Scuba with schools of hammerheads off the remote, jungle-covered Cocos Island in Costa Rica © Giordano Cipriani / Getty Images
Between Panama’s Pacific islands, Costa Rica’s Caribbean reefs and Belize's Blue Hole, Central America offers aquatic adventure like no other. And there’s something for every budget and skill level, from novice snorkelers to Master Scuba Divers.
If you dream of diving with whale sharks, snorkeling with sea turtles, swimming alongside spotted eagle rays or just floating above kaleidoscopic tropical fish, you’ll find it here.
All equipment can be supplied by a decent dive shop, but if you have them, bring your mask and snorkel, a lightweight rash vest and reef-friendly sunscreen – and don’t forget the underwater camera.
When is the best time to snorkel and dive in Central America?
Central America’s a year-round snorkel and scuba destination, but conditions depend on the country, the season (rainy or dry) and whether you’re on the Pacific or Caribbean coast.
For a more tranquil – and cheaper – experience, avoid the region’s high season from December to April. But if there’s something you’re diving to see, you’ll have a fixed window.
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Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, Belize © QArts / Shutterstock
Caye Caulker – Belize
Dive and snorkel the world’s second-largest barrier reef
In pocket-sized Belize, the Caribbean-sun-drenched Caye Caulker makes the perfect jumping-off point for some of the world’s best diving and snorkeling.
Head south to the iconic Blue Hole Natural Monument at Lighthouse Reef, a marine sinkhole around 122m (400ft) deep and 300m (1000ft) wide. Made famous by Jacques Cousteau, its mysterious depths and stalactite-studded caves still draw a crowd.
Or try Turneffe Atoll, a biodiverse mix of mangroves, lagoons and coral reefs, with snorkel and dive sites for all levels. Keep your eyes peeled for the endemic whitespotted toadfish.
Getting there: It’s a 45-minute journey by ferry from Belize City.
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Parque Nacional Coiba – Panama
Dive the spectacular reefs off Panama’s former penal colony
In the not-so-distant past, Coiba – the American Pacific’s largest island – was home to around 3000 inmates. Today, along with some smaller islands, it’s a Unesco-protected national marine park, and part of a project with Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador to safeguard key migratory corridors.
Willing captives – certified divers of all levels – can swim with whitetip reef sharks, devil rays, turtles and a host of multicolored fish. And you can often spot giant mantas and whale sharks, as well as humpback whales from July to September.
Getting there: To access the park, you’ll need to book through a dive shop, such as the Panama Dive Center in the surf spot of Santa Catalina. It’s a 75-minute boat ride to Isla Coiba.
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Over under landscape with a school of tropical fish in a coral reef and beach with coconut trees and house at the horizon © Vilainecrevette / Shutterstock
Bocas del Toro – Panama
Savor sun, surf and snorkeling around this tropical archipelago
A string of laid-back Caribbean islands and islets, Bocas del Toro is not only a backpacker party hub, it’s home to some of Panama’s best snorkeling, with crystal-clear water and colorful coral.
The protected reefs of Admiral Bay are perfect for snorkeling, and at Hospital Point, beyond the shallows on the northern tip of Isla Solarte, there’s a deep reef wall that's ideal for night dives.
For a different view, mangrove snorkeling gets you up close to a tangle of algae-covered roots, vibrant sea sponges and juvenile fish darting around their nursery.
Getting there: It’s a 45-minute flight from Panama City to the capital of Bocas, Isla Colón, or around 11 hours by bus and ferry.
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Washed by warm, gin-clear water, the backpacker haunt of Utila is a cheap dive destination © Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images
Bay Islands – Honduras
Learn to scuba dive in one of the cheapest – and best – places on the planet
Washed by warm, gin-clear water, the backpacker haunt of Utila – the smallest of the three main Bay Islands – is a cheap dive destination, with no shortage of dive shops and must-dive sites. And you can spot whale sharks here year-round, whether you’re a beginner or budding divemaster.
In Roatán, there’s world-class snorkeling just off West Bay’s white-sand beach, while Mary’s Place tempts snorkelers to its shallows to spot eagle rays and sea turtles, and experienced divers to its vertical reef walls.
Getting there: Take a ferry from La Ceiba, or there are international flights direct to Roatán.
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Parque Nacional Cahuita – Costa Rica
A paradise for snorkelers and divers on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast
Cahuita National Park’s underwater playground is home to more than 120 species of evocatively named fish – jewel fish, frogfish, butterflyfish – flitting about 35 types of equally exotic coral, such as elkhorn, brain and leather – and that's not forgetting the lobsters, urchins and moray eels.
Its pristine waters have been awarded Costa Rica’s Ecological Blue Flag, and you can get up close to loggerhead, leatherback and hawksbill turtles during nesting season from March to October.
Getting there: The park is around 47km (29 miles) south of Puerto Limón; use Puerto Viejo or Cahuita as a base.
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Isla del Coco – Costa Rica
Scuba with schools of hammerheads off this remote, jungle-covered island
Jurassic Park meets Jacques Cousteau at the volcanic Cocos Island, some 550km (340 miles) off Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline. The French oceanographer dubbed this Unesco World Heritage Site the most beautiful island in the world, and it also served as inspiration for the 1993 dinosaur film's fictitious Isla Nublar.
This underwater spectacle is for experienced divers only, and it’s not cheap to get there. But you’ll be rewarded by schools of hammerhead sharks (at their peak between June and October) and countless whitetip sharks, rays and whale sharks.
Getting there: Book an eight-to-10-day live-aboard trip from the port city of Puntarenas, with companies such as Aggressor and Undersea Hunter.
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The seas surrounding Nicaragua's Little Corn Island are a favorite hangout of reef sharks, rays, barracuda and more © Martin Strmiska / Getty Images
Little Corn Island – Nicaragua
Novice divers should head to this chilled-out, car-free Caribbean island
Most of Little Corn’s 20 or so budget-friendly dive sites are a short boat hop from its powder-soft beaches. Reefs are generally shallow – no wall dives here – but forests of elkhorn and staghorn coral teem with kaleidoscopic fish.
For more experienced divers, the Tarpon Channel is the place to spot hammerhead sharks, and Blowing Rock, around 60 minutes away, will blow your mind. This spiky rock pinnacle emerging from the sea is a favorite hangout of reef sharks, rays, barracuda and more.
Getting there: Fly from Managua to Big Corn Island and take the twice-daily, 30-minute public boat to Little Corn.
Diving at Guatemala's Lake Atitlán reveals otherworldly lava formations, sunken villages, petrified trees and hydrothermal vents © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet
Lago de Atitlán – Guatemala
Dive a high-altitude volcanic crater lake
Watched over by three active volcanoes, shimmering Lake Atitlán makes an unusual dive destination. But what Central America’s deepest lake – it reaches depths of 340m (1115ft) – lacks in technicolor fish, it makes up for with otherworldly lava formations, sunken villages, petrified trees and hydrothermal vents.
ATi Divers in Santa Cruz La Laguna is the lake’s long-standing dive shop. As well as fun dives and PADI certifications, they offer a one-day Altitude Specialty Course.
Getting there: Take the chicken or shuttle bus from Guatemala City or Antigua to Panajachel, then ride 10 minutes on a public boat to Santa Cruz.
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