A village in GuatemalaCentral 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. Check out my cost of travel overview for Central America.
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Why you should go
- Amazing natural beauty. Whether it’s rainforests, tropical beaches, lava-spewing volcanoes or massive lakes you are after, Central America has them in spades.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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(Mexico is in North America, but included here for convenience as many travellers include it in their Central America trip.)
Highlights: Mayan and other Mesoamerican ruins, the cuisine (and delicious streetfood), beaches, caves in the Yucatan, spectacular Copper Canyon in northern Mexico
Lowlights: some overly commercialised beach resorts, some places with a bad reputation (primarily Acapulco and US border regions)
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
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.
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.
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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.
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 travel, with 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.
Highlights: perfect destination for wildlife / ecotourism, great beaches, adventure activities like ziplining and rafting
Lowlights: very mainstream touristy and very expensive; 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
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.
Highlights: San Blas Islands, hiking in Boquete, Isla Coiba National Park
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, but the wildlife and nature is simply fantastic. It’s also far less touristy and somewhat cheaper than Costa Rica.
Some people seem to like the capital a lot. It didn’t do much for me, as it’s quite business-focused, but I must admit it’s much safer and more pleasant than pretty much all the other Central American capitals. (This makes it not a bad place to start your Central America trip, as it will let you ease into things more.)
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 though, and 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 favorite 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 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 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!
More about Central America
- 6 Safety Tips For Central America
Central America is much safer than it once was, though you may still wish to take some precautions. Here are a few key ones.
- 5 Tips for Traveling Central America on a Budget
Tips & tricks for keeping down your travel expenses.
- 5 Ways To Learn Spanish When Traveling Latin America
The language barrier can be an issue in Central America. Fortunately there are many great ways to learn a few words of Spanish.
- Travel Zen: Avoiding FOMO & Being Happier On The Road
Some thoughts on slow travel, and why you should actually make less stops on your trip (so you can experience each place more fully). Useful to keep in mind when planning a big trip.
- Packing Light: A Minimalist Example
I backpacked through Central America with just a 45L backpack. Travelling with a small backpack is amazing and I highly recommend it.
Around the web
- Travel Route Through Central America and Travel Route Through Central America Part II by The Lifestyle Project
A complete write-up of a 3 month itinerary going north to south. Some great impressions and photos.