Central America is one of the most affordable and accessible places to explore from the US and Canada. Not only is it a short flight away, but most countries in Central America are affordable and have an established backpacker trail to follow. This means there are hostels, buses and friends to make along the way. Travellers planning a backpacking trip to Central America will want to explore at least 2-3 of these amazing countries.
Located on the east coast of Central America, Belize offers idyllic beaches, blue waters and incredible scenery. Travellers will find it one of the most expensive places to backpack in the region, but it’s still possible to get by on a budget by eating where the locals eat and staying in hostel dorm rooms.
Underrated as a backpacking destination, Guatemala is likely to become a favourite for travellers exploring Central America. With so much to see and do, it’s easy to spend 10 days to a month in Guatemala, seeing everything from Tikal in the north to Lake Atitlan in the south. Most travellers with 1-2 weeks here will fly into Guatemala City and take a taxi to Antigua. From there it’s easy to explore the region with a hike up the Acatenango volcano or a few nights on the peaceful shores of Lake Atitlan.
Honduras has a reputation for being dangerous for tourists, and while there are definitely parts of the country to avoid, the Bay Islands are well worth a visit. Just north of the mainland, these three islands are renowned for their incredible diving and snorkelling. The islands, Roatán, Utila and Guanaja, can be reached by domestic flight from La Ceiba or San Pedro Sula.
Nicaragua is a yogi’s and surfer’s dream destination. Backpackers in Central America can easily spend a month here, exploring the capital, Managua, or the second largest city, León, with its impressive baroque and neoclassical architecture. The colonial city of Granada is a popular tourist destination and well worth a few days if you have the time. The Corn Islands are another must-visit destination in Nicaragua, consisting of two islands about 70km off the east coast of the country. Blue waters and sandy beaches make this a relaxing getaway for diving, snorkelling and sunbathing.
Visit Costa Rica
No longer a hidden gem, Costa Rica has become one of the top holiday destinations for Americans. As a result, prices in Costa Rica are much higher than in other Central American countries, meaning that a meal in an upscale restaurant can cost travellers as much as they would at home. However, there are still ways to explore Costa Rica on a budget, namely by visiting the country’s Caribbean coast rather than sticking to popular tourist spots such as Tamarindo, La Fortuna and Corcovado National Park.
As one of the most biodiverse places on earth, Costa Rica is a unique destination, packed full of wildlife encounters and stunning scenery. From rainforests to sandy beaches, there’s something for everyone.
South of Costa Rica, Panama is as far as travellers can go in Central America before crossing into South America. Panama is perhaps best known for the engineering feat of the Panama Canal, but the country has much more to offer beyond this attraction. Dreamy beaches, the Parque Nacional Soberanía and the heritage site of Old Panama are just some of the exciting attractions in this beautiful country. For the really brave, travellers can even survive for four days on a desert island with Desert Island Survival tours.
El Salvador is a beautiful Central American country situated between Honduras and Guatemala on the Pacific Ocean. It doesn’t get as much tourist attention as Costa Rica or Guatemala, but it has natural beauty and historic buildings to rival those destinations. Travellers visiting El Salvador will want to stay in the western tourist districts of San Salvador. Top attractions include hiking to the volcanic crater in Boqueron National Park and visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador.
Sometimes considered part of North America, Mexico is a huge country and should be included in any Central American backpacking itinerary. It’s a great place to stay on a budget, especially outside the major tourist centres such as Tulum. Oaxaca City is a vibrant destination to explore and Merida, the safest city in the country, is rich in Mayan culture. Backpacking in the Yucatán Peninsula means swimming in cenotes, visiting Mayan ruins and eating delicious Mexican food, all within easy reach of Belize. This makes it easy to head south into Central America after starting in one of the most popular parts of Mexico.