Central America is a wonderful slew of jungles, surf beaches, (tequila) and volcanoes. This part of the world attracts a certain kind of vagrant and broke backpacker – so you’re sure to fit right in. 😉
Honestly, I came to consider this part of the world my second home and I know you won’t have to spend long here to feel the same. There’s just something rather special about these lands! Part of it is of course the unrivalled beauty of the jungles and the beaches; part of it is all the hammock chilling you get to do.
But truly, it’s the people. If you travel slowly while backpacking Central America, you’ll find yourself on crazy side quests with people that very quickly become your new friend for life. One minute you’ve stopped for tacos and the next minute you’re chasing down Rodrigo’s pet chicken and singing karaoke in a nearby bar to celebrate!
There’s a lot of life, a lot of fiesta, and a lot of fun to be had – all on a nice, wallet friendly budget – while backpacking Central America. Vamos – let’s talk about how to get the most out of backpacking Central America!
Why Go Backpacking in Central America?
Backpacking Central America is a wild romp through both chaos and a long chill-out session. It lends itself to some incredible overland journeys and rounding out your own manifesto through travel. Because if you really get into learning Spanish here, you’ll suddenly find a whole new world of locals and fellow artisan backpackers opens up to you!
There are markets full of amber, beaches to sell your jewellery at (Central America is actually a good place to have a backpacker hustle) and of course, there is so much delicious food. I’m talking fried platanos, tacos, and ceviche whenever you’re on the coast. And plus, a party is never too far away. 😉
Then there’s the fact that Central America is a cheap place to travel in. Backpacking Central America is easy on the wallet for those on a grown-up gap year or another type of time-constrained trip. But for the long term vagabond who knows how to stretch every last dollar and doesn’t mind camping on beaches – man… Central America is a dreamy place for you!
And when you do want to splurge on some once in a lifetime experiences, well the region delivers them in spades! Learning to SCUBA dive, or learning to free dive, are two of the more popular ones. Although some epic trekking, sky diving, and paragliding are all quite popular here as well!
Now, not everyone is ready to throw themselves off a cliff in the name of a bucket list experience! And that’s ok! Central America hears you and instead offers up peaceful yoga retreats in the mountains or lazy beach days in the sunshine. Plus, because the countries that comprise this region are small (with the exception of Mexico) you can spend less time physically travelling and more time actually exploring – or chilling!
Honestly, Central America has the whole package: the people, the parties, the paradisiacal landscapes. Now let’s take a look at some of your options for exploring this fantastic part of the world.
Best Itineraries for Backpacking Central America
Depending on your time frame, there is a wide range of places to begin and end your backpacking trip. Choosing a general Central America backpacking route and itinerary that works for you will help in some of the basic planning on your journey.
One of the reasons I love backpacking in Central America is the ability to be spontaneous. The region thrives on a certain degree of chaos! Best of all, the distances in Central America are not as daunting as in other parts of the world, so it’s a good choice for backpackers short on time.
Besides, I don’t see much point in rushing around the countries. You might as well slow down, use your phone less, and enjoy the ride!
Whether you are looking for a 2-week Central America itinerary or a 2+ month travel odyssey, I’ve got you covered amigos! Let’s dive in a explore some of the tried and true Central America backpacking routes I have enjoyed.
2-week Travel Itinerary for Central America: Mexico to Guatemala
This 2 week Central America backpacking itinerary starts on the opposite end of the region. The cheapest flights into Central America usually fly into Cancún, Mexico. Find somewhere to stay in Cancun and leave the next day – it’s no secret I STRONGLY dislike Cancun!
A few hours south, however, check out the amazing cenotes and beaches of Tulum. Now onwards to Chiapas! Chiapas is one of Mexico’s most fascinating regions. The food alone makes it worth the visit, although the mix of cultures and the drop-dead gorgeous landscapes will compete for your attention, too. I recommend spending a few days in San Crístobal de las Casas exploring before you head to Guatemala.
Guatemala is a whole other fascinating country. Backpacking Guatemala is truly a special experience. It’s here that I accidentally spent six months falling in love with the country. Some of the best trekking in Central America can be found in Guatemala. It also boasts steamy lush jungles with the most impressive Mayan ruins in the region. Lake Atitlan has, dare I say, spiritual energy that hasn’t been quashed by the many tourists that call it home.
And rounding out your taste for Central America you can stop in at one of the many awesome places to stay in Antigua – one of the most beautiful cities filled with the most delicious food in the world. Honestly, you’ll spend two weeks in Central America and be hungry to explore more!
4-week Travel Itinerary for Central America: Guatemala to Costa Rica
Have a month to explore? Perfect. This route has you starting off in Guatemala. Of course, you could start in Costa Rica as well. In my opinion, it is better to save it for the end!
I recommend spending at least ten days in Guatemala before heading south. You have definitely go to visit the ruins in Tikal – and make sure to stay in Flores, the town I fell in love with! Check out the incredible pools at Semuc Champey. Now if you bus back across to find things to do in Lake Atitlan, you can get in your yoga fix while also learning deeply from the Mayan culture still strongly felt here.
Next up, walk to the cobblestone streets of the beautiful colonial city Antigua. This is all before you get out of Guatemala – there is truly so much to do in Guate!
El Salvador is a country that is often skipped over entirely – and what a mistake that is! While backpacking El Salvador certainly is a bit lighter on the typical tourist things, I think the surfing and the epic street food makes it a worthy stop on your Central American itinerary. You won’t run into the safety problems you might think you would – especially if you stick to the epic beaches.
The killer beaches do not stop when you enter Nicaragua via Honduras. You could detour and explore Honduras while you’re here, but if you’re somewhat limited by time – my dudes, you’ve got to hit those surf beaches in Nicaragua. Playa Popoyo has some of the most consistent surf but less popular beaches on the way down are well worth checking out!
Then there is Costa Rica. The cherry on top of your Central American pie. A big beautiful world of adventure backpacking awaits you when you arrive in the land of Pura Vida. The surfers will want to stick to the Pacific Coast. Mal Pais and Montezuma are classic Costa Rican surf towns that suck you in indefinitely!
And the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica would be the perfect end to your epic Central America adventure – nothing but good vibes out here.
6-week Travel Itinerary for Central America: Mexico to Panama
If you have 6 weeks or more then you can see the whole damn region. A trip to Honduras’ Bay Islands for some SCUBA diving is totally worth the effort. The Bay Islands are one of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI certification. Annddd, you could also learn to freedive aka underwater meditation!
Look, if you do a bunch of diving on top of exploring the Yucatan and best beaches in Mexico and even doing some sightseeing in Belize and Guatemala, you’ll pretty quickly run out of time!
This 6-week itinerary is the whole enchilada as they say – it’d ideally be better off done with a lot more time up your sleeve. Still, if you head from Utila and the Bay of Islands through the jungle of Honduras you can have an awesome time trekking and exploring Mayan ruins such as the trails through Parque Nacional Montaña de Comayagua.
From there, you can cross to the Pacific side of Nicaragua and surf your way down the coast into Costa Rica and beyond. You have options in terms of the order of everything to see in this route, but it would work well to duck into Panama and hike in Bouquet, before returning to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
Settling into the Caribbean vibe, you can carry on back up the Nicaraguan coast and fit in some more snorkelling and diving!
I found a good balance between trekking, diving, visiting ruins, chilling out, and learning a travel language – Spanish. If you do too much of either of those things you can lose appreciation for how special they are. I found it best to settle into a place for at least a few days before hopping on a bus out of town.
Best Places to Visit in Central America – Country Breakdowns
There are eight countries that make up the region of Central America and each one is worthy of exploration! Backpacking Central America offers up the opportunity to experience a vast array of landscapes, cultures, food, and activities. Belize, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico are more expensive than the other countries. El Salvador and Honduras are probably the least visited countries on the list – and yet have some of the best surfing and hiking in the region respectively!
If you are looking to get off the beaten track and away from the gringo trail, it is possible (and easy) in all of the Central American countries. This is especially true in Honduras and the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, where few backpackers go. Depending on the time you have, and more importantly your interests, your options of where to go backpacking in Central America are almost limitless.
Mexico is certainly more in Northern America geographically – but culturally? Nah mate, Central American all the way! It is a huge country with incredible diversity. There are ice-capped mountains, steamy jungles, bustling metropolises, and chilled out beaches.
The majority of people on a Central American backpacking route tend to stick to the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas regions. That said, there is much much more to Mexico than those two places. One could spend a lifetime backpacking Mexico and not see all of it. I’d say if you’re short on time, these two regions are some of the richest in landscapes and things to do – but if you have longer, you should explore Mexico more deeply!
Tulum makes for a good base to explore all of the natural and historical treasures of the Yucatan. Seriously, get yourself to the mind-boggling cenotes for a swim and learn to snorkel in epic cave systems. There is some excellent SCUBA diving to be had in Mexico too, but it will be more expensive than in Honduras.
Chiapas is one of my favourite parts of Mexico. There is plenty of history, incredible people, and natural wonders to keep you busy for as long as you want. Once you’ve had your fill of epic street food, you can ply through the markets for amber and other gemstones, and to top it all off you can go hiking through the highlands. Chiapas really has it all!
An alternative to flying into Cancun is to fly to Mexico City. From there, you can easily catch long-distance buses to other parts of the country or Guatemala. Take the opportunity to explore Mexico city a bit while you’re there though. And the longer you have to spend in Mexico, the longer you should spend in Mexico. She’s a special one for sure!
What to Know Before Visiting Mexico
- Don’t miss out on…Holbox. This car-free island is one of the last true bastions of the backpacker. Get here before it’s taken over by the resorts. Find an epic place to stay in Holbox and kick back.
- You know what’s overrated…all of those beach resort towns. Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cabo San Lucas…these aren’t the real Mexico.
- The coolest hostel is…Casa Angel Youth Hostel (Oaxaca City) – This place is pretty dope. Clean, friendly, and great atmosphere. Ticks every box when it comes to hostel life!
- The best food is found in…Oaxaca. Oaxaca is very well-known for its delicious moles and for being the birthplace of mezcal aka the original tequila.
The paradise of Belize is a country I think of as the black sheep of Central America. For one, English is the official language. Spanish is increasingly spoken as you get closer to the Guatemala border. Belizean Creole is commonly spoken on the coast.
In truth, a well planned Belize itinerary is a great addition to any Central American backpacking trip.
Belize is home to some of the best SCUBA diving opportunities anywhere in the North or South American continents. The outlying reefs off of the coast are a part of the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world! Yeah eat your heart our Great Barrier Reef – these ones aren’t bleached either!
There are also some terrific Mayan sites inland from the coast. The ruins at Caracol are some of the finest anywhere in Central America.
Whilst backpacking Belize, if you are not a vegetarian – and fuck it even if you are – you absolutely must eat lobster on one of the islands. This beautiful, fresh seafood delight will have a little party on your taste buds for less than half the price of the States. Mmmmmm, you delicious little langouste – I do miss you!
What to Know Before Visiting Belize
- Don’t miss out on…exploring some of the offbeat Mayan Ruin sites. For some reason, Belize is often overlooked when it comes to Mayan culture.
- You know what’s overrated…going snorkeling at The Great Blue Hole. It is costly to get out there and to really see the marine life; you need to dive. So by all means, go diving out there! But don’t fall for the snorkelling package.
- The coolest hostel is…Anda Di Hows Hostel (Palencia) – A true paradise, right on the beach. Solid bar and ample hammock space. I mean, yeahhhhh, that’s what I want.
- The best food is found in…Caye Caulker has some of the best lobster in the world – with decent prices too!
Guatemala is hands down one of the most dynamic and exciting countries I have ever backpacked. In fact, I loved it so much that I ended up living in Flores (near Tikal) for six months! The country is so rich in amazing things to experience. You can try artisanal coffee, chow down on the world’s best tamales (shh don’t tell Mexico!) and fit in some truly extraordinary hiking of volcanoes and jungles.
Plus, the Mayan cultures are still very strong here. The ruins aren’t so much a relic of a culture lost, but reminders of a culture that remains. I remember walking down my street only to find pieces of obsidian embedded in the dirt road.
The land is very much a life with the people that have occupied here for the last 10 000 years. Tikal is particularly impressive at sunrise, but there are many other Mayan sites to check out, too – like El Mirador.
There are a number of great Spanish language schools in Guatemala if you are keen to learn some Spanish and stay with a host family. Spending a few weeks at a Spanish language school was a game-changing experience for me. The schools in Antigua or Quetzaltenango are the best. See, not only do you embed yourself with a local family and get the privilege of experiencing the town from the inside out, but your Spanish skills will improve at light speed!
And once you can speak Spanish, a whole new world opens up for you on your travels in Latin America! Make sure you check out Semuc Champey and Lake Atitlan while you’re in Guate. They might be touristy but they’re still beautiful! And for a true change of pace, you could even go try out the boat life by volunteering on a sailboat in the Rio Dulce. Oooh boy, the sailors are a funny bunch down there!
You will fall in love with Guatemala, it’s unavoidable. I’m most certainly counting the days until I return…
What to Know Before Visiting Guatemala
- Don’t miss out on…a 3-day trek around Lake Atitlan, ending in Xela. This one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala.
- Keep an eye out for…safety in Guatemala City. This is probably one of the most hectic places in Guatemala. Base yourself in Antigua instead.
- The coolest hostel is…Earth Lodge (Antigua) – Yoga studio? Organic kitchen? Avocado farm? I can hear the Californians stampede here already.
- The best food is found in…Antigua for western food, Xela for Guatemalan food. Avoid all of the American fast-food restaurants.
Backpacking El Salvador
Straight off the bat, El Salvador has some of Central America’s best and least frequented surf beaches. The Town of El Tunco is a fantastic backpacker hub. La Libertad is another great beach town with excellent surf.
The Montecristo Cloud Forest is a beautiful place to hike. Since El Salvador is not as popular with backpackers, there is ample opportunity to venture off the beaten path. So bring your bloody surfboard ok! When you need to leave it behind to go hiking for a few days, the local hostels are usually more than happy for you to do so.
El Salvador is a country with a troubled history (even by Central American standards) and many problems in the present day. While it is true that El Salvador experiences one of the highest rates of violent crime anywhere on earth, foreigners are rarely targeted.
Basically, if you go looking for trouble, you’ll definitely find it in El Salvador. That being said, almost all of the locals look forward to the day when tourism can take off a little better because life is calmer here. THey’ll go out of their way to make sure you’re safe and comfortable and enjoying this epic little country.
That said, I wouldn’t venture out into San Salvador at night. However, during the day San Salvador is pretty dope to explore.
What to Know Before Visiting El Salvador
- Don’t miss out on… Visiting the surf town El Tunco. There is a fun expat vibe, plus the seafood and waves are plentiful.
- Keep an eye out for… Pickpockets and being out late at night in San Salvador. San Salvador is probably not going to be the greatest experience anyway. Get out and head to the beaches, mate!
- The coolest hostel is… Tunco Lodge – a great place to relax in between surf sessions.
- The best food is found in… small local eateries, markets, and food stalls. Generally, I found the best food in the small coastal towns in El Salvador. I mean, fresh ceviche all day every day? Yes, please!
Do you want to get PADI SCUBA certified on your backpacking Central America adventure? Head to the Bay Islands amigos! The Bay Islands are one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified for SCUBA diving.
The legendary island of Utila is a backpacker’s paradise. There are more than a dozen dive centres to choose from. Roatan is a bigger island that caters more to cruise ships and older tourists. It is more expensive than Utila, but the SCUBA diving is arguably better.
The ruins at Cóban are the most significant in Honduras. Pico Bonito National Park is another major highlight of the country. There is an abundance of wild camping and hiking potential in the park.
Honduras often get skipped over by backpackers – except for Coban and Utila, they get plenty of backpacker attention! No, the rest of Honduras seems to remain off the beaten path! This is a bit of a shame considering there are some epic jungle hikes to be had, and even a sneaky surf beach or two. It’ll definitely be less touristy and so your Spanish better be up to scratch. 😉
In all seriousness, as this whole backpacking thing is very serious, if connecting with locals and seeing a more local side to a region is up your alley – Honduras is the place for you to explore.
What to Know Before Visiting Honduras
- Don’t miss out on… SCUBA diving in the Bay Islands and going to Utila in particular.
- Keep an eye out for… your general well-being in big cities. Also avoid being ripped off by taxi and shuttle drivers. Try to learn what the fair price should be before setting off.
- The coolest hostel is…. La Hamaca Hostel – a super chill hostel in Utila. A good place to meet people and make a few new diving buddies.
- The best food is found in… Johnny Cake bakeries! Honestly, anything from the street stalls!
I love Nicaragua because you can get beautiful beaches similar to those in neighbouring Costa Rica, but without the steep prices. Nicaragua is becoming the backpacker capital of Central America, and fast too.
The Pacific Coast is brimming with surf beaches, funky yoga retreat centres, and ex-pats in addition to friendly locals. The colonial cities of Granada and Leon have beautiful architecture, grand plazas, and strong ties to the Sandinista movement that gripped Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Ometepe Island is surprisingly underdeveloped in many areas. You can rent motorbikes and really explore what the island has to offer. If you like waterfalls, motorbikes, swimming, and rum, head to Ometepe for a few days.
The river and jungle areas of Nicaragua’s interior are wild and full of adventure potential. The Corn Islands off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast are the most far-flung destinations in Central America. It is no easy effort to arrive there (without flying). Once you do, you will be rewarded by the lack of backpacker hordes.
Nicaragua is the cheapest Central American country! So have a blast without breaking the bank, aye!
What to Know Before Visiting Nicaragua
- Don’t miss out on…Laguna De Apoyo – A gorgeous freshwater lake where one can swim and chill. Also renting motorbikes on Ometepe Island.
- Keep an eye out for… Other backpackers to share the cost of pricy tours with.
- The coolest hostel is… ViaVia Leon – I personally stayed at this place 3 times on two different Central America trips, and man oh man, is this a hostel I could think of as a home away from home!
- The best food is found in… Leon and Granada for authentic local food. Like with anywhere in Central America: eat from the streets! The world’s best street food is always worth the diahorrea risk. 😉
Backpacking Costa Rica
Costa Rica is the long-standing adventure capital of Central America. Backpackers have been flocking here in search of that pura vida for decades. Costa Rica offers pretty much everything you could ask for. The country has endless wildlife, cloud forests, amazing beaches, huge parties, and an overall easygoing vibe.
Explore the Costa Rican national parks. Learn how to surf. Drink coconut water every damn day. Make new friends and have the time of your life exploring this special place! I can guarantee that you will come back to Costa Rica for more someday. I sure did.
With so much natural beauty, it’s no surprise that Costa Rica is full of great hikes. The Arenal Volcano area is particularly packed with excellent trails.
Costa Rica has the reputation for being one of Central America’s most expensive countries. Unfortunately, that reputation is true. That said, exploring this magical country is bound to be a highlight of your Central America trip. Budget travel in Costa Rica is entirely possible. It just takes a little more effort than backpacking in one of the neighbouring countries.
The thing is, Costa Rica lives up to the hype. From the capital of San Jose to the Pacific Coast and then back through the jungle to the Caribbean Coast – Costa Rica is really a slice of paradise. Camp out on the beaches as much as possible – trust me, it’s incredible!
What to Know Before Visiting Costa Rica
- Don’t miss out on…trekking through the cloud forests around Monteverde, taking a surf class, and staying in a jungle treehouse.
- Keep an eye out for…Spending too much time in the capital San Jose. Stay in San Jose for just a night before moving onto the next place.
- The coolest hostel is…Luminosa Montezuma Hostel – Great staff and unbeatable location atop a small cliff overlooking the ocean! Natural springs nearby.
- The best food is found in…along the Caribbean coast (e.g Puerto Viejo). Food in Costa Rica is quite similar from regioin to region, so I really appreciated the Afro/Garifuna influence found in the flavors here.
Ok, straight off the bat: Panama is much more than just a tax haven for rich guys. There are some pretty epic volcanoes and jungles to go romping through and, the Caribbean Coast is full of some pretty epic slices of paradise! In fact, the journey from Bocas Del Toro in Panama takes only a few hours to get to from Costa Rica. If you are there in the right season (dry) there is great scuba diving and fishing.
Like Costa Rica, Panama has some fantastic wild jungles and forests once you escape the numerous banana and palm oil plantations. Baru Volcano National Park is a good place to start exploring. The San Blas Islands are stunningly beautiful as well. Really, you want to be exploring these low lying islands by boat – you could try volunteering on a sailboat in the area!
Going through the San Blas Islands is a popular way that backpackers end up getting to Colombia and beginning their backpacking South America journey.
Panama City is a huge sprawling metropolis where one can find some civilization and the associated annoyances. The international airport in Panama City is the main hub for transportation for the region – including flights south to Colombia.
I found it deeply interesting to catch a bus from the outskirts of Panama city and watch as the rural landscape dotted with shanty houses slowly transformed into a city more shiny and full of skyscrapers than anything I’d known back home (bearing in mind I came from a wee Australian town!). Still, Panama City has some interesting sights and I’d recommend climbing the hill to get some epic views of the place.
What to Know Before Visiting Panama
- Don’t miss out on…spending a night on Red Frog Island. If you’re a bit sick of the party hostels in Bocas del Toro, Red Frog is a great place to escape to.
- You know what’s overrated…Any organised “coffee” tour. Honestly, I’m partial to instant coffee so maybe I’m not the best judge! But apparently some fo the best coffee in the world is here in Panama – but I’d just sample it yourself from local cafes! No need for a tour.
- The coolest hostel is…Lost and Found Hostel – A legend among Panamanian hostels! Fun, interesting, eco-friendly, and amazing views.
- The best food is found…when sailing in the San Blas. Nothing beats fresh fish caught that day by the skipper.
Off the Beaten Path Adventures in Central America
The so-called gringo trail is definitely a thing here in Central America. There are certain hotspots where backpackers congregate. If you ask me, Costa Rica is the country most heavily populated by people travelling in Central America.
While there are plenty of spots on the gringo trail worth visiting, there are ample opportunities to get out and really explore. Indigenous villages, far-flung jungles, isolated beaches, remote mountains, winding rivers, and plenty of national parks provide an eternity of off the beaten path adventure potential.
For example, Honduras and El Salvador are two countries that get almost entirely overlooked! This to me is crazy, as I had some of my best memories surfing in El Salvador and tramping through the Honduran jungle. Even within relatively popular countries like Nicaragua, far fewer backpackers check out the Caribbean Coast. And what a mistake! Some of the best diving, beaches, and food can be found here.
I think it’s about travelling slowly, authentically, and mindfully. Sure, some tourist spots will be worth your time. But many won’t. And the rewards of getting out there to explore are just so juicy!
The Top Things to Do in Central America
It’s not finding something to do that’s tricky in Central America – it’s picking what to do first! There are some truly spectacular adventures to be had: above, below, and on the water. Whether you end up a boat bum and sailing the Caribbean Coast of Central America or whether you simply dive from time to time, the water will reward you here!
But the jungles, the Mayan culture, the street food, and the markets are also incredible. The more friends you make with artisans, the more likely you are to suddenly know how to make macrame. This is a bit of an obscure thing to do, but it is a handy backpacker job in a pinch!
Anyway, whatever you end up doing in Central America, you know it’s going to be a good time.
1. Get Your Open Water Diving Certification
You can SCUBA dive in pretty much every country in Central America and getting your certification will open up a whole new world of travel possibilities. The reef off Cozumel is pretty epic; as are the reefs off Belize. The cheapest place to get your actual certification is in Utila, Honduras.
Diving life is freaking dope! Not only do you get to make friends with the fish, but you also get to indulge in the diving lifestyle. Yeah, there’s a bit of drinking and partying involved let me tell you. 😉
2. Study Spanish
I did two stints of study on two different trips at the Mountain School outside of Xela. The experiences involved a few homestays and truly elevated my Spanish skills to the next level.
You can study Spanish in almost any major town or city within Central America. The slower you travel and the more that you sink into a community, the better your language skills will get. And the better your language skills get, the easier it is to get a richer experience from the country.
3. Stay in a Tree House in Costa Rica
One of the coolest places I have stayed EVER in nearly 10 years of travel was atop a 35-meter treehouse in the middle of the jungle just south of Manzanillo (south Caribbean coast). Tell the owner I said hi if you stay there! The place is called the Nature Observatorio, check it out.
There are so many eco-lodges in Central America. Ok, they might not be quite as cool as a treehouse, but they are pretty damn beautiful – and doing just a little good for the planet.
4. Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
This activity speaks for itself: charge at top speed down the side of a volcano! Ok, so it’s little more than for novelty’s sake but you know what? Sometimes you’ve just got to do the things and be a bit childish!
It’s a hell of a lot of fun and the scenery is really not too bad either.
5. Eat Lobster in Belize
One of the best (and cheapest) places to eat lobster anywhere in the world. No, but for reals, there is nothing better than fresh seafood. It needs little other ingredients and is so damn good for you. As long as you check in with local regulations, you could even try your hand at spearfishing and get yourself some dinner!
Lemme suggest right now that fresh langouste goes very well seared in a lemon butter sauce. Simply, but delicious!
6. Take a Boat Down the Rio Dulce in Guatemala
It is actually possible to leave Guatemala by boat, bound for the Honduras Bay Island through this jungly river system. I actually delivered sailboats from the Rio Dulce to Honduras a couple of times, but many backpackers can simply volunteer on a sailboat heading in that direction.
If you don’t end up on a sailboat, I’d definitely still recommend a boat ride up the Rio Dulce. Basically, you realise how puny your sailboat is as you come in surrounded by walls of the green jungle… Yeah it’s pretty freaking epic
7. Visit the San Blas Islands in Panama
Whether you are a party animal or beach lover (or both) – a trip around the San Blas islands is one you’ll never forget (or will never remember, depending on rum consumption).
If you are sailing at your own pace, you’ll be able to get into the swing of island life and see some of the cultures there. Most people simply pass through – which is all well and good and you’ll definitely still have a dope party time! But to really understand how incredibly stunning – but also unique – San Blas is, then you’ll need to slow down and spend some time there.
8. Try Surfing
Nicaragua and Costa Rica in particular are world-class surf destinations and great places to learn, but the entire Pacific Coast of Central America is full of epic surf spots.
El Salvador is a surfing hotspot that is overlooked – and that’s a shame! So all you surf bums need to pack your boards and get on down to Central America. A goddamn delightful trip awaits you! Plus, we all know the rules of the surfing life. Dawn surf, beers for lunch, party all night.
9. Visit the Cenotes in Mexico
Cenotes are a little slice of magic. They’re these clear, blue swimming holes sunken into limestone earth. The best swimming holes on earth are found in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Now, the Maya used to use them for water sources, and you can see why!
But today, there is almost something mystical to the offbeat locations. And even the popular ones are bloody awesome. It’s really out of this world to be able to see up to 50 metres deep! Plus, the cold water is such a welcome relief when you’re sweltering through the Yucatan’s humidity.
My missus travels with all her clothes in ziplock bags: don’t be like my missus. UP YOUR PACKING GAME!
Packing cubes for the globetrotters and compression sacks for the real adventurers – these babies are a traveller’s best kept secret. They organise yo’ packing and minimise its volume too so you can pack MORE.
Or, y’know… you can stick to ziplock bags.View Our Fave Cubes Or Check Out the Sacks!
Backpacker Accommodation in Central America
Central America has plenty of budget accommodation options for backpackers. When you are not passing the night from the comfort of your tent or Couchsurfing, you’ll need to book a hostel.
Whether you just need a place to lay your head or a spot to meet fellow travellers like yourself, hostels are clearly where it’s at… Once you come around to hostel life, you’ll forever look back on the fond memories you made there!
But you know what? Nothing beats a night camping under the stars or deep within in the jungle. I think one of my favourite nights in all my travels was camping at the Yaxha ruins in Guatemala. Of course, I had a good tent, so my sleep was perfect. But the evening was spent chatting with the custodians of the park and playing cards.
I fell asleep to the sounds of howler monkeys and woke to see the sunrise over the lake. So yes, staying in a hostel is an awesome way to connect with other travellers – but sometimes you’ve just got to go bush.
Backpacking Central America Costs
Each country in Central America will affect your budget in a different way. I found Nicaragua to be the cheapest country in Central America, followed closely by El Salvador, and Guatemala. Honduras can be very cheap as well, though not super cheap in the Bay Islands. Costa Rica and Belize are far more expensive for certain things like transport and accommodation.
Travelling in Central America certainly does not need to be expensive! If you are worried about spending too much money, I recommend allotting more time for yourself to explore the cheaper countries. But honestly, if you stick to the tried and true methods of budget backpacking, you’re wallet will be quite alright.
A Daily Budget For Backpacking Central America
Here is a breakdown of what you can expect to pay on a daily basis whilst backpacking Central America…
|Country||Dorm Bed||Local Meal||Bus Ride||Average Daily Cost|
Central America Budget Travel Hacks
- Camp: With plenty of gorgeous places to camp, Central America can be a great place to pitch a tent for the night. Camping saves you money and can help you get off of the beaten path. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.
- Pack a hammock: Central America has plenty of palm trees and hammock ready beaches. A hammock is perfect for those kinds of dreamy beach scenes. If you want to bring something with you on your trip that you will use all the time, this beauty is your best bet.
- Cook your own food: Travel with a portable backpacking stove and cook your own food to save some serious cash whilst backpacking across Central America. If you plan to do some overnight hiking trips or to spend time at a surf camp, having a backpacking stove will be a great asset.
- Couchsurf: Central American locals are awesome. Get to know some by learning to couchsurf! Check out Couchsurfing to make some real friendships and see a country from the perspective of locals. When using Couchsurfing, be sure to send personalized messages to your potential host. A generic copy and paste message are much more likely to get turned down. Make yourself stand out. Obviously, with COVID being a thing, CS is not really possible right now. Hopefully, in the future, this will change!
Why Should You Travel to Central America with a Water Bottle?
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You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you might as well be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the world’s most remote places, you come to realise the full extent of the plastic problem. And I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveller.
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Best Time to Visit Central America
When to go to Central America varies with the weather as each country in Central America has its own unique climate. The dry season is generally December, January, February and, March. This is certainly the time when most people visit. You can have some great weather in November and April as well.
The rainy season can be a beautiful time to visit. The rain only complicates things if you are wanting to do heaps of outdoor activities. During Christmas and the New Year Costa Rican beaches are flat-out slammed with foreigners and locals alike.
Scuba diving is best in the winter or early spring months (Nov-Feb). The water has better visibility and the islands are generally more pleasant when it’s not pissing down rain. basically, if you’re willing to put up with some rainy days and slightly less crowded beaches then do so! The jungle is certainly beautiful.
Also, the higher in altitude that you get, the more the weather changes. I can’t give a super accurate country breakdown because it truly depends where in the country you are as to what kind of weather you’ll get. Anything by the ocean is going to be more chill and have a less pronounced rainy season.
What to Pack for Central America
For such a variety of climates and range of activities to be done while backpacking Oceania, you will need the ultimate packing list.
There is no need to be that guy who carts around 50 kilos of luggage. But you don’t want to be without the essentials either! So what do you really need?
Travel Security Belt
This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.
GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle
Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!
Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.
Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
Staying Safe in Central America
Well, when people realise I’ve spent six months living in Central America and more travelling, they immediately ask: Well is it safe? Whilst it is true that Central America suffered through decades of brutal war, gang violence, and a horrific narcotics trade, modern-day Central America is a different story (though still many of these problems still exist, big time).
Don’t get me wrong. Central America still has a huge problem with gang violence and the narco trade, but it is concentrated in specific areas tourists don’t usually wander into. 99% of the trouble I ever hear about from backpackers started with them trying to buy drugs/buying drugs.
So yes, the standard safe backpacking rules apply but no, you’ll rarely be running for your life here. However, I’d still think it was dishonest if I didn’t say that Central America has a higher crime rate than other parts of the world and foreigners are more likely to get caught up in something. Certain areas (mainly cities) in Central America have the highest rates of homicide anywhere in the world (not in a war zone).
That said, foreigners are very rarely involved or targeted by violence. And the one mugging I did accidentally witness was very quickly shut down by the neighbours because of how loud the girl screamed. In fact, the would-be robber was taken aside and dealt with by the community…
Basically, should you on the off chance find yourself being robbed, be loud but don’t be a hero. Aaaand, it’s probably not going to happen to you as long as you keep your wits about you.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll in Central America
What can I say? The first time I backpacked across Central America – I felt like the months I spent there were almost a continuous party.
The backpacker circuit is well established and in pretty much every hostel you stay at – there is other people game for putting a few beers back.
Drugs like cocaine and weed are VERY abundant along the backpacker trail. My advice: dabbling a few times is a normal part of the backpacker experience – but be careful – 1. the drug trade is one of the most destructive forces in Central America and 2. hard drugs like coke are very addictive and overdoses do happen.
Prostitution is rampant across every country in Central America. I found that in some parts of Costa Rica, I was approached by sex workers nearly every single night. Remember that sex trafficking is also a big problem in Central America and the women/men working in the trade may not be doing so by choice.
In general, party and have a good time when you feel like it – but remember to take it easy too. Climbing a volcano or doing a big trek is WAY more fun when you are not hungover – take it from me. 😉
Travel Insurance for Central America
Travelling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you
Before you go travelling, please consider a good travel insurance provider. Shit happens on the road (and open ocean) all the time, and when it does, it’s nice to know somebody has got your back. And what’s the one travel insurance provider The Broke Backpacker trusts for all its insurance needs…?
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How to Get Into Central America
I started my two Central America backpacking trips from Cancun and Guatemala City respectively. If you are coming from North America or Europe, you can score some pretty sweet deals on airlines flying into Cancun. I personally hate Cancun, but its airport gets the job done. To maximize your budget, it is all about finding cheap flights to Central America!
It is also possible to find cheap flights into the other Central American capital cities. Panama City is probably the cheapest, followed by Managua, and San Jose. Check out our post on how to score cheap flights to find a bargain on flights to Central America.
Depending on your time frame and schedule, you can make an informed decision about where to start your trip. If you’re keen on backpacking Central America in its entirety, I recommend starting in Mexico and working your way south.
Conveniently, most Central American countries don’t require any sort of visa to enter either. Most Western nations, including the US, UK, EU, and Australia, can visit each country visa-free for a period of 90 days. Be aware though that some countries like to charge a small entry fee.
Traveling in Central America During COVID Times
Central America is welcoming travellers again! Most if not all of the Central American countries are currently open to travellers from most Western nations, including the US and EU.
Some Central American authorities require a negative PCR to enter the country. Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, and El Salvador all require tests taken no later than 72 hours before departure. Belize doesn’t require a test, but will instead test you at the airport and charge you for the expense.
Of course, as with anything COVID related, the situation could change at any moment; there are internal restrictions and curfews to consider as well. ALWAYS double-check the status of each individual country in South America before heading out on a trip!
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How to Get Around Central America
The easiest and cheapest option is to travel to Central America by bus. The region is famous for the chicken bus. The Guatemalan chicken bus is a sight to behold. These buses are often painted with psychedelic colours and filled to the brim with humans (and sometimes chickens).
A majority of the buses have been bought in the USA at auction and then driven down to Central America to live out a second (exhausting) life in public transportation. Instead of carrying American school children, they are flying down steep mountain roads with various local populations packed inside. I can almost smell the sweet aroma of burning breaks and delicious roadside snacks – it’s a good combo. 😉
In Costa Rica and the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, the buses are of better quality, but much more expensive than elsewhere in the region. In major cities, public transit systems are complicated but relatively easy to get around. Some of the larger cities – like Mexico City – have easy to use metros.
To get to the various Caribbean islands, you can catch a ferry. The ferries are more expensive than I anticipated, so budget accordingly.
You will hear the words “taxi taxi taxi” just about everywhere you go. Taxis are always more expensive than taking the bus but can be useful in certain situations. Want to take a taxi? Time to turn your haggle game up a notch! ALWAYS set the price with the driver before getting into the cab.
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Hitchhiking in Central America
Learning to hitchhike is definitely an option, buttttt it’s definitely easier when you know how to speak Spanish. If you dress the part and look like every other Latina vagabond, drivers will typically know what you’re doing. However, I always think it’s a good idea to offer to shout lunch or explain the journey that you’ve been on.
Hitchhiking edict changes from person to person, as some people picking you up, might want talkative company, and some people prefer quiet. This is where it’s much easier to speak Spanish so you can gauge the situation. Depending on the country, you’ll have differing wait times/success while hitchhiking.
I hitchhiked in Mexico with the most luck. My chicken and I met van lifers, musicians, farmers, and other solo travellers. I feel like hitchhiking really does open up the world of travel in a much more raw way.
Onwards Travel to From Central America
Looking to continue travelling south after backpacking Central America? You have a few options. You can always fly from Panama City or Mexico City (depending on which direction you travel the region) onto South America or Europe.
A far more rewarding alternative is to take a boat. Multiple boat companies now offer the passage from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands with trips ranging from three to five days and starting at around $500. If you are keen to go on an island-hopping sailing adventure, this option is for you. From here you can go onto backpack South America! Fuck yeah!
The third option, if you can call it that, is crossing the Darien Gap overland. Rumour has it that you can hire a guide for quite a bit of money and cross the Darien on foot. In the past, this was impossible due to narco-terrorist/ guerrilla activity. At the time of writing FARC is active in Colombia and the Darien Gap still presents many dangers to travellers. May the backpacker gods be with you if you attempt the journey on your own without a guide.
Taking a boat from Panama to Colombia sounds like the most fun for sure. You’ll have a chance to sleep on totally isolated islands and swim in crystal clear waters whilst drinking some ice-cold beers on your boat… It’s an epic trip.
Working and Living in Central America
Central America has been an ex-pat destination for decades. The whole spectrum of humanity comes down here for various reasons: retirement, to escape the desk, for the digital nomad lifestyle, to surf endlessly, to party forever, or to simply enjoy a cheaper cost of living away from the rat race.
Central America is one of the leading candidates for backpackers and digital nomads looking for a place to settle long term (according to recent digital nomad trends). Certainly, some countries cost more to live in than others, but generally speaking, life just costs less in Central America and one can enjoy a very pleasant lifestyle with about half the cost of living in Europe or the USA.
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Volunteer in Central America
Volunteering abroad is an amazing way to experience a culture whilst giving something back. There are loads of different volunteer projects in Central America ranging from teaching, to animal care, to agriculture to pretty much everything!
Want to find some awesome volunteering opportunities in Central America? Then signup for Worldpackers, a platform that connects local hosts with volunteer travellers. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll also get a special discount of $10. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $39.
Programs run through reputable work exchange programs, like Worldpackers, are generally very well-managed and highly reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering do stay vigilant especially when working with animals or children.
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Central American Culture
Central America is home to dozens of distinct ethnic groups – each with its own set of traditions, food styles, dress, and in some cases, language.
The ethnically Mayan peoples of the Guatemalan highlands I found to have the richest and most distinct cultural practices and traditions that have largely survived the modernization (and bloody civil war) of Guatemala – one really feels the vibe of ancient traditions when you spend a few nights in a Mayan village.
Similarly, I found the Garifuna communities in Belize and Honduras to be full of life – especially when it came to music and food.
A major thread that connects all of the Central American countries is religion: this is a very Catholic region almost without exception with local saints and patrons to be found in every village it seemed.
In general, I found the people in every country I visited in Central America to be kind, generous, and welcoming – and just as often very keen on sharing a strong drink and a chat with you, time permitting.
What to Eat in Central America
The food in Central America can be as diverse as its human inhabitants…
Though, I’ll start by saying that I have been much more wowed by the food in Asia and the Middle East than by the backpacker staples of rice and beans in Central America.
That said, you can find some really tasty stuff to try!
The Best Food in Central America
- Tamales (Everywhere) – A bigger tamal made with either mashed potatoes or rice; whereas, Mexico makes them with corn and pork. They are then wrapped in banana leaves.
- Pupusas (El Salvador) – Though they originated in El Salvador, Pupusas are found all over Guatemala. Thick corn tortillas are stuffed with a variety of fillings – usually refried beans, cheese and/or pork – and then fried until the surface with a still squashy inside. They are served with salsa and cabbage on top.
- Ceviche (Everywhere) – This fresh seafood dish is made by marinating the fish or seafood in lime for 24+ hours and then adding fresh tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro, onions, and avocado.
- Tacos (Mexico and Guatemala) – Obviously, we have to start with tacos. Everywhere you look, there are tacos in Mexico. Typically they’re pretty small and are served with two tortillas. Popular fillings include al pastor, chorizo, and steak. Load them up with onions, cilantro, salsa, and hot sauce and dig in.
- Mole (Mexico) – This is actually just a sauce that is used in several different dishes. Both Puebla and Oaxaca claim to have invented mole sauce and are excellent places to try it.
- Gallo Pinto (Costa Rica): The national dish of Costa Rica! It consists of rice and beans stir-fried together in a pan to create a speckled appearance. It is usually served for breakfast along with scrambled or fried eggs and sour cream or cheese. There is no avoiding it.
- Olla de Carne (Costa Rica): A hearty stew containing beef, cassava (a starchy tuber used in Tico cooking), potatoes, corn, green plantains, squash or chayote, and other vegetables.
- Johnny Cakes and Fry Jacks (Belize): Both the jacks and Johnny cakes are made from flour, but while the jacks are flattened and fried, the Johnny cakes are round fluffy savory biscuits, often topped by butter or a slice of cheese.
- Lobster (Belize): Self-explanatory and f***** delicious.
Unique Experiences in Central America
While you’re out here travelling and vagabonding and being a broke backpacker, I’d encourage you to have a little pot of funds to try some unique experiences. Because there are some truly special activities to try out when you’re in Central America. Yes, you can go paragliding or bungee jumping. You can volcano board, or trek through jungles.
But there are two activities that Central America can really claim as its own: SCUBA diving and surfing. The fun in the sun never stops along this coastline!
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SCUBA Diving in Central America
You should know by now that Central America has some excellent scuba diving venues. It is possible to go diving in all of the countries as they all have access to the coast. Mexico, Belize, and the Bay Islands in Honduras are the clear winners.
Diving in Belize is more expensive than in Honduras, although undoubtedly still epic. The great blue hole is an awesome diving experience but so are the multitude of shallow reefs around the place too.
And Mexico might have the most famous areas – like Cozumel and the cenotes – but I’d argue they more than live up to the hype. You can swim with manta rays, whale sharks, turtles, and innumerable tropical fish! And if you’re going a little further afield, backpacking Cuba can offer up some truly mind-blowing dive sites. Plus, although the Cayman Islands are technically British, they’re just south of Cuba and are basically one whole island full of dive sites.
However, The Bay Islands in Honduras are the go-to spot for getting your PADI certification. The backpacker scene on Utila makes up part of the draw as well.
During my time in Utila, I met many people in the Bay Islands who had moved there for the majority of the year to work in the diving industry. I must admit I was pretty envious of them. If you are looking to live somewhere beautiful long-term, becoming a diving instructor is one sweet way to make that happen.
Surfing in Central America
Surfing reigns supreme on much of Central America’s southern Pacific coast starting in El Salvador and winding down all the way to Costa Rica and Panama. Some of the best surf beaches in the Northern Hemisphere are found here. New to surfing? There are plenty of surf schools to help you get the start you need in order to catch a few waves.
A stint at a Nicaragua or Costa Rica surf camp is a good way to fully immerse yourself in the world of surfing. Meeting people who have a higher level than you always helps one to improve.
A surf camp is basically a surfing hostel with (dorms) or without rooms (camping) where communities of surfers base themselves. Life at a surf camp is rough. Surfing, eating, making friends, and partying make up the main activities. Sound like fun? Time to get packing my friends.
FAQs About Backpacking Central America
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Final Advice Before Visiting Central America
Be good to Central America.
Central America is a region that has not had it easy over the years, and yet they’ve bounced back. It’s a beautiful region full of people that are genuinely excited to show off their home to you. So with that, my last bit of advice would just be to travel in a way that leaves the place better – not worse.
The surfing, the diving, the hiking, the partying… It’s all supremely good here. You get the best of the backpacker world and the locals world once you pick up a little Spanish and leave the gringo trail. You’ll meet friends for life and get swept up in adventures that sound unreal when you retell them back home.
But that’s just Latin America for you! It’s kind to the vagrants and the artisans with the next free camping spot just up the road. The markets are full of colour and the streets are full of delectable food.
So off you go, book that ticket, and get to exploring! I found a second home here and I’m almost certain that you will too! Hopefully, I’ll see you on the road sometime.
Updated January 2022 by Indigo Atkinson.
Bye for now, but not forever!
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