Weather: Central America

On a global scale, Central America might seem to be little more than a thread of land connecting the much larger fabrics of North and South America. Yet clinging to this thread is a spectacular array of landforms, cultures and micro-climates. As you'd expect for a region lying wholly between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator, temperatures never drop far below the comfort zone, except at high altitude. Most of Central America sees a fairly well-marked dry season from November through April: sunshine is the rule, and rains may be absent for weeks (locals often call this period “summer”). By contrast, from May to October, torrential thunderstorms are scattered across the land almost every afternoon. Knowing this much gives you a head start on Central American weather, but there is still much to learn. Even the experts have yet to decipher all the forces at play behind well-known aspects of regional climate, such as the canicula  – not to mention the local quirks that can make one range of hills twice as wet as the next.

Rainfall is the biggest weather concern here. It may virtually disappear during a drought or arrive in massive amounts during a hurricane. El Nino tends to pinch off the summer rains across a big portion of Central America, leaving crops parched and forests vulnerable to fire. La Nina has the opposite effect, usually producing a higher frequency of garden-variety rains as well as Caribbean hurricanes. Since hurricanes typically move with a westward component while in the tropics, they virtually never strike the Pacific coast head on However, the Pacific slopes are equally – or more – at risk of flooding than towns facing the Caribbean, because a hurricane approaching from the east can pull Pacific moisture up and into the mountains. In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch slid from the Caribbean into the north coast of Honduras and wrung out colossal amounts of rain – as much as 900mm/35in – across the country's highlands. Mitch's winds had weakened dramatically by the time it made landfall, but three days of incessant rains produced catastrophic flooding and mudslides that killed more than 11,000 people across the region (most of them on the Pacific side) and devastated the Honduran economy.

The islands arcing around the north and east sides of the Caribbean sweat out a few hurricane scares of their own each year, but otherwise their climates are enviably placid. Cuba and the Bahamas are close enough to North America to get a few distinct cold fronts each winter. Elsewhere, island residents, like those throughout much of Central America, are most affected by the ebb and flow of wet and dry seasons, with little in the way of temperature leaps or tumbles to upset the equanimity.