I love backpacking Central America!
This is one of my favorite regions in the world.
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 countries — Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Political and civil unrest in the 1980s kept most tourists away for a long time, but now the area is a hotspot for travelers, surfers, luxury travelers, and even retirees.
Because traveling Central America is a safe, beautiful, filled with history, and affordable.
People have realized that it’s not the place the media makes it out to be and I’m glad the collective consciousness is shifting.
The region’s rainforests are filled with unexplored Mayan ruins and wildlife, its beaches are great for surfing, its reefs great for diving, there’s a huge variety of flora and fauna here, and the cheap accommodation, food, and transport throughout the region make it a budget traveler’s dream.
I began my nomadic life traveling around Central America.
And, whenever I backpack Central America, I fall in love even more with the friendliness of the people, the tasty food, the weather, history, and beauty.
This travel guide to Central America will give you all the tips you need to have a memorable trip to this part of the world!
Table of Contents
Click Here for Country Guides
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Central America
1. Explore volcanoes
2. See Mayan ruins
3. Caye Caulker, Belize
4. Visit the Panama Canal
5. Trek through the rainforests
Other Things to See and Do in Central America
1. Head to Antigua, Guatemala
Considered one of the best-preserved colonial cities in all of the Spanish America’s, Antigua (in Guatemala) is a major travel hot spot for backpackers. There are tons of pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, plenty of hostels, and even Spanish schools if you want a reason to stay longer!
2. 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. Expect to pay 50-100 USD for a two-tank dive, or a few hundred dollars for your certification course.
3. Tour coffee plantations
The entire region is known for its coffee, particularly 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….and I don’t even like coffee! But I drank this — it tasted like chocolate!
4. Visit 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 find local food for very little money.
5. 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 (7 USD admission).
6. 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 5km of garden trails and approximately 16km of marked forest trails. You can take guided tours for bird watching, botany, and tree climbing. Admission is 7 USD per person, and guided tours are 40 USD and last a couple hours.
7. 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. Expect to spend upwards of 500 USD for a 4-5 day cruise.
8. Surf down a volcano in Nicaragua
What’s the difference between sand-boarding and volcano-boarding? Cerro Negro, a young and active volcano, offers tourists a chance to board down its graveled slopes through an organized tour. You will have to hike up to the top, which takes around an hour, so be prepared for a climb and to get dirty! A half-day outing costs about 30 USD.
9. 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. The blue hole is an amazing place to dive or snorkel and is considered one of the best natural spots in the world!
10. The Barrier Reef, Belize
The second longest barrier reef in the world, the vibrant coral, and magnificent marine life makes up the country’s most popular tourist attraction. Divers and snorkelers can enjoy the reef within one of the many islands in the marine park or take a boat tour out to the area itself. In 1996, the reef was designated as a World Heritage Site.
11. Walk through the Treetops
The Rainmaker Aerial Walkway in Costa Rica was the first aerial walkway to be built in Central America, and it is still considered to be one of the top ariel walkways in the region. At the highest point on the walkway, you’ll find yourself a 20 stories above the ground. Tours start at 45,000 CRC and include two light meals.
12. Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve & 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. Admission is 10 USD per person.
13. 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.
14. Take in the Nicoya Coast, Costa Rica
This is a beautiful peninsula in Costa Rica riddled with quaint little towns and plenty of beaches. It is constantly sunny her, and there’s a lot 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.
15. 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.
16. Enjoy carnival
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.
Be sure to visit our Central America country travel guides for more detailed information about what to see and do in each place:
Central America Travel Costs
Accommodation – A night in a hostel will range between 5-15 USD for a dormitory room while a private bed will cost you between 15-30 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.
Airbnb is also an option, with shared accommodation starting around 10 USD per night. For an entire home or apartment expect to pay at least 40 USD to per night (though prices are often double that).
Camping can be done easily at hostels and in certain national parks. Most hostels have space where you can pitch a tent or string up a hammock for under 5 USD per night. National parks require camping fees that vary from country to country. See country guides for specifics on where to stay!
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 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 15-25 USD per week.
The local markets will have fresh fruit for incredibly cheap, so fill up on that when you can. A typical restaurant meal per main dish and a drink is about 10 USD, however, western food will cost about three times as much as the local dishes. See country guides on specifics of where to eat!
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. Longer bus rides and overnights from one country to the next are generally between 10-30 USD. Be prepared, though — buses here (often called “chicken buses” due to the abundance of chickens and rice transported on them) stop everywhere to let people on and off. They are slow and very few are direct.
Not surprisingly, this region of the world actually relies a lot on 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 and hitchhiking is free!
Activities – Entrance to the national parks is typically inexpensive, usually under 10 USD, as are trips to see the Mayan ruin sites. Diving is likely to be your most expensive activity, costing between 50-100 USD for a two-tank dive. The entrance fee to Tikal in Guatemala is 22 USD per person. A half-day manatee-spotting tour ranges from 35-50 USD. A visit to a wildlife sanctuary costs around 5 USD. The Copán Ruins can get expensive if you factor in entrance fee (9 USD), entrance to the tunnels (10 USD) and a guided tour (20 USD). Canopy tours (zip lining) usually costs between 20-40 USD per person.
Backpacking Central America Suggested Budgets
How much does it cost to visit Central America? If you’re backpacking Central America, plan to budget between $30-50 USD per day. For this price, you’ll get a hostel dorm ( a private room with a fan and a shared bathroom in cheaper countries), local meals and street food (0.50 USD empanadas!), a few attractions and tours, and local transportation (think the famous local “chicken buses”).
For a mid-range budget of $50-75 USD per day in Central America, you can stay in private rooms with air-conditioning, eat at more sit-down restaurants, have some Western meals, drink a lot more, visit some historical sites and do some tours, and take private buses.
On a “luxury budget”, you can spend upwards of $125 USD or more. With this budget, you can also stay in nicer hotels or resorts, at the top restaurants, drink anything you want, see anything you want, and opt for private tours and day trips. After that, you can do anything you want – resorts, drive trips, tours, the fanciest meals, whatever! The sky is the limit. If you’re willing to pay, you can get anything anywhere! The $125 figure is just the base!
Note that if you visit Costa Rica and Panama (the regions two most expensive countries), you’ll spend on the higher end of these ranges.
Central America Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
While country guides have more specific ways to save (every country in the region is very different), here are four general rules for saving money in Central America (though the region itself is already pretty cheap):
- 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.
- 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. Just be sure to use common sense.
- Eat on the side of the road – The local eateries at the side of the road will be the cheapest food you can eat, costing no more than 2 USD for a meal.
- Avoid flying – Bus rides may be longer, but if you are trying to see this region on a budget you shouldn’t fly. Flights are about 10 times more expensive than the bus! An hour flight can cost hundreds of dollars. Avoid flying as much as possible.
Where To Stay in Central America
I’ve been traveling Central America for awhile now and have stayed in plenty of places. I’ve accumulated a long list of places to stay. Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Central America:
- Maya Papaya (Antigua)
- La Iguana Perdida (Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan)
- Mr. Mullet’s (San Pedro, Lake Atitlan)
- Quetzalroo (Guatemala City)
- Casa de Grethel (Flores)
- The Naked Tiger (San Juan del Sur)
- De Boca en Boca (Granada)
- Bigfoot Hostel & Volcano Boarding (Leon)
- Managua Backpackers Inn (Managua)
- Hostel Life is Good (Ometepe Island)
- Rocking J’s (Puerto Viejo)
- Pangea (San Jose)
- Costa Rica Backpackers (San Jose)
- Arenal Container Hostel (La Fortuna)
- Hostel Vista Serena (Manuel Antonio)
- Camino Verde B&B (Monteverde)
- Blue Trailz Hostel (Tamarindo)
How to Get Around Central America
Public Transportation – Public buses are the most common (and cheapest) way to get around, with fares costing less than a dollar. These buses are often referred to as “chicken buses” because of the number of chickens and rice that is transported on them. They stop just about everywhere to let people hop on and off, and you’ll be crammed in tight with locals.
Buses – Longer bus rides and overnight buses between countries usually cost between 10-30 USD per leg. They’re not overly comfortable, but they usually have air-conditioning. Shuttle buses are a popular way to get travelers around the backpacking trail. All you need to do is show up at a travel agency (they’re everywhere) and negotiate a price and route. Make sure you’re clear about where the bus is picking you up – it’s not always a bus station. In some cases you can just show up and pay the driver onboard.
Larger international buses also run between the larger cities and tend to have their own bus terminals. Some services include:
On Tica Bus, for example, you can get from Panama all the way to Guatemala. From Panama to Costa Rica is about $55 USD, and the price increases the further you go. These buses are more comfortable, but the smaller minibuses arranged through an agency tend to be cheaper.
Taxis – Taxis are common and affordable, but not all of them have meters. Be sure to check before you get into the taxi – and if there’s no meter, negotiate a fare upfront. On the higher end, taxi fares start at about $2 in Panama City and then $2/kilometer. In San Jose, Costa Rica, rates start at around $1 and then $1.11/kilometer.
Air Travel – Flying between cities and countries isn’t the cheapest way to see Central America, and routes are limited. A flight from Guatemala City to Belize City is 250 USD! I would avoid this method of travel unless you are very pressed for time.
When to Go to Central America
The weather in Central America varies per area, thanks to its many distinct micro climates from coast to coast (and with the altitude in the mountainous areas). Dry season is from December to April, which is generally considered the best time to come visit. This is also when most people come to visit, so you can expect more tourism crowds and inflated prices. Easter is a fun time to enjoy Central America, however; everyone celebrates Semana Santa!
Rainy season is from April to December, with hurricane season being at its peak in September and October (especially in the Caribbean). Having said that, rainy season isn’t a bad time to visit. Mostly you’ll find periods of heavy rainfall, but plenty of nice weather otherwise. Humidity can be high, and mosquitos and tropical storms can be a nuisance.
In the mountains, temperatures can go as low as 50°F (10°C). In the hottest places it’ll soar into the high 80s°F (30s°C). In general, December to April is the best time to visit.
Refer to our country-specific guides to get a better breakdown of temperatures and climates!
How to Stay Safe in Central America
While Central America is safe for traveling and backpacking, there’s no denying that certain precautions should be taken. There are certain parts of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala that are currently best to avoid.
And there are lots of places you don’t want to go out at night (especially in big cities.)
You can find the current situation for each country in their destination guide but here are some general rules for staying safe in Central America:
- Avoid isolated areas, especially at night and in big cities
- Avoid night buses, where robberies are common
- Avoid taking drugs here
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times
- Keep your personal belongings on you while using public transit (especially chicken buses)
- Take taxis at night in foreign cities
- Don’t wear flashy items or start flashing your phone around (especially at night)
Violent attacks against tourists are rare. Most of the time it’s because the tourist was involved in something drug related or was where they shouldn’t be at night.
The worst you’ll probably face is getting robbed. Petty theft is really common here and you have to be extremely vigilant to make sure you don’t get robbed. Don’t carry lots of cash on you and avoid flashing expensive gear.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. You have every right to remove yourself from the situation. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
If you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it here!
For more in-depth coverage of how to stay safe in Central America, check out this post we wrote that answers some frequently asked questions and concerns.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Central America Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Central America. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all bookers.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Central America, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- STA Travel – A good company for those under 30 or for students, STA Travel offers discounted airfare as well as travel passes that help you save on attractions.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Central America Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading to Central America, knowing what to pack and the kind of backpack to get can be a little daunting. In this section, I’ll give you my suggestion for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack.
The Best Backpack for Central America
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you more tips on picking a backpacking, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for detailed information and more suggestions.
What to Pack in Central America
- 1 dress shirt for when I go out to a respectable place in the evening
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 6 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 1 pair of dress shoes (heavy to carry, but when I visit friends, we usually go somewhere not sneaker friendly)
- 8 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 7 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Doctor-prescribed antibiotics
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (a water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Central America Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
The Longest Ride: My Ten-Year 500,000 Mile Motorcycle Journey, by Emilio Scotto
This book chronicles Scotto’s ten year trip around the world by bike – on that would land him in the Guinness Book of World Records. He leaves his native Argentina, crosses Panama, and ends up all over the world. He has some incredible trips along the way (Muhammad Ali gives him $50!). I loved the vivid story telling, the fun adventures, and the determination the author has has he ends up on a quest that never seems to end. There was a single minded nature to his trip that I really loved!
The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston
For centuries there have been rumors about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in Honduras, known as the Lost City of the Monkey God. In 1940, a journalist named Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts, and a story about how he found the lost city. Then he committed suicide…without ever revealing its location. Years later, Doug Preston and a team of scientists set out on a new quest by plane to explore an untouched valley – and captured the image of a huge, hidden metropolis. This is the story of that discovery, and the insanity that ensued. (The audio version of this book is great too!)
Walking the Americas, by Levison Wood
This is the true story of Levison Wood’s 1,800-mile trek across the Americas, through eight countries from Mexico to Colombia. He works his way down through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – meeting refugees in Nicaraguan camps, friendly locals, and dangerous wildlife along the way. Some of his tales are harrowing, but mostly you’ll want to be right there with Wood, enjoying secret waterfalls and making awkward negotiations with policemen.
Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest, by Mary Jo McConahay
Mary Jo McConahay has been living and traveling in the remote areas of Central America for three decades, so she knows a thing or two about the region. Maya Roads is her fascinating account of the people, politics, and archaeology of the rainforest, otherwise known as “the cradle of Maya civilization.” It’s a beautiful chronicle of not only the sheer beauty of Central America and the resilience of its people, but also the region’s harsher side – like drug trafficking and intense violence.
The Gringo Trail: A Darkly Comic Road Trip through South America, by Mark Mann
With just a backpack and a strong sense of adventure, Mark Mann and his two buddies set out on an expedition through the Americas. They travel through thick forests, mountain landscapes, and stunning beaches…all while being heavily under the influence of drugs. There’s no glorification of drugs here – Mann and his friends find themselves all-consumed by being high, and their lives are changed forever. But it’s an honest, jarring memoir with a little bit of shock value built in.
My Must Have Guides for Traveling to Central America
This book shows you how to easily collect and redeem travel points so you can get free airfare and accommodation.
Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.
This book features interviews with dozens of teachers and detailed information on how to land your dream job and make money overseas.
My best-selling book will teach how to master the art of travel so that you’ll save money and have a more local, richer travel experience.
Central America Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Central America travel and continue planning your trip:
Photo credits: 4