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The Americas were first populated by humans when Asians crossed the Bering straits into Alaska some 20,000 years ago. These tribes soon fanned southward and funneled into South America through the Central American isthmus. The period around 3000 B.C. saw the arrival of one of the greatest civilizations of the pre-Columbian New World, the Maya culture, which spread its influence from southern Mexico to El Salvador. By A.D. 750, 10 million Maya people lived in elaborate stone cities such as Tikal, Palenque, and Copán. Both savage and sophisticated, the Maya developed hieroglyphics and calendars yet were also fond of human sacrifice to appease the gods. Their empire mysteriously collapsed around A.D. 900. Drought, war, and overpopulation are blamed, but new theories for the civilization's demise appear all the time.

The Spanish came here in 1502 and they brought with them gunpowder, horses, and disease. In return, they discovered a paradise that became a living hell for its own people. By the time the conquistadors stepped off their boats, the great Maya cities had been abandoned and lost in the jungle and the population decimated into small, isolated tribes. These remaining scattered tribes put up some resistance, but were eventually subjugated and enslaved by the conquistadors.

Independence from Spain came in 1821, and the five states that existed then (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) were briefly united in a federation that eventually fell apart in 1838. What happened next -- indigenous massacres, military dictatorships, left-wing revolutions, war, utter poverty, and blatant U.S. intervention -- meant that the region remained united in misfortune only throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Peace treaties in the 1990s allowed for a new dawn of democracy in this region. Many ex-combatants from the right and left are now fighting out their differences on congress floors, rather than on city streets. The region is still dreadfully poor, however, and plagued with high unemployment, crime, and rampant corruption, not to mention earthquakes and hurricanes. Development continues at a slow pace. More and more people are abandoning subsistence farming and moving to the cities for low-paid factory jobs. Emigration north is often the only way to break free from the region's poverty, and many families are dependent on remittances from relatives in the United States. Some countries are doing much better than others, Costa Rica and Panama being the best examples. A real-estate and tourism boom there means more jobs but also raises some important questions about the state of the environment. Sustainable and ecofriendly tourism is often seen as Central America's greatest economic hope, and for good reason.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.