ACCORDING TO the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Zika virus has been confirmed in Mexico and all of Central America.
These countries are currently listed at alert level 2 which means that travelers should practice enhanced mosquito-bite precautions, particularly at-risk groups like pregnant women or couples planning a pregnancy. But this doesn’t mean that the region is totally out of bounds. The Zika-carrying mosquito isn’t found at altitudes above 6,500 feet, which lowers the risk of transmission. However, note that since the virus can also be transmitted sexually, Zika warnings apply to entire countries regardless of altitude.
Where is the Zika virus in Mexico?
According to public health officials, mosquitoes are transmitting Zika to humans in Mexico. The country is at alert level 2, but the travel restrictions only apply to regions below 6,500 feet. According to the CDC, “If your trip is limited entirely to areas above 6,500 feet, there is minimal risk of getting Zika from a mosquito.”
The bad news is that many of Mexico’s most popular destinations are well under that level.
Cancun is a major tourist destination on the Yucatan peninsula, with turquoise waters and low-priced package vacations. Since it is located at sea level, Zika is present in Cancun and you should protect yourself against mosquito bites.
Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, is another popular beach vacation spot. Despite its dry climate, the area is at sea level which means that Zika is a risk.
On the Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta attracts visitors with its long stretches of white sand and attractive town backed by mountains. Once again, the low altitude means that Zika-carrying mosquitoes are present, so take precautions against bites.
Popular towns above 6,500 feet with minimal risk of Zika include Mexico City and Puebla. If you’re happy to trade a beach vacation for a more cultural experience these places could provide Zika-free alternatives.
You could also consider San Cristóbal de las Casas or Guanajuato, although you will need to travel at lower altitudes in order to reach them.
Zika in Belize
Belize is known for its stunning barrier reef, the second largest in the world, as well as Mayan ruins, jungles, caves, and waterfalls. An English-speaking country with a Caribbean feel, it attracts visitors in search of sun and sea and has been popular for honeymoons and babymoons.
The Zika virus has been confirmed in Belize. The country is listed at alert level 2 by the CDC, which means that higher-risk groups should avoid traveling here, and other visitors need to take enhanced precautions, such as protecting themselves from mosquito bites and practicing safe sex.
Zika in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a peaceful country (it has no army!) whose main draw is ecotourism. Its rainforests, cloud forests, waterfalls, volcanoes, and beaches, in addition to a remarkable biodiversity, have been attracting expats and vacationers in search of pura vida for decades. It’s also popular with honeymooners.
Zika-carrying mosquitoes are present in Costa Rica, and the country is currently at Zika-alert level 2 like the rest of the region.
Zika in Panama
With long coasts and many islands along both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Panama has been gaining popularity in recent years. Coffee plantations, ecotourism, native cultures, black- and white-sand beaches, and of course the Panama Canal, are popular attractions.
But as with the rest of Central America, Zika has been confirmed in Panama so pregnant women, and those planning to be, should look elsewhere for now.
Zika in Guatemala
Unlike its neighbors, Guatemala is not known for its beaches but it offers a traditional culture, beautiful handicrafts (especially textiles), the colonial jewel of Antigua, and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. It is also one of the best and most affordable places in the world to learn Spanish.
Public health authorities have reported that mosquitoes are transmitting the Zika virus to people in Guatemala and the country is at Zika alert level 2.
Parts of Guatemala’s western highlands (such as the city of Quetzaltenango) are above 6,500 feet, which means a lower risk of Zika transmission. To get there you’ll need to travel at lower altitudes but this part of the country could be an option for travelers wanting to minimize their risk of contracting the disease.
Zika in Nicaragua
Cheaper than Panama and Costa Rica, Nicaragua has been attracting clued-in travelers for several years with its long undeveloped Pacific sand beaches, and the remote Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast. A couple of splendid colonial cities, impressive volcanoes, and the largest lake in Central America round off its appeal.
Unfortunately, Zika is present in Nicaragua and, since the country has no areas above 6,500 feet, pregnant women and babymooners should avoid the country for now.
Zika-free alternatives to Central America
If the risks seem too great but you’re desperate for a short-haul escape, all is not lost! There are a handful of Zika-free Caribbean islands that might make a promising alternative to Central America, especially for higher-risk travelers.
All information was correct at time of publication but travelers should be sure to check the latest CDC Zika advisories before booking.