Central America is an amazing part of the world to go backpacking. It’s the home of the ancient Mayan civilization and many vibrant cultures, it’s filled with rainforests and lava-spewing volcanoes, and you can chill out on amazing beaches all along the Carribean and Pacific coasts. Many parts of Central America are very cheap to travel in, too.
And that’s just scratching the surface!
When I went backpacking through Central America, I did think there were big differences between the countries in terms of sights and overall interest. Bigger than, say, in Southeast Asia (where every country felt almost equally amazing to me).
For instance, I got very excited about Guatemala, but then neighbouring Honduras felt like a bit of a dud. I know this is often subjective, but many travelers also expressed quite clear opinions on the different countries to me. The variable cost of travel and security situation in each country might have something to do with this, too.
That’s why I think it’s worth researching a bit before you plan your route. In this post, I thought I’d share my quick take on each country, plus some good travel routes for Central America.
Travel routes for Central America
A great thing about Central America is that it’s relatively compact. You can move around fairly quickly and can visit a lot of countries in one trip.
The main artery running through Central America is the Pan-American Highway. This road goes along the Pacific coast all the way from the north of Mexico down to Panama City.
You’ll find that the Pacific side in Central America often has the largest population centres and is easiest to get around in.
The Caribbean sides of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama tend to be a bit more remote and less developed. This can also, at times, make them more interesting parts to explore; for example, consider Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica, or Bluefields and the Corn Islands in Nicaragua. Since they’re away from the main infrastructure, these places can feel wilder and more remote.
The Gringo Trail
This route is a great option if you want to do it all and have at least 6 to 8 weeks available, but having more time is always better. This informal backpacker trail starts in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, then goes down Belize and Guatemala, and then through the rest of the countries until reaching and ending in Panama City. Parts of this route follow the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific coast.
I’ve indicated on the map below how many people travel through Central America, though there are of course other possible variations — all depending on your specific interests and your available time.
If you’re backpacking and staying in hostels, you’ll be happy to know that there are many other travellers in Central America — and plenty of cheap hostels to stay at. If you’re solo, you’ll be sure to meet other backpackers along the Gringo Trail, if that’s what you’re after.
It’s also possible to do this route the other way around. You can start in Panama City and then work your way up. Either way works, but most travellers seem to start in the north.
I find Panama City a bit dull and business-like, though it’s also quite orderly and easy to navigate, so it’s an easy place to get your feet wet before truly plunging in. Then again, I think southeast Mexico and Guatemala are really awesome, so starting there will arguably give you more epic stuff straight away.
Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica are some of the more care-free countries. They are among the safest and have some of the best public transportation. (There are unsafe parts of Mexico, but they are not really part of the tourist trail.) Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are a bit rougher around the edges, and sometimes require more patience to get from A to B.
But I also think these countries can be the most fun! Things are a bit more basic there, making it feel somehow more adventurous. The so-called chicken buses, or repurposed and colourfully painted US school buses, are most commonly seen in these countries. They’re a slow albeit fun way to get around.
Some spots along the gringo trail developed into backpacker party places. For example, the Bay Islands in Honduras, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. You’ll find tons of bars, bar crawls, funky surf hostels, and all manner of entertainment in these places. Whether you wish to seek out or avoid such places is up to you.
I mentioned this Central America itinerary will take you at least 6 weeks. Ideally, you should have around 3 months to really squeeze every last bit out of every destination. You could also make your trip longer by starting in Mexico City, and traveling through the Oaxaca, Chiapas and Yucatan regions of Mexico before diving into Central America.
Southeast Mexico + Guatemala route
This is a nice slice of Central America and my recommendation if you have just a few weeks. These two countries combine well in a circular route and pack a great punch.
Southeast Mexico will give you some great beach destinations, Mayan ruins, mountains, and jungles. It’s an amazing and easy part of the world to travel and will give you a ton of variety.
Guatemala will give you a great adventure-filled addition. You can visit the epic Mayan temples of Tikal (easily the best and biggest in the region) and the stunning volcano lake of Atitlan.
To do this route through Mexico and Guatemala, you’ll need about 2 to 3 weeks at a minimum, but more is always better.
Nicaragua + Costa Rica route
Another great idea for a short trip of a week or two is to start in Costa Rica, famed for its wildlife and ecotourism, and add some Nicaragua. Most of the sights in Nicaragua are in the southwest of the country, near the Costa Rican border, making this a pretty convenient combo.
Nicaragua is way cheaper than Costa Rica, so it can make your trip overall a lot more affordable.
Getting in & out
If you’re flying to Central America, then the most common entry points (with the most direct flights) are Mexico City, Cancun, San Jose (Costa Rica), and Panama City.
- Search for cheap flights to Mexico City
- Search for cheap flights to Cancun
- Search for cheap flights to San Jose
- Search for cheap flights to Panama City
If you’re flying in from Europe or somewhere else far away, you might want to check as well if there are connecting flights through Miami International Airport or the nearby Fort Lauderdale Airport.
Florida can be a great springboard into the region. The budget airline Spirit Airlines also operates various services from there.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many budget airlines operating within Central America. Sometimes the cheapest flight connection from, say, Guatemala City to San Jose might actually go via the United States! Once you’re in Central America, it often makes by far the most sense to travel overland by bus.
Onward to South America: if you reach Panama and wish to continue your journey to South America, keep in mind that this is not possible overland! There’s a huge stretch of impenetrable (and dangerous) jungle here called the Darien Gap. There are no roads at all through the Darien Gap so you will either have to fly or sail around. I can much recommend sailing between Panama and Colombia. Many captains operate private services taking travellers to and from Cartagena. It’s a wonderful 5-day trip, costs only a bit more than flying, and you’ll get some phenomenal island hopping around the San Blas Islands to boot.
Pssst, don’t forget your travel insurance!
Traveling Central America for a while? Then I recommend Heymondo. It covers you for medical emergencies, theft, travel delay, cancellation, lost luggage, and much more. (If your trip is under 120 days, consider their affordable Annual Multi-Trip Insurance which will cover trips up to this length.)
The cost of travel can vary quite a lot in Central America. If you want to know more details, check out my guide to Central America travel costs.
But in a nutshell: Costa Rica and Belize can be quite expensive; expect basically ‘first world’ prices. You’ll need to budget a bit more for these countries, especially if you plan to take a lot of tours. Panama, in my experience, is kind of in the middle. Panama City and the popular tourist destination of Bocas del Toro require a bit more budget, but you can travel fairly cheaply if you hang out in the surfer towns along the coast or the hiking hub of Boquete.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are all among the cheapest to travel. These are great backpacking countries to travel around, or to stick around for a while and maybe volunteer or take some Spanish classes.
All Countries in a nutshell
Highlights: Mayan and other Mesoamerican ruins, the cuisine (with special mention of Oaxaca state), beaches and caves in the Yucatan, beautiful colonial cities like Guanajuato and Mérida, spectacular Copper Canyon in northern Mexico, and so much more
Lowlights: overly commercialised beach resorts in Cancun
Mexico is in North America, but I’m including it here for convenience as many travellers make it a part of their Central America trip, and given the cultural similarities between Mexico and its southern neighbors.
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.
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. You might find some especially inexpensive flights to Cancun, as this is one of Mexico’s biggest holiday resorts, though it’s best not to stay in Cancun for too long if you don’t like hyper-touristy places.
If Mexico has you intrigued, be sure to dig into my detailed guide to Mexico. The southeastern parts alone, which are best combined with Central America, can take weeks to cover fully. Exploring Mexico at large can keep you busy for ages. While distances between places in Mexico can be quite long, at least compared to the more compact Central American countries, there is also a seemingly neverending wealth of places to explore.
Highlights: hiking around Xela, climbing volcanoes, Semuc Champey, Lake Atitlan, the epic ruins of Tikal, the colonial city of Antigua
Lowlights: pretty as it is, some consider Antigua a bit overrated
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!
It’s not only very cheap to travel in Guatemala, but it also has some of the most epic landscapes, the most intriguing sights, and more traditional culture (it’s not so Americanized as Costa Rica or Panama, for example). This may be subjective, but Guatemala gave me the biggest feeling of being on an adventure.
If you’re looking for a great white sand beach then this is the one area where Guatemala has little to offer. Neighboring Mexico is where you’ll want to be for beaches (e.g. in the Yucatan), or maybe look for the surfer beaches in El Salvador.
Guatemala is more about its landscapes, which range from dense tropical jungles in the north to deep valleys and peaks in the southern highlands. The south is also where you’ll find the pretty colonial town of Antigua and Lake Atitlan, a stunning lake surrounded by volcanoes. The towns around Atitlan are perfect for lazying about, learning Spanish, or getting to know other travelers, with San Pedro being the top backpacker hangout. Don’t miss this Lake Atitlan town-hopping guide with more details.
The north of Guatemala is home to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Tikal, which offers epic temple-top views of the jungle canopy at sunrise. Many consider it the best Mayan ruin to visit in all of Central America. The waterfalls of Semuc Champey make for a good stop along the way, as well. In Semuc Champey you can spend a whole day at the waterfalls, exploring hidden caves, and tubing down the river. (Ideally, you use Sermuc Champey to break up a north/south overland journey. It might not be quite worth going all the way there and back the same way.)
I liked seeing the more traditional culture in Guatemala. You’ll often meet people dressed in colorful Mayan dress. While driving through Guatemala on a road trip, I met many friendly folks working the coffee fields and ended up at a traditional village fiesta.
Beware: many backpackers end up staying in Guatemala longer than expected, either to learn Spanish, to volunteer, or just to hang out. When I was already six countries further down the gringo trail, some people I met earlier were still in Guatemala, unable to leave! Maybe you’ll find yourself quite captivated by this country, as well.
Sadly, I missed out on El Salvador on my two trips in Central America. But contributor Michael makes a compelling case for why it’s a big mistake to skip El Salvador.
This bite-size country has long been known mainly as a surfing destination, with surfers flocking to the beaches around El Tunco and El Cuco in particular. But the word is finally getting out that El Salvador has more to offer than just surfing, such as climbing Santa Ana volcano, relaxing at Coatepeque Lake, or driving the Ruta de las Flores. Since the country is so compact, it’s easy to hop around and see and do a lot even within limited time.
It should be mentioned that the security situation in El Salvador has not been so great for many years; in fact, in 2015 and 2016 it was the most violent country outside of war zones. However, this mostly concerns violence within gangs that does not affect travellers, and the situation has been improving in more recent years.
For a more detailed look at El Salvador, including a 10-day itinerary, see our in-depth backpacking guide to El Salvador.
Highlights: Bay Islands
Lowlights: not many other destinations of note, poor safety
Honduras unfortunately still struggles to escape its bad reputation for safety. It has one of the highest homicide 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 gang violence rarely if ever targets 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.
Honduras as two key attractions. One is the Bay Islands, a party place and scuba diving hub, giving access to the second largest reef in the world. It’s one of the cheapest places in the world to go scuba diving or to take a course. At certain times of the year, the islands are visited by whale sharks (the largest fish in the world), a sighting of which is considered somewhat of a trophy among divers.
Then there are the Mayan ruins of Copan. The site is smaller and quieter than others in the region. If you come from the south it will scratch that Mayan ruin itch, but if you’ve already been in Mexico or Guatemala, you’ll probably already have had your share (and seen better) by the time you get to Copan.
Highlights: Carribean rasta vibe, Caye Caulker, the Great Blue Hole, Mayan ruins of Caracol and Altun Ha, fantastic ecotourism thanks to recently protected Belize Barrier Reef
Lowlights: Belize City, high cost of travel
Belize is relatively expensive. Many backpackers will gripe about the sudden increase in costs, but Belize is different enough from the other countries to make it worth a stop. Budget travellers usually stay in Belize more briefly, such as on the islands of Caye Caulker, typically as a waypoint between Mexico and northern Guatemala.
The high cost can be offputting, but don’t skip Belize. The Caribbean rasta vibe and the creole English-speaking locals make for an interesting change of scene from other Spanish-speaking countries. The snorkelling around Caye Caulker is superb (you can reliably see reef sharks) and many divers come here to dive the Great Blue Hole, a giant marine sinkhole off the coast of Belize.
Staying on Caye Caulker can be done sort-of cheaply by being creative, e.g. by eating at some of the local 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 to $20/night for a dorm bed, and at least $30-$40 for the cheapest rooms. This guide to Caye Caulker will give you plenty of insider tips.
If you’re budget is tight, you can skip the caving or Mayan temple tours in Belize, as you can do such things cheaper in neighbouring countries.
Highlights: partying in San Juan, volcano boarding, the gorgeous volcano islands of Ometepe, remote Carribean coastline, colonial cities of Granada and Leon, very low cost
Lowlights: the capital Managua has lots of US-style sprawl and is totally skippable
Travel in Nicaragua can be very cheap—almost as cheap as Southeast Asia in places. I felt that Nicaragua was a tad underrated by some of the sources I had read before visiting. Granted, it’s still an emerging travel 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. But Nicaragua has a lot to offer.
Your dollar will go a long way here and there is much to see and do. Nicaragua also enjoys a better reputation for safety than the likes of Honduras and El Salvador, which can put your mind at ease. (There was much political unrest in 2018, but things are stable again now.)
Nicaragua has a number of beach and island destinations, such as the Corn Islands on the eastern coast and the surfer/party hub of San Juan on the Pacific coast. In terms of cultural interest, the old colonial towns of Leon and Grenada are both worthwhile stops in their own way. They are maybe not quite as lively as Antigua in Guatemala or as Instagrammy as Cartagena in Colombia, but they have an appealing local vibe.
Nicaragua has loads of volcanoes to climb, several surfing hot spots, kayaking around Ometepe island, not to mention the adrenaline-raising activity of volcano boarding (this is sandboarding down a steep volcano, i.e. pretty crazy!).
The country seems to have more backpacker party places than others. I’m guessing it’s the low costs and the surfer crowds helping to establish a bar scene. There are some quite notorious Western-owned party hostels in Nicaragua (like Bigfoot, Pacha Mama, and Naked Tiger) as well as a crazy weekly pool party in San Juan that seems to spread its “Sunday Funday” t-shirts like promotional carrier pigeons throughout Central America. Party animals will love Nicaragua, though if it’s not your thing, it’s also easily avoided in favor of more cultural attractions. My best memories of Nicaragua are from staying at a hostel on Playa Maderas for a week with no WiFi, having campfires and BBQs every night, and having beers under a beautiful starry sky.
Highlights: a perfect destination for wildlife, ecotourism, great beaches, adventure activities like zip lining and rafting
Lowlights: tourism areas are expensive and largely aimed at American families on a holiday; not ideal if you need to stretch a budget on a longer trip
I left Costa Rica earlier than planned. Why you might wonder? Well, it was just a lot more expensive than I (and, more importantly, my super broke travel buddy) expected. Weirdly, many websites list Costa Rica as a cheap destination, probably because someone once put it in a listicle and others copied it. In reality, costs in Costa Rica are often the same or higher as typical Western prices, especially in the touristy spots.
Organized tours and activities will especially cost a lot. Costa Rica is popular with North American tourists coming for shorter holidays, which pushes up the prices. Even groceries seemed really expensive to me. It was a bit of a shock to have to pay $15 for a single laundry wash in Monteverde when that had cost mere dollars in Nicaragua (an unfair comparison surely, but it’s a reality of travelling here). In other words, be sure to budget well for Costa Rica.
Not to be entirely focused on the costs, I should say the nature in Costa Rica is undeniably beautiful. The country has put itself firmly on the map as a leading ecotourism destination, even held up as a shining example to other countries around the world that I’ve travelled. You have to respect how Costa Rica has made sustainability and conservation central to its strategy. Thanks in part to eco-tourism, the jungles in Costa Rica are actually growing. It’s truly one of the best places in the world to spot wildlife. Even on a short visit, you’re bound to see coati bears, sloths, and other interesting creatures.
I also have to mention the positive Costa Rican spirit. The people are so friendly! I love their frequently-uttered motto of pura vida (meaning ‘pure life’, kind of their hakuna matata). The vibe is really great.
Costa Rica isn’t the perfect budget backpacking country in my opinion, but it is objectively amazing, especially if you are into wildlife and hiking. It also has a good reputation for safety, making it a great starter country for less experienced travelers who might also enjoy the more developed tourism infrastructure.
On my long term Central America trip, I was rather focused on cost, so I spent only a week in Costa Rica. That said, I’m determined to go back on just a Costa Rica-focused trip, when I’m not pinching pennies quite as much!
Highlights: San Blas Islands, hiking in Boquete, Isla Coiba National Park, lots of amazing nature without the crowds of Costa Rica
Lowlights: dull Panama City, Bocas del Toro nothing special (but fun party place)
Most people associate Panama just with its canal (or, heck, tax evasion), but it’s got so much more to offer. I think the culture is maybe not quite as vibrant as in other places in the region (such as Guatemala or Colombia), but the wildlife and nature is simply fantastic. It’s also far less touristy and a little cheaper than Costa Rica.
Some people seem to like the capital a lot. It didn’t do much for me, as it feels quite business-focused, but I must admit it’s much safer and more pleasant than pretty much all the other Central American capitals. This certainly makes it not a bad place to start your Central America trip, as it will let you ease into things more easily.
Boquete and Bocas del Toro are the best-known destinations in Panama. Boquete is Panama’s adventure travel capital where can spend a lot of time hiking, ziplining, rafting, etc. Bocas del Toro is a big party hotspot, often mentioned in the same breath as San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, or Roatan in Honduras. It has a reputation as a place where backpackers and nomads frequently ‘get stuck’ and stay longer than planned. The main part of Bocas del Toro is super commercial, but if you’re after more peace or authenticity you might want to leave Isla Colon head for the other nearby islands, some of which are barely inhabited.
A bit of a hidden gem is the Isla Coiba National Park on the Pacific coast, a sort of Galapagos-like island that’s maintained ancient forests and unique wildlife due to being isolated for so long from the mainland. You can take trips there from the surfer town of Santa Catalina.
My favourite part of Panama was easily the San Blas Islands, which I visited while sailing to Colombia. There are no roads connecting Panama and Colombia, so backpackers often book passage on one of many dozens of private yachts that regularly sail to Cartagena. If you decide to go that way, consider making a stop in Portobelo in Panama. It’s a cute town with old fortresses, and many yachts leave from there.
Panama isn’t maybe as epic as Guatemala or as cheap as Nicaragua, but it’s definitely not without its charms and not a country to rush through. And as the last point on my Central America itinerary, sailing around San Blas certainly ended the journey with a bang.
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