Central America Travel, Backpacking & Gap Year Guide
Central America is a fascinating region to travel where you can see spectacular beaches, visit ancient Aztec and Mayan temples and get close to exotic wildlife. Get information, advice and inspiration for the best things to do if you would like to travel, go backpacking or take a gap year in Central America.
Central America Travel Ideas, Backpacking Trips & Gap Year Programs
Travel to Central America
Our Central America destination guide aims to give you all the information you need to have an amazing experience in this amazing country. Find affordable travel and backpacking ideas with advice for amazing things to do and how you can be more than just your average traveller. You can also get recommendations for budget travel tips, tips for places to stay and advice how to stay safe.
Get inspired to visit this spectacular region today!
- Population: 42,000,000 (approx)
- Number of Countries in Central America: 7
- Largest City in Central America: Guatemala City, over 1 million people live here
- Continent Area: 500,000 km2 (approx)
- Languages: Spanish, English, Mayan + Local Languages
- Transport: There is a public and private bus service conecting the whole continent
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Puerto Rico
Travelling & Backpacking in Central America
There are so many options available too which include seeing volcanoes and the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, visiting the Panama Canal and the relaxing Bocas del Toro Islands in Panama, seeing ruins in Mexico and Guatemala or going in search of culture and tradition in Cuba. Highlights include the ancient ruins in Mexico and travelling to Teotihuacan, a beautiful Mexican Mayan site with temples and pyramids in Belize is highly recommended.
On some trips you can go in search of the old Mayan civilisations and see spectacular ruins of Palenque, Chicken Itza and Copán. Our top recommendation is to see Tikal in Guatemala which are some of the best ruins in the world which are located deep in the jungle. Try to learn some basic Spanish phrases before arriving, this will really help you on your trip talking to local people, booking transport and accommodation and also random things like asking for directions.
Best Places to Visit in Central America
Here are some of the top destinations you should add to your itinerary:
- Tikal, Guatemala (Mayan ruins in tropic jungle)
- Antigua, Guatemala (pretty town with cobbled streets)
- Chickenitza, Mexico (ancient Mayan temple)
- Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (huge lake overshadowed by two huge volcanos)
- San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua (chilled out beach town, learn to surf!)
- Teotihuacan, Mexico (Mexican temples & pyramids)
- Bay Islands, Honduras
- Parque Nacional Corcovado, Costa Rica (watch wildlife)
- Caye Culker, Belize (paradise island)
Top Things to Do in Central America
- Seeing the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, possibly the best ruins to explore in the world
- Climbing a volcano in Costa Rica
- Travelling down the East Coast of Mexico and going to see Chicken Itza temple site - truly spectacular!
- Kicking back and enjoying the laid back atmosphere in Nicaragua, learning to surf is recommended
- Lake Atitlán in Guatemala has an impressive setting
- The Parque Nacional Corcovado in Costa Rica is a bit off the beaten track but full of wildife and picture opportunities
- There are Maya ruins throughout this continent and taking a trip to the Copán Ruinas in Honduras is recommended
- Havana, Cuba where you can see a city untouched by modern globalisation
- Experience laid back Caribbean life in Bocas Del Toro, Panama
- Swimming with whale sharks
- Climb the ancient ruin of Tikal in Guatemala
- Go kayaking on the East Coast of Mexico
- Experience the thrill of a city
- Island surf in Belize
- Learn to surf in Nicaragua
- Go canopy walking in Costa Rica
Amazing Cities to Visit in Central America
- Antigua, Guatemala expect cobbled streets and one of the prettiest places to visit in the world
- Mexico City, this vast city is full of things to do and places to see including the ancient pryamids
- San José the capital of Costa Rica is a great city to be based, there is a modern shopping area and also lots of markets to explore
- Panama City, there are lots of archaeological sites to visit mixed in with modern shopping centres and buildings
- If you are looking to party or just enjoy a place with the option to see more of the culture of this region, Playa Del Carmen has a great beach and is close to nearby ruins and temples
Beautiful Islands in Central America
- Caye Culker in Belize is spectacular
- Bay Islands, Honduras where you will find a laid back coastal vibe with lots of travellers
- Roatan, Honduras where this is crystal clear waters and a good mix of locals and internationals
- You might not of heard of Isla de Ometepe but this is a freshwater lake island located in Nicaragua
- The San Blas Islands now has a thriving economy located just of the North Eastern corner of Panama
Central America Budget Travel Tips
Are you going travelling or backpacking in Central America? Check out our top tips below:
US dollars are accepted in most places although this might be more expensive than local currency. If you use local currency do not exchange on border crossing as this will be more expensive. Also try to get rid of local currency before leaving a country as sometimes it can be difficult to exchange afterwards.
Food and Drink
You will find tasty cuisine throughout this continent and food is great value for money. If you are not a big fan of local food which usually includes rice, beans and meat then there are more and more places which offer Western options like pizza, burgers and chips. In large cities in places like Mexico and Costa Rica you will find all the usual large fast food chains, try to at least sampling the local food first. Street food is very cheap, you can buy goods in local markets and there are also stalls at the side of a lot of streets and roads, a lot of the times you can eat for less than $1. If you are travelling by bus through this continent people will also sell you food which you can get out of the window, US dollars are accepted most places even on border crossings
Places to sleep are very cheap in Central America and there are lots of options. Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico are probably the most expensive countries to stay in, in places like San Jose or Panama City don't be surprised to pay over £15 per night for just a hostel dorm. Cheaper countries include Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador where you can stay for not much at all. Generally in this continent you will get a dorm bed for around £2 - £10 ($3 - $15 USD) whilst a private room is usually around £10 per night. If you are travelling with a friend or partner you might want to share a private room as this will work out cheaper. You can also stay in guesthouses which are locally run, this is especially true in places like Antigua, Guatemala.
Health & Safety
Central America is a safe continent to travel in but always stick to the beaten path and ask other travelles for advice and recommendations. You should have no problems when visiting places like Costa Rica, Panama and Cancun, these are very busy destinations and there is a visable police presence. There are some instances of crime against international visitors in Mexico and its always advised to be vigalant, but please know these occurances are very rare. We recommend you avoid putting yourself in any situations like drinking too much then wandering around by yourself at night. In places like El Salvador and Mexico City be street smart and avoid flashing valuables and do not visit crime hotspots like the border town of Juarez which has problems with gangs and drugs.
Transport & How to Get Around
Internal flights can be quite expensive even by Western standards, if you are not on a budget and are only interested in seeing specific places this might be your best choice. There is good public transport system in Central America, local buses are really cheap, but don't expect a luxury trip though conditions can be uncomfortable for long journeys. You will usually find other travellers on public buses and generally speaking this is a safe way to travel.
If you are looking to travel by bus we recommend the Tika bus, this is a service which connects most countries in Central America and is cheap and flexible. On the Tika bus you will be able to travel throughout Central America, you can travel from Mexico down to Panama. The Tika bus is a step up from the public bus and has air conditioning, is safe, food is provided and it is also comfortable. At border crossings everything is taken care of by the on board guide. Some travellers also choose to hitch hike through this region, this is the cheapest way to travel but not always the safest. We would recommend sticking to the beaten path and taking public or private services.
Best Central America Travel Itinerary
Planning a short break on a budget to Central America? This region might look like a small continent on a map, but trust us there are so many countries and different experiences to be had. If you don't have months to spare and want to do more than just sitting on a beach we have some great recommendations. Our top two destinations you If you have some free time you might want to consider visiting Costa Rica, this country has everything like beaches, jungles, volcanoes but it is also the more expensive countries with Panama (still cheap for us though).
Costa Rica would be our best recommendation for a week break its a beautiful country & if you know basic Spanish you will be able to use public transport which is cheap from the capital San Jose to the beaches. There is tons to do for tourists! Another option is to fly to Cancun, head down the coast into Belize & Caye Culker (stunning) then visit the Tikal ruins in Guatemala which are spectacular and (then bus back to Cancun) this will take around a week too. You could fly to San Jose in CR then go up to the North to see volcanoes and cross into Nicaragua (San Juan Del Sur) is a popular place where there are beaches etc & this country is really cheap but more rustic than others.
Gap Year in Central America
On a gap year in Central America you can see amazing beaches, ancient, ruins, bustling cities, tropical rainforests and wildlife. You will get to meet new people, sample the local tasty cuisine and enjoy one of the best experiences of your life.
Ever thought about the importance of travel? Regardless of the purpose of your journey, it brings a great exploration and meaning to your life. Traveling educates, relaxes and inspires. Taking out some time from your busy schedule and travel to some peaceful places give great relaxation and encouragement to mind. Travel is a way to explore your ideas and thoughts. It shakes up your world enough to make it more enthralling, fun and adventurous. Planning a gap year to Central America wil be the best decision you will ever make!
You can make a list of fun things that you want to do and then travel exciting places where you will discover ancient civilizations and incredible beaches. There are so many activities like swimming, photography, trekking, etc. If you book a gap year program you will usually be in a group or if you go solo you will be able to make friends along the way. The key to enjoying your gap year in Central America is to book rewarding traveling experiences that make you feel happy. Whatever your thing is, it's maybe time to give yourself to it. From exploring nature to bungee jumping, aim for experiences that will revitalize your passion and energy.
You can find hundreds of experiences which cater for everyone, you will travel in a group usually no more than 15 people. You could venture into mountains, interact and experience the ancient wisdom teachings, sacred art and deep ceremonial way of life of the very remote indigenous Indian tribe of the Huicholes (or the Wixarika in their native tongue):- who are believed to be the descendants of the Aztecs, and due to their incredible isolation are still living in most part, the way they have always lived for hundreds of years.
There are so many gap year placements in Central America, these include wildlife and marine based conservation / community programs, educational and teaching placements, medical / healthcare electives and more. There are short and long term structured gap year programs in Central America - summer programs are popular and most placements can be booked in advance. There are different opportunities which include helping saving sea turtles in Mexico and Costa Rica which are highly recommended.
Organised Central America gap year programs are a great way to travel especially if you don't speak good Spanish! You could start in Mexico, then travel south through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicarague, Costa Rica and Panana. A lot of overland adventures in Central America include adventure sport activities and can be booked far in advance. This is a continent which offers so much and there are so many magical places to visit. Be open minded and embrace this continent and you will not be disappointed.