Must-Try Dishes in 7 Central American Countries

A Guide to Traditional Cuisine

Guatemalan Tamales
Guatemalan Tamales. Caja Digital / Getty Images

Some Central America food is extremely familiar, such as fried chicken in Guatemala and fruit smoothies in Costa Rica. Other meals might seem a bit on the exotic side, like fried palm flowers in El Salvador and stuffed yucca rolls in Panama. Yet other Central America recipes might seem downright startling, such as El Salvador's sopa de patas. A lot of the dishes might have the same name but you should try them in each country. The recipes tend to be different.

So don't be shy, go on...have a taste of Central America cuisine! You will be pleasantly surprised. 

  • 01 of 07
    Plate of beans, fish, avocado, and veggies

    Alberto Coto / Photodisc / Getty Images

    If you're traveling to Costa Rica for the first time, you're probably curious about Costa Rican food. Fortunately, food in Costa Rica isn't that different from food in the United States with a few notable exceptions like chilera (a spicy dressing made with pickled onions, peppers, and other vegetables) and Tres Leches Cake (a cake soaked in three kinds of milk).

  • 02 of 07
    Seafood pizza
    Seafood pizza.

    Nan Palmero / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    On the Caribbean coast or in the Bay Islands, seafood and anything made of coconut dominate Honduran cuisine. No travel taste test of Honduran food is complete without fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, or the endlessly versatile conch (caracol in Spanish). But they also have some other dishes with a strong Mayan influence worth trying.

  • 03 of 07
    Lobster dish

    nicole tarazona / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Because of Panama’s diverse Spanish, American, Afro-Caribbean, and indigenous influences, Panamanian cuisine ranges from the familiar, like snow cones and tropical fruit, to the ultra-exotic, like carimanola—a fried yucca roll stuffed with meat and boiled eggs. Seafood is prevalent, and snacks are delicious, especially if you buy them at a fonda. International influence is also quite strong here, so you can find an interesting mix of the main cultures around the world.

  • 04 of 07
    Guatemalan Tamales
    Tamales. Caja Digital / Getty Images

    Guatemalan food and drink is primarily influenced by the country's Mayan and Spanish cultures. Nowadays, international influences are found in Guatemala's food as well, such as Chinese, American, and the vegetarian movement. International cuisine is making a big impact in Guatemalan dishes, and the resulting mix represents some of my favorite Central American cuisines. If you have the chance to try only one dish, make it pepian.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07
    Pupusas. Kryssia Campos / Getty Images

    El Salvador's food and drink is particularly distinctive among the diverse cuisines of Central America as a blend of only two cultural influences: the indigenous and the Spanish. El Salvadoran food includes all sorts of stuffed delights, such as tamales, empanadas, pastelitos, and the ever-present pupusas. You have to try them; they make them with just about anything that you can think of.

  • 06 of 07
    Tostones on a plate

    Arnold Gatilao / Flickr

    Nicaraguan cuisine is representative of the diversity of its residents. It is the results of years of Spanish, Creole, Garifuna, and Indigenous Nicaraguan cultures melting into one. They all have some level of influence in modern Nicaragua food, which most travelers find delicious, but the best part is that it tends to be exceptionally inexpensive.

  • 07 of 07
    Rice and beans with fried fish fillets and salsa salad
    Rice and beans, Belize's National Dish, with fried fish and salsa salad.

    Anthony Plummer / Getty Images

    When it comes to diversity in Central American cuisine, Belize is the definite winner. Belize is the ultimate melting pot of cultures, including Creole, Mayan, Garifuna, Spanish, British, Chinese, and American (whew!). As a result, Belize's food and drink is just as varied, from stew chicken to cassava bread, fry jack to Johnny cakes, "Boil ups" to frothy seaweed drinks. If you get the chance, traditional Garifuna dishes are highly recommended.