From the calm surf of the Caribbean on the east coast, to the gnarly breaks of the Pacific on the west, the beaches of Central America make for stellar backpacking territory. And there’s plenty more wedged in between.
Whether you want to sandboard down a steaming volcano in Nicaragua, explore a cloudforest in Costa Rica, watch the sunrise over ancient Maya sites in Guatemala, or hike through the thick Panamanian jungle, the slim waist of the Americas offers plenty of adventure.
Here are eight tips to help you get the best out the region’s seven countries.
1. Pick your countries wisely
Sometimes saving a few bucks is as simple as hopping from one playa to the next. But if you’re selective about the countries on your hit list you stand to pocket a whole lot more change. Costa Rica and Panama consistently rank among the most expensive countries in the area, alongside English-speaking Belize, leaving Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras among the cheaper choices.
2. Know your accommodation options
Hostels and homestays are plentiful in these parts, but if you fancy spending the odd night somewhere more swish, bear in mind that most destinations in Central America are yet to capitalise on the trend for flashpacker-style hostels. There can be a hefty price gap between a dorm bed and a boutique abode.
3. Gorge on local produce
Chocolate, rum, coffee, cheese – you might just be surprised at the array of prime produce Central America’s rich soil nurtures. And best of all, you can go straight to the source. Forget savouring a cup of Guatemala’s single-origin espresso from your local coffee shop, or devouring a bar of Costa Rican chocolate at your desk. Here a number of local entrepreneurs offer wallet-friendly tours of cacao farms and coffee plantations with free tastings thrown in for good measure.
4. Stay safe
Still hear stories about how parts of Central America are a lawless, cocaine-cloaked gangland? They belie just how much progress has been made in the region since the slew of revolutions and civil wars that marred much of the 80s.
However, some cities – notably San Pedro Sula in Honduras and San Salvador in El Salvador – have not kept pace and remain among the world’s most dangerous. Exercise caution when travelling through the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which has gained notoriety of late. And use your common sense when it comes to safety throughout the region: take only registered taxis, keep up to date with travel warnings, heed the advice of locals, don’t flaunt valuables and don’t walk home alone after dark.
5. Prepare for the borders
Talk to any backpacker that’s ventured around this isthmus and chances are they might air a grumble or two over border crossings. Long queues, a maze of checkpoints and a sea of touts are typically the key ingredients in this headache-inducing jig. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A little patience and a liberal dose of preparation can pay dividends. Remember that each and every country will have their own fees and regulations when it comes to entering and exiting (such as providing printed proof of onward travel and/or proof of funds), and these are subject to change. Checking the requirements ahead of time is key. Consult your Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget and utilise the mine of blogs and forums online for further tips.
6. Fly open-jaw
The distances may seem miniature when compared to North and South America, but don’t be fooled; getting around this linchpin of land can gobble up a surprising amount of time. Cheap local buses seem to stop in every one-horse town, while many private ones operate infrequently and fill up sometimes weeks in advance.
To make the most out of your itinerary fly into one country and out of another. There’s often little to no difference in cost, yet you can maximise your time instead of backtracking.
7. Bypass the capitals
They might harbour great cultural assets and offer an insight into local life, but for the most part Central America’s capital cities are more dangerous and less memorable than their countryside counterparts, and it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll prove the highlight of your trip.
After all, it’s the smoking fumaroles of Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano, the sun-dappled fine sand of Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and the mesmerising navy eye of Belize’s Great Blue Hole that grace Pinterest boards – not traffic jams in Panama City.
Plus, with direct flights from several US cities to more rural gateways such as Liberia in Costa Rica and Roatán in Honduras, there’s now little need to spend even a fraction of your trip in any concrete jungle.
8. Travel solo
There are plenty of destinations across the globe that make solo travellers, particularly women, stop and question whether to take the leap. But Central America shouldn’t be one of them. For starters, there is no dress code to adhere to, and the compact nature of the region means you’d be hard pressed to wind up alone and unsafe in a remote corner. You’ll also spot plenty of local and foreign women going about their business solo, so you’re unlikely to stand out.