Central America includes only seven small countries so exploring the entire region is possible if you allow yourself several months. If you don't have that much time there are several routes you can take that will let you see one or two countries that are diverse and fun. Central America is also a very cheap place to travel. Some countries are more affordable than others, but transportation is generally low in cost and, because of the small size of most countries, you can usually travel easily by bus or car.
Belize and Guatemala:
Belize truly is a tropical paradise. It's easy to catch a flight into this area from the United States or Canada for a reasonable price. English is the official language of the country so communication is very simple. Many people choose to spend some time on the coast where they can scuba dive or snorkel before heading inland to the rainforest areas. Once you're in the area you can easily travel around by bus or car. It is possible to take public transportation across the border into Guatemala. This is a popular option for many travelers. Once in Guatemala, the most popular destination is the ruins of Tikal, but the entire country is navigable with public transportation. Alternatively, there are also frequent organized tours that travel between Belize and Tikal. These are very easy to organize as well.
Nicaragua and Honduras:
It's popular for travelers to combine Honduras and Nicaragua into one trip. There are several major bus companies that travel through both countries and they use reliable, air conditioned buses. The region is relatively small and most of the attractions can be covered in about a month. Diving off the bay islands in Honduras is popular and these areas can be reached by ferry. In Nicaragua you will find frequent chicken buses that make local trips to almost any city. These are cheaper than the larger, more organized bus companies.
Costa Rica and Panama:
Both Costa Rica and Panama are easy countries to travel around. The public transportation is good and there is an excellent travel infrastructure in place. If you're a first time visitor to the area then these two countries are perhaps the easiest option for you. There are several different border crossings between the two countries and they are generally smooth and efficient. You can make the trip to the border on public bus, and you will be swiftly processed and directed along. Both San Jose and Panama City have popular international airports so it is easy to make the trip into one city and out of the other without having to backtrack.
Saving Money on the Road
Central America is a great budget destination. If you're traveling from North America, it's quite easy to find cheap round trip plane tickets, particularly if you're traveling from states like Florida or Texas. This easy accessibility is a large part of the appeal for many visitors. For visitors from North America, it's possible to visit a truly different and diverse region without flying halfway across the world. The area is impressive with its national parks, great beaches, and scuba diving. It's also a great place to head during North America's cold winter months, when most Central American countries are in their dry season. If you're hoping to save a little more on flights or accommodation though, fall and spring are usually better times to visit as they are off peak season.
Generally, it is easy to travel independently in Central America and the countries are actually quite diverse and unique. There are hostels and budget guesthouses throughout. If you're hoping to keep your costs to a minimum you'll almost always spend less inland than you do in beach towns. Also consider traveling on public transportation instead of hiring a car or flying. Internal flights in Central America are almost always unnecessary unless you are short on time. If you are in the area for at least a few weeks it may be possible to hop through a couple countries, particularly if you have an open jaw plane ticket that flies into one city and out of another. These tickets may be slightly higher in cost but they will save you in time and money once you're on the ground.
Sights and Attractions
Many people head to Central America for it's beautiful, tropical beaches. There are monkeys that linger on the edge of the sand and coral reefs that you can snorkel in just off the shore. If you head inland you can see the biodiversity of the tropical rainforests and cloud forests. The area also has a rich history which is visited through the ruins that are sprinkled throughout most countries. Whatever your interest, Central America is sure to have something for you.
You really shouldn't visit Central America without visiting at least one national park. Some of the most popular parks are found in the country of Costa Rica. These include Monteverde, Costa Rica, known for its zip lines and ecologically dense cloud forest, and Arenal
, Costa Rica, with a famous active volcano. Most national parks have a small town nearby with plenty of accommodation and restaurant options. It's easy to stay in the town and travel by local transportation to the park. Many of the towns have amenities that make vacationing there easy and simple.
Central America has some beautiful, and surprisingly affordable beaches. Even the most expensive beaches in the area, such as Placencia, Belize, tend to have backpacker options. Some of the most pristine beaches are close to national parks, such as those at Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Belize is perhaps the most popular beach destination in Central America. If you're looking to get a little more off the beaten path, consider visiting San Juan del Sur
, Nicaragua, which is affordable and great for surfers. In Panama, Bocas del Toro
is a great choice, with many affordable options as well.
The ruins in Central America are quite impressive. Some of the most famous Mayan ruins in the area include Tikal, Guatemala and Copan, Honduras. If you're on a budget it's very possible to explore the area without a guide. Bring along a guidebook that has detailed information and read as you go. Alternatively, you will get some interesting insight if you do choose to hire a guide.
Central America is known for its wonderful wildlife, from the monkeys and birds, to the fish in the ocean, there are many opportunities to see unique animals. National Parks are usually the best place to see animals, but if you're looking for snorkeling or diving opportunities, places like Cahuita in Costa Rica are ideal.
Choosing the Right Country
All of the countries in Central America are quite affordable. The most expensive options are Panama, whose currency is locked to the US dollar, and Belize, with its beautiful beaches that put it in high demand. Costa Rica is a popular destination and has options for travelers of all budgets. Perhaps the most affordable countries in Central America are Nicaragua and El Salvador, where you can easily get by on a shoestring budget and see a lot.
Whichever countries you decide to visit in Central America you will find plenty of backpacker options that keep prices to a minimum. Some areas have hostels, but budget guesthouses are more popular and are often the most common option available. Most countries have a good supply of mid-range places as well, and in most tourist destinations you'll likely find at least one or two (if not more) high end resorts as well.
The Chicken Bus and More
You have a range of transportation options in Central America. The infamous chicken buses in Nicaragua and elsewhere are the most entertaining and the cheapest option available. Everyone should ride a chicken bus at least once during their travels. For longer trips, there are options like Tica Bus, which offers air conditioned buses with televisions. These buses are more expensive and cater specifically to tourists. They travel across borders so they are a good option for longer trips that are taking you from one country to another. On the high end of the spectrum, some travelers with limited time choose to rent a car in countries like Costa Rica. This option allows you the flexibility to travel at your own pace and stop wherever you want. It's convenient, but can definitely cost you more. Roads in Costa Rica are generally good, but if you are traveling during the rainy season it is best to check the weather and road conditions in advance. Internal flights are generally unnecessary in this region because the countries are so small. If you do take a flight you'll likely miss some wonderful scenery along the way. The one exception to this is if you're particularly short on time and want to travel from one country to another. A strategically selected flight might prove worth it in this instance as it will save you some time.