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-era towns and chilled out Caribbean beaches while trying to avoid the generally unpleasant 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.


TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS

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 easily stick around for longer.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1350 €1500 $1800

This is purely for your travel expenses in the region itself and is based on travelling on a shoestring budget using local transport and hostels and being quite disciplined in terms of your general expenditure. It 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 2018.

See our Central America backpacking costs for more.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR CENTRAL AMERICA

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.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads who provide excellent cover for backpackers.


Central America Backpacking Route



Mexico

budget travel in Mexico

Cancun  – Consider flying into Cancun, the 2nd busiest airport in Mexico with good links to Europe and North America.  However you might not want to hang around long. The beach is okay but it’s fairly seedy, expensive and doesn’t really cater for backpackers or people travelling on a tight budget. 

Playa del Carmen – Only an hour South of Cancun, it’s also a resort town but it has plenty of hostels and budget options. With nice beaches and vibrant nightlife, it’s a fun start to your trip and you can party till dawn in one of the many bars and clubs (girls drink free on some nights).

Tulum – There’s a great beach in Tulum with beautifully clear blue waters. There a few small Mayan ruins, which is a taster of things to come as you progress further on this Central America backpacking route.

(Night bus to Palenque)

Palenque – It’s a long trip to Palenque (pictured above) but worth it once you start to discover the ancient ruins in the dense jungle nearby an unremarkable town of the same name. There is a sense that your adventure has truly begun when you hit Palenque though. It’s also popular with some travellers for easily available magic mushrooms.

San Cristobal – Colonial town at altitude and a pleasant break from the heat.  It’s a popular hangout for hippy and bohemian types.

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


Guatemala

Backpacking Routes

Quetzaltenango AKA Xela – Loads of volunteering options here, which makes it a popular stop for longer stays. You should immediately notice that your money goes further in Guatemala. Xela is also a good place for salsa classes and clubs, while the local markets in surrounding villages are worth a visit.

You may be able to find free volunteering projects one you arrive in Guatemala. Many come with a cost although you should at least get your accommodation and perhaps food paid for. Here are 11 volunteering options in Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan – Stunning scenery here with a huge lake surrounded by volcanoes and dirt cheap backpacker towns. You could probably spend a week just visiting the different lakeside villages which all have a slightly different vibe or just relaxing and taking in the beauty of the place. Most visitors only stay for a few days though. See Destination: Lake Atitlan for more.

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 you progress further along this backpacking route for Central America.


Honduras

Honduras backpacking route

Bay Islands snorkelling, CC BY 2.0

Copan – More ancient ruins. Copan was a major centre for the Mayans over a 1000 years ago and is home to some of the finest pre-Columbian art around.

San Pedro Sula – City with decent nightlife but a bit dangerous! San Pedro Sula has been described as the most violent city in the world so it’s probably not advisable to hang around long but you may need to pass through it anyway to reach the next two coastal destinations.

La Ceiba – Reasonably sized city with some nice beaches and the best place to catch the ferry to Utila. If you visit in May, be sure to check out La Ceiba Carnival, the largest festival of its kind in Central America.

Utila (Bay Islands) – Scuba diving hot-spot and one of the real highlights of the region. The Bay Islands are perhaps the closest thing you can find to a Caribbean beach paradise on a budget! They also feature in our article on 5 budget-friendly Caribbean destinations.

(Long day of travelling between Utila and Leon)


Nicaragua

Street art in Nicaragua

Leon – Birthplace of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and still a staunchly pro-revolution town. It’s home to some cool street art (above) which helps tell its story and is one of the few genuinely interesting urban destinations on this route. Read more about funky Leon!

Granada – A colonial-era town and perhaps the most beautiful and best preserved in the region. It’s a real contrast to its traditional rival Leon with lots of churches and relics to an altogether different, distant past. It’s also nicely located on the banks of Lake Cocibolca, the largest lake in Central America.

Isla de Ometepe – Island in middle of the giant lake with two volcanoes. It’s an excellent location for mountain biking or hiking. Here are six things to do on Ometepe.

San Juan del Sur – This is the first stop on the route on the Pacific Coast and that means two things. Giant waves and lots of surfers! If surfing is not your thing, then it’s not an amazing place to visit with a fairly average beach and a few cheap, decent bars but nothing remarkable.

Check out the cost of travel in Nicaragua.


Costa Rica

Backpacking Route in Central America

Volcan Arenal, CC BY-SA 2.0

Monteverde – Nearby Volcan Arenal is the third most active volcano in the world and there are also some awesome cloud forests nearby, one of the many natural wonders in Costa Rica.

Montezuma – Another great destination for nature lovers. Get lost in a world of waterfalls, nature reserves and nude beaches!

San Jose – The capital city of Costa Rica is a bit rough but better than the big cities further north. It could be easily skipped but it might be worth hanging around for a day or two with some interesting museums while there are also a few options for day-trips and tours in the surrounding countryside.

Puerto Viejo – Surfing, beaches, marijuana. Those are probably the three main draws in Puerto Viejo, a chilled out Caribbean town popular with surfers and backpackers. With the number of foreigners so high, there are certainly more authentic Central American experiences to be had but it’s a nice place with Cahuita and Manzanillo National Parks also nearby making for excellent day-trips.

It is worth noting that the cost of travel in Costa Rica, is slightly higher than average for the region and things are noticeably a bit more pricey than in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.


Panama

Panama backpacking route

Beach in Panama, CC BY 2.0

Bocas del Toro – These are more chilled Caribbean islands covered in thick jungle. With largely calm conditions, it’s a great spot for some skuba-diving with affordable prices.

David – Pleasant town on Pan-American Highway with good hostels. There are plenty of things to do with lots of options for adventure sports while a trip out to the Los Pozos de Caldera hot springs is also popular with travellers.

Panama City – A good place to finish your travels in Central America or potentially move onto another region. Unlike most of the other destinations on this Central America itinerary, the capital of Panama is a vibrant modern city. Check out the famous Panama Canal and hit the shops if you’ve still got money left to spend.

Read more on the cost of travel in Panama.


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


More on Budget Travel in Central America & Introducing the Chicken Bus!

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 or study Spanish.

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 (known as a chicken bus and found across the region) to the border and cross on foot. There will always be buses to the nearest town at border posts and the budgets at the top are based on using local transport which is very cheap rather than tourist options. There is some good info on travelling across Central America on chicken buses here.

This route can also 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 and perhaps slightly more for better places in the more touristy parts of Mexico and Costa Rica.


 This page was last updated in January 2018.



  • 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

    @MyFunkyTravel:disqus
    very interesting. which place was the highlight? which place is worth skipping (other than cancun)?
    thanks

    • 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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