Interested in backpacking through Central America? Curious what the best destinations are, specifically the best islands? We’ve put together an expert list of the top Central America islands and let our audience of backpackers rank them from best to worst.
Central America has coastlines on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, along with Caribbean Sea shorelines in Belize. Basically, you get it all. Freezing cold Atlantic water, if that’s what you like. Pacific Ocean barrel-waves, if that’s what you’re in to. Or, beautiful, calm, crystal-clear Caribbean water. That’s my kind of thing.
Central America Island Life
If you’ve got the chance to take a majestic boat ride to a far-away island then why not take it? Central America has great beach towns and cities but let’s face it. there’s just something different about islands. They just hit differently. ‘You know what I mean?
Island time is slower than time in a city or town. You have time to reflect more. You stare out into the vast ocean and think about life. How does the ocean exist? It’s so crazy. You sit back and feel the waves as you drift along in a small, private-owned boat.
Island life allows you to love life again. To forget about all the bullshit that’s going on in the real world and just enjoy everything.
Appreciate the smell in the air, the color of the water, the sound of the wind.
Smirk at the fact that there are no cars allowed on the island.
Enjoy the fact that there aren’t many tourists on the island because it’s too hard to reach.
Drink the Pina Coladas and Strawberry Daquiris and other island drinks that you don’t get to enjoy too often.
In other words, that’s what this list is about. These Central America islands are your getaway. Your paradise. Your moment of appreciation and reflection…or just party.
Bocas del Toro, Panama may be my personal favorite island of all-time. An island where you take boats a.k.a water taxis to attend parties and buy delicious empanadas for only $0.70 on the corner. Home of beautiful surfing spots, tons of fun-loving tourists, and wild island parties on the many neighboring islands. One strange thing about Bocas is that you can't walk through the streets without a shirt on, even though it's an island. I think it's related to gang tattoos so just a warning if a cop sees you he will ask you to put a shirt on. Bocas has a few hostels and I had a great experience staying at Selina - they have another hostel on the island across from Bocas called Selina Red Frog.
Bocas has a great nightlife scene and beautiful waterfront clubs and bars all along the coastline. Check out the Bookstore Bar for a drink or two if you're looking for something strange and out of the ordinary, but some of my favorites are Aqua Lounge, Blue Coconut, and La Buga.
Caye Caulker, Belize is the epitome of a backpacker island, unlike its expensive neighboring island Ambergris Caye. It’s uncommon to walk down the beach without being offered three or four coconuts overflowing with rum – Belize’s version of a Coco Loco.
Its motto is ‘Go Slow’ and it’s easier to see why everyone on the island is so laid back and friendly. There are no cars allowed on the island but it’s normal to see a golf cart ride past you or to ride in one yourself. There are only three streets on the whole island, Front Street, Middle Street, and Back Street.
Caye Caulker’s water is crystal clear, which is why they offer some of the best snorkeling in the world. The sunsets are also some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world and are usually enjoyed sitting on the beach with friends.
If you’re looking for a hostel to stay and get the real backpacker party vibe then look no further than Dirty McNasty’s Party Hostel, if you think you can stomach it. If you’re looking for a more upscale hostel that feels a little more comfortable, don’t forget to stop by for their free rum punch at 7 p.m.
The second cheapest island in the world to receive your PADI Scuba Diving Certification, behind Koh Tao, Thailand, so it's no surprise that backpackers embark on the long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous journey to this beautiful oasis.
The most important thing in Utila is choosing what dive center you want to stay at; there is hardly any accommodation on this island that isn't a dive center so even if you're not diving, you'll have to choose where to stay - plus dive centers are where all the backpackers stay.
If you're diving then you want to ask around and find a place that suits your price and wants - most prices are pretty even since competition is so abundant but you can get discounts for groups at certain dive centers and some have different equipment and better or worse housing. I chose Underwater Vision Dive Center because they had the best terms, in my opinion, and it was where a few of my friends were staying - this is probably the most social dive center.
Utila is only about 7 miles in circumference and it's a beautiful island to run around, which I did a few times. The nightlife is a lot of small bars but there are also a few clubs on the beach that backpackers frequent on the weekends.
Though not the typical destination for most backpackers, due to its expensive prices - especially compared to Caye Caulker - Roatán has an incredible beauty that must be experienced once in a lifetime. Roatán offers some of the most beautiful snorkeling in not only all of the Caribbean, but the whole world. Enjoy boat or helicopter trips to the famous Blue Hole and even go scuba diving in it if you're adventurous enough.
The Corn Islands, Big Corn and Little Corn - both located in the Caribbean 50 miles off Nicaragua's eastern coast - are two underrated and hard to reach islands that are well worth the hour-long flight from Managua to Big Corn in a small prop plane and 30-minute additional boat ride to Little Corn...if you have the luxury of purchasing a flight.
If you've got the sea legs for a 5-day Catamaran ride through dozens of the most beautiful islands of all-time, which I didn't, then you're in for the time of your life. The San Blas Islands of Panama is an archipelago comprising approximately 365 islands and cays, of which 49 are inhabited.
This quiet island located in southwest Lake Nicaragua is known for its two twin volcanoes. If you're looking for a chance to rent a motorbike, this is your ideal chance. It takes about 45 minutes to drive end to end across the island by motorbike. There are plenty of quiet hostels (Hostel Lazy Crab) on this island and there is one party hostel (Little Morgans). If you go during rainy season a.k.a mango season - when it's raining mangos - you'll enjoy eating free mangos directly off the floor.
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