While not officially a continent, Central America is a singular region of the world, home to a diverse range of cultures and stunning natural scenery. It also serves as a critical navigational point thanks to the Panama Canal. More than 44,000,000 people call Central America home, according to World Population Review. So where do those residents live? Here are the 10 most populous cities in Central America, according to 2015 census data. Note that the number represent the city proper versus the metro region.
10. San Miguel, El Salvador
San Miguel is El Salvador’s second-largest city and a popular tourist attraction. It’s located near the Chaparrastique volcano and is often used as a jumping-off point for travelers heading toward the beaches lining the Pacific Ocean. The city was founded in 1530 and is a great place to learn about El Salvador’s colonial-era history. Popular attractions in San Miguel include the Quelepa Ruins, Museo Regional de Oriente, and the Teatro Nacional de San Miguel.
9. Leon, Nicaragua
Leon is one of two cities that served as the original capitals of Nicaragua (the other being Granada). Dating back to the early 1500s, it is one of the oldest Spanish-founded cities in the Americas. But while Granada is best known as a tiny Nicaraguan city with a large North American expat population, Leon is the place to go for culture, art, and authentic cuisine.
8. Santa Ana, El Salvador
Heading back to El Salvador, a stop in Santa Ana is a must. Though El Salvador isn’t high on the list of travels for some people, Santa Ana is considered one of the safest places in the nation. If you’re particularly adventurous and are planning to travel through Santa Ana, check out the ancient Mayan ruins — the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the country — or stroll through the main square and soak up the local vibes.
7. San José, Costa Rica
Costa Rica has been a popular haunt for American and Canadian expats for years. The low cost of living and picturesque surroundings make it easy to see the allure. San José is the capital of Costa Rica and is full of plenty of things to keep you occupied whether you visit for a few days or decide to set up shop. In particular, if you’re an animal lover, be sure to stop by the sloth sanctuary and let your heart melt from all the cuteness.
6. Panama City, Panama
The capital of Panama overlooks the Panama Canal. Thanks to its modern skyscrapers, you might feel more like you’re in a coastal Floridian city than in Central America. What you’ll notice immediately is that countless cultures combine in this city to create a unique metropolitan vibe. You'll also notice the breathtaking tropical backdrop. The city is full of historic attractions such as museums, theaters, and preserved districts that let you step back in time.
5. San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Honduras makes it onto the top 10 list twice (see the top entry below). The first entry is San Pedro Sula, located in the northwest part of the country. While the city has garnered a less-than-flattering reputation and tourism isn't highly recommended, it does boast a fascinating history that dates back to Spanish colonial times. Today, it's a bustling industrial center, and its natural surroundings feature prime farm land, producing corn, bananas, sweet potatoes, and more.
4. San Salvador, El Salvador
We return to El Salvador, this time to the nation’s capital. San Salvador sits in a valley surrounded by volcanoes, making it a picturesque stop if you’re traveling through Central America. Travelers are encouraged to make San Salvador their primary base when traveling in the country because it’s centrally located between the beach and the mountains. Popular attractions include Palacio Nacional, Museo de Arte de El Salvador, and the Jardín Botánico La Laguna.
3. Guatemala City, Guatemala
As you might expect, Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala. The city is so large that it’s divided into zones and requires many trips (or one very long vacation) to see and do everything it has to offer. With as many as 21 zones, there truly is something for everyone here. But be aware that some zones don’t permit tourists. This is for their protection; any visitor to Guatemala City should be careful. But thoughtful planning and traveling can reveal Guatemala City's beautiful art, historic architecture, and museums.
2. Managua, Nicaragua
Managua is not only the capital of Nicaragua but also one of the most popular destinations in the nation. Navigating the city can be challenging since it doesn’t have a traditional city center to serve as an orientation point, but that can make exploring all the more intriguing. History, gastronomy, and vibrant nightlife combine to create an unforgettable experience.
1. Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Finally, we round out this list with Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Tegucigalpa is another city where tourists should be careful and considerate, but as the most populous city in Central America, it is brimming with culture and history. Famous landmarks include Christ at El Picacho Statue, the Museum for National Identity, and La Tigra National Park.