South America

South America vs. Central America: Where Should You Go?

Laura Pattara

Laura Pattara  |  1 June 2018

 See our different tours in Central America and South America 


Choosing between Latin America tours or, more specifically, ascertaining which of the two Latin American regions are ‘best to visit’ is a very common conundrum for potential visitors, especially first-time ones. The South America vs. Central America: Where Should You Go? is certainly a question we’re asked often enough. Yet notwithstanding all our combined personal experiences and wealth of information (which trust us, is impressive) even WE find it difficult to succinctly reply to this question. The answer, intrepid adventurer, isn’t nearly as clear-cut as you might imagine: the variables are simply too many.

Our following comparison guide aims to give you a great overview of the similarities and differences between South and Central America, highlighting the most important travel-related aspects of both regions. So, whether you’re heading over on Latin America tours for days, weeks or maybe even months, choosing the right destination for you should be infinitely easier.

So happy planning…and buen viaje!

South America’s geographical diversity

Choose your favorite destination here.

Being the fourth-largest continent on earth makes South America the more overwhelming choice, for options of Latin America tours here are nearly endless. Greater geographical diversity due to its gargantuan size, means South America is the ideal destination for lovers of the extremes and the superlative.

In South America you can stand atop a 7,000m peak on the longest mountain range on earth, take a nipple-freezing dip in the world’s highest lake and look out from the southernmost headland on the planet (next stop, Antarctica!), as well camp out in the driest desert, drive across the largest salt plains and meet rare and unusual creatures in the largest rainforest of all. Yep…South America is home to some of the world’s most famous BIG-named attractions  and if you’re quite partial to travel name-dropping, the region certainly holds an immense appeal.


South America and its breathtaking places

This doesn’t mean, however, that Central America travel is lacking in anything, it might just lack it in size and fame but certainly not in content and inspiration. The 1,800km-isthmus which joins Mexico to South America packs a mighty punch for its diminutive size. Volcanic in nature, Central America showcases a very different geography and although the highest peak here is ‘only’ 4,200m it is an impressive peak nonetheless and there are many, many more. Plus, they’re all volcanic!

The nutrient-rich volcanic soil has dictated almost every aspect of the region and here you’ll still find pristine rainforests, fertile lowland plains and more tropical gorgeousness than you could ever soak up in one visit. It boasts dreamy stretches of superb coastline, a ridiculous number of stunning waterfalls and lakes and being so genially located a superbly mild climate. So, if you’re a lover of ‘softer’ destinations, at least geographically speaking, Central America is simply tops.

You can find numerous volcanoes in Central America

Volcano in Central America

Wildlife of South America and Central America

Explore diversity of wildlife with Viva's tours to South or Central America.

Whilst both South and Central America boast world-class wildlife watching destinations – some of the best in the world, in fact – South America holds the trump card when it comes to larger mammals, arguably the wildlife species most travellers want to see. From the Pantanal in Brazil to the Galapagos Islands  of Ecuador, Patagonia’s Valdes Peninsula and Torres del Paine National Park, you’ll be excused for thinking that no matter where you go, in South America, there’s some big-ass creature just waiting for you to come visit. Yet if size weren’t such a big deal (which it still is, in Mexico) then Central America can certainly hold its own. Mexico’s Baja California is often dubbed the world’s best whale-watching destination and, when it comes to wildlife diversity and astounding bird-life, then look no further than Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, where coatimundi, tapirs, ocelots and several species of monkeys make for stellar animal-spotting. Where Central America gets the upper hand (and by a lot) is under the sea. The second-largest coral reef in the world (the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System) hugs the eastern coast of the region and the concentration of marine life in Central America is astonishing. Accessible from no less than four countries (Mexico, Honduras, Belize  and Guatemala) this splendour of Mother Nature leads us to the next point you should consider.

A diversified wildlife

A diversified wildlife

SCUBA diving and snorkelling

Explore diversity of marine world in South or Central America with Viva's tours.

South America attracts divers and snorkellers galore to its Galapagos archipelago (and for good reason) but avid SCUBA enthusiasts know that if they want an immensely rewarding journey dedicated to their prime passion, then Central America is THE place to be. Diving and snorkelling here are both sensational, making this one of the world’s premier underwater-frolic destinations. The climate is idyllic for languid day-long swims and dives, you can include multiple destination all in close proximity and see more exotic marine life than almost anywhere else in the world. The reef is pristine, options abounding and Central America diving and snorkelling is also among the cheapest in the world so if you’re a fan of the seas, you simply can’t miss it.

Activities – in general

For more unforgettable hiking experiences search our tours to South and Central America.

If sea-based vacations are not really your thing, however, then the two regions become more balanced. Central America offers a myriad of chances for climbing picturesque volcanoes although if you’re a serious mountain hiker then South America, and its impressive Andes Mountain range are going to seduce you a lot more, especially in the southern region of Patagonia where you can indulge in mountainous hikes for decades on end. Seriously! When it comes to sightseeing in general, then we might lean our preferences towards South America, where vibrant cities like Buenos Aires, Santiago and Rio de Janeiro make for excellent city-capes. Central America countries all boast a few very special colonial treasures (Colombia, especially) but its capitals - with the clear exception of impressive Mexico City - are not as popular with those looking for exciting city-based discoveries. For everything else (from horse riding to mountain biking, small ship cruising, etc) both regions offer enough options to keep everyone happy.

The famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro

The famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro

Ease of travel

Being so compact and narrow, Central America is much easier to get around in a short(er) amount of time, even when considering the expanse of Mexico. Flying between countries may cost the same in both South and Central America but you’ll spend much less time transiting if you travel through the latter. This means you can indulge in the Central America’s landscape and cultural diversity more often, travelling from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts on the same day, if you wish, or reaching remote jungles, hiking volcanoes and visiting several ancient sites in just a few days. By and large, the ease of travel only comes into play if you have a very limited time frame AND you wish to visit more than one country.

Archaeology/ancient history

Find the assortment of historical and archaeological sites in Viva's tours to South and Central America.  

Central America is the archaeological hub of the Americas and is home to a kaleidoscope of ancient historical sites which would make any buddying anthropologist swoon with infinite delight. Pyramids hidden in the heart of luscious jungles, enormous ancient complexes bursting with exotic birdlife and an array of world-class sights make Central the more varied of the Americas for lovers of ancient history. South America has the world-famous Inca city of Machu Picchu, of course, and a long list of equally impressive sites, yet the greatest concentration is in Peru alone, a country that boasts such illustrious sites as Trujillo, Nazca, Caral and Chiclayo, not to mention the numerous in the Sacred Valley, home to Machu Picchu. Head to Central America, however, and you can hop between different countries soaking up the delights of Copan, Tikal, Lamanai, Tazumal, Chichen Itza and Tulum to mention but a few. All in various countries, all magnificent and all offering unique sightseeing experiences. If ancient archaeological sightseeing is right up the top of your must-do list then we’d be forced to put our money on Central America. At the very least, you can visit different sites whilst still experiencing a number of different countries. For this 2-for-1 deal, Central America is unsurpassed.

Learn more about South America history

Learn more about South America history

Magnificent landscapes

Visit remarkable places of the world with our tours to South or Central America.  

When it comes to scenic landscapes that’ll WOW your socks off, it’s quite difficult to travel past  South America. The sheer size of the continent and diversity translates to endless horizons of absolute stellar natural beauty, something which loses a few points when cut down to size. The thing about the magnificent landscapes of South America is that they’re not only difficult for Central America to rival. They’re impossible to replicate anywhere in the world. From the huge expanse of the Atacama Desert to the blinding white horizon of Salar Uyuni, the spellbinding contours and colours of the Bolivian Altiplano, endless snowy peaks of Patagonia, the heart-stopping depth of Colca Canyon and awe-inspiring sight of Iguazu Falls: South America proves that, sometimes, BIG-named attractions are world-famous for a reason. And that reason is that they are all, in their own unique way, totally awe-inspiring. If big, once-in-a-lifetime spectacles are what you crave…then a South America tour is for you.

The surprising Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia salt flats, South America

Stunning beaches

To find out more about fascinating views and recreational attractions check our tours to South and Central America.  

If you’re dreaming of ending your sightseeing tour de force with a dreamy beachside vacay, however, then do hop on that plane and head to Central America, a hive of tropical beauty with few rivals. That is, as long as you’re happy to fly right past the glorious beaches of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. Stunning beaches are among the most coveted calling cards of all of Latin America yet, generally speaking, the closer to the Caribbean you get the more glorious they get. In a region where you’re famously never more than 200km from a beach, Central America and its idyllic climate, palm-fringed beaches and turquoise waters make this one of the world’s dreamiest seaside destinations. When planning a marvelous seaside stop, look to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua for the most picturesque beaches of all.

South America got beautiful beaches

Clearwater beach, South America


The tropical climate of Central America also has its downside, which primarily comes in the shape of a sometimes-brutal hurricane season. This is something you simply don’t have to worry about if travelling to South America, where extreme cold and excessive rain are simply nuisances for the most part, not travel obstacles per say. Heavy rains can greatly hinder travel plans in Central America, especially given the high concentration of wilderness areas, where things like mudslides and road closures are common. For South America tours in winter, however, all you’ll need is warm thermals: even the far south of Patagonia is resplendent when covered in snow and although many hiking routes may close down for a few weeks, there is still a lot you can do. The time of year in which you can travel may well turn out to be the biggest deciding factor in choosing between South America vs. Central America tours.

Better? There’s no such thing!

You’ve probably come to the correct assumption, by now, that there simply isn’t a ‘better’ option when choosing between South and Central America. Each region is distinct in its offering, pros and cons, and it all comes down to what you prefer doing, seeing and experiencing, as well as when you travel and for how long. You’ll enjoy excellent  local cuisines no matter where you go, encounter friendly locals and discover fascinating new cultures. You can explore famous and well-visited site or head to more remote destinations, the gorgeous Latin authenticity will be ever-present. Both regions showcase an impressive diversity in landscape, cultures, wildlife and history. Both boast great infrastructure in generally popular areas and slightly less so in off-the-beaten-path destination.

So the only real deciding factor here…is YOU.

What’s on your bucket-list? What is, to you, a once-in-a-lifetime dream? We assure you that both Central and South America will offer countless unforgettable memories, so why not start with the one you’ve been dreaming about for years when planning your Latin America tour?

At VivaExpeditions, we’re in the business of making your Latin America dreams come true! YES, we are your travel cupid! Check out our extensive list of brilliant South America and Central America tours and if you’re still undecided as to where you should go then tell us…and we’ll know just the right questions to ask to help you on your way.


See our different tours in Central America and South America 

Learn more about Central and South America on our blog


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