Central America – Route, Itinerary, Overview
Central America is one of the most vibrant, dynamic and lively places on earth. Central has something for anyone, whether you’re looking for amazing views, nightlife, beaches, an adrenaline rush or amazing food, Central America has it all. Different countries have different charms to them, while many people plan a specific itinerary for their trip, we really recommend to keep an open mind about the places you will visit and the amount of time you will spend in each. Most people end up staying in a specific city or island for a longer time than expected (some even end up staying for life), some become divemasters in Utila even if they have never completed a single dive in their life. Keep an open mind and just go with the flow, or as the 100’s of Israeli’s you will meet on the way will tell you: Tizrom.
Budget – Mas o Menos
I would recommend for a budget backpacker to save at least 2,000USD for a 2-2.5 month trip in Central America and probably closer to 3,000USD if you plan on doing more group tours and less independent-travel. The more diving, heavy drinking, drugs, private buses, expensive restaurants, and hotels you have the more inflated your budget will be if you plan on doing any of the above it may mean a budget closer to 5,000USD would suffice. There are a couple great ways to save money in Central and South America, read our guide on the best ways to save money in the Americas.
When to go?
The high season for Central America is from around mid-December to April. This means the weather will be better and there will be more accessible activities but it also means it will be more expensive. Low season is all the rest of the year and with more rain, it can sometimes be difficult to travel in Central America. That being said I traveled Central America between August – October and It was unreal. Sometimes there were activities that got ruined due to bad weather but it wasn’t often.
How much time should I spend in Central?
2.5-3 months is a good amount of time for Central America, it is doable in 2 months but I think that would be a bit of a rush. However, many people do get stuck in specific areas (Utila is a common one), and just decide to stay for a couple of months, so keep an open mind about your time limit (if possible).
Mexico is usually the first stop on most backpacker’s journey throughout Central America, and for a good reason. For those planning on traveling South to North just read this article from the bottom up.
Mexico City – The starting point for many people in Mexico city. From here you can fly to the coast and make your way down or spend some time exploring Central Mexico before heading to the coast. In this article, we won’t be talking about central Mexico.
Mexico City is an amazing city, markets are scattered all over the city where you can buy literally anything, A nightlife that will blow your mind and some of the best food we have ever tasted. The must-see of Mexico city is The Teotihuacan pyramid site.
From Mexico City, you can find decent flights to Cancun (30-150$ one way).
Cancun – Though Cancun is one of the more expensive (and touristy) cities of Central America it boasts quite an amazing nightlife. The beaches here are beautiful in the low season when they are clean and not crowded.
There is an amazing hostel in Cancun called Mezcal Hostel which has a great vibe, they also take out all the guests to all the top party’s in the city every night.
There’s not much to see and do in Cancun but it is a great place to explore the surrounding areas. Isla Mujeres and Holbox are two beautiful beach Islands close to Cancun and are definitely worth spending some time in to just sit and relax.
Chichen Itza (one of the 7 wonders of the world) is approximately 3 hours away from Cancun, there are many tours and buses leaving from Cancun to Chichen Itza. Tours can be negotiated for Chichen Itza for approximately 30-50USD. If you would like to take a public bus, ADO has a direct bus to Chichen Itza (usually starts at 10USD each way).
Playa Del Carmen – from Cancun, there are direct shuttles to Playa Del Carmen for 35-45MX, you can find them across the road from the ADO bus terminal, they are the playa express vans.
In Playa there are a large number of cenotes in the surrounding areas, Cenote Chaak Tun is the most popular one but there are plenty of others in the area, most hostels organize tours to the various Cenotes but you can usually get to some of them by renting a bike or using the public buses/vans.
Also, the nightlife in Playa is really good and cheaper than Cancun.
Cozumel – from Playa Del Carmen there are boats that cross daily to Cozumel, the boats leave approximately every hour (till 11 or 12 pm) and there are 3-4 different companies that run the route. The price for the boats is 220-300 pesos round trip (can be easily negotiated to 80-120).
The hostel we stayed at was called 2tank dive hostel and had a really good atmosphere, the diving from the hostel isn’t the cheapest but its definitely one of the top hotels to stay at on the Island.
Cozumel is expensive, this is because it is a stop on many cruise ship routes. The main activities here are Diving (70-120$ for a two tank dive), during shark season you can spot many sharks daily. Besides for the diving, snorkeling trips around the coast of Cozumel can be bought all over the island, the diving trip to El Cielo is quite beautiful and relatively cheap compared to other trips (the best place to negotiate is on the dock where the boats come in).
Tulum – to get to Tulum you must return to Playa del Carmen first. From Playa del Carmen there are collectivos (vans) going to Tulum for about 40 pesos.
Tulum has some beautiful beaches, great party hostels, and beautiful cenotes to go diving in.
Most backpackers looking for a good party hostel stay in the Che Tulum or Che Babel hostels (Che Babel is smaller and easier to sleep in as its less noisy later at night). At night this is the place to be.
During in the day, many hostels rent bikes and you can ride to some of the nearby cenotes, such as crystal cenote. For people who want to dive in the cenotes, there are many dive shops that take divers for 2-3 dives/cenotes for 100-150$, Dos Ojos is one of the top diving cenotes in Mexico.
Tulum is also known for having some really great food, one of the more notable dishes from Tulum is the tacos al pastor (yes, they have them everywhere in Mexico, but Tulum tacos are special).
Bacalar – from Tulum many people head to Bacalar or to directly to Caye Caulker, Belize. There are two busses from Tulum to Bacalar (they also go to Chetumal, the city on the border near Belize), the buses leave from the ADO bus terminal in Tulum. The ADO buses to Bacalar/Chetumal are more comfortable but cost around twice the price of the other bus. The other bus is the MayaB bus, which is less comfortable but much cheaper. MayaB is around 150 Pesos and ADO is around 300+-.
In Bacalar, the main activity is to just chill and swim in the absolutely stunning lake, in the morning many hostels organize 6 am paddleboard tours on the lake.
IMPORTANT!: LEAVING MEXICO LAND BORDER HAS AN EXIT FEE OF 30usd! There is also a time difference between MEXICO AND BELIZE!
Caye Caulker, Belize – From Bacalar there are a few different options to get to Caye Caulker. There is a direct ferry from Chetumal (55USD one way). There is an ADO bus directly from Bacalar to Belize City and from Belize city, there is the Ocean ferry to Caye Caulker. The other option is to take a collectivo or taxi (if you’re 4 people taxi is approximately same price) to Chetumal and from Chetumal take the Chicken bus to Belize City, the chicken bus leaves from near the Old ADO station (the location changes every few years/months) this bus costs around 3-6$ (always just ask the locals how much they pay). Important: The last boat from Belize City to Caye Caulker is at 5:30 PM. do not miss it! You do not want to spend a night in Belize City! (note the time difference between Mexico and Belize)
Caye Caulker’s only good beach is on the north island, it is owned by a private resort and the only way to get there is by boat, there is a free boat (free if you buy two drinks) to the KoKo King beach approximately every half an hour (ask locals for updated times).
Caye Caulker is famous for the blue hole, in order to dive in the blue hole you must have an Advanced (2 star) dive license, 2-3 dive package in the blue hole range from 220-350$ (usually the local travel agents will give cheaper prices than the dive shops).
Definitely, a must do of Belize would be a dive/snorkel trip at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Many tours/boat operators do a 7 stop tour around the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, during this tour you can swim with 10’s of nurse sharks, turtles, stingrays and sometimes even swim with a manatee. The tours on the Island aren’t cheap, usually around 60-70USD. However, the cheapest place to take the tour (which included rum punch and lunch) would be La Isla Resort, here you can negotiate a tour for around 45USD per person.
On the coast up to the northern part of the island, you can find amazing seafood, and even negotiate the prices for your meal, a whole lobster grilled would cost you 8-10USD, usually, you can ask for unlimited rum punch with your meal.
At night most of the backpackers head to the sports bar for some drinks.
Flores, Guatemala – from Caye Caulker take the boat back to Belize City, at the dock there are a number of vendors selling tickets to Flores, if you want cheaper tickets to Flores, go to the other dock (Belize water taxi dock which is 3-minute walk away from Ocean Ferry dock). There are 2 buses daily 9:30 am and 1:00 pm. Negotiate your tickets (15-25$) and wait for the bus. On the Belize border, there is an exit fee of about 19USD. There is no entrance fee to Guatemala!
Hostel Recommendation: Yaxha Hostel
Most people go to Flores in order to take the tour in Tikal, Tikal is one of the biggest archeological sites in Guatemala. A roundtrip bus ticket in one of the tour agencies should cost 65-75 quetzal (90 with a tour guide), its recommended to ask multiple shops (the cheapest we found was a small tour stand inside the vegetarian restaurant on the street by yaxha hostel).
Semuc Champey / Lanquin – from Flores, there are shuttles direct to Lanquin (60-80 quetzales with Semuc Champey tours which is located near the yaxha hostel).
Lanquin is a very tranquil little village in the central Guatemalan mountains, its popularity is due to its close proximity to the famous Semuc Champey national park. There are various hostels in Lanquin (and in Semuc Champey for those who want to sleep in the park), the most known hostel is the Zephyr lodge which is famous due to its party atmosphere. for a more relaxed stay in Lanquin the Vista Verde hostel has a beautiful infinity pool up in the mountains right outside Lanquin.
The main activity in Lanquin is obviously Semuc Champey. There are two ways to see Semuc Champay, the easiest is to book a tour which will usually cost about 150 Quetzal, these usually include the entrance fee to the park, a guide and a tour of the water caves near Semuc Champay. There is also an option of taking public busses see link here.
San Pedro La Laguna – From Lanquin negotiate a direct shuttle to San Pedro, or to Panajachel and take a quick little boat ride from Panajachel (this route is more recommended as the roads are really sh*t on the direct journey). The cheapest shuttle would be to negotiate with Semuc Champey tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) which should end up costing approximately 140 Quetzal (more or less depending on negotiating skills).
San Pedro is one of the biggest hubs for people to learn Spanish, the lessons here are very cheap and homestays are available all over the town.
Hostel Recommendation: Playa Linda or Mr. Mullets
A beautiful hike/view is at the top of Indian Nose for sunrise, the hike is quite short (approx. 1 hour). Many tour operators will drive you to the top of the mountain and have a guide walk you up to the top of the trail (tea, coffee, sweet bread and entrance fees are usually included). The price for the tours are usually around 90-100 Quetzales but can be negotiated down to about 70. For those who want to do the hike on their own read this article.
On Friday nights there is a Trivia night at hostel fe, the winners win 100USD and it gets crazy up in that bar. Usually, every night people end up in the club sublime.
From San Pedro you can take a boat to Santa Cruz and stay at the Free Cerveza Glamping hostel, this place is pretty relaxed and nice to spend a day at, note there isnt many places to eat in the area and most people end up eating the dinner the hostel prepares for the guest (at a cost), which includes free unlimited beer for 2 hours. TIPS: if you book 2 nights you get the 3rd night for free.
Antigua – from Free Cerveza/San Pedro take the boat back to Panajachel, from here there are 2 options to get to Antigua, you can take the private shuttle or take the chicken bus (36 Quetzal) which leaves the Calle Principal at around 11 AM (if you have the maps.me app you can find the exact location of the bus stop, but just any local where the bus stops and they will show you).
Antigua’s must-see is one of the most amazing activities/things to see in all of Central America. the Acatenango Volcano hike is absolutely unreal but really depends on the weather you have. Hiking up this volcano is quite simple for an avid hiker but can be very difficult for those who do not hike often. The view from the top of this volcano is AMAZING, you can see the eruptions of the Fuego Volcano and the whole valley surrounding the area. The price with most tour operators is 350 Quetzales. However, we booked with Pablo Tours (Pablo speaks Spanish, here is his WhatsApp: +50234855442), who hooked us up with a great tour for 290 Quetzal, which included a porter who carried up the tents and sleeping bags, and quite decent meals (chicken, rice etc.).
Shuttles to Leon from Antigua with Pablo were 350 Quetzal (-+45$).
There are also direct shuttles/buses to La Ceiba (port city to get to Utila).
From Antigua, the common routes are to head towards Utila(Diving) or to El Salvador (surfing). In this article, we will be focusing on the Diving option in Utila rather than El Salvador.
Copan Ruins, Honduras – from Antigua to Copan you can take a direct shuttle with Pablo Tours (see above), the cost was 125 Quetzal. There was a 3$ entry fee to Honduras.
The main things to do in Copan is to go to the ruins or spend time in Spanish school/house.
Most people come to Copan as a stop to break up the long journey on the way to Utila.
Utila – from Copan to San Pedro Sula there are cheap local buses with a company called Casasola express (-+140 Lempira), its advised to go early (4-5 AM) so you can make the 4:30 PM ferry from La Ceiba to Utila. From the terminal in San Pedro Sula, there are 5-10 companies going to La Ceiba, they range from 105-500 Lempira, we chose one that was 120 Lempira and negotiated down to 105 Lempira (Diana Express). From La Ceiba a taxi to the port is around 30 Lempira per person. The ferry is set at 25USD and non-negotiable.
Hostel recommendation, in Utila, if you go to any dive shop and ask to stay for a night to check out the place you can stay the first night free. All the dive shops offer free accommodation with a fun dive package or PADI package (see below). Note: the island gets extremely humid and if you can get a room with AC it will make your life much cooler.
The main activity in Utila is the cheap diving, the cheapest dive shop on the Island is Paradise Divers (can be negotiated to 215USD for a PADI License with Accommodation and 2 extra free dives). Parrots is the second cheapest which can be negotiated to 220USD for a PADI. These dive shops, however, aren’t the best places to get your dive license, there are more reputable dive shops like Underwater vision (280USD for PADI) or Captain Morgans (268USD). Fun dive packages can also be negotiated and usually, 10-12 dives are about 220USD (at Parrots/Paradise) and about 250-300USD at the other shops on the Island.
Besides the dives, Utila has a great nightlife, Tequila Tuesdays at Tranquila Bar and Ladies night at Vinyl (Thursdays) are the two biggest nights on the Island.
Note: for experienced divers, Utila diving is quite boring, usually there isn’t much to see in the water (not many big fish) besides for a few coral gardens. However, many people who have never dove before in their life find the diving here to be amazing. Basically, Utila is a great place for beginners to learn and get certified but not so much for experienced divers.
Leon, Nicaragua – From Utila take the ferry back to La Ceiba. From here you can take a local bus to Tegucigalpa and spend the night then take another local bus to Leon from here. The other option is to take a shuttle, there are tons of them and most cost 60 USD, however, we went with Guyacumayos Tours which combines a public bus and a shuttle and costs around 40USD, we had a great experience with them, however a guy I met in Leon booked the shuttle with Guyacumayos to get to La Ceiba and they didn’t show up).
Hostel Recommendation: ViaVia Leon is an amazing hostel, its also right across from the Bigfoot.
In Leon, the highlight is the Volcano Boarding, there are countless hostels and agencies that can get you tours, however, the most reputable one is the bigfoot hostel (30USD).
Granada, Nicaragua – from Leon to Granda take the collectivo to Managua and from Managua to Granada (Laguna de Apoyo ) should cost around 3USD. The other option is one by private shuttle (12USD).
Hostel Recommendation: Oasis Hostel is amazing.
Granda has some decent nightlife and is a quite beautiful and quaint city.
The most recommended thing to do here is to go to the Laguna de Apoyo, the easiest way to get here from Granada is to take the Paradiso Hostel shuttle, also definitely the best accommodation on the Laguna.
San Juan Del Sur – From Granada to Rivas there are plenty of microbuses for 1-2USD to Rivas and from Rivas there are buses to SJDS, for all the details check out this link.
SJDS is most known for two things, 1. the Sunday Funday party 2. Surfing.
Sunday fun day costs 30USD entrance (15USD if you stay at the Pachamama hostel or Naked Tiger).
For surfing, there are tons of hostels that take surfers out to all the different beaches in the area.
Monte Verde, Costa Rica – to get from SJDS to Monte Verde read this post .
The main attraction here is the Cloud Forest, the entrance cost here 11,000 CR, its lower for students (get your ISIC ID if your planning on traveling to South as well, it will save you $1000’s).
San Jose – From Monte Verde to San Jose there are 2 buses daily for about 2800CR.
San Jose is a beautiful City, Hostel Urbano is an amazing hostel, one of the best cheap hostels in Central America.
Though beautiful and in Central America, San Jose is very expensive compared to the rest of central.
From San Jose there are tons of trips to various nature reserves such as the Arenal volcano, however, going on tours to anything in Costa Rica is quite expensive.
Peruto Viejo – From Terminal MEPE in San Jose there are buses to Puerto Viejo .
Puerto Viejo is a nice relaxed beach/surf town there’s not much more to do here then relax and surf.
The city is very similar to some of the beach towns in South America such as Montanita.
Bocas del Toro, Panama – For transport to Bocas click here.
Bocas is one hell of a party Island, the main activities here are Diving, Partying, Surfing.
The party scene here is quite livid, kinda reminds me of San Juan del Sur. They even started a Sunday Funday here.
Panama City – The last stop in Central America before heading home or to South America, those with the sufficient time and money should definitely consider doing the San Blas islands tour on the way to Colombia. Flights can also be found for quite cheap to Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin.
[flights to colombia]
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