With the Pacific Ocean crashing to one side and the Caribbean lapping at the other, Central America is home to some of the world's best beaches. Morwenna Evans reveals her top spots
A long-reigning favourite on the Honduran island of Roatán, West Bay is your archetypal picture-perfect beach. Long swathes of white sand are fringed by transparent azure water, and with thrilling snorkelling and diving opportunities this king of beaches deserves its crown.
The secret is out however, and the shores do get busy when cruise ships turn up. Plan your lazy days in advance to avoid the crowds, or if you're in real need of a solitary spot, hop over to the neighbouring Cayos Cochinos archipelago, a marine biological reserve. There are a number of tour operators who offer snorkelling, diving and sightseeing excursions from Roatán to Cayos Cochinos.
Just half an hour's drive from the happening San Juan del Sur beach, El Coco is a pleasantly undisturbed alternative to its busier big brother. Visit in late autumn, for potential sightings of sea turtles waddling ashore to lay their eggs. As evening descends, saddle up and go for a trot along the beach on horseback to watch spectacular sunsets.
Alternatively, dinghy rides are available to the nearby Isla Bolaños, a tiny 14 hectare protected island straddling the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This little island is a must-see for bird lovers, and is home to seabird nesting colonies, including brown pelicans and frigatebirds.
This expansive sandy coastline is a little piece of Caribbean paradise. Tropical jungle edging onto white sand, hemmed by cool waters are just two of the reasons behind this beach's draw. But apart from its undeniable aesthetic appeal, it boasts an atmosphere and beach culture sure to keep even the most reluctant sun-lounger entertained.
Playa Negra is great for swimmers; surfers can brave Puerto Viejo's big waves. When the sun goes down, venture to Koki Beach for a seafood supper in one of the inviting restaurants balanced above the ocean on wooden stilts.
Playa El Tunco is rapidly becoming one of El Salvador's most popular beach hang-outs, and with good reason. Volcanic black sand, enticing rock formations and some of the best breaks in Central America will not go unnoticed for long. Just 37km from San Salvador, you can reach this spot by bus or taxi within an hour. If you're a novice surfer, make sure you get an experienced instructor to help you tackle the waves, as they can be intimidating.
For a calmer stretch of the Pacific, head up to Playa Los Cóbanos. A major coral formation makes this a great spot for diving. Be warned: a basic grasp of Spanish would be an advantage when staying here.
Simple and beautiful, Ambergris Caye can be found off the northern coast of Belize, dropped in the Caribbean Sea. On the south of the island, high-end resorts are rapidly beginning to pop up. However, for the moment, it is not difficult to find a solitary slice of paradise. The best beaches can be found to the north of the island. Here you'll find some of the most enticing white sand, palm trees and temperate waters in the Caribbean.
If you're interested in diving, this is the place for you. The Belize Barrier Reef lies about half a mile off the windward side of the island, and is the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Visibility is usually very good, making this one of the best places to swim with whale sharks, dolphins, manatees and turtles.