Is Central America the right destination for me?
Choosing the right destination for an upcoming trip is always exciting. Yet, you have to research a bit and be sure of what you want and what you can expect from a certain travel destination, in order to make the best out of your trip.
Let’s consider some questions:
Are you looking for great beaches to go surfing or to learn how to surf? Or diving?
Do you get excited by fascinating nature, like lakes, rivers and rainforests?
Are you interested in ancient temples and Maya culture?
Would you like to climb an active volcano?
Have you ever wanted to hang out on Caribbean beaches?
Do you like exotic animals?
And do you speak Spanish or would love to learn some Spanish?
If you can answer most of these questions with a yes, there’s a high chance that you fall in love with backpacking in Central America.
As one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world, its nature is definitely what makes Central America so special. These countries offer an awesome balance between hiking, experiencing foreign cultures and nature, beach breaks and meeting fellow travelers while hanging out.
However, you should also consider that backpacking in Central America comes with veeeery long bus journeys, tons of mosquito bites, and large temperature differences between windy mountains and boiling coastal towns. Besides, you’ll come across many stray dogs and shouldn’t wander around recklessly, because safety can be an issue in some places. And well, the food is by far not as healthy and as tasty as in Southeast-Asian countries. But that may also just be a very personal opinion.
Eventually, you have to listen to your own needs and desires but also have to be realistic about what to expect. Then this Central American backpacking route can be the adventure of a lifetime for you.
Backpacking in Central America
Backpacking Central America itineraries
You can start your Central America backpacking trip in pretty much all countries. I’m covering the Central America backpacking route from Guatemala to Panama in this guide. Of course, you can also do it the other way around or start in any of the countries in-between. This may also be a good option if you have less than 2 months.
Even though I also love being spontaneous, and you shouldn’t plan a too rigid itinerary, choosing a rough Central America backpacking route can help you with some of the planning. This way, you have a general idea of where you’d like to go and what you want to see. But you still have the option, to alter your itinerary to travel with new travel buddies or to change spontaneously because you’ve heard of an incredible hidden gem on the way.
Central America backpacking route for 3 months
Three months are perfect for the full Central America backpacking route from Guatemala down to Panama:
Guatemala ⇨ Honduras ⇨ El Salvador ⇨ Nicaragua ⇨ Costa Rica ⇨ Panama
3 weeks in Guatemala:
Start by making your way straight to the pretty colonial town Antigua after flying into Guatemala City. After a few days of adjusting to the height, do the impressive Acatenango volcano hike and afterward head on to relax by Lake Atitlán.
The next highlight on your trip are the natural pools of Semuc Champey and then the island town Flores from where you can visit the impressive Maya ruins in Tikal. End your time in Guatemala with a few relaxing days in Río Dulce where you can enjoy nature and do some boat trips.
1,5 weeks in Honduras:
From Río Dulce you can easily take a shuttle to La Ceiba, the starting point for the ferries to the Bay Islands. Spend a few days or a week in Utila to go diving and enjoy the Caribbean. After this, adventure is calling in Pico Bonito National Park & Congrejal River.
Once you want to get back to exploring, head down to Copan Ruinas, the largest Maya ruins in Honduras.
1 week in El Salvador:
After Copan Ruinas, you can cross the border to El Salvador and make your first stop in the north in Suchitoto, an authentic small town next to a huge lake. El Salvador is small, so you can easily get on to Santa Ana to hike the unique volcano with its blue lake. Don’t miss it!
You can also rent a scooter and drive around the Ruta de las Flores and end your time in El Salvador on the Pacific coast around El Tunco.
3 weeks in Nicaragua:
Nicaragua is among the largest Central American countries, but its highlights are mostly close to the Pacific coast. I’d recommend taking a shuttle from El Tunco in El Salvador to León, as it’s a long ride with two border crossings.
But León is awesome, and there are many volcano adventures close by, such as volcano boarding at Cerro Negro Volcano. After that, you can either take your first surf break in Las Peñitas (or add a stop at the Pacific later on).
It’s not far to the beautiful town of Granada and the Laguna de Apoyo which was one of our highlights. And then, take some time to go to Ometepe island, rent a scooter there and calm down for a few days (don’t stress – I’ve met people who got stuck in Ometepe for months because of its special vibe).
Now, you can add a second beach stop in one of the Pacific beach towns, before heading on to Costa Rica.
2-3 weeks in Costa Rica:
After crossing the border from Nicaragua, you can either head to the capital San Jose (from here you can get anywhere in Costa Rica) or right to one of the beach towns for surfing on the Nicoya peninsula. Then, you have the choice between many amazing national parks, such as Monteverde, La Fortuna, Manuel Antonio, or Corcovado. Pick at least two. Traveling in Costa Rica will probably include some zigzagging. But don’t worry, eventually you can calm down and relax in the Caribbean town Puerto Viejo and its stunning surrounding beaches.
2 weeks in Panama:
From Costa Rica’s Puerto Viejo it’s super easy to cross the border to Bocas del Toro, a beautiful archipelago in Panama’s north. After that, it’s time for some jungle adventure around Boquete and a beach break in Santa Catalina or Playa Venao. If you’re up for more jungly hiking, Valle de Anton is also amazing and perfectly located on the route to Panama City. From here, you can start the unique island trip to the San Blas Islands. An unforgettable experience!
And well, as mentioned earlier, this can even be done as a sailing trip on to Colombia. Or you take a flight back home from Panama City’s international airport.
Interactive map of the Central America backpacking route
(click to view in a separate window)
Central America backpacking route for 2 months
If you’ve got 2 months to explore, you can easily cover four of the countries from the suggested Central America route, such as:
Central America backpacking route for 1 month
If you’ve only got one month, I’d suggest picking 2 neighboring countries out of this Central America route and shortening it accordingly.
Depending on the size of the countries, you can easily spend an intense time in one country. Or cover two countries in a month.
These combinations can make a great Central America backpacking trip for 1 month:
Guatemala & Honduras
Guatemala & El Salvador
El Salvador & Nicaragua
Honduras & Nicaragua
Costa Rica & Panama
Best places to visit when backpacking in Central America – Country breakdowns
Which countries to visit on a Central America Backpacking trip?
Central America is a region made up of eight countries. While Mexico and Belize are the northernmost countries of Central America, this Central America backpacking route concentrates on an itinerary from Guatemala to Panama. As mentioned before, that’s an itinerary that’s perfect for three months.
So it depends on how much time you have (Mexico, for example, is huge and you can spend way more than a month in that country alone), and on your preferences.
Guatemala is extremely diverse and used to be the capital of the ancient Mayan empire. Honduras is great for diving, as it’s located on the world’s second-largest coral reef. El Salvador is a surfer’s paradise. So is Nicaragua, many backpackers’ favorite. And while Costa Rica has amazing national parks, it’s also a very expensive destination. This is also true for the Caribbean island paradise Panama.
With its huge variety across the country, Guatemala combines everything that you can imagine in Central America. Active, fire-spitting volcanoes (actually, there are over 30 volcanoes in Guatemala). Paradisiacal beaches for surfers. Majestic rivers and lakes. Lush rainforests full of singing birds. And of course, the world’s largest site of Maya ruins.
Guatemala is a backpacker’s paradise! We were amazed by the diversity that this country offers. Also, the locals in Guatemala are extremely friendly and helpful. We ended up almost sad when we said goodbye to Guatemala. It’s still in our hearts and among the greatest highlights of our Central America backpacking trip.
Guatemala’s highlights among the best places to visit in Central America:
Antigua – the old capital with its cobblestoned colonial streets and colorful houses
Acatenango volcano – on top you have breathtaking views of its fire-spitting neighbor El Fuego
Lake Atitlán – for relaxed vibes and fun boat rides
Semuc Champey – to jump into the natural, turquoise pools after a hike
Tikal – the ancient Maya capital full of temple ruins (the world’s largest Mayan site)
Río Dulce – to enjoy the river on a kayak, boat ride, or swimming
What you’ll love: Jumping into the pastel-blue waters in Semuc Champey
Did you know? There are 23 different spoken languages in Guatemala. Among them are 21 completely different ancient Mayan languages.
Favorite photo spot: Watching the sunrise from the top of Acatenango volcano
Best food: Veggie tacos or tortillas
Guatemala in three words: volcanoes | tortillas | singing birds
As Central America’s least visited country, Honduras is constantly fighting prejudices. It’s considered dangerous and not as exciting as other Central American countries.
But for us, Honduras turned out to be among our favorite countries when we were backpacking in Central America. Mainly that’s due to the spectacular diving on its Caribbean Bay islands and the vibes among divers over there. And on the mainland, it allures with jungly river adventures and Maya culture.
But also, we had only positive experiences with the lovely Honduran locals and enjoyed how cheap it was to travel through Honduras. The country is definitely my best recommendation if you want to get off the typical Gringo trail. So don’t skip it!
Honduras highlights among the best places to visit in Central America:
Bay Islands (especially Utila) – not only one of the cheapest places in the world to do your Padi, but also directly at the world’s second-largest coral reef
Copan Ruins – Beautiful Maya ruins that you can explore almost by yourself
Congrejal River Valley – The place to go for whitewater rafting and canyoning
Pico Bonito National Park – a beautiful national park for hiking in the rainforest (the largest jungle in Central America)
What you’ll love: Diving (or a dive course) in Utila
Did you know? Honduras is where Columbus set foot on American land – namely in Trujillo. Allegedly, the name Honduras also goes back to the deep sea Columbus had to sail through in front of the country’s coast (“hondura” meaning “depth” in Spanish).
Favorite photo spot: On top of Pumpkin hill in Utila
Best food: Baleadas with avocado (like a large Tortilla wrap filled with beans and cheese – cheap and yummy!)
Honduras in three words: corals | baleadas | macaws
Often overlooked by travelers, this tiny country has a lot to offer. Great mountains, volcanoes with pastel-colored lakes in their crater, nice beaches, and cute towns.
Over there, you can experience the most authentic side of backpacking in Central America, as it’s not very touristy (yet!). However, lots of change is happening in El Salvador right now. And with its rising popularity as a surfers destination, I’m sure tourism will change a lot within the next few years.
El Salvador’s highlights among the best places to visit in Central America:
El Tunco – the country’s surfer hot spot on the Pacific coast
Santa Ana Volcano – After hiking up to the top, you’re rewarded with the unique view of a turquoise lake inside the crater
Ruta de las Flores – a route across the El Salvadoran countryside among pretty villages and hot spring waterfalls
Suchitoto – a cute colonial town next to a beautiful lake
What you’ll love: Climbing Santa Ana Volcano to catch a glimpse of its shiny lake
Did you know? El Salvador is the first country in the world to introduce bitcoin as an official currency.
Favorite photo spot: From Suchitoto down onto the lake
Best food: Pupusas (like small, filled Tortillas) with jalapeños and lots of spicy sauce
El Salvador in three words: pupusas | mango trees | surfing
Impressions of El Salvador
For many backpackers, Nicaragua is on top of their list when heading to Central America. That’s for good reason – it’s cheap to travel, has great vibes in its towns, and so many activities.
You may have heard of volcano boarding or Ometepe, the world’s largest lake island. Besides, there are so many surf towns that allure pros as well as beginners.
And the lakes! When backpacking in Central America, I definitely fell for Nicaragua’s lagoons and lakes that make you feel like you’re by the sea.
Nicaragua’s highlights among the best places to visit in Central America:
León & Granada – Two completely different towns but both with super good backpackers vibes
Laguna de Apoyo – The cleanest lake you’ll find in Central America, great for swimming and kayaking
Ometepe island – Probably my favorite place in Nicaragua with volcano hikes, great beaches, and a laid-back flair (tip: rent a scooter!)
Cerro Negro volcano boarding – Sliding down a volcano on a wooden board is a fun activity that you’ll find nowhere else
Pacific surf towns – No matter if you decide on Las Peñitas, Playa Gigante or Playa Popoyo
What you’ll love: Swimming in the warm volcanic water of Laguna de Apoyo
Did you know? Nicaragua lake is the only lake in the world with sharks.
Favorite photo spot: On top of Cerro Negro directly gazing into the crater that had erupted just over 20 years ago
Best food: Gallo pinto (simple rice and beans but so yummy) and the plantain burger at Tostometro in Granada
Nicaragua in three words: blue birds | gallo pinto | lake vibes
Costa Rica may be the world’s greenest country. It’s definitely full of incredible national parks and some of the most biodiverse areas in the world. And Costa Rica is a leader in eco-tourism that many countries can only wonder at. Besides, the Pura Vida lifestyle is almost like a cult among locals as well as travelers.
But when you’re backpacking in Central America, you’ll also quickly realize that Costa Rica is by far the most expensive country over there. It feels like it’s more laid-out for vacations than for backpacking. Yet, it’s certainly worth seeing.
Costa Rica’s highlights among the best places to visit in Central America:
Beach towns at the Nicoya Peninsula – Santa Teresa, Montezuma, and Samara are just a few of the paradisiacal Pacific beach towns perfect for surfing
National Parks – Monteverde, La Fortuna, Tortuguero, Corcovado, Manuel Antonio. The list of national parks in Costa Rica is really long & you should see at least 2-3 of them.
Puerto Viejo – With Caribbean vibes and amazing beaches, this town is quite unique and worth a visit
What you’ll love: Visiting a cloud forest, such as Monteverde
Did you know? In Costa Rica, coconuts are called “pipas” instead of “cocos”.
Favorite photo spot: The ficus tree near Monteverde National Park (Santa Elena)
Best food: The Vegan bowl at Green Lovers in Sámara
Costa Rica in three words: Pura Vida | sloths | national parks
Impressions of Costa Rica
After all the adventures when backpacking in Central America, Panama will show you its sweetest side with its incredible islands. Island-hopping is among the most fun things to do in Panama. But the mainland has just as many beaches, since Panama is pretty much hugged by two oceans.
It’s not the most visited country in Central America but it’s definitely worth it. For me, it was the perfect finish after three months in Central America.
Panama’s highlights among the best places to visit in Central America:
Bocas del Toro – Spend a few days here, renting beach bikes and driving from one relaxing spot to the next while watching sloths hanging in the trees
San Blas Islands – Do not leave Panama without going to these tiny islands in front of Panama’s coast belonging to the indigenous Kuna Yala. I’ve never experienced anything like that.
Boquete – Lush jungles and majestic volcano hikes
Valle de Anton – A unique nature nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano
What you’ll love: Spending a few nights on a tiny San Blas Island
Did you know? One of the 365 San Blas Islands, namely Pelicano Island, has been the film location of the famous Netflix Series Casa de Papel (Tokio’s and Rio’s hiding place)
Favorite photo spot: The turquoise water right under our nose (or actually in front of our hut) on Isla Iguana
Best food: The Caribbean Tofu Nest at Arboloco in Bocas del Toro
Panama in three words: islands | almond trees | sloths
Best things to do in Central America
While every country has its highlights, there are definitely some things that you shouldn’t miss while you’re anywhere in Central America. Nature and culture over here are just waiting to be explored. So adventurers, hikers, fans of water sports and history fans – let’s go out and explore the best things to do while backpacking in Central America.
Climb a volcano
The Central America volcanic arc with over 70 volcanoes stretches all the way from Guatemala down to Panama. Several of them are active and erupt regularly.
So climbing up a volcano is a very special experience and you shouldn’t miss it while backpacking in Central America.
Here are some of the volcanoes that you can safely hike (of course, always with a guide). All offer different highlights:
For spectacular views of spitting or flowing lava:
Acatenango, El Fuego and Pacaya (all close to Antigua in Guatemala)
Masaya (close to Granada in Nicaragua)
With amazing crater lakes:
For volcano boarding:
For a tough 2-day hike:
Within rainforest surroundings:
Central American volcanoes
Visit Maya ruins
Especially Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have a rich history of Mayan culture. Tikal in the north of Guatemala used to be the capital of the Mayans and is also the largest site of Mayan ruins in the world. It’s quite breathtaking walking through the site with so many temples and pyramids still hidden under debris hills. While smaller, Copán Ruinas in Honduras isn’t less attractive. You can spend hours strolling through the mystic jungly temple landscape in ruins.
If you head further north, you will also find exceptional Maya ruins along the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico and in Belize.
Maya ruins in Tikal and Copan
Learn how to surf on the Pacific coast
Every surf fan will rave about the Central American Pacific coast. It’s not only the awesome waves and the black volcanic sand that make the Central American surfer towns special. They all spread a super laid-back vibe and, besides surfing, offer nice cafés, yoga studios, and enough hammocks to just lay under a palm tree with a coconut in hand. Every country along the Pacific has its own hip surfer towns, such as
El Paredon (more popular) and Monterrico (more local) in Guatemala
the area around El Tunco (very hip) and El Zonte (more relaxed) in El Salvador
Las Peñitas, Playa Gigante and Playa Popoyo in Nicaragua
all the beaches on the Nicoya peninsula, such as Santa Teresa, Nosara and Samara in Costa Rica
Playa Venao and Santa Catalina in Panama
Hang around on Caribbean beaches
What’s super special about Central America is that most of its countries have both a rough Pacific coast and a calm Caribbean coast. They couldn’t be more different from each other. As opposed to the black volcanic sand on the Pacific, you will find white, calm beaches with warm shallow water along the Caribbean Sea. Also, the food is different in the Caribbean, with more spices and coconut milk as the main ingredient in many of the dishes.
The best Caribbean beaches when backpacking in Central America can be found in:
White beach in Guatemala
The Bay Islands with Utila and Roatan in Honduras
Corn Islands in Nicaragua
Puerto Viejo and the paradisiacal beaches in Cahuita national park in Costa Rica
Bocas del Toro and San Blas in Panama
The clear, turquoise water in the Caribbean is not only perfect for relaxing and swimming, but also for diving. What is more, there’s an amazing gem hidden underneath the water: the Belize Barrier Reef. Right after the Great Barrier Reef, this is actually the world’s second-largest coral reef, stretching all the way from Belize down to Honduras. This makes the Bay Islands with Utila and Roatan in Honduras one of the best places to go diving. And also one of the cheapest to do your diving license!
While in some countries it’s super easy to reach the Caribbean coast, in Nicaragua it’s quite off the beaten path. But that makes the Corn Islands a true hidden gem, perfect for diving in serenity.
Also, Bocas del Toro in Panama offers some of the best diving.
Diving in Utila, Honduras
Hike through rainforests
I simply love rainforests! And the Central American rainforests are magical. No matter if you go to the natural pools of Semuc Champey in Guatemala, Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras, the Costa Rican national parks, or Boquete in Panama. Make sure you go hiking there and breathe in the fresh air deeply. It doesn’t have to be an expensive tour in one of the parks in Costa Rica, you can also just do a short trek by yourself around Semuc Champey or on Isla Colón in Panama.
Central American rainforests
Hike to a viewpoint for sunrise
Even though I always have to beat myself out of bed when I join a sunrise hike (and maybe hate myself a bit), it’s always so worth it. And Central America offers some incredible sunrise viewpoints. In Guatemala, you can hike up the “Indian nose” for a special view of the rising sun above Lake Atitlan, and of course Acatenango volcano where you can see the fire-spitting El Fuego volcano in the dark. In Panama, La India Dormida in Valle de Anton is a very popular sunrise hike on top of the crater of a dormant volcano.
The sunrise view from Acatenango volcano
Relax around lakes
Awww, the lakes in Central America. In between all the adventures and activities, it’s always nice to take a break and relax by one of the beautiful lagoons and lakes. Among my favorites are:
Lago de Atitlan & Lago de Izabal for great boat rides and relaxed vibes in Guatemala
Suchitoto & Lago de Coatepeque in El Salvador
Laguna de Apoyo & Isla de Ometepe in Lago di Cocibolca for swimming and relaxing by the beach in Nicaragua
The fantastic lakes in Central America
I totally recommend speaking at least some basic Spanish when you’re backpacking in Central America. But we’ll get to that a bit later on.
If you don’t speak any Spanish, why not combine your trip with some lessons in a Spanish school. Guatemala’s old capital Antigua is one of the most popular places with lots of Spanish schools.
If you’re traveling solo, this is also a great opportunity to meet fellow travelers and maybe spend some time backpacking together.
Try the typical food in each country
In my opinion, you haven’t really seen a destination, if you don’t eat the local food. So ask the locals for their favorite foods, head to local restaurants or street food stalls where the locals eat and try something you’ve never heard of before.
Don’t leave Guatemala without munching lots of tortillas and the typical Chapin breakfast. In Honduras, there’s no day without eating Baleadas, or Pupusas in El Salvador, especially for budget travelers. In Nicaragua, local food is the best at the simple, local restaurants called Comedores where you can get yummy Gallo Pinto (rice mixed with beans). Believe me, it’s yummier than it sounds. Also, you’ll love going to a Soda (a local Costa Rican restaurant) to have a yummy Casado without breaking the bank.
Enjoying Central American food
Good to know before backpacking in Central America
Central America Backpacking budget
How much money do you need for 3 months in Central America?
Well, your travel budget for backpacking in Central America varies a lot from one country to the next. Also, it highly depends on the way you travel (from hostels to hotels and from local chicken buses to tourist shuttles). Especially when it comes to accommodation, we found the nicest places to stay for the cheapest prices in Nicaragua.
We tried to travel budget-friendly by eating mostly in local restaurants, but also trying fancy vegetarian/vegan food every now and then. Also, we used mostly public, local buses except for a few border crossings and trips within Guatemala that would have taken us two days by public bus. And we slept in nice, basic double rooms most of the time. In the end, we spent around 1400 $ per person per month, but that also includes entrance fees and activities such as diving, tours and ziplining. So it can be done a bit cheaper, but you can also spend way more during a Central America backpacking adventure.
Which Central American country is the cheapest?
In my opinion, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala were the cheapest countries during our backpacking trip in Central America. Here is our average spending in each country:
Food: average meal in a restaurant 35 – 50 Quetzales (4.50 – 7 $) / simple tortillas for 35 Quetzales (4.50 $)
Hotels: around 30 – 40 $ for a nice, basic double room / 10 – 12 $ for a hostel bed in a dorm room
Transport: an 8 – 10 hour trip by local chicken bus around 12 $, but easily 300 Quetzales (40 $) by tourist shuttle
Food: average meal in a restaurant 120 – 160 Lempira (5 – 6.50 $) / simple baleadas for 20 Lempira (0.80 $)
Hotels: around 25 $ for a nice double room / 8 $ for a hostel bed in a dorm room
Transport: an 8 – 10 hour trip by local chicken bus around 10 $, but easily 40 $ by tourist shuttle
Food: average meal in a restaurant 7 – 9 $ / pupusas for 0.75 – 1 $ each
Hotels: around 30 $ for a nice, basic double room (easily more around El Tunco) / 15 $ for a hostel bed in a dorm room
Transport: a 3 – 4 hour trip by local chicken bus around 3 – 4 $, but easily 25 $ by tourist shuttle
Food: average meal in a restaurant 100 – 150 Cordobas (3 – 4 $) / simple Gallo pinto with eggs for 80 – 100 Cordobas (3 $)
Hotels: around 20 $ for a nice double room / 8 – 10 $ for a hostel bed in a dorm room
Transport: a 5-hour trip by local bus around 5 – 6 $, but easily 30 $ by tourist shuttle
Food: average meal in a restaurant 6000 – 7000 Colones (10 $) / simple Casado in a Soda for 4000 Cordobas (6 $)
Hotels: around 60 $ for a nice, basic double room (easily way more along the Pacific coast) / 20 – 25 $ for a hostel bed in a dorm room
Transport: a 5-hour trip by local bus around 7 – 8 $, but easily 50 $ by tourist shuttle
Food: average meal in a restaurant 7 – 8 $ / simple local food for 4 – 5 $ (more in Bocas)
Hotels: around 40 $ for a nice, basic double room (easily more on Bocas) / 15 – 20 $ for a hostel bed in a dorm room
Transport: an 8 – 10 hour trip by local bus around 15 – 20 $, but easily 60 $ by tourist shuttle
The biggest difference, as you can see, can be made by the type of transport you use. In most countries, you can calculate around 1 $ per hour by local buses, but you’ll easily pay 5x more when taking a tourist shuttle.
Yeah, you’ll pass through 6 countries and each has a different currency. So it will be confusing at times. To help you a little bit and give you an overview for estimating, here are the approximate exchange rates (as of 2022):
Beautiful Nicaraguan Cordobas
Sustainable travel hacks in Central America
While Costa Rica
has become a global leader in eco-tourism, most of the other Central American countries still struggle with improving their sustainability
have made huge steps, and you can feel that there’s more awareness for sustainability, but there’s still a long way to go for Honduras
and El Salvador
Those poorer countries have a huge garbage problem. Honestly, it’s hard to go backpacking in Central America without seeing beaches and roadsides covered in trash.
It’s clear that Central American countries have yet many obstacles to overcome when it comes to sustainability, conservation, and education.
Yet, with the way we travel and behave during our trip, we as travelers can make a difference and leave a positive impact on our destination. Let’s always try to be part of the solution and not the problem.
And it’s indeed possible to travel more sustainably in Central America.
So here are a few sustainable travel hacks:
Sustainable tourism is way more than staying in an expensive eco-lodge. While you can find many of them in all Central American countries, and especially in Costa Rica, be aware if they actually operate sustainably. The problem is that there are no official regulations you have to consider and meet in order to call your accommodation an “eco-lodge” or “eco-hotel”. So some just call themselves eco-lodges because they’re built out of wood.
That’s why you should always check their websites and reviews to find out which sustainability practices they follow (e.g. waste separation, recycling, water and power saving, supporting community projects, offering organic food, or using local or recycled building materials).
Also, do your bit and try to use the fan instead of the power-consuming aircon.
And keep in mind, that in many cases, local guesthouses or small hotels run by locals
are still the most sustainable option. As an example, I loved our stay at Casa Papaki
on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.
Another of my favorite accommodations was Utopia Eco Hotel
near Semuc Champey in Guatemala. Their sustainability practices speak for themselves. Check them out in my post about Guatemala.
Casa Papaki & Utopia Eco Hotel
All across Central America, public transport is surprisingly good, and you always have the choice between taking local chicken buses or shared shuttles (collectivos) within the countries and to neighboring countries. So there’s no need to fly within Central America!
If you think about renting a scooter, for example for the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador or on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, check with rental companies if they also have e-scooters.
A chicken bus ride is always fun
It’s not a secret anymore that the worst CO² polluter is the meat industry. So by eating less meat and animal products, we can travel and live more sustainably.
For us, it was easier than expected to find meat-free and even vegan meals during our Central America backpacking trip. Many local dishes are vegetarian (such as the Chapin breakfast that can be eaten any time of the day in Guatemala, Pupusas in El Salvador, Baleadas Sencilla in Honduras, and Gallo Pinto in Nicaragua and Costa Rica).
In case there’s no vegetarian option on the menu, you can always ask for rice or tortillas with beans.
Also, try to support local restaurants to make sure your money actually reaches their economy instead of an international restaurant or even worse, a chain (also true for guides and accommodation). In Nicaragua, you should keep an eye out for “Comedores” and in Costa Rica for “Sodas” which are locally-run, authentic restaurants.
One more thing: Don’t ever try turtle eggs, as tempting and exotic as this may sound. Turtle populations have decreased alarmingly which is why eating turtle eggs is simply a crime!
Eating locally in Central America
Moreover, in Guatemala almost any accommodation provides free filtered water, so you’re perfectly equipped with a reusable bottle in order to avoid plastic bottles. Yet, that’s not true for most of the other countries.
So a water purifier bottle is the best choice
for your Central America backpacking trip. Please, by any means, try to avoid buying plastic bottles
Central American countries simply don’t have a proper recycling infrastructure. So all your plastic bottles will end up in landfills. Just do the math and realize how many plastic bottles you buy in just a few weeks backpacking in Central America. If you’re interested in one, read my review on the water filter bottle I use
Filtering with my Grayl water purifier bottle
Eco-Tours & activities
You may have to research a bit, but there are some eco-tour operators
in Central America, such as Careli Tours
in Nicaragua or Wicho and Charlie’s
for the epic Acatenango hike in Guatemala.
But if you can’t find any, always choose local tour operators and guides in order to support the local economy. This also applies to Spanish schools.
Plastic packaging & trash
Sadly, Costa Rica is the only Central American country so far that has banned single-use plastics and forbids bringing single-use plastics to their national parks. For all the other countries, there’s still a long way when it comes to trash.
So much takeaway food is packed in single-use plastics and most locals simply don’t understand the impact of littering the environment. We’ve seen many people on buses and in cars throwing empty plastic bottles and packaging out of the window.
So it’s our obligation as travelers to actively refuse plastic packaging whenever we’re offered a bag, plate, or straw made out of plastic. When we stay consistent, we show that travelers care and can make other people start to rethink.
Just bring a reusable bag, food container, and a bamboo cutlery set
to avoid plastic bags and packaging. Just ask the food vendor to put your dish in there instead of plastic packaging.
Eventually, education is key. So by drawing attention to waste reduction, over time hopefully there will be fewer locals throwing their trash out the car window.
Besides, you can join a beach clean-up
, for example with Underwater Vision
dive school in Utila, Honduras on Sundays or with Operation Rich Coast
in Costa Rica. They arrange beach clean-ups all over Costa Rica on a regular basis.
Zero waste equipment for traveling
With the above-mentioned tips for packaging and avoiding plastic, you’re already well-equipped when it comes to grocery shopping.
In some places, such as Antigua, you can even find bulk stores (called “Somos Tierra” in Antigua).
For clothes, you should check out Megapaca – a huge secondhand shop that you can find in many locations all over Central America. I met quite a few travelers who got nice, super cheap clothes, shoes, and other equipment there.
In general, the rule “local first” also applies to shopping. When you want to get souvenirs, choose handcrafted products from locals instead of items produced in China sold at a huge shopping mall.
And of course, avoid buying souvenirs made from wildlife!