From the moment I started my first trip backpacking Central America, I was hooked.
There is a certain magic to be found here that can’t be duplicated in other parts of the world. Budget travel in this region easy, the food is fantastic, and the exciting destinations are abundant.
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.
Why 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.
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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 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
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
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
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
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. I got mine there and I had a total 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.
Central America Travel Guide: Country Breakdowns
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 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.
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. Take the opportunity to explore the city a bit while you’re there though.
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.
- 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) – Voted one of the best hostels in the world by Lonely Planet. Clean, friendly, and great atmosphere.
- 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 apart of the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world.
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.
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.
- The coolest hostel is…Anda Di Hows Hostel (Palencia) – A true paradise, right on the beach. Solid bar and ample hammock space.
- The best food is found in…Caye Caulker has some of the best lobster in the world. Prices are reasonable as well.
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 to 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. 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…
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
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 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.
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. I pretty much never went out at night in this city and you shouldn’t either.
- 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.
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 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 while backpacking in Honduras on Utila Island. Scuba dive, party, sleep, repeat.
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. On the Bay Islands, there is a lot of good western food too.
I love Nicaragua because you can get beautiful beaches similar to those in neighboring 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 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!
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.
- The best food is found in… Leon and Granada for authentic local food. San Juan Del Sur for fancy pants western / health / high-end seafood.
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 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 neighboring countries.
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 here only for 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 (Puerto Viejo). Food in Costa Rica is pretty repetitive, so I really appreciated the Afro/Garifuna influence found in the flavors here.
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.
Backpacking in Panama is going to be like visiting all the other Central American countries at once, except in smaller doses. Panama features a bit of everything, which makes it a great place to visit for those short on time.
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…THE PANAMA CANAL. Unless you’re a huge fan of history, this place is an enormous disappointment.
- 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 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.
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The Top Things to Do in Central America
1. Get Your Open Water Diving Certification
You can scuba dive in pretty much every country in Central America and getting your Padi certification will open up a whole new world of travel possibilities.
2. Study Spanish at the Mountain School in Guatemala
I did two stints of study on two different trips at the Mountain School outside of Xela (LA ESCUELA DE LA MONTAÑA). The experiences involved a few homestays and truly elevated my Spanish skills to the next level.
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.
4. Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
This activity speaks for itself: charge at top speed down the side of a volcano.
5. Eat Lobster in Belize
One of the best (and cheapest) places to eat lobster anywhere in the world.
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.
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).
8. Try Surfing
Nicaragua and Costa Rica in particular are world-class surf destinations and great places to learn.
9. Visit the Cenotes in Mexico
The best swimming holes on earth are found in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
10. Do a Trek With Quetzal Trekkers
Quetzal Trekkers is a non-profit hiking organization offering EPIC treks in Guatemala and Nicaragua. One of the best adventures I did in Central America was with QT in Guatemala.
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 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 accommodatio guides by city or country:
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.
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.
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! 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?
Whilst there’s a lot that we can do when it comes to traveling responsibly, reducing your plastic consumption is one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, don’t take plastic shopping bags, and forget straws. All of this just ends up in landfill or in the ocean.
If you’d like some more tips on how to save the world, be sure to watch the video below.
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.
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.
What to Pack for Central America
On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without:
Active Roots Money 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!
Active Roots Microfiber 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.
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.
Active Roots Camping 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.
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.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
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 horrific narcotics trade, modern-day Central America is a different story (though still many of these problems still exist, big time).
People traveling in Central America need not be afraid if you use a little common sense.
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 (and small) 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.
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 are other people there 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
Traveling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional, and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. To find out why I use World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
A message from Will, the OG Broke Backpacker
“Once upon a time, I almost lost my leg in a sweltering jungle…
I battled a seriously nasty infection that snaked up past my knee and by the time I made it to a local hospital they wanted to amputate. I was delirious, unable to walk, and in a lot of pain but I managed to call my insurance provider – they moved me to a much better private hospital where the doctors were able to save my leg.
I wracked up $15,000 in hospital bills, but these were completely covered by my travel insurance. Luckily, I still have my leg today, and whilst it is permanently damaged, I’m grateful every day it’s still attached!
Moral of the story: consider getting travel insurance before you head out into the wilds, people!“
Getting 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 travelers again! Most if not all of the Central American countries are currently open to travelers 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 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, 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.
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. 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.
Keen to live the digital nomad dream while traveling the world? Who the hell isn’t?
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income on the road. Depending on your qualifications, you can work remotely from your laptop and make a positive impact on the world! It’s a win-win!
Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
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!
There are loads of opportunities for backpackers to volunteer in Central America, especially in poorer countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. You’ll find chances to offer up some time and skills pretty much anywhere, from teaching English in Panama to helping out on farms in Guatemala and eco-resorts in Costa Rica. Other opportunities include scuba instructing, yoga teaching, bartending, digital marketing, and more! You usually can’t volunteer in Central America on a tourist visa, so you’ll need the appropriate permit for each country.
Want to find some awesome volunteering opportunities in Central America? Then signup for Worldpackers, a platform that connects local hosts with volunteer travelers. 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.
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
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.
Central American Culture
Central America is home to dozens of distinct ethic groups – each with their 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 CA to be kind, generous, and welcoming – and just as often very keen on sharing a strong drink and a chat with you, time permitting.
Useful Travel Phrases for Central America
Below are some useful Spanish phrases for backpacking Central America. While many people speak English in the touristic areas, on many of the islands, and in big cities, once you venture out into the countryside or just need to ask directions to the bus driver, some Spanish skills will carry you a long way!
Hola = Hello
¿Cómo está(s)? = How are you?
Mucho gusto = Nice to meet you
Estoy bien = I’m fine
Por favor = Please
Gracias = Thank you
De nada/Con gusto = You’re welcome
No paja por favor – No straw please
Sin bolsa de plastico – No plastic bag
No hay cubiertos de plástico por favor – No plastic cutlery please
Lo siento = I’m sorry
¿Dónde está el baño? = Where is the bathroom?
¿Qué es esto? = What’s this?
¡Salud! = Cheers!
¿Cuánto? = How much?
Adiós = Goodbye
Quiero un taco/una cerveza. = I want a taco/a beer.
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 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.
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Awesome Adventures to try in Central America
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.
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.
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. 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, and although the Cayman Islands are technically British, they’re just south of Cuba and have some incredible diving experiences.
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.
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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.
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…
Final Advice Before Visiting Central America
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.
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!
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