Arguably the biggest draw to Central America is the landscapes. From Guatemala’s Laguna de Atitlán to Nicaragua’s volcanic-sand beaches, when you’re backpacking Central America, you’ll be reaching for your camera around every corner.
Much of Central America was developed by the Mayans. Whether you’re exploring ancient ruins or haggling for handicrafts at highland markets, you’ll surely have up-close encounters with this fascinating ancient culture.
Travel in the slow lane
Getting around Central America is never difficult or expensive — but it can take a long time. Get ready for hours gazing out the windows of cramped American school buses, a.k.a. “chicken buses.” It may not always be comfortable, but it’s the best way to meet people — and it’s never boring.
Backpacking Central America: Top experiences
- Mayan ruins at Tikal (Guatemala) or Copán Ruinas (Honduras)
- Hiking up a volcano on Isla de Ometepe (Nicaragua)
- Lazing on Nicaragua’s spectacular, undiscovered beaches like Playa Jiquilillo
- Exploring the colonial cities of Antigua, Guatemala and Granada, Nicaragua
- Watching the sun set over Laguna de Atitlán, Guatemala
Know before you go
Your budget while backpacking Central America will depend on which countries you’re in and where you go within each country. As a rule, beaches and national parks are pricey.
Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama are known for being quite expensive by any standard. National park fees in Costa Rica can add up to hundreds of dollars over the course of a trip.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are considerably cheaper.
In the cheaper countries, you’ll rarely pay more than $7-8 for a dorm bed. Around Laguna de Atitlán you can find dorms for as cheap as $2. You can easily get private rooms for under $20. One of the nicest guesthouses I’ve ever stayed in, in Copán Ruinas in Honduras, worked out to about $20/person split two ways.
Food can be surprisingly expensive and is rarely worth the money. If you’re trying to stay local, you’ll be eating “gallo pinto” (beans and rice) three meals a day for your whole trip. Even that can run to $4 a meal.
If you want a break from gallo pinto, European food will often be in the $8-$10 range in popular backpacker places, and maybe $5-7 in quieter towns.
Long-term backpackers usually self-cater at least part of their trips backpacking Central America. The typical tropical fruits and veggies are readily available.
Activities are where your costs will really add up when backpacking Central America, even in cheaper countries. Central America is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. The hiking is brilliant. You can go searching for rare wildlife. And where else in the world can you ride a wooden board like a sled down the side of a volcano?
Because of safety concerns (more on that below), even the most independent-minded travelers will need to use some guides or organized trips. A day trip with a group will usually set you back $15-$20 in the cheaper countries. Sometimes you can lower costs by forming a bigger group, but often there will be a limit to how many travelers can go with one guide (so if you have a group of six, you have to split up and pay two guides).
If you’re on a fairly tight budget, I’d recommend splitting up adventure activities with no-cost days, like sitting on the beach with a good book or wandering around a small town.
The most common form of travel while backpacking Central America is the ever-present chicken bus. These brightly painted old American school buses are cramped, smelly, and built for people shorter than 5 feet 4 inches tall, but they’ll get you where you’re going for next to nothing. (It’s rarely more than $1/100 km.)
Generally you can just show up at the bus station and hop on. If you show up 30 minutes early, you’ll have a better chance at snagging a seat (which you will need, since there is no luggage compartment). Bus stations can be pretty chaotic places and you’ll probably have to ask someone which one to get on. The good news is you can trust the bus touts–no one has even tried to rip me off at a bus station in the region.
Supplementing bus routes are equally crowded and small minibuses. These tend to serve only short routes, but they’ll get you to your destination much faster, since they stop less. That being said, I was in a couple terrifying minibuses in Nicaragua where the driver didn’t seem to think 140 km/hour was too fast.
Alternatively, there are tourist shuttles that will take you from one backpacker destination to the next. I used these exclusively in Honduras — when I was there, they were considered much better-protected from highway robberies. They’re much more expensive ($4 an hour or so) and not much more comfortable. I’d only suggest using them if you’re traveling in an area where banditry is still a serious problem.
If you’re headed to the islands, you’ll usually be on some kind of ferry or speedboat. Note that unpredictable weather may leave you trapped somewhere if ferries can’t run. Try to give yourself a buffer day or two before you have a flight!
Central America gets a bad rap in the U.S. and around the world. So is backpacking Central America safe? Mostly.
If you seek local advice wherever you go, you should have a trouble-free trip. The typical backpacker destinations tend to be low-key.
But if you take risks, the odds are greater that something will happen. On a beach in Nicaragua, our guesthouse had signs everywhere saying don’t walk on the beach with your stuff. Someone decided to bring his phone with him and, guess what? He got robbed. You’ll hear quite a few stories like this.
The other places to avoid are big cities. This doesn’t pose a problem for most travelers, since you’re probably aiming to get to the beaches or mountains rather than spend a week in Managua or Guate City. But the cities can be unavoidable arrival points or transit hubs, so you may pass through them. Be alert, don’t carry around valuables, call taxis from your hostel instead of hailing them on the street, and be careful where you use the ATM.
There is also a risk to hiking alone (and by ‘alone,’ I mean ‘without a guide,’ even if you’re in a group of gringos). This is not only for security reasons. It’s also because the trails are not well-marked. Weather patterns change abruptly, so what was a clear trail could become 3 feet of visibility. On some popular trails, guides are required. But even if they’re not, think about whether it’s really worth it to save the $5.
Also note that it is extremely not-okay to take photos of kids without their parents’ permission. There has been a shocking amount of kidnapping-for-adoption, so locals are very sensitive to it. This is a quick way to put yourself in completely unnecessary trouble.
For women alone
Central America is one of the easiest places to travel as a solo woman.
A lot of women are pleasantly surprised to find that machismo culture is pretty rare here. Local men are actually quite reserved. You’ll have more trouble striking up a conversation at all than you will turning away would-be suitors!
It’s still pretty conservative, so you’ll be more comfortable wearing skirts/pants below the knee and covering your shoulders. If you’re at the beach, simply wrapping a sarong around your waist before wandering into town makes a big difference.
It’s very, very easy to meet other travelers while backpacking Central America. You’ll bump into the same folks over and over again. And plenty of women travel alone, especially in Nicaragua.
One caveat to that: More than anywhere else in the world, Central America seems to be a haven for skeezy old men on long backpacking trips. Obviously there are sketchy backpackers everywhere, but Central America’s small size means you tend to run into that same creepy guy you told off a week ago, over and over again. Most hostels have female-only dorms — definitely worth it!
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