Central vs South America: how to plan your next trip

written by Samantha Burgess December 26, 2023
A colourful buildling in Caye Caulker, Belize

Hola, olá and welcome to the enchanting land of Latin America.

Struggling to choose where to plan your next trip? We don’t blame you. Both Central America and South America boast dreamy Caribbean beaches, ancient relics, jaw-dropping geography and a couple of cuddly (and not-so-cuddly) critters. Not to mention that between sightseeing, you’ll be treated to a host of flavour-filled delicacies, a few zesty beverages and the festive rhythms of Latin America.

So, for those trying to make the ever-difficult destination decision, keep reading for our guide to picking between the top sites and tasty eats of Central and South America.

A colourful street in Panama City

First, what actually is Central America?

While South America is categorised as a continent, Central America is a relatively small sub-region of North America that houses seven countries: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize. Since it’s so different from its Anglo-American counterparts – the United States and Canada – this part of the continent gets its own ‘mini-continent’, if you will.

The Caribbean region, made up of several island nations, including the largest, Cuba and Jamaica, can sometimes be included in the Central American region as it also lies within North America; however, most of the time, it’s regarded as its own separate region. The same can be said of Mexico, as it’s more culturally similar to Latin America than Anglo-America. For the sake of a clear Central vs South debate, we’ll stick to comparing the seven countries mentioned above.

Things to see and do in Central America

If you’re tossing up between the two regions, then yes, South America does have some impressive sites like Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro and Patagonia, but did you know that in Central America, you’re never more than 200km (125 miles) from a beach? And those beaches are just what you’d imagine for a region flanked by the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west – a paradise made of sun, sea and sand.

But don’t be blinded by the beaches because there’s so much more to see and do.

Be at one with nature in Costa Rica

A woman picking kale at an ecological farm in Costa Rica

A kaleidoscope of greenery awaits in the suitably nicknamed lush Costa Rica. This country is a must for nature lovers. Look for sloths hanging out of trees at Manuel Antonio National Park, swim by waterfalls at Sarapiqui or take a dip into volcano-heated waters at La Fortuna.

Adventure (and sick waves) await in El Salvador

Look out over the vast Pacific Ocean or ride its waves with top-notch surfing in El Salvador. When out of the wavy water, wander through picturesque towns, circle volcanic craters or swim in clear water caves like those of Cuevas de Moncagua.

Walk in the footsteps of the Mayans in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize

Gaze upon ancient buildings dating as far back as the 1st century AD at sites like the Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the Copan ruins in Honduras and Cahal Pech in Belize.

Snorkel the day away in the clear Caribbean waters

Although there’s so much to do and see around Central America, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention its grade-A snorkelling. Panama especially has the type of beaches that look so idyllic it can be hard to believe they’re real. Enjoy swimming, snorkelling, surfing and more at several spots around the country, including the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

Volcano board in Nicaragua

An aerial view of San Juan Del Sur harbour, Nicaragua

Sandboarding down the black sand of a volcano may not be everyone’s cup of piñol (a traditional Ecuadorian spiced milk drink), but Cerro Negro is one of the only places in the world to do it. Found outside the city of Leon in Nicaragua, this hair-raising activity is well worth a climb up the volcano.

Top trips in Central America

Two llamas grazing by the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flasts, Bolivia

So, South America?

Did we mention before that South America was big? It’s actually the fourth largest continent in the world, covering approximately 17.8 million square kilometres and home to 12 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. It also boasts the largest rainforest and river in the world, the Amazon Rainforest and Amazon River, one of the world’s biggest cities, Sao Paolo, and the highest mountains in the world found outside Asia.

Things to see and do in South America

While the list of things to do in South America is probably as big as the continent itself, we’ve collected a few activities that really stand out on any itinerary.

Stand at the end of the world in Chile and Argentina

A hiker in Patagonia looking out over Monte Fitz Roy, Argentina

Making up the southern end of the continent, Chile and Argentina share the glacial stretches, towering snowy peaks and top-tier hiking paths of Patagonia. Awe-inspiring sights you’ll want to point your camera at can be found in Perito Moreno Glacier, the Laguna de los Tres nature reserve and the Torres del Paine National Park. You could also board an Antarctica cruise in Ushuaia, Argentina, to tick off the icy seventh continent.

Caribbean beaches, World Heritage towns and the freshest of fresh coffee

The first cab off the rank when arriving in South America is Colombia and this country is sure to put a smile on any traveller’s face. Enjoy Caribbean and Pacific waters on the coast before venturing inland, where sprawling highlands give way to coffee farms. Stop by charming cities and villages for a taste of the country’s world-renowned nightlife and Colombian hospitality.

See rare wildlife in Ecuador

Giant tortoises, sea lions, sea turtles, flamingos, iguanas and many more species call the Galapagos Islands home. One of the best ways to see these fascinating critters is to island-hop around this volcanic archipelago. But if you’re keen to stay on the continent, the lush highlands, teeming Amazon jungle and vast Cotopaxi National Park have their own share of exotic Ecuadorian native wildlife to see.

Perfect days out in Peru

If the image of a llama standing in front of a hilltop of ancient ruins comes to mind when someone says South America, then you may be thinking of Peru. With its iconic Inca Trail, Sacred Valley and nearby Cusco City, the journey to see one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu, is well worth its fame. Of course, this remote part of Peru isn’t all that attracts visitors – there’s also the Amazon Jungle, the buzzing capital of Lima and the floating Urus Islands in Lake Titicaca.

Be part of the party in Brazil

Women at Carnival twirling in traditional black, yellow, red and white dress, Brazil

While it’s not the only country in South America known for a lively party scene, Brazil sure means business when it brings out the beats. There’s no better display of its frenetic spirit than Carnival, a festival so fun it’s known all across the world. But a visit to Brazil can take any shape or form, from animal spotting along the Amazon and exploring tropical islands like Ilha Grande to paragliding over the famous Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. It’s difficult not to have a good time in Brazil.

Explore the unique charm to Bolivia

With fascinating sites like the mystical Witches Market in La Paz, the world’s largest salt pan, Salar de Uyuni, and beautiful UNESCO historical cities like Potosi and Sucre, Bolivia is sure to captivate its visitors. Explore this extraordinary country on its own or make time to pop over if you’re visiting its high-profile neighbours.

Top trips in South America

Food for thought

After all that reading, you’re probably just as torn about where to go; that’s where food comes into the decision. Nowadays, you can generally find each country’s delicacies everywhere you go. But here are some of the most authentic dishes to try:

Central American foods to try:

  • Gallo pinto: a Costa Rican breakfast plate of beans, rice, cheese, eggs, tortillas, avocado, plantains and sour cream.
  • Hojaldres: a bread that leans more towards the texture and taste of a doughnut. This dish comes from the shores of Panama, where it is eaten most often as a savoury breakfast meal.
  • Tres Leches Cake: some argue that this dense, moist cake began in Nicaragua, but you’re likely to find it as a dessert throughout most of America.
  • Horchata: a popular drink from around Latin America, this richly spiced cinnamon and milk drink is definitely worth a try.

South American foods to try:

  • Asado: a popular Argentina speciality of a barbeque meal often including a variety of meats cooked on a grill from the steak-loving country Argentina.
  • Empanadas chilenas: find variations of empanadas across Central and South America, but especially in Chile and Argentina.
  • Ceviche: an incredibly fresh and tasty Peruvian dish of raw fish with a tangy flavour. Often served with tomatoes, onion, lime and coriander. Usually at its best in locations close to the ocean.
  • Arepas: a favourite dish around central and South America of either sweet or savoury bread cooked to be crispy outside and soft inside. Venezuelans especially love to eat at any time of day as you can fill them with just about anything you want.
  • Choripan: Argentina’s flavourful grilled chorizo (sausage) and bread dish make this essentially an elevated hot dog.
  • Dulce de Leche: a dessert once again from Argentina, this one with a sweet caramel flavour.
  • Pisco sour: this is the national drink of Peru and even has its own celebrated day in February.

Read more: Move over Mexico: 7 awesome foods from Central America

The verdict

Of course, the easy answer to Central vs South America would be to visit both (and probably a few times) to really experience all that these biodiverse and culture-laden regions have to share. But if you’ve only got a spare week or two for a Latin American adventure, here’s the rundown.

Central America can be a great option for country-hoppers looking to see multiple places in a short amount of time. And with the added benefit of having beaches on all sides, it means that a trip to Central America can be both a holiday and an adventure.

South America also has its fair share of beautiful beaches, but because it spans a much larger area and boasts several unique geographical features, a lot of its charm lies inland. And with world-renowned hiking trails speckled throughout the continent, South America may be more suited to active adventurers.

If by this point you’re completely inspired and long to experience the Latin American action yourself, a small group tour is (in our opinion) the best way to immerse yourself in any destination. And this is especially true for such all-encompassing regions like the Americas. At all times, our local guides have a wealth of knowledge, food recommendations and memorable activities up their sleeves that perfectly accompany all our action-packed itineraries.

See for yourself on an Intrepid small group tour.

Top trips in Central and South America

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