Mayan ruins, tropical rainforests, surfer beaches, and colorful towns — Central America has got it all! While there may be certain challenges to be aware of, this collection of bite-size countries is affordable, (mostly) safe, and becoming a growing backpacking hotspot.
Are you dreaming of traveling the whole region? Or maybe a specific country? Either way, scroll forth for my top tips based on backpacking Central America for over six months.
What’s the Gringo Trail?
If you’re looking to make an epic journey through Latin America, you will no doubt soon hear about the “gringo trail”.
Named after the Spanish slang word for foreigners, this loosely defined travel route runs all the way through Central- and South America. It is a favorite among backpackers and other overland travelers.
The Central American part of the Gringo Trail will take you at least about 2 months, give or take. This informal backpacker trail starts in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, then goes down into Belize and Guatemala, and then through all the other countries until ending in Panama City.
A key artery on this travel route is the Pan-American Highway, which runs from the north of Mexico all the way down to Panama City along the Pacific side. Although it’s called a ‘highway’ it’s mostly just a 2-lane road. When backpacking through Central America you’re likely to drive along many sections of it by bus. Motorbikers and other overland adventurers also follow this road often, as can be seen in the road trip documentary The Long Way Up with Ewan McGregor, for instance.
To cover the region you may end up traveling thousands of miles or kilometers, but Central America is still relatively compact. You can move around fairly quickly and visit a lot of countries in one trip.
The map below will show you roughly the ‘Gringo Trail’ that many backpackers follow. They do so either on purpose or simply by intuitively following the breadcrumb trail of backpacker-friendly destinations along this route.
Away from the Pan-American Highway, 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 a bit wilder and more remote.
On the other hand, some spots firmly on the Gringo Trail have developed into backpacker party places. For example, the Bay Islands in Honduras, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, or Bocas del Toro in Panama. You’ll find tons of bars, funky surf hostels, bar crawls, and all manner of entertainment in these places. Whether you wish to seek out or avoid them is up to you.
You can start in Mexico and go down or begin in Panama City and go up. It seems a bit more common for backpackers to do it north-to-south.
How much time do you need?
How long does it take to see most or ‘all’ of Central America? This is so difficult to answer. As I visit and revisit places all over the world, my conclusion is that there is never enough time to see and do everything.
Still, if you held me at gunpoint I would say that six weeks is probably the ideal minimum time to do a full tour of Central America. You’ll be able to spend about a week in each country, getting a good taste of what they’re like.
If you’re a completionist, I’d recommend a minimum of three months. This is enough to hit up the key highlights, but also to poke around in some off-the-beaten-track places. You could also linger for a week here and there, perhaps to learn Spanish, to pick up surfing, or to volunteer.
Shorter backpacking routes
If the Gringo Trail or a similar route seems a bit too much, why not bite off something smaller? Instead of doing the full monty, just pick two or three countries you most want to visit.
Sure, visiting more countries may give you more bragging rights, but it can be nice to explore fewer countries more deeply. This can often lead to more unique experiences — which will give you bragging rights of a different kind!
Backpacking Southeast Mexico + Guatemala
This is a great slice of Central America to cover if you have a couple of weeks. These two countries combine well in a circular route and pack a great punch.
Southeast Mexico will give you some great beaches, Mayan ruins, mountains, and jungles. It’s an amazing and easy area to travel and will give loads of variety.
Guatemala is a great adventure-filled addition to your trip. 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.
Backpacking Nicaragua + Costa Rica
Another great idea for a short trip of a week or two is to focus on Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Famed for its wildlife and ecotourism, Costa Rica can deliver many epic moments even if you’re on a tighter schedule. In Nicaragua, many of the best destinations are in the southwest, very close to the Costa Rican border. This makes these two countries a perfect combo. By the way, Nicaragua is way cheaper than Costa Rica, so it can level out your overall costs a lot.
Best backpacking in Central America?
Since I had much more to say about each country in Central America, I split off my impressions into its own article. Have a look at these best countries and places to visit in Central America.
What are the hostels like?
There are loads of hostels in Central America and there are many different kinds of them. If you’re solo, it’s easy to meet other backpackers.
Many hostels are like true traveler or surfer hostels; the kind of places with lots of hammocks, a barbeque, probably some dude with a guitar, a hostel dog, and lots of travel stories flowing every evening. These are my favorite hostels! They are often managed by local owners and tend to have a great atmosphere.
A handful of hostels are definitely party hostels — and since this is Central America, some of them party very hard. Thinking back, this is where I whisper “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe…” and probably lose myself in a dramatic flashback. I’m just saying the party scene can be a little wild! I’m too old for that shit now but I enjoyed it occasionally when traveling Central America when I was younger.
By far most hostels are just like anywhere else though. Good vibes, nice common areas, and all the rest of it. The backpacking crowd in Central America is on average somewhat older than in Europe, Australia, or countries like Thailand. As a result, most hostels are ‘all ages’ type of places.
There is also a style of more upscale, hipstery and digital nomad-friendly hostels, most prominently from the hostel chain Selina, which originally started in Panama. I’ve stayed in Selinas elsewhere and they are nice, though they may lack the ‘traveller vibe’ of true hostels.
Some hostels in Central America are kinda legendary and need to be booked in advance. For instance, when I was last in Panama, I was kicking myself for not getting a spot in Bambuda Lodge hostel, which has a 150 feet water slide going into the sea, or Lost & Found, an epic hostel hidden in the jungle.
Besides hostels, there is always some sort of cheap local accommodation to find. Look for hospedajes or guesthouses. While backpacking Central America, I split my time about 50/50 between hostels and guesthouses, and I liked having this mix of socializing and quieter time.
Getting to Central America
If you’re flying to Central America, then the most common entry points (with the most direct flights) are Mexico City, Cancun, San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica), and Panama City.
There are good connections with the US, but if you’re flying in from Europe or somewhere else further away, you may find there are relatively few (good or cheap) direct flights to Central America. If so, you might want to check if there are connecting flights through Miami International Airport or Fort Lauderdale Airport.
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 the most sense to travel overland by bus.
How to get around
There aren’t as many (budget) airline connections in Central America as there are in other parts of the world. Luckily the region is quite compact, making overlanding the sensible way to travel.
The cheapest — and arguably most fun — way to travel around is using local transportation. Various forms of bus services exist, letting you get from A to B at varying levels of comfort and speed.
Collectivos are short-distance minivan services. You can find them at bus terminals or you can usually flag them down on the road. While not that comfortable (I once had to ride one while hanging partly out of an open sliding door), they can be incredibly cheap. Riding a collectivo for one hour in one will set you back about $0.50 – $1.
Chicken buses are converted former US school buses, apparently named so because various goods including live chickens will sometimes be transported on them. They cover somewhat longer distances than the collectivos. Drivers will usually be shouting out destinations at the bus terminal, so just hop on board one that’s heading the right direction. For prices, think single-digit dollars. Typically you just get on board and pay later; an assistant usually comes to collect the money from you during the journey.
When using chicken buses, remember to keep a close eye on your bags. Some travelers don’t use chicken buses at all due to reports of crime. It’s true that generally it is not advised to use inner-city buses in capitals such as Guatemala City or Managua as these are much less safe. But outside the main cities and during the daytime, chicken buses are typically fine (but inquire locally if you’re unsure).
Long-distance coaches (usually modern two-deck buses) connect the capitals and other major hubs. Some countries also have shuttle services catering specifically to tourists. These are often a little more convenient, though they can cost as much as ten times more than the local alternatives. In Panama, I ended up using such shuttles a lot as they went directly between certain tourist destinations without any need to transfer.
Is Central America cheap?
It hugely depends where you go! Costa Rica and Belize are super expensive. Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador are very cheap countries.
To illustrate, a hostel dorm bed in Belize sets you back at least about $20 there, with private rooms starting at around $40. This is at least twice (maybe even thrice) as much as in Guatemala or Honduras.
For more details, check out my article on travel budgets in Central America. On the whole, it can be said that the region is budget-friendly, so long as you are mindful of the costs in Belize, Costa Rica, and the resort-filled locations on the Mexican Yucatan coast such as Tulum and Cancun.
How to travel on a budget
By and large, Central America is easy to do on a budget. You can keep costs down by focusing on the cheap countries, as well as just keeping your day-to-day costs under control.
For the best deals, resist buying local tours or experiences online, especially through international platforms. This is because there may be quite a markup applied by those platforms and other 3rd parties. It’s often much cheaper to organize activities locally. Most tourist towns have little travel agencies offering all kinds of activities, or you can book these through a hostel or guesthouse.
Besides accommodation and tours, food is another key expense. Honestly, Central American food can be quite samey and boring, but eating the local staples like rice, beans, plantains, and so on will definitely keep your costs low. I remember having some very filling dinner at a market eatery in Nicaragua for about $2.00. Not bad! Picky eaters may have to spend more, but if you just need to fuel up on a budget, you sure can do it.
Learning some Spanish can help you haggle as well as getting directions to more local places with cheap eats.
Is Central America safe?
Central America is rather safe in most countries and most of the time. In some places or countries, it’s really not so safe at all, though you can still transit safely through it. I hope that makes sense.
I used to be just all like “yaaaay, travel is amazing and you’ll never face any danger! Go with the wind!”. But as I’ve gotten older and traveled more, I’ve recognized the need to be a bit more nuanced. Situations can change and everyone has varying tolerance for (perceived) safety issues as well.
Anyway, the important thing to say is that countries like Honduras and El Salvador are honestly a bit rough around the edges. It’s wise to take a bit of extra care here. You can worry less in, for example, Costa Rica and Mexico (particularly the relatively worry-free southeast of Mexico).
People usually have excessive worries before a trip rather than too few. This is why bloggers are typically very reassuring, which is generally a good thing. All the positive stuff you’ve heard about Central America is true!
Just don’t jump in without any self-awareness or a complete lack of knowledge of the local situation. You can read a few specific safety tips for Central America.
If you’re going on, say, a family holiday to Costa Rica, you basically have nothing to worry about. If you’re being a bit more adventurous, I do think it helps to have some good situational awareness. It may also help to have traveled in other parts of the world first; Europe, Asia, or even South America are easier if you’re going on your first-ever backpacking trip.
What’s the best time to go?
The best time to travel Central America is during the dry season. The exact timing of this is different in each country, but broadly speaking the dry season is between November and April.
That doesn’t mean the ‘wet season’ is all that bad. I was in Guatemala in September, which is supposedly the worst month, but I wouldn’t really have guessed it at the time. Maybe I got lucky, but I had a great experience.
Sure, it rained a couple of times. Annoyingly, it rained while visiting the ruins of Tikal. Yet the tourist sights were also free of crowds and the jungles were especially lush and green. I visited Panajachel on Lake Atitlan during September and it was super chill; when I came back in December it was a cacophony of souvenir sellers, tour operators, and so on. Quite a shocking difference!
Still, the common advice is to avoid the months of July to September. Come to think of it, I did also witness the ravages of a tropical storm in Mexico during this time — hmmm. I guess the dry season does offer more assurances of good weather and good vibes. If forced to travel during the rainy season, you still can though.
Keep in mind that Mexico and Costa Rica, popular as they are with American holidaymakers, will fill up a lot during US holidays such as 4th of July.
Do you need to know Spanish?
No necesitas saber español para viajar por Centroamérica, pero definitivamente te ayuda!
What I mean to say is that Spanish knowledge is definitely helpful. Few people in Latin America are multi-lingual and English is not widely spoken, so any Spanish you can muster will certainly be a plus.
Can you survive without Spanish? Sure! Most hostels have staff members that speak different languages. Local hospedajes or guesthouses might not, but the things you need to communicate (payment, wifi passwords, food, etc.) are not exactly hard to guess.
I was with a travel buddy who knew absolutely zero Spanish. All he knew to say was ‘necesito’ (‘I need’) followed by some gesture, pointing, or showing a picture of what he needed. He got through South- and Central America without a hitch. Google Translate can also be of great help if you travel with mobile data.
Nevertheless, knowing some Spanish will pay dividends throughout your trip. One thing I love about backpacking in Latin America is that you can get much closer to the local culture. In Asia, for instance, I often felt a bit trapped in the tourist bubble, usually unable to communicate with anyone local (learning Thai or Vietnamese is a bit beyond my abilities). In Latin America I could chit-chat with passengers on the bus or even date with locals, adding a different dimension to the experience.
A trip through Central America is a good excuse to take at least a few Spanish classes somewhere. Chances are these classes will be cheaper than you’ll ever be able to get them at home.
Another good way to brush up is to load up some audio lessons that you can listen to during your bus journeys.
Top experiences in Central America
The region is dotted with volcanoes throughout, so while you’re here, you should climb a volcano at least once!
In Guatemala, I climbed up Tajamulco volcano at night to catch the sunrise, which was just out of this world. In Nicaragua, I hiked up to Telica volcano, which was active at the time, and you could peek over the edge and see the lava down below. Simply unforgettable. Many backpackers also speak highly of the volcanoes near Antigua, Guatemala. In Nicaragua, you can also go volcano boarding (sliding down a volcano like a sled).
The jungles and cloud forests of Costa Rica are not to miss. Do a day hike or, better yet, get a jungle tour at night with a good guide. I was amazed at how much wildlife you could see at close range.
The epic Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala are another incredible highlight. It’s a popular tourist destination but not as crowded as the different ruins in Mexico, and it’s surrounded by jungle in a remote location, adding to its mystique. Consider getting up early to catch the sunrise from one of the temples. Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey are two other must-go places in Guatemala.
While backpacking Central America you’ll have some great opportunities to learn to surf. I absolutely suck at surfing but still enjoy trying. Lots of cheap lessons can be had especially in El Salvador, Panama, or Nicaragua.
In Mexico, it’s worth being there around Day of the Dead and other local festivities. The country as a whole is a real cultural and culinary highlight. The cenotes (river caves) in the Yucatan are amazing. You can snorkel through them or even scuba dive.
Finally, I loved the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. I saw these on my way to Colombia and it was one of the real highlights. My memories of staying on nearly uninhabited islands and snorkeling with giant manta rays are pretty much burned into my neurons forever.
Keep in mind that should you wish to continue your journey to South America, it’s not possible overland! There’s a huge stretch of impenetrable and dangerous jungle in the east of Panama 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 travelers to and from Cartagena. It’s an incredible 5-day trip that takes you past the San Blas Islands.
If you’re still on the fence about backpacking Central America, I hope I’ve inspired you to get off that damn fence and to start planning your trip! You won’t regret backpacking Central America.
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