Central America Travelling Where To Go

Where Best To Go Backpacking • Indie Traveller

central america backpacking routes

Central America is a tremendous a part of the world to journey. It’s the house of the traditional Mayan civilization and lots of vibrant cultures, it’s full of rainforests and lava-spewing volcanoes, and you may sit back on superb seashores all alongside the Carribean and Pacific coasts. Many elements of Central America are very low cost to journey in, too.

And that’s simply scratching the floor!

However there are additionally some huge variations between all of the nations. I discover the distinction between nations in Central America is usually a little starker than in different areas resembling Southeast Asia.

In Asia, you possibly can go just about anyplace and be assured a good time. In Central America, it may be a bit extra hit or miss. Or no less than, that was my subjective impression.

As an example, I received very enthusiastic about Guatemala, however then neighbouring Honduras felt like a little bit of a dud. The differing value of journey and safety state of affairs may need one thing to do with this, too.

I feel it helps so much to review every vacation spot to be able to get the perfect the area has to supply. When you go to the fitting locations, you’ll have a completely unimaginable time travelling via Central America. So for what it’s value, I assumed I’d share my fast tackle every nation in Central America, in addition to recommendations on some good routes to comply with.

TIP: For detailed recommendation on journey preparation together with route planning, budgeting, vaccinations, security, and extra, get my in-depth information.


Journey routes for Central America

A wonderful thing about Central America is that it’s comparatively compact. You’ll be able to transfer round pretty shortly and may go to loads of nations in a single journey.

The primary artery operating by means of Central America is the Pan-American Freeway. This street goes alongside the Pacific coast all the best way from the north of Mexico right down to Panama Metropolis.

You’ll discover that the Pacific aspect in Central America typically has the most important inhabitants centres and is best to get round in.

The Carribean sides of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are typically a bit extra distant and fewer developed. This will additionally, at occasions, make them extra fascinating elements to discover; for instance, think about Tortuguero Nationwide Park in Costa Rica, or Bluefields and the Corn Islands in Nicaragua. Since they’re away from the primary infrastructure, these locations can really feel wilder and extra distant.

The Gringo Path

This route is a superb choice if you wish to do all of it and have a minimum of 6 weeks out there. This casual backpacker path begins in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, then goes down Belize and Guatemala, after which by way of the remainder of the nations till reaching and ending in Panama Metropolis. Elements of this route comply with the Pan-American Freeway alongside the Pacific coast.

I’ve indicated on the map under how many individuals journey by way of Central America, although there are in fact numerous attainable routes — all relying in your particular pursuits and your out there time.

In the event you’re backpacking and staying in hostels, you’ll be glad to know that there are fairly a couple of different travellers going this manner — and loads of low cost hostels to remain at, too. In case you’re going solo, you’ll make sure to meet different travellers alongside the Gringo Path as nicely, if that’s what you need.

It’s additionally attainable to do that route the opposite method round. You can begin in Panama Metropolis after which work your method up. Both approach works, although most travellers appear to start out in Mexico.

I discover that Panama Metropolis is a bit uninteresting and business-like, although I need to admit acquired that impression after already travelling by means of all of Central America, so maybe by then I used to be already used to the extra unique parts. I’ll admit that Panama Metropolis is sort of an orderly and good metropolis, so it’s a simple place to get your ft moist earlier than really plunging in. Then once more, I personally assume southeast Mexico and Guatemala are actually superior, so beginning there will provide you with extra epic stuff right away.

Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica are a number of the extra care-free nations. They’re among the many most secure and have a number of the greatest public transportation. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are a bit rougher across the edges, and typically require extra endurance to get from A to B.

However I additionally assume these nations could be probably the most enjoyable. Issues are a bit extra primary there, making it really feel a bit extra adventurous. The ‘hen buses’, or repurposed and colourfully painted US faculty buses, are mostly seen in these nations, they usually’re a sluggish albeit enjoyable and native option to get round.

Some spots alongside the gringo path developed into backpacker get together locations, particularly the Bay Islands in Honduras, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. You’ll discover tons of bars, bar crawls, surf hostels, and all types of leisure in these locations. Whether or not you want to hunt down or keep away from such locations is as much as you, in fact.

I discussed that this Central America itinerary will take you no less than 6 weeks. However, ideally, you need to have round three months. This will provide you with much more time to take pleasure in every place. You possibly can additionally begin your journey in Mexico Metropolis, and journey by way of the Oaxaca, Chiapas and Yucatan areas of Mexico earlier than diving into Belize.

Southeast Mexico + Guatemala route

This can be a nice slice of Central America and my private suggestion when you’ve got simply a few weeks. These two nations mix very nicely in a round route and actually pack an amazing punch.

Southeast Mexico will provide you with some nice seashore locations, Mayan ruins, mountains, and jungles. It’s a tremendous and straightforward a part of the world to journey and provides you with a ton of selection.

Guatemala offers you an amazing adventure-filled addition. You possibly can go to the epic Mayan temples of Tikal (simply the perfect and largest within the area) and the beautiful volcano lake of Atitlan.

To do that route via Mexico and Guatemala, you’ll want about 2 to three weeks at a minimal, however extra is all the time higher.

Nicaragua + Costa Rica route

One other nice concept for a brief journey of every week or two is to start out in Costa Rica, famed for its wildlife and ecotourism, and add some Nicaragua. A lot of the sights in Nicaragua are within the southwest of the nation, close to the Costa Rican border, making this a reasonably handy combo.

Nicaragua is approach cheaper than Costa Rica, so it could actually make your journey general much more reasonably priced. These days, there’s been some political unrest in Nicaragua. You’ll want to verify the present state of affairs earlier than going.


Getting in & out

In case you’re flying to Central America, then the most typical entry factors (with probably the most direct flights) are Mexico Metropolis, Cancun, San Jose (Costa Rica), and Panama Metropolis.

For those who’re flying in from Europe or elsewhere distant, you may need to verify as nicely if there are connecting flights via Miami Worldwide Airport or the close by Fort Lauderdale Airport.

Florida is usually a nice springboard into the area. The finances airline Spirit Airways additionally operates numerous providers from there.

Sadly, there aren’t many finances airways working inside Central America. Typically the most cost effective flight connection from, say, Guatemala Metropolis to San Jose may truly go by way of america! When you’re in Central America, it typically makes by far probably the most sense to journey overland by bus.

Onward to South America: for those who attain Panama and want to proceed your journey to South America, remember that this isn’t potential overland! There’s an enormous stretch of impenetrable (and harmful) jungle right here referred to as the Darien Hole. There are no roads in any respect by way of the Darien Hole so you’ll both should fly or sail round. I can a lot advocate crusing between Panama and Colombia. Many captains function personal providers taking travellers to and from Cartagena. It’s an exquisite 5-day journey, prices solely a bit greater than flying, and also you’ll get some phenomenal island hopping across the San Blas Islands as well.


All Nations in a nutshell


Private favourite

Highlights: Mayan and different Mesoamerican ruins, the delicacies (with particular point out of Oaxaca state), seashores and caves within the Yucatan, lovely colonial cities like Guanajuato and Mérida, spectacular Copper Canyon in northern Mexico, and a lot extra

Lowlights: overly commercialised seashore resorts in Cancun

Mexico is in North America, however I’m together with it right here for comfort as many travellers make it part of their Central America journey, and given the cultural similarities between Mexico and its southern neighbors.

I received my first impressions of Mexico whereas road-tripping from the south to the north, and I used to be struck by the range of the landscapes. Within the far south, you’ll find dense jungles and plush inexperienced valleys, the Yucatan peninsula has many wetlands, whereas it’s principally huge deserts within the north.

San Cristobal de las Casas

The nation is large which intimidated me a bit throughout my planning levels. The Lonely Planet opened with not simply the traditional 10 or so “should see” locations however with a whopping 40!

If Mexico feels such as you’re biting off greater than you possibly can chew, it helps to focus your journey analysis on particular person states. For instance, in the event you like meals and tradition, Oaxaca is a superb state to take a look at. Yucatan is extra about seashores. So far as the standard backpacker path goes, it runs principally via the south-east a part of the nation.

Mexico finally ends up being a place to begin for a lot of Central America backpackers as a result of low cost flight connections there. You may discover some particularly cheap flights to Cancun, as that is one in every of Mexico’s largest vacation resorts, although it’s greatest to not keep in Cancun for too lengthy when you don’t like hyper-touristy locations.

If Mexico has you intrigued, make sure you dig into my detailed information to Mexico. The southeastern elements alone, that are greatest mixed with Central America, can take weeks to cowl absolutely. Exploring Mexico at giant can hold you busy for ages. Whereas distances between locations in Mexico may be fairly lengthy, no less than in comparison with the extra compact Central American nations, there’s additionally a seemingly neverending wealth of locations to discover.


Learn my Mexico backpacking information »  




Private favourite

Highlights: climbing round Xela, climbing volcanoes, Semuc Champey, lake Atitlan, the epic ruins of Tikal, the colonial metropolis of Antigua

Lowlights: fairly as it’s, Antigua may additionally be a bit overrated

Many backpackers contemplate this a spotlight of Central America. It might be a bit tough across the edges, however don’t let that cease you from visiting. Guatemala is just not solely very low cost to journey in, nevertheless it additionally has a number of the most epic landscapes, probably the most intriguing sights, and extra conventional tradition. It’s the nation that personally gave me the strongest feeling of being on an journey, subjective as that is.

In case you’re in search of a terrific white sand seashore then that is the one space the place Guatemala, sadly, has little to supply. Neighboring Mexico is the place you’ll in all probability need to be for that.

Guatemala is extra about its dramatic landscapes, which vary from dense tropical jungles within the north to deep valleys and excessive peaks within the southern highlands. The south can also be the place you’ll discover the gorgeous colonial previous city of Antigua in addition to Lake Atitlan, a shocking lake surrounded by volcanoes. The cities round this lake are wonderful for lazying about, with the hippie-esque San Pedro having turn out to be a well-liked backpacker hangout.


The north of Guatemala is to not be missed both, particularly the large Mayan ruins of Tikal with their spectacular temple-top views of the encompassing jungles. Many contemplate it one of the best Mayan spoil to go to in all of Central America. The waterfalls of Semuc Champey are additionally a tremendous journey expertise, which makes for a superb cease should you’re already travelling between the north and south of the nation (nevertheless it won’t fairly be value going to Semuc Champey in case you’ll be returning the identical means).

One thing I discover fairly fascinating about Guatemala is its extra conventional tradition. You’ll see many locals wearing vibrant garb or carrying produce or supplies on their heads. Whereas driving by means of Guatemala I met a whole lot of pleasant people working the espresso fields and witnessed some fascinating cultural occasions within the villages.

Beware: fairly a couple of backpackers find yourself staying in Guatemala longer, both to study Spanish, to volunteer or simply to hang around. Once I was already 6 nations additional down the path, some individuals I met earlier have been nonetheless in Guatemala, unable to go away. I too was enthralled by Guatemala and hope to go to it once more someday.


Learn my Guatemala backpacking information »




Highlights: Bay Islands

Lowlights: not many different locations of observe, poor security

Honduras sadly nonetheless struggles to escape its dangerous status for security. It has one of many highest murder charges on the earth, and San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa are the no 1 and no four most violent cities respectively (not counting cities in warfare zones). It must be stated that gang violence not often if ever targets vacationers, and security was additionally by no means a problem for me personally. You possibly can nonetheless navigate a rustic like this safely so long as you’re taking care, nevertheless it did typically make me really feel extra restricted in what I might do.

I feel as a consequence, it was additionally more durable for me to fall in love with Honduras. The safety state of affairs apart, there sadly additionally aren’t a variety of sights or locations that basically put Honduras on the map.

There are primarily two primary points of interest in Honduras. The primary is to go scuba diving on the Bay Islands. It’s in all probability the most cost effective place to study to scuba dive or to take enjoyable dives anyplace within the area, and from the Honduran coast, you’ll have the ability to entry the second largest reef on the earth. Throughout elements of the yr, there’s additionally a superb probability of sighting plankton-eating whale sharks (the most important fish on the earth), a sighting of which is taken into account considerably of a trophy amongst divers.

The opposite main attraction in Honduras are the Mayan ruins of Copan. This website is smaller and quieter than different ones in Mexico and Guatemala and for that cause could be extra interesting. In case you come from the south it’s going to scratch that Mayan wreck itch, although when you have already handed by way of Mexico or Guatemala you may need already had your share of Mayan ruins by the point you get to Copan.



Pssst, are you insured?

It’s all the time sensible to have some good journey insurance coverage earlier than you journey by means of Central America. You’ll be coated for any medical bills, theft, private legal responsibility, cancellation, and extra, which may give you a lot peace of thoughts.

I like to recommend World Nomads, which supply versatile insurance coverage with 24-hour worldwide help. Adventurous and outdoor actions are additionally coated.

Needless to say most insurance coverage insurance policies don’t cowl longer journeys! With World Nomads your journey could be so long as you need (and you may even prolong your plan when you’re nonetheless travelling).

Get insurance coverage for Central America »




Highlights: Carribean rasta vibe, Caye Caulker, the Nice Blue Gap, Mayan ruins of Caracol and Altun Ha, unbelievable ecotourism because of just lately protected Belize Barrier Reef

Lowlights: Belize Metropolis, excessive value of journey

Belize is comparatively very costly and so that you’ll catch fairly a couple of low-budget travellers griping concerning the sudden improve in prices once they get there. That is additionally why many price range travellers keep in Belize extra briefly, often on the islands of Caye Caulker, and often as a waypoint between Mexico and northern Guatemala (both heading south or north).

Even when the excessive value is placing you off a bit of, know that Belize continues to be extremely value visiting. The Caribbean rasta vibe and the creole-style English-speaking locals make for an fascinating change of scene from different Spanish-speaking nations. The snorkelling round Caye Caulker is great (you possibly can reliably see reef sharks, for instance), and lots of divers come right here to dive the Nice Blue Gap, an enormous marine sinkhole off the coast of Belize.

Staying on Caye Caulker could be carried out sort-of cheaply by being artistic, e.g. consuming noodle dishes at a number of the Chinese language-run eateries, making use of 2-for-1 comfortable hour offers on the bars, staying in dorms, and so forth. You in all probability have to finances about $15 to $20/night time for a dorm mattress, and at the least $30-$40 for the most cost effective rooms.

In case your finances is tight, it’s value contemplating if sure excursions or actions might be finished cheaper in neighbouring nations as an alternative. 

Caye Caulker




Highlights: partying in San Juan, volcano boarding, the beautiful volcano islands of Ometepe, distant Carribean shoreline, colonial cities of Granada and Leon, very low value

Lowlights: the capital Managua has a lot of US-style sprawl and is completely skippable

Journey in Nicaragua could be very low cost—virtually as low cost as Southeast Asia in locations. I felt that Nicaragua was in all probability a bit underrated by a few of the sources I had learn earlier than visiting. It’s nonetheless an rising journey vacation spot; as an example, many guidebooks for Nicaragua are of their third or 4th version whereas these for different nations are of their 10th or 20th.


Your greenback will go a great distance right here and there’s a lot to see and do. Nicaragua additionally enjoys a greater status for security than the likes of Honduras and El Salvador, which may put your thoughts comfy.

Word: Nicaragua turned much less secure in 2018 with now quite a lot of political unrest. Issues may be positive, however examine advisories earlier than you go.

Nicaragua has various seashore/island locations, probably the most marketed being the Corn Islands on the japanese coast (arduous to succeed in overland and so many take a flight there). When it comes to cultural curiosity, there are at first the previous colonial cities of Leon and Grenada. These locations are maybe not fairly as buzzing because the likes of Antigua in Guatemala or Cartagena in Colombia, however are properly value visiting.


It struck me that Nicaragua is, particularly, an amazing place for lively journey, with loads of climbing alternatives (numerous volcanoes to climb), many browsing scorching spots, actions like kayaking round Ometepe island, and the adrenaline-raising volcano boarding (as you may need guessed that is sandboarding down an precise volcano, i.e. fairly loopy).

Lastly, it appears Nicaragua might be extra of a backpacker social gathering vacation spot in some locations, notably San Juan Del Sur on the western coast. That is in all probability because of the low value of journey in addition to the surfer crowds serving to to determine a bar scene right here. There are a lot of infamous Western-owned social gathering hostels in Nicaragua (like Bigfoot, Pacha Mama and Bare Tiger) and a loopy weekly pool social gathering in San Juan that appears to unfold its “Sunday Funday” t-shirts like promotional service pigeons all through Central America.

Learn my Nicaragua backpacking information »



Costa Rica

Highlights: an ideal vacation spot for wildlife, ecotourism, nice seashores, journey actions like zip lining and rafting

Lowlights: tourism areas are costly and largely aimed toward American households on a vacation; not ultimate if you have to stretch a finances on an extended journey

I left Costa Rica sooner than deliberate as I shortly turned discouraged by the tremendous excessive costs there. These costs could be a shock, notably as many web sites bizarrely listing Costa Rica among the many least expensive locations to go to (somebody in all probability put Costa Rica in a listicle someplace inflicting numerous others to repeat it). In actuality, the prices in Costa Rica may be shut if not typically equivalent to these in Western developed nations, particularly for those who’re anyplace across the extra visited elements.

It’s notably the excursions and actions that value rather a lot, partially as a consequence of an inflow of North American vacationers who’re in Costa Rica for temporary holidays and who’ve cash to spend (and so Costa Ricans know what they will cost). A lot of the excursions and actions appeared to start out at round $50—and since in my case I used to be travelling with a buddy who couldn’t afford to frequently spend that a lot, we frequently needed to make troublesome decisions.

Apart from the costs of excursions, the overall value of dwelling can even sting a bit of: groceries have been comparatively fairly costly and I used to be a bit miffed to need to pay $15 for a single laundry wash when that had value mere dollars elsewhere (an unfair comparability certainly, nevertheless it’s a actuality of travelling right here). I like to recommend budgeting in all probability round $40 a day for lodging and primary journey value alone, and something on prime of that’s for excursions/guides/and so on. In the event you’re wishing to do plenty of vacationer actions, you may find yourself spending $60 – $100 a day.


To not be solely targeted on the price, I ought to say the character in Costa Rica is undeniably lovely, and the nation has put itself on the map as an enormous ecotourism vacation spot. Numerous thrilling wildlife could be noticed simply in case you go together with a superb information. As an example, within the cloud forests of Monte Verde, I noticed sloths and coati bears, amongst many different creatures. The individuals in Costa Rica are additionally tremendous pleasant, and also you’ve received to like their frequently-uttered motto of pura vida (which means ‘pure life’, sort of their hakuna matata).

I in all probability may need loved Costa Rica extra if I used to be there with the expectation of getting to spend extra, or if I used to be with journey companions who might cope with the prices equally properly. I’d like to return again someday and see rather more of the nation.




Highlights: San Blas Islands, mountaineering in Boquete, Isla Coiba Nationwide Park, numerous superb nature with out the crowds of Costa Rica

Lowlights: uninteresting Panama Metropolis, Bocas del Toro nothing particular (however enjoyable get together place)

Most individuals affiliate Panama simply with its canal (or, heck, tax evasion), nevertheless it’s acquired a lot extra to supply. I feel the tradition is perhaps not fairly as vibrant as somewhere else within the area (corresponding to Guatemala or Colombia), however the wildlife and nature is just implausible. It’s additionally far much less touristy and a bit cheaper than Costa Rica.

Some individuals appear to love the capital quite a bit. It didn’t do a lot for me, because it feels fairly business-focused, however I need to admit it’s a lot safer and extra nice than just about all the opposite Central American capitals. This definitely makes it not a nasty place to start out your Central America journey, as it’s going to allow you to ease into issues extra simply.

Bocas del Toro

Boquete and Bocas del Toro are the best-known locations in Panama. Boquete is Panama’s journey journey capital the place can spend lots of time mountaineering, ziplining, rafting, and so on. Bocas del Toro is an enormous celebration hotspot, typically talked about in the identical breath as San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, or Roatan in Honduras. It has a status as a spot the place backpackers and nomads often ‘get caught’ and keep longer than deliberate. The primary a part of Bocas del Toro is tremendous business, however in case you’re after extra peace or authenticity you may need to depart Isla Colon head for the opposite close by islands, a few of that are barely inhabited.

A little bit of a hidden gem is the Isla Coiba Nationwide Park on the Pacific coast, a kind of Galapagos-like island that’s maintained historic forests and distinctive wildlife because of being remoted for therefore lengthy from the mainland. You’ll be able to take journeys there from the surfer city of Santa Catalina.

San Blas Islands

My favorite a part of Panama was simply the San Blas Islands, which I visited whereas crusing to Colombia. There are not any roads connecting Panama and Colombia, so backpackers typically guide passage on one among many dozens of personal yachts that repeatedly sail to Cartagena. In the event you determine to go that method, contemplate making a cease in Portobelo in Panama. It’s a cute city with previous fortresses, and lots of yachts depart from there.

Panama isn’t perhaps as epic as Guatemala or as low cost as Nicaragua, nevertheless it’s undoubtedly not with out its charms. And because the final level on my Central America itinerary, crusing round San Blas definitely ended the journey with a bang.

Learn my Panama backpacking information »



Observe: El Salvador excluded just for purpose of me not having visited. It’s on the listing for subsequent time!