Backpacking Central America is one of the best ways to experience backpacking for the first time, especially for Americans. Central America is only a short flight away ✈️. You can even drive if you live close enough to the Mexican border and want to start your trip in Mexico 🇲🇽.
Another reason why Central and South America are such good regions for Americans to backpack is that the time difference is only one hour apart 🕕. If you’re a digital nomad then this might be really important to you depending on what sort of work you do. For non-Americans, backpacking Central America is still an amazing experience and I’ll tell you all the reasons why in this travel guide.
This guide will take you through the best Central America backpacking routes. Then it’ll show you several different Central America travel itineraries that we’ve built for you to choose from. There is an itinerary for just about every length of long-term travel. We’ll walk you through a country breakdown of every country in Central America. Finally, we’ll recap and link to related sources and hopefully give you all the information you need for backpacking Central America. I’m jealous of you 😳.
Table of Contents 📖
- Central America Backpacking Routes
- Central America Travel Itineraries
- Central America Country Breakdowns
Central America Backpacking Routes
When backpacking Central America, its best to stick to what is referred to as The Gringo Trail. Basically, it’s the most popular backpacking spots along Central America – and any region that is commonly backpacked. If it’s your first time backpacking then The Gringo Trail is certainly where you want to stay. If you have a few months and want to backpack all of Central America then I recommend starting in Belize and going south. Again, you can start in Mexico if you have the time but I didn’t include it here because it’s North America.
I recommend backpacking north to south instead of south to north for a few reasons.
- This way your next destination will naturally be South America when you’re ready.
- It’s usually the more popular route and you’ll likely meet more people who’re going the same direction as you.
- Flights into Cancún and Belize City are usually the cheapest.
Central America Travel Itineraries
Backpacking Central America can mean very different things depending on how much time you have to ‘backpack’. As a general rule of thumb, expect it to take longer than you planned for. Unless you book all of your transportation in advance and rigorously stick to a schedule, which I don’t recommend, you’ll end up wandering off your route to one or two islands or beach towns you’d never heard of before.
I did a lot of research before my trip and estimated that I’d be through Mexico and Central America in 8 – 10 weeks. It ended up taking me 13 weeks; 4 weeks for Mexico alone. I can’t even remember how many places I went to that I’d never heard until one or two days before I was en route. But I always came back to my original route. It’s always important to have a rough outline to follow. The Gringo Trail.
I recommend this all the time and I’ll continue to do so. Book your first two or three nights at a really great hostel in your first location. Two nights if you’re really unsure about hostel life and backpacking. Three nights gives you more time to make new friends and explore the city. What’s important is that with only three nights booked, you’re not stuck there when everyone decides to leave after only two nights. If you really want to go with them you can afford to lose the price of one night. Do research on HostelWorld to make sure you’re booking a hostel that is right for you.
That’s it, you don’t need to book any other hostels before your trip. You shouldn’t have a place booked for your second or third location. You’re going to learn about new locations and hostels from the people you meet. There’s nothing worse than wanting to travel with an amazing group of friends you just met but not being able to because you have to fulfill plans you pre-committed to that are too expensive to back out of 💸.
2 Weeks Backpacking Central America Itinerary: Caye Caulker, Belize to Antigua, Guatemala
If you only have two weeks to backpack Central America and you want to spend it sunbathing on an island 🏝️, visiting a national park, climbing a volcano 🌋 and raving at a pool party. Then this two week Central America itinerary is for you. You’ll hit Caye Caulker, Belize – Flores, Guatemala (Tikal National Park), and either Lanquin, Guatemala (Semuc Champey) or Antigua, Guatemala (Acatenango).
Two weeks isn’t much time so this is only a minor piece of the larger Central America backpacking route but it is still an amazing experience. You’ll have to move quickly but you’ll have the time of your life if you plan it correctly. You won’t have much freedom so you should have more than just a general idea of where you’re going to stay and what you want to do.
If you fly into Belize City or Cancun, Mexico you’ll have a short journey to Belize’s islands. Spend a few days snorkeling and enjoying the beaches and then head to Flores, Guatemala to visit Tikal National Park 🏞️. After only one or two nights in Flores make the trip to either Lanquin or Antigua. Lanquin is home to Semuc Champey, while Antigua is where you’ll go hiking volcano Acatenango 🌋. (I describe this more in detail below).
If you follow this two week Central America itinerary you’ll strike a great balance between snorkeling, trekking, and sightseeing. Backpacking Central America will open your eyes to new experiences and you’ll want to stay longer.
4 Weeks Backpacking Central America Itinerary: Caye Caulker to Utila, Honduras
With four weeks to backpack Central America, you can start with the two week Central America itinerary above. However, you won’t have to decide between seeing Semuc Champey or climbing Acatenango. In addition, you’ll have two weeks to explore more of Guatemala, visits the islands of Honduras, and possibly make it to Nicaragua.
With an additional two weeks in Central America, you’ll now have time to do the overnight hike of Acatenango. You also won’t have to rush. After Antigua, you can head down to Lake Atitlán and stay in San Pedro for a night. Do some yoga 🧘 on the lake and hang out with the hippies for a couple of nights.
After Guatemala, you can decide if you want to go to Honduras, El Salvador, or Nicaragua. Either decision is going to be a long journey but I recommend going to Utila, Honduras and spending one week getting your PADI 🤿. If you’re more of a surfer than a diver then I recommend going to El Tunco, El Salvador and catching some waves 🌊 on the Pacific Coast. (I describe this more in detail below).
I don’t recommend skipping both Honduras and El Salvador because the drive overland would be too long and flying would be too expensive.
6 Weeks Backpacking Central America Itinerary: Belize to Costa Rica
With a month and a half to backpack Central America, you have enough time to do everything mentioned about without having to decide between Honduras or El Salvador. You can spend a full week getting your PADI in Honduras before heading to the Pacific Coast of El Salvador to catch some waves 🌊. This would add a significant amount of time though as they are on opposite coasts.
Instead of going to El Salvador to surf 🏄♂️, you can head directly to León, Nicaragua for some volcano boarding. You can also spend an extra week in your favorite location practicing your Spanish. There are tons of Spanish schools along the Gringo Trail that offer weekly rates.
You’ll still have some time to venture beyond León if you decide to skip on out some of the aforementioned activities. Afterwards, you can head to either Granada, Ometepe islands, an Juan del Sur, or Costa Rica.
8 Weeks Backpacking Central America Itinerary: Belize to Panama
With two months in Central America, you may have enough time to see everything but you’d be pretty rushed. You won’t have the leisure of lamping around with the other backpackers and deciding where to go next but you will be able to go if you’ve planned it in advance.
The best thing to do is think about what you really want to do in Central America. What are you looking to get out of your trip? You must already have some places that you absolutely can’t miss. I know I did and I made sure I didn’t miss them. But I didn’t rush things at all and that’s what made it special. I’ve rushed trips before and they weren’t great.
With Costa Rica and Panama left you’ll have to decide which destinations are most important to you. Costa Rica has so many different destinations in itself that it could take up a full two weeks. Likewise, Panama could fill a two weeks itinerary itself. But if you cut out some of the aforementioned destinations and customize everything to your liking I’m sure you’ll have enough time to see just about everything. (I describe Costa Rica and Panama more in detail below).
Completely Backpacking Central America Itinerary: Belize to Panama
It took me 13 weeks to completely backpack Central America. I know that everyone goes at their own pace and everyone wants to see and do different things. So by no means am I saying that it will take you this long. I’m just saying it as a reference. I thought it would take me two months to see and do everything that I wanted to do. But then I met so many people along the way and did so many things I’d never even thought of. And I’m glad that I did all of those things.
With no time restraints and limits, you’ll be able to comfortably explore everything that Central America has to offer. You can spend three weeks in Costa Rica exploring the jungles and beaches. You can go to the most remote islands of Panama where there are no inhabitants. Your chances of having serendipitous encounters with people you met three countries ago will increase. ‘Cause who doesn’t love those. Running into a drunk friend 🍻 is always a good time.
Go to the far away corners and remote villages. Go off the beaten path a little bit and travel differently. Spend some time with the locals. Learn about the cultures and traditions.
Central America Country Breakdowns
Central America is made up of seven countries situated along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean Sea coastlines. Although all seven countries are closely related, there are vast differences between them. For instance, Nicaragua is a lot cheaper than Costa Rica but Costa Rica has a much more modern transportation system. Some countries and cities, in particular, are a lot safer than others. For that reason, it’s important that you at least stick to some sort of route and know your surroundings.
Belize has some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its crystal-clear calm Caribbean waters are packed with a variety of marine life, including sharks, stingrays, turtles, and more. You’ll want to make sure you go snorkeling while you’re here. As a matter of fact, Belize’s islands offer the best snorkeling and spearfishing you’ll find while backpacking Central America. Not to mention, Belize is home to one of the most popular backpacker islands in the world, Caye Caulker.
Aside from Caye Caulker, Belize has hundreds 💯 of other islands you can visit and they’re all just as beautiful. Beautiful as they may be, they’re not quite like Caye Caulker in the sense that they’re not backpacker islands. Then again, I do recommend you visit some other islands if you have the time. Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island, is home to the village of San Pedro, which offers great restaurants, bars, and nightlife. Although it’s a bit more pricey than Caye Caulker, it’s worth it if you have the time.
There isn’t much for backpackers in Belize City but it is Belize’s transportation hub so it’s likely that you’ll pass through it. In general, Belize is a bit more expensive than most other Central American countries but it’s still relatively cheap.
Guatemala is one of the most popular backpacker countries in Central America. Its vast terrain offers something for just about everyone. Its lustrious jungle allows for the perfect getaway retreat to one of its famous landmarks, such as Tikal National Park or Semuc Champey. In addition to its jungles, Guatemala has beautiful black-sand beaches along its Pacific coastline and white sand beaches on its tiny slice of Caribbean coastline.
Furthermore, the major cities of Guatemala City, Antigua, and Granada give you a glimpse of Guatemala’s many different cultures, traditions, and ways of living. Enjoy modern living in the capital city of Guatemala City – the largest city in Central America (2.45 million) – or take a stroll down memory lane in the old city of Antigua.
Did I forget to mention that Guatemala has thirty-seven volcanoes 🌋; more than any other country in Central America? The most famous volcanoes are Volcán de Fuego, Volcán Atitlán, and Acatenango, which you can hike to watch Volcán de Fuego explore all night.
Guatemala is certainly safe for backpackers but you need to be smart, I won’t call it common sense. Every business in Antigua has a security guard outside with a shotgun so it’s safe to say that it’s not exactly safe. And when I say every business I literally mean every gas station, Domino’s 🍕, Little Caesar’s 🍕, etc., As a rule of thumb, don’t walk the streets at night – especially with your backpack 🎒. If your shuttle leaves at 4 am, make sure it picks you up at your hostel, not a gas station down the street.
I’m not going to lie and try to sugarcoat it. A large portion of Honduras and El Salvador is unsafe for tourists. With that being said, the islands – the best part IMHO – are completely safe to travel to. Utila and Roatán are the two most popular backpacker islands in Honduras, respectively.
Make sure that you have reliable transportation to the islands and have it planned correctly. The boats stop running around 5 p.m. and if you miss the boat you’ll have to spend the night in an unpleasant city such as La Ceiba. Trust me, I know from experience.
Don’t Travel During Semana Santa
My trip from Antigua, Guatemala to Utila, Honduras (normally 13 to 14 hours) was a complete nightmare and I hope yours isn’t as well. I had the bad luck of getting caught traveling during Semana Santa, a.k.a Holy Week 🙏, and things went a little something like this:
More than 1 million visitors flocked to the Antigua, Guatemala. All the transportation got booked up. Instead of a direct shuttle to La Ceiba, I got stuck on a public transportation bus that stops at every city along the way. One of those cities was San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, even though I told myself I wouldn’t go there. They told me no more buses were running and I almost got stuck in San Pedro Sula for the night. Luckily, I got out but I did get stuck in La Ceiba for the night. I finally made it to Utila the next day. Don’t make the same mistake as me. Plan in advance.
Utila is one of the cheapest places in the world to receive your PADI scuba certification. There aren’t many hostels on this island that aren’t also dive centers. So if you’re not scuba diving yourself, book with someone who is so you get a group rate.
El Salvador 🇸🇻
I never made it to El Salvador for a few reasons, though I wish I had. The main reason is the geography of Honduras and El Salvador.
Being parallel to each other, it’s the first time during The Gringo Trail where you have to decide which country you want to go to. Normally, everyone just packs up and heads to the country immediately below or above you, depending on if you’re traveling north or south. But with Honduras and El Salvador, some backpackers skip them entirely, and the rest choose one country. Certainly, you can go to both but you’re looking at a 20+ hour journey from the Caribbean Islands of Nicaragua to the Pacific islands of San Salvador. And the journey across the mainland isn’t the safest journey to take. And then you’re looking at another 20+ to get the next backpacker spot on The Gringo Trail.
The question it usually comes down to is: scuba diving or surfing? If you want to Scuba then you go to Utila, Honduras. If you want to surf then you go to El Tunco, El Salvador.
El Tunco has three main surf spots in front of the town, El Sunzal, La Bocana & Bocanita. Further up the coast is the popular backpacker surfing spot of El Zonte. El Zonte is known for its nice breaks – but I’m not a surfer so what do I know.
There’s something about Nicaragua that I can’t quite explain in words. It’s something so different but yet so similar. Something that you can’t explain, but lasts with you in memory.
The first major place in Nicaragua that you want to make sure to hit is the colonial city of León where you can go volcano boarding down Cerro Negro and visit the Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Secondly, take a trip down to the Granada if you have the time and would like to see another city. Otherwise, head to the calm quiet island Ometepe to relax and ride scooters for a few days. Lastly, wild out a little bit in the party beach town of San Juan del Sur. And do some surfing while you’re there… If you’re really big into surfing, check out the Pacific beach town Popoyo. They’ve known for some of the best barrel waves in the world.
Rainy Season is Mango Season
I was fortunate enough to be in Nicaragua at the beginning of ‘rainy season’. I know, I wasn’t thrilled about it at the time either. But ‘rainy season’ in Nicaragua is also known as ‘mango season’, a time when mangoes literally rain down on your head. As if Nicaragua wasn’t already cheap enough.
Nicaragua is by far the cheapest country in Central America. It’s also the toughest to travel through in my opinion. I’m lucky I was backpacking with friends so I didn’t feel lost all the time. In order to catch a shuttle to the next city, you usually just show up to a parking lot with a couple of thousand Nicaraguan Cordoba ($10 or $12 USD) and wait for a shuttle to arrive and fill up. There is no bus station or formality to it compared to other Central American countries.
Costa Rica 🇨🇷
Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America; and also the most beautiful. Its luscious rain forest and wildlife is beautiful enough to fascinate anyone. You may find yourself bird watching or farming pineapples (yes, that’s right – pineapples) or doing something that you never thought you would.
Costa Rica is most different from all other Central American countries for a few reasons. Aside from its prices, it is by far the safest and most developed country in Central America. In addition to its safety, it has the most reliable transportation systems, making it easy to backpack.
The capital city of Costa Rica, San José, doesn’t offer much for backpackers so it’s best to stick to the jungle and the coastline. There are so many places in Costa Rica to visit but in order to preserve time while backpacking Central America I’ve narrowed it down for you. The major spots to visit are Jaco, Manuel Antonio, La Fortuna, Tamarindo, Monteverde, and Puerto Viejo.
Costa Rica is a tourist hot spot for Americans to go on Spring Break, not as bad as Cancun, but it’s something to keep in mind when planning your travels.
Panama is a diamond in the rough. With prices that rival that of Nicaragua’s and islands that rival those of Belize’s; it’s one of the hottest backpacker destinations in Central America.
The backpacker island of Bocas del Toro is the pinnacle of your Central America backpacking trip. If you’ve backpacked south from Belize or Mexico then you’ve been waiting for this moment for months. Along with Caye Caulker, Belize and Utila, Honduras, Bocas del Toro is a true backpacker island. So enjoy it while you can.
If there’s anything you’ve been looking forward to more than Bocas, it must be the San Blas Islands. These 400+ picturesque islands are dotted all along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Sailing the San Blas Islands is the perfect way to end your Central America trip and begin backpacking South America.
If you’re looking nightlife and city life then you’re in luck. Panama City is the most modernized city in Central America. With its high rises, casinos, and luxury stores it looks more like Las Vegas than Central America. Panama City is one of the few areas that isn’t so cheap in Panama.
There’s always going to be something that you miss. No matter how much time you have and how prepared you are, there’s going to be something you can’t get to. Maybe you get food poisoning or you fall in love and switch your plans.
Either way, the most important thing is that you have fun. Meet new people. Make new friends and create memories that will last forever.
Don’t be worried if you don’t get to see a certain monument or landmark. It will be there later. The one glaring thing that I quickly learned while backpacking Central America is this. The people who you meet are a lot more important than the places you see or the things you do.