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Airports in Central America

From Aeronautical Backwaters to Key Hubs: A Quick Guide to International Airports in Central America

A guide to the bustling main airports in Central America that serve as vital connections, linking travelers from around the world to this vibrant region and beyond.

Central America is well-connected by a network of international airports. Gone are the days of multiple layovers to reach this part of the world. Once considered an aeronautical backwater, Central American airports often serve as vital hubs, connecting travelers from around the world to various countries within the region and elsewhere in Latin America. Panama City, San Salvador, and to a lesser extent, San José are all travel hubs to some extent or another.

In this article, we will explore the main international airports in Central America, highlighting their pre-pandemic passenger numbers, the airlines they serve, and the direct destinations accessible from each airport. Whether you’re arriving on a commercial flight or private jet charter, this guide will give you a better idea about your first port of entry in Central America.

When considering passenger numbers for each airport, we’ve looked at 2019, the last normal year before the pandemic. Some tourism markets still weren’t back to normal in 2021 and 2022, it seems unfair to count these years. However, we’ve included either 2021 or 2022 where possible as a comparison with 2019. Hope that makes sense.

Let’s take a look Central America’s international airports in the order of their 2019 passenger numbers, busiest to least busy:

1. Tocumen Airport (PTY), Panama City, Panama

Tocumen Airport in Panama is by far the busiest airport in the region, the headquarters of Copa Airlines and a hub connecting North, Central, and South America with the Caribbean and Europe. It offers direct flights to just about every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, eliminating the old need for travelers to pass through Miami.

Most North and South American airlines use Tocumen, as well airlines serving Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, and more. Quite simply, Tocumen offers the easiest connections in Central America. In 2019, some 16.8 million passengers passed through Tocumen, with 15.7 million in 2022.

2. Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), Alajuela, Costa Rica

It says something about how much Tocumen has advanced when we tell you that Central America’s second busiest airport receives around a third of its passengers. In 2019, Juan Santamaria received 5.1 million passengers, its busiest year to date. Some 4.6 million passengers passed through SJO in 2022, and 2023 could well beat 2019 as travel to Costa Rica returns with a post-pandemic bang. But it’s still nothing on Tocumen, even though Costa Rica receives far more tourists than Panama. That says much for Tocumen’s status as a transit hub.

That all said, Juan Santamaria receives direct flights from destinations all over the United States and Canada, and also a few Mexican destinations. You can fly direct from SJO to every country in Central America apart from Belize, and also to Colombia, Peru, and some Caribbean destinations. Flights from the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands also fly direct to and from SJO.

3. La Aurora International Airport (GUA), Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala has Central America’s largest economy, biggest population, and biggest city. This contrives to make its airport, for all its faults, Central America’s third-busiest with 3.2 million visitors in 2019 and around 3 million in 2022. La Aurora is an Avianca hub, serving numerous cities in the United States, Colombia, Mexico, Canada, and the other six Central American countries. There’s also a connection to Madrid, Spain.

4. Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL), San Luis Talpa, El Salvador

El Salvador is a tiny country, meaning that it’s international airport offers just as easy access to the coast as it does the capital city of San Salvador. It’s the fourth-busiest airport in the region (now the third), serving some 3.1 million passengers in 2019 and 3.4 million in 2022, the only airport in the region seeing an increase since Covid. A testimony, perhaps, to El Salvador’s growing status as a tourist destination.

Like Tocumen, SAL is a regional hub, although more so for Central America than for Latin America as a whole. Plenty of travelers coming to and from other Central American countries and the United States will pass through SAL. The airport also serves direct flights to/from Mexico, Canada, Colombia, and Spain.

5. Guanacaste Airport (LIR), Liberia, Costa Rica

The multiple award-winning Guanacaste Airport serves the northern province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica, home of most of the beach resorts in that country. Once a small backwater of an airport set in arid scrubland outside the city of Liberia, LIR is now Central America’s fifth-busiest airport with flights from Canada, the United States, and Europe coming in and out on a regular basis.

Guanacaste does not serve any Central or South American destinations. You would need to use SJO if you’re traveling to and from elsewhere in Latin America and then take a domestic flight. This is one of the region’s nicest and most comfortable airports. In 2019, LIR received some 1.5 million passengers and just about beat that number in 2022.

6. Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (MGA), Managua, Nicaragua

Sandino Airport in Managua, Nicaragua is the next airport on our list, the sixth-busiest in Central America, receiving around 1.4 million passengers in 2019, a number which hasn’t changed much year-on-year since the turn of the century, only seeing massive drops during Covid and during the 2018 protests.

MGA Airport serves destinations in the United States, Central America, Cuba, some South American countries, and Mexico.

7. Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport (SAP), San Pedro Sula, Honduras

The busiest airport in Honduras serves the second city of San Pedro Sula, the country’s business and industrial center, rather than the capital city of Tegucigalpa. With its long runway and flat terrain, Ramón Villeda is also considered safer for larger planes than the Tegucigalpa airports – which is why Tegucigalpa no longer has an international airport.

SAP received some 1.1 million passengers in 2019, making it the seventh-busiest airport in Central America. It’s another airport that’s improved its numbers post-pandemic, with 1.2 million passengers passing through in 2022. Direct flight to and from SAP include destinations in the United States, Spain, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.

8. Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (BZE), Belize City, Belize

Philip S.W. Goldson is the international airport in Belize, handling over 500,000 passengers in 2019 and some 370,000 in 2022. The vast majority of flights into Belize come from the United States and Canada. Other international connections include Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

9. Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport (RTB), Roatán, Honduras

Juan Manuel Gálvez serves the Bay Island of Roatán, Honduras. Aside from its status as a domestic hub within Honduras, this airport makes our list because it also serves numerous cities in the United States and Canada, bringing tourists down for Caribbean sunshine and beaches, especially during the northern winter months. There are also direct flights between Roatán and Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

This airport received around 330,000 passengers in 2019. In general, around 23% of all air traffic coming into Honduras comes into RTB.

That concludes our quick guide to the main international airports in Central America

The international airports in Central America play a crucial role in connecting the region to the rest of the world. With their extensive networks of airlines and direct connections to numerous countries, these airports facilitate travel and tourism, contributing to the region’s economic growth.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, most of Central America’s international airports have resumed their role as key transportation hubs, welcoming travelers visiting or in transit through the region.

CA Staff

CA Staff