Central America Travel Tips
Surrounded by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the slender land bridge of Central America runs from Mexico to South America and is made up of seven nations – Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Political and civil unrest in the 1980s kept most tourists away for years, but this reputation is beginning to change as Central America becomes one of the most popular regions for backpackers (and in the case of Panama and Costa Rica, American retirees). The rain forests are filled with unexplored Mayan ruins and wildlife, and the entire area is covered in volcanoes, many of them still active today. Accommodation, food and transport are all cheap, and the people humble and friendly.
Destination Guides for Central America
- Accommodation – A night in a hostel will range between $5-10 USD for a dormitory room. A private bed will cost you between $15-25 USD for single or double bed with private bathroom. In Costa Rica or Panama, you will pay on the higher end of that range. Family owned guesthouses or hotels will be the most affordable accommodation besides hostels. These rooms average $25 USD per night for a private room with an ensuite bathroom, and most of these serve breakfast, not to mention the added bonus of meeting a local. In cheaper countries in the region like El Salvador, a private room can cost $15 USD per night while in a more expensive destination like Panama City, you can expect to pay on the higher end, about $30 USD per night. Camping can be done easily at hostels and in national parks. Most hostels have space where you can pitch a tent or string up a hammock for $1-3 USD per night. National parks require camping fees that vary from country to country.
- Food – The cheapest way to dine is to eat at the roadside restaurants that dot the region. At local restaurants, you can expect to pay around $5 USD for a meal. If you want really cheap food, you can find empanadas (fried pastries usually filled with meat, cheese, or potatoes) for $0.50 USD. If you are into cooking, head down to the local market and pick up fruit, vegetables, meats, and dairy for around $15-20 USD per week. If you are looking for slightly fancier restaurants, you can except to pay at least 25% more. A typical restaurant meal for a main dish and a drink is about $10 USD. Western food will cost about three times as much as the local dishes, so wait to have your favorites until you get back home.
- Transportation – In cities, public buses are the cheapest and most convenient way to get around. Fares cost less than a dollar, and buses are widespread. You can catch most routes for $10 USD. Longer bus rides and overnights from one country to the next are generally around $30 USD. Be prepared though – buses here (often called “chicken buses” due to their abundance of chickens and rice transported on them) stop everywhere, let people on, and let people off. They are slow and very few are direct. This region of the world actually relies a lot of hitchhiking. The buses can be late or sporadic and sometimes extremely full. I’ve done this in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama, because there is a limited regional air network here and flights are expensive. A flight from Guatemala City to Belize City is $250 USD, whereas the bus is only about $35 USD.
- Activities – Entrance to the national parks is typically inexpensive, as are trips to see the Mayan ruin sites, usually around $5-10 USD. Diving is likely to be your most expensive activity, costing between $50-80 USD for a two tank dive. The entrance fee to Tikal is $22 USD.
Money Saving Tips
- Visit the Mercado – Although eating out is cheap in Central America, it makes sense to shop at the markets for your food to take on day trips or to prepare at your hostel. Fruit costs mere pennies.
- Eat on the side of the road – The local, cheap side of the road eateries will be the cheapest food you can eat – costing no more than $2 USD for a meal.
- Hitchhike – Hitchhiking is one of the most popular ways to get around the region and used extensively by locals. You’ll find people regularly willing to pick up people and give them a lift.
- Avoid flying – Buse rides may be longer, but if you are trying to see this region on a budget, you should not fly. Flights are about 10 times more expensive than the bus.
Top Things to See and Do
- Visit the Panama Canal – First opened in 1914, the Panama Canal is 50 miles long and raises ships up from the Pacific, through Panama, before lowering them back down again to the Caribbean. The canal uses three sets of locks — Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side. The most common place to see the canal is at Miraflores Locks.
- Coffee Plantations – The entire region is known for its coffee, particularly in Costa Rica and Panama. Tour the plantations, and see how the beans are grown, picked, and ground. You can also pick up fresh coffee at heavily discounted prices. I’ve found the best coffee to be from Monteverde, Costa Rica.
- Volcanoes – Many of the volcanoes in the region are doable, and you can usually take a tour up to the rim. Pacaya in Guatemala is still active and frequently erupts ash clouds over nearby Antigua City, while Arenal in Costa Rica is the one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world.
- Go Diving (or learn) – The shores around Central America are home to many coral reefs. As such, diving is hugely popular. The colors and variety of fish will amaze you, as will the clear visibility. Diving here is cheaper than in the Caribbean and most parts of Mexico. Popular dive countries include Panama, Honduras, and Belize.
- Chichicastenango – Most people who come to Guatemala visit Chichicastenango, the largest native market in Central America. Most stalls carry handicrafts, blankets, pottery, and souvenirs, and these markets are often also the best places to get to grips with local food for very little money.
- Carnivals – The biggest carnival in the region is La Cieba in Honduras. The streets fill with bright costumes and dancing, while bars and clubs burst with locals and tourists, all vying to soak up the party atmosphere.
- Explore the Mayan ruins – These haunting sites date back to the pre-Columbian culture that once ruled this area of the world. The most impressive of these sites is Tikal in Guatemala, although Copán in Honduras and San Andrés in El Salvador are also prominent. The intricate wall carvings, imposing pyramids, and crumbling columns make for amazing photographs and should not be missed.
- Tour the museums – Most cities in the region are filled with museums, particularly those paying homage to the Mayan civilization. The Gold Museum in San José, Costa Rica is fascinating. For Mayan artifacts, head to the Copán Village Archaeology Museum.
- Trek through the rainforests – Much of the region is covered in vast, humid, and stunning rainforest. A popular way to see these is to take a canopy tour, where you’ll be suspended on a zip-line and glide over the tops of the trees. The rainforests are filled with diverse wildlife, including howler monkeys, jaguars, lizards and tropical birds. There are plenty of trekking tours, and every country has a park that allows you to explore the vast jungles.
- Caye Caulker, Belize – This little island is quite popular with backpackers. It is less expensive than some of the larger islands in the country and has a relaxed atmosphere to it. July is a great time to go because of their lobster festival. For the rest of the year, there is also snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and more. Make sure you also eat at Wish Willy’s for amazing seafood and chicken.
- Take in the Nicoya Coast, Costa Rica – This is a beautiful peninsula riddled with quaint little towns and plenty of beaches. It is constantly sunny here, and there is lots to see and do. Some of the main attractions include Barra Honda National Park, Isla Tortuga, scuba diving, and driving along the coast. My favorite town in this area is Santa Theresa.
- Sail the San Blas Islands – This archipelago in Panama consists of 378 islands and cays to explore. Taking a day, or even a week long sailing trip throughout them is super fun. There are incredible seascapes to behold, as well as fascinating people to meet and colorful reefs to see. There is an abundance of wildlife to check out and the boats make frequent snorkeling and SCUBA diving stops. These trips are popular with budget travelers and can be organized anywhere in the country.
- Dive the Blue Hole – This place in Belize is part of the Lighthouse Reef system and near-perfect circular hole 480 feet deep. The water is almost completely motionless, so visibility is about 200 feet.
- Head to Antigua, Guatemala – Considered one of the best-preserved colonial cities in all of the Spanish America’s, Antigua is a major travel hot spot for backpackers. There are tons of pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, plenty of hostels, and even Spanish schools.
- Visit La Libertad, El Salvador – For those of you who are big on surfing, this is considered the best place to catch a wave in Central America. While there is the risk of bumping into a swarm of beach-bum types, it doesn’t take away from the amazing waves, the endless seafood barbecue, and cool accommodation.
- Go to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua – Located inside Nicaragua Lake, this is the largest volcanic island in the world that resides inside a freshwater lake. It is easy to get to and is close to Managua—the capital city. While on the island, Moyogalpa is an amazing place to start, as it is the hub for tourism here. There is a plethora of restaurants, and hotels. When you are ready to explore, be sure to check out Cascada San Ramon, a waterfall reached via a beautiful four-hour hike.
- Explore Herrera Gardens & Conservation Project – This is a 250-acre reserve. It’s a long-term, ongoing reforestation project located in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica. The site contains over 3 miles of garden trails and approximately 10 miles of marked forest trails. You can take guided tours for bird watching, botany, and tree climbing.
- Walk through Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve & Nature Park – Located in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, this enclosure is in a tropical rainforest brimming with an amazing range of birds. You will see everything from the brilliant Buffon Macaw to the crazy Keel-Billed Toucans. Included in the ticket price is a three-day access pass to the park, a one-hour guided tour, and a 20-minute walk through an adjacent coffee plantation.