets the Interamericana Highway in El Tejar. You'll be on that highway for about three and a half hours. Along the way, you can also take a detour to the indigenous town of Chichicastenango, home to the largest market in the country and possibly the continent. Xela is mainly known among visitors for its parties and its Spanish schools. Visit the Casa de la Cultura ("House of Culture") museum to see Mayan artifacts and other relics before heading out to explore the local indigenous villages and volcanoes.
Next, head an hour and a half up the road to Huehuetenango for a taste of fresh java at the Coffee Museum, then to the Mayan archaeological site of Zaculeu. Your last stop will be Todos Santos, an hour away from Huehuetenango. Located on a mountain range, it reaches an elevation of 8,202 feet (2,500 meters). This is one of the best places in the country to learn about how indigenous culture has evolved over the years. Most of its population is of Mayan descent and both sexes wear full indigenous clothing.
Suchitoto to the Balsamo Coast, El Salvador
The drive from Suchitoto to the Balsamo Coast is about 58 miles (94 kilometers), which takes roughly two hours if you go by way of the El Salvadorian capital of San Salvador. Suchitoto is a small town that has managed to maintain its colonial style. It's a laidback place to wander through the Central Plaza looking for fresh pupusas (the Central American version of flatbread) and take in Lake Suchitlan by a boat tour to Bird Island or a hilltop lookout point.
On the way to the coast, if you follow CA-1, you'll hit the country's capital, San Salvador. This city is know for its beautiful historic landmarks and monuments, including the National Palace, Basilica Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, and the Statue of Barrios.
From there, the coast is an easy, 40-minute drive. The Balsamo Coast is a surf-popular, black-sand beach that stretches from Puerto la Libertad to el Zonte Beach. If you're a beginner surfer, it's a good idea to stay in Playa Sunzal, where the waves are mild. More experienced athletes may rather shred the gnar at Punta Roca in La Libertad. Aside from surfing, the Balsamo Coast also has hiking trails, fishing, and horseback riding.
Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and Roatan, Honduras
This adventure starts in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras and a city with 400 years of history. Some of the most popular attractions here include the paths in Parque La Leona, Parque El Picacho (where you can get a bird’s eye view of the city), Museo Para La Identidad Nacional, and St. Michaels Cathedral.
After exploring this urban landscape, head out on RN-15 toward the coast, a seven-hour drive. The port city of La Ceiba is popular with travelers due to its active nightlife scene, white-sand Caribbean beaches, and mountain ranges, where you can hike, raft, scuba dive, and get acquainted with the local wildlife.
Perhaps the main reason why La Ceiba is so tourist-popular, though, is because it's the starting point for visiting stunning Roatan Island, a beach bum's paradise. The ferry takes about an hour and a half, but offers gorgeous views of the Caribbean Sea. Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras and the perfect place to kick back in a hammock with a fruity, umbrella-topped cocktail in hand. When you tire of that, you can explore the broader archipelago on a snorkeling or diving tour.