Corrugated by mountains and studded by volcanoes, Central America reaches from Mexico towards South America like a hooked, tentative finger. Its geography - seven piecemeal nations stacked on top of each other in a narrowing isthmus - is in many ways its destiny: a distinct region caught between two larger realities. The archeological term used for the region is Mesoamerica (Middle America), and for millennia it has been just that: the meeting point of the landmasses, plants, animals and people of the giant continents to the north and the south.
This clash of tropical and temperate zones has created a startling, often surreal landscape in which dense, humid rainforests abound with the yelps of oropendola birds and the chattering of monkeys; somewhere inside the forest's dark mesh, the antediluvian form of the tapir lumbers and the endangered jaguar steals quietly through cobalt shadows. Carpeting the eastern halves of Honduras and Nicaragua are the impenetrable swamp-jungles of Mosquitia, whose curlicued lagoons harbour mirror-surfaced mangroves where shellfish and manatees breed among the gnarled roots. Beaches, coves, cayes and island archipelagos hem the coral-laced coasts, while volcanoes - some active - form a chain of fire that stretches from Guatemala to Costa Rica.
Central America had, until recently, receded in the public consciousness, as the "news" (read: war and revolution) spotlight moved elsewhere; now, however, it's experiencing something of a tourism renaissance. Ten or fifteen years ago, visitors to the region largely consisted of the college backpacker contingent and groups on socialist-minded "education" tours. Since the beginning of the 1990s, though, a wider variety of people, some with little knowledge of or interest in the region's turbulent past, have come here to experience its startling natural beauty on the back of another kind of revolution - this time in tourism.
Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Central America seems to have been designed with the ecotourist in mind. Costa Rica draws nature-lovers by the plane-load with its impressive system of National Parks, while English-speaking Belize, for much of its history a forgotten fragment of the British Empire, has reinvented itself as a prime diving and snorkelling destination, thanks to its offshore national treasury: the second-longest barrier reef in the world. The best place to experience the region's pre-Conquest culture is Guatemala, which has the strongest indigenous traditions, not to mention a stunning landscape of velvet volcanoes and amethyst lakes. Panamá and Honduras are just waking up to the potential - at least in tourism terms - of their rainforests, rugged mountain cloudforests, mangroves and beaches. Tourists still tend to avoid Nicaragua and El Salvador - a misguided manoeuvre, as neither is more dangerous for visitors than its neighbours, and despite considerable poverty, the people are welcoming and the basic tourist infrastructure good; plus, they too have the volcanoes, beaches and rainforests that draw travellers to their more popular neighbours.
Amidst all the hype about the region's natural beauty, it's easy to forget that this rugged, humid part of the world was home (along with Mexico and Peru) to the most sophisticated pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. The splendid Maya civilization, with its diaphanous pyramids and neurotic pursuit of time-keeping, flourished in Guatemala and to a lesser extent in modern-day Belize, Honduras and El Salvador between the years of 300 and 900 AD (although the Maya have been in existence for over 4000 years). During this time, termed the Classic period, the region was made up of independent, and often mutually antagonistic city-states - Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras and El Salvador's San Andres being three of the more prominent - which fought each other for prestige and economic dominance. As their civilization declined, the Maya became increasingly interested in blood-letting and the ritualizing of pain and death, while paradoxically setting their greatest minds the task of predicting the future through one of the most precise understandings of time in history. You can see shadows of their huge achievements in science and the arts by visiting the ruined cities and viewing their displays on calendrics, ceramics and the Maya's wildly illustrative glyphic scripts.
In sharp contrast to the Maya, further south in lower Costa Rica and Panamá, peoples from the Chibcha group dominated. Thought to have come originally from Colombia, the Chibcha were largely agrarian, without the talent for urban planning or numerology obsession of the Maya, and have left little or nothing behind in the way of monuments or artefacts.
Central America was "discovered" by the Spanish on Christopher Columbus's fourth and last voyage to the Americas in 1502-4. Columbus himself barely set foot in Central America, preferring to anchor offshore and write florid letters back home to his sovereign, packed with references to maidens and gold (of which the Spaniards unhappily discovered there was little). Nearly ten years later, an incredible sight met the eyes of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first real conquistador of the region, who in 1513 slashed and clambered his way over the scaly mountain spine of Panamá to become the first European to set eyes on the American side of the Pacific Ocean.
Within a few years of Balboa's thrilling sight, the Spanish had established Panamá City, in 1519; León, Nicaragua, followed in 1524; and in 1527, in Guatemala, they built their most important capital, the future colonial seat of the Empire, from which the region was administered. Still, Central America remained a backwater of the Spanish Empire in the New World: gold-poor, stuffed with venomous serpents, impenetrable jungles and often hostile natives. In human terms, the ensuing colonial period was characterized by waves of yeoman farmers emigrating from Spain, followed by waves of deaths of indigenous people from diseases to which they had no immunity. Slave labour was taken from Costa Rica and Nicaragua to work the mineral mines in Peru; in Guatemala the conquerors, led by the handsome blond adventurer with a taste for massacre, Pedro de Alvarado, set about a systematic, if drawn-out, destruction of the Maya peoples, who have, against all the odds, maintained their culture to this day, albeit in much reduced numbers....Continua