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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.
Mayan ruins in Palenque, Mexico
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 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.