Central America is an amazing part of the world to travel. 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!
But there are also some big differences between all the countries. I find the contrast between countries in Central America can be a little starker than in other regions such as Southeast Asia.
In Asia, you can go pretty much anywhere and be guaranteed a great time. In Central America, it can be a bit more hit and miss. Or at least, that was my subjective impression.
For instance, I got very excited about Guatemala, but then neighbouring Honduras felt like a bit of a dud. The differing cost of travel and security situation might have something to do with this, too.
I think it helps a lot to study each destination so that you can get the best the region has to offer. If you go to the right places, you will have an absolutely incredible time travelling through Central America. For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share my quick take on each country in Central America, as well as tips on some good routes to follow.
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 Carribean 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 good. 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 countless possible routes — 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 quite a few other travellers going this way — and plenty of cheap hostels to stay at, too. If you’re going solo, you’ll be sure to meet other travellers along the Gringo Trail as well, if meeting travellers is what you want.
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, though most travellers seem to start in Mexico.
I find that Panama City is a bit dull and business-like, though I must admit got that impression after already travelling through all of Central America, so perhaps by then I was already used to the more exotic elements. I’ll admit that Panama City is quite an orderly and nice city, so it’s an easy place to get your feet wet before truly plunging in. Then again, I personally think southeast Mexico and Guatemala are really awesome, so starting there will 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. 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 a bit more adventurous. The ‘chicken buses’, or repurposed and colourfully painted US school buses, are most commonly seen in these countries, and they’re a slow albeit fun and local way to get around.
Some spots along the gringo trail developed into backpacker party places, especially 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, surf hostels, and all sorts of entertainment in these places. Whether you wish to seek out or avoid such places is up to you, of course.
I mentioned that this Central America itinerary will take you at least 6 weeks. But, ideally, you should have around 3 months. This will give you a lot more time to enjoy each place. You could also start your trip in Mexico City, and travel through the Oaxaca, Chiapas and Yucatan regions of Mexico before diving into Belize.
Southeast Mexico + Guatemala route
This is a great slice of Central America and my personal recommendation if you have just a couple of weeks. These two countries combine very well in a circular route and really 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. Lately, there’s been some political unrest in Nicaragua, so be sure to check the current situation before going.
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.
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, Antigua might also be 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. Guatemala is not only very cheap to travel in, but it also has some of the most epic landscapes, the most intriguing sights, and more traditional culture. It’s the country that personally gave me the strongest feeling of being on an adventure, subjective as this is.
If you’re looking for a great white sand beach then this is the one area where Guatemala, unfortunately, has little to offer. Neighboring Mexico is where you’ll probably want to be for that.
Guatemala is more about its dramatic landscapes, which range 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 beautiful 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.
The north of Guatemala is not to be missed either, especially the huge Mayan ruins of Tikal with their impressive temple-top views of the surrounding jungles. Many consider it the best Mayan ruin to visit in all of Central America. The waterfalls of Semuc Champey are also an amazing adventure experience, which makes for a good stop if you’re already travelling between the north and south of the country (but it might not quite be worth going to Semuc Champey if you’ll be returning the same way).
Something I find quite interesting about Guatemala is its more traditional culture. You’ll see many locals dressed in colourful garb or carrying produce or materials on their heads. While driving through Guatemala I met a lot of friendly folks working the coffee fields and witnessed some interesting cultural events in the villages.
Beware: quite a few backpackers end up staying in Guatemala longer, either to learn Spanish, to volunteer or just to hang out. When I was already 6 countries further down the trail, some people I met earlier were still in Guatemala, unable to leave. I too was enthralled by Guatemala and hope to visit it again sometime.
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.
There are essentially two main attractions in Honduras. The first 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 Guatemala 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.
Pssst, are you insured?
It’s always wise to have some good travel insurance before you travel through Central America. You’ll be covered for any medical expenses, theft, personal liability, cancellation, and more, which can give you much peace of mind.
I recommend World Nomads, which offer flexible insurance with 24-hour worldwide assistance. Adventurous and outdoors activities are also covered.
Backpacker Travel Insurance
Make sure you’re covered and get a plan before you travel. (I recommend World Nomads.)
Keep in mind that most insurance policies don’t cover longer trips! With World Nomads your trip can be as long as you want (and you can even extend your plan while you’re still travelling).
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 very expensive and so you’ll catch quite a few low-budget travellers griping about the sudden increase in costs when they get there. This is also why many budget travellers stay in Belize more briefly, 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 a little, know that Belize is still highly worth visiting. The Caribbean rasta vibe and the creole-style 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, for example), 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. eating noodle dishes at some of the 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 to $20/night for a dorm bed, and at least $30-$40 for the cheapest rooms.
If your budget is tight, it’s worth considering if certain tours or activities can be done cheaper in neighbouring countries instead.
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 probably a little underrated by some of the sources I had read before visiting. 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.
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.
Note: Nicaragua became less stable in 2018 with now a great deal of political unrest. Things might be fine, but check advisories before you go.
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 are first and foremost the old colonial towns of Leon and Grenada. These places are perhaps not quite as buzzing as the likes of Antigua in Guatemala or Cartagena in Colombia, but are well worth visiting.
It struck me that Nicaragua is, in particular, a great place for active travel, with plenty of hiking opportunities (lots of volcanoes to climb), many surfing hot spots, activities like kayaking 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.
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 as I quickly became discouraged by the super high prices there. These prices can be a surprise, particularly as many websites bizarrely 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 brief 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 little: 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 alone, and anything on top of that is for tours/guides/etc. If you’re wishing to do a lot of tourist activities, you might end up spending $60 – $100 a day.
Not to be entirely focused on the cost, I should say the nature in Costa Rica is undeniably beautiful, and the country has 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. For instance, in the cloud forests of Monte Verde, I saw sloths and coati bears, among many other creatures. The people in Costa Rica are also super friendly, and you’ve got to love 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 deal with the costs equally well. I’d like to come back sometime and see much more of the country.
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.
Note: El Salvador excluded only for reason of me not having visited. It’s on the list for next time!