JANUARY 9, 2006

Online Extra: Retreats Beyond Wilma's Reach
While Mexican tourist spots hustle to repair storm damage, you can head to one of its southern neighbors for fun and sun

Cancún and Cozumel got pounded by Hurricane Wilma and are still struggling to reopen enough businesses to accommodate the millions of tourists that flock to the area every winter. But don't let that spoil your winter getaway plans. Mexico's lesser-visited neighbors to the south -- particularly Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras -- offer sandy beaches, palm trees, surfing, diving, and snorkeling to rival the best of what Mexico and other Caribbean hot spots offer. In fact, the world's second-largest barrier reef stretches from Cancún to Honduras. Like Mexico, these destinations also represent good value and, in most cases, lie just a convenient flight away from the U.S. PUDDLE JUMPING. The region is teeming with wildlife, volcanoes, and lush vegetation, and features ruins left behind by the Mayans who ruled the area hundreds of years ago. From Belize's cays -- a cluster of tiny islands -- to Panama's rain forests, the area has something for everyone. Getting there is relatively easy. You'll find direct flights into major cities, such as Panama City and the Costa Rican capital of San José. But the trip might call for additional short flights to reach your final destination (driving can be a bumpy and arduous proposition). Many travel sites and agents offer tours and package deals to Central American resort properties. Check with your travel agent about any visa requirements needed for some Central American countries, such as Honduras. Then, relax and enjoy the "pura vida."

By Amy Cortese