If you’re planning a backpacking trip in Central America, you’re in for a treat! However, deciding which countries will make your itinerary can be tricky, with each one having so much to offer. In this brief destination overview, I’ll detail the highlights of each country to help you make a more informed decision when planning your trip to Central America…
Throw a great helping of Spanish colonial influence into the base of a still thriving and ancient Maya culture and you end up with the fascinating and distinct flavour of Guatemala. The land itself is beautiful – sprinkled liberally with imposing volcanoes (more than 30 of them in fact) and peppered with Mayan archaeological sites of great global significance. Guatemala is a great place to learn Spanish for two reasons – the prices for 1:1 tuition are as low as you will find anywhere in Central America and because many Guatemalans – who retain one of the twenty plus indigenous languages as their mother-tongue – speak a slower, simpler Spanish as a second language.
Lake Atitlan – a tranquil sacred lake surrounded by three towering volcanoes with a smattering of Mayan villages dotted around its perimeter. Most backpackers stay in either the tiny alleys and cascading terraces of San Pedro with a wide choice of bars, cafes, restaurants and hostels or San Marcos. The latter has a distinct hippy vibe – the kind of laid-back folks who come here are drawn by all kinds of esoteric themed establishments along with yoga retreats by the score.
Antigua – this mostly well-preserved but in places evocatively crumbling colonial town full of colourful buildings is ringed by volcanoes. It is possible to hike up Volcano Pacaya from here.
Tikal – this impressive pyramid clustered site is so large it is almost impossible to take in the scale of everything. Surrounded by dense jungle, the ruins don’t have to try very hard to create a highly evocative atmosphere. Take a tour for the once-in-a-lifetime chance of sitting atop an ancient pyramid as the sun rises and the howler monkeys in the jungle – sounding for all the world like roaring t-rex – greet the dawn.
Semuc Champey – imagine pools of an impossible turquoise spilling down the hillside in a series of swimmable pools along with a spectacular waterfall and you have just pictured Semuc Champey. You can hike to a lookout point, laze the day away at the pools or sign up for a candlelit, half swim/half crawl caving adventure tour which many cite as their favourite Guatemalan experience.
Flores – a tiny island of picturesque cobbled streets joined to the mainland by a drive-able bridge, Flores is the jumping off point to access Tikal but is worth a visit in its own right.
Rio Dulce – ostensibly an emerald tinged river with one of Central America’s largest bridges spanning the gap between the twin towns of Fronteras and El Relleno. However, Rio Dulce is so much more than this, surrounded as it is with a wealth of sites to see and amazing experiences to be had. Go swimming in Lake Izabel, bask in the Caribbean vibe represented by the colourful Garifuna people of Livingston, hike the jungle trail to Finca Paraiso hot springs waterfall, hop on a boat for a canyon tour or go in search of the shy manatee.
Belize, with its official language of English, truly throws a little of everything into its cultural mix and has a distinct half Latino/half Caribbean vibe. Most activities and major destinations here tend to be dotted around the coast and its hundreds of cayes (islands), not least of all because Belize has world-class diving and snorkelling. Exploration of the lush inland jungles is widely offered by horseback or trekking while some come here to get their kicks below ground with some of the longest caving systems found anywhere on the planet.
The Blue Hole – arguably one of the best and most fascinating dive sites in the world.
Caye Caulker – the most accessible and backpacker budget friendly of the stunning cayes found here.
Actun Tunichil Muknal – come prepared for a little water, grab yourself a guide and let yourself be enchanted by these stunning caves complete with Mayan history
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary – a must for all lovers of the natural world and its wildlife.
Maya ruins – these can be found at Altun Ha, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Xunantunich and Caracol. This last is the country’s largest and home to the imposing Sky Palace Pyramid.
Although mountainous Honduras can offer colonial towns, Mayan sites, plenty of trekking and hiking opportunities, good white-water rafting on the Rio Cangrejal and national parks sure to satisfy the most discerning of nature lovers, the main reason the majority of travellers arrive here is for one reason alone – the Bay Islands. Honduras has two coastlines – a Pacific and a Caribbean; on the latter side can be found what represents for many people the picture postcard perfect representation of a tropical idyll. It also just happens to have the second largest coral reef on earth and – gorgeous beach lazing aside – has learn-to-dive opportunities offered at as-low-as-they-get prices.
The Bay Islands – a true Mecca for divers and all those looking to get certified at budget-friendly prices, these islands – Utila, Roatan and Guanaja – are also paradise for snorkellers, kayakers, hikers and anyone wanting to embrace their inner beach-bum
Copan – one of Central America’s most celebrated Mayan sites known particularly for its well-preserved sculpture examples.
Cusuco National Park – tours to explore this verdant cloud forest in the mountains depart from San Pedron Sulo where adventure offerings include going all Tarzan in jungle waterfalls and night treks for enhanced wildlife spotting.
Gracias and Comayagua – tranquil towns for all those interested in colonial architecture. Parque Celaque can be accessed from Gracias.
Lake Yojoa – bordered by two rainforest/cloudforest national parks, this large lake is also home to the series of lovely falls known as Pulhapanzak Waterfall. Keep your eyes peeled downwards for armadillos and upwards for the ever-noisy exotic macaws.
El Salvador is both the smallest of the Central American countries as well as the least developed from a tourism point of view. However, here you can find a little bit of everything offered elsewhere throughout Central America – volcanoes, dramatic landscapes, surfing, diving, trekking opportunities both gentle and hard-core and a host of lovely beaches and lagoons.
Parque Nacional Cerro Verde and Parque Nacional El Impossible – Ecuador maybe small but it has still managed to lay claim to one of Central America’s largest national parks – the beautiful El Imposible.
San Andreas, Cihuatan and Joya de Ceren – the country’s main Mayan sites
Suchitoto – beautiful and well-preserved cobbled colonial town best known for its wedding cake-like church and picturesque surroundings.
La Libertad – this region is home to the country’s best surf beaches and has opportunities for the complete novice through to the kamikaze wave-riding set.
The largest of the Central American countries by land mass, Nicaragua is perhaps the region’s most current success story, enjoying a steady up and up rise as a backpacker go-to destination. The ‘volcanoes everywhere’ theme continues here as do the opportunities for immersing yourself in nature, surfing and trekking as well as exploring both coffee and cigar-making industries.
San Juan del Sur – the centre of operations for the surf set and the party crowd.
Granada – photo opportunities abound in this beautifully preserved colonial town with its ochre yellow cathedral, palm-dotted central plaza and pedestrian calzada which leads down to the lake. Kayaking around the islands of the vast lake is popular here.
Leon – another colonial town but with more of a crumbling air than its more polished cousin – Granada. Many people find this incredibly appealing and authentic.
Rio San Juan – rainforests come no bigger than this on the whole continent until you head south to the Amazon so expect plenty of nature immersion delivered with a sensitivity to eco-tourism.
The Corn Islands – Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island – tropical idylls.
Matagulpa – set amid picturesque mountain scenery, Matagulpa offers – in no particular order – photo opportunities galore, wildlife spotting including monkeys, horseback riding with a constant feast-for-the eyes backdrop, coffee farm and cigar factory tours, diverse musical offerings, a break from the oppressive lowland heat and hiking.
As Central America’s most long established tourist destination, Costa Rica offers just about everything you can imagine although some argue that over-development and ever-soaring prices have impacted negatively on the amazing natural immersion experience it once was.
Nevertheless, nature is incredibly accessible here with plenty of jungle, rainforest/cloud forest and national park land and as a result nature tourism is huge. This means plenty of opportunity for self or guided hikes and tours to feast your senses with a wide variety of wildlife spotting experiences – from tiny poisonous tree frogs to vividly coloured toucans and from fast moving monkeys to slow moving sloths.
Also on the menu are volcanoes, white-water rafting, kayaking, surfing and mountain biking. The country’s fun and adventure menu is too extensive to name everything but luckily the infrastructure is so well-established that all you need to do is take yourself to any destination on the Costa Rican map to find yourself instantly amid a whole possibility of experiences.
National parks – at last count there were nine of these and include the ever-popular Manuel Antonio National Park with its luscious beaches and incredibly diverse wildlife.
The Caribbean side – Tortuguero and Puerto Limon – a totally different vibe abounds on the country’s Caribbean side and is worth a visit for this reason alone. Adventure by boat along the jungle-surrounded weaving waterways for a never-to-be-forgotten nature experience where you can visit isolated waterside villages in which time appears to have stood still.
Panama is another of the Central American countries to which more and more travellers are pointing their backpacking compass. Little wonder – it has mountains, rainforest, beautiful beaches with great surfing, diving and snorkelling, hundreds of rivers delivering world-class white water rafting opportunities, a wealth of zip-line set-ups for those who like a bird’s eye view and lots more. Its infrastructure makes it very easy to get around and take in a great deal of what is on offer in a relatively short space of time.
The Panama Canal – travel its length by train, cross it by boat or just take in a view from one of the look-out points. Whichever you choose, no visit to Panama is complete without experiencing this historical iconic feat of engineering in some way.
Bocas del Toro – Party central for beach-loving backpackers.
Coiba National Marine Park – rare marine species abound both in and out of the water here – a must for nature lovers.
Casco Antigua – a fascinating mix of Spanish colonial along with Caribbean and French influences with a smattering of Art Deco style thrown in for good measure, make this UNESCO listed city a popular stop for travellers.
Boquete – home to Volcan Baru and dubbed the Panamanian adventure capital, Boquete offers – among other things – white-water rafting, zip lining and rock-climbing.
Natural hot springs and thermal pools – quite a few to choose from but some great options around Boquete particularly.
Safety in Central America
Typically speaking, Central America’s well-beaten tourist trails throughout all of its countries are safe and relatively hassle free. Larger cities, like practically everywhere in the world, can be more challenging and greater caution is needed. There are areas in some of the bigger cities which are off-limits for foreigners so ask around for advice or check the recommendations at your hostel.
Some of the Central American countries have a greater risk of robbery and/or theft with violence; Honduras typically tops the crime statistics here but there are pockets everywhere such as the lesser trodden paths of some of Guatemala and the border area in Panama’s south.
Not all Central American countries are created equal when it comes to budgeting. Scaling the heights of cleaning out your bank balance the fastest comes Costa Rica by quite a big margin. All costs – from dorm beds in hostels to national park entrance fees – are higher here than elsewhere and sometimes way higher.
Belize is also starting to outpace its other regional cousins for higher costs. This is mainly due to its
increasing popularity with wealthy holidaying/non back-packer set North Americans who it would appear have grown bored of Costa Rica.
The rest of the countries are of similar budget-friendly levels although it can depend which part of the country you are in with larger city prices typically a little more inflated than rural areas.
Lots of travellers traverse the length and breadth of Central America with little more Spanish than ‘una cerveza por favor’. However, getting to grips with the language, at least at a basic level, will profoundly alter and enhance the type of experience you are likely to have here.
Within Costa Rica English speakers are not difficult to find making it the easiest of the Central American destinations from a language perspective. English is the official first language of Belize but don’t let that fool you into thinking you are going to understand everything if you speak English; the dialect differences can make it almost to totally incomprehensible at times.
Otherwise, don’t expect to find too much English spoken within Central America even in the well-established tourist destinations.