Both teem with wildlife, but are you drawn to Costa Rica’s rainforest-swathed volcanoes and oceanic beaches, or Caribbean Belize, with its dive-friendly coral cayes, misty mountains and Mayan ruins?
Population: 4.9 million
Total area: 51,100 sq km
Famous for: Wildlife, volcanoes, two oceans of beaches and having no army
Total area: 22,965 sq km
Famous for: Caribbean, Mayan and Garifuna culture, romantic ruins and the best reefs in the Western hemisphere
Spider monkeys swinging through lush forests, half-ton leatherbacks pulling their way up black-sand beaches, rivers wriggling with caiman and more than 850 species of bird… for terrestrial wildlife, Costa Rica wins hands down.
The country also has jungle lodges galore, though at the higher end of a travel budget.
Manatees grazing on meadows of eel grass, sharks and rays swimming along reef alleys, turtles drifting over coral gardens, crocodiles crawling though mangroves… nowhere in Central America beats Belize for water-based wildlife watching.
Accommodation is also excellent for all budgets.
A ridge of smoking volcanoes drop in corrugated folds of mossy cloud forest and jungle to Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
The latter pounds rocky bays backed by towering tropical trees. The Atlantic is gentler, lapping slivers of black and silver sand.
But you’ll need to fly: the country looks small on paper, but roads are long.
Thousands of coral islands and turquoise atolls run through shallows to clover honey-white beaches.
Lowlands pocked with rainforest-ringed lakes rise to highlands of dense jaguar-hunted forest.
Getting around is easy. You can drive across compact Belize in less than a day, and boats and light planes access the islands.
Football, salsa, a carnival, black beans and rice, American condos… Costa Rica feels like a cocktail of North and Central America with a splash of the Caribbean.
Little information exists about its pre-Columbian past – but you can visit the mysterious petrospheres at the Diquís Delta for a look into its history.
The Maya are everywhere – their ancient cities tower over the forest at Caracol and Lamanai, and modern villages cluster around San Ignacio and Toledo towns.
Garifuna communities – descended from Africans who escaped slavery – throw lively festivals in Dangriga, and there’s a buzzing Afro-Caribbean vibe on the islands.
Wandering canopy walkways, birding through binoculars, scanning the jungle for jaguar prints and manakin leks.
Or, when not wildlife watching, there are hot river swims and whitewater rides, gentle kayak drifts through mangrove swamps and soothing soaks in plunge pools in back-to-nature hotels.
If diving and snorkelling Central America’s finest reefs are not enough, then you can clamber over crumbling Mayan temples in steaming rainforest, wade underground streams to relic-filled caves or listen to Garifuna musicians on the beach.
The sky is clear enough for stargazing, and there’s great horseback riding and hiking, too
Head to head? You’d be better off head to tail – with a visit to both of these justifiably famous wildlife watching countries. Think of them as more complementary than competitive, and you can tick off all the biggest must-sees in three weeks.
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