Backpacking Central America using the itinerary outlined below will see you pack in six countries, Mayan ruins, fiery volcanoes, stunning lakes, colonial-era towns and chilled out Caribbean beaches while trying to avoid the often unpleasant capital cities in the region (Panama City is an exception). Starting in Cancun thanks to its good flight links, you’ll cut through the South of Mexico before heading into the small Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. This Central America backpacking route ends in Panama City and will take around 2 months.
If you only have 2 weeks, 3 weeks or 1 month, you can easily form your own Central America itinerary by picking sections from the one below or skipping destinations that appeal less.
Central America Travel Itinerary Overview
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
On average we’d suggest spending about 10 days in each country so 2 months should be long enough to backpack Central America following this itinerary. You could squeeze it all into 6 weeks at a bit of a push if you skip one or two places. With lots of volunteering and learning opportunities you could easily stick around for longer in many of the destinations though.
POSSIBLE SHOESTRING BUDGET – £1500 €1675 $1800
The cost of travel in Central America is quite low with around $30/day a comfortable independent travel budget in most countries, although you may need a bit more in Costa Rica and Mexico. Therefore a total budget for this 2 month Central America travel itinerary may be around $1800, according to February 2023 prices and exchange rates.
This is purely for your travel expenses in the region itself and is based on using local transport and hostels and being quite disciplined in terms of your general expenditure. It doesn’t include the cost of flights in/out of Central America or other pre-trip expenses which may be considerable. By adding another $500 or so to this budget, you will open up a lot more options in terms of extra trips and activities.
WORK OR VOLUNTEER IN CENTRAL AMERICA
A good way to get more from your backpacking trip to Central America whilst making your money go further is to use Worldpackers. The platform allows you to search for placements and exchange skills for free accommodation and meals. At the time of writing, they have 214 opportunities in Central America with everything from teaching sports and yoga in Guatemala to farm-work in Nicaragua.
TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR BACKPACKERS IN CENTRAL AMERICA
The cost of travel insurance isn’t included in the budget figures above. If you require travel insurance for backpacking Central America, check out SafetyWing’s travel medical insurance which starts at just $42 per 4 week period for 18-39 year olds (it’s more if you’re 40+).
Note that this price level does not cover some “high risk” adventure activities and sports. If you think you may require more extensive coverage, this look at the best travel insurance options for backpackers may help.
Central America Backpacking Route (2 Months)
Consider flying into Cancun, the 2nd busiest airport in Mexico with good links to Europe and across North America. While Mexico isn’t technically in Central America, it’s a more convenient starting point with limited international connections from other countries in the region. You might not want to hang around long in Cancun though. 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, Playa del Carmen is also a resort town but with much more of a backpacker vibe. It has plenty of hostels and budget options for sleeping, eating and drinking. With nice beaches and vibrant nightlife, it’s a fun start to your trip and you can party till dawn if you wish in one of the many bars and clubs (girls drink free on some nights).
Tulum is a stunning beach destination with some of the most beautifully clear blue waters. There are a few small Mayan ruins, which is a taster of things to come as you progress further on this Central America backpacking route. Quieter than the two previous towns, Tulum isn’t quite as wild by night but it’s worth hanging around a few days here before making the long trip to Palenque which can be done by night bus.
It’s a long trip to Palenque but worth it once you start to discover the ancient ruins in the dense jungle near to an unremarkable town of the same name. There is a sense that your adventure has truly begun when you hit Palenque with a wild, rugged feel to this part of Mexico. The area is also popular with some travellers due to the widespread growth of magic mushrooms, which were a central part of Maya culture.
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a pretty, colonial era town, located at altitude which makes for a pleasant break from the heat. It’s a popular hangout for hippy and bohemian types and a nice stop for a few days before you head over the border into Guatemala.
This itinerary only really scratches the surface when it comes to Mexico which is a much larger country than many people realise. Check out our full Mexico backpacking route if you fancy more time in the country as there is loads more to see and do.
Quetzaltenango AKA Xela
Guatemala is arguably the best country for backpacking in Central America. It has friendly people, low prices and a number of destinations where you could easily stay for weeks rather than days by getting involved with community projects or studying Spanish.
Xela is about as good as anywhere for that. There are loads of volunteering options here – you may be able to find projects once you arrive in Xela or via volunteering with worldpackers. It is also a good place for salsa classes and clubs, while the local markets in surrounding villages are worth a visit.
Stunning scenery here at Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by volcanoes and has many lakeside villages and small towns with dirt cheap backpacker accommodation. You could probably spend up to a week just visiting the different villages which all have a slightly different vibe. Alternatively you can just relax and take in the beauty of the place. Most travellers only stay for a few days though before moving on to Antigua (or Xela if you’re doing this Central America backpacking route in reverse).
This pretty, colonial-era town is also surrounded by active volcanoes, some of which can be explored on foot (an experience which features in our rundown of Latin America travel highlights).
Antigua is also a hugely popular and cheap place to take some Spanish lessons which will certainly be handy as you progress further along this Central America itinerary and potentially into South America after. Some travellers hang around for several weeks or months studying in Antigua.
The weather can be a bit iffy here though. If you’re planning a longer visit, it is advisable to come in the dry season between December and April which is also loosely considered to be the best time to visit Central America, although there are some regional variations.
More ancient ruins here as you head into Honduras for the first time. 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. It’s located very close to the Guatemalan border but is one of Honduras’ most important and best known travel destinations.
San Pedro Sula
San Pedro Sula was considered the most violent city in the world in the 2010’s and while that may no longer be totally true, it’s probably not advisable to hang around long here! Like many of the bigger Central American cities, its dangerous reputation is not entirely undeserved but you may still need to pass through it anyway to reach the next two coastal destinations. Change buses or stay a night if you’re feeling brave!
A 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 the region, described as “the biggest party in Central America”.
Utila (Bay Islands)
Scuba diving hot-spot and one of the real highlights of travel in Honduras and indeed Central America. The Bay Islands are perhaps the closest thing you can find to a Caribbean beach paradise on a budget although you may still find them slightly pricier than other destinations on this route. The Bay Islands are a good place to relax and recharge your batteries ahead of the next stint which starts with a long day of travelling to reach Nicaragua.
The birthplace of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Leon still feels like something of a rebellious town. It’s home to some cool street art which helps tell its story and it is one of the few genuinely interesting urban destinations on this route.
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 (AKA Lake Nicaragua), the largest lake in Central America.
Isla de Ometepe
This is an island in the middle of the giant Lake Cocibolca, home to two volcanoes. It’s an excellent location for mountain biking or hiking and another of the natural highlights on any itinerary for backpacking Central America. While sparsely populated, you can stay overnight on the island which is home to a range of wildlife including capuchin monkeys.
San Juan del Sur
This is the first time you’ll hit the Pacific Coast and that means two things. Giant waves and lots of surfers! If surfing is not your thing, then San Juan del Sur is not a particularly amazing place to visit with a fairly average beach but there are a few cheap, friendly bars where you’ll meet some interesting characters.
There are some awesome cloud forests here, one of the many natural wonders in Costa Rica. Monteverde is also one of Central America’s main ecotourism destinations and the jungle terrain can be explored via the many suspension bridges which allow you a birdseye view of the nature below and around. Nearby, you also have Volcan Arenal, the third most active volcano in the world which is surrounded by hiking trails, lava fields and hot springs.
Another great destination for nature lovers. Get lost in a world of nature reserves, waterfalls and naturist beaches. The town itself has a bohemian feel and it’s another of those Central American backpacking destinations where you may end up happily staying for longer than planned.
The capital city of Costa Rica is a bit rough around the edges, but preferable to 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 here while there are also a few options for day-trips and tours in the surrounding countryside.
Surfing, beaches and marijuana. Those are probably the three main things that draw travellers to Puerto Viejo, a chilled out Caribbean town popular with surfers and backpackers. With a lot of foreigners here, there are certainly more authentic Central American experiences to be had but it’s a nice place with the Cahuita and Manzanillo National Parks also nearby making for excellent day-trips.
It is worth noting though that a typical Costa Rica backpacking budget is slightly higher than the average for the region and things are noticeably a bit more pricey than in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Plan accordingly or limit your time here if you are on a really tight budget.
Bocas del Toro
These are more stunning Caribbean islands and islets covered in dense jungle, located just off the Panama mainland near the border with Costa Rica. With largely calm conditions, it’s a great spot for some scuba-diving on a relatively low budget. It is also another ecotourism hotspot and a very popular stop with travellers in Panama.
A pleasant town on Pan-American Highway, David itself isn’t a major travel destination but there’s lots to see and do in the surrounding area. There are loads of options for hiking and adventure activities while a trip out to the Los Pozos de Caldera hot springs is also recommended.
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.
Our Panama backpacking itinerary features more destinations in this country but with reasonably good air links, Panama City is a logical end point in Central America from which to fly home or alternatively see more of this part of the world by crossing the Darien Gap into South America.
Indeed many travellers do combine both regions and do one big Central and South America backpacking route. If you have more than six months to travel and are plotting a big trip around the Americas, the itinerary on this page can easily be combined with our extensive backpacking route for South America which starts in nearby Colombia.
Central America Map & Itinerary Overview
You can do this route in either direction but unless you’re coming from South America, getting to Mexico and starting there will probably be easier than finding your way to Panama. From Cancun, as the map above illustrates, this itinerary travels loosely south heading through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica before finishing in Panama City.
The other two Central American countries not featured in this itinerary are El Salvador and Belize. El Salvador has less of a backpacker scene and quite limited options in terms of hostel style accommodation. It also carries something of a dangerous reputation and isn’t the safest place to backpack in Central America. It is a real surfer’s paradise though with destinations such as La Libertad, El Sunzal, El Zonte and El Cuco worth checking out if that’s your scene.
Belize is considerably safer and is the only Central American country where English rather than Spanish is the official language. That makes travel a bit easier but its location makes it somewhat inconvenient in terms of fitting into this route. It also has the disadvantage of being the most expensive country in the region which is another reason we haven’t featured it above.
Central America Backpacking Route – How long to spend in each place?
|Mexico||Playa del Carmen||2-4 Days|
|Mexico||San Cristobal||2-3 Days|
|Guatemala||Lake Atitlan||2-4 Days|
|Honduras||San Pedro Sula||0-1 Day|
|Honduras||La Ceiba||1-2 Days|
|Honduras||Utila (Bay Islands)||4-6 Days|
|Nicaragua||Isla de Ometepe||1-2 Days|
|Nicaragua||San Juan del Sur||2-3 Days|
|Costa Rica||Monteverde||2-3 Days|
|Costa Rica||Montezuma||3-4 Days|
|Costa Rica||San Jose||0-2 Days|
|Costa Rica||Puerto Viejo||3-4 Days|
|Panama||Bocas del Toro||2-4 Days|
|Panama||David & Around||1-3 Days|
|Panama||Panama City||2-3 Days|
The above timeframes are very much a rough guide and you can easily tailor this Central America itinerary to your specific interests and preferences. For example, if you don’t like big cities in general, you almost certainly won’t like Central American cities. As such, you may want to just use San Pedro Sula and San Jose as places to change buses rather than stay overnight.
Likewise if you’re not really into beaches, you could reduce your time in the Bay Islands for example or cut them out altogether and instead travel on from Copan through Honduras all the way to Leon.
Other Backpacking Routes in North & Central America
|Route||Start & End||How Long?|
|Mexico||Cancun to Mexico City||5 Weeks|
|Jamaica||Kingston to Negril||2 Weeks|
|California||San Francisco to San Diego||2 Weeks|
|Panama||Bocas del Toro to San Blas Islands||2 Weeks|
Aside from heading on to South America, you could also look to the Caribbean in terms of other backpacking itineraries in the region, although flight connections between Central America and the Caribbean islands aren’t great. Options include doing a trip around Cuba or perhaps Jamaica.
There are a few more budget options for flying to the USA from Central America with plenty of travel opportunities there. However you will clearly need significantly more funds in the US than even the most expensive Central American countries.
This look at how to backpack Central America was last updated in February 2023.
26 thoughts on “Central America Backpacking Route”
Mexico It’s not simply one of most iconic landmarks, either. It’s also an excellent example of encient architecture. It`s so attractive place for tourist visits.)
I am so glad to have found this as I’m taking the leap and heading to Central America on my own the end of this year and found Cancun to be the cheapest to fly into and want to end up heading into South America so this is a perfect route guide to help ease me along Xoxoxox
Glad you’ve found it useful Kara! Have a great trip 🙂
I have also ended up flying out of Cancun rather than Mexico city; glad I’m not the only one! I will be starting from Panama and making my way up. This site has some great tips, especially as this time around I only have 6 weeks! Definitely sounds like I will miss out Costa Rica this time. Kara – happy to exchange thoughts?
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)
Thanks Matt! Some very useful websites there!
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.
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!
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
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.
Anna, did it work out? I am about to travel for 6 weeks myself; would be great to hear more about your experience.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
How long did it take you to get from Tulum to Palenque?
there is no direct bus, you’d need to take one to mérida (4hours), and from there another to palenque (8 hours)
Sorry one more question, using your route, what is the longest stretch of traveling in hours? I may then want to break it up. Or does AirPanama or another budget airline fly cheaply and throughout Central America?
Where in your route would you squeeze in the Corn Islands or is there a reason you left those off? I will be with my 14 yr old son this fall/winter and want to take it slow to allow for him to do his virtual school (and we want to take Spanish classes, a little volunteer work, snorkel, surf, etc). Is there any destinations on this route you think I should avoid for safety concerns? Is it possible to pick up little short-term jobs to earn some money like in a cafe or teaching English? My son can farm and drive a tractor:) Where is the best and cheapest spot for surfing lessons? For snorkeling? For scuba? Thanks! Great post by the way!
Awesome article! Did you get any vaccinations before your trip?
Don’t think so Jason! Although I think I’d had Diphtheria, tetanus and polio fairly recently because I’d been in Asia. If you’re planning on heading to South America or small parts of Panama then yellow fever is important too. have a read of the link below and talk to your doctor/health surgery. They should be able to advise better based on the exact places you’re thinking of going but generally speaking I didn’t bother with vaccinations unless it was strongly recommended.