I love Central America! 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 this reputation is beginning to change. Central America is becoming one of the most popular regions for backpackers (and, in the case of Panama and Costa Rica, American retirees). The region’s rainforests are filled with unexplored Mayan ruins and wildlife, its beaches are great for surfing, and its reefs great for diving. Accommodation, food, and transport are all cheap in the region making it a budget traveler’s dream. Your money will go a long way here and this travel guide will give you all the tips you need to have a memorable trip.
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 $4 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 ($22 USD). Canopy tours (zip lining) usually costs between $20-40 USD per person.
Suggested daily budget – $30-50 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating and cooking, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. If you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more, expect this to be higher!)
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!
Top Things to See and Do in Central America
- The country-specific guides go into depth on each region. Nevertheless, here are my regional highlights:
- 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. Entry to the canal and visitor center is $5 USD per person.
- 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.
- 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!
- Volcanoes – Many of the volcanoes in the region are hikeable, 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 one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. Just don’t get lost in the jungle surrounding the mountain like I did!
- 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.
- 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).
- 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. Prices will vary but expect to spend around $20 USD on admission, though tours are not included and will likely cost another $20 USD.
- 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.
- Trek through the rainforests – Much of the region is covered in vast, humid, and stunning rainforests. 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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 if you want a reason to stay longer!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Admission is $10 USD per person.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.