Central America: Where Best To Go Backpacking

A country-by-country take on highlights and cost of travel in Central America

A village in Guatemala

Central America is an amazing part of the world to travel. But there are also some big differences between each country, and most travellers end up having some clear favorites.

I felt this was different from travelling in other parts of the world like Southeast Asia. In Asia you can go to pretty much any country and find lots of fascinating things there. In Central America, it can be hit or miss. For instance, I got very excited about Guatemala, but then neighboring Honduras felt like a bit of a dud.

When you’re planning your trip, it’s worth knowing about the differences between each country. There’s a big element of subjectivity to this of course. But by speaking with lots of other backpackers in Central America, I do often hear similar opinions (for instance, I’m not the first traveller to love Guatemala!).

Price differences can also be quite strong between Central American countries, which is something else be aware of. Costa Rica and Belize are much more expensive for example. I’ve included some cost estimates in the country summaries further below.


TIP: For detailed advice on trip preparation including route planning, budgeting, vaccinations, safety, and more, get my in-depth guide

Why you should go

  1. Amazing natural beauty. Whether it’s rainforests, tropical beaches, lava-spewing volcanoes or massive lakes you are after, Central America has them  in spades.
  2. Home of ancient Mayan ruins. Explore ancient archeological sites in Mexico, Gautemala and Honduras, some of which are monumental in size while others are smaller and tucked deep in the jungles, making you feel like Indiana Jones making a new discovery.
  3. Cheap (with some exceptions)Central America is easy to travel on a backpacker budget, though with some caveats: read along and find out which countries are the most affordable.
  4. Relatively compact. The region follows a narrow strip which means your next destination is usually no more than one bus ride away. Other travellers are typically heading in one of two directions, north or south, making it easy to make friends on the trail.
  5. Carribean on a budget. The often less-visited Carribean side of Central American countries offers a great opportunity to enjoy Carribean beaches and, say, enjoy some fresh lobster at a cost much lower than the more high-end Carribean destinations (such as the Bahamas) that are visited by many cruise ships.

Typical itineraries

central america backpacking routes

Overview of Central America. The dashed line shows where most people travel, though there are of course plenty of other ways to travel the region.

If you have at least 2 or 3 weeks:

  • A popular shorter-term itinerary is to travel through southeast Mexico (primarily Oaxaca, San Cristobal, Palenque and the Yucatan peninsula) followed by Guatemala (primarily for the ruins of Tikal and Lake Atitlan). It’s a popular route as it allows you to circle back to Mexico from Guatemala and fly back out from there, and about 3 weeks should be enough to cover this area at a minimum.
  • Another popular shorter-term itinerary is to fly in and out of Costa Rica and add a bit of Nicaragua, a country which has most of its sights conveniently in the southwest near the Costa Rican border.

If you have at least 1½ months:

  • Why not cover the whole region? Start either in Mexico or in Panama City and work your way to the other end. Backpacking the Gringo Trail through Central America is doable in 1,5 months minimum as the region is quite compact, though you can easily stretch it to 3-4 months if taking it slow (or when seeing more of Mexico than just the southeast).

Getting in & out

Central America is lacking the budget airline presence that exists in other regions of the world. Overland travel is often the best option. Many travellers get in/out via the Mexico City or Cancun airports as these typically have the cheapest flight connections, and in/out via Panama if backpacking the whole region.

Look for flights out of Miami Int’l Airport or nearby Fort Lauderdale Airport. These are the de facto hubs for the region, and budget airlines like Spirit do have connections from here to many Central American capitals. If you want to fly between Central American cities you may often find that flying via Florida is cheaper than going directly.

Many travel the Americas following the so-called Gringo trail (a loose trail of countries which extends further south through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, etc.). If you are attempting to travel between Panama and Colombia, know that there’s a huge stretch of impenetrable (and dangerous) jungle here called the Darien Gap, making overland travel impossible. Even the Panamerican highway just stops. I can very much recommend sailing between Panama and Colombia instead of flying as it costs about as much and you’ll get an amazing 5 days of tropical island hopping.

Country profiles

Mexico

(Mexico is in North America, but included here for convenience as many travellers include it in their Central America trip.)

Cost: medium ($35-40 a day–budget more if covering great distances as bus travel adds up, or of course if staying in tourist resort towns)
Highlights: countless Mayan ruins, the cuisine (delicious streetfood is widely available, restaurant cuisine is excellent as well), beaches, caves in Yucatan, spectacular Copper Canyon in northern Mexico
Lowlights: some overly commercialised beach resorts, a handful of places with a bad reputation (primarily Acapulco, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua)

I got my first impressions of Mexico while road-tripping from the south to the north, and I was struck by the diversity of the landscapes. In the far south you can find dense jungles and lush green valleys, the Yucatan peninsula has many wetlands, while it’s mostly vast deserts in the north.

Church in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas state

The country is huge which intimidated me a bit during my planning stages. The Lonely Planet opened with not just the usual 10 or so “must see” places but with a whopping 40!

If Mexico feels like you’re biting off more than you can chew, it helps to focus your trip research on individual states. For example, if you like food and culture, Oaxaca is a great state to look at. Yucatan is more about beaches. As far as the typical backpacker trail goes, it runs mostly through the south-east part of the country.

Mexico ends up being a starting point for many Central America backpackers due to cheap flight connections there. Flights to Cancun are particularly inexpensive, though don’t stay in Cancun too long if you don’t like hyper-touristy places. I usually recommend skipping the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza as well. Chichen Itza gets hyped up a lot, but other Mayan ruins are honestly much more worthwhile. (Be sure to check out Palenque in Mexico, or Tikal in Guatemala.)

Beach in Tulum, Yucatan state

Read my Mexico backpacking guide »  


 Guatemala

Cost: low ($25-30)
Highlights: too many to mention!
Lowlights: Guatemala City has a poor reputation for safety, so most people concentrate their time elsewhere

Many backpackers consider this a highlight of Central America. It may be a little rough around the edges, but don’t let that stop you from visiting: the responsible and well-informed traveller will find it sufficiently safe. Guatemala is not only very cheap to travel in, it’s also so rich in noteable sights that it’s certain something will leave you excited.

If you’re looking for a great white sand beach then this is the one area where Guatemala unfortunately has little to offer, so neighboring Mexico is where you’ll probably want to be for that (see Tulum above for instance). This country is more about its dramatic landscapes, ranging from dense tropical jungles in the north to deep valleys and high peaks in the southern highlands. The south is also where you’ll find the colonial old town of Antigua as well as Lake Atitlan, a stunning lake surrounded by volcanoes. The towns around this lake are excellent for lazying about, with the hippie-esque San Pedro having become a popular backpacker hangout.

View from the top of one of the temples in Tikal

The north of Guatemala is not to be missed either, especially the Mayan ruins of Tikal which are huge with impressive temple-top views of the surrounding jungles, and many consider it the best Mayan ruin to visit in all of Central America. The waterfalls of Semuc Champey are also surely one of the best adventure experiences in Central America—to understand why be sure to read my blog post

Beware: quite a few backpackers end up staying in Guatemala longer, either to learn Spanish, to volunteer or just to hang out. As I write this I’m 6 countries further down the trail but some of the people I met earlier are still in Guatemala, unable to leave. I too was enthralled by Guatemala and hope to visit it again sometime. A combination of low cost of travel and many worthwhile places to visit I think make this one of the great backpacking destinations.

Antigua, Guatemala

Read my Guatemala backpacking guide »


Honduras

Cost: low ($25-30 a day)
Highlights: Bay Islands
Lowlights: not many other destinations, and not as comfortable from a safety point of view

Honduras unfortunately still struggles to escape its bad reputation for safety. It has one of the highest homocide rates in the world, and San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa are the no 1 and no 4 most violent cities respectively (not counting cities in war zones). It should be said that the gang violence rarely target tourists, and safety was also never an issue for me personally. You can still navigate a country like this safely as long as you take care, but it did often make me feel more limited in what I could do. 

I think as a consequence, it was also harder for me to fall in love with Honduras. The security situation aside, there unfortunately also aren’t a lot of sights or places that really put Honduras on the map. There are essentially two main attractions in Honduras; aside from these, Honduras’ main appeal might be more in going far off the beaten track (which I didn’t do much of).

The first big reason to go to Honduras is to go scuba diving on the Bay Islands. It’s probably the cheapest place to learn to scuba dive or to take fun dives anywhere in the region, and from the Honduran coast you’ll be able to access the second largest reef in the world. During parts of the year, there’s also a good chance of sighting plankton-eating whale sharks (the largest fish in the world), a sighting of which is considered somewhat of a trophy among divers. 

The other major attraction in Honduras are the Mayan ruins of Copan. This site is smaller and quieter than other ones in Mexico and Guatamala and for that reason can be more appealing. If you come from the south it will scratch that Mayan ruin itch, though if you have already passed through Mexico or Guatemala you might have already had your share of Mayan ruins by the time you get to Copan.


Belize

Cost: high ($50+ a day)
Highlights: Caye Caulker, caves and jungles on the mainland
Lowlights: cost of travel, capital has bad safety reputation

Belize is relatively very expensive and so you’ll catch quite a few low-budget travellers griping about the sudden increase in costs. Most budget travellers stay more briefly in Belize, usually on the islands of Caye Caulker, and usually as a waypoint between Mexico and northern Guatemala (either heading south or north).

Even if the high cost is putting you off, Belize can still be worth visiting even when other destinations are cheaper overall. The Caribbean rasta vibe and the creole-style English-speaking locals create an interesting change of scene from other Spanish-speaking countries. The snorkeling around Caye Caulker is superb (you can reliably see reef sharks while snorkeling for instance), and many divers come here to dive the Great Blue Hole (which I thought was somewhat overhyped thanks to some amazing aerial photos used to promote it, but I also understand completely why it’s on so many diver’s bucket lists—as it was on mine).

Staying on Caye Caulker can be done sort-of cheaply by being creative, e.g. eating noodle dishes at some of the inexpensive Chinese-run eateries, making use of 2-for-1 happy hour deals at the bars, staying in dorms, and so on. You probably need to budget about $15/night for a dorm bed, and at least $30-$40 for the cheapest rooms.

Seeing as I personally stayed mainly on Caye Caulker I’m not so well-informed on the rest of the country, though if your budget is tight it’s worth considering if certain tours or activities can be done cheaper in neighboring countries instead.

Caye Caulker

Read my Belize backpacking guide »


Nicaragua

Cost: low ($20-30 a day)
Highlights: partying in San Juan, volcano boarding in Leon, volcano islands of Ometepe, remote Carribean coastline
Lowlights: the capital Managua has a lot of US-style sprawl, parking lots, shopping centres, i.e. not as attractive nor as easy to navigate.

Travel in Nicaragua can be very cheap—almost as cheap as Southeast Asia in places, and that makes it especially attractive if you’re traveling on a budget. As difficult as it is to generalize a whole country, I felt that Nicaragua was probably a little underrated by some of the travel sources I had read before visiting, though admittedly it may still be a bit of an emerging destination (to illustrate, many guidebooks for Nicaragua are in their 3rd or 4th edition while those for other countries are in their 10th or 20th).

Essentially, your dollar will go a long way here and there is definitely plenty to see and do. Nicaragua also enjoys a somewhat better reputation for safety which can put your mind at ease (though of course the country is not without crime, and Managua is said to be quite rough so keep an eye out in particular there).

Nicaragua has a number of beach/island destinations, the most advertised being the Corn Islands on the eastern coast (hard to reach overland and so many take a flight there). In terms of cultural interest there’s the old colonial towns of Leon and Grenada, the latter seemingly a nascent mainstream tourist destination with a renovated cobble street area lined with mainly tourist restaurants. These places are perhaps not as buzzing as the likes of Antigua in Guatemala or Cartagena in Colombia, but are not unpleasant and well worth visiting. 

Climbing Mt. Telica near Leon, an active volcano where you can see the lava spewing inside at night

It struck me that Nicaragua is in particular a great place for active travelwith plenty of hiking opportunities (lots of volcanoes to climb), many surfing hot spots, activities like kajaking around Ometepe island, and the adrenaline-raising volcano boarding (as you might have guessed this is sandboarding down an actual volcano, i.e. pretty crazy).

Finally, it seems Nicaragua can be more of a backpacker party destination in some places, particularly San Juan Del Sur on the western coast. This is probably due to the low cost of travel as well as the surfer crowds helping to establish a bar scene here. There are a number of notorious Western-owned party hostels in Nicaragua (like Bigfoot, Pacha Mama and Naked Tiger) and a crazy weekly pool party in San Juan that seems to spread its “Sunday Funday” t-shirts like promotional carrier pigeons throughout Central America.

Read my Nicaragua backpacking guide »


Costa Rica

Cost: high (at least $40 a day, a lot more if you do many tours)
Highlights: perfect destination for wildlife / ecotourism, some great beaches, adventure activities like ziplining and rafting
Lowlights: high cost of travel; not ideal if you’re trying to stretch a budget on a longer trip

I left Costa Rica earlier than planned as I quickly became discouraged by the super high prices there. These prices can be a surprise, particularly as a lot of websites bizarelly list Costa Rica among the cheapest destinations to visit (someone probably put Costa Rica in a listicle somewhere causing lots of others to copy it). In reality the costs in Costa Rica can be close if not often identical to those in Western developed countries especially if you’re anywhere around the more visited parts. 

It’s particularly the tours and activities that cost a lot, in part due to an influx of North American tourists who are in Costa Rica for holidays and who have money to spend (and so Costa Ricans know what they can charge). Most of the tours and activities seemed to start at around $50—and since in my case I was travelling with a buddy who could not afford to regularly spend that much, we often had to make difficult choices. Besides the prices of tours, the general cost of living can also sting a bit: groceries were comparatively quite expensive and I was a bit miffed to have to pay $15 for a single laundry wash when that had cost mere dollars elsewhere (an unfair comparison surely, but it’s a reality of travelling here). I recommend budgeting probably around $40 a day for accommodation and basic travel cost, and anything on top of that is for tours/guides/etc.

Cloud forests in Costa Rica

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Not to be entirely focused on just the cost, I should say the nature in Costa Rica is undeniably beautiful, and the country has really put itself on the map as a huge ecotourism destination. Lots of exciting wildlife can be spotted easily if you go with a good guide. Check out this blog post I wrote about exploring the cloud forests of Monte Verde and seeing sloths and coati bears, among many other creatures, which was a superb experience. The people in Costa Rica also seemed very friendly, and you’ve got to love the their frequently-uttered motto of pura vida (meaning ‘pure life’, kind of their hakuna matata).

I probably might have enjoyed Costa Rica more if I was there with the expectation of having to spend more, or if I was with travel companions who could all commit their dollars equally. I’d like to come back sometime and see much more of the country.


Panama

Cost: medium ($30-35 a day)
Highlights: best beaches and tropical islands: go to Bocas Del Toro and San Blas Islands
Lowlights: Panama City and its old center not so appealing

Panama is mainly notable for its beach destination of Bocas del Toro and the absolutely stunning San Blas Islands. Picture a tropical island from a bounty commercial, and you’ll now know what to expect at San Blas!

Besides visiting the Panama canal (one of the major shipping lanes in the world), a popular activity is to visit coffee farms (for instance in Boquete) and learn about how coffee is grown.

Panama is a bit less known as a backpacking destination so you may have to make your own discoveries here. Panama City is understandably more business oriented than its neighbors due to the Panama Canal, and tourism seems not as high a priority as a result, which gives it a bit of a different feel.

My favorite bit of Panama were easily the San Blas Islands, which you can read a bit more about here. At first, I didn’t feel like I had struck gold in Panama, but the islands on the coast made me very happy I came. As the last point on my Central America itinerary, sailing around San Blas ended the journey with a bang.

Local Kuna fishermen passing by our boat at the San Blas islands


Bonus country: Cuba

While technically part of the Carribean and not Central America, Cuba makes for a good side-trip for those visiting Mexico or Belize as Havana is just an hour or so away by plane. Contrary to some misconceptions out there it actually is possible to travel in Cuba on a budget. Check out my Cuba destination guide for more info.

Note: El Salvador excluded only for reason of me not having visited. It’s on the list for next time!

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More about Central America

Around the web

Map of Central America by FreeVectorMaps.com

67 comments

  1. Comment by AlexCro

    AlexCro Reply January 18, 2017 at 3:42 am

    Hi! ☺
    Thx for this awesome info, it really helped me plan my last minute Central America trip. I’m flying to Panama City and then heading north to Mexico. I will be in total a little bit more than 2 months there (January 23rd till March 29th). Do you think I could visit all 8 countries in these 9 weeks.
    I was thinking:
    Panama: 4-5 days, Panama city and San Blas or Bocas del Toro
    Costa Rica: 7-8 days, Puerto Viejo and La Fortuna (lake Arenal, maybe Monteverde)
    Nicaragua: 8-9 days, San Juan, Ometepe, Grenada and Leon
    Honduras: 5-6 days, Bay Islands and Copan
    El Salvador: 2-3 days
    Guatemala: 13-14 days, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Lanquin (Semuc Champey), Flores (Tikal), Chichicastenango, Xela
    Belize: 4-5 days, Caye Caulker
    Mexico: 13-14, Oaxaca, San Cristobal, Palenque, Chichen Itza, Tulum, maybe Playa del Carmen

    Fly back from Mexico to Panama

    Is this realistic, with budget around 2000 euro? I know schedule is tight, but I’m not sure when will I have chance to visit again Central America so I’m trying to visit all countries. According to places written, where do you think I should spend more\less time?

    Thx again for all this amazing tips, really helped me a lot!

  2. Comment by pratap

    pratap Reply November 12, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Thanks Marek!! Very useful and informative stuff, helped plan my backpacking trip.

    I’m traveling over 70 days around Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica and Panama. Starting from Cancun to Panama.

  3. Comment by Khaled

    Khaled Reply November 7, 2016 at 5:54 am

    Hey Marek,
    Great post and I’m awaiting the guide! I’m planning to travel central America in 60 to 75 days! I was wondering about crossing country borders, how easy are they? Another question was finding the buses that take you from major city to another. Are they easily found?

    Thanks

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply November 7, 2016 at 9:54 am

      The borders require a bit of patience sometimes but it’s not been too bad in my experience. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador share the same 90 day visa. Costa Rica can be quite particular about entry requirements, such as proof of onward travel or proof of sufficient funds, so check those requirements carefully.

      Long-distance buses are fairly easily found, either online or through a local booking agency. Maybe it’s not always so ridiculously easy as in, say, Southeast Asia or Europe, but if you’re ever stuck a receptionist can usually point you in the right direction. 🙂

      Short-distance buses and minivans are super easy.

      • Comment by Khaled

        Khaled Reply November 7, 2016 at 10:19 pm

        Great, Thanks Marek!

  4. Comment by Sarah Guldberg Kjær

    Sarah Guldberg Kjær Reply November 6, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Hi Marek

    Great site of yours! It has really been helpfull in my friend and I.
    We are two girls who are planning on traveling through Central America (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Southern Mexico). We have set aside about 4 months to travel and we wanted know which countries we should spend more or less time in according to your recommendations? Also, do you have any safety tips? We have read a lot of stories about people getting their bags stolen, moneychangers cheating people for money etc.
    Furthermore, How much would you recommend is booked from home regarding stays, travel etc.? Or should we just take it as it comes to get the best experience?
    Thank you in advance 🙂

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply November 7, 2016 at 9:45 am

      Hey Sarah! For what it’s worth, my personal favourites are Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua. They also lend themselves well to staying a bit longer. You can go to more out-of-the-way places, like Bluefields in Nicaragua for example.

      Safety-wise… yep, things do happen in Central America. Look after your belongings closely and be careful wandering around after dark particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador (when in doubt take an official taxi). This topic is too much to cover in a comment but I have some basic tips here and my book is very helpful as well in putting any concerns at ease.

      I recommend booking very little from home – only your first couple of days really. Make your bookings a day or two ahead as you travel, so only when you get to Place A, book your accommodation for Place B. This is easiest and gives you the most flexibility. You can also just wing it and show up to places, though that doesn’t always get you the good hostel or hotel you really want 🙂

  5. Comment by Francesca

    Francesca Reply August 2, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Hi, Marek!

    This is a great post and super informative! I’m doing some research on backpacking tourism, and we’re looking at literally every region you’ve just given tips on (never mind my personal travel goals). I thought your Your comment about subjectivity was really interesting, because What we’re doing is to better understand the attitudes/behaviors/perceptions of backpackers who travel through Latin America. Would you be willing to take a short survey about your travel experiences to touch on some of the things you didn’t cover directly in this post?

  6. Comment by Tom Brierley

    Tom Brierley Reply June 26, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Great article man! Defintely a massive help with planning my trip to Central America. I cant wait!

  7. Comment by Tobias

    Tobias Reply May 24, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Hey Marek. 🙂

    I want to ask you: When you write that, for instance, cost of Panama can be 30 – 35 dollars a day. Have you here included visiting things like San Blas and Bocas del toro in your cost per day? Or is that just for hostels, food and so on.

    Thanks for the great guide. Really helped me.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply May 24, 2016 at 7:23 pm

      Hey Tobias! Things like tours or transportation are included in that estimate. What’s not included is your flights in/out of central america and other such non-local costs. It’s still only a rough estimate of course. 🙂

  8. Comment by Peter

    Peter Reply April 29, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Hey, Marek!
    Great guide! Me and a friend are currently living in Mexico, and have already done a lot of travelling within the country. We have also visited Cuba, Guatemala and Belize so far. We were thinking of doing a ~20 days trip in late June/early July working our way through the mid and southern parts of Central America. Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are absolute musts, while we have not yet decided on El Salvador and Honduras.

    I really only have two broad questions for you:
    1) Would we able to do all of those five within 20 days, counting traveling days? I saw that you already state a preference for longer stays and fewer countries, so I should mention that we in general the other way around. We did for example go through Guatemala and Belize in seven days, and felt quite content. Would you say that those countries need more time than Guatemala and Belize, or about the same?
    2) We would surely try to take buses instead of flying between each country. What’s your experience busing between the aforementioned countries? Any of the borders better/worse than others? From/to which cities is it easiest to find a bus? Any companies to recommend?

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply April 30, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Hey Peter. 5 countries in 20 days I suppose is possible, though then you’d have on average 4 days per country (maybe 2,5 or 3 days per country net, if you’re not counting travel time or working around local bus schedules). That probably limits you to one or two places max in each country. I know you said you prefer to go broad but I’d probably try to hone in on Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama as they make for a nicely compact circuit giving you more time to go sightseeing in each country. Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are all a lot more packed with things to see and do than Belize which is quite small and which you can more or less ‘see’ in a day (at a quick glance anyway).

      Long distance buses (e.g. between capitals) are reasonably comfy and quick. For instance between Managua, San Jose, and Panama City there are good quality buses (like tour buses, similar to those in Mexico). Local buses can be a bit of a pain especially in Nicaragua/Honduras/El Salvador though – often these are slow and somewhat stressful chicken buses. Costa Rica has more modern and convenient local buses.

  9. Comment by Max Moorman (Santa Cruz)

    Max Moorman (Santa Cruz) Reply April 22, 2016 at 1:03 am

    This was huge! Thank you for helping me plan my trip from Santa Cruz to Costa Rica.

  10. Comment by Rebecca

    Rebecca Reply April 17, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Hi,
    I’m backpacking Central America (Panama – Mexico) starting in a couple of weeks. I was just wondering if you’d had an experience with Corcovado National Park as I think it’s somewhere we want to visit but have heard it’s pretty difficult to get to. Any advice would be appreciated!
    Thanks.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply April 17, 2016 at 11:16 pm

      Not been there, sorry!

  11. Comment by becky

    becky Reply January 25, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    Any recommedations on which time of year is best for doing the 1.5 months itinerary? currently an UK student so only get June-Sept as a long enough period of time.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply January 27, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      The weather is different per country with somewhat different high seasons. Try not to overthink it though. Even in rainy season I found it often barely rains at all. I travelled in Aug and Sept in Central America and was surprised to learn later that this is meant to be wet season (I only really experienced this in Belize – every other country was sunny and lovely).

  12. Comment by Jenna

    Jenna Reply January 19, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Is it required to book a return ticket when flying into Guatemala? I plan to visit in May but do not know how long I will be staying as I plan to visit other countries.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply January 21, 2016 at 1:26 pm

      Flying on a 1 way ticket is a complicated subject. See this post for more. You probably can go to Guatemala on a 1-way perfectly fine, but there’s a small chance you might get unlucky. (Though it’s usually easy to deal with this if give yourself enough time at the airport, see the linked post.)

  13. Comment by Adam

    Adam Reply January 8, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Hi Marek,

    Great article, thanks for putting that together. I found it very helpful. I will be travelling Central America from mid-February until mid-June but want to spend 3 weeks at the beginning of the trip surfing and working on my Spanish in one location while I wait for a friend to arrive to Costa Rica. I was thinking Puerto Viejo would likely be my best bet. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

    Adam

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply January 8, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      Haven’t been to Puerto Viejo – hoping to go back to Costa Rica at some point to see it. Maybe other people have some input on this!

  14. Comment by David

    David Reply December 30, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Hello Marek,

    I’m backpacking central America (except Honduras) next october-november for 2 months

    im planning to start in Mexico City -> Cancun -> Belize (not sure) -> Guatemala -> Nicaragua -> Costa Rica -> Panama

    Can you tell me please, how many days i need to stay in each country ? for example, 10 days for each country is it enough? or not?

    thanks a lot, your post is awesome!

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply December 30, 2015 at 6:27 pm

      Hah these questions are getting increasingly tough to answer as everyone has a different travel style and goals.

      I guess I should say 10 days per country is tight, but sufficient if you pick out the top things you want to see for each country. Personally, I’d spend fewer days in Belize (it’s more expensive there and you can have similar activities/sights elsewhere for less) and fewer days in Panama (maybe 5 or 6 days… bocas del toro and the san blas islands are really nice). This stuff is not without controversy though… a while ago a Panamanian gave me a very hard time for giving this advice 🙂

      Probably the best way is to play it by ear a little bit. Don’t book everything in advance, but go with the flow, and stay longer or move on depending on how you feel.

      • Comment by David

        David Reply December 30, 2015 at 6:34 pm

        First of all, Thanks a lot for your answer!

        I am debating between the trail i described, i thought maybe to dedicate these 2 months for mexico (north+south+cancun) 35-40 days, belize 3-4 days and Guatemala for 20 days. About beaches, it is less relevant but i don’t exclude this

        What can you recommend? To visit most of the countries or to visit mexico,belize and guatemala and exhaust these countries?

        • Comment by Marek

          Marek Reply December 30, 2015 at 6:47 pm

          If you do that you’ll definitely get the full taste of Mexico and Guatemala. You’ll be able to take detours, follow tips from other travellers for cool places to see, and generally not rush so much. This is how I love to travel and so I’d say that’s a great plan, though I know some people are happier ticking more stuff off the list on a single trip.

          If you want to see wildlife Costa Rica is probably the best place to do it (better than Mexico/Guatemala), and Panama has some amazing islands. But in terms of culture, beaches, volcanoes, Aztec ruins, etc. Mexico and Guatamala will give you some of the best sights.

  15. Comment by Gary

    Gary Reply November 20, 2015 at 2:00 am

    Hi Marek, my wife and I have 2 months to travel from Mexico City to Panama, which averages 1 week per country. Reading you comments above 1 week per country sounds a bit tight. If you had to skip one (to two) countries to move at a slower pace which would you skip? Perhaps one has more of an overlap on sights and activities that we could do elsewhere? Thanks for such a useful travel guide!

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply November 25, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      1 week per country is indeed pretty tight. There’s an element of subjectivity of course, but I’d probably skip or spend less time in Belize and Honduras (as similar sights/activities things can be done elsewhere). I haven’t been to El Salvador… surfers love it for the waves though I know there aren’t a lot of ‘tourist sights’ there necessarily. From what I’ve heard El Salvador more about discovering local culture which can be tricky if you’re on a tight itinerary.

  16. Comment by Nancy

    Nancy Reply November 15, 2015 at 3:05 am

    Hi, I found your blog by Googling for general Panama prices. Am in need of a very cheap vacation and the flight there is cheaper than other parts of Central America, but it seems the daily costs would outweigh the ticket price. Thanks for the great summary.

    I actually stayed at Robert Broz Moran’s house in Suchitoto, so it’s funny to see his comment. Loved El Salvador, AND the off-the-beaten-track parts of Honduras :).

    I believe the reason Costa Rica is still showing up on these budget lists is because it used to be cheaper, and people are using old info for these “listicles”. OR maybe it’s just that the people writing them have a different idea of “cheap!” I went in 2004 and was hard-pressed to spend as much as $25/day…I realize that’s a long time ago, but this budget was achieved sleeping almost entirely in private rooms and eating in (local-style) restaurants rather than street food/bakeries.

  17. Comment by Luca

    Luca Reply November 2, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Your informations helped me quite a bit putting my route together, thanks! 🙂
    This route which i call the ‘Mayan Circle’ was a lot of fun with so many different things to see and experience. Being able to fly to Cancun and also end there was very convenient and cheap. It took us 4-5 weeks, i can definitely recommend it!

    • Comment by David

      David Reply December 30, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      SUch a f**kin awesome video!!

  18. Comment by Courtney M

    Courtney M Reply October 10, 2015 at 12:16 am

    Hi!!
    this is such an AWESOME, inflormative blog! I’m new to the whole “backpacking” idea but i’ve had an urge to get out and adventure…so don’t laugh if this sounds stupid, but where do you stay while backpacking? hostiles along a trail or in the city?
    thanks!!

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply October 10, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      Hi Courtney! Mainly hostels and budget guesthouses/hotels, both in villages and cities. By the way, backpacking as a form of travel typically involves taking local transportation between places (buses, trains etc.) so the idea of a ‘trail’ is a bit more abstract than with hiking or trekking trips (where you literally follow a trail on foot). With travel backpacking you typically end up going from hostel to hostel (or hotel) and using those as a base for sightseeing and exploration.

  19. Comment by Emma

    Emma Reply October 1, 2015 at 1:29 am

    Hello Marek!
    Im planning a solo backpacking trip through Central America. Im spending two months in Granada, Nicaragua where I’m volunteering through a non-profit company and then plan on backpacking to Merida, Mexico where I’ll do another volunteer project through the same company. I would like to go through Guatemala and spend some time volunteering there. I saw you mentioned some friends stayed and did that. Are there other ways to volunteer there besides doing it through a large company? Also, what would you recommend for the best method of transportation? Thank you!!
    Emma Tordoff

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply October 1, 2015 at 2:44 pm

      My knowledge of volunteering options is fairly limited, sorry! Maybe another reader can comment on this. As far as transportation goes, for short distances you can use hop-on-hop-off minivans or local ‘chicken buses’, for longer distances there’s regular buses which are easy to book ahead the day before. There are small travel agencies everywhere selling these tickets, or you can get them through a hostel/guesthouse, or at the bus station itself.

  20. Comment by Christopher Garcia

    Christopher Garcia Reply September 18, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    I am flying into Panama October 9th and then taking the Gringo trail North until I hit Mexico. Likely trekking until late November. Should I have weather concerns? Is this a less than desirable time to travel? Will I end up just being miserable and rained on the entire time?

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply September 18, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      I travelled the region in these months and it was fine, apart from some sustained rainy days in Belize on the Caribbean coast, which I’ve heard is common there in these months. Everywhere else was basically sunny and nice.

      • Comment by Christopher Garcia

        Christopher Garcia Reply September 18, 2015 at 6:12 pm

        Good to know! Thanks for the insight.

  21. Comment by Joe

    Joe Reply August 29, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Really useful guide. Going through central america in a few months, starting in Colombia and sailing round to Panama and working my way up before heading to Cuba before flying back. Got plenty of useful tips!

  22. Comment by Emmerson Jespersen

    Emmerson Jespersen Reply July 19, 2015 at 5:44 am

    Hey there thanks for all the great info.
    Just wanted to double check i dont see you talking about resupply using mail drops. Are you able to hike through central America without using any transport and be able to resupply on food when needed?
    My brother and i are starting in oregon and making our way down to peru.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply December 30, 2015 at 6:34 pm

      Sorry, your question slipped under the radar somehow! Not sure as I only really have experience backpacking in Central America in the travel sense and not in the sense of trekking/wilderness hiking. I’m not sure if it’s possible to trek through self-sufficiently/unaided – maybe someone else can weigh in.

  23. Comment by todd e hildebrand

    todd e hildebrand Reply June 13, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Thanx Marek, great site! Good info! I started travel at 49 and can’t get enough. Was going to go back to SE Asia/India and see the places I hadn’t before, but am thinking of probably flying into Mexico City then going south until I run out of money or until I fall off of the end of Chile/Argentina…. plus Cuba! I’m thinking spring of next year. Thanx! t.

  24. Comment by Michael Esterson

    Michael Esterson Reply May 26, 2015 at 1:25 am

    If you make it to Costa Rica and you plant to take the western side to Panama CIty, stop in David, Panama, its a great little city super close to beaches, hot springs, Boquete, and rain forrest, the best place to stay is http://www.bambuhostel.com which sports a pool, lush gardens and a backpackers dorm built on stilts from bambu and other native woods…

  25. Comment by Mayohn

    Mayohn Reply May 14, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Hi Marek! Me and my partner are planning our first back packing trip together. We are going to start from Mexico(Cancun) then to Guatemala and Belize and either Costa Rica or Panama for 22 days. I just had a few questions.
    Is that long enough to see 4 countries?
    Should we head Costa Rica or Panama for the final leg before we fly back home to the UK?
    What advice could you give us with regards to keeping safe (as we do not know what to expect) as well as seeing the best sites?
    I look forward to your response

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply May 19, 2015 at 4:10 am

      Hmm, that’s less than a week per country which seems a little tight.

      It’s up to you of course: some people prefer to see a few things in several countries instead of seeing more things in fewer countries. I personally really like the latter as you cut down on your time in transit (relative to time spent seeing things) and you get more opportunities to see interesting things besides just 2 or 3 main attractions in a country.

      Getting from Guatemala to Costa Rica or Panama takes a long bus journey. It’s probably 2 travel days to get there, so I would maybe not try to make it there and focus on Mexico/Guatemala/Belize. You could try flying but it seems like a bit of a detour.

      Some safety tips here: http://www.indietraveller.co/articles/view/central-america-safety-tips

      • Comment by Mayohn

        Mayohn Reply May 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm

        Hi Marek. Thank you for your reply. Sorry I should have mentioned that after seeing Mexico, Guatemala and Belize that we will take a flight from either Guatemala or Belize (whichever country we visit last) directly to Costa Rica. Also how easy/safe is it to find accommodation as we are first timers to this. What advice could you give us?

  26. Comment by Ramaswamy Narayanan

    Ramaswamy Narayanan Reply April 5, 2015 at 4:14 am

    Are you planning island hopping in the Caribbean in the near future…..??

  27. Comment by Clare McBrien

    Clare McBrien Reply April 2, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Hello Marek,

    Thank you so much for this detailed guide. I have used it to plan my trip from Colombia up to Mexico and across to Cuba. Would you be able to point me in the direction on advice on money? I am not sure if I should bring USD to exchange in each country or British Pound Stirling? I will obviously bring bank cards with me but in general I was wondering how you managed your money whilst travelling through central america.

    thank you

    Clare

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply April 2, 2015 at 11:57 am

      USD and GBP are both easy to exchange, though USD is easier to pay for things with in a pinch if you don’t have local currency. I tend to take a bit of USD with me for emergency purposes but use bank cards primarily. A bit more detailed advice on this (pros/cons, banking fees, etc.) is in my book.

      Look into Cuba closely – getting money out there is not always easy and bringing cash is a good idea there (US/Cuba rapprochement may change this situation in the future). Some details on this in my Cuba guide http://www.indietraveller.co/destinations/travel-guide/cuba

      • Comment by Clare McBrien

        Clare McBrien Reply April 6, 2015 at 7:45 am

        thanks for such a quick response. Heading out today!!

  28. Comment by Emily Horswill

    Emily Horswill Reply March 14, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Hiya,

    Anksfor the guide I have already asked one question but circumstances changed and I have another now!
    I am flying into Cacun, Mexico on Tuesday and will have a month to make it down to my planned flight aback home from Nicaragua on 17th April. Is this enough time? And is there anywhere I should avoid or cut short to spend more time? My main focus I reckon is going to be Guatemala, Nicaragua thanks!

    Due to certain circumstances I can’t make it to Costa Rica or Panama.
    Thanks!

    Emily 🙂

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply March 17, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      I loved Guatemala, and I think San Pedro is a cool place to hang out a big longer! 1 month probably means you’ll have to keep pace a bit, but it should be fine. Nicaragua is quite compact (the part that has the most sights, anyway, they’re all quite close together) so here you could probably spend a bit less time, if you have to prioritize.

  29. Comment by Kristin

    Kristin Reply March 11, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    This is very helpful, Indietraveller! Next school year (fall/winter 2015) my 13 yr old son and I plan to backpack through Central America for 2-4 months while he does virtual school, and I work on my travel blog. We want to do 2-4 weeks of Spanish classes on a budget and then make our way from Guatemala down to Panama (possibly Cancun since the flights may be so much cheaper). We will make time for volunteering, surfing lessons, snorkeling, a cooking class, and etc. Probably spending about a week in one spot and then moving on. Here are my questions: Do I have an safety concerns? Is it realistic to budget up to $50/day for both of us (staying in CLEAN hostels or budget rooms or 1 week rentals)? Can anyone recommend a cheap, quality Spanish school for adults and kids classes? Is it possible to find small paying jobs like in cafes or teaching English? Anyone have an itinerary suggestion? I’m ok skipping Belize and El Salvador. What’s the best and fastest way to get from Cancun to Guatemala?

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply March 29, 2015 at 4:36 pm

      Hey Kristin! Sorry I didn’t spot your post earlier. Two questions I can answer quickly: personally I’d agree that $50 a day is a realistic budget. You can find budget rooms in hostels and guesthouses for around $15-20 a night that are clean and nice (but not luxurious). There’s two common routes from Cancun, one is to head down the coast to Chetumal, and then bus it to Santa Alena / Flores in Guatemala. There’s some great beaches along the way if you want to break up the journey. Another is to go to Palenque in Mexico and then head east into Guatemala.

  30. Comment by Martu Grigio

    Martu Grigio Reply February 16, 2015 at 12:14 am

    hiii, im backpacking central America (except Honduras) this summer by myself and this was very helpful on deciding approx. how long to stay in each country. I would like to know how much was everything in san blas islands and how do you get there? How long would you say to stay there? Would you say since belize is expensive for a weekend 3-4 days in caye caulker is alright? Appreciate your advice!! THANK YOU

  31. Comment by Emily Horswill

    Emily Horswill Reply January 29, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Heya

    I was looking at going to Central America for 3 weeks, do you think that is enough time to do Ncaragua, El Salvador and Guatamala justice? Any advice would be great!

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply February 1, 2015 at 11:29 am

      Hmm, good question. It’s always very personal and all depends on what you want to get out of your trip.

      I would probably say to really take in much of Guatemala you need at least two weeks. That’s if you want to stay around lake atitlan for a bunch of days, soak it all up, etc. But then again, if you keep the pace up and you don’t stick around anywhere for too long you could certainly do 3 countries in 3 weeks. You’d just have to set priorities and leave some places/sights aside.

      Maybe it’s best to start with the country you are most eager to see, and then play it by ear.

      • Comment by Emily Horswill

        Emily Horswill Reply February 1, 2015 at 4:34 pm

        Thanks a lot! 🙂 Turn out that what I needed to be back for has been cancelled so I may well be there for a good few months! 🙂

  32. Comment by Charlie

    Charlie Reply December 16, 2014 at 2:22 am

    Incredibly useful stuff! My partner and I just used your guide plus a few of the country ones to plan our travel itinerary for 2015, when we finally leave Costa Rica for good and start travelling north of Nicaragua! Very awesome, thanks for writing it all out 🙂

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply December 16, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      Glad to hear! 🙂 A lot of travel info is of course inherently subjective, though I try to make these posts as useful as possible. Good to know it helped you guys out!

      • Comment by Charlie

        Charlie Reply December 16, 2014 at 1:42 pm

        Yes, of course! Actually, Luke and I had already selected which places we wanted to visit (a few of which are ones you had pointed out) but were struggling to see which routes through the countries would best connect them. We were struggling to decide on which Mayan ruins to stop at as well!

  33. Comment by Robert Broz Moran

    Robert Broz Moran Reply October 11, 2014 at 2:23 am

    whoops you missed El SalvadorCentral Americas smallest country and athough feared by many due to rants about the violence and gangs, definitely worth mentioning if not for a 3-10 day visit to explore.
    I am an expat from California, now living here for around 20 years. Many skip this tiny but by far most undiscovered and friendliest country in Central America.
    For travel links check out http://www.theotherelsalvador.com or write to me at rpbroz@gmail.com for help with itinerary and trip planning.
    Regards from Suchitoto, El Salvador
    Robert Broz Moran

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply October 12, 2014 at 9:50 am

      You’re right to point this out! It’s the only country I missed seeing (though not for any particular reason, just circumstance) so I did not feel I could write properly about it. Your website seems very useful.

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