10 Under-the-Radar Islands in Central America That You Should Add to Your Bucket List
Pristine beaches and jungle adventures await.
It isn’t always easy to find that perfect island paradise, complete with wildlife, beaches, and adventure. And while there are plenty of beaches in the Caribbean and Mexico that offer a quick and easy route to relaxation, they can also get overly crowded. To skip the cramped restaurants and busy waterfronts of some of the more popular island retreats means working a little harder to get there—but that just makes the whole experience extra rewarding.
These tropical destinations are worth forgoing direct flights and hopping on water taxis, ferries, or tiny puddle jumpers (and sometimes a combination of all three). You’ll be compensated for your efforts in the form of some of the coolest and most unusual islands in Central America, from a scuba diving paradise, to a laid-back hippie hotspot, to a collection of islets scattered across a massive lake. So get your passport ready, pack a swimsuit or several, 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.
Corn Islands, Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s Corn Islands—or Islas del Maiz—are truly a picture-perfect tropical island destination. 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 perfect 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 once 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.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
This group of 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 you can 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 Colon 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.
Utila is a laid-back bohemian island that attracts scuba divers from all over the world. Here, it’s less about the beaches (although the tiny island is home to a few good ones) and more about what’s under the waves: Colorful corals and sponges, rainbow-hued schools of fish, sea turtles, 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. But traveler beware—If you spend any time here, you’re sure to meet somebody who came for a five-day vacation and decided never to leave, so you may find yourself falling in love with a new home.
To get to Utila from the mainland, you can fly from San Pedro Sula or take a ferry from La Ceiba. Many travelers will combine a trip to Utila with a visit to the nearby island of Roatán (a popular cruise ship destination), which is a short flight or ferry ride away.
Caye Caulker, Belize
Just south of the more famous Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker is the hippie younger sibling. 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).
While nearby Cancún and Tulum are some of the most popular Mexican vacation destinations, Isla Holbox is still relatively under-the-radar. Accessible only by ferry from Chiquila, about 2 hours and 20 minutes from the Cancún Airport, this car-free island is surprisingly cosmopolitan, with stylish boutique hotels, great shops and restaurants, and a fun (but laid back) nightlife scene. Holbox is also known for its flamingo population, which wades in the shallow lagoon between the island and mainland Mexico.
You can opt for a hotel or rental further from town to enjoy some solitude, but unless you want to rent a golf cart as well, your best option is Hotel Punta Caliza or Aldea Kuka, where you’ll be walking distance from town but far enough away from the hubbub to enjoy the white sand beaches and turquoise waters. While getting here is a bit harder than heading straight to an all-inclusive hotel in Playa del Carmen, you’ll be rewarded with laidback luxury, authentic Yucatecan cuisine, and miles of beaches—all for a fraction of what you might pay on the mainland.
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 hundreds 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.
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.
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.
Flores Island, Guatemala
A tiny island in Guatemala’s Lago Petén Itzá, Flores is comprised 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 Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that Francis Ford Coppola).
Isla Palenque, Panama
On Panama’s pacific coast, private island resort Isla Palenque is where adventure meets five-star luxury. Once you arrive at the port in Boca Chica (usually via the airport in David), the staff will whisk you off to a private island paradise, where you can enjoy a deluxe assortment of spa treatments and wellness programs, daily excursions to explore the Gulf of Chiriquí, and sophisticated contemporary cuisine made from fresh ingredients. At night, a peaceful slumber awaits in the private beachfront cabanas, which are outfitted with modern conveniences and luxury amenities.