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. 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. Backpacking in Central America is one hell of a good time….
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. I still dream about it. Check out my Guatemala Backpacking Guide. 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.
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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. These incredible blue pools live at Semuc Champey! I spent about a week backpacking El Salvador and really enjoyed my time there. 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. Same goes for the outlying neighborhoods around the surf towns. 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. 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.
My advice to spend the majority of your time in Honduras on Utila Island. Scuba dive, party, sleep, repeat. Enjoying the beauty of Utila Island, Honduras. 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 s.
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. 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! Check out my Nicaragua Backpacking Guide. Costa Rica is the long-standing adventure capital of Central America. Backpackers have been flocking here in search of that p ura 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. 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. Check out my Costa Rica Backpacking Guide. Costa Rica looks like this without even trying…. Panama is much more than just a tax haven for rich guys.
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. Some fun places to explore on the Caribbean Coast of Panama! Each country in Central America will affect your budget in a different way. 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…. The good things in life are usually free…. 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. 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. 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.
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! 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. 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. Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. 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.
World Packers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs and eco-projects around the world. 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. Not picked the perfect travel backpack yet? The Broke Backpacker team has tried out over thirty backpacks this year! Just use the code: brokebackpacker Check out this post to read our full review! 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. 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.
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. 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. Central America has plenty of budget accommodation options for backpackers.
They make it very easy to pick the right hostel for yourself in any given place!
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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. Central America right after the rainy season is super lush and green. 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….
Get your copy here. One of the most touching books I think I have ever read. It is still a fantastic book and we certainly get your travel inspiration flowing. Written with humor and suspense, this is a vivid account of their nine-month ordeal. 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. Explore the epic pools and cenotes around Tulum, Mexico. 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. 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. 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! 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.
The chicken buses in Guatemala have some epic paint jobs. Photo: Flickr. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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