Backpacking Central America is about enjoying your travels, exploring the area, making new friends, and having the time of your life. Backpackers differ from other travelers in a few different ways. One major difference is that backpackers typically adventure more, explore more, and visit more attractions. So, these Central America tours aren’t just ‘tours’. They’re backpacker events, adventures, and experiences. I won’t be covering the top Central America hostels, islands, and cities, which I’ve covered in previous posts.
This isn’t your typical TripAdvisor list of museums, cathedrals, and castles. Unfortunately, I’ve done all of that and I don’t remember it enough to write about – nor do I want to so I know who would want to read it.
This is a list of Central America tours that not only I’ve enjoyed, but all the backpackers I’ve met along the way have raved about. Not all of these tours need to be done with a tour guide. But all of these tours are a lot more fun if you go with a group of friends.
The Perfect Central America Day-Trip
There are so many different tours in Central America that you want to make sure you spend your money correctly. Not all tour companies are the same and not all the prices are the same. You could end up paying 10X as much if you book the tour online from your home.
If it’s your first time backpacking or your first time in Central America, I recommend arriving at your hostel a few days before you book any of these Central America tours. That way you’ll have time to meet new people and join their group on the tour. Most of the tours are managed by the hostels themselves so just about everyone staying at the hostel will be doing the same tours as you.
Be outgoing and social when you arrive at the hostel and ask if anyone is going on a tour and if you can join them. The more people you have, the more equipment you’ll have. Think of it as going to the beach. You have the towels and sunscreen. Zack has umbrellas and sandwiches. Kathi has alcohol and music…the more the merrier!
You’ll come to see that not everything on the list is not completely safe – in terms of falling off a cliff, not being robbed. Nevertheless, that’s usually just the way things are when backpacking. The adventure is the reward and the adventure is always worth it.
So what are the best Central America tours, day trips, and adventures?
A full-day trip from Lanquin, Guatemala, Semuc Champey is one of the most fun day-trips you'll have during your travels.
It starts with you and your hostel mates being rounded up at your hostel and loaded onto the bed of a pickup truck for a 20-minute off-road excursion to the beautiful Cahabón River class III-IV rapids, which flow from Lanquin to the pools of Semuc Champey.
As you hop off the side of the pickup truck and walk to the 15-foot high bridge that you're about to jump off, you're suddenly ambushed by a pack of 12-year-old vendors who're selling beers to incoming tourists. Always happy to give to the local economy, you buy a few, jump off the bridge, grab a tube, and head down the river.
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The next few hours are filled with more beer being thrown at you while tubing down the river and jumping through the pools of Semuc Champey, followed by a dark and dangerous neck-deep in water trek through jagged edge caves using just a burning candle and a shoestring for light and direction. Once you've had enough of that you embark on a couple of hundred step climb until you reach the amazing viewpoint overlooking everything you've just conquered. It's time to call it a day and get back in the truck.
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As hard as it is to suit up in full protective gear when it's already 100 degrees and humid out, it's well worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go volcano boarding down Cerro Negro.
Being the youngest and most active volcano in Central America, volcano boarding Cerro Negro isn't exactly the safest thing to do - but it might be one of the coolest! With its last eruption, albeit a small one, coming in 1999, rumor has it that's it's long overdue for a full-blown lava-flowing tantrum-throwing breakdown. 🌋
Bigfoot Hostel and Volcano Boarding is one of the only tour companies that clocks your speed so that you figure out how fast you went - they even tally in on a scoreboard for the whole hostel to judge, so don't puss out.
Quetzaltrekkers León is the only not-for-profit trekking company in León and not only do they donate their money back to the community, but they're also the only company that allows you to go down twice! ✌️
Probably the most bizarre and exciting adventure I've ever done, the Acatenango volcano overnight hike is legendary - mostly for good reasons - and is a must-do if the weather allows for it.
The climb begins around 7 am and you may have to haul your camping gear on your back all the way up the mountain, depending on what tour company you booked, with so make sure you're well rested and ready to go. Just shy of 4,000 meters, Acatenango is the third highest volcano in Central America and takes a good 4-5 hours just to climb to basecamp (3400m) where you'll pitch your tent, drink with friends and sit back and enjoy volcano Fuego erupting right in front of you all night. The next day you wake up before dawn and make the 1-2 hour hike to the summit where you watch the amazing sunrise over volcano Fuego.
I climbed Acatenango in March 2017, just two after a freezing blast killed six trained climbers and 15 months before Fuego's catastrophic eruption that killed 69 and left hundreds of others injured. So, it goes without saying, proceed with caution if you're going to climb Acatenango or if you're anywhere near volcano Fuego. If Fuego were to erupt though, being on top of Acatenango would be one of the safest places, so moreover, just make sure you're physically fit enough for the grueling climb.
The crystal clear waters of Caye Caulker, Belize lends itself to some of the finest snorkeling and spearfishing in the world - yes, spearfishing. A full-day snorkeling and spearfishing tour around the Belize Barrier Reef and you're likely to see sharks, turtles, dolphins, rays, and all different species of fish; but there's no better feeling that spearing your own fish.
Honestly, I didn't even know spearfishing was a thing until I arrived in Caye Caulker. Naturally, I was picturing some underwater gun that fires a hook and line and allows you to reel the fish in - a high caliber assault weapon in other words. That's when I was given a rod with an elastic rubber band trigger.
All in all, it's an amazing day; soak up the sun, drink some island rum, and enjoy the ocean waves on the boat ride home.
The San Blas Islands tour is more than just a day-trip, it's actually a 4-day sail from Panama to Colombia, but we've included it on this list because it's an incredible experience and for that reason, it's immensely popular among backpackers traveling on through to South America. The San Blas islands are something straight out of a dream, and that's probably why it was one of Microsoft's original desktop wallpapers.
* There is also an option if you're in a rush and aren't planning on traveling through to Colombia and want to do just a one-night trip to the San Blas Islands. I wouldn't recommend this option unless you're truly don't have enough time to do the full 4-day trip.
Anyway, let's talk about how you get to the San Blas Islands? There are two options, and it depends on how much time you have:
A 4-day sail trip is not something many people have done before so if it's your first time I recommend doing some research and figuring out what boat is most comfortable for you to sleep on and be on for the majority of 4 full days.
Scary Hours...Sunday Funday is a legendary pool crawl through the backpacker party beach town, San Juan del Sur. It's a one-day clusterf**k of drugs, alcohol, and hostel sex. So it goes without saying that I don't remember 90% of what happened on Sunday Funday, but I'll do my best to explain it.
Sunday Funday is the best place to make dozens of drunk friends who you'll forget about the next day and possibly run into a week or so later in a bar in a completely different country and have one of the "oh shit" moments that will make it that much more worth it.
The pool crawl starts around mid-morning or afternoon but it pretty much just starts as soon as you wake up cause that's when you start the party festivities if you're not already disturbingly woken up by a friend or hostel mate who's been up for 30-hours already.
After some unnecessary pre-game, you get to the first hostel (I don't remember how we got to the first bar or hostel or if it was a bar or hostel but I think it was walking range from Yajure Surf Hostel) - a small pool sardine-packed with beautiful people in swimsuits and party shirts dancing and drinking an obscene amount of alcohol all before 1 pm.
The day continues on like this as you're taken to a total of 3 or 4 hostels - or as many as you can handle - and then to a few beach bars and eventually back to your hostel with someone you just met.
The best part about Tikal National Park was seeing the sunrise over the National Park. With that being said, I recommend going for the sunrise tour - yes, you'll have to wake up at 3 am and hike through jaguar land to get to the viewpoint for sunrise but it's worth it. Matter of fact, if I didn't see Tikal during sunrise I'm not sure if I would have found it interesting enough to even make the list.
Party shirts assemble!
This picture was taken at the Doozy Koala pregame party and it's the first time an Irish girl schooled me on what the phrase "strategic puke" means. I've done a couple of strategic pukes in my day but I've never referred to it like that until that day.
Most of the people in this picture are backpackers who I met back in Caye Caulker - a few from Dirty McNasty's specifically - and traveled with from there on so we had a great group going into the rave party.
The rave party doesn't really start until 1 a.m. so it's definitely not a day-trip sort of event, but if you attend the pregame at Doozy Koala at just the right time and stay until midnight and then go straight to the rave party, you're in for one hell of a time. I don't recommend walking the streets of Antigua, Guatemala alone after dark so that's another reason why it's good to go with a group.
Anyway, I'm not sure who arranged transport of any of that but we got picked up somewhere in the middle of the street and packed about 20 people into the back of a flatbed truck. The drive was probably about 20 minutes but it felt like an eternity being squished in between half a dozen people on a bumpy road already wondering if I'm going to puke and the party hadn't even started.
When we arrived I remember it was pretty official; I don't think there was a metal detector but there were definitely security guards checking your pockets and patting you down before you got inside the fence - not saying much though considering there are armed security guards with shotguns guarding Little Caesar's Pizza. Once you get inside the fence, you see an empty, Olympic-size swimming pool with a DJ booth in the deep-end and a bar in the shallow end. It's all outdoors and the pool is quickly filling up with people. Let the rave begin.
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