Not sure where to go in Central America? Having traveled through the entire region, I can share a few tips!
Central America is such a fantastic region to travel. It’s home to the ancient Mayan civilization and many vibrant cultures, filled with rainforests and lava-spewing volcanoes, and you can relax on amazing beaches all along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Many parts are very cheap to travel, too.
However, not everywhere in Central America is equally amazing.
I must admit that some countries left a better impression on me than others. For instance, I got very excited when I was in Guatemala, but then neighboring Honduras felt like a dud — not to mention a lot less safe.
Besides the attractions in each country, Central America has highly variable costs of travel and security situations, which can have a large impact on your overall impressions.
Having traveled all over Central America, let me give you my take on what you can expect. Keeping in mind, of course, these are just one traveler’s take.
Quick answer: my top 3 in Central America
Whether for a holiday or an adventure trip, I think these three countries are always easy to recommend.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s best ecotourism destinations. It’s safe, worry-free, family-friendly, and bursting with wildlife. You’ll definitely meet more sloths, toucans, and monkeys than you’ll know what to do with! It’s also quite touristy and very expensive; better for a holiday or honeymoon than for a budget backpacking adventure.
Mexico is amazing on so many levels. Beaches, food, culture, ancient ruins, nature, cities — it’s just got it all. Particularly the southeastern regions are safe and a lot of fun. Mexico is easy to recommend, whether you’re after a relaxing holiday or an adventure trip.
Guatemala has a couple of places with poor security (mainly the capital), but avoid them and you’ll be extremely rewarded. Epic volcanoes, waterfalls, the region’s biggest Mayan ruins, and lots of authentic and atmospheric towns await. A bit more of a backpacker destination, Guatemala is my personal favourite!
How I traveled through Central America
Central America is so nice, I traveled through it twice!
First, I went on a road trip through Central America, driving south to north along the Pan-American Highway and stopping in many off-the-beaten-track places.
Later, I went backpacking through Central America, traveling in the opposite direction using public transport, hitting up many other destinations.
After these two longer trips, I also went back to Panama for two weeks, and I hope to return to other countries sometime.
While I have not been everywhere, I traveled the region for about 6 months combined, so hopefully I can give some fair impressions of each country.
What I liked: Honestly? Almost everything. Mexico is just one big enchilada stuffed with amazing travel experiences. (Most) parts are very safe and as a whole it’s underrated — especially by Americans who only know about the bad border regions.
What I didn’t like: beach resorts such as Cancun can be hella touristy
First, I should mention that Mexico is geographically part of North America. Given the cultural similarities and that many travellers combine Mexico with its southern neighbours, I still include it here with the Central American countries.
To state the obvious: Mexico is huge. I mean, really big. This means you can expect a wild diversity of landscapes, ranging from the deserts in the north to rainforests in the south. It also means it’s best to look at Mexico as a collection of different states, though the southeast has long been a big tourist favorite.
The Yucatan Peninsula may be very touristy in places such as Cancun and Tulum, but it’s also a whole big bag of fun. If you prefer, you can hit up the smaller towns, islands, or authentic cities like Merida. The waters are amazing for scuba diving and snorkeling. Don’t miss exploring the cenotes, large underground cave systems hidden in the jungles.
Further south, the Chiapas and Oaxaca regions are incredible for their culture, food, and history. They’re also among the cheapest regions of Mexico.
Apart from witnessing the Day of the Dead, one of my most memorable experiences was taking the Pacific Railway along the Copper Canyon in northern Mexico, which is similar in greatness to the Grand Canyon. The Chihuahua region can be a bit sketchy though, so it’s worth checking current safety reports before going.
While I wasn’t so thrilled with most larger cities in Central America, in Mexico this was different. Many cities are just bursting with culture, nightlife, museums, and history. Many travelers rave about Mexico City, Guanajuato, and many others.
Intrigued by Mexico? Check out these Mexico itineraries for more ideas.
What I liked: Oooh, where to start? Hiking up volcanoes to see sunrise above the clouds for one. Also the waterfalls at Semuc Champey, the insanely gorgeous Lake Atitlan and the Mayan ruins of Tikal, which are the most impressive in Central America. I loved the colorful culture in Guatemala.
What I didn’t like: While security is mostly fine it does require a bit of awareness. Go elsewhere for beaches.
It’s not only very cheap to travel in Guatemala, but it has some of the most epic landscapes, the most intriguing sights, and most traditional culture (it’s superficially not as Americanized as Costa Rica or Panama).
Guatemala gave me the biggest feeling of being on an adventure.
It just felt very different and, to me, exotic.
Much of my excitement for Guatemala was surely due to the landscapes. They 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, where you can take boats to hop between lakeside towns.
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.
I liked seeing the more traditional culture in Guatemala. For example, you’ll often meet people dressed in colorful Mayan clothing. On my Central America road trip, I met friendly folks working the coffee fields and ended up at a local village fiesta.
For me, Guatemala is easily one of the highlights in Central America. Do take care with your belongings and avoid traveling at night, as it does have a few security issues. These don’t have to be overly concerning, but it’s worth having some basic caution.
I think Guatemala is mostly a great backpacking destination, though Antigua and Tikal also see more mainstream tourism. Some tourists opt to fly to Tikal and back to avoid overland travel.
What I liked: honestly, I wasn’t too crazy about Honduras. But if you’re looking for cheap scuba diving lessons, hit up the Bay Islands.
What I didn’t like: terrible security situation and lack of true must-see sights
Honduras sadly still struggles to escape its bad reputation for safety. It has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In fact, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa were at one point the no 1 and no 4 most violent cities in the world (not counting war zones).
Sure, gang violence rarely if ever targets tourists. Safety was also never an issue for me personally in Honduras. But still.
It doesn’t inspire much confidence when your guesthouse owner ushers you inside a fenced perimeter, warning you not to be on the street after 6 pm. The three towns I stayed in honestly felt a bit eerie at night. While you can safely travel through Honduras especially between tourist hubs, the overall security situation can feel very limiting.
The Bay Islands are safer than the mainland, offer very cheap scuba diving tours, and are a major backpacker party hub and cruise ship stopover. It’s the one place in Honduras that features in many itineraries. However, Honduras’ other big attraction, the Mayan ruins of Copan, is not really worth it compared to other ones in the region.
This is of course not meant as a criticism of Honduras itself, only speaking about its relative value to travelers looking to freely explore. Hopefully things will improve.
What I liked: Carribean rasta vibe, Caye Caulker, diving the Great Blue Hole, recent actions to protect the Belize Barrier Reef and stimulate ecotourism
What I didn’t like: Belize City can be a bit sketchy. High cost of travel
I think Belize is a great place to visit — either as its own trip, as an add-on to a trip to Mexico or Guatemala, or as a stop on the Central America backpacker trail.
The Caribbean rasta vibe and the creole English-speaking locals make for a fun change of scene from other Spanish-speaking countries. The snorkeling around Caye Caulker is superb (you can easily see various reef sharks) and many divers come here to dive the Great Blue Hole, a giant marine sinkhole.
In 2019, the government took the admirable decision to prohibit offshore oil exploration and thereby fully protect the Belize Barrier Reef. If you’re interested in seeing its underwater wonders, I think it’s a great way to support Belize in their renewed ecotourism and conservation efforts.
That said, Belize is relatively expensive for the region, almost as much so as Costa Rica. Many budget travelers going around the region will gripe about the sudden increase in costs once they reach Belize. However, if you’re not counting pennies, then you will surely love exploring the caves, ruins, and wildlife in Belize. The scuba diving and snorkeling is also fantastic.
If you’re on a tight budget, you could look for similar experiences at a lower cost in other Central American countries.
Belize can be of interest to backpackers, though arguably better for those on a holiday who can spend on a nice resort. Most backpackers stay briefly on Caye Caulker before heading off to cheaper destinations.
What I liked: volcano boarding, the gorgeous volcano islands of Ometepe, colonial cities of Granada and Leon, partying in San Juan, very low cost
What I didn’t like: the capital felt totally skippable, though this is kind of a running theme in this region
I think Nicaragua is seriously underrated! It’s super cheap, has loads to see, and it’s easy to travel around. It also has a fledgling ecotourism industry that may one day compete (just a little bit) with Costa Rica.
As I’m updating this article in 2021, I should mention there was a fair bit of political unrest in Nicaragua in 2018, but things have settled down again following this tumultuous period. When the situation in Nicaragua is stable, as it seems to be again now, it’s known for its relatively high safety. This is especially true compared to its neighbors El Salvador and Honduras.
My favorite destination in Nicaragua was Ometepe, a twin volcanic island located in the middle of the epic Lake Cocibolca. It’s a chill place to explore, to kayak, or go to waterfalls or thermal springs.
I also spent a month in San Juan Del Sur on the coast to learn some Spanish. The town is not necessarily that special, but it’s a fun and unpretentious tourist town, with various possible excursions in the area (fishing trip, surfing, etc.).
Nicaragua has quite a backpacker party scene, probably because the country is so cheap. Luckily, if you’re not a party animal this is also easily avoided. While I partied a bit in San Juan in the past when I was younger, on a return visit to Nicaragua I would surely just be visiting the coffee farms, jungle reserves, or the remote Corn Islands. Apart from a couple of places, Nicaragua is a very quiet destination.
My best memories of Nicaragua come from staying a week at a hostel on Playa Maderas. We had no WiFi, just campfires and BBQs every night, drinking beers under a beautiful starry sky. One day we watched the sunset over the ocean while drifting on our surfboards surrounded by a flock of pelicans. Find a secret spot like this in Nicaragua and you’ll never forget it.
Nicaragua is the ideal backpacking and budget travel destination as it’s just so inexpensive, almost comparable to the prices in the Caucasus or Southeast Asia. I think it also makes for a nice add-on to a trip to Costa Rica, or a trip in its own right.
What I liked: one of the world’s best nature and wildlife destinations with an inspiring focus on ecotourism. High levels of safety and locals with great positive vibes. Pura vida!
What I didn’t like: tourism in Costa Rica is not cheap. A frustrating country if you’re on a budget
Okay, real talk: I wasn’t into Costa Rica when I first visited as a backpacker.
I just hadn’t expected the cost of living and travel costs in Costa Rica to be so high — exceeding, in many cases, some Western countries. For instance, it was a bit of a shock to have to pay $15 for a single laundry wash in Monteverde when that had cost $2 in neighboring Nicaragua (an unfair comparison surely, but the reality of travelling through countries with wildly different economies).
If you want to do the tours, visit the parks, and do all the most fun stuff in Cost Rica, you can easily spend $100 a day or more. That’s fine if you’re on a long-planned holiday on which you’re ready to spend, but it can be more challenging as a budget traveler or even as a digital nomad trying to keep costs low.
All that having said, I later came to appreciate Costa Rica so much more. The country changed its strategic course some decades ago, deciding to abolish the military, stop deforestation, and focus on ecotourism. Nowadays it’s the shining example of how to embrace sustainability, protect nature, actually grow forests, and even make some good money doing so. Understanding this puts the prices in Costa Rica into a much better perspective.
Costa Rica is objectively amazing, especially if you dream of staying in an ecolodge with a view of a jungle canopy, or go trekking with an experienced guide who will show you the hidden secrets of the forest. It’s bafflingly easy to find wildlife such as coati bears, sloths, toucans, and many other incredible creatures. Surfing, rafting, and ziplining are some of the other activities taking place in- and around nature.
I also have to mention the positive Costa Rican spirit. The people are just so friendly! I love their frequently-uttered motto of pura vida (meaning ‘pure life’, kind of their hakuna matata).
If you don’t mind the high costs, then Costa Rica is simply amazing. If you’re looking for an unforgettable honeymoon or ecotourism holiday, then Costa Rica will deliver. But if your budget is tight, consider doing a few unique experiences in Costa Rica, but then maybe dipping into Nicaragua or Panama as they are easier on the wallet.
What I liked: San Blas Islands, hiking in Boquete, Isla Coiba National Park, lots of amazing nature with fewer crowds of Costa Rica
What I didn’t like: dull Panama City, Bocas del Toro nothing special (but fun party place)
At the risk of offending, Panama can easily feel a bit… bland? It basically has a little bit of everything and all of it is pretty good, but maybe it doesn’t stand out as much as other countries.
The capital didn’t do so much for me, perhaps with its focus on the business district and high-rise apartments, but I must admit it’s much safer and more pleasant than pretty much all the other Central American capitals.
The culture felt a bit less vibrant to me as in other places in the region (such as Guatemala or Colombia). I also had the impression that — broadly generalizing here! — Panamanians are a bit less open to visitors than elsewhere. Perhaps they are a bit sick of dealing with tourists and the many American expats who chose to relocate to Panama, or perhaps this is just subjective.
That said… I do want to say that Panama is a great country to explore. What I really liked is that tourism is not Panama’s economic linchpin as it is in Costa Rica, so you can enjoy various experiences (wildlife, surfing, etc.) with fewer crowds and somewhat lower costs.
Boquete and Bocas del Toro are probably the best-known destinations in Panama. Boquete is Panama’s adventure travel capital where can spend a lot of time hiking, ziplining, rafting, etc. I liked it a lot! Seeing loads of hummingbirds while hiking to waterfalls was quite a special experience in Boquete.
Bocas del Toro is a big party hotspot on the coast. It has a reputation as a place where backpackers and nomads often ‘get stuck’ and stay longer than planned. The main part of Bocas del Toro is very commercial, but if you’re after more peace or authenticity you might want to leave Isla Colon and 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. I loved scuba diving at Isla Coiba.
But 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.
Hmmm, reading this back, it seems I really liked Panama after all!
Perhaps Panama is more than the sum of its parts. Its landscapes may not be as epic as Guatemala, nor the costs as cheap as Nicaragua, but it’s not without its charms and it’s definitely not a country to rush through.
Oops, I almost forgot El Salvador! It’s actually the one country I haven’t yet visited, though 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.
The security situation in El Salvador has historically been poor, though it’s said to have been improving in recent years. For a more detailed look, including a 10-day itinerary, see our backpacking guide to El Salvador.
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