At 518,000 sq. km (200,000 sq. miles), the seven Central American countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are squeezed into a narrow landmass (the distance from west to east is a mere 30km/19 miles at the narrowest point of Panama). That's approximately the same surface area as the states of California and New York put together. Yet with 4,500km (2,790 miles) of coastland, numerous mountain ranges, 300 volcanoes, and four tectonic plates crunching into each other, the area is much more of a geological hot spot, with some of the most varied natural diversity in the world.

On one side of the isthmus that is Central America, the muddy swamps and deltas of the Caribbean coast descend onto a narrow shelf of limestone rock that extends several miles out to sea. Here you'll find numerous islands and the second-longest barrier reef in the world, whose rich coral grounds stretch along the coasts of Belize and Honduras. On the other side of the isthmus, the dark Pacific pounds black volcanic beaches up and down the coast, which lead to narrow plains of agricultural land, tropical dry forest, and large freshwater lakes such as Lago de Nicaragua. The Pacific coast is generally less humid, and it's sheltered from the easterly trade winds by a rugged spine of mountains that hold cloud forests and pine valleys.

Earthquakes are common throughout Central America, as are belching, lava dribbling volcanoes such as Arenal in Costa Rica and Masaya in Nicaragua. Such a volatile, churning landscape also means the land is dotted with plenty of hot thermal springs and underground cave systems.

Central America's Ecosystems

Central America's lowland rainforests are true tropical jungles. Some are deluged with more than 200 inches of rainfall per year, and their climate is hot and humid. Trees grow tall and fast, fighting for sunlight in the upper reaches. In fact, life and foliage on the forest floor are surprisingly sparse. The action is typically 30m (98 ft.) up, in the canopy, where long vines stream down, lianas climb up, and bromeliads grow on the branches and trunks of towering hardwood trees. Classic examples of lowland rainforests are found along the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the La Mosquita region of Honduras, along the Río Dulce in Guatemala, and the Laguna de Perlas in Nicaragua.

At higher altitudes, you'll find Central America's famed cloud forests. Here the steady flow of moist air meets the mountains and creates a nearly constant mist. Epiphytes -- resourceful plants that live cooperatively on the branches and trunks of other trees -- grow abundantly in the cloud forests, where they must extract moisture and nutrients from the air. Because cloud forests are found in generally steep, mountainous terrain, the canopy here is lower and less uniform than in lowland rainforests, providing better chances for viewing elusive fauna. The region's most spectacular cloud forests can be experienced at Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, Parque Nacional Celaque in Honduras, Reserva Natural Miraflor in Nicaragua, and the Chiriqui highlands of Panama.

At the highest reaches, the cloud forests of this region give way to elfin forests and páramos. More commonly associated with the South American Andes, a páramo is characterized by a variety of tundralike shrubs and grasses, with a scattering of twisted, windblown trees. Reptiles, rodents, and raptors are the most common residents here. Typical examples of páramo can be found at Chirripó National Park in Costa Rica and parts of the Guatemalan highlands.

On the Pacific side of the highlands, you'll still find examples of the otherwise vanishing tropical dry forest. During the long and pronounced dry season (late Nov to late Apr), no rain relieves the unabated heat. To conserve much-needed water, the trees drop their leaves but bloom in a riot of color: purple jacaranda, scarlet poró, and brilliant orange flame-of-the-forest are just a few examples. Then, during the rainy season, this deciduous forest is transformed into a lush and verdant landscape. Because the foliage is not that dense, the dry forests are excellent places to view a variety of wildlife, especially howler monkeys and pizotes (coati). The best examples of dry forests are found in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste national parks in Costa Rica and parts of northern Belize.

Along the coasts, primarily where river mouths meet the ocean, you will find extensive mangrove forests and swamps. Around these seemingly monotonous tangles of roots exists one of the most diverse and rich ecosystems in the region. Birdlife includes pelicans, storks, and pink flamingos, and reptiles such as crocodiles and caimans also thrive in this environment.

In any one spot in Central America, temperatures remain relatively constant year-round. However, they vary dramatically according to altitude, from tropically hot and steamy along the coasts to below freezing at the highest elevations.

Flora & Fauna

For millennia, this land bridge between North and South America served as a migratory thoroughfare and mating ground for species native to the once-separate continents. Perhaps its unique location between both continents explains why the region comprises only .05% of the earth's landmass, yet it is home to 7% of the planet's biodiversity. More than 15,000 identified species of plants, 900 species of birds, 9,000 species of butterflies and moths, and 500 species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are found here. And that is just what has been cataloged. Scientists calculate there is much more to be discovered. The key to this biological richness lies in the many distinct life zones and ecosystems found in Central America. It might all seem like one big mass of green to the untrained eye, but the differences are profound.

All sorts of fish and crustaceans live in the brackish tidal waters off the coast, primarily in the Caribbean but also parts of the Pacific. Caimans and crocodiles cruise the maze of rivers and unmarked canals. There are many snakes, but very few are poisonous. Watch out for the tiny coral snake and the bigger barba amarilla. Another creature worth avoiding is the poisonous arrow frog.

Hundreds of herons, ibises, egrets, and other marsh birds nest and feed along the region's silted banks, as well. Mangrove swamps are often havens for water birds like cormorants, frigate birds, pelicans, and herons. Farther out, both coastal waters are alive with marine life that includes turtles, barracudas, stingrays, marlins, dolphins, and red snappers. Nicaragua boasts the only freshwater shark in the world on Lago de Nicaragua, while the Río San Juan that joins it to the Caribbean is famous for a giant silver fish called a tarpon. Keep an eye out for whales along the Costa Rican coast.

The jungle teems with wildlife, particularly birds. Macaws, parrots, hummingbirds, and toucans are just some of the many reasons why Central America is a birder's paradise. The larger birds tend to nest up high in the canopy, while the smaller ones nestle in the underbrush. Count yourself lucky if you catch sight of the beautiful quetzal, Guatemala's national bird, or one of the region's elusive big cats, including jaguars, puma, and ocelots. A little easier to spot are howler monkeys and their simian brethren the spider and squirrel monkeys. Other mammals to look out for on the jungle floor include anteaters, deer, and sloths.

Plant life in this region is very much determined by altitude and climate. The Pacific dry forest is home to hardy species of thorny shrubs that lose their leaves in the high season and burst into flower in April and May. Higher up, the landscape is dominated by pines, oaks, and evergreens. Above 1,600m (5,248 ft.), the flora becomes lusher with orchids, mosses, and ferns all growing abundantly on giant trees.

Searching for Wildlife

Forest animals throughout Central America are predominantly nocturnal. When they are active in the daytime, they are usually elusive and on the watch for predators. Birds are easier to spot in clearings or secondary forests than they are in primary forests. Unless you have lots of experience in the Tropics, your best hope for enjoying a walk through the jungle lies in employing a trained and knowledgeable guide.

Tips to keep in mind include listening carefully and keeping quiet -- you're most likely to hear an animal before seeing one. Also, it helps to bring binoculars and dress appropriately. You'll have a hard time focusing your binoculars if you're busy swatting mosquitoes. Light, long pants and long-sleeved shirts are your best bet. Comfortable hiking boots are a real boon, except where heavy rubber boots are necessary (a real possibility, if it's been raining). Avoid loud colors; the better you blend in with your surroundings, the better your chances are of spotting wildlife. Finally, be patient. The jungle isn't on a schedule. However, your best shots at seeing forest fauna are in the very early-morning and late-afternoon hours.

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.