Central America is an amazing part of the world to travel. But there are also some big differences between each country, and most travellers end up having some clear favorites.
I felt this was different from travelling in other parts of the world like Southeast Asia. In Asia you can go to pretty much any country and find lots of fascinating things there. In Central America, it can be hit or miss. For instance, I got very excited about Guatemala, but then neighboring Honduras felt like a bit of a dud.
When you’re planning your trip, it’s worth knowing about the differences between each country. There’s a big element of subjectivity to this of course. But by speaking with lots of other backpackers in Central America, I do often hear similar opinions (for instance, I’m not the first traveller to love Guatemala!).
Price differences can also be quite strong between Central American countries, which is something else be aware of. Costa Rica and Belize are much more expensive for example. I’ve included some cost estimates in the country summaries further below.
TIP: For detailed advice on trip preparation including route
Why you should go
- Amazing natural beauty. Whether it’s rainforests, tropical beaches, lava-spewing volcanoes or massive lakes you are after, Central America has them in spades.
- Home of ancient Mayan ruins. Explore ancient archeological sites in Mexico, Gautemala and Honduras, some of which are monumental in size while others are smaller and tucked deep in the jungles, making you feel like Indiana Jones making a new discovery.
- Cheap (with some exceptions). Central America is easy to travel on a backpacker budget, though with some caveats: read along and find out which countries are the most affordable.
- Relatively compact. The region follows a narrow strip which means your next destination is usually no more than one bus ride away. Other travellers are typically heading in one of two directions, north or south, making it easy to make friends on the trail.
- Carribean on a budget. The often less-visited Carribean side of Central American countries offers a great opportunity to enjoy Carribean beaches and, say, enjoy some fresh lobster at a cost much lower than the more high-end Carribean destinations (such as the Bahamas) that are visited by many cruise ships.
Overview of Central America. The dashed line shows where most people travel, though there are of course plenty of other ways to travel the region.
If you have at least 2 or 3 weeks:
- A popular shorter-term itinerary is to travel through (primarily Oaxaca, San Cristobal, Palenque and the Yucatan peninsula) followed by (primarily for the ruins of Tikal and Lake Atitlan). It’s a popular route as it allows you to circle back to Mexico from Guatemala and fly back out from there, and about 3 weeks should be enough to cover this area at a minimum.
- Another popular shorter-term itinerary is to fly in and out of, a country which has most of its sights conveniently in the southwest near the Costa Rican border.
If you have at least 1½ months:
- Why not cover the whole region? Start either in Mexico or in Panama City and work your way to the other end. Backpacking the Gringo Trail through Central America is doable in 1, 5 months minimum as the region is quite compact, though you can easily stretch it to 3-4 months if taking it slow (or when seeing more of Mexico than just the southeast).
Getting in & out
Central America is lacking the budget airline presence that exists in other regions of the world. Overland travel is often the best option. Many travellers get in/out via the Mexico City or Cancun airports as these typically have the cheapest flight connections, and in/out via Panama if backpacking the whole region.
Look for flights out of Miami Int’l Airport or nearby Fort Lauderdale Airport. These are the de facto hubs for the region, and budget airlines like Spirit do have connections from here to many Central American capitals. If you want to fly between Central American cities you may often find that flying via Florida is cheaper than going directly.
Many travel the Americas following the so-called Gringo trail (a loose trail of countries which extends further south through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, etc.). If you are attempting to travel between Panama and Colombia, know that there’s a huge stretch of impenetrable (and dangerous) jungle here called the Darien Gap, making overland travel impossible. Even the Panamerican highway just stops. I can very much recommend sailing between Panama and Colombia instead of flying as it costs about as much and you’ll get an amazing 5 days of tropical island hopping.
(Technically Mexico is mostly part of North America, but included here for convenience.)
Cost: medium (-40 a day–budget more if covering great distances as bus travel adds up, or of course if staying in tourist resort towns)
Highlights: countless Mayan ruins, the cuisine (delicious streetfood is widely available, restaurant cuisine is excellent as well), beaches, caves in Yucatan, spectacular Copper Canyon in northern Mexico
Lowlights: some overly commercialised beach resorts, a handful of places with a bad reputation (primarily Acapulco, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua)
I got my first impressions of Mexico while road-tripping from the south to the north, and I was struck by the diversity of the landscapes. In the far south you can find dense jungles and lush green valleys, the Yucatan peninsula has many wetlands, while it’s mostly vast deserts in the north.
Church in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas state
The country is huge which intimidated me a bit during my planning stages. The Lonely Planet opened with not just the usual 10 or so “must see” places but with a whopping 40!
If Mexico feels like you’re biting off more than you can chew, it helps to focus your trip research on individual states. For example, if you like food and culture, Oaxaca is a great state to look at. Yucatan is more about beaches. As far as the typical backpacker trail goes, it runs mostly through the south-east part of the country.
Mexico ends up being a starting point for many Central America backpackers due to cheap flight connections there. Flights to Cancun are particularly inexpensive, though don’t stay in Cancun too long if you don’t like hyper-touristy places. I usually recommend skipping the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza as well. Chichen Itza gets hyped up a lot, but other Mayan ruins are honestly much more worthwhile. (Be sure to check out Palenque in Mexico, or Tikal in Guatemala.)
Beach in Tulum, Yucatan state
Cost: low ($25-30)
Highlights: too many to mention!
Lowlights: Guatemala City has a poor reputation for safety, so most people concentrate their time elsewhere