If you’re new to backpacking, Central America is a great place to start your travels — the distances are short, it’s affordable, safe, diverse, friendly and beautiful.
There are so many amazing things to do in Central America that it can be overwhelming to decide where to start. Fear not! This Central American travel guide will teach you everything you need to know in order to have a unique and rewarding personal journey backpacking this amazing region. In this travel guide, I cover the best Central America travel routes, travel trips, what to pack, safety information, and my favorite Central America backpacking destinations.
Table of Contents
Where to Go Backpacking in Central America
Each country you will encounter on your Central America backpacking adventure offers up something distinctly special. From the Mayan temples of Guatemala to the killer surf beaches of Costa Rica, backpacking Central America provides the perfect blank slate for you to write your own backpacking destiny.
In general, Central America is a cheap place to travel in. Though the Caribbean Coast of Central America tends to be more expensive than other parts of the region, scuba diving and accommodation on some of the islands are certainly cheaper than other Caribbean destinations.
While day to day travel on buses can feel long at times, Central America is made up of relatively small countries. Moving from one country to the next is easy. It is possible to pass through multiple countries on a single day on an international bus.
Then there are the obvious draws: the natural beauty and the people. Central America is one of the most beautiful destinations on Earth. If you are a nature lover, you’ll fall in love with the stunning mountains, beaches, forests, jungles, and volcanoes. Of course, it is the people of the region that really make it special. Central America has the whole package. Now let’s take a look at some of your options for exploring this fantastic part of the world.
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 Central America is a good choice for backpackers short on time.
Every itinerary below can easily be completed in reverse, though it seems like most backpackers go north to south. Still, you’ll meet travellers going both directions.
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.
#1 Backpacking Central America Itinerary 2 Weeks: Nicaragua to Costa Rica
2 Weeks: Backpacking Nicaragua to Costa Rica
So you have two weeks to go backpacking aye? No problem! I have found you can really cover a lot of ground in that time. This backpacking route offers up a good mix of local culture, stunning beaches, cloud forests, and truly jaw-dropping landscapes.
If you love to surf or want to learn, this Central America travel itinerary is perfect for you. Don’t be surprised if you come back totally addicted to beach life! Time doesn’t exist where it seems your main priorities are surfing and yoga.
Central America offers up the opportunity to visit some of the best surf beaches in the world. Just inland from the coast, experience one of the most bio-diverse regions anywhere on earth. The wildlife, food, and people all contribute to the magic! Backpacking Nicaragua and Costa Rica is so much goddamn fun. The two countries will be sure to keep your busy.
#2 Backpacking Central America Itinerary 2 weeks: Mexico to Guatemala
2 Weeks: Backpacking 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. Don’t waste any of your precious time in Cancún! It is tourist trap hell.
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. 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 is without a doubt one of my favorite countries on earth. 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.
#3 Backpacking Central America Itinerary 4 weeks: Guatemala to Costa Rica
4 Weeks: Backpacking 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. Visit the ruins in Tikal. Walk to the cobblestone streets of the beautiful colonial city Antigua. Check out the incredible pools at Semuc Champey. Experience Mayan culture in the highlands of course!
El Salvador is a country that is often skipped over entirely. I believe that would be a mistake. While El Salvador certainly doesn’t have as much going for it as its neighbors, it still merits a slot on this Central America backpacking itinerary. There are some pretty awesome surf towns to check out along the Pacific Coast. Don’t skip them! More about safety in El Salvador and Central America later in the post.
The killer beaches do not stop when you enter into Nicaragua via Honduras. I am not including Honduras in this route because there isn’t much to see in this part of the country. (My next itinerary will cover the wonderful Bay Islands of Honduras!)
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 into the land of Pura Vida.
#4 Backpacking Central America Itinerary 6 weeks: Mexico to Panama
6 Weeks+: Backpacking Mexico to Panama
If you have 6 weeks or more than 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. I got mine there and I had a fucking blast.
If you want to get your scuba certification in the Bay Islands and see the other countries, 6 weeks might be cutting it close for time. If you already have your PADI cert, you can cruise in for a few days, go diving, and be on your merry way. This 6-week itinerary is the whole enchilada as they say. There is so much to do and see, though I don’t recommend attempting to see and do it all. It is impossible!
I found a good balance between trekking, diving, visiting ruins, chilling out, and studying 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.
To make the most of this Central America backpacking route, I really advise you to listen to what your own needs are and making your plan from there.
Backpacking Central America is the adventure of a lifetime. You will make friends and memories that will last forever. You can be sure of that. Let’s now take a closer look at the individual countries you will be traveling to during your Central American backpacking journey.
There are eight countries that make up the region of Central America. 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.
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 limitless.
I would argue that Mexico has one foot in Central and one in North America. It is a huge country with incredible diversity. The majority of people on a Central America 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.
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 snorkel. 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 favorite parts of Mexico. There is plenty of history, kind people, and natural wonder to keep you busy for as long as you want. Despite what you might hear on the news, Chiapas is totally safe. There are excellent trekking opportunities too in the highlands of Chiapas. An alternative to flying into Cancun is to fly in Mexico City. From there, you can easily catch long-distance buses to other parts of the country or Guatemala.
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.
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 apart of the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. The famous Great Blue Hole is a must visit if you love to dive.
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, you absolutely must eat Lobster on one of the islands. It is the best that money can buy. Expect to pay about 50% less than you would say in the US. I still dream about it. A well planned Belize itinerary is a great addition to any Central American backpacking trip.
Guatemala is hands down one of the most dynamic and exciting countries I have ever backpacked. The country is so rich in amazing things to experience. If you are arriving from Belize, then you will have a happy welcome into Guatemala. The ruins at Tikal are very, very impressive. A sunrise high through the ruins is indescribable.
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 (Xela) are best.
There is a volunteer trekking guide company in Xela called Quetzaltrekkers. They run awesome trips all over the country. I recommend the 3-day trek to Lago Atitlan from Xela! All the revenue from the guided trips gets donated to local school programs in the area. read on for more information about volunteering with Quetzaltrekkers later in the post.
You will fall in love with Guatemala. I am counting the days until I return…
I spent about a week backpacking El Salvador and really enjoyed my time there. 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 of the beaten path.
El Salvador is a country with a troubled history (even by Central America 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.
You have a better chance of being struck by lightning, to be honest. That said, I wouldn’t venture out into San Salvador at night. Same goes for the outlying neighborhoods around the surf towns.
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 backpackers paradise. There are more than a dozen dive centers 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.
The interior of Honduras is not dotted with many must-see attractions, however. Though it is beautiful in many parts, Honduras simply doesn’t have the same magic draw as do other parts of the Central America region. My advice to spend the majority of your time in Honduras on Utila Island. Scuba dive, party, sleep, repeat.
Check out our Honduras Safety Guide if you have concerns about security while you’re there.
I love Nicaragua because you can get beautiful beaches similar to those in neighboring Costa Rica, but without the steep prices. Nicaragua is fast becoming the backpacker capital of Central America. The Pacific Coast is brimming with surf beaches, funky yoga retreat centers, and expats 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 Nica’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!
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 simply has it all. The country has endless wildlife, cloud forests, amazing beaches, huge parties, and an overall easygoing vibe.
Explore the 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.
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 neighboring countries.
Panama is much more than just a tax haven for rich guys. The island chain on Panama’s Caribbean coast is famous for its beauty and vibrant backpacker scene. The journey from Bocas Del Toro takes only a few hours 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. More about the San Blas Islands later in the post.
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 to South America and beyond.
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.
Traveling 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.
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.
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! 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.
Pack a travel water bottle: save money (and the planet) every day! Stop buying bottled water! Seriously guys, I know I may be repeating myself, but having a water bottle is so handy and an absolute must if you plan on doing any trekking whilst backpacking Central America. Get yourself one and stay hydrated!
Joining an Organized Tour in Central America
For most countries, Central America included, solo travel is the name of the game. That said, if you are short on time, energy, or just want to be part of an awesome group of travelers you can opt to join an organized tour. Joining a tour is a great way to see a majority of the country quickly and without the effort that goes into planning a backpacking trip. However—not all tour operators are created equal—that is for sure.
G Adventures is a solid down-to-earth tour company catering to backpackers just like you, and their prices and itineraries reflect the interests of the backpacker crowd. You can score some pretty sweet deals on epic trips in Central America for a fraction of the price of what other tour operators charge.
Check out some of their awesome itineraries for Central America here…
Volunteering in Central America
Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long-term on a budget in Central America whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than World Packers. World Packers is an excellent platform connecting travelers with meaningful volunteer positions throughout the world.
In exchange for a few hours of work each day, your room and board are covered.
Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in an awesome place without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.
Worldpackers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world. We’ve tried and approved them ourselves – check out our Worldpackers in-depth review here.
If you’re ready to create a life-changing travel experience and give back to the community, join the Worldpacker community now. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll get a special discount of $20. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $29.
If you love to hike and you want to help kids at the same time, consider being a guide for Quetzaltrekkers. As I mentioned before, Quetzaltrekkers is a volunteer-run trekking company that donates all of its profit to local schools. They have two bases, one in Xela, Guatemala, and one in Leon, Nicaragua.
To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.
What to Pack for Central America
On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without:
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my 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. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. 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.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, 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. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5.Hammock: 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. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
6. Toiletry Bag: I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Well worth having, whether you are hanging it from a tree whilst camping, or a hook in a wall, it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Where to stay 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 travelers like yourself, hostels are clearly where it’s at…
In fact, we at the Broke Backpacker love Central American hostels so much we have created a whole series of guides breaking down the best hostels to be found in cities across Central America. They make it very easy to pick the right hostel for yourself in any given place!
Check out these super detailed Central American hostel guides by city or country:
Best Time to Visit Central America
Because each country in Central America has its own unique climate, the weather can vary a bit. The dry season is generally December, January, February and, March. This is certainly the time when the most people visit. You can have some great weather in November and June 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 the 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.
Best Books to Read While Backpacking Central America
These are some of my favorite travel reads and books set in Central America which you should consider picking up before you begin your Central America trip…
The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free! Get your copy here.
The Jaguar Smile — Recounting his travels there in Nicaragua in 1986, in the midst of America’s behind-the-scenes war against the Sandinistas, Rushdie reveals a nation resounding to the clashes between government and individuals, history and morality.
I, Rigoberta Menchu —Now a global bestseller, the remarkable life of Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan peasant woman, reflects on the experiences common to many Indian communities in Latin America. One of the most touching books I think I have ever read.
Silence on the Mountain — Silence on the Mountain is a virtuoso work of reporting and a masterfully plotted narrative tracing the history of Guatemala’s thirty-six-year internal war, a conflict that claimed the lives of some 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom died (or were “disappeared”) at the hands of the U.S.-backed military government.
The Motorcycle Diaries — This classic book written by Che Guevara doesn’t take place in Central America, but rather in South America. It is still a fantastic book and we certainly get your travel inspiration flowing.
The Cloud Garden — The epic tale of Two British explorers who end up getting kidnapped by guerrillas in the Darien Gap area of Colombia. Written with humor and suspense, this is a vivid account of their nine-month ordeal.
Lonely Planet Central America — Relevant, up-to-date advice and tips for backpacking Central America.
Where to Start Traveling in 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.
The easiest and cheapest option is to travel 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 colors 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.
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, the public transit systems are damn chaotic and complicated.
You’ll probably need to ask locals or hostel staff if you want to take intercity public transit. All major cities in Central America have international bus terminals with direct buses to capitals in neighboring countries.
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.
Hitchhiking in Central America
Hitchhiking is an option for sure. Short distances are the easiest, safest, and most practical. Getting a completely free ride on a regular basis might prove challenging. Rural areas of Central America are especially impacted by high rates of poverty. Expecting free rides from folks with limited means might not make you feel so good. That said, even if you offer the driver a few bucks, it could very well end up being cheaper (and more rewarding) than taking the bus.
I would never assume that the ride is free initially. Always ask to avoid having an awkward scenario in which the driver who picked you up is demanding an unexpected fee.
Onwards Travel to South America
Looking to continue traveling south after backpacking Central America? You have a few options. The fastest way to get to South America is flying. Flights from Panama City will be the cheapest. 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.
The third option, if you can call it that, is crossing the Darien Gap overland. Rumor 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 do to narco-terrorist/ guerrilla activity. At the time of writing FARC is active in Colombia and the Darien Gap still presents many dangers to travelers. 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.
Is Central America Safe?
Your mother might be the first to ask: “Is Central America safe?” Please reassure her with what I am about to say next: Central America is totally safe! Whilst it is true that Central America suffered through decades of brutal war, gang violence, and a brutal narcotics trade, modern-day Central America is a different story. People traveling in Central America need not be afraid.
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.
To stay safe, every backpacker should follow the common sense rules of backpacking. In general being out late, drunk, and alone is a recipe for trouble anywhere in the world. There have been reports of backpackers getting held up on remote sections of a beach or late at night in big cities. Odds are you should be just fine. If ever you run into a hold-up situation give them what they want and don’t resist. Your iPhone and wallet are never worth dying over, ever!
The mainstream media has portrayed Central America to be a no-go zone in places. Is violence a problem in Central America? Hell yes, it is. 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. Keep your wits about you as you would traveling anywhere and you should be just fine.
World Nomads Travel Insurance
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be traveling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Traveling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Top Safety Travel Tips
I strongly recommend traveling with a headlamp whilst in Central America (or anywhere really – every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Awesome Adventures to try in Central America
Festivals to catch in Central America
Mexico: Día de Los Muertos — A day of prayer and remembrance of friends and family members who have died. Colorfully painted masks, parades, and epic feasts make this festival a special event in Mexico. Día de Los Muertos takes place in early November. This festival is equally important in Guatemala, specifically in the town of Todo Santos. Think drunken horse racing (for better or worse).
Belize: Lobster Festival — Love lobster? This festival is for you. The lobster fest takes place in Placencia every June.
Guatemala: La Fiesta Nacional Indígena de Guatemala— This is one of Mesoamerica’s greatest celebrations of Maya culture. The city of Cobán features a steady stream of street fairs, concerts, parades, and parties. The party lasts for two weeks!
Honduras: National Garifuna Festival — One of the best parties in Honduras. This fest celebrates the vibrant Garifuna culture of Honduras. Expect lots of great food, music, and dancing!
El Salvador: San Miguel Carnaval — Every November dancing and parades abound in honor of the patron saint of the city. National and international bands fill the streets with music ranging from samba, reggae, and merengue tunes.
Nicaragua: Magma Fest— Central America’s largest EDM music festival. Come out for one hell of a party in the shadow of a volcano on Ometepe.
Costa Rica: Envision Festival — Looking for a kick-ass hippie festival in Central America? Every February this 4-day music festival attracts people from all over the world for one big coastal party. The music is great and the setting is even better.
Panama: Carnaval — Panama’s most celebrated holiday is Carnaval, the 4 days that precede Ash Wednesday. The best celebrations take place in Panama City and the Azuero Peninsula, with parades, drinking, costumes, and music.
Off the Beaten Path Adventures in Central America
The so-called gringo trail is a thing in Central America. There are certain hotspots where backpackers congregate. If you ask me, Costa Rica is the country most heavily populated by people traveling 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.
Best Hikes in Central America
1. Xela to Lago Atitlan, Guatemala: This 3-day trek takes you through a winding trail through the mountains between Xela and Lago Atitlan. Explore remote indigenous villages, forests, and Guatemalan countryside before arriving at Lago Atitlan for the sunrise on the last morning.
2. Teleca Volcano Hike, Nicaragua: Ever wanted to hike up an active volcano? Fulfill that dream by hiking the Teleca Volcano in Nicaragua. The highlight is camping out at the base so you can watch the red glow of lava in the darkness.
3. Volcano Concepción, Ometepe, Nicaragua: Didn’t get enough Volcanic fix on the last trek? Trekking the Volcano Concepción in Ometepe Island is a challenging, rewarding hike that offers up fabulous views of the island and the surrounding lake. The hike takes 10 hours, but you feel like you have really achieved something when you finish up.
4. Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica: Nowhere else in Central America or the world for that matter can one experience what hiking in Corcovado has to offer. Explore deserted sections of beach and jungle while encountering some of the world’s most unique plant and animal species. Camping is possible in the park, though only at the ranger’s stations.
5. Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras: Due to the fact that Honduras is often overlooked by the backpacker community, the opportunity to get out and really explore here is endless. You can be pretty certain other backpackers will be far and few between.
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. Belize and the Bay Islands in Honduras are the clear winners.
Diving in Belize is more expensive than in Honduras. The Bay Islands are the go-to spot for getting your PADI certification. The backpacker scene on Utila makes up part of the draw as well. Parts of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are world famous for scuba diving. I would steer clear of diving here due to the high concentrations of luxury resorts and associated tourist hordes.
During my time in Utila, I met many people in the Bay Islands who had moved there for a 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.
Scuba Dive Central America on a Liveaboard Trip
Really love diving? Consider joining a Liveaboard scuba diving trip in Central America.
Liveaboard trips are unique because they take you to truly special and remote drive sites. Most of the places they go can not be reached in one day, so your average dive shop doesn’t offer trips to these off the beaten path sites.
For those folks wanting to get lots of dives in a short period of time whilst experiencing the region’s top scuba sites, a Liveaboard trip is just the thing to join.
Dive by day, chill by night with other fellow dive fanatics.
Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, right?
For more country specific information check out these Central America Liveaboard options:
Surfing in Central America
Surfing reigns supreme on much of Central America’s southern Pacific coast starting in El Salvador. 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.
Make Money Online Whilst Backpacking Central America
Traveling in Central America long-term? Keen to make some cash when you are not exploring?
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills! It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
Learn what it’s like to be a VIPKID teacher, a top company in the field of online English learning.
In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online, TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Being a responsible backpacker in Central America
Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.
Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, get off my fucking site.
Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.
Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.
Need more guidance? – Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
Backpacking Central America can be one hell of a party at times. Take it from me, it can be easy to get carried away. It is important to keep in mind that you are an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country.
If you visit indigenous villages or small communities in the highlands always ask before taking photos. The people who live in these villages are not exhibits in a museum. They are normal folks just living their lives. Always show them the complete respect that they deserve.
When buying a local craft, do not haggle so low that the price is unfair to the person who spent countless hours crafting it. Pay people what they are worth and contribute to the local economies as much as possible.
Avoid eating at fancy gringo-owned restaurants. I don’t care how badly you want that lasagne and red wine. You make a choice with every dollar you spend. Try to spend your money in places where the experience is mutually rewarding.
I know it can be hard, but do your best to use the least amount of plastic water bottles that you can. Refill the ones that you do buy! Use a Grayl Geopress. Refill at your hostel! There are plenty of ways to reduce plastic!!!
Backpacking Central America or any region for that matter often illuminates some of the great socio-economic inequalities of the world. Never take it for granted that you are healthy and financially able to go traveling. Show the world around you some gratitude and help to make a positive impact on it. Most of all have the time of your life and spread the love!
Need More Inspiration?
- The Best Hostels in Costa Rica Guide
- 7 Things Nobody Told Me About Traveling in Guatemala
- Living With a Host Family in Guatemala
- The Latest Backpacker Craze: Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
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Chris Lininger is a writer and adventurer from California. His travels have taken him to the far reaches of the globe including Patagonia, New Zealand, Nepal, Central America, Europe, North Africa, South East Asia, Lebanon, and Pakistan. He is an advocate for low budget responsible travel and for the preservation of the worlds wild places. Chris leads expeditions to Pakistan for Epic Backpacker Tours when he is not writing or plotting some outdoor adventure. He is currently based in Portland, Oregon.