Sunday, 26 May 2019

Central America Backpacking Guide

As a backpacking destination, Central America’s seven countries offer some of the world’s most diverse and jaw-dropping scenery. With shorter distances to travel than in North or South America, this compact continent can have you hiking smoking volcanoes one week and taking in some dreamy diving the next. Each country has its own character and culture. From mystical Mayan ruins, to embracing your inner beach bum on a Caribbean island, the magic of Central America lies in its tangible history and wildlife-rich jungles. But with so much on offer, where do you even start? To help plan your adventures, here’s our complete guide to backpacking Central America.

Jump straight to:

  1. Best time to visit Central America
  2. Visas for Central America
  3. Travelling around Central America
  4. Central America accommodation
  5. How much does it cost to travel in Central America?
  6. Central America itineraries
  7. The best places to visit in Central America
  8. Central American food
  9. Central America culture
  10. Central America facts
  11. Religion in Central America
  12. Central America travel advice
  13. Is Central America safe?
  14. Vaccinations for Central America

Best time to visit Central America

The tropical terrain of Central America has dry and wet seasons, but with a changeable mix of misty cloud forests, elevated cities and sun-drenched beaches, you will need to pack a versatile bag. Each country varies, with their own specific micro climates, so layers are essential! You may start the day with a woolly hat and gloves, but be basking in the midday heat by lunchtime.

Typically, the dry season (November to April), offers sunny skies and a reliable weather front, but prices do rise, especially around Easter, where spectacular Semana Santa celebrations make for a memorable experience.

Visiting Central America during the wet season (May – October) can be stunning, with bright green lush rainforests, and fewer tourists to contend with. Your money will also go further, just pack your mozzie net and waterproofs!

backpacking central america - Rancho Santana, Nicaragua

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua – Photo by Sam Hull

Best time to visit specific countries

Costa Rica ??

Costa Rica’s dry season (December to April) is the busiest time of year for tourists. Plan ahead, (like even a year ahead!) if you’re thinking about visiting over Christmas, Spring Break or Easter (where prices can double). Sunny January is one of the most popular months, and although more expensive than later in the year, the prices do drop a little bit once the New Year parties are over. This is also a great time for wildlife spotting with sea turtles nesting on shore, plus cheeky monkeys and chilled out sloths. The wet season in Costa Rica (May to November) is affectionately known as the green season, due to the dazzling lush hues of the rainforest. This season can be cheaper, have less crowds and more active wildlife. Plus, it’s a great time to visit if you’re into watersports.

Belize ??

It all depends on what kind of adventure you want when it comes to planning the best time to visit Belize. Dry season runs from December to April. Expect long hot breezy days, and top dollar prices for accommodation and tours.

Wet season in Belize (May to November) starts off hot and sticky – with humidity at its peak around May. At this time of year, Belize is less crowded, and it can be up to 50% cheaper than the dry season. Plus, the rain usually only lasts for a couple of hours (but be aware that some diving or caving tours may be cancelled due to weather). If you want to dive or snorkel with whale sharks, this can only be done between March and June. Hurricane season lasts from June to October.

Guatemala ??

When you’re trying to decide the best time to visit Guatemala (known as The Land of Eternal Spring), bear in mind, many popular areas sit at elevation, which means crisp early mornings, hot sunny days and cooler evenings.

The dry season (December to March) is the busiest and most expensive time to visit Guatemala. This includes Holy Week, where may travellers are drawn to Antigua, to watch the enchanting street processions. This is a wondrous parade to take part in, so be sure to book well in advance.

Rainy season in Guatemala (May – October) can make some lower lying areas impossible to access. Especially the Mayan ruins in Petén, where the rain turns the roads into knee deep mud baths!

backpacking central america - mountains in Guatemala

Guatemala – Photo by Marco Reyes

El Salvador ??

Like other tropical Central American countries, El Salvador has a wet, and a dry season. When you’re planning your trip, think about what you want to do, rather than which month is best. December and Holy Week are the most popular times of year, so you’ll need to book in advance.

However, if you’re hoping to catch that perfect wave, the wet season (April to October) is the best time for surfers. This is also a good time to visit if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of some super cute sea turtles.

The temperature in El Salvador depends on which part of the country you’re visiting. The beaches are pretty much hot and sunny all year round, whereas the uplands, sitting at elevation, are cooler so you’ll need those layers!

Honduras ??

Central America’s most mountainous country is Honduras. So, whilst temperatures typically hover somewhere around the late 20s or early 30s, the highlands will be misty and cooler, than the low lying, sun-drenched Caribbean beaches.

With dry season running from December to April, this is of course peak season for tourists. The wet season in Honduras (May to November) can be stiflingly humid, making it feel much hotter than it actually is, however the rain does offer some relief!

Although there can be bargains to be had when it comes to accommodation, the hurricane season in Honduras can bring unpredictable stormy weather, and the heaviest rainfall from August to October.

Nicaragua ??

Once the vacationing crowds have dispersed, January, (particularly from the middle of the month) is generally considered the best time to visit Nicaragua. At this time of year, the land is still lush and green, after the recent wet season (June to October).

Some peak dates to bear in mind aside from Christmas, are Holy Week (falling in March or April), where religious processions take to the streets (Granada tends to host the biggest celebrations), and also Independence Day (15th September).

If you’re planning on outdoor activities such as hiking or snorkelling, it’s best to avoid September and October, where some areas can be difficult, if not impossible to reach due to the heavy rains. Wanna try your hand at surfing? January has smaller waves so is great for beginners, but if you’re a pro, wait until May to August, when the waves are at their best.

Panama ??

The lush green wet season (April to November) is the cheapest time of year to visit Panama. But, we’d recommend avoiding November, which not only sees the heaviest rainfall, but is also crammed full of public holidays, which means fully booked hostels when the locals take their time out. If you’re into snorkelling, the good news is, that the best time to year to visit Panama is June to October, when visibility is at its best.

The more popular, and more crowded dry season in Panama runs from December to March, however you should still expect a little rain around the Caribbean and the Pacific coast. Areas like Bocas del Toro and Panama City can be rainy all year round.

 

Visas for Central America

If you’re from the EU, US, Australia, Canada or New Zealand (and many other countries), visiting as a tourist, you won’t need to arrange a visa in advance for any Central American country. Each country lets you travel for up to 90 days (or 30 for Belize).

Many Central American countries will require you to have an onward ticket, plus you may be asked if you have sufficient funds for your stay (allow around USD$500 to 600 per month). You’ll also need a few blank pages in your passport, plus at least 6 months validity.

Always travel with a small amount of cash when crossing a border (USD$30 should be fine) as many Central American countries charge an entry fee on arrival. However, the Centro America 4 (CA-4) agreement allows tourists to travel through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua for free (hurrah!) for up to 90 days, so in theory, you would only pay one entry fee. But just be aware that some border guards may still charge you for ‘tourist paperwork’, which can be tedious, but you won’t have much choice so keep those dollars handy.

Remember to get your travel vaccines before you set off, and keep your vaccination card ready at the border in case they ask to see it.

 

Travelling around Central America

There’s a whole range of transport available in Central America from spluttering chicken buses to air-conditioned coaches. Getting from A to B can be hilarious, unpredictable and is likely to be a memorable part of your trip.

Travelling by bus in Central America is a rite of passage. Brightly repainted, rickety old American school buses, known as chicken buses, carry people, livestock, mattresses, you name it! This ain’t no luxury coach but it’s a cheap way to get around and it’s a lot of fun! Bring snacks and water too, because sometimes a ‘2 hour’ journey turns into a 4-hour mission! Your backpack will probably be stored on the roof, so keep your valuables on you, and avoid taking buses at night.

backpacking central america - man stopping a truck

Photo by johannaw

Longer services will leave from a bus terminal. These are likely to be more comfortable and may even have reclining seats, but don’t count on air con. If you’re on a long-distance journey, vendors will jump on every now and then, selling snacks and water.

Travel agents can arrange private air-conditioned buses, but these will cost a lot more than public buses (and they’re nowhere near as fun!).

For shorter distances, squeeze into a collectivo, which is a small minivan. The destination will be displayed at the front of the bus, or there may be someone announcing it from the window. It’s a hop on/off request stop kinda deal so you can usually ask to be dropped wherever suits you. These buses do stop frequently, especially to pick up more passengers when the bus is already ‘full’. Agree your price when you get on (anything between $2-12 depending on the distance but it’s a pretty cheap alternative to larger buses).

When it comes to train travel in Central America, there is hardly any infrastructure apart from a few commuter routes in Costa Rica. The only exception being the lovingly restored Panama Canal Railway, which runs daily from Panama City to Colón, alongside the canal. This hour-long ride will set you back around $25, but you may spot some monkeys or sloths chilling out as you pass through the jungle.

Central America accommodation

Whether it’s a cozy home from home, or party central, you’ll find some of the best hostels in Central America. So Insta-worthy, your friends back home will uber jealous.

The best hostels in Costa Rica seem to keep upping their game, with many looking more like boutique hotels than backpacker hostels! With incredible views of Arenal Volcano, and a sloth trail running right outside the hostel, Arenal Backpackers Resort is a real fave in the jungle. Wanna go surfing in Santa Teresa? Look no further than the super-friendly Hostel do Monos Norte which offers delicious free coffee all day long, a quick 2 minute skip to the beach, and you can book some great value surf lessons. If you’re staying in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, Fauna Luxury Hostel is in one of the safest parts of town, complete with sunny vibes and even a yoga terrace.

Laid back Belize is famous for giving her guests a warm welcome. With plenty of accommodation dotted along idyllic beaches, you may end up staying much longer than you planned.Spotlessly clean, hammocks on the veranda and even (what sometimes feels like) a private beach on your doorstep, Sophie’s guest rooms is far and away my favourite place to stay in Caye Caulker. In San Ignacio, recently renovated D’s Hostel makes for the perfect, and perhaps friendliest Belizean base to explore those Mayan ruins. The Drift Inn in San Pedro comes with cheerful bright rooms, a private dock and easy access to all of that blissful snorkelling and kayaking.

In Honduras, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll end up in Copan Ruins at some point. And within easy reach of all that Mayan magic, Hotel Madrugada Copan is tucked away in a quiet corner of town, and set in lush gardens with a peaceful terrace to relax on after roaming around the ruins. Bang in the middle of La Ceiba, family run Guacamayos Backpacker is a cozy little retreat, and the owners will go out of their way to help you.

When you’re looking for a hostel in Roatan, it’s well worth the 5 minute walk up the hill (bring a torch at night!) to Roatan Bed and Breakfast in The West End. With jungle sunset views, spacious rooms and the loveliest owner you could ever ask for, Barbara will whip up a homemade breakfast each morning, and not only that, her cat Pepperoni will be on hand for cuddles… #HostelGoals!

Guatemala boasts some of the most beautiful hostels in Central America. Especially Antigua, which is often your first stop on your Guatemalan adventure. I’ve stayed in a few spots, but my absolute favourite was Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel, which has really set the standard with its super-stylish decor and roof terrace with spectacular volcano views. As an extra bonus, there’s even free cake in the afternoon! Book ahead as this popular spot fills up fast. In Lake Atitlan, you’ll be made to feel like part of the family at Dreamboat Hostel. This is a backpackers’ paradise, and probably the most sociable spot on the lake. There’s an excellent value ‘family dinner’ on offer every night plus the owners will happily accompany you to one of the nearby bars after quiet time starts at 10pm. After exploring the nearby ancient Mayan city of Tikal, Hostal Casa de Grethel, just a short (free) boat ride from Flores, has a lovely lakeside terrace when you fancy a dip.

In El Salvador, you may end up spending more time than you think in San Salvador. In the heart of one of the safest areas – Zona Rosa, La Zona Hostel sits conveniently opposite the TicaBus office, has fast Wi-Fi and free brekky. In Juayua, La Casa Mazeta has a warm atmosphere (and a cozy firepit in the garden!). Owner Steve loves sharing his wealth of information and can arrange great value waterfall tours.

De Boca en Boca, in Granada, Nicaragua is right in the middle of the action, has comfy hammocks and make your own banana pancakes. Lovely Leon has one of the best hostels in Nicaragua, Poco a Poco. A warm welcome, spacious rooms, attention to detail, and $1 breakfasts, make this a real gem. When you sail across to Ometepe Island, be sure to try out Hospedaje los Chocoyos for jaw dropping sunsets, kayaking and home cooked food. One of the nicest settings on the island.

Set in a beautiful colonial building in Panama City, the spotless Magnolia Inn is a great base to explore the city. Treat yourself and book the penthouse for stunning panoramic views. In Boquete, perched up on a hill, just outside the city, Bambuda Castle is possibly the most famous and sociable hostel. Literally a castle, complete with a climbing wall, jacuzzi, pool, two bars, spacious dorms and reliable Wi-Fi.

backpacking central america - Bambuda Castle

Bambuda Castle – Panama City

How much does it cost to travel in Central America?

If you carefully manage your daily budget, it’s definitely possible to travel through Central America on a shoestring. I’m sharing some simple money saving tips, that I’ve picked up on my travels:

• Using local buses or collectivos instead of taxis
• Opting for dorm rooms in hostels
• Spending more time in cheaper countries, such as Nicaragua and Guatemala
• Taking a fee-free card such as Monzo or Revolut (you can use these cards without a foreign transaction fee), and top them up when you need to. They also come with handy apps which break down your out-goings (accommodation, food, travel, etc.)
• If possible, avoid travelling during peak season, when accommodation can double in price, especially around Holy Week.

As a rough guide, allow £15-20 per day for Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, £20-25 for Honduras, £25-30 for Costa Rica and Panama, and £30-35 for Belize. This averages out at around £500-700 per month.

Central American currency varies from country to country, (El Salvador and Panama use US Dollars), but it’s always a good idea to travel with a few US Dollars wherever you go in Central America, as these are widely accepted, and come in handy when crossing some borders. Take low denomination notes, as larger values may be harder to change. When crossing a land border, if you have any local currency leftover, there will be money exchangers willing to do a deal, but double check their rates and don’t be afraid to haggle!

If there are specific sights or activities you want to do, keep extra money aside. Diving in Belize is an amazing experience but allocate at least $200 (more if you want to do a few dives or visit Blue Hole).

Don’t forget to make an allowance for extras too like zip-lining, horse riding or hiking tours.

Popular tourist spots such as Roatan Island in Honduras tend to be more expensive, and prices can hike up when there is a cruise ship coming in.

backpacking central america - River in HondurasHonduras – Photo by Adali Cabrera

Central America itineraries

Central America in 2 weeks

Although it’s pushing it cover the whole continent, a speedy Central American backpacking itinerary over 2 weeks can still cram in some incredible experiences. This route starts in Guatemala and ends in Costa Rica, via Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Antigua, Guatemala: Upon landing in Guatemala City, jump in an airport shuttle straight to Antigua (around an hour’s ride away). Spend a couple of days exploring the low rise colonial splendor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sitting at an elevation, and surrounded by brooding volcanoes, this is a backpackers fave. If you’re feeling brave, take a trip out of town to hike up the very active Pacaya Volcano. This can easily be arranged in town the day before. Be sure to wear hiking boots for this one.

Copan, Honduras: Take your time wandering around the impressive Mayan ruins of Copan. It’s a good idea to hire a guide to get the most out of your visit. Spend the rest of the day horse-riding through the lush jungle or take a dip in the welcoming hot springs. If you’re in a need of a caffeine hit, you can sample some seriously good coffee at a local coffee plantation.

backpacking central america - Mayan ruins of Copan

Image by Juan Cernas

Suchitoto, El Salvador: Steeped in culture, wander the colonial streets or take a peaceful early morning kayak trip over to Bird Island.

El Cuco, El Salvador:  Take the bumpy ride to the top of Volcan de Conchagua for breathtaking views, or if you fancy riding some waves, this is one of the best surf spots in El Salvador. (If it’s your first go at surfing, maybe do it the day after your Volcano trip, as your arms may be feeling it after all that exercise!)

Leon, Nicaragua: Break up the long journey to Granada with a day in Leon. Beautiful architecture, a laid-back vibe and an interesting political history make for a fascinating stay. Don’t forget to try some of the local beverage, ChiCha!

Granada, Nicaragua: Colourful Granada sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Explore in a kayak to spot howler monkeys and cormorants.

Ometepe Island, Nicaragua: Across the water, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, sits Isla de Ometepe. An hour-glass shaped island formed from two volcanoes. You can hike either of them if you’re feeling energetic (be sure to find a guide), or just kick back in the hot springs if you’re Volcanoed out.

backpacking central america - mountain and palm trees

Photo by pdro-enrique

Monteverde, Costa Rica: A real treat for wildlife lovers, Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is home to spider monkeys, sloths, hummingbirds, and if you’re lucky, the majestic quetzal. The nighttime wildlife tours are magical.

backpacking central america - greenery

Photo by by JanBartel

San Jose, Costa Rica: Explore Costa Rica’s capital and don’t miss the Gold Museum, where you can see some seriously shiny indigenous bling. Buy gifts for the folks back home from the Central Market.

backpacking central america - San Jose

Photo by Jose Conejo Saenz

Central America in 3 weeks – route one

Have a little extra time for your trip? Consider adding one of these two options to your itinerary above.

Guatemala to Panama
Picking up from San Jose (see above 2-week itinerary).

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica: Get your bearings by cycling around this coastal Caribbean town. Feeling brave? Take the Tarantula’s Way night tour of Cahuita National Park to spot caiman, tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, and (the slightly less scary) possum.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Embrace the Caribbean way of life and kick back on one of the many perfect palm-fringed beaches. After a hard day’s snorkelling, this is a vibrant spot for nightlife.

Boquete, Panama: This is THE town to fuel your caffeine addiction. Take a tour of a coffee finca, and enjoy a cup of the strong stuff, or make like a jungle explorer and take a slippery hike to The Lost Waterfalls.

Panama City, Panama: Wander around the cobblestone streets of the UNESCO listed old town (Casco Viejo), and gaze in wonder at the engineering feat that is The Panama Canal.

Central America in 3 weeks – route two
If you’re hoping to explore Belize as part of your Central American trip, add this week on to the 2 week itinerary above.

San Jose to Belize City
Fly from Costa Rica’s capital into Belize’s capital to begin your Caribbean adventure..

Caye Caulker, Belize: Catch the ferry from Belize City to Caye Caulker. Take your time on this paradise island. Snorkelling, kayaking and manatee spotting are all on offer, or of course you can just laze away the day on a sunset cruise.

San Ignacio, Belize: Discover Mayan relics at the living museum, Actun Tunichil Muknal (known locally as ATM). Crystalised skeletons and artefacts have been preserved in this haunting cave.

Tikal, Guatemala: Nestled deep in the jungle, Tikal is one of the most significant and imposing Mayan ruins. The Mayans believed that the higher the temple, the closer they were to the gods. So, if you’re feeling like a challenge, hike up to the top, where you’re likely to spot macaws, toucans and howler monkeys on the way up.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala: This laid-back town makes for a relaxing spot to break up the journey to Antigua. Bathe in hot springs or enjoy a lazy boat trip to Livingston, before heading to Antigua the following day.

backpacking central america - Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala -Photo by ickandgak

Central America backpacking itinerary for 2 months

Covering Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, this 2 month Central American backpacking itinerary is yours to take your time over.

Belize: 1 week+

Don’t miss: Belize City, Caye Caulker, San Ignacio
Start off in this dreamy laid-back country. Head straight to Caye Caulker and dive in to those crystal clear waters to explore the coral reefs, head out on a sunset cruise searching for manatees, or simply kick back and enjoy Caribbean life. Float through colourful corals and marine life at the tip of Ambergris at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. It’s definitely worth the trip to Mayan hilltop wonderland of Xunantunich. Jump aboard the quirky hand-cranked ferry service and climb to the top of El Castillo for a birds-eye view.

Guatemala: 2 weeks+

Don’t miss: Antigua, Tikal, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango
Cross the border into Guatemala for colonial splendor in Antigua and, if you’re feeling up to it, hike an angry volcano or two and marvel at Mayan ruins in Tikal. Got a little extra time? Antigua is a perfect place to linger and find a Spanish school as there is one on pretty much every street. Do your homework in Parque Central, then reward yourself with a local cold beer – look out for ‘Gallo’.

backpacking central america - Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan – Photo by johannaw

Honduras: 1 week+

Don’t miss: Copan Ruins, Roatan Island
The Mayan people were fond of a tournament or two, and would partake in a ball game in which the ball was made of solid rubber and weighed around half a stone. Human sacrifice would sometimes occur, and there is even a theory that human heads being used as a ball. You don’t see that on Sky Sports.

If you manage to navigate Copan Ruins without losing your head, soak your weary traveller bones in nearby natural hot springs, then learn to live life at a slooow pace on Roatan Island.

El Salvador: 1 week+

Don’t miss: Ruta de las Flores, Suchitoto, El Cuco
El Salvador beckons with volcanic hikes and mountain bike trails. If you’re visiting between November and February take the 20 mile hike through the Ruta de las Flores. This wildflower route meanders through colourful towns and lofty coffee fincas. Drop down to the coast and have a go at surfing (I managed to stand in my first lesson – albeit for three seconds, #ProudFace).

Nicaragua: 10 days+

Don’t miss: Leon, Granada, Ometepe Island
Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua, is formed of two volcanoes (yes, more volcanoes!), connected together called Volcan Concepcion, and Volcan Madera. You can hike either, but Concepcion seems to be the most popular. After a hot days’ hiking, bathe in the soothing natural waterhole of Ojo de Agua. Surrounded by jungle and wildlife, you may even spot a couple of mischievous monkeys up above. Back on the mainland, learn all about the recent political history and hear revolutionary tales in Leon. Don’t forget to try some ‘Gallo Pinto’.

Costa Rica: 10 days+

Don’t miss: Monteverde, La Fortuna, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Immerse yourself in the ethereal cloud forests of Costa Rica and spot snakes, spiders, frogs and hummingbirds. If you are lucky you may even spot an elusive quetzal. Wanna conquer that arachnophobia? Take a tour at night, where an expert guide will point out all manner of nocturnal activity. Sharpen up the next morning with some of the world’s best, and punchiest coffee.

Panama: 1 week+

Don’t miss: Panama City, Boquete, Bocas del Toro
Discover lost waterfalls, envy-inducing beaches and the legend that is the Panama Canal. There is still plenty of exquisite coffee to give you a kick in Panama, if you’re not still wired from Costa Rica.

 

The best places to visit in Central America

You won’t be able to travel through Central America without bumping into a volcano sooner or later. Although it may seem like a baptism of fire (sorry!), the tricky hikes are always worth the effort. Health and safety is somewhat ‘relaxed’ in Central America, so always be sure to take a guide. Some of the best volcano hikes are highlighted below.

Another essential part of any trip involves mysterious Mayan ruins, and each site has its own intriguing presence. No-one knows exactly why this powerful civilization fell from grace, but you can pick out some places to ponder below.

If it’s sloths and monkeys that get you out of bed in a morning (not literally of course… sadly), you’ve come to the right place. Central America is teeming with wildlife. Read on below for where to spot those busy hummingbirds and jazzy tree frogs.

 

Where to find the best beaches in Central America

Make you sure you book a flexible return flight ticket home because you’re well and truly spoilt for beaches in Central America. Enjoy aquamarine gentle waves, snorkel in multi-coloured reefs, or even try out your surfing skills. These Caribbean beauties will no doubt form some of the most memorable moments of your trip.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro boasts some stunning beaches, all, it seems with their own unique selling points. Don’t forget to pack your snorkel and count starfish at (you guessed it) Starfish Beach, reachable via a water taxi from Bocas del Drago, you’ll also likely encounter lobster and sting rays. Kick back afterwards with a Piña Colada served with fresh pineapple.

Alternatively, Red Frog beach has calm warm waters, never ending reefs, some of the best snorkelling in Panama and of course you might even find a red frog. Cameras at the ready!

Finally, it’s impossible to not mention Cayo Zapatillas. A 1.5 hour boat ride brings you to your own slice of castaway beach heaven. Add to this more world class snorkelling and turquoise waters.

Stay long enough in Bocas del Toro to try out as many beaches as your time allows. With beautiful views, jungle trails and super dedicated staff, The Bambuda Lodge will make your stay even more perfect.

backpacking central america - Bambuda Lodge in Bocas Del Toro

Bambuda Lodge in Bocas Del Toro, Panama

West Bay, Roatan Island, Honduras

Oh, Roatan, such a beauty! I have fond memories of hiring a moped and exploring the island until I reached gorgeous West Bay. Set up camp beneath a palm tree, then treat yourself to some superb snorkelling. Follow sting rays and play chase with parrotfish, then suddenly realise an hour has passed and you have some rather magnificent tan lines! After all of that aquatic fun, relax on the pristine beach and sample some of the tastiest seafood caught mere moments before (Blackened Mahi Mahi was my fave). Back at  Roatan Bed and Breakfast, Barbara will cook up a hearty breakfast for you the following morning, for another day of perfect island life.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Tropical paradise awaits at Ambergris Caye. Although one of the most developed areas for tourism, this perfect Belizean spot is famous for a reason. You’ll never run out of water sports with excellent snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming and fishing.

Just down the road, The Sandbar Beachfront Hostel is great value for money, and has a budget friendly happy hour on drinks and pizzas.

backpacking central america - hut on the beach

Photo by cloud2013

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica

This super chill beach has it all. Snorkelling, surfing, warm water and powder soft (white and black) sand. You won’t want to stray far once you’re here, but you can lunch on fresh fish with rice and beans whilst lazing under a low swinging tree. Veronica and Delroy will treat you as one of their own at the family run Caribbean Flavors hostel, where the fruit and veggies are grown on-site. A great pick for veggies or vegans.

 

The Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Just over 40 miles off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, The Corn Islands, (Big Corn and Little Corn) welcome you with an away-from-it-all vibe and pristine beaches you may have all to yourself. The Creole and Spanish speaking Corn Islands have a completely different feel to the rest of Nicaragua. Don’t skip Big Corn Island, hire a bike and a snorkel and explore! Lauri will look after you at The Island Roots Hostel, which is an all-time fave of mine. Enjoy the simple life across the water on Little Corn, as what it lacks in amenities like Wi-Fi, it makes up for in hammock strewn perfect little beaches, and lobster shacks serving up the delicious (and cheap) catch of the day.

backpacking central america - paradise beach

Photo by danebrian

What is the best Central American country to visit?

So of course this is an impossible question to answer, as choosing the best Central American country to visit is all down to personal preference and what floats your boat.

Intrigued by mighty Mayan culture and history? Go ahead and gorge on temples and ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, or pop over the border to Copan in Honduras. Wanna swim all day and snorkel with rays and starfish? Take a break from it all in Bocas del Toro in Panama or find your inner serve dude in El Cuco, El Salvador.

Nature lovers need to head to Costa Rica’s Cloud Forest to get up close and personal with sloths, snakes and hummingbirds.

Hands up who wants to climb a volcano? Well the good news is that almost every Central American country (with the exception of Belize) has a volcano you can ascend. Some are more active than others, and most require a guide. But the challenging terrain is always rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime views and the chance to stare at a fiery lava flow. If you want to combine a few of these passions, Guatemala makes for a good, compact starting point, especially if you’re tight on time. You can take a Spanish class one day, hike a volcano the next, visit sensational Mayan sites, and this would all be manageable in as little as seven days.

Or if you would rather laze around from beach to beach, make it Belize. Tropical sandy shores will whisk your worries away.

Colonial grandeur and volcanic islands make Nicaragua a magical, and affordable choice too. The only hard part for you, is picking where to start. We’ve highlighted the best places to visit in Central America below, country by country.

 

The best places to visit in Panama

Bocas del Toro, Panama

A backpacker hub, Bocas del Toro can be a chilled out beach spot, or party-central, depending on where you stay. Take a boat trip to some of the quieter islands and coves, for some sensational snorkelling.

Boquete, Panama

Misty Mountains and picture-perfect coffee fincas make Boquete a steady favourite, for both expat retirees and backpackers. Don’t forget to sample some of the best food in Panama too, from fine dining to hole in the wall cafes, plus you can even take a chocolate making class. Get outside and enjoy ziplining, rafting, or hiking on the Quetzal Trail, or if you’re up for it, the 2-day adventure up to Baru Volcano.

Soberania National Park

Only 16 miles from Panama City, Soberania National Park is a lush jungle full of exotic birdlife, howler monkeys and anteaters. Hike the Pipeline road, and if you’re a real twitcher, hire a guide to spot those elusive feathered friends.

San Blas Islands

Soft powder sand, turquoise water and exquisite snorkelling await at this backpackers favourite, which, thankfully doesn’t feel over-developed. Spot starfish or simply do nothing but sunbathe aboard a boat tour.

The best places to visit in Guatemala

Antigua

Antigua is such a backpackers favourite, you may end up staying for a few days (or weeks!) more than you planned. With plenty to keep you going from volcano hikes, coffee plantations, salsa lessons and Spanish school… not to mention the stage-set beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage city, you may well end up making lifelong friends here.

backpacking central america - street of Antigua

Tikal

With its dramatic jungle setting, the Mayan ruins of Tikal make you feel like a modern-day explorer. With most visitors arriving on a day trip from Flores, you may even have parts of the ruins to yourself on a sunrise tour, if you opt to stay overnight.

Lake Atitlan

Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to explore the different sides of Lake Atitlan, which is dramatically set on the shores of a mostly Mayan community. Each town or village has its own distinctive character, from hippie hideaways to backpacker retreats.

Chichicastenango

A visit to the markets of the mountain village of Chichicastenango is a must. Hand-carved masks and colourful blankets make for great gifts for the folks back home. Don’t be afraid to barter.

 

The best places to visit in Honduras

Copan

Not far from the Guatemalan border, this important Mayan city, served as the capital of the Mesoamerican Kingdom, from the 5th century for 400 years. Occupied for around 2000 years but abandoned in the 10th century, allow at least a full day to gaze in wonder.

Utila

Somewhat cheaper than Roatan, Utila is a backpackers’ hotspot, offering some sublime diving opportunities which won’t break the bank. If you’re lucky, you may even swim with the gentle giants of the ocean, whale sharks. This is real bucket list territory.

Roatan Island

There is a reason travellers still flock to Roatan. Perfect beaches to laze the day away, jungle canopies to explore, and some prime diving and snorkelling sites, with shipwrecks and colourful coral reefs to discover. Allow yourself at least a week, as Roatan is hard to leave.

The best places to visit in Nicaragua

Mayasa Volcano National Park

Within easy reach of Managua or Granada, this is one of the most accessible volcanoes in Central America. You can even drive right up to the crater! The night tours offer some heart-stopping views of molten lava pools. Like staring into the underworld (in a good way!)

Ometepe Island

Hop aboard a local ferry, and leave your worries behind, as you reach the volcanic bliss of Ometepe. You can have as much, or as little adventure as you like, with lagoon swimming, jungle trails, kayaking and volcano hikes. It’s a great island to hire a scooter too, as the roads are pretty quiet, whilst the views are sensational.

Corn Islands

A dreamy Caribbean retreat, The Corn Islands are a real haven. Take your time to explore Big Corn before catching a 30 minute ‘panga’ (a small boat) to idyllic, car free Little Corn Island. Disconnect, take some good books and settle in to your hammock.

 

The best places to visit in Costa Rica

Monteverde

This lush green jungle is home to hummingbirds, monkeys, bright butterflies, and of course, the shy Quetzal bird. If you’re feeling adventurous, fly through the canopy on a zipline, for unrivalled views, and an unforgettable adrenalin rush.

Corcovado rainforest

This paradise jungle is a real gem. Waterfalls, forest hikes and more wildlife than you can shake a stick at, make this a quintessential Costa Rican experience.

Arenal Volcano

For a perfect day, take the easy hike (around an hour) to the lava flow, spotting monkeys, iguanas and red-eyed frogs along the way, then reward yourself after with a dip in the free hot springs at Tobacon.

backpacking central america - 2 frogs climbing a stem

Photo by Domenic Hoffmann

 

The best places to visit in El Salvador

Ruta de las Flores

Between November and February, the Ruta de las Flores, ambles through a wildflower trail of 20 miles, across delightful landscapes, villages and coffee fincas. Take your time and stay the night at colonial towns along the way, and shop at weekend markets for local handicrafts.

Suchitoto

Suchitoto is a colonial beauty. This cultural hub is home to charming cobblestone streets and well-preserved architecture such as the Iglesia Santa Lucia. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, book a tour with the tourist police, to Los Tercios Waterfall. After the steep descent, you will be rewarded beautiful lake views.

Playa El Tunco

El Salvador is a surfers’ hotspot, and this chilled out backpacker town only consists of two streets. After a hard day on the waves, relax with a cold beer and enjoy the spectacular sunsets.

 

The best places to visit in Belize

Belize Barrier Reef

In 1842 Charles Darwin described the Belize Barrier Reef as ‘“the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”. See for yourself, and snorkel with loggerhead turtles, parrotfish, clown fish and rays, amongst multi-coloured coral gardens.

backpacking central america - turtle swimming in the sea

Photo by taylorklekamp

Actun Tunichil Muknal

Located within an enormous cave complex, this Ancient Mayan burial site is a must-see. Half of the adventure is getting there, by hiking, then wading and swimming in to the cave entrance. Artefacts such as ceramics and tools are all down here, and of course, human sacrificial remains, such as the ‘Crystal Maiden’ – a teenage girl covered in limestone crystals. Eerie but fascinating.

Hopkins

Once a small fishing village, Hopkins is a relaxing spot to while away the time. Snorkelling is excellent here, as are the jungle hiking trails. This is a central hub of the Garifuna people of Belize, and a great chance to learn about Garifuna culture and music.

 

Central American food

Although rice and beans form the backbone of Central American cuisine, each country has its own array of unique dishes to sample. ‘Comida típica’ (typical meals) tend to have a Mayan, Spanish or Caribbean heritage. There’s something for everyone, whether it’s Conch Soup on the Honduran coast, or Guatemalan ‘doughnuts’ (Rellenitos) in Antigua, you can find these delectable delicacies at street side vendors, or family run restaurants.

The best food in Panama

Panamanian food draws its influence from a delicious mix of African, Spanish, Caribbean, European and Native American heritage. Due to its tropical situation, Panama has an abundance of delectable fruits and veggies to use in the local cuisine. Rice and beans with chicken (Arroz con Guandu y Pollo Guisado) is a popular staple in Panama but read on for some other local delicacies.

Sancocho de Patio

Available on pretty much every street corner, Sancocho, or ‘Sancocho de Patio’ (yard stew) is soul food in a bowl. Chicken broth served with plantains, potatoes, cilantro, spices and corn on the cob will cure even the worst of hangovers. Served with a side of white rice to soak up all that rum from the night before.

Ropa vieja

Yep, you read it right, Ropa vieja translates as ‘old clothes’. This spicy beef stew is named after the legend of a desperate man who ran out of food to feed his family. He tore up some old clothes, then prayed and prayed until they magically turned into a hearty stew. Consisting of shredded beef and served with ‘Arroz con coco’ (super tasty sticky sweet coconut milk rice), don’t forget to order with a side of plantain (also known as ‘tostones’), fried plantains are your go to side dish in Panama.

Carimañolas

Panamanians love to deep fry things and Carimañolas is a national favourite (although Panama and Colombia both claim this little treat as their own). These gloriously stodgy stuffed yuca fritters are stuffed with beef and cheese. This makes for a tasty breakfast or as an afternoon snack with a strong cup of coffee and cost as little as $2.

 

The best food in Guatemala

Guatemalan food is a delicious blend of Spanish and Mayan influence, with a hint of Caribbean thrown in. With fresh tropical fruit on your doorstep, try local papaya, mango and avocado. Guatemala also produces some of the best coffee in the world. Antigua and Huehuetenango produce some particularly satisfying blends, so take a tour of a local finca if you can.

Pepian

A perfect blend of Mayan and Spanish heritage, Guatemala’s national dish, Pepian is a delicious warming stew of slow roasted meat (usually chicken, beef or pork), packed with veggies like squash, corn and carrots. It’s served with a rich tomato, pumpkin and sesame sauce, and of course, the staple rice or tortilla on the side. Feeling brave? Ask your street vendor for hot chilli sauce. This will only cost around $3 from a street stall, or $10 in a restaurant.

Kakik

Kakik is a Mayan dish that pre-dates Spanish colonisation. This Turkey dish (originating from the Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz regions) is flavoured with cilantro, garlic, onions, coriander and a punchy spice called achiote, which comes from a bright red plant sometimes known as the lipstick tree. This gives this dish it’s kick. Served with rice and tortillas, wash it all down with a cold Gallo.

Rellenitos

Satisfy your sweet tooth with these little egg-shaped deep-fried goodies. Rellenitos are a street snack consisting of cooked plantains stuffed with refried beans, chocolate and cinnamon, served with either a dollop of honey or sugar on top. Perfect with a strong coffee.

backpacking central america - Rellenitos

Photo by Josué Goge

The best food in Honduras

Like its Central American neighbours, the staples of Honduran cuisine, consist of rice, beans and tortillas and some kind of meat. Passionfruit, pineapple and papaya are all grown locally so pick some up from a ‘pulperia’.

Head to the Caribbean coast and you will be able to dine like a king on the freshest fish such as snapper, mahi-mahi, lobster and conch. Roatan Island has some wonderful seafood on offer, usually at a great price.

Yojoa

This famous Honduran fried fish, has its origins in The Yojoa Lake region and is rich with flavour. Found all over the country (not just around the coast) the fish is salted and spiced, then left to marinade overnight to allow those flavours to develop. Often served with pickled onions or red cabbage, and a slice of lime, plus of course the ever-present deep-fried plantains.

Baleada

A trusty street side snack, baleadas are a thick flour tortilla filled with mashed refried beans, cheese and ‘mantequilla’ (sour cream). You can also throw in some meat, avocado, eggs, or whatever takes your fancy. On a visit to Honduras, Gordon Ramsey claimed beleadas to be the best Latin American dish (well, if it’s good enough for Gordon…)

Sopa de Caracol

Remember that catchy song in the 1990s called ‘Sopa de Caracol’ by Banda Blanca? No? Me neither, but it did help to elevate the profile of this tasty Conch soup, which is practically the national dish of Honduras. Cooked in coconut milk with yucca, and unripe (green) bananas, topped with cilantro. Served with rice and thick tortillas.

 

The best food in Nicaragua

There is much more to Nicaraguan cuisine than rice and beans. With influences from Spanish, Creole and Native American cuisine plus a Caribbean twist, Nicaragua has some tasty treats up her sleeves, and here are some you should try.

Gallo Pinto

Nicaraguan favourite Gallo Pinto is a national dish to be proud of. Gallo Pinto means painted rooster, and is typically made of red beans and white rice, bell peppers, garlic and onions. On the Caribbean side (such as the Corn Islands) they cook it with coconut milk for an extra creamy finish.

Nacatamales

This is the Nicaraguan version of Mexican Tamales. Made from a fluffy dough stuffed with potatoes, pork and a herb called yerba buena, this little parcel is wrapped in a plantain leaf before being boiled, and is usually reserved for a Sunday brunch, with bread and strong coffee. For veggies, you can ask to have your Nacatamales ‘Pindongo’ (without pork).

Quesillo

Who doesn’t love a cheesy snack!? Quesillo (little cheese), are tortillas wrapped around a soft white cheese (a little bit like mozzarella), and covered in pickled onions and a massive blob of sour cream. These naughty snacks are famous in Nicaragua and the best quesillo stands can be found on the road between Leon and Managua.

 

The best Food in El Salvador

With a mix of indigenous and Spanish influences, El Salvador boasts some unique dishes, and outstanding seafood (including some of the most affordable lobster on the planet!). Don’t forget to try the local coconuts at roadside stalls.

Pupusa

Pupusa is a thick tortilla crammed with cheese, ‘chicharron’ (which is a cooked ground pork), beans and ‘loroco’ (a vine flower bud which is native to Central America). There are options for veggies too with a type of squash called Ayote.

Panes rellenos

Panes rellenos means ‘stuffed bread’ and these warm sub sandwiches are typically filled with turkey or chicken which has been marinated and then roasted in Pipil spices.

The meat is then shredded and typically comes with tomatoes and watercress

Sopa de Pata

Perhaps not a one for the veggies, Sopa de Pata is filling soup made from cow’s tripe, (and sometimes feet!), sweet corn, plantain, yuca, bananas, tomato and spices. This is a real delicacy in El Salvador. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

 

The best food in Costa Rica

Rice and beans, Gallo Pinto and even tripe soup (mondongo) are all on offer in diverse Costa Rica. Look out for fresh local fruits: passion fruit, carambola (star fruit) and rambutan. Try out a few ‘sodas’ which are small restaurants, serving authentic Costa Rican cuisine, and great when you’re on a budget.

Casado

Literally translating as ‘married man’, Casado is a meal that would traditionally be made by the wives of men who worked in the fields, as a packed lunch for their husbands, which was wrapped in a banana leaf.

Consisting of typical Costa Rican food, Casado is made up of rice and beans, fried plantain, and usually either fish, chicken, pork or beef, plus salad, with corn tortillas on the side.

Chifrijo

This makes for a tasty little bar snack and the name comes in from a perfect marriage of two other foods; ‘chicharron’ (Costa Rican pork scratchings!) and rice and beans (frijoles). Served with tortilla chips, rice and fresh ‘Pico de Gallo’ (which translates literally as rooster’s beak, and is a spicy salsa made of tomato, peppers, onions, salt and lime juice).

Olla de carne

Olla de carne is a hearty slow-cooked rich beef stew with a Spanish heritage. Chock full of comforting ingredients such as beef, cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, plantains and squash. You can normally find this bubbling away on the pot at local restaurants over the weekend. Costa Ricans swear by it as the perfect hangover cure.

 

The best food in Belize

With Creole, Caribbean, Garifuna, and British influence, Belize offers an enticing range of cuisine. Fresh seafood is some of the best in Central America. Try grilled snapper or shrimp ceviche.

Belize also produces some local tropical treats including mangoes, cashews, pineapples and Craboo, which is a bright yellow fruit with a strong soapy smell (but a sweet taste) also known as ‘Nance’.

Bile up

A bile up (boil up) is the cultural dish of the creoles of Belize (knows as Kriols). An interesting mixture of boiled eggs, cassava, sweet potato, plantain, and either fish or pig’s tail, served with a rich tomato sauce and dumplings.

Johnny cakes

Johnny cakes, or sometimes ‘journey cakes’, are a yummy Belizean dish to try for breakfast. Not so much a cake, but a type of fluffy bread, made with flour and coconut milk and cooked in a fire hearth. Filled with refried beans, cheese, and egg, or try them at lunchtime with chicken or beef.

Cochinita Pibil

Sometimes known as Pibil pork, this traditional Mayan dish is a must try in Belize. Hunks of pork are marinated in orange juice, garlic, onions and spices, (including annatto seed which gives it a distinctive dark orange colour), then wrapped in a plantain leaf and cooked slowly in a clay oven for hours, until the meat falls apart. Served with avocado, tortillas and habanero sauce, this Belizean soul food goes well with lashings of cold beer.

backpacking central america - Cochinita Pibil

Photo by REBRAB

Central America culture

With Catholicism playing an important role in Central American culture, most major festivals and holidays revolve around religious celebrations. However, each country has its own passions, music and traditions, such as brightly coloured and localised textiles in Guatemala, and hammocks in El Salvador (where almost every home, rich or poor, will have a hammock, a symbol of the country).

With a mix of Creole, Maya, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish and British influence, music bars and dance halls may be filled with Salsa, Calypso, Reggae, or Punta (Music of the Garifuna people). When it comes to sports, El Salvador and Costa Rica have some perfect breakers for both newbie and seasoned surfers, and Honduras and El Salvador go particularly mad for soccer, with their huge stadia regularly reaching capacity.

Each country has its own ‘feel’, and Costa Ricans are proud of their peaceful and successful nation. The atmosphere here feels a little different. You’re likely to hear (and see) the expression ‘Pura Vida’ which literally translates into ‘Pure Life’, and has been adopted as an unofficial motto for the country.

backpacking central america - Costa Rican traditional dance

Holiday traditions in Central America

If you’re in Central America around a holiday, it can make for pretty special memories, and taking part is a real honour. Predominantly, based around religious ceremonies or saints’ days, check before you travel as significant days may vary, from country to country.

Semana Santa in Central America

Widely considered the most significant festival of all, Semana Santa may bring a hike in accommodation costs, but it’s an unforgettable celebration, with one of the most famous of festivities taking part in Antigua, Guatemala. Famous for its colourful carpets of bright red and yellow flowers, laid out upon the cobbled streets, the processions through this dramatic elevated city, surrounded by world heritage views and volcanoes, this is THE place to spend Holy Week. Just remember to book your accommodation months in advance.

Carnaval, Panama

In a four day run up to Ash Wednesday, Carnaval is the biggest event of the year in Panama, and the streets turn into a colourful haze of floats, fireworks, and even water fights. All starting with the coronation of the Carnival Queen, the party doesn’t stop until sunrise on Wednesday morning.

Christmas festivities in Central America

Christmas in Guatemala, starts with ‘Posadas’. From December 16th, up until Nochebuena (December 24th). Magical processions of coloured paper lanterns and floats, peacefully march the streets at night, with gentle music and singing. Specially designated houses (Posadas) are chosen to host guests and serve up tamales and hot fruit punch.

December 24th brings Nochebuena (translating as ‘the good night’). This is an all night Christmas celebration, and typically starts with a family evening meal (often including tamales, meat and rice), fireworks, processions and a trip to midnight mass, also known as ‘Misa del Gallo’ (The Mass of the Rooster).

On New Year’s Eve, ‘Año viejo’ (the old, or past year), is represented by a large figure, made from cardboard, wood and cloth, that is then set alight, in order to burn bad memories of the previous year, and make way for better ones in the coming year.

A brief history of Central America

In the Pre-Columbian era (before European colonisation) Central America was home to many indigenous people. The Mayan people (dating back to 2000BC) are probably the most recognised, due to their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, architecture and art.

Powerful Mayan cities such as Tikal sprang up and dominated the Mayan kingdom from around 200 to 900AD. Copan was populated for around 2000 years, from the 5th Century AD. However, by 900AD, almost all major Mayan cities had been abandoned, and the reason why remains a mystery to this day.

In the 16th century, as the Spanish Empire flourished, conquistadors colonised much of Central and South America. There was a small exception in Central America, on the Caribbean Coast, where various communities (including indigenous people, fleeing slaves and British settlers) would eventually go on to form British Honduras which is now modern-day Belize.

By 1821, after numerous moves for independence, an Act of Independence was drawn up in Guatemala City on the 15th of September. This date is still recognised as Independence Day by most Central American countries. By 1823 The Federal Republic of Central America was formed, and included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. However, this arrangement was short-lived and had dissolved by 1840. Subsequent various attempts to reunify the Republic were always doomed to fail, and caused a lot of bloodshed along the way, right up until the 1920s.

 

Central America facts

It’s always good to know some facts and figures about your new destination. Wow your new hostel friends with these little beauties:

  • The compact region of Central America is made of 7 countries with a population of around 47 million people.
  • The majority of the population are Mestizo (combined European and Indigenous American descent).
  • You are never more than 125 miles from the ocean
  • The official language in all countries is Spanish, apart from Belize, where the official language is English. Mayan languages consist of around 26 different dialects.
  • Peace loving Costa Rica has not had an army for over 70 years. Instead the money that would have been spent on defence, goes into education, health and social care. Universal healthcare is available to all citizens, literacy rates are the highest in Central America, and in 2017 Costa Rica was voted the happiest country in the world.
  • Following tropical storm Agatha in 2010, an 18m wide sinkhole appeared in Guatemala City swallowing up a three-storey factory.
  • In the late 17th century, Scotland attempted unsuccessfully to establish a colony in Panama, called Caledonia. They failed due to bad preparation, lack of food, and tropical disease.

 

Religion in Central America

Christianity is widespread in Central America. In the 16th century, the Spanish conquest, brought Roman Catholicism to the continent, and this remains the most common religion, alongside Protestants.

backpacking central america - Church in Nicaragua

Church in Nicaragua – Photo by Cuixin Arguello

Central America travel advice

Before you set off, give yourself plenty of time to renew your passport if it’s only got a few months left to run. You’ll need at least six months validity from the end of your trip, and a few blank pages too. Don’t forget your vaccination records and certificates too. It’s also an idea to bring a print out of your flight details for onward travel too as some countries like to see proof of this.

Never travel without travel insurance. Hopefully you’ll never need it but don’t board that plane without it!

If you plan on hiking or ascending a volcano, make sure you only do so with a guide and plan ahead packing layers and plenty of snacks and water.

Road blocks and protest marches can spring up in Central America, especially in Guatemala and Honduras, without warning, just give them a wide berth and allow extra time for your onward travel.

Is Central America safe?

Although Central America is a popular backpacking route, bear in mind that some countries have a high level of violent crime, and gangs may operate in and around tourist areas. However, if you do your research in advance, and avoid taking unnecessary risks, you’ll be fine. As a general rule for all countries, do not flash your valuables, avoid taking public transport at night, avoid quiet side streets and only use official taxis. Hitchhiking is not advisable in any country. Ask fellow travellers who have just passed through the area for advice. Read on for some more country specific advice.

Guatemala

Most travellers pass through Guatemala without any problems but bear in mind that this is still classed as a dangerous country, and you need to take extra care in Guatemala City, where public buses are best avoided. If you go out at night, do so in a group and don’t stray from the main areas, even in Antigua.

Panama

It’s best to avoid the area near the border with Colombia as this is still a no-go zone for travellers, due to civil unrest.

Costa Rica

Standards of health and safety can vary in Central America, and this is still true for Costa Rica. Always get a recommendation when booking snorkelling or scuba diving trips, and be aware that rip tides can be a risk in some areas. If you’re heading into the jungle, always take a guide.

Honduras

Most people visit Honduras without any problems but it’s a good idea to travel with a reputable company as local buses can be unsafe, especially around Tegucigalpa. Avoid travelling at night and don’t go to the beach after sunset. Don’t flash your phone about or carry large amounts of cash.

Nicaragua

Avoid travelling at night and only use authorised taxis (they have red plates). As with other areas, take the usual precautions, especially around bus stations.

Belize

Belize is generally safe for travellers but muggings can occur. Avoid unwanted attention by leaving your SLR camera and jewellery at home. The border with Guatemala has seen some unrest, so only cross the border at official checkpoints.

El Salvador

It’s best to stay in a safer area if you’re visiting San Salvador, such as San Benito or Santa Elena. If you go out after sundown, only do so in a group, and only carry a small amount of cash.

 

Vaccinations for Central America

Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations at least a couple of months before you travel, as some shots may need a few doses, administered over a few weeks. For Central America you’ll need Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Typhoid, Cholera, Yellow Fever, Tetanus and Rabies. Keep your vaccine record card and your yellow fever certificate with you when you travel as you may be asked to show it when entering the country.

Malaria

There is a small risk of Malaria in Central America, at low lying areas below 1500m. As a general rule antimalarial tablets are not required, however it’s wise to take the usual precautions, like covering up at night and packing a mosquito net and some DEET.

Zika virus and dengue fever

All Central American countries carry a low risk of Zika virus, and Dengue fever.

 

About the author

Gemma Thompson is a writer and broadcaster and specialises in solo female travel. You can find planning tips, city guides and inspiration at girlsthattravel.com.

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