Popular Backpacking Route in Central America

latin america routes

south america | brazil | patagonia | central america | mexico

Backpacking Route in Central America

Mexico aside, the countries in this part of the world are really small but there’s loads to see and do. Backpacking around Central America on this route will see you pack in 6 countries, Mayan ruins, fiery active volcanoes, stunning lakes, colonial towns, and chilled out Caribbean beaches while trying to avoid the hellhole capital cities in the region (Panama City is the exception). You may well need to change buses in Managua or Tegioculpa for example but even if you’re a city lover you seriously won’t want to hang around long. As well as plenty to see, it’s a cheap region to learn Spanish, which is handy especially if you are heading onto South America.

It’s not just Spanish lessons that come cheap though as Central America is widely regarded as one of the most budget friendly regions in the whole world. If you are willing to travel like a local, you can get by on seriously little. For some great tips on how to travel on as little as $10/day and plenty more, get Will Hatton’s backpacker bible.

Palenque Mayan ruins

Mayan ruins in Palenque, Mexico


On average we’d suggest spending about 10 days in each country although you could squeeze it all into 6 weeks at a push. With lots of volunteering and learning opportunities you could stick around for longer.

POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1500 €1700 $1800

This doesn’t include flights in/out of the region or other pre-trip expenses. It is based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2017.

See our Central America backpacking costs for more.


Mostly not required for stays of up to 90 days. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have a mutual agreement in place enabling you to travel freely around the 4 countries for 90 days without passport checks.

Use our visa check tool to see which countries you will need a visa for.


We recommend World Nomads who provide excellent cover for backpackers.

Central America Backpacking Route


Fly into Cancun – Leave Cancun ASAP!! the beach is ok but it’s seedy, expensive and doesn’t cater for backpackers.

Playa del Carmen- Nice beaches and party till dawn in one the many bars and clubs (girls drink free on some nights).

MFT RECOMMENDS – Hostel Rio Playa, Playa del Carmen 

Cool hostel with fun rooftop bar and pool that is great for meeting other travellers and pre-drinks prior to a night out.

Tulum – Great beach plus a few small Mayan ruins.

(Night bus to Palenque)

Palenque – Impressive ruins in the jungle (pic above), magic mushrooms.

San Cristobal – Colonial town at altitude hence a pleasant break from the heat, lots of hippy/bohemian types here.

Check out our extended backpacking route for Mexico, if you fancy more time in the country.


Xela – Loads of volunteering options, salsa classes and clubs, local markets in surrounding villages.

Lake Atitlan – Stunning scenery with a huge lake surrounded by volcanoes and dirt cheap backpacker towns. See Destination: Lake Atitlan.

Antigua– Colonial town surrounded by volcanoes that can be explored on foot (one of our top 10 latin america experiences). It is also a hugely popular and cheap place to take some Spanish lessons which will certainly be handy as your progress further along this backpacking route for Central America.


Copan – More ancient ruins.

San Pedro – City with decent nightlife but a bit dangerous! It’s on the way towards Bay Islands so could be worth a stop just to get a feel for city life in this part of the world but don’t hang around long.

La Ceiba – Nice beaches and place to catch the ferry to Utila.

Utila (Bay Islands) – Scuba diving hot-spot and one of the real highlights of the region. Caribbean beach paradise on a budget! The Bay Islands also feature in our article on 5 budget-friendly Caribbean destinations.

(Long day of travelling between Utila and Leon)


Leon – Birthplace of the Sandinista revolution and still a staunchly pro-revolution town, cool street art. Read more about funky Leon!

Granada – Colonial town, perhaps the most beautiful in the region, lots of churches.

Isla de Ometepe – Island in middle of the giant lake with two volcanoes, excellent place for mountain biking.

San Juan del Sur – Good place to surf with some mental waves, OK nightlife, average beach.

Check out the cost of travel in Nicaragua.

Costa Rica

Monteverde (for Volcan Arenal) – 3rd most active volcano in the world and awesome cloud forests nearby.

Montezuma – Waterfalls, nature reserves and nude beaches!

San Jose – Capital city, bit rough but better than capitals further north (Costa Rica Backpackers Hostel, San Jose isn’t great but there are now other budget options).

Puerto Viejo – Surfing, beaches, marijuana.


Bocas del Toro – Chilled Caribbean islands covered in thick jungle.

David – Pleasant town on Pan-American Highway with good hostels.

Panama City – Vibrant modern city, the Panama Canal and lots of ways to spend any money you have left.

Read more on the cost of travel in Panama.

MFT RECOMMENDS – Casa Monalisa, Panama City 

Colourful hostel that is perfect for solo travellers. Sociable place and easy to meet people.

(Fly home, or see more of Latin America by crossing the Darien Gap)

revolutionary street art in Leon, Nicaraguachicken bus central america
Revolutionary street Art in Leon, Nicaragua & a Central American chicken bus

More Info on Budget Travel in Central America

Our Central America backpacking itinerary aims to give you an idea of popular travel spots but if the hostel scene is getting a bit repetitive then it’s well worth heading off to some of the less touristy parts (although mainstream tourism only really exists in small parts of Mexico and Costa Rica).

Outside the capitals, the people are generally very friendly and it’s really not that dangerous. While you could do this route in 2 months there are many places that you will find hard to leave and adding a few other destinations you could do as much as 6 months in Central America, particularly if you get involved with some volunteering projects.

Border crossings are relatively pain free. You can normally do direct buses between destinations in different countries but it is much cheaper and more of an adventure to get a local bus to the border and cross on foot. There will always be buses to the nearest town at border posts.

It can easily be combined with our Backpacking Route for South America.

 Budget Accommodation in Central America

Central America is one of the most enjoyable regions to travel in and it has a really good hostel scene. Typically each of the destinations on our Central America backpacking route will have a few hostels (in the European sense of the word), one of which might be generally considered the main party hostel. A bit of research online or just from talking to other travellers and it should be quite easy to work out which one it is.

In addition to the hostels, there are lots more very small budget hotels or ‘hostals’ which are little more than homes converted so some rooms are available for daily rent. They may be better value if you are travelling as a couple or with friends but single travellers may prefer to opt for a dorm in one of the bigger hostels. Expect to be paying anything from $3-10/night for budget accommodation in these parts.

For more on prices in the region read about the cost of travel in Mexico and cost of travel in Costa Rica.

 This page was last updated in January 2017.


  • Matt Burns Travel

    Nice info! I also just put together a list of really useful websites for travelling in Central America. Between them they’ve got everything covered from bus times and prices to accommodation recommendations. Worth checking out if you’re planning a trip to the region. Here’s the link http://www.matt-burns.com/destinations/central-america/5-websites-make-central-america-easy/ (admin please delete if not allowed)

  • fran1986

    There are a few more destinations that you skip, for sure is hard to visit all the different spots, for example Corn Island in the caribbean of Nicaragua, also the surf destination in El Salvador like Playa El Tunco and Playa Las Flores. here some more tips and destinations http://www.travelmittelamerika.com

  • Marcel

    Hey! Wonderful route. I had a few questions on this one.
    First thing being return! Are you allowed to enter any of these countries without a flight back?

    I have more questions in regards some connections as some of them are a bit far away from each other. Main concern being from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas (https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g664450-i15122-k8919217-Warning_if_you_are_traveling_Palenque_to_San_Cristobal-Chiapas_Southern_Mexico.html)

    If willing I can give my contact details and we can speak this further via e-mail 🙂

    Thanks a lot and safe travels!

    • Hi Marcel,

      Thanks for your comment!

      On the subject of return tickets, I wouldn’t worry about it. In some countries, perhaps officially you need it but it’s very rarely if ever enforced. There are many travellers who head to South and Central America without a return, it’s very normal. I’d check with the airline you are flying in with though to make sure they will allow you to board without a return as sometimes they can be a bit funny about it but you should have no problem at immigration.

      If you’re still worried, consider booking a flight out of the region with free cancellation or book a flexible return.

      Don’t have any recent info on the Palenque-San Cristobal connection to be honest. Looking at forums is probably the best idea and speak to other travellers/hostel staff etc when you’re out there.

      If you have more questions you can get in touch here – http://myfunkytravel.com/contact.html

      Safe Travels!

  • Anna

    Hey, great route. Was wondering if you have a detailed itinerary available (suggesting how much time to spend in each location / how much time is required for traveling between these places)? I want to do the route alone, in 6 weeks and probably need to bear in mind that I need more time for traveling cos I want to avoid traveling at night. Cheers, Anna

    • Hi Anna, don’t currently have a more detailed one but hope to update it this year with more details.
      Almost all the stops on this route are really quite small towns and could be visited in a day/two but depending on your passions, you might want to stay longer. For me, Lake Atitlan and the Bay Islands certainly would warrant longer stays.

      Skipping a few destinations, it’d be pretty easy to do the trip in 6 weeks though. The distances between the towns are not great and although transport is often slow, there are lots of buses so you won’t be waiting around for long. Apart from the Tulum-Palenque and Utila-Leon legs, most of the journeys shouldn’t take more than a few hours and are best done in daylight hours in any case.

  • danny

    Hi, perfect article! i will only have time for 4 weeks of travel, but love this route. If you only had 4 weeks, which places would you leave out? Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Danny,

      Personally, Guatemala and Nicaragua were my favourites but they all have something to offer so it depends on what you want really. If you’re more interested in the history/ruins etc then you could focus on the destinations from Palenque to Granada.

      If you’re more into beaches/partying then consider flying into Cancun and doing maybe a week in Playa del Carmen/Tulum before heading to Costa Rica/Panama.

      For a mixture of the two, you could potentially just do a loop round, starting and ending in Cancun (i.e. follow the route to Utila and then instead of heading to Nicaragua, head North to Belize and then back to Mexico), which might work nicely with a return flight as not many of the other airports have great international connections.

  • Ethan William

    Hey great article. I was curious how proficient your Spanish is (if at all?). I have very basic vocabulary and I don’t mind the language barrier having lived and traveled around Asia, but I’m curious how prevalent English was throughout your travels.

    • Not very proficient at the time!

      You can get by with limited vocab but it’s not like many parts of Asia, where English is widely spoken and the default language in most travel situations. Certainly in SE Asia there is no expectation that foreigners speak their language but in Central America it’s a different situation entirely.

      Maybe in hostels, the staff will speak English but the vast majority of people in the region don’t. Therefore life is certainly a lot easier if you know at least basic Spanish and if you can speak it to a reasonable level, you’ll have a much more interesting trip!

  • Paul

    Sounds like an awesome trip do you have a more detailed Document or some thing about how to get which places etc. Would be awesome. Cheers Paul

    • Hi Paul, sorry we don’t have anything more detailed atm. Will try and update this at some point as it’s a bit lacking in detail compared to some of the other routes.

      In terms of getting to places I just used the chicken buses. Basically head to the town’s bus station (most places on this route are pretty small so shouldn’t be hard to find) and tell someone where you want to go. Chances are there’ll be a bus heading in the right direction and almost all buses have a couple of guys working on them and they will help you connect on to the next bus at the right place as there rarely seemed to be direct buses.

      It’s a bit of a crazy system to get used to at first but it does work and people in the region were generally very helpful in terms of helping you get where you need to go!

      Alternatively the main routes have tourist buses, which are more expensive but in theory quicker.

  • Gene

    very interesting. which place was the highlight? which place is worth skipping (other than cancun)?

    • personally Guatemala and Nicaragua were the highlights. Both really interesting places and friendly but it depends what you like. For beaches/relaxing then Panama and the Bay Islands are great.

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