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Lonely Planet Central America

Lonely Planet Central America

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Lonely Planet Central America

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20 ore
Jul 1, 2019


Lonely Planet Central America is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Scale the Maya temples of Tikal, surf the smoothest and most uncrowded waves in Latin America, or explore the colonial charms of Granada -all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Central America and begin your journey now!

Inside Lonely Planet Central America:

  • Colour maps and images throughout
  • Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests
  • Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots
  • Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices
  • Recommendations & honest reviews - eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss
  • Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience - history, music, cuisine, sports, wildlife, environment, architecture, literature, cinema, current events
  • Covers Mexico's Yucatan & Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and more

The Perfect Choice: Lonely Planet Central America is perfect for both exploring top sights and taking roads less travelled.

About Lonely Planet: Since 1973, Lonely Planet has become the world's leading travel media company with guidebooks to every destination, an award-winning website, mobile and digital travel products, and a dedicated traveller community. Lonely Planet covers must-see spots but also enables curious travelers to get off beaten paths to understand more of the culture of the places in which they find themselves.

eBook Features: (Best viewed on tablet devices and smartphones)

  • Downloadable PDF and offline maps prevent roaming and data charges
  • Effortlessly navigate and jump between maps and reviews
  • Add notes to personalise your guidebook experience
  • Seamlessly flip between pages
  • Bookmarks and speedy search capabilities get you to key pages in a flash
  • Embedded links to recommendations' websites
  • Zoom-in maps and images
  • Inbuilt dictionary for quick referencing

Important Notice: The digital edition of this book may not contain all of the images found in the physical edition.

Jul 1, 2019

Informazioni sull'autore

Lonely Planet has gone on to become the world’s most successful travel publisher, printing over 100 million books. The guides are printed in nine different languages; English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Korean. Lonely Planet enables curious travellers to experience the world and get to the heart of a place via guidebooks and eBooks to almost every destination on the planet, an award-winning website and magazine, a range of mobile and digital travel products and a dedicated traveller community.

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Lonely Planet Central America - Lonely Planet

Central America


Plan Your Trip

Welcome to Central America

Central America Map

Central America’s Top 17

Need to Know

First Time Central America

If You Like...

Month by Month


Big Adventures, Small Budgets

Outdoor Activities

Countries at a Glance

On The Road


The Yucatán


Isla Mujeres

Puerto Morelos

Playa del Carmen

Isla Cozumel



Laguna Bacalar



Chichén Itzá




San Cristóbal de las Casas

Lagos de Montebello



Agua Azul & Misol-Ha

Understand Mexico’s Yucatán & Chiapas

Survival Guide


Guatemala City


The Highlands

Lago de Atitlán


Santa Cruz del Quiché





Todos Santos Cuchumatán

The Pacific Slope



El Paredón


Central Guatemala

Salamá & Around

Biotopo del Quetzal


El Oriente




Lago de Izabal

Puerto Barrios


El Petén



Flores & Santa Elena

El Remate




El Mirador

Understand Guatemala

Survival Guide


Belize City

Northern Cays

Caye Caulker

Ambergris Caye & San Pedro

Northern Belize

Community Baboon Sanctuary

Altun Ha


Orange Walk Town

Corozal Town


Belize City to Belmopan

Western Belize (Cayo)


Hummingbird Highway

San Ignacio

Mountain Pine Ridge & Caracol

West to Guatemala

Southern Belize


Central Cays

Hopkins & Sittee Point


Punta Gorda

Toledo Villages

Understand Belize

Survival Guide


San Salvador

Central El Salvador

Santa Tecla

La Libertad

La Costa del Bálsamo

Western El Salvador

Santa Ana

Parque Nacional Los Volcanes

Lago de Coatepeque



Parque Nacional Montecristo

Ruta de las Flores



Parque Nacional El Imposible

Eastern El Salvador

Cojutepeque, Ilobasco & San Sebastian

San Vicente



Bahía de Jiquilisco

San Miguel

La Unión

Beaches near La Unión

Golfo de Fonseca Islands


Northern El Salvador


La Palma

Understand El Salvador

Survival Guide



Western Honduras


La Esperanza


Lago de Yojoa

San Pedro Sula

Copán Ruinas

Copán Archaeological Site


Northern Honduras


Puerto Cortés


La Ceiba


Bay Islands



The Moskitia

Laguna de Ibans

Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano


Brus Laguna

Puerto Lempira

Southern Honduras & Isla del Tigre

Understand Honduras

Survival Guide



Granada & the Masaya Region



Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya

Los Pueblos Blancos

Carazo Towns

Southwestern Nicaragua


Isla de Ometepe

Southern Pacific Coast

San Juan del Sur

Beaches North of San Juan del Sur

Beaches South of San Juan del Sur

Tola & the Tola Beaches

León & Northwestern Nicaragua


Pacific Beaches near León

Cosigüina Peninsula Beaches



Reserva Natural Volcán Cosigüina

Volcanoes near León

Northern Highlands


Área Protegida Miraflor

Área Protegida Cerro Tisey-Estanzuela






La Dalia & Peñas Blancas

Reserva Natural Cerro Datanlí-El Diablo

Reserva Natural Cerro El Arenal

San Juan de Limay

San Ramón

Caribbean Coast


Pearl Lagoon

Corn Islands

Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas)

Miskito Keys

Waspám & the Río Coco

Río San Juan Department

San Carlos

Understand Nicaragua

Survival Guide


San José

Central Valley & Highlands


Parque Nacional Volcán Poás

Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo


Valle de Orosi


Caribbean Coast

Tortuguero Village

Puerto Limón


Puerto Viejo de Talamanca


Arenal & Northern Lowlands

La Fortuna & Volcán Arenal


Los Chiles

Sarapiquí Valley

Northwestern Costa Rica

Monteverde & Santa Elena


Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja

La Cruz

Península de Nicoya

Playas del Coco

Playa Tamarindo

Playa Sámara

Mal País & Santa Teresa


Central Pacific Coast


Parque Nacional Carara



Manuel Antonio



Southern Costa Rica & Península de Osa

San Isidro de El General

San Gerardo de Rivas



Bahía Drake

Puerto Jiménez

Parque Nacional Corcovado



Paso Canoas

Understand Costa Rica

Survival Guide


Panama City

Panama Canal

Isla Taboga

Archipiélago de las Perlas

Pacific Coast & Highlands

El Valle

Farallón & Playa Blanca



Sunset Coast

Playa Venao

Santa Catalina

Santa Fé

Chiriquí Province


Golfo de Chiriquí

Playa Las Lajas


Parque Nacional Volcán Barú


Cerro Punta

Parque Internacional La Amistad (Las Nubes)

Bocas del Toro Province

Isla Colón

Isla Carenero

Isla Bastimentos

Isla San Cristóbal



Colón Province



Isla Grande

Comarca de Guna Yala

Darién Province



El Real

Rancho Frío

La Palma

Reserva Natural Punta Patiño


Understand Panama

Survival Guide


Central America Today


People & Society

Arts & Culture

Survival Guide

Directory A–Z

Accessible Travel



Customs Regulations

Discount Cards


Embassies & Consulates

Food & Drink



Internet Access

Language Courses

Legal Matters

LGBTIQ+ Travelers



Opening Hours


Public Holidays

Safe Travel




Tourist Information



Women Travelers



Getting There & Away

Entering the Region




Getting Around





Car & Motorcycle




Food & Drink Glossary

Behind the Scenes

Our Writers

Map Legend

Welcome to Central America

With cerulean seas and verdant forests, magnificent Maya ruins and smoking volcanoes, Central America is like a tropical fairy tale – except all of it is real.

Outdoor Adventures

Central America’s seven countries plus Mexico’s Yucatán and Chiapas states equal 300-plus volcanoes, two expansive coasts and one giant playground. Paddle deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe, or explore the remains of Spanish forts. Zip through rainforest canopies, swim alongside sea turtles or trek to cloud-forest vistas. Everywhere you go, you’ll be accompanied by a wild cast of characters: a resplendent quetzal on the highland trail; a troop of swinging monkeys; and a breaching whale beside the ferry. Your adventures are limited only by your will.

Maya Ruins

The Maya civilizations sprawled from Mexico to Honduras, leaving behind ruins in five present-day countries where visitors can still step back into an ancient, mysterious past. Explore the lost temples of Tikal, soaring above the Guatemalan jungle canopy. Investigate otherworldly Palenque and Tulum, perched above the surf. See jaguars carved to life at Copán, and find out why Chichén Itzá is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Discover a culture that harks back 4000 years, and persists today.

Diverse Cultures

Central America may take up less space than Texas, but its rich mix of people has created a dynamic society. With more than 20 Maya languages, Guatemala is the region’s indigenous heartland. The Spanish left their mark with colonial plazas and siestas. African culture permeates the Caribbean, from the Congo rebel traditions to lip-smacking rondón (spicy seafood gumbo). And the last century brought the rest of the world – Asians, Europeans, North Americans – along with Panama City’s transformation into a contemporary capital.

Sun & Sea

With chilled-out Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Central America is perched between the best of both beach worlds. From deserted playas (beaches) to full-moon parties, this region can deliver any sun-soaked experience your inner beach bum desires. What’s more, there’s that magnificent, mysterious world that begins at the water’s edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in Honduras, snorkeling the world’s second-largest coral reef in Belize, getting stoked on Costa Rica’s world-class surf breaks, or setting sail among Panama’s virgin isles. Hello, paradise.

Toucan, Costa Rica | DANIEL PARENT/500PX ©

Why I Love Central America

By Ashley Harrell, Writer

When I was 12, my dad took me on a medical mission to Nicaragua, where I vividly remember diving into a murky swimming hole, devouring my first whole fried fish – eyeballs included – and drinking a Toña, my first beer (thanks Dad!). Twenty years and countless beers later, I wanted more of those raw, unpackaged travel experiences, so I moved to Central America and stayed three years. The highlights include sledding down an active volcano, dancing wildly to Garifuna drumming and diving with hammerhead sharks. Oh, and learning that you can even eat fried fishtail, which tastes like a potato chip.

For more, see Our Writers

Central America’s Top 17

Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala

Possibly the single most beautiful destination in Guatemala, Lage de Atitlán elicits poetic outbursts from even the most seasoned traveler. Of volcanic origin, the alternately placid and turbulent lake is ringed by volcanoes and villages such as Santiago Atitlán, with its thriving indigenous culture, and San Marcos La Laguna, a haven for those wishing to plug into the lake’s cosmic energy. Activities such as kayaking around Santa Cruz La Laguna and hiking the glorious lakeshore trails make it worthwhile to stay a bit longer.


Top Experiences

Caye Caulker, Belize

Take a plunge into warm waters from island docks, discover the rush of kitesurfing or explore the big blue of Belize’s barrier reef. Relaxed Caye Caulker seduces everyone from backpackers to families with its paradisiacal airs, refreshing lack of cars and heaping plates of coconut-fused kebabs and grilled lobster. Its northern stretches now feature a hot new beach club, Koko King, which drops some wildly exuberant full-moon parties each month. Other than that, this cay is far more chilled out than its busier, fancier neighbor, Ambergris.


Top Experiences

Bocas del Toro, Panama

No wonder this Caribbean island chain is Panama’s number-one vacation spot. ‘It’s all good,’ say the relaxed locals. Pedal to the beach on a cruiser bike, hum to improvised calypso on Isla Bastimentos and laze over dinner in a thatched hut on the waterfront. Accommodation options include cheap digs, stunning jungle lodges and luxury resorts on outer islands. Surfers hit the breaks, but there’s also snorkeling among dazzling corals and oversized starfish, or volunteering opportunities to help nesting sea turtles.


Top Experiences

Bay Islands, Honduras

Imagine living the Caribbean dream – swimming in balmy, turquoise waters off a white-sand beach, then sipping a sundowner – but on a backpacking budget. Well, Honduras’ Bay Islands offer that opportunity. Blessed with a fascinating British and buccaneering heritage, today these islands are renowned for their fabled coral reefs and terrific scuba diving. Search for the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, off the island of Utila, or explore shipwrecks in Roatán. Then feast on surf-fresh seafood and investigate the islands’ surprisingly lively bar scenes.

Scuba diving, Roatán | J.T. LEWIS/500PX ©

Top Experiences

Copán, Honduras

There may be hundreds of Maya sites dotted around Central America, but few can rival the beauty of Copán. Its location in an idyllic river valley, home to scarlet macaws and other birdlife and surrounded by pine-forested hills, is simply sublime. The site itself is also very special, with a towering hieroglyphic stairway and a great plaza dotted with imposing, fabulously carved stelae (standing stone monuments) and altars. When you’ve had your fill of exploring Maya temples, you’ll find the charming little neighboring town of Copán Ruinas a delightful base.

Detail, Gran Plaza | CALAVERAPHOTOGRAPHY/500PX ©

Top Experiences

Granada, Nicaragua

Granada is a town of immense and palpable magnetism. At the heart of the city’s charms are the picture-perfect cobblestone streets, polychromatic colonial homes and churches, and a lilting air that brings the city’s spirited past into present-day focus. Most trips here begin and end on foot; simply dawdling from gallery to restaurant to colonial church can take up the better part of a day. Nearby, myriad wild areas, islands, volcanoes and artisan villages await further exploration of their treasures.


Top Experiences

Costa Maya, Mexico

Do yourself a favor and get to this region while the going’s still good. Unlike in overdeveloped Cancún and Riviera Maya, you can still find quiet fishing villages on the Costa Maya that put a premium on sustainable development, such as charming Mahahual. This is the place to slow down, lounge on luxurious powder-sand beaches, kayak in the crystal-clear Laguna Bacalar and feast on the freshest of seafood. Offshore, divers and snorkelers can explore Banco Chinchorro – the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere.


Top Experiences

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

This laid-back island, Lago de Nicaragua’s beloved centerpiece, is home to archaeological remains, waterfalls, monkeys and birdlife, as well as lapping waves. Activity-seekers can take to the twin volcanoes, zip lines and lush hillsides cut by walking tracks, or kayak, bike and climb their way through this lost paradise. At the heart of the island’s charms are the cool hostels, camping areas and peaced-out traveler scenes. Customize your experience, from high-end luxury lodges to groovy-groupie hippie huts: Ometepe is big enough for all kinds.


Top Experiences

Tikal, Guatemala

The remarkably restored temples that stand in this partially cleared corner of the jungle still astonish, with both their monumental size and architectural brilliance, as an early-morning arrival at the Gran Plaza proves. It’s a testament to the cultural and artistic heights scaled by this jungle civilization, which thrived for some 16 centuries. A highlight is the sky-high vantage provided by towering Temple IV, on the west edge of the precinct. Equally compelling is the abundance of wildlife, which you’ll see while strolling ancient causeways between ceremonial centers.


Top Experiences

Panama City, Panama

Panama City is high-octane Latin America: think crowds, casinos and a stacked skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers that calls Miami to mind. This city of nearly a million people both sits within striking distance of one of the world’s great marvels of engineering, the Panama Canal, and features the atmospheric colonial architecture of Casco Viejo and the romantic ruins of Panamá Viejo. It’s incongruous, yet appealing – and undeniably authentic. Oh, and the lush rainforest and sandy beaches are just a short day trip away.


Top Experiences

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

Playa El Tunco is the most famous beach in El Salvador. Known for its throbbing weekend party scene, world-class beach breaks and relatively large international crowd, El Tunco delivers in black-sandy spades. But if you’d rather chill out than party down, many surrounding beach hamlets are far less hectic. At the western reaches, Barrio de Santiago is wild and windswept and sea turtles hatch along its shores. Plug further east and find blissful beaches you can have all to yourself.


Top Experiences

Palenque, Mexico

Get ready for these impressive ruins, some of the Maya world’s finest. Here pyramids rise above jungle treetops and howler monkeys sound off like monsters in the dense canopy. Wander the maze-like Palacio, gazing up at its unique and iconic tower. Scale the stone staircase of the Templo de las Inscripciones, the lavish mausoleum of Pakal (Palenque’s mightiest ruler), and survey the sprawling ruins from atop. Then head downhill, following the Otulum River and its pretty waterfalls, and finish by visiting Palenque’s excellent museum.


Top Experiences

Blue Hole Natural Monument, Belize

The famed Blue Hole Natural Monument is a brilliant sinkhole that divers can’t help but plunge into. The sheer walls of the hole drop more than 400ft into the ocean, and although it is half filled with silt, the depth still creates a perfect circle of startling azure that is visible from above. The wall of the Blue Hole is decorated with a dense forest of stalactites from times past, and a school of reef sharks sometimes keeps divers company as they descend into the mysterious ocean depths.


Top Experiences

Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

Driving through coffee plantations and mountain villages may seem like a sedate affair, but don’t be fooled. Traversing the volcanic Apeneca Range, the Flower Route is packed with waterfalls, food fairs and hiking trails. At the northern end of the 60km highway ascent is Tacuba, a gateway town to the spectacular Parque Nacional El Imposible on the Guatemalan border. Near the southern tip is Lago de Coatepeque, a pristine volcanic lake where the ancients used to swim, and Volcán Santa Ana, which makes for a great day hike.


Top Experiences

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

It’s easy to understand why Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most popular national park: this gem is blessed with stunning beaches, accessible trails and bountiful wildlife. A perfect day here entails a leisurely morning of navigating the trails and scanning the canopy for wildlife (such as iguanas), and an even more leisurely afternoon of picnicking under swaying beach palms and swimming in the turquoise Pacific. At day’s end, dinner is served at a cliffside restaurant as the sun sets the horizon ablaze. Pura vida, indeed.


Top Experiences

Southern Caribbean, Costa Rica

By day, lounge in a hammock, cruise by bike to snorkel off uncrowded beaches, hike to waterfall-fed pools and visit the remote indigenous territories of the Bribrí and Kéköldi. By night, dip into zesty Caribbean cooking and sway to reggaetón at open-air bars cooled by ocean breezes. The villages of Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo, all outposts of this unique mix of Afro-Caribbean, Tico and indigenous culture, are perfect bases for adventures on the Caribbean’s southern coast.


Top Experiences

Altun Ha, Belize

Though not the largest Maya site in Belize, Altun Ha is definitely the country’s best known. An easy trip from Belize City, the 607-hectare site contains a central ceremonial precinct of two plazas surrounded by two temples, including the Temple of the Green Tomb and the Temple of the Masonry Altars (and it’s the one you’ll recognize from both the Belikin Beer label and Belizean banknote). After a day of exploring, have your weary muscles pampered at the Belize Boutique Resort & Spa, 24km north of the site.


Need to Know

For more information, see Survival Guide


Spanish, English


Generally not required for under 90 days. Belize issues 30-day visas. The Centro America 4 (CA-4) agreement allows 90 days in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.


ATMs are widespread, except for in remote areas. Credit cards are accepted by midrange and high-end hotels, restaurants and tour operators. Bargaining is OK for informal transactions.

Cell Phones

Cell phones are widely used. You can purchase a local cell phone in a kiosk for as little as US$20, or a prepaid SIM card for around US$5 (the cell phone you use it with must be GSM-compatible and SIM-unlocked).


Central Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus six hours)

When to Go

High Season (mid-Dec–mid-Apr)

A Dry season throughout most of the region.

A Higher demand for hotels; rates increase by 25% to 50%.

A Significantly more tourists in the most popular destinations.

High Season Peak (holidays)

A Includes Christmas, New Year and Easter week.

A Hotel rates may be up to double the normal rates.

A Resorts, festival towns and beaches are crowded with national vacationers.

Low Season (mid-Apr–early Dec)

A Rainy season in most of the region; hurricane season between June and November.

A Many destinations can still be enjoyed – check regional climates.

A Accommodations and resorts are better priced.

Useful Websites

Planeta ( Regional articles, events, reference material and links, with an emphasis on sustainable travel.

The Tico Times ( Based in Costa Rica, a long-standing online newspaper covering Central America news and culture.

Lonely Planet ( Destination information, hotel bookings, traveler forum and more.

Tourist Information

Travelers will find a tourist office in the capital city of each country; some countries have them in outlying towns as well. If you’re a student, look for student travel agencies in the capital cities of Costa Rica and Panama and in Cancún, Mexico.

Check, which has standard tourist-board coverage of all countries.

Responsible Travel

Go overland Take buses, not planes.

Give right Handouts to kids encourage begging; give directly to schools or clinics.

Buy local Eat and stay at family-owned places and use community-owned services.

Volunteer Make a difference by preserving turtle-nesting sights, teaching English or working with reputable nonprofits.

Reduce waste Bring or buy a refillable water bottle.

Respect local traditions Dress appropriately when visiting local churches or traditional communities.

Daily Costs

Budget: Less than US$50

A Dorm bed: from US$10–15

A Set meals or street food: US$4–8

A Public transport: US$5–15

Midrange: US$50–180

A Double room in a midrange hotel: from US$30–60

A Restaurant meals: US$8–20

A Park fees or surf lessons: US$8–25

Top End: More than US$180

A Double room in a high-end hotel, resort or lodge: from US$60–140

A Guided hikes and tours: US$30–60

Arriving in Central America

Cancún International Airport (Mexico) Airport shuttles cost around M$160 per person; taxis cost up to M$500.

Aeropuerto Internacional La Aurora (Guatemala City) Authorized taxis wait out the front of departures.

Philip Goldson International Airport (Belize City) Taxis into town start at BZ$50.

Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (San Salvador, El Salvador) Buses run to the city center every hour. Taxis cost about US$30 to US$35 (45 minutes).

Toncontín International Airport (Tegucigalpa, Honduras) Arrange for a transfer (L200 to L300).

Managua International Airport (Nicaragua) Official taxis inside the airport charge around US$20 to US$25.

Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (San José, Costa Rica) Buses (about US$1.50) run to central San José. Taxis charge from US$30.

Tocumen International Airport (Panama City) Catch taxis (from US$30) at the transport desk near baggage claim.

Getting Around

Buses are the cheapest and most accessible way to get around, particularly along the Pan-American Hwy (also called the Panamericana or Interamericana), which runs through all the countries except Belize.

Air Because of the region’s skinny stature, a flight can save several hours of backtracking. Each country has at least one international airport, as well as regional and charter flights via national airlines.

Boat Various types of boat serve islands and some borders.

Bus The main form of regional transport, from comfortable, air-conditioned, long-haul buses to run-down former school buses.

Car & Motorcycle Rentals are usually not allowed to cross international borders.

Train Limited to the Panama City–Colón route in Panama, and a basic commuter service in Costa Rica’s Central Valley.

For much more, see Getting Around

First Time Central America

For more information, see Survival Guide


A Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date.

A Check the visa situation and government travel advisories.

A Organize travel insurance.

A Check flight restrictions on luggage and camping or outdoors equipment.

A Check your immunization history.

A Contact your credit card company to see if your card includes car rental insurance.

What to Pack

A Phrasebook

A Flip-flops or sandals

A Hiking shoes

A Poncho or rain jacket

A Binoculars

A Bug repellent with DEET

A Refillable water bottle

A Driver’s license (if you plan to rent a car)

A Field guide of local fauna and/or flora

A Batteries and chargers

A Flashlight or headlamp

Top Tips for Your Trip

A Learn as much Spanish as you can – even just basic phrases. It can’t hurt, and it might very well help you bond with the locals.

A Pack half the clothes that you think you’ll need: laundry service is cheap in the region.

A Visit local mercados (markets) – not just to eat fresh food cheaply, but also to sample a lively slice of local life.

A Be aware that Belize, Costa Rica and Mexico are more expensive than other countries. The cheapest are Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

A Relax and bring a good book everywhere; Central Americans are rarely in a hurry and it helps to go with the flow.

What to Wear

Locals rarely wear shorts when they’re not at the beach. Bring lightweight pants or skirts and short sleeve tops. Dining and nightlife can be formal in bigger cities. Bring dress shoes (or sandals for women), and pants and a dress shirt for men or a skirt or dress for women. A fleece and lightweight shell are necessary for the highlands.


Booking ahead is rarely necessary except in peak seasons.

Hotels Come in every stripe; save money with private doubles in hostels.

Camping Campgrounds are uncommon, but do exist in national parks and reserves (particularly in Costa Rica).

Guesthouses/B&Bs A good midrange option; usually family-run and small.

Hostels Not just for the young, hostels range from quiet digs to party central.

Lodges Ranging from rustic to high-end; good places to commune with nature.

Homestays Private quarters in a home, with shared bathrooms and meals.

Safe Travel

A Parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are plagued by high crime rates and gang activity. Visitors are rarely affected, but some have been victims of grab-and-run theft, assault, rape, carjacking and murder.

A Capital cities tend to have the highest rates of crime.

A Many sexual assaults occur on isolated beaches.

A Avoid night buses (with the possible exception of Mexico and Panama), as highway robberies often happen at night.

A Avoid drug use entirely.

A Seek out updates from other travelers, tourist offices, police, guesthouse owners and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree ( ).


It’s OK to bargain in markets and at street stalls, but educate yourself first by asking around to get an idea of the pricing of different items and the specific factors that contribute to the quality of what you’re bargaining for.


Restaurants Tip 10% (but check first to see if it’s included in the bill).

Taxis Tipping is optional but you can round up to leave extra, especially at night.

Guides Tip US$1 to US$2 per person for day tours, with more substantial tips for specialized guides.



Asking for help Say disculpe to get someone’s attention; perdón to apologize.

Personal space Be aware that Central Americans often have fewer boundaries about personal space than is customary in Western countries.

Indigenous communities Ask permission to take photos and dress modestly. Bargain for crafts, but not for lodgings or food.


Central America is not a culinary destination, with beans and rice tending to dominate the plate. But an amalgam of cultures, fertile soils, varied climates and expansive shorelines have resulted in some seriously delicious dishes. The Caribbean side of the isthmus tends to work with more spice and coconut milk, with excellent results, but those looking for a true foodie’s paradise should make for Mexico.


Beyond English-speaking Belize, Spanish is the primary language of Central America. Knowing some very basic Spanish phrases is not only courteous but also essential. Parts of the Caribbean coast speak English.

If you visit indigenous communities, pick up a few words in the local language beforehand – it’s the best way to warm relations.

If You Like...


Isla Holbox, Mexico An offbeat Gulf island surrounded by sea turtles, manta rays and barracuda.

Utila, Honduras For the ultimate snorkeling experience seek out the gargantuan whale shark in the big blue.

Belize Mile upon mile of the Western hemisphere’s finest reef makes Belize a snorkeling paradise.

Parque Nacional Coiba, Panama It’s not easy to get here, but this marine park offers pristine conditions.


Volcán Mombacho, Nicaragua Accessible cloud forest with great hiking and even better birdwatching.

Parque Internacional La Amistad, Panama True wilderness hiking, accessible via the highlands or Caribbean coast.

Parque Nacional Cusuco, Honduras Dramatic and mountainous: trails are laced with giant ferns, dwarf forest and hidden quetzals.

Parque Nacional Chirripó, Costa Rica Climbing to the top of Cerro Chirripó is a thrilling, chilling adventure.

Volcán Tajumulco, Guatemala Central America’s highest point is a relatively easy climb (especially if you camp overnight).

Wildlife Watching

Península de Osa, Costa Rica Monkeys and macaws, sloths and snakes – wildlife is prolific around the Osa.

Isla Bastimentos, Panama From July to August, loggerhead, hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles hatch on the north shore.

The Moskitia, Honduras Wetlands, savanna and tropical forest – the best place for searching for jaguar and tapir.

Monterrico, Guatemala Save a turtle, spot a whale or go birdwatching from this Pacific village.

Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Costa Rica On late-night tours, watch turtles lay eggs in the sands of this wildlife-rich park.

Resplendent quetzal | DANNYBREG/GETTY IMAGES ©

Scuba Diving

Roatán, Honduras Outstanding wall dives at the Cayman trench edge feature corals and prolific sea life.

The Blue Hole, Belize This deep blue sinkhole has you swimming under stalactites with bull sharks and hammerheads.

Isla Cozumel, Mexico The famed reefs, particularly Palancar Shallows and El Cielo, beckon diving aficionados.

Isla del Caño, Costa Rica Sea turtles and humpback whales make this a popular destination for dive trips.

Corn Islands, Nicaragua Excellent cave and reef dives in crystal-clear Caribbean waters.

Parque Dos Ojos, Mexico One of the best cenotes around Tulum for underwater exploration.

Off the Beaten Track

Pearl Keys, Nicaragua Live out your shipwreck fantasies beneath coconut palms on these tiny, idyllic Caribbean islands.

Bahía de Jiquilisco, El Salvador Pounding surf, lush mangroves, fishing villages and an unspoiled biosphere offer Survivor-style wonder.

The Darién, Panama Steeped in indigenous culture and exotic wildlife, this remote province is wild and pristine.

La Campa, Honduras A lovely heartland pueblo (village); zip-line over canyons, find authentic ceramics and hike the highlands.

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize A real gem for nature lovers and seekers of a peaceful rural community in a beautiful setting.

Calakmul, Mexico Remote Maya ruins are surrounded by lush rainforest in Campeche.

Colonial Cities

Antigua, Guatemala A riot of cobblestone streetscapes, crumbling ruins and noble churches.

Granada, Nicaragua This wonderfully preserved colonial showpiece lays on the charm from the moment you arrive.

Suchitoto, El Salvador A picture-book, historic town littered with art galleries. Festivals reign most weekends.

Casco Viejo, Panama City Great for night owls: underground bars, brew pubs, wine bars and live-music venues.

Comayagua, Honduras Relaxed and prosperous, with a historic core of elegant churches and buildings.


Dominical, Costa Rica Bring your board: you may never want to leave this easygoing hippie haunt.

Santa Catalina, Panama No souvenir shops in this dusty village – it’s all about world-class waves.

Pavones, Costa Rica Surfers flock here to catch one of the longest left breaks on Earth.

Las Flores, El Salvador Tucked into the untrodden east and as good as anywhere in Latin America.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica Ride the legendary Salsa Brava wave; in December it gets up to 7m.

Punta Mango, El Salvador Access the famed break by boat from Las Flores or El Cuco.

Playa Maderas, Nicaragua This prime surf hangout offers one of the country’s best beach breaks.


Tikal, Guatemala This regional superstar is totally worth a visit for its soaring, jungle-shrouded temples.

Chichén Itzá, Mexico The massive El Castilo pyramid will wow you, especially during equinox.

Copán, Honduras An exquisite temple acropolis with some of the most intricate Maya carvings anywhere.

Tulum, Mexico Maya ruins perched atop a cliff offer jaw-dropping views of the Caribbean down below.

Tazumal, El Salvador The country’s most impressive Maya ruins were once the site of human sacrifices.

Altun Ha, Belize The Maya ruins that inspired Belikin Beer labels and the nation’s banknotes.

Palenque, Mexico Surrounded by lush jungle, these ruins are among Mexico’s most impressive.


Volcán Masaya, Nicaragua Watching red lava bubble in the crater at night.

Volcán Barú, Panama Steep, foggy and muddy – but the top lets you view both oceans at once.

Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, El Salvador The land of volcanoes: Santa Ana is the largest; and conical-shaped Izalco the most dramatic.

Volcán Arenal, Costa Rica The fireworks show is no longer, but Arenal still boasts a gorgeous cone and myriad hot springs.


Guna Yala, Panama Known for perfect – and plentiful – postage-stamp islets with turquoise waters.

Playa Norte, Mexico This gorgeous, swimmable, fine-sand jewel is sometimes called Mexico’s most beautiful beach.

West Bay, Honduras A classic, white-sand Caribbean beach with the added bounty of a coral reef offshore.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua Brilliant turquoise waters meet snow-white sand in secluded coves on this enchanted isle.

Placencia, Belize A popular and beautiful 16-mile (26km) stretch of Caribbean sand.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador Chill out on black-sand beaches with pro surfers and local revelers.


Science & Soul Wellness, Belize The only antigravity studio in the country, set in a soothing space run by real professionals.

Danyasa Yoga Arts School, Costa Rica Classes for all levels, including dance-yoga-flow hybrid styles and ecstatic moon dance.

RandOM Yoga, Belize Donation-based, open-air rooftop yoga with a fabulous teacher in Caye Caulker.

Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala A lovely setting in which to practice, and the Yoga Forest studio offers truly spectacular views.

Yoga practice, Costa Rica | SHELLYGRAPHY/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Month by Month


Carnaval, February or March

Semana Santa, March or April

Bolas de Fuego, August

Día de los Muertos, November

Garifuna Settlement Day, November


The dry season and tourist season are both at their peaks, with great kitesurfing and swimming available in warm Pacific waters. Quetzal-viewing season begins in Costa Rica’s Monteverde (through July).

3 Sound Tulum, Mexico

A music festival drawing in top international artists in the underground electronic scene, held over two weeks at multiple venues in and around magical Tulum.

3 Panama Jazz Festival

The weeklong jazz festival is one of the biggest musical events in Panama, drawing top-caliber international musicians from jazz, blues, salsa and other genres. Held around Panama City; the open-air events are usually free.


It’s prime time for surfing both on Pacific and Caribbean swells. Carnaval, a feature of all Central American countries, takes place in February or March.

z Carnaval, Mexico

A big street bash preceding the 40-day penance of Lent, Carnaval is exuberantly cele-brated in Mérida, Campeche and Isla Cozumel with parades, music, dancing and lots o’ fun.

z Festival de Diablos y Congos, Panama

Held two weeks after Carnaval (either in February or March), this festival in Portobelo celebrates rebellious slave ancestors with spirited public dancing, cheeky role-playing and beautiful masks and costumes.


Easter celebrations may take place in March or April. Semana Santa (Holy Week) offers reenactments of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. On Good Friday, religious processions are held across Central America.

z Envision, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s version of Burning Man festival, with four days of spoken word, music, yoga, performance art, permaculture and DJs in Uvita in early March (or late February).

z Desfile de Bufos, Guatemala

Guatemala City university students take to the streets during the Parade of Fools (held on the Friday before Good Friday) to mock the government and make other political statements.


The tail end of the dry season. In the jungle lowlands of Guatemala, March and April are scorchers; it’s the best time to see whale sharks off Honduras or Belize.

z Día de Juan Santamaría, Costa Rica

April 11 commemorates Costa Rica’s national hero, who died driving failed US conqueror William Walker out of Costa Rica in 1856. The weeklong national holiday features parades, parties and other celebrations, especially in Santamaría’s hometown of Alajuela.


The rainy season is upon the isthmus. May begins a five- to six-month nesting season for both loggerhead and green sea turtles in the Caribbean.

5 Chocolate Festival, Belize

This festival in mid-May in the southernmost region of Belize brings together folks who grow chocolate, sell chocolate and just plain love chocolate. Also showcases the Toledo district’s history and culture.

z La Feria de San Isidro, Honduras

Honduras’ largest fiesta takes place in the streets and clubs of La Ceiba, culminating in late May with hundreds of thousands of people attending parades. Costumed dancers and revelers fill the city to bursting.


June to November is hurricane season, though big weather events are sporadic and hard to predict. Forty days after Easter, Corpus Christi features colorful celebrations throughout the region in May or June.

z Festival Corpus Christi, Panama

One of the most popular and elaborate of the region’s Corpus Christi celebrations takes place in La Villa de Los Santos and lasts two weeks. Highlights include costume parades, fabulous drag queens and dancers in devil costumes.

5 Lobsterfest, Belize

A celebration ( of the world’s favorite crustacean, along with libations galore. Takes place in San Pedro in mid-June, in Placencia in the last week of June, and then Caye Caulker in early July.


Though it’s the middle of rainy season, the weather is relatively dry on the Caribbean side; Belize can be uncomfortably hot. It’s off-peak for visitors and hotels offer better rates.

z Rabin Ajau, Guatemala

Guatemala’s most impressive indigenous festival, this folkloric gathering takes place in Cobán in late July or early August.


Breeding humpback whales can be observed in the Pacific. And though rainy season continues, in between showers there’s still plenty of sunshine to be had.

z Festival del Invierno, El Salvador

For the Winter Festival, hip, lefty students flood the small mountain town of Perquín and party like the war has just ended.

z Costa Maya Festival, Belize

This massive festival ( may be held in San Pedro, Belize, but it draws participants from all over Central America. The streets come alive with music, parades, dancing and drinking. The bodybuilding contest is a bonus.

z Bolas de Fuego, El Salvador

To commemorate an eruption of Volcán San Salvador that destroyed their original town, local scallywags paint their faces like devils and throw fireballs at each other – just a bit of (potentially harmful) fun. Held on August 31 in Nejapa.


Though it’s peak hurricane season further north, rains let up around Panama City and Costa Rica’s Caribbean side is less wet than the Pacific. Flooding in Honduras is possible through February.

z September Celebrations, Belize

Two weeks of patriotic celebrations across Belize City include the Belize Carnaval, where Belizeans don colorful costumes and dance to Caribbean beats. The party begins on the country’s National Day and culminates on Independence Day.

z Costa Rican Independence

Action centers on a relay race that passes a ‘Freedom Torch’ from Guatemala to Costa Rica. The torch arrives at Cartago in the evening of September 14, when the nation breaks into the national anthem.

z Festival de la Mejorana, Panama

Panama’s largest folk festival, held in Guararé, showcases music and dance by the country’s many indigenous and ethnic groups, along with visiting performers from around Latin America.


In most of the region, October 12 is Día de la Raza (Columbus Day) – a dubious legacy nonetheless celebrated by every high-school brass band. Loggerhead turtles nest on the Pacific coast from now through March.

z Fería de Isla Tigre, Panama

Indigenous Guna people converge on Isla Tigre for three days of tireless traditional dancing. It’s visually engaging and fully authentic. Held in mid-October, with a three-day fair featuring art shows and canoe races.

z Noche de Agüizotes, Nicaragua

This spooky festival, held on the last Friday in October in Masaya, brings to life characters from horror stories of the colonial period with elaborate costumes. Keep an eye out for the headless priest.


Seasonal rains have tapered off in most of the region, except for Honduras’ north coast, where flooding can occur through February. In Panama, the whole country celebrates multiple independence-related holidays.

z Día de Todos los Santos, Guatemala

In Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, just outside Antigua, celebrations marking All Saints’ Day include the flying of huge kites, while in the tiny highlands town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, November 1 is celebrated with drunken horse races through town.

z Día de los Muertos, Mexico

On November 1 and 2, families build altars in their homes and visit graveyards to commune with their beloved dead, taking garlands and gifts. Theme park Xcaret in the Riviera Maya arranges beautiful altars.

z Garifuna Settlement Day, Belize

On November 19, this holiday celebrates the arrival of the first Garifuna people to Belize by boat. The best spots to partake in the three Ds – dancing, drinking and drumming – are Dangriga and Hopkins.


December and January are the coolest months on the Pacific coast, from Nicaragua to the jungle lowlands of Guatemala. The Christmas holidays disrupt the region’s work schedule – cities empty out and beaches are full.

z Las Fiestas de Zapote, Costa Rica

For one week, this celebration embraces all things Costa Rican – from rodeos to fried food, bullfights to carnival rides, and a whole lot of drinking. It takes place in Zapote, southeast of San José.


Northern Loop: Guatemala, Mexico & Belize


Rich in culture and coastline, this route loops through many of the region’s northern highlights, including Maya ruins, reef snorkeling and jungle cruising.

From Guatemala City, head straight to colonial Antigua, fitting in a volcano climb and perhaps a crash course in Spanish. At Lago de Atitlán go for a few days of hiking and swimming in the new-age magnet San Marcos La Laguna. Then continue on to Chichicastenango to see the famous Maya market.

Venture north to Mexico on a Chiapas loop, exploring the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and nearby Maya villages, as well as the jungle-set Maya ruins at Palenque. Make your way back to Guatemala and Tikal, the mother of all Maya sites.

Bus east to Belize, stopping to go river tubing or caving outside hilly San Ignacio, before splashing into the Caribbean – and the barrier reef near either Hopkins or Caye Caulker. From Punta Gorda, catch a lancha (small motorboat) to Lívingston, starting point for a serious jungle river cruise to Río Dulce. From there, hop one of the frequent buses back to Guatemala City.


Southern Sampler: Sea, City & Countryside


Not everybody gets ample vacation time, and Central America is tough to squeeze into a week. But for those hungry for a three-in-one trip involving some beach bumming, countryside and a splash of colonial character, here’s one way it can be done.

Touch down into Panama’s top tourist draw, the Bocas del Toro archipelago, where you can shimmy through the emerald-green Caribbean, spying on sea life and communing with coral, and then stalk monkeys and sloths in Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos or chill on the vanilla sands of Red Frog Beach. In the evening, you’ll devour fresh seafood by candlelight before sucking down potent cocktails and partying the night away in Bocas Town or on Isla Carenero. After a couple of days of snorkeling and island exploration, hop a plane to Costa Rica’s lush and undulating Central Valley.

Forget the gritty capital and instead point those wheels for the verdant highlands that surround it, opting either for the storybook Valle de Orosi and its well-paved 32km loop through rolling hills, terraced coffee plantations and pastoral villages, or the strawberry-studded hills of Poás and its fussy, namesake volcano (best visited early in the morning). A stay at Peace Lodge, with its wonderful animal rescue project, will introduce you to the country’s fauna and some epic waterfalls. Save time for relaxing in the cave-like showers (with a waterfall option!) and the bubbling hot tubs.

Another short plane ride away is Nicaragua’s capital city (skip this too), which is just an hour from the colonial gem of Granada. Here you can stroll down postcard-perfect cobblestone streets lined with magnificent churches, or cruise around Lake Nicaragua’s islets, which were formed thousands of years ago by the erupting Mombacho Volcano. You can also help support locals by visiting a nearby community-tourism project, or check out an impressive collection of petroglyphs and statues in Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera.


Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, Costa Rica | BLEND IMAGES - JEREMY WOODHOUSE/GETTY IMAGES ©


Pacific Coast: El Salvador to Panama


This sinuous coastline has something to suit everyone, from insatiable surfers to dedicated beach bums. Inland there are coffee farms, cloud forests and even more diverse landscapes. Let your spirit soar on this itinerary that takes in four countries, countless monster curls and infinite adventure. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, peak surf season is March to December, while further south it’s February to March.

Arrive in San Salvador and beam to La Costa del Bálsamo, home to world-class surf breaks; Playas El Zonte and Sunzal offer reasonable seaside digs and lessons for budding boarders. Take a detour to the Ruta de las Flores, where you can hike to hidden waterfalls and discover the region’s culinary delights.

Moving east, cross the border(s) to Nicaragua. Stop in offbeat León for a dose of art and eclecticism. From Managua, catch a shuttle to San Juan del Sur, a chilled-out town ringed by beaches with big waves. You’re also within striking distance of Isla de Ometepe, an island packed with opportunities for adventure.

Continue south to Liberia, Costa Rica and veer west to hit some surf spots on the Península de Nicoya. Playa Grande is a long, pristine stretch of sand, where you can catch waves by day and spy on nesting turtles at night. Hardy souls should brave the bumpy ride to the southern tip of the peninsula, where Mal País and Santa Teresa offer some of the best breaks in the region. The gorgeous beach and easygoing vibe are beacons for surfers, yogis and free spirits of all types. Nearby Cabo Blanco was Costa Rica’s first nationally protected nature reserve – it’s still worth a day trip.

Take a shortcut to the mainland with a ferry to Puntarenas. Hardcore surfers should continue south to the waves of Dominical. Alternatively, an inland jaunt to Monteverde offers cooler temperatures, canopy tours and magical cloud forest. From there head east to Panama. If you missed Monteverde, take a detour to Boquete, another mountain town with cool air and strong coffee. Otherwise, make for Santa Catalina and its Hawaii-style waves. From Santiago, bus it to Panama City or David.


Caribbean Coast: Mexico to Nicaragua


Explore the ‘other side’ of Central America – where Spanish is heard less than English or Kriol, and Latin beats give way to reggae rhythms and Garifuna drumming. This east-coast route shows off the rich cultural blend and wild natural scenery that make the Caribbean unique.

Fly into Cancún, maybe hit up a salsa club, and start working your way south. Your first stop is Tulum, an impressive Maya ruin set on prime beachfront property. Next, head south to Mahahual to snorkel the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere.

From Chetumal, catch a boat to chilled-out, budget-friendly Caye Caulker, Belize for some days of sunning, swimming and snorkeling. Return to the mainland via Belize City, perhaps sneaking in a side-trip to the Belize Zoo. If you’re up for some more island-hopping, catch the bus to Dangriga, from where you can get a boat to Tobacco Caye. Here you can snorkel right off the shore, and there are plenty of hammocks to go around afterward. Hopkins is also a laid-back Garifuna town with a beach, if you prefer to stay on the mainland.

You’ll save yourself some time and hassle if you can catch the weekly boat from Placencia direct to Puerto Cortés, Honduras. Otherwise, continue south through Toledo to Punta Gorda to catch a more frequent boat to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Then take a minibus to the Honduras border at Corinto.

Buses run to La Ceiba, via San Pedro Sula. Along this coastline, there are countless attractions that are unique to this region, including river-rafting on the Río Cangrejal and visiting the Garifuna village of Sambo Creek. The Bay Islands are an absolute must for divers (or would-be divers).

And now, you have reached the final frontier: The Moskitia. This huge expanse of untamed wilderness is inhabited in only a few isolated places. If you’re curious, consider signing up for a tour to the Moskitia (available in La Ceiba) – there are few roads there and plenty of crime.


The Center of Central America


This route explores the less-traveled, less-costly and lesser-known countries of Central America, taking in two coastlines and all the spectacular scenery in between.

From Guatemala City, journey east over the El Salvador border to Tacuba, start of the Ruta de las Flores, replete with hiking trails and food festivals. From Sonsonate, turn south toward La Costa del Bálsamo for a few days of riding waves and catching rays in La Libertad. Stop in San Salvador to sample the country’s best nightlife, before heading east to Playa El Cuco for a quirky (and eco-conscious) stay at La Tortuga Verde.

Turn north and cross into Honduras, heading toward Lago de Yojoa to search for quetzals in the cloud forest. Continue north to La Ceiba, the jumping-off point for the region’s star diving destination – the Bay Islands. Utila offers the chance to spot enormous whale sharks suspended in the big blue.

Head back to Guatemala, but not before a stop in the cobblestone town of Copán Ruinas, which offers river-tubing, mountain horseback rides and namesake ruins.


Southern Loop


From volcano climbs to barefoot beach towns, southern Central America offers equal parts adventure and R&R. The green giant, Costa Rica, is flanked by two vibrant countries with colonial character and off-the-beaten-path allure.

Starting in San José, Costa Rica journey to hippie haven Puerto Viejo de Talamanca for good food, surf and rainforest rich in wildlife. Cross the Panamanian border and hop on a boat to the sugar-sand beaches of Bocas del Toro. From here turn south to Boquete and slog up Volcán Barú for 360-degree views.

Back in Costa Rica, stop off in freewheeling Dominical for a surf and a yoga session, then cut over to the Pacific coast to explore the monkey-crowded trails and picture-perfect beaches in Manuel Antonio. Continue up the Interamericana and into Nicaragua. Test the surf and swing in a hammock in laid-back San Juan del Sur, then rest up for an adventure on Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic island in a sea-sized lake. Follow up with a trip to admire the colonial architecture in Granada, before heading on to Managua to grab a direct bus back to San José.

Plan Your Trip

Big Adventures, Small Budgets

The best things in life are free – certainly in Central America, where you don’t pay a cent for sand, surf and sun, gorgeous scenery and prolific wildlife. Of course, you have to eat… But you can do a lot with a little if you plan wisely and watch your spending.

Sticking to Your Budget

A Consider traveling in low season.

A Opt for lower-budget destinations.

A Avoid package deals.

A Shop online for airfares.

A Stay in hostels or rooms with shared bathrooms.

A Travel by public transportation.

A Eat street food and cook where you can.

A Snorkel instead of dive.

A Get around by bicycle.

A Take self-guided hikes and tours.

A Consider WWOOF-ing, volunteer programs and Spanish programs that include a room.

Making a Budget

In Central America, shoestringers can skimp by on a budget of US$30 to US$50 per day. This covers the basics: food, shelter, local transportation and a few beers. This budget will vary by season, country and popularity of the destination.

In addition to this base rate, factor in the costs of long-distance travel. Add in any special activities, such as diving, canopy tours, surf lessons or guided hikes. Then allow some room for unexpected expenses, and there’s your budget.

To stick to your budget, it’s important to track your expenses as you go, especially if you’re taking a longer trip. Use an expense-tracking app such as Trail Wallet or Gulliver (or good old-fashioned pen and paper).

Tips for Accommodations

The cost of accommodations will take up the largest portion of your budget. Luckily, the region is filled with simple lodgings that charge simple prices. The more creature comforts (air-con, hot water, private bathroom) you can forsake, the more money you’ll save. Here are some tips for keeping this line item lean.

A The cheapest accommodations around are often in campgrounds. Of course, camping equipment requires an initial investment and a fair amount of lugging. But if you’re prepared to do that, it’s often free (or nearly free) to pitch a tent.

A Hostels are also great options for budget accommodations – and you don’t have to bring your own bed. Many hostels offer communal kitchens and low-priced outings catering to their budget clientele.

A If you prefer a bit more privacy, most hostels and many guesthouses offer lower-priced private rooms with shared bathrooms.

A If the price is too high, ask if the hotel or guesthouse has anything cheaper. Independent businesses sometimes alter their prices.

A It is easier to negotiate rates in low season.

A Pay per day rather than all at once. This gives you the option of changing hotels if the conditions are unsuitable or if you change plans.

When to Go

Tourist Seasons

Generally speaking, the high tourist season in Central America goes from mid-December to mid-April, while the low tourist season goes from mid-April to mid-December. There are mini peak seasons (higher than high) around major holidays, including the last two weeks of December and the week before Easter.

High season means higher prices for accommodations and for some activities; peak season means really high – sometimes double. High season also brings more tourists.

Low season means that prices may be lower – sometimes 25% to 40% – and crowds are thinner. Traveling during low season is an excellent, easy way to make your money go further.


A Bottle of beer: US$2–5

A Domestic bus ticket: US$5–15

A Fixed-price meal: US$5–8

A Hostel bed: US$10–20

A Domestic flight: US$80–150

A National park admission: US$8–15

A Canopy tour: US$40–60

A Snorkel tour: US$35–55

Meteorological Seasons

Central America has two meteorological seasons: dry and rainy (or ‘green,’ as some marketers have tried to rebrand it).

Not surprisingly, the high tourist season corresponds roughly with the dry season, which is from January to March or April in most of the region. Likewise, the rainy season generally runs from May to December, with hurricane season making matters worse between June and November.

It should be noted that there are several places where it’s pretty rainy all the time, namely the rainforest. This doesn’t have to spoil your fun, and it doesn’t usually rain all day every day, but travelers should be prepared for wet weather.

Where to Go

While Central America generally enjoys a lower cost of living than North America or Europe, there are discrepancies within the region: Belize, Costa Rica and Panama are significantly more expensive than the other countries here. Shoestring travelers will find that their money will last longest in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Of course, these are more impoverished countries with less tourist infrastructure, so there’s a trade-off.

Generally speaking, there’s a sort of dual economy everywhere in Central America, where services catering to tourists are more expensive than those used by locals. Tourist towns are more expensive than towns that revolve around agriculture, industry or some other business. Fortunately, travelers are not restricted to upscale restaurants, private shuttles and guided tours (or tourist towns, for that matter). The more you can live like the locals (self-catering, local restaurants, public transportation etc), the more you will save. Knowing a bit of Spanish can go a long way toward getting good information in this regard.

Destination Tips

The following are the cheapest places to have the best time across Central America.

Mexico The Costa Maya (specifically Mahahual and Laguna Bacalar) offers affordable lodging and eats, as well as plenty of low-cost activities, such as swimming in cenotes, snorkeling at Banco Chinchorro and beach-bumming.

Guatemala San Pedro La Laguna is a perfect budget destination: cheap hotels, cheap food and cheap drinks, set against the impossibly pretty volcano-fringed Lago de Atitlán.

Belize The central cays are the best bet for budget travelers. Tobacco Caye is right on the reef, so if you bring your own gear you can snorkel for free just off the island. San Ignacio has the country’s best offerings of budget accommodations (including camping).

El Salvador Pitch your tent in Parque Nacional El Imposible and spend your days hiking through the forests (for free). The eastern beaches of Las Flores, El Cuco and Esteron are less developed than those on La Costa Bálsamo, but better value, more beautiful and worth your time.

Honduras The whole country is a great bargain at the moment: the US dollar goes a long way and the trickle of visitors means that competition between agencies and hostels is fierce. Utila remains the biggest backpacker destination, beloved for its cheap diving. Lago de Yojoa has a brewery, a great hostel and all manner of affordable activities.

Nicaragua San Juan del Sur and the nearby beach towns are prime

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