Many outdoor activities can be arranged easily and cheaply upon arrival in Central America. Local operators will have everything you need and can arrange guides and even companions. The quality of tours can vary greatly, and you will find paying a little extra gets you away from the herd. It is strongly advisable to hire knowledgeable guides to get the most out of your visit.

Bird-Watching -- Resplendent quetzals, tropical kingbirds, social flycatchers, and keel-billed toucans are just some of the many marvelous feathered creatures that inhabit the jungles, savannas, and coastal rocks of Central America. You do not have to venture far from your hotel to catch sight of some creature that will have you fumbling for your camera. Some of the best birding spots are Costa Rica's Parque Nacional Corcovado, Nicaragua's Reserva Natural Miraflor, Belize's Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, and Panama's Volcán Barú.

Hiking -- Where to start? At the foot of a cone-shaped volcano or the lake of a rainforest reserve? Central America has numerous hiking possibilities with its many natural parks, cloud forests, lava fields, and deserted beaches offering a truly breathtaking variety of experiences. If you plan on camping, bring your own gear, as there is little in the way of equipment rental.

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Diving & Snorkeling -- The Atlantic coast is where the best diving takes place, particularly around the Bay Islands in Honduras and Caye Caulker in Belize. The Corn Islands are the next big thing in Caribbean coral treasure islands. All the well-known diving zones offer short dives and instructor training. The Pacific is not as popular as the Caribbean because its waters are darker and rougher. You can catch some good dives in places like San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.

Mountain Biking -- The region's best biking opportunities are in the cooler highland areas, particularly in Guatemala. There are plenty of outfitters in most cities but be careful that you get a road-worthy bike. Expect poor roads and dangerous drivers. This is definitely a pursuit best suited to the dry season (Nov-Apr).

River Rafting -- There is nothing quite like capering down a fast, tropical river. White-water rafting is becoming more and more popular in a region that has plenty of rivers offering Class 2 to Class 4 rafting. Costa Rica is ahead of everybody else when it comes to adventure companies and places. Guatemala and Honduras are slowly becoming known for excellent river floating, too, though.

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Kayaking -- A little more civilized than river rafting, kayaking is one of the most enriching experiences in Central America. Whether you are paddling on a crater lake or gliding through a Caribbean swamp, kayaking is a great way to break away from the crowd and creep up on some spectacular wildlife. Sea kayaking is popular in Belize and Costa Rica. Las Isletas in Nicaragua is a popular kayaking spot, as is the Chiriquí River in Panama and the Río Cangrejal in Honduras.

Surfing -- All along the rolling Pacific you'll find big waves and excellent breaks. It was surfers who first put Nicaragua's San Juan del Sur on the map and now El Salvador's Punta Roca is also making itself known among wave riders. Costa Rica has the most established surfers' hangouts, particularly around Playa del Coco and Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. Don't fancy getting your feet wet? Try volcano surfing in León, Nicaragua -- this involves sliding down the side of black volcano on a waxed surfboard. It's strenuous (especially the walk back up), but great fun.

Fishing -- Sportfishing is popular all along the Atlantic coast with lots of marlin, sailfish, tarpon, and snook ready to catch. The Pacific coast also has big-game fishing, with giant dorado and yellowtail tuna. To catch such big fish requires chartering a boat from one of the many outfitters in the region, or you could just do what the locals do and stand in the tide throwing nets at the shoals.

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Volunteer Vacations

Here's a list of companies offering educational and volunteer opportunities in Central America.

  • AmeriSpan (tel. 800/879-6640 or 215/751-1100; www.amerispan.com) helps students arrange programs that combine language study, travel, and volunteer opportunities throughout Central America.
  • Amigos de las Américas (tel. 800/231-7796 or 713/782-5290; www.amigoslink.org) is always looking for volunteers to promote public health, education, and community development in rural areas of Central America.
  • Earthwatch Institute (tel. 800/776-0188 or 978/461-0081; www.earthwatch.org) supports sustainable conservation efforts of the earth's natural resources. The organization can always use volunteers for its research teams in Central America.
  • Habitat for Humanity International (tel. 229/924-6935, or check the website for local affiliates; www.habitat.org) needs volunteers to help build affordable housing in more than 79 countries in the world, including most countries in Central America.
  • Spanish Abroad, Inc. (tel. 888/722-7623 or 602/778-6791; www.spanishabroad.com) organizes intensive language-study programs throughout Central America.
  • Building New Hope (tel. 412/421-1625; www.buildingnewhope.org) is a Philadelphia-based organization always looking for volunteers for its numerous projects, especially in Nicaragua.
  • i-to-i (tel. 0800/011-1156; www.i-to-i.org) is a company that specializes in "meaningful travel." It has an extensive range of programs all over the region that are particularly targeted toward gap-year students.
  • Global Volunteers (tel. 0800/487-1074; www.globalvolunteers.org) organizes volunteer vacations throughout Central America.
  • Enforex (tel. 34091/594-3776; www.enforex.com) is a Madrid-based Spanish-language company that organizes study-abroad programs in several Central American countries.
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Studying Spanish & Staying with a Local Family

Studying the local language in a foreign country is all the rage, and Central America is the perfect place to study Spanish. In addition to the wonderful surroundings and bargain prices, the Central American accent is one of the cleanest and easiest Spanish accents to master (there's far less difference in regional accents here than in Spain, for instance). Many of the region's major tourist destinations also have Spanish schools, each of which offers the option of living with a local family while you study. Antigua, Guatemala, is particularly known for its Spanish-language classes and homestays, while Estelí in northern Nicaragua is gaining a reputation for such classes. See the boxes on Spanish schools throughout this book for info, or you can prearrange courses and homestays with organizations like AmeriSpan (tel. 0800/879-6640; www.amerispan.com) or Spanish Abroad (tel. 602/778-6791; www.spanishabroad.com). Wherever you decide to study, shop around and carefully examine the options, as some academies are much better organized than others.

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.