Above: The legacy of the Maya, and the beautiful ruins associated with their culture, is an experience in Central America that no traveler should miss. Photos courtesy of Road Scholar.

By JoAnn Bell

Central America: It’s located in North America, shares its language with South America and is truly a region like no other.

Natural wonders like rainforests, cloud forests and coral reef systems create an impressive backdrop for ancient Mayan ruins, quiet villages and modern cities.

With all its complexity, Central America is one of our favorite places to explore. Here are our top five recommendations of must-have experiences in Central America.

Panama Canal#1 Voyage through the Panama Canal

When the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, it marked the culmination of hundreds of years of dreaming and a decade of work—finally, a shortcut existed from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Yet more than 100 years later, the Panama Canal is still thrilling to experience.

A six- to eight-hour journey from start to finish, you’ll pass through three locks and six chambers on this 50-mile voyage—and you’ll be able to tell your friends that you have personally experienced one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

#2 Bird is the Word

Central America birdEven amateur birders will be amazed by the diversity of species found in Central America. Costa Rica alone is home to an estimated 894 species, including beautiful Great-green macaws and the reclusive Resplendent Quetzal.

Make your way to Panama for a chance to spot the magnificent Harpy Eagle—one of the largest eagles in the world—or search for rarely seen Jabiru Stork in Guatemala.

#3 Trace the Legacy of the Maya

If you’re a history buff who’s fascinated by ancient civilizations, Central America is the place to be. The Maya made their footprint in this region around 1800 B.C., leaving behind awe-inspiring ruins that are filled with ancient mysteries—many of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In Guatemala, explore the once-vibrant city of Tikal, boasting an impressive 4,000 structures. Make your way to Honduras to the ruins of Copan, where a Great Plaza, ball court, amphitheater and Hieroglyphic Stairway await your study.

Be sure to check out Cahal Pech ruins in Belize, one of the country’s oldest Mayan sites offering beautiful views of the Maya Mountains and Belize River Valley.

#4 How Does That Grow?

Coffee beansCoffee. Chocolate. Indigo. How does it all grow? Who harvests it and what happens after that? If you’re interested in studying the exotic side of horticulture, then make Central America your classroom.

Skip the Starbuck’s menu and trace the miracle beverage of coffee at its source as you explore plantations in El Salvador and find additional farms where cacao and indigo are grown and harvested.

#5 Be Amazed by Nature

Central America lizardThere’s no shortage of natural wonders to be amazed by in Central America, and if we had to pick a favorite experience it would be this: taking in the nature around you.

Test your knowledge of volcanology as you explore Costa Rica’s Arenal National Park or learn about the habitats of tapirs, howler monkeys and more in the cloud forests. Snorkel in the waters along the coast of Belize to experience the beauty of its coral reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Or journey to El Salvador to hear more about efforts to conserve the endangered Hawksbill sea turtle at Jiquilisco Bay.

We guarantee that no matter where you go in Central America, you’ll find a natural wonder to awe and inspire.

Road Scholar calls itself the nation’s largest educational travel organization for adults–a true university of the world. This not-for-profit educational organization offers 5,500 extraordinary learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. Road Scholars are immersed in a variety of educational activities, enlisting renowned faculty and experts who offer insider access not available to most individuals. Dedicated to making educational travel available to everyone, Road Scholar offers financial aid for those who otherwise could not participate in its programs.

Road Scholar educational adventures are created by Elderhostel, the not-for-profit world leader in educational travel for adults since 1975. Learn more at RoadScholar.org.