Certainly a major concern of vacationers headed for Central America is their personal security. The region is magnificently scenic and has a rich Indian and Spanish colonial heritage, but the reports of political strife and bloodshed in recent years have been anything but reassuring.

Peace initiatives are underway, but for the present, how safe is Central America for travelers from the United States?

It's a question that can't be answered easily -- in large part because of the region's diversity. The big trouble spots of late have been Nicaragua and El Salvador, while neighboring Costa Rica and Belize -- formerly British Honduras -- generally have been free of such political turmoil. Guatemala and Honduras, after some unsettled times, are essentially peaceful these days, although for the time being caution is still in order in border areas.

An important source of information about potential problem areas for tourists is the State Department, which regularly issues travel advisories spotlighting foreign destinations where Americans may encounter difficulties or even danger. Advisories are now in effect for four countries in the region -- Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama -- and a stronger "travel warning" has been issued for El Salvador.

Nevertheless, all these countries are open to Americans, and Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala are actively courting tourists with quite inexpensive vacation packages. Eastern Airlines and Pan Am operate regular schedules to Central America, as do individual national carriers. Eastern serves Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama, and Pan Am flies to Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama. An increasing number of cruise ships are calling at Central American ports on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Sightseers looking for a worry-free holiday will probably want to stick to amiable Costa Rica. Belize, a languid tropical outpost, offers an exotic atmosphere from an earlier era. For scenery and culture, Guatemala is perhaps the most interesting and varied of the Central American nations. Honduras may appeal more to the self-reliant traveler, but the country has invested a great deal of money in the Bay Islands resorts to attract scuba divers, snorkelers and other beach vacation enthusiasts. At least for the time being, Nicaragua, Panama and especially El Salvador may seem inviting only to travelers with a strong interest in political developments in these countries.

Although "Central America" is the accepted term to describe the 1,150-mile-long, 50- to 250-mile-wide isthmus that connects North and South America, not everyone agrees on what countries should be called Central American.

North Americans tend to include the seven neighbor nations strung out between Mexico and Colombia: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama. Some geographers add southern Mexico to this list. However, on the isthmus itself only the peoples of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica are considered Central Americans -- and for good historical reasons.

The five republics proclaimed their independence from Spain in unison in 1821, and they initially attempted a united Central American federation. Although the union quickly broke apart, the five have joined at times in the years since in a common market and other cooperative endeavors. The current Central American peace plan involves the same five. (It is too early to tell what impact the peace plan will have toward improving safe travel conditions in the region.)

Belize was not a member of the early federation because it achieved its full independence from Britain only in 1981. Its principal language is English -- while Spanish is spoken elsewhere on the isthmus -- and its ties historically are closer to the formerly British island nations of the Caribbean. Panama opted not to join the federation in 1821, linking itself instead to Colombia to the south. It became a separate nation in 1903 with the help of the United States, which was intent on building the Panama Canal, and generally has stayed aloof from regional organizations.

If you agree to the number seven for the sake of convenience, the combined nations of Central America offer the adventurous traveler an inviting combination of sophisticated cities, impressive Mayan ruins, inexpensive beach resorts, superb snorkeling, the Panama Canal, wildlife viewing, great birdwatching, colorful village markets and beautiful mountainscapes. Approached with discretion, of course.

There still are danger spots in Central America, and travelers should pay heed to -- or at least be aware of -- the State Department advisories and any cautions that individual Central American tourism offices may offer. Generally, the advice is to stick to the standard tourist paths. If you want to explore outlying areas in the troubled countries, check first with local authorities and the U.S. Embassy for any security precautions you should take.

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs takes the position that it will provide travelers with information that may affect their safety abroad. It is up to the travelers to decide whether they want to go.

As of early October, there were travel advisories for the following Central American nations:

El Salvador: "Exercise extreme caution," recommends the State Department in a travel warning issued July 31. "Although it does not appear that private U.S. citizens are being singled out for attack, the threat of terrorist activity exists in all areas of the country."

The warning advises travelers to arrive by air, not road, and on a flight that allows them to clear customs by 6 p.m. "Overland travel after dusk is dangerous and should be avoided," it says, and "travelers should be aware of indiscriminately placed guerrilla land mines in rural areas."

Nicaragua: "Extreme caution" is urged in a travel advisory issued April 25. "The ongoing hostilities between the Sandinista government and the armed resistance continue to pose dangers for American travelers."

Furthermore, it says, "the poor relations between Nicaragua and the United States complicate the efforts of the U.S. Embassy in Managua to provide consular services to American tourists."

It advises travelers to arrive by air at Sandino International Airport in Managua because "overland travel is hazardous in many regions of the country."

Panama: In a Sept. 9 travel advisory, the State Department temporarily recommends that U.S. citizens planning a trip to Panama postpone nonessential travel for the present, due to "unsettled conditions and sporadic incidents of violence."

If travel is necessary, Americans are advised to "exercise caution," especially in Panama City and other urban areas. "Large public gatherings should be avoided."

Honduras: For Honduras (and Guatemala, which follows) the security picture is brighter. Except for areas bordering Nicaragua and El Salvador, says a travel advisory issued Sept. 3, "travel throughout Honduras is safe from a security standpoint and is essentially normal."

Travelers who arrive by air, it says, "have not encountered any difficulties," although those coming by road have encountered problems. Travel by road between Nicaragua and Honduras, for example, is "uncertain and potentially hazardous."

The advisory notes that even possession of a Honduran visa does not guarantee admission to Honduras at the border crossing. "Immigration authorities at the border have the right to exclude foreigners with valid visas and have done so."

And because Honduran officers have discovered arms, messages and money being carried by foreigners from Nicaragua to guerilla groups elsewhere in Central America, it says, "travelers can expect a lengthy, meticulous search of their vehicles and belongings."

Guatemala: Since 1982, says the latest travel advisory dated May 26, 1986, "the general security situation in Guatemala has steadily improved, and major tourist centers -- including Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, Panajachel on Lake Atitla'n and the Mayan ruins at Tikal -- have been without significant incident."

However, it points out that "encounters between Guatemalan security forces and insurgents persist in several areas near the Guatemala-Mexico border," and it advises that "intercity road travel at night throughout Guatemala is discouraged."

The advisories described above provide additional details for each country on specific trouble areas and danger-prone roads to be avoided, and they list any special visa requirements or other restrictions on normal travel.

For example, the Honduras advisory notes that Honduran customs officials will confiscate any Sandinista literature a traveler may attempt to bring into the country. The Nicaragua advisory warns that "fatigues or military-style clothing worn anywhere in Nicaragua may be confiscated."

No advisories are in effect for Costa Rica and Belize.

Since the political situation in Central America, as elsewhere in the world, can change quickly, travelers contemplating a trip to those Central American nations where security has been a big problem should check with the State Department's Citizens Emergency Center for the latest advisory. The phone number in Washington is 647-5225.

Foreign tourism officials don't always agree with what the State Department reports, so you might want to balance the travel advisories by questioning national tourism offices or embassies about security conditions in their country. As with travel anywhere, you also can seek advice from travel agents familiar with the places you want to visit, the tour desks of airlines flying there and other travelers who have recently returned.

As is the case with any less-developed nation, travelers should take heed of medical precautions when touring Central America.

Not surprisingly, the most common problem experienced by American travelers is diarrhea caused by bad food or water, according to Dr. Phillip Pierce, who heads Georgetown University's International Health Services Clinic. The clinic is one of at least three travel-related health clinics in the Washington area. For a fee, it provides details about potential health hazards abroad -- on a country-by-country basis -- and it offers the necessary immunizations.

To have at least a chance of avoiding diarrhea in Central America, "stay away from street vendors," says Pierce, and make sure the food at the restaurant where you dine "is served piping hot."

In major cities, the water "probably is all right," he says, but to be on the safe side consider drinking bottled water or bottled beverages such as soft drinks and beer. Outside urban areas, stick to bottled water or drinks.

Depending on your itinerary -- but especially if you explore rural areas -- hepatitis is a danger and a gamma globulin injection may be recommended. Pierce also suggests a polio booster shot for adults headed for rural areas, and malaria preventive measures for certain outlying regions. A tetanus booster also may be necessary. Vaccination against yellow fever is necessary only for the rarely toured province of Darie'n in Panama.

Pierce strongly urges travelers to Central America to carry a good insect repellent.

For more information about health precautions necessary for your itinerary, consult your private physician or one of these clinics by appointment:

International Health Services Clinic, Georgetown University School of Medicine, 625-7379.

Travelers Clinic, George Washington University Medical Center, 994-8466.

Traveler's Medical Service, 2141 K St. NW, 466-8109.

If you are looking for company on a venture into Central America, here is a sample of the variety of cruises and tour packages available:

Guatemalan sampler: Seven days and six nights in Guatemala that include guided sightseeing trips to Antigua, Lake Atitla'n and the Indian market at Chichicastenango. Departures every Saturday from New York. The price, with air fare from New York, is $840 per person (double occupancy), which includes six nights' lodging, most meals and guide service. For information: South American Fiesta, 31 Madeline Rd., Ridge, N.Y. 11961, (516) 924-6200 or (800) 334-3782.

Mayan temple cruises: On two voyages this spring, the 600-passenger Stella Solaris of Sun Line Cruises will call at ports in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, where the focus will be on exploring Mayan ruins. Mayan experts will be on board for lectures and seminars and to lead shore excursions. Departures from Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 16 and March 26 for 14 days. The price with air fare ranges from $2,870 to $6,020 per person (double occupancy). Contact: Sun Line Cruises, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 315, New York, N.Y. 10020, (800) 468-6400.

Spanish lessons: You can spend a week -- or several weeks -- learning to speak Spanish with a private instructor at the Language Center of Antigua in Guatemala. Classes are held four hours a day, and then you are free to explore. Rates begin at $482 per person a week for accommodations in a Guatemalan home. The price includes air fare from Miami, transfer to Antigua from Guatemala City, three meals a day and laundry. For hotel accommodations, the price is $541, including air fare from Miami, but only breakfast is included. Year-round. For information: Language Center of Antigua, 6489 Burgoyne, Houston, Tex. 77057, (713) 975-1875 or (713) 782-7017.

Parks of Costa Rica: This 21-day exploration of Costa Rica's natural beauty includes a one-day white-water rafting trip and visits to Poas Volcano, the cloud forests of Monteverde and Manuel Antonio Beach Park. Frequent departures in 1988. The inclusive land price is $1,045 per person (double occupancy). Air fare to San Jose is extra. For information: Sobek Expeditions, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222, (209) 736-4524.

For more information about travel to individual countries, consult the following national tourism offices (where available) or embassies:

Belize: Belize has no tourism office in the United States, but the Embassy of Belize will mail out a packet of tourist information. Contact the embassy at 3400 International Dr. NW, Suite 2J, Washington, D.C. 20008, 363-4505.

Costa Rica: Costa Rica National Tourist Bureau, 200 SE First St., Suite 402, Miami, Fla. 33131, (305) 358-2150 or (800) 327-7033.

El Salvador: El Salvador has no tourism office. For information about visas and security conditions, contact the Embassy of El Salvador, 2308 California St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, 265-3480.

Guatemala: Guatemala Tourist Commission, Box 144351, Coral Gables, Fla. 33114-4351, (305) 854-1544.

Honduras: Honduras Information Service, 501 Fifth Ave., Suite 1611, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 490-0766. For a packet of tour information, enclose a large manila envelope (9 by 12 inches), self-addressed and with 90 cents in postage. This office represents hotels and tour operators in Honduras as well as the government tourism ministry. The office can make reservations and other travel arrangements to Honduras.

Nicaragua: Nicaragua has no tourism office. For information about visas and security conditions, contact the Consular Office, Embassy of Nicaragua, 1627 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009, 939-6532 or 939-6534.

Panama: Panama Government Tourist Bureau, 2355 Salzedo St., Suite 201, Coral Gables, Fla. 33134, (305) 442-1892.