Slurping coconuts every day. Exploring ancient ruins. Swinging in a hammock by the beach. Hiking through rainforests and up volcanoes. Surfing awesome waves in the Pacific. Traveling along the Central America backpacking route, you can have the time of your life. Adventure is calling!
Even though it seems like such a small stretch of land between the North American and the South American continent, backpacking in Central America is such a diverse experience. It’s an adventure of a lifetime!
While you will find similarities between some of the countries, every country from Guatemala down to Panama has its unique vibes. There’s not a single country you should miss, as there’s so much waiting to be explored.

In this Central America backpacking guide, you’ll get all the juicy insights about the best highlights between Guatemala and Panama and which places to visit in Central America, where to sleep, and tips on food.
Also, I’m sharing tips on getting off the beaten path (the so-called “Gringo trail” in Central America), and everything you need to know for planning your trip. So let’s dig right into it!

Visiting Tikal is one of the most impressive things to do in Guatemala when backpacking in Central America / Die Ruinen von Tikal sind ein beeindruckender Guatemala Reisetipp auf deiner Mittelamerika Backpacking Route

Visiting Tikal is one of the most impressive things to do when backpacking in Central America / Die Ruinen von Tikal sind ein beeindruckender Reisetipp auf deiner Mittelamerika Backpacking Route

Maya ruins in Tikal

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.

Central America backpacking route interactive map

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:
  • Guatemala ⇨ Honduras ⇨ El Salvador ⇨ Nicaragua
  • Honduras ⇨ Nicaragua ⇨ Costa Rica ⇨ Panama

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.

Guatemala

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
Coolest hostels: Utopia Eco Hostel in Semuc Champey, Mellow Hostel in El Paredon, and Los Amigos Hostel in Flores
Nicest hotels: Casi Casa in Antigua,  Lush Atitlan at Lake Atitlan, and Tortugal Boutique River Lodge in Río Dulce
Best food: Veggie tacos or tortillas
Guatemala in three words: volcanoes | tortillas | singing birds

Impressions of Guatemala

Honduras

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
Nicest Hotels: La Casa de Cafe in Copan Ruinas and MANURII Boutique Hotel in Utila
Coolest hostels: Jungle River Lodge near La Ceiba and Iguana Azul in Copan
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

Impressions of Honduras

El Salvador

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
Nicest hotel: Casa 1800 in Suchitoto and Equinoccio Hotel at the shore of Coatepeque lake
Coolest hostel: Hammock Plantation near El Tunco
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

Nicaragua

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
Coolest hostels: Paradiso Hostel at Laguna de Apoyo,  ViaVia León, and Oasis Hostel in Granada
Loveliest hotels: Selvista Guesthouses in Ometepe, Casa Papaki in Ometepe, Boutique Hotel Secret Garden in Granada
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

Impressions of Nicaragua

Costa Rica

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)
Most beautiful hotels: La Cotinga Biological Station close to Corcovado National Park and Residencias Samara by the beach
Coolest hostels: Lost Boyz in Santa Teresa and  Selina La Fortuna 
Best food: The Vegan bowl at Green Lovers in Sámara
Costa Rica in three words: Pura Vida | sloths | national parks

Impressions of Costa Rica

Panama

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 in a simple bamboo hut
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
Coolest hostels: Lost and Found Hostel with its amazing views across Valle Hornito, Bambuda Lodge with hammocks next to the sea in Bocas, or Selina Playa Venao for surfer vibes
Loveliest hotels: Tesoro Escondido Ecolodge in Bocas del Toro (you can walk to three quiet beaches from here), the gorgeous Catalina’s Hideaway, and of courseGunyar Amazingon the San Blas Islands
Best food: The Caribbean Tofu Nest at Arboloco in Bocas del Toro
Panama in three words: islands | almond trees | sloths

Impressions of Panama

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:
    • Santa Ana (in El Salvador)
    • Maderas (on Ometepe island in Nicaragua)
  • For volcano boarding:
    • Cerro Negro in Nicaragua
  • For a tough 2-day hike:
    • Acatenango (in Guatemala)
    • Momotombo (in Nicaragua)
  • Within rainforest surroundings:
    • Arenal (Costa Rica)
    • Volcan Baru (Panama)
    • Maderas (Ometepe island, Nicaragua)

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

Pacific beaches

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

Caribbean beaches

Go diving

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

Learn Spanish

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.

Antigua, Guatemala

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:
  • Guatemala:
    • 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
  • Honduras:
    • 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
  • El Salvador:
    • 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
  • Nicaragua:
    • 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
  • Costa Rica:
    • 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
  • Panama:
    • 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.

Exchange rates

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):
  • Guatemala (Quetzales):
    • 100 Quetzales are around 13 $
  • Honduras (Lempiras):
    • 100 Lempiras are around 4 $
  • El Salvador (US Dollars):
    • FYI: El Salvador is the first country to accept Bitcoins as an official currency as well
  • Nicaragua (Cordobas):
    • 100 Cordobas are a bit less than 3 $
  • Costa Rica (Colones):
    • 1000 Colones are around 1.50 $
  • Panama (mainly US Dollars):
    • FYI: While US Dollars predominate in everyday use, you sometimes get your small change in Balboas, Panama’s old currency.
    • 100 Balboas equals 100 $

Nicaraguan Cordobas

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. Nicaragua and Panama 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 accommodation

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

Transport

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

Eco-friendly food

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

Water

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.

Pressing the water in the Greyl bottle, the best water purifier bottle out there / Beim Filtern mit der Grayl Flasche, der beste Wasserfilter auf reisen

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

Shopping

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!

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    Volunteering in Central America

    To do some more good while backpacking in Central America, check out the many volunteering opportunities – from sea or turtle conservation along the coast to animal rescue centers. From educational projects to supporting eco hostels. There are lots of options.
    Just make sure to research properly and find an ethical volunteering organization in order to avoid falling into the voluntourism trap. Unfortunately, there are many back sheep out there, just trying to make money with helpful foreigners willing to pay.

    Also, to join forces against plastic pollution, search for environmental organizations that you can support. Through community work and environmental education at schools, the level of education in Central America can improve in the long run. And this can lead to less littering in the future.

    Even volunteering activities on short notice can help a lot, such as beach clean-ups, as discussed before.

    Volunteering at ARCAS in Guatemala

    Central American food

    When backpacking in Central America, you realize that the food in some countries is quite similar. All across Central America, the food is heavy on beans, tortillas, and avocado. Yet, each country has some signature dishes. In the northern countries, you can feel more Mexican influences with tortillas and tacos, and the Caribbean coast of each country uses completely different spices than the rest of the country.

    And, while the majority of dishes are heavy on meat, I never struggled to find something as a vegetarian. Actually, many of the signature dishes are vegetarian or can be found in a vegetarian version, such as:
    • Tortillas with Guacamole (instead of meat filling you can find some with vegetables or even soy meat) and the typical Chapin breakfast (tortillas with beans, eggs, platano, avocado and cheese) in Guatemala
    • Baleadas (a large tortilla wrap filled with beans and cheese) in Honduras
    • Pupusas ((like small, filled tortillas with cheese) in El Salvador
    • Gallo Pinto (rice and beans) in Nicaragua
    • Casado (rice, vegetables and beans) in Costa Rica,

    Besides, you will often find fried platano (plantains) or fried yucca (a root similar to potatoes) as a starter or side. And please, try the avocados! Lots of them! They’re always on point, super cheap and local in Central America. So are tropical fruits (such as mangos, pineapples, melons, starfruit) and coconuts!
    Mhhh there’s nothing better than sipping coconut water by the beach. And they’re also super cheap in Central America.

    Food in Central America

    Accommodation for backpacking in Central America

    Hotels, eco-lodges, apartments, or hostels. You can find all types of accommodation when you’re backpacking in Central America. And what kind of accommodation is perfect for you eventually depends on your needs and preferences.
    As mentioned before, look out for accommodation run by locals as well as ones committed to sustainability practices.

    For hotels and eco-lodges, major sites such as booking.com are the perfect place to look.

    If you’re on a budget and looking for hostel beds in dorm rooms, there’s no way to go backpacking in Central America without Hostelworld. More and more hostels over there also offer nice double rooms. So it’s always worth checking out.

    In general, it’s fine to book your next accommodation a few days before. You’ll always find something. We even booked lots of our places to stay just the night before. This way, you can stay more flexible and easily extend your stay at a certain place if you love it there.

    Central American accommodation

    Best time to visit Central America

    In almost all Central American countries, the best time for a backpacking trip is during the dry season, roughly between November/December and April/May. During this season, you’re able to make the most out of your time in Central America.
    But as usual, the high season also comes with more tourists and higher prices for accommodation. That applies especially for the time around Christmas and New Years, and around Easter.

    During the rainy season from May to October, it’s still nice and warm. But it can be harder to get to some of the more remote destinations. And well, the chance for a sunny beach day is lower, and it’s definitely not as much fun hiking across muddy paths.
    At the same time, this is usually the turtle season and the best time to visit places like Tortuguero national park in Costa Rica.
    But well, almost any time of the year you should be prepared for some rain, as there are rainforests all over Central America.

    Pacific beaches in Costa Rica

    Hot days by the Pacific

    What to pack for backpacking in Central America

    Well, I’m not going to spam you with a full packing list over here. You will probably know best what you need for a backpacking trip that lasts several months.

    Still, I have some tips for items, that I highly recommend to my fellow travelers when you’re planning to go backpacking in Central America:

    And for zero waste travel:

    Is it safe to backpack in Central America?

    To be honest, some sites on the internet will leave you scared of ever setting foot on Central American ground. They talk about violence in poor neighborhoods, the world’s highest murder rates, or travelers getting robbed. But never only listen to governments’ travel warnings. If you did so, you wouldn’t be able to leave your own house. And you’d definitely miss out on many of the most amazing backpacking destinations in the world.

    That said, backpacking in Central America is relatively safe, despite what you may hear on the news.
    Even though El Salvador and Honduras are considered more dangerous, as they have some of the highest homicide rates, most of the crimes take place in certain neighborhoods of their big cities. And especially among drug gangs, so violence against backpackers is very rare. Just by avoiding these cities, you minimize the chance of getting involved in any violence.
    To be precise: Avoid the capitals of Guatemala (Guatemala City), Nicaragua (Managua), El Saldavor (San Salvador)and Honduras (Tegucigalpa and here also avoid San Pedro Sula). There’s not much to see in these cities anyway.
    Costa Rica and Panama are much safer and their capitals are also prettier, so it’s no problem staying in Costa Rica’s San José or Panama City. But don’t travel too far south in Panama, as the border region to Colombia is quite dangerous due to drug traffic.

    Also, I want to add that El Salvador is improving steadily. Since a change to a new government in 2019, crime rates have improved drastically.

    From the second I arrived in Central America, I had only positive experiences with the open and friendly locals. Not once did I feel unsafe in any of the countries, even on local busses and in very rural areas.
    With open eyes and common sense, you can have an awesome experience backpacking in Central America.
    Of course, always be cautious and take some measures such as:
    • Avoid the big cities (as mentioned above).
    • Don’t walk home alone at night.
    • Don’t travel at night (except in Costa Rica and Panama, where traveling at night is fairly safe).
    • Leave your valuables (such as your passport and credit cards you don’t need right now) locked at the accommodation, and just take a bit of cash when you’re out.
    • Store your money and credit cards in different places in your luggage (in the rare case you get mugged, you still have some money source somewhere else).

    Is Central America safe for solo female travelers?

    From my personal experience, I can say: Absolutely yes! I’ve partly traveled through Central America on my own and had an awesome time! Also, I’ve met many female solo travelers. And only one girl I’ve met was unlucky and got mugged in a chicken bus in Guatemala while she was traveling alone.
    So if you don’t feel comfortable about taking public transport, you can stick to tourist shuttles. Or do what solo travelers do: Find some travel buddies in your hotel and you won’t travel alone at all!
    Besides, take the usual precautions as mentioned above. And in case it makes you feel safer, you can bring pepper spray.

    Backpacking in Costa Rica

    Solo backpacking as a woman

    How long do you need to backpack Central America?

    To make the most out of your backpacking trip through Central America, you should plan at least 2 – 3 months. In my opinion, 3 months is perfect. That is, if you want to visit all the countries from Guatemala down to Panama (which I highly recommend).
    Even though the countries may seem small, you have to cross many mountains, and you should be ready for some long bus trips. What may seem super close by on Google Maps, can be hours away.
    Of course, there’s so much to see, so you can easily spend more than 3 months in Central America. Taking more time, give you the possibility to slow down and dive deeper into the culture.
    And if you want to add Mexico and Belize to your itinerary, you should definitely plan more time.

    Is Central America easy to travel around?

    Transportation options in Central America are quite good which makes it easy to travel from one place to the next. And even from one country to the next.
    On most routes, you can find transport for all budgets and comfort needs.
    The different options to get around in Central America can be split into the following:
    • Local buses (often called “chicken buses”) – The colorful public buses are retired American school buses that have been upcycled and painted by artists. In all Central American countries, traveling by chicken bus is super cheap, brings you closer to the local way of living, and is always fun. Yet, it can get cramped in there, and you usually have to change lots of times on most routes. But you have to try it!
    • Shared shuttles (collectivos) – These minibuses are usually the fastest option to reach a different destination, as they run directly, and are reliable and safe. Yet, they’re way more expensive than chicken buses. You can calculate paying around 5x the amount that a chicken bus trip would cost.
    • Cross-country bus companies (such as Ticabus) – Local bus companies that run cross-country, such as Ticabus, are a great option to get from one country to the next. They typically leave from the capitals and are a bit cheaper than taking a shuttle.
    • Private shuttles – In many places, you can also find the option to book a private transfer. Of course, this is the luxury version of traveling and normally not something backpackers would do. In my opinion, booking a private shuttle only makes sense if you’re planning to head to a totally remote location. Otherwise, just sitting in your private car with a driver is not really environmental-friendly.
    • Rental car – Well, also not the most environmentally-friendly option, as long as there are no electronic cars to rent. Yet, sometimes it’s a great option to reach more off-the-beaten-path destinations. Especially in Costa Rica, a rental car is very popular. And over there, it really makes sense. Many routes which are just a 2-hour-drive by rental car can take 6 hours or more by bus.

    In many places all over Central America, such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, there are also tuk-tuks for short distances. Or you can rent a scooter or a bike in smaller towns for a few days.

    Which way of transport you eventually choose, depends on the time you’re willing to spend on the road and your budget for backpacking Central America.
    For some routes, taking a shared shuttle will only take a quarter of the time that a chicken bus (with many changes) would take. Yet, shuttles also cost much more than a chicken bus ride.
    We stuck to local buses for around 80-90% of the routes all over Central America. Just in some instances (when the trip by local buses would take 2 days or for complicated trips like from El Salvador to Nicaragua) we decided to take a shuttle bus.

    Transportation in Central America

    Onward travel from Central America to South America

    If you want to continue your backpacking trip to South America, your next destination after Panama is Colombia. Be aware, that it’s not possible to cross the border from Panama to Colombia by land (and believe me, you also don’t want to, as the border region is a dangerous drug traffic area).
    But there’s a fun way to get on to Colombia: the epic 5-day sailing tour from Panama across the San Blas Islands on to Cartagena in Colombia. Everyone I’ve met who’s done it was raving about it. You can book these tours with local tour operators anywhere in Panama City.

    Can you get a SIM card for all Central American countries?

    In Central America, there are two mobile network operators: Claro and Tigo. While Tigo is said to have a more stable network, Claro has one big advantage for travelers who want to backpack all across Central America: You can use it in all Central American countries.
    But, there’s one thing you have to consider: You have to recharge your SIM card with data in the country you’ve bought it, just before leaving. So it will last another 30 days in other countries. Otherwise, you’ll run out of data after your selected period and you’re not able to recharge, let’s say, a Guatemalan Claro SIM card in Honduras.

    Another great option, also to use less plastic, is an eSIM. There’s a Latin America eSIM card from Holafly that gives you connection throughout Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
    Other providers are GlobaleSIM and yeSIM.

    Can you get around without Spanish?

    I’d say if you need to speak Spanish or not also depends on how comfortable you feel when you don’t understand anyone. There are some people who confidently travel through a foreign country, happily communicating by gesturing with hands and feet. But for others, this sounds scary.

    While you don’t necessarily have to speak Spanish, speaking at least some basic phrases can help you a lot in many situations. Think about standing in the middle of nowhere and you have no clue where the bus leaves from. Or it’s getting late and you have no idea if there’s still a bus heading to your next destination. Hence, if you know at least a few words of Spanish, it will improve your experience of backpacking in Central America a lot.
    Also, it helps you to get more in contact with locals, get to know their culture better, and have basic chit-chat.

    Yeah, if you stick to more touristy places and only take shuttles, you’ll probably be fine with English in most areas. And you can also find travel buddies in your hostel who speak Spanish.
    But it will never be the same experience as doing out and communicating with locals. We were always greeted with big smiles when we started speaking Spanish (and honestly, even with my basic Spanish they were usually quite impressed).

    Interact with locals!

    Useful Spanish phrases for Central America

    Learning a few basic phrases in the local language is always fun, don’t you think? In Central America, it’s definitely part of the experience.
    So here are a few basic Spanish phrases that can help you to improve your time in Central America:
    • Hello – Hola
    • Good Morning – Buenos dias
    • Bye – Adiós
    • Excuse me – Perdón
    • Thanks – Gracias
    • I don’t understand – No entiendo
    • Please – por favor
    • Sorry – Lo siento
    • Help me! – Ayudame!
    • Cheers! – Salud!
    • Here – aquí
    • How much is it? – Cuánto cuesta?
    • Where is the toilet? – Donde está el baño?
    • Where does the bus leave? – Donde parte el bus?
    • No plastic bag – Sin bolsa de plastico
    • No straw – No paja
    • No plastic cutlery – No cubiertos de plástico

    Country data

    CountryCapitalCurrencyEmergency numberBudget/dayVisa (US & European citizens)Cost for entering/exiting (border crossing by land)
    GuatemalaGuatemala CityQuetzales12335 – 40 $no visa for up to 90 days
    HondurasTegucigalpaLempira19525 – 30 $no visa for up to 90 days3 $ / 89 L upon arrival
    El SalvadorSan SalvadorUS Dollars & Bitcoins91145 – 50 $no visa for up to 90 days12 $ upon arrival
    NicaraguaManaguaCordobas12825 – 30 $no visa for up to 90 days12 $ upon arrival + 4 $ at departure
    Costa RicaSan JoséColónes91155 – 65 $no visa for up to 90 days, may want to see onward/return ticket8 $ at departure
    PanamaPanama CityUS Dollars & Balboa10355 – 65 $no visa for up to 90 days

    Get more in-depth info about backpacking Central America

    Besides blogs, I always love to comb through my Lonely Planets. They are written by travelers, are regularly updated, and are full of in-depth info, e.g. about certain border crossings, visa regulations, and much more.
    So check out one of the following travel guide books:

    More travel guides on backpacking in Central America

    Backpacking Central America – a wrap-up

    Central America in three words: Chicken buses | surfing | volcanoes

    Did you know? White people (and travelers) are often called “gringos” – but that’s not always meant in a bad way

    Favorite photo spot: Hard to say among all these highlights, but probably on top of Acatenango volcano with a view on fire-spitting Volcan El Fuego in Guatemala

    Favorite food: Veggie tortillas and Baleadas with beans, cheese and avocado

    Can’t miss: Getting off the beaten path (“gringo trail”) by visiting Honduras or the Corn Islands in Nicaragua

    Have you ever been backpacking in Central America? Any hidden gems you’s like to share or any place that shouldn’t be missing on any Central America backpacking itinerary? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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