So you want to go to Central America eh?
You’ve come to the right place!
This itinerary will help you plan your route, budget your trip and help you not miss any hidden gems! Keep in mind I did this trip in 3.5 months (105 days) and it seemed rushed at times.
Based off of October 2015 currency 1 CAD = .75 USD
Central American countries
- Guatemala (cheapest) $35 CAD per day
- El Salvador $36 CAD per day
- Nicaragua $37 CAD per day
- Honduras $39 CAD per day
- Mexico $41 CAD per day
- Panama $44 CAD per day
- Belize $45 CAD per day
- Costa Rica (most expensive) $50 CAD per day
*Obviously the budget is going to vary from country to country and what activities you do each day i.e beach days in Nicaragua will cost only a few dollars for beers and food ($10) vs. volcano boarding in Nicaragua + beers + food ($32), These numbers are estimates of my travels through Central America in 2013/2014.
I flew into Cancun, Mexico as it was the cheapest entry point into Central America from Edmonton International
I spent a week in Cancun at a resort with some friends, you can read all about it here.
I’ve been to mexico a few other times with my family but haven’t really stayed out of resort zones so unfortunately I don’t really have much information about Mexico but if you have the time (one month) go check out other parts of mexico which include Chichen Itza, Guadalajara, Mexico city, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo. Keep in mind mexico is huge so bus rides between each city can be long, plan for one or two day stopovers to break up trips.
From Cancun I took a night bus down to Belize city, it leaves at 22:15 and arrives the next morning in Belize city at 06:25. The bus cost about $49 CAD and is operated by ADO, you can book that bus here.
Whenever people ask me what to do in Belize I always tell them the same thing, Skip Belize city and hop on a water taxi straight to the islands. I stayed in Belize city for a night and there wasn’t anything exciting to see and it felt sketchy. Once you get to the Belize city bus station the water taxi port is a few blocks away and can be reached with walking, everyone knows where it is and is very helpful.
In Belize the official language is English so it should be no problems trying to navigate the country. From the water taxi port hop on a the next boat that goes to Caye Caulker, Don’t worry about booking a hostel in advance as there is an abundance of them right when you step off the boat. Ask to check out the rooms and see if anything is up to your standards before handing over your money. There is a wide variety of price points on Caye Caulker and you can stay in water front hostels for a few dollars a night. I stayed at Yuma’s House which was literally the first hostel you see when they drop you off on the island, it wasn’t the greatest place because of the strict rules by the owner but still a fun stay. On Caye Caulker everything is slow moving and you just need to adjust to that, don’t expect anyone to be rushing to get food or drinks to you, they will do it when they want to. I would recommend booking a snorkel trip from Caye Caulker to shark alley which is one of the well know snorkel spots close to Belize reef. (and yes they will chum the water so there are a lot of sharks all around you). If you feel keen on scuba diving, there is the world famous ‘blue hole’ near Caye Caulker and it can be booked at all the dive shops on the island. I did hear from almost everyone that it is highly overrated and overpriced but whats traveling without shelling out some cash to see ‘world famous’ locations.
From Caye Caulker hop on another taxi boat and head to San Pedro which is the bigger more Americanized island. On Caye Caulker you walk everywhere, on San Pedro you drive golf carts everywhere. I only stayed on San Pedro for a night and enjoyed Caye Caulker a lot better because of how small it was and how much more chill it was versus San Pedro. In all I think a few days will suffice for Belize, its very chill and is hard to find things to do every second of everyday but if you have a book and love hammocks, beer and beaches then Caye Caulker is the place for you! Hop on a water taxi back to Belize city where you can book your bus to Flores, Guatemala.
Click here to read my Belize blog posts!
When you arrive in Flores there are a handful of hostel to choose from, the most popular being Los Amigos, that is where i stayed. It is a great hostel with really good people and food, I would recommend it to anyone. exploring the island and checking out the lake are things to do. Most people make sunrise day trips to the ancient ruins of Tikal, you can book any trip with any travel agencies or your hostel. This is a very beautiful city and is a place where you watch the amazing sunset while sipping beers every night.
Catch a bus to the next town of Lanquin, I believe it is an 11 hour bus ride which includes some very basic ferries that can add a few hours. Once in Lanquin i stayed in a hostel called Zephyr Lodge which was amazing, located in the heart of the jungle. If you have the money to cough up for a private room, DO IT, the showers are amazing and overlook the whole jungle. The dorm beds are still a great option, they have a great staff and the hostel bar and restaurant is awesome! You can check out their website here. From Zephyr lodge you can do day trip to Samuc Champey, Go explore caves or float down the river on tubes.
From Lanquin head to Antigua, just west of Guatemala city this town is a great place to explore the parks and get lost in the streets, they have great restaurants and cafes for very cheap. There are many volcanoes surrounding Antigua and there are tours that take you up to the top where you can cook marshmallows. Check out the second hand market before leaving, Extremely good prices and so much selection, you can get whatever you want there, I picked up a leopard print onsies for 2 bucks. From Antigua most people go to lake Atitlan which i heard was beautiful and lots of yoga around the lake, unfortunately I didn’t have time to go there but heard great things from everyone who has been.
If you have time and like surfing go to El Paredon which is on the Pacific side and is the only place to surf in Guatemala, Its expensive if the surf hostel is all booked up and there is no grocery store so everything must be bought from the hotel or hostel, other then those things it was an awesome place with some great non crowded surf.
Click here to read my Guatemala blog posts!
I loved El Salvador and wish I could’ve spent more time here, I only went to one place, El Tunco. It’s a cool little town that gets very busy with locals coming from San Salvador during the weekends so places book up quickly. If you don’t surf you’ll probably spent most of the day hanging out on the beach or by your hostel pool. The nightlife in El Tunco is great on weekends. If you surf you can rent boards on the main street for 10 CAD a day, More experienced surfers go south of the giant rock, everyone else go north. The surf is very busy on the north side of the rock but the surf was one of the best I’ve had. I recommend seeing San Salvador if you have time, unfortunately I have no info on anywhere else in El Salvador.
Click here to read my El Salvador blog posts!
The one country in central america that I didn’t go to! The capital was once known as the deadliest city on earth but things have cleaned up since then. That was not the reason for not going though, I was rushed on time and it just wouldn’t fit into my schedule, but from the travelers I’ve met that have been there they all say good things. One place that everyone always mentions and if you are into scuba diving or would like to get into scuba diving then Utila is the place for you. It is one of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI certification. Also I’ve heard from backpackers that Utila is one of those places where its easy to get stuck, which may sound like a bad thing but its not. Usually what that means is that the people you meet there are awesome, the parties are awesome and everything about the place is awesome and its so hard to leave! I call these places ‘honey holes’ another honey hole is San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua! Anyway I got shown this video while I was talking to someone about Utila and it made me sad i didn’t have time to go there! (and yes the doctor in the video is actually him and everyone goes to him)
Also I heard Roatan is good, and if you’re already in Utila then Roatan is close by!
If you’re coming in from the north then Leon should be your first stop. I stayed at bigfoot hostel which is a really great place, nice dorms, restaurant and party. Leon is know for its volcano boarding, its exactly what it sounds like. They give sleds and coveralls and when you arrive at the volcano you hike up to the top and rip down as fast as you can! its tons of fun and bigfoot will take care of everything for you and gives you a shirt and a beer after you’re done. Be aware of the volcano shot challenge at the hostel, I’ve seen grow men cry! The hostel also has a location just west of Leon on Las Penitas beach and is worth the day trip, you can go surfing there, play ping pong, beach volleyball or just hang out at the pool.
Head to the capital of Managua next, It’s a cool big city with good shopping malls and parks to hang out in. Mostly its just a nice central hub to get anywhere else in the country. Its only worth spending a day or two here before moving on. From Managua I would recommend the corn islands next, if you feel adventurous and have a lot of time take the local route to the islands which will be 40+ hours of buses and boats but a great experience! if you are not keen on that, flights can be taken from Managua international airport for $240 CAD for round trip. I would suggest staying on little corn island as it is smaller and less crowded then big corn island. there are multiple speed boats that can transfer you between islands but keep in mind that if there is a storm or water is too rough these boats will not run and may not start up again for a few days, also the flights will get delayed/cancelled if there is a storm. While I was there we got stuck on little corn for about 4 days because of a storm and we didn’t have power for the whole time, also little corn doesn’t have an ATM so bring enough money to last the whole time, only a few places take credit card and if the power is out they will only take cash. I stayed on the east side of the island but everything is walking distance, if you’re into yoga you can stay in a extremely nice hotel on the north part of the island that was built in 2013 but is the most expensive place on the whole island. I suggest lots of walks exploring the island, stand up paddle boarding, snorkeling and going to the lighthouse! The locals are all very nice and most of them have never left the island in their life!
After you’ve soaked up the sun on the corn islands its time to get back on the mainland and head to Granada. Its situated on the northern tip of lake Nicaragua is a great stopover when heading to Ometepe and San Juan del Sur. From Granada catch a boat to Isla Ometepe, where you can rent quads and rip around the island or climb one of the two volcanos. I was here during Magma fest which was an electronic music festival in the middle of December, if you have a chance to go during this festival it is definitely worth it! I stayed in the middle of the island in between both volcanos at a hostel called Little Morgan’s it had no WiFi or connection to the outside world but i really enjoyed it and a really great staff!
Take a ferry from Ometepe to Rivas then catch a taxi or bus to the little surf town called Popoyo. I stayed at Popoyo beach hostel which was really nice, cooked all my own meals and surfed everyday! If you want to be closer to the surf break then stay at magnificent rock which is right next to the break but a lot more expensive, I stayed almost a week here and it was one of my favorite places.
When you’re done surfing everyday in Popoyo head down to the one of the best honey holes in Central America called San Juan del Sur, home to the famous Sunday funday! I stayed Naked Tiger hostel which is located just outside the town but is very easy to get into town when you want to. This hostel was one of the best in all of central america and knows how to serve guests right, It has a massive pool with an amazing view, great cheap food and drinks and its one of the stops on the Sunday funday pool crawl! During the week hike up to the Jesus statue at the top of the hill, Be lazy on the massive beach or just hang out by the naked tiger pool. Some good day trips include surfing at Maderas beach just north of San Juan or go on a booze cruise fishing trip! This place has loads of things to keep you busy but make sure you leave Sunday open for the pool crawl where you and all the other backpackers go to 4 different hostel pools and party it up! All information for Sunday funday can be found at any hostel.
Read all about my time in Nicaragua here! Next stop Costa Rica!
Note that Costa Rica is the only country in Central America that you need proof of onward travel before entering the country, you can buy bus tickets to other countries at the border.
Welcome to the most expensive country in Central America! First city when you enter from the north is Liberia, don’t stay here just get a bus to Tamarindo right away. Tamarindo is to me the Vegas of Central America, Very Americanized, lots of parties and lots of drinking. I stayed at Pura Vida Hostel which was really awesome, The hostel had a great group of backpackers that I ended up travelling with for about a month! Lots of nightlife in Tamarindo and many things to do such as sunset boat trips which include unlimited drinks and snorkeling (one of the highlights of Costa Rica), surfing during the day and the great food. Remember Costa Rica is very expensive compared the other countries, cooking for yourself will save you money and taking local buses will save money also. If you are traveling in a small group check out car rentals to see if that’s a viable option.
You’ll need to detox after Tamarindo so hop on a bus and head south to Samara. All the towns along the coast on the northern peninsula (Nicoya) have picturesque views and pretty good surf, amazing food and plenty of things to do. Almost every night you can enjoy fires on the beach with other backpackers or stargazing the clear sky. In Nosara you can see hatching baby turtles and in Santa Teresa its amazing beaches, when you go to Montezuma make sure to check out the waterfalls for some fun cliff jumping.
When you’re done with being a beach bum travel inland to Monte Verde for extreme activities! You can go bungee jumping, zip lining and rope swinging. Make sure you check out the cloud rain forest and coffee and chocolate plantations. After you’ve done all that head to Arenal and stay at Arenal Backpackers Resort this place is amazing! While there go check out the hot spring water parks. I also did white water rafting here but it wasn’t that good, it was way better and cheaper in Colombia.
The capital is next, San Jose! I stayed Costa Rica Backpackers and it was again a very nice place with a pool and good location. Not really much to do in San Jose, this is where I caught my bus to go to Panama City to pick up a friend. If you have time I’ve heard Jaco is very nice and also Manuel Antonio, from here you can go across to the other coast and check out Puerto Viejo and stay at Rocking J’s which I’ve heard nothing but good things from. From Puerto Viejo it’s very easy and close to Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Click here to read my Costa Rica blog posts!
If you come in from the north you can easily get to Bocas del Toro, the honey hole of Panama. Bocas is beautiful with lots of things to do, Snorkel trips with stops at private islands, bike rentals for exploring the island and so much more. I stayed at Mondo Taitu while I was there but only because everything else was booked up. There are definitely better places to stay at, I heard good things about Hostel Heike. Go check out the aqua bar one night, really cool ocean bar. Rent a bike and head to Playa bluff, beautiful ride. Don’t miss out on happy hour at Casa Verde where you can float on tubes while enjoying live music, tacos and beers. Also Red Frog beach is a must, don’t forget sunscreen!
Buses to Boquete are daily and travel in panama is easy and comfortable. I stayed at Mamallena hostel right by the towns’ central square. This hostel was nice and comfortable with helpful staff for booking tours, I did the waterfalls hike + mini canyon + hot springs tour for $65 CAD. It’s a little bit pricey but its a full day tour and really cool! The mini canyon is awesome to see and cliff jump off of, also the waterfall hike is very peaceful, I would definitely recommend this tour if you are just passing through for a day or two.
Take a bus to colon via panama city next, colon is just north of panama city on the Caribbean side of panama. You can go zip lining here or go shopping in the mall. If you want total seclusion and your own private beach head east to a little hidden hostel called Morgan Bay Hostel. This place is literally a hidden gem in panama and I’m not sure any people know about it, My friend and I were the only ones there when we went and it didn’t look like anyone had been there in a few months. Just a head up if you do end up going make sure the taxi driver that takes you knows when to pick you up again or get a taxi that will pick you up when you’re checking out because there is no bus out there and hardly any traffic. Also the nearest town is Nuevo Chagres which is a 20 minute walk so grab all groceries and water from there!
When you’re done enjoying you’re private beach at Morgan Bay Hostel head back to colon and look for tours to the San Blas islands, these islands are absolutely beautiful and should not be missed! They have multi day tours, some that have you sleep on the boat and some that you sleep in a tent on the islands. I was continuing on to Colombia from panama so I opted for a 5 day boat trip that spent 2 days island hopping through San Blas which I will recommend to anyone as it was an unforgettable trip! Make sure you look into ratings of different boats and prices, when I went it cost about $550 CAD for the 5 days everything included which is expensive but it was worth it! If you get sea sick easily check out catamarans for a smoother journey. For more information on the boat trip between Panama and Colombia check out www.colombiapanamasailing.com
Once you’re done with island hopping in San Blas get back on the mainland for the final destination of the trip, Panama City! The best place to stay in Panama city is for sure Luna’s Castle Hostel! They can book any tour for you and the bar in the courtyard gets really busy and good most nights and they have really good drink specials, the hostel itself is huge I think it can fit 300+ people. Make sure to check out the fish market while there and don’t miss the canal, it’s mind boggling. I went to the trump tower for lunch which included a nice view and infinity pool. There is also very good shopping malls in Panama city so stock up on souvenirs here!
Click here to read my Panama blog posts!
Flights from Panama City back to Edmonton International are $409 CAD one way.
If you have any questions at all about this itinerary or anything else leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer it! HAPPY TRAVELS!