The Beach Less Traveled

These Central American spots offer adventure, nature -- and plenty of sun, too

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Officially, winter has just gotten started, but the early cold and snow make it feel like it's been around for months already. You're surely going to need a warm-weather getaway before the crocuses bloom.

It's not too late to arrange such a trip, but it may take some work and imagination. Some popular warm-weather destinations, in particular large swaths of Mexico's Caribbean coast, were ravaged during hurricane season and have only limited ability to welcome guests. Still, "if you are willing to be flexible, you can get a great deal and maybe discover somewhere new and exciting," says Amy Ziff, editor-at-large at Travelocity, the online travel site owned by Sabre Holdings (TSG ).

If you were thinking Cancun, just keep heading south -- way south, to Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras. These countries share many of the attributes that make Mexico so popular: sun-drenched beaches, coral reefs (the world's second-largest barrier reef stretches from Cancún to Honduras), Mayan ruins, proximity to the U.S., and good value. There are also rain forests, cloud forests, exotic wildlife, and volcanoes -- without the crowds of Cancún.

Outside of Mexico, Costa Rica has the most developed tourism industry in the region. Beach lovers can't go wrong at Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific coast. Lush tropical forests stretch to the sea, where your biggest worry will be keeping the monkeys from snatching your lunch off the beach blanket. A wide range of restaurants and hotels is available. Try Makanda By The Sea ($230 to $400 a night), a contemporary hotel with breathtaking sea and forest views, or Hotel Parador, nestled in the hills on a 12-acre estate overlooking the Pacific (from $175). All rates quoted are for high season, which starts after the first week of January and runs until Apr. 30.

Farther north is Tamarindo, a once-sleepy surfer town in Guanacaste province, where volcanic ranges give way to forests and sandy beach along the coast. Its restaurants, bars, beach parties, casinos, and surf have drawn more visitors each year, causing some locals to tag it, for better or worse, as the next Cancún. You can choose from a variety of small and midsize hotels. One standout is the Cala Luna Hotel & Villas, which features villas with private pools as well as standard rooms ($175 to $440 a night).


There are more secluded options north and south of Tamarindo, as well as inland. The sprawling Paradisus Playa Conchal (from $362) offers tennis, golf, water sports, dining, and dancing. Spa lovers might pick the new Los Altos de Eros resort, 20 minutes outside of Tamarindo ($2,150 per couple per week, breakfast only).

For something more offbeat, try Panama. If Panama conjures up only mosquitoes and a notorious strongman, you might want to give it a fresh look. A rush of development has given it a new buzz. What other country can claim singer Rubén Blades as its tourism director?

Fly into Panama City, a booming metropolis on the Pacific coast with plenty of interesting boutique hotels. You can visit the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal and go salsa dancing in the Casco Viejo colonial district. You can also commune with quetzals -- colorful birds with distinctive long tails -- in the rainforest or catch waves at one of the beaches in no time.

Great deals can be found in Panama, too. One recent offering from Travelocity: a stay at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a four-star property in Soberania National Park, 30 minutes from Panama City, for $133 a night. Guests can make use of the resort's pool, jogging trails, tennis courts, golf course, and spa, or view the forest canopy up close from an aerial tram.

Beach lovers have plenty of options, too. For some high-end R&R, try Hacienda del Mar (from $330 a night). The resort, which features a spring-fed freshwater pool and ocean views, is on San Jose Island, one of the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama. On the other side of the isthmus, Isla Grande rivals the best Caribbean spots for snorkeling and diving.

Another worthy destination is Belize, the tiny country wedged between Guatemala and Mexico. Its smattering of islands, known locally as "cayes," have long attracted divers. Lately, though, this laid-back paradise is gaining a wider following, no doubt thanks to celebrity interest. Last summer, Leonardo DiCaprio bought a caye on which he plans to build an eco-resort. In the meantime you can relax at Francis Ford Coppola's Turtle Inn in Placencia (starting at $240 a night) on Belize's southern coast. The inn features thatched-roof bungalows, a spa, and a dive shop, and provides a great base for excursions to ruins and a jaguar reserve.

Some of the region's least discovered beaches edge the long Caribbean coastlines of Nicaragua and Honduras. La Ceiba, a colorful city in Honduras, is a jumping-off point for the mostly English-speaking Bay Islands, which attract about 30,000 visitors annually. One sign of the area's growing popularity: Continental Airlines (CAL ) is expanding service from one day a week to seven from Houston to Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, once a haunt of pirates.

There are 11 weeks of winter left. That leaves plenty of time to arrange a warm weather escape. And, with so many options, you may want to get a jump on planning next year's trip as well.

By Amy Cortese

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