Top 10 for 2013: Caribbean and Central America

From awe-inspiring volcanic landscapes to secluded private islands, the Caribbean and Central America is a region brimming with undiscovered delights. Whether it's night kayaking in Puerto Rico or poolside bars in Belize, Aztec ruins in Mexico city or smoky salsa clubs in Havana, there's something here to please every wanderluster. Read on for the top ten experiences of 2013...

Words: David Whitley

  • Montserrat

    This tiny slice of old-style unresorty Caribbean is now an easy ferry ride away from Antigua, with the volcano-ravaged landscape in the southern half of the island being the main attraction. Four-wheel driving through ash-choked valleys and up hills lets you look out on the buried capital city of Plymouth – a modern day Pompeii. Less exciting, but more charming is the inhabited half of the island, where villages are slowly being built where goats once roamed and strangers are welcomed into ramshackle local bars like old friends.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Puerto Rico

    With the likes of Alexa Chung and Nick Grimshaw visiting recently, Puerto Rico is pulling in hip points. But it’s also the ideal Caribbean destination for those who want more than just beaches. Colourful colonial is the style in rum bar-packed and raucous Old San Juan, while the rest of the island offers night kayaking on bioluminescent bays and rock-up roadside shacks selling the best roasted pork you’ll ever sink your teeth into. In November, Puerto Rico voted to become the 51st American state – it’s time to get in there before it fully Americanises.

    Picture credit: Puerto Rico Tourism Company

  • Mexico City

    Few cities have a bigger divide between perception and reality than Mexico City. Forget tales of crime and squalor – the Mexican capital is an adventurer's paradise. Stonking, frenetic nightlife is balanced by visits to hugely impressive Aztec ruins, the museums are generally excellent and the arts scene is thriving. Numerous new hotel luxury openings and Aeromexico’s new direct route from Heathrow add to the appeal of perhaps the world’s most unfairly maligned city.

    Picture credit: CPTM Mexico Tourism Board Ricardo Espinosa reo

  • Sint Maarten/ St Marten

    It’s one tiny island, but it’s split between two countries. The French half – St Marten - is more demure, with plush beach resorts that have a relaxed Caribbean take on the St Tropez vibe. The Dutch half – Sint Maarten - is much rowdier. Capital Philipsburg is all party bars and duty free shops, while you can also brave Maho Beach, which is arguably the freakiest in the world – jet planes skim over it as they come into land at the airport just behind the sand.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Caye Caulker, Belize

    Long a backpacker hangout, with travellers staying in bright clapboard guesthouses, Caye Caulker is steadily getting a few more upmarket accommodation options. The beaches are scrappy to non-existent – but that saves it from being just another resort island. It’s the sort of place where you go out snorkelling and swimming with manatees by day, then chill in a bar/pool hybrid by night. It’s blissful, big smile country.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Guadeloupe

    Cosy Sunday night detective drama Death In Paradise is effectively one big advert for Guadeloupe – the island it’s shot on. This French outpost is the West Indies with Gallic grace – that means arguably the best food in the region and a sophistication beyond the coconut clichés. The bow-tie shaped island is what you make it though – be it beachside cappuccino-supping in Ste Anne, diving to the underwater Jack Cousteau Statue or driving through jungles and sugar cane plantations.

    Picture credit: John-Marc LECERF for the Guadeloupe Island Tourism Board

  • St Vincent and the Grenadines

    St Vincent gets a new airport later in the year, which should open it up to long haul flights. The main island – often ignored in favour of luxury outposts such as Mustique – is seeing more resorts open up. But if a stress-busting escape is required, Petit St Vincent is the place to truly lose touch with the outside world – its no phones, no internet, no TVs, no room keys policy is all about keeping reality out.

    Picture credit: Petit St Vincent

  • Havana, Cuba

    Few places are changing as quickly as Cuba. With the US gradually easing travel restrictions and trading sanctions, it won’t be long before the sweep of Americanisation fully hits Havana. So if you want to dip into the occasionally troubled but defiantly different world of vintage cars, crumbling old-school buildings and smoky salsa clubs, now is the time to do it. It’s very different from what it was five years ago, and the changes in the next five years promise to be equally dramatic.

    Picture credit: Jon Baines

  • Nicaragua

    For a brilliant all-rounder that packs in plenty of Latino spirit whilst remaining pleasingly cheap on the ground, Nicaragua is the region’s unheralded star. It’s got swoony colonial buildings in good-looking Granada, arts and nightlife in feisty León, a volcano and rainforest packed interior for explorers, and dreamy beaches for those preferring to kick back on a tiny islet with a good book. Go before it gets pricy…

    Picture credit: Vapues Tours

  • Grenada

    Few islands so small pack as much in as Grenada. It’s somewhere that does the whole lie back on the beach thing – and white sand Grand Anse Beach is the favourite for that. But it also has a rustic charm once you get beyond the polished resorts – think mountainside mechanic shops that double as daytime drinking dens, ramshackle rum factories and low-tech nutmeg plantations. Oh, and in the north of the island, it’s possible to watch turtles crawling up the beach to lay their eggs before struggling back into the sea. Awww factor? About a zillion.

    Picture credit: Grenada Board of Tourism