When you think about backpacking through Central America the first thing that usually comes to mind usually isn’t cities. Instead, it’s usually islands, beaches, and coconuts – at least for me. Which is why one of my first posts was about the best backpacker islands in Central America. But not everyone is like me. Maybe you want to know about the best backpacker cities in Central America instead.
If you’re like me, you probably didn’t put much thought into what the most fun friendly backpacker cities in Central America are until it was too late. You can’t backpack through a region’s most beautiful islands and beaches without having to travel through its modern cities. And for that reason, it wasn’t until I had traveled through a few cities that I started to really appreciate their beauty and cultural differences. That is when I stopped looking at it as a ‘travel day’.
Central America has a wonderful mixture of old and new. Ancient cities with castle walls and modern cities with tons of highrises. There are some cities where you have to travel in the back of a pickup truck for transportation. And there are other cities with modern public transportation systems. Either way, there’s always something to be enjoyed no matter what city you’re visiting.
That’s why we put together this list of the top-rated cities in Central America and let you all vote on it. This list contains Central American cities for all travelers. Whether you’re a luxury traveler or a budget traveler, there is something for you on this list. Actually, it depends on how luxurious you are.
You definitely won't be bored and out of things to do in Antigua, Guatemala. If you're able-bodied and looking for a hike, Acatenango is a life-changing experience where you get to hike a volcano and camp out on the top while you watch another volcano erupt all night. It's certainly not an easy hike but if you think you're up for it then it's an experience of a lifetime. If you're looking for a party, every Saturday night shortly after midnight there's an infamous rave in an abandoned swimming pool. Every week word gets around that the rave is canceled because police broke it up but it never fails. It's a bit of a secret but if you're staying at one of the party hostels like Tropicana or Doozy Koala then you'll be sure to hear about it. If you're looking for something a little more low-key, Antigua is a great spot to take Spanish lessons and Matiox Hostal is a nice, quiet, and friendly hostel that even have a hot tub for when you return from your volcano hike.
Panama City, Panama seems more like a usual American city than the typical Central American city. With its long list of Fortune 500 companies, casinos, Trump Hotel, and streets of luxury fashion stores strong enough to rival that of Beverly Hills; you almost feel a bit out-of-place after leaving Bocas del Toro in flip flops and a swimsuit on a 30-minute water taxi ride before hopping on a 10-hour bus ride from the Caribbean port town of Almirante through the jungles and arriving at bright lights and high-rises, Panama City. Make sure to visit the Panama Canal while you're here and take a ride along the beautiful coastline (shown in the featured image above). If you're looking for a laid-back, casual hostel with a pool, I recommend El Machico Hostel.
I hope you like hot and humid because that's what you're going to get in Leon. It's probably the only place in the world where volcano boarding is the most popular activity for backpackers, and I know why. If you're looking to go volcano boarding there are a lot of companies that offer services and if you're staying at Bigfoot Hostel - I recommend it - then you can book it directly at their front desk. I decided to go with Quetzaltrekkers León because they're the only not-for-profit trekking company in Nicaragua and they donate the proceeds back to the community. Aside from volcano boarding, make sure to visit The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, also known as the "Real and Renowned Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where you can walk on the roof and have a beautiful view of the city; but be sure to wear sunglasses because it's really bright. Try traveling around the city like a local by chicken bus - it's a great experience and costs less than $1. It's bound to remind you of your elementary days in your school bus except this one is colorful, plays loud Spanish music, and looks more like a party bus than a school bus.
Flores, Guatemala was my first city stop in Central America after traveling from Belize's beautiful island, Caye Caulker. Flores is a tiny picturesque town on an island on Lake Petén Itzá. For backpackers, Flores is usually just a one or two night stay while you plan for your day trip to Tikal National Park. If you're going to Tikal, I recommend going for the sunrise tour - yes, you'll have to wake up at 3 am - but you'll witness an unforgettable moment as the wildlife comes alive and the rays of sunshine over Tikal National Park. It's one of the only cities where tuk-tuk is your primary form of transportation. If you're looking for a place to stay, there's no need to look any further than Los Amigos Youth Hostel.
Granada, Nicaragua is a natural stop when you're backpacking through Nicaragua. It's Nicaragua's oldest colonial city and it's a lot more lively than Nicaragua's capital, Managua. Isletas de Granada, a group of 365 small islands located in Lake Nicaragua, is the Granada's most popular tourist attraction and it's a beautiful sight to see. The Treehouse Nicaragua is a one-of-a-kind hostel hidden in the trees in the Nicaraguan jungle that you'll sure what to experience. They have weird operating hours so check their schedule with the days that you plan on being in Granada and see if they align.
Home to one of the longest zip lines in the world - and you can go Superman style - Monteverde is a great place to enjoy the jungle and the beautiful nature that Costa Rica has to offer. If you're into adventure sports this is a great place for you. There are tons of zip line tours, hanging bridge tours, and much more.
San José is usually just a stopover when you need to get in or out of Costa Rica and it's not the most exciting city but there's definitely still much to see and explore. There are a few main attractions that tourist usually visit in San José, the National Theatre of Costa Rica, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the La Sabana Metropolitan Park are a few of the most popular but I didn't personally visit any so I can't recommend them. There's a new Selina hostel in San José - along with everywhere else in Costa Rica - and Selina has a pretty reputation for high-quality in my book.
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