Central America is a region that often goes unexplored, but those who make the trek here are almost always astounded by the stunning landscapes that this area is known for. With large forests, thick jungles, and lots of volcanoes, the terrain is a bit daunting. But the tropical climate sticks around all year, and frequent rain has led to the creation of some seriously beautiful lakes.
Whether it’s your first time traveling to Central America or your hundredth, the lakes of this region will afford you some of the best scenery, and they’re also just great places to hang out on a hot day. Most lakes in Central America offer visitors a chance to swim, boat, fish, snorkel, or kayak. No matter how you choose to spend your day at the lake, one thing is certain – you will not be disappointed with the view.
Continue reading to learn more about the 18 best lakes in Central America.
Table of Contents
- 1. Atitlan Lake, Guatemala
- 2. Lake Arenal, Costa Rica
- 3. Lake Nicaragua, Nicaragua
- 4. Lake Yojoa, Honduras
- 5. Lake Coatepeque, El Salvador
- 6. Gatun Lake, Panama
- 7. Peten Itza Lake, Guatemala
- 8. Lake Izabal, Guatemala
- 9. Cano Negro, Costa Rica
- 10. Lake Ilopango, El Salvador
- 11. Lachua Lake, Guatemala
- 12. Bayano Lake, Panama
- 13. Lake Guija, El Salvador
- 14. Laguna Guaimoreto, Honduras
- 15. Aguacate Lagoon, Belize
- 16. Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador
- 17. Laguna de Calderas, Guatemala
- 18. Lake Managua, Nicaragua
1. Atitlan Lake, Guatemala
For the all-time best lake in Central America, head to Atitlan Lake, located in the department of Solola in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala. Atitlan Lake is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the entire country, and it’s not without good reason. The lake has been nominated as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and its beauty is renowned world-wide.
Atitlan Lake is surrounded by forested hills and volcanoes, and the lake actually sits upon a crater from a collapsed volcano that dates back centuries. The area around the lake was historically inhabited by the Mayan tribes, and today there are still about a dozen Mayan villages and even a few museums that detail their cultural history.
The hills around the lake are great for hiking, and other popular activities here include volcano climbing, bird watching, boating, jet skiing, diving, and swimming. After a long day at the lake, it’s not uncommon for tourists to head to the nearby town of Panajachel to spend the night or indulge in the town’s famous party scene.
2. Lake Arenal, Costa Rica
Another one of Central America’s best lakes can be found in the northern highlands of Costa Rica, and Lake Arenal is actually the country’s largest. Although the lake is man-made for hydroelectric power generation, Lake Arenal is a recreation hot spot that entices both tourists and locals alike.
Sitting at the base of the active Arenal Volcano, and if you stick around until night time you may even be treated to a lava show reflected on the lake’s surface. The surroundings of Lake Arenal are simply stunning, and the best views can be found while hiking, climbing up the volcano, horseback riding, or ziplining. If you decide to hike around the lake, keep your eyes peeled for colorful bird species, tapirs, and even Jaguars (though these are rarely spotted).
If you prefer to stick to the water, you can spend your day at Lake Arenal swimming, windsurfing, wakeboarding, kayaking, or paddle boarding. Sport fishing is also a common pastime here, and while there are only two types of fish that call this lake home, the machaca and the famous rainbow bass are both worth casting out for.
3. Lake Nicaragua, Nicaragua
If you’re searching for the largest lake in all of Central America, Lake Nicaragua is it. Known by several different names, including Cocibolca Lake, La Me Dulce (Sweet Sea), and Lake Granada (mostly by the residents of the city of Granada), this massive body of water is as interesting as it is big.
The lake is so big that it is actually home to two islands, one of which is actually an active volcano! When the Spanish first laid eyes on Lake Nicaragua, they thought it was a sea due to its massive size, large waves, and dangerous storms that have been known to brew over its surface. Another sea-like characteristic of Lake Nicaragua is that there are a number of species that swim below the surface that are usually only found in saltwater, including sawfish, tarpon, and even sharks!
Don’t let that stop you from getting in the water, though. Locals love hanging out at the beaches that surround the lake when the weather is right, and boat tours are another popular activity amongst tourists.
4. Lake Yojoa, Honduras
While not as large as the massive Lake Nicaragua, Lake Yojoa is Honduras’s largest lake. Situated in a crater surrounded by active volcanoes, Lake Yojoa is a site you simply have to see to believe.
If you’re on a road trip from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula you’ll get great views of the lake and its beautiful surroundings. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth pulling over for an afternoon and getting up close and personal to this amazing body of water. There are even numerous hotels and restaurants nestled along the lake’s shore for those who want to spend even more time in this area.
Lake Yojoa is surrounded by forests and marshes, making it incredibly biodiverse. This means that the lake is a great spot for bird watching and other ecotourism activities like boat tours, kayaking, and a variety of water sports. Fishing is also popular here due to the sheer number of species that swim below the surface, and even if you don’t reel in a keeper you can head to one of the aforementioned restaurants along the shore for a fresh catch of the day cooked up “lake style” with sliced banana and fresh veggies.
5. Lake Coatepeque, El Salvador
At this point, you may not be surprised to learn that just like so many other Central American lakes, Lake Coatepeque is of volcanic origin. This Salvadorian lake was formed in a volcanic caldera after a devastating eruption over 50,000 years ago. After the eruption, the crater was slowly filled with rainwater, resulting in one heck of a beautiful lake.
Today, Lake Coatepeque is an upscale resort destination with beach-front hotels, lavish vacation rentals, and lots of mouth-watering restaurants along the shoreline serving up fresh fish and stuffed tortillas. There are also some naturally heated hot springs nearby, further adding to the opulent ambiance of the area.
The lake itself has plenty to keep you entertained for a day or two, and popular activities here include swimming, boating, jet skiing, and kayaking. You could also take a boat tour out to the island in the center of the lake where you’ll find an ancient Mayan archeological site.
6. Gatun Lake, Panama
When it was created back in 1913, Panama’s Gatun Lake was the largest man-made lake in the entire world. It is still the largest body of water in Panama, and it’s an integral part of the Panama Canal, which allows large vessels to pass between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Although Gatun Lake is man-made, it’s home to a surprisingly diverse collection of flora and fauna. In fact, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) set up shop on one of the islands back in 1923 and is now one of the world’s leading research institutions. The lake’s islands (often referred to as the Tiger Islands or Witch Islands) protect hundreds of different species of trees, birds, frogs, mammals, and snakes.
One of the best ways to spend a day on Gatun Lake is by visiting the islands with a naturalist guide. Some of the best islands to visit are those that are primate sanctuaries, and on these islands, you’ll be able to observe howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, spider monkeys, and more.
Other popular activities at Gatun Lake include boating, water skiing, scuba diving, and fishing for peacock bass, which are so plentiful that there is no limit to how many you can keep!
7. Peten Itza Lake, Guatemala
The Guatemalan Peten Itza Lake is another one of Central America’s best, though some would argue that the area surrounding this beautiful body of water is what makes it so famous. There are at least 27 Mayan archeological sites located around the lake, including the famous ruins of Tayazal near the city of Flores.
These sites are definitely worth exploring, but there are tons of other fun things to do around Peten Itza as well. You could spend the day meandering around the small towns of San Andres and San Jose (both of which are located on the lake’s western shore), go hiking, and bird-watching in the Biotopo Cerro Cahui, or check out the popular swimming spots in El Remate.
Peten Itza Lake is also home to hundreds of indigenous species, so keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles, deer, jaguars, pumas, parrots, macaws, and toucans as you explore the lake and the areas that surround it.
8. Lake Izabal, Guatemala
Guatemala’s largest lake can be found in the northeastern corner of the country, and this large body of water is another one of the best lakes in Central America. Fed by the country’s largest river, Rio Dulce, and flowing into the Caribbean Sea, Lake Izabel was a popular trading route during the colonial period.
The port of Rio Dulce was so important that a fort was built to protect it from British pirates, and although the castle was eventually abandoned, El Castillo de San Felipe has been reconstructed and is a great starting point when exploring Lake Izabel.
On the opposite end of the lake, you’ll find the Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Preserve. This area boasts a wide variety of habitats, including mangroves, wetlands, savannas, and flooded forests. The species that inhabit this area are similarly unique, and if you’re lucky you may spot small populations of manatees, crocodiles, various monkeys, tapir, and jaguars.
If all that wasn’t enough to impress you, head to the lake’s northern shore and relax in the waterfall hot springs at Finca el Paraiso, explore the vast cave systems, canoe around the limestone canyons, or take a dip at the small beach nearby.
9. Cano Negro, Costa Rica
Although extremely shallow, the Cano Negro is one of the best lakes in Central America. It is so shallow in fact that it is only around for part of the year. Once December rolls around and the rainy season comes to an end, the lake slowly disappears and by February, there is nothing left of it at all.
This wetland habitat is extremely important to local wildlife, so much so that it has actually been recognized as a wetland of international importance under the RAMSAR convention. Birders will be pleased to learn that the Cano Negro is home to some flocks of fowl, including the Nicaraguan grackle and the black-bellied tree duck, among others.
One of the best ways to explore this shallow lake is via kayak, just make sure you are planning your visit during the rainy season. Hiking around the lake is another popular activity, as is biking, fishing, and exploring the nearby towns.
10. Lake Ilopango, El Salvador
Like so many others on our list, Lake Ilopango is a crater lake that was created by volcanic activity. What makes this lake stand out amongst the others is that it is filled with “sunken mountains” – steep masses of land that never reached the surface after the last eruption. These underwater mountains are extremely popular with divers, but there are also some islands inside of the lake that is worth exploring for those who prefer to keep their heads above water.
The best way to check out these islands is by taking a boat tour, that way your guide can teach you all about the various flora and fauna along with some history about the lake. One of the best things about Lake Ilopango is that it’s extremely convenient to get to – just a short drive or bus ride away from the capital city of San Salvador.
For this reason, the area is well developed for tourists, and you’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants in the areas surrounding the lake. There are also tons of resorts, hotels, and vacation homes available to those who wish to spend more than an afternoon at Lake Ilopango.
11. Lachua Lake, Guatemala
What could be better than a lake located in a national park located in a tropical rainforest? The answer is not much, and Lachua Lake is one of the best lakes in Central America for this very reason. The natural beauty of Lachua Lake and the national park by the same name is hard to match, and the tropical climate means that the area is also rich in diverse flora and fauna.
The only downside of Lachua Lake is that you will have to walk a way to get to it, about 2.4 kilometers (or 2.6 miles) to be exact. The good news is that you’ll likely see some wildlife as you walk through the verdant rainforest, including lizards, butterflies, macaws, monkeys, and hummingbirds.
The view of the lake alone is worth the fairly easy hike it takes to get there, and the crystal clear waters offer a welcome respite on a hot day. A ranger will welcome you as you approach the swimming area and give you the rundown of all the rules, the most important of which is to avoid the areas where crocodiles have been known to swim (don’t worry, these are well marked).
If you don’t feel like hiking back after an afternoon on the lake, there is a nice campground located near the swimming area. Just be sure to pack everything you need along with you as there are no stores within the park. Those staying overnight should also note that there is no electricity.
12. Bayano Lake, Panama
Panama’s Bayano Lake is another one of the best lakes in Central America. Bayano Lake is the country’s second-largest lake, coming in second only to Lake Gatun. Bayano Lake is a man-made lake, created in 1976 by the damming of the Bayano River.
Today, this shallow lake offers endless recreation opportunities to visitors, including kayaking, bird watching, and rock climbing. One of the best ways to spend your time on Bayano Lake is by taking a tour of the three caves that are located along the shoreline. Guides will take you out to these caves via boat, and once inside you can walk around and admire the ancient stalactites and stalagmites. You might also come across some wildlife living in these caves, so keep your eyes peeled for bats, snakes, and various types of insects.
Fishing is another popular activity at Bayano Lake, and tilapia are especially popular in these shallow waters. Most activities at Bayano Lake are organized by local tour companies, and you can feel good about spending money on these excursions as most of the nearby communities rely on the tourism industry.
13. Lake Guija, El Salvador
Nestled along the Guatemalan-El Salvadorian border, the lovely Lake Guija is one of the best lakes in Central America. Historians believe that the lake was created by the eruption of the San Diego volcano, whose lava flow blocked the original drainage of the lake.
Lake Guija is famed for its beauty and is surrounded by no less than three volcanoes. The lake also boasts several islands in its waters, some of which have turned up pre-Columbian artifacts on archaeological digs. Lake Guija was an important Maya center before the Preclassic Period, and the lake holds great historic and cultural significance to both El Salvador and Guatemala.
The lake was added to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in 1992, though it never made it onto the permanent list. This hasn’t stopped tourists from exploring the shores, however, and aside from the archeological sites, ecotourism is also a big draw to the area.
Even with all the fascinating history and beautiful scenery, Lake Guija is not as well-known as some of the other lakes on our list. This means that there are fewer hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that cater to tourists around the lake. Those looking for something off the beaten path would be hard-pressed to find a better area than Lake Guija.
14. Laguna Guaimoreto, Honduras
Also referred to as the Lagoon of Guaimoreto, this Honduran body of water is another one of Central America’s best. Although small in size, this little lake is extremely biodiverse, so much so that the entire area has been declared a protected wildlife refuge by the Honduran government.
The lake is located in the northern region of Colon and is separated from the Caribbean Sea by a thin strip of land. The lagoon is known for its mangrove forests and diverse wetlands, and one of the best ways to explore it is by kayak or canoe. As you paddle you may spot a wide variety of wildlife, including manatees, iguanas, monkeys, sloths, and countless different types of birds.
Many indigenous communities also live around the lake, and you may see them out on the lake fishing using traditional methods. The waters are extremely plentiful, with sardines, loggerheads, shrimp, horse mackerel, snook, tarpon, and blue crab all swimming beneath the surface.
15. Aguacate Lagoon, Belize
Belize’s Aguacate Lagoon is another one of the best lakes in Central America for those who are looking to travel off the beaten path. While much of Belize boasts diverse landscapes and rich biodiversity, Aguacate Lagoon is a true slice of unspoiled paradise.
There’s no bad time to visit the lagoon, and no matter what time of year you are there you will find tree-lined trails surrounding the lake, birds flitting through the wetland, and children from the nearby village splashing through the water. Birding is one of the most popular tourist activities at Aguacate Lagoon, and some common species here include flycatchers, warblers, hawks, falcons, storks, and herons. Aguacate Lagoon also holds historical significance, and the reserve on which the lake is located is also home to an ancient unexcavated Mayan site.
One of the main attractions of the lagoon is that it is not a big attraction, and you’ll find little in the way of stores, restaurants, or hotels in this area. For this reason, it’s important to bring everything you’ll need for the day with you, including water, bug spray, and sun protection.
16. Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador
Unlike the Aguacate Lagoon in Belize, Lake Suchitlan is a major tourist attraction that entices both Salvadorians and foreigners to its shores each year. This man-made lake is the country’s largest, and it’s so big that it actually stretches across four different departments. The lake also boasts countless species of unique flora and fauna, along with plenty of fun activities to entertain visitors.
Some of the most popular pastimes on Lake Suchitlan include kayaking, boating, checking out the visitors center, and exploring the small islands in the center of the lake.
While you’re in the area, you could also vist some of the charming small towns located around the lake’s shoreline, including San Cristobal, San Juan, Platanares, San Francisco Lempa, Colima, and San Luis del Carmen, among others. You can drive in between these towns yourself, or stick to the lake and take the La Luna Ferry from town to town.
If you’d like to stick around this area for longer than just one afternoon, you’ll find plenty of hotels in the nearby town of Suchitoto, though many of the other areas surrounding Lake Suchitlan are quite underdeveloped.
17. Laguna de Calderas, Guatemala
Formed within a crater made from an ancient volcanic eruption, Laguna de Calderas is one of the best lakes in Central America. What it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty, and the lake has even been known to emanate hot vapors due to the continued volcanic activity in the area.
Laguna de Calderas and the nearby Pacaya Volcano were both declared part of a national park in 1956, and while the area is fairly underdeveloped, the protected nature and natural beauty of the area have been popular with tourists for decades. Popular activities in the park include hiking, rafting, and bird watching for over 100 species of aquatic birds that fly through the area annually.
18. Lake Managua, Nicaragua
Sometimes referred to as Lake Xolotlan, Lake Managua is situated in the capital city of Managua on the country’s western edge. The massive Momotombo Volcano is located on the lake’s northwestern shore and makes a beautiful backdrop for this large body of water.
While Lake Managua was once one of the best lakes in Central America, decades of pollution and sewage drainage into the lake have made it one of the most contaminated lakes in the entire region. There is hope for this once enchanting lake, however, and a modern wastewater treatment plant was opened in 2009. Only about 40% of the lake water is treated, but some residents still live along the lake’s shore and even consume the fish they catch from its waters.