A narrow strip of land that connects North America with South America, none of Central America’s seven countries is an economic or political power. Occasionally you might come across mention of the Panama Canal or something tragic might happen in the region, but for the most part Central America glides by under the radar screen of the world media.
That doesn’t mean that its countries are not worth visiting. To the contrary. Central America sees its fair share of tourists, people attracted to its ancient ruins, gorgeous beaches and, yes, the Panama Canal. The tourist infrastructure in the region varies from the well trodden path of eco tourists in Costa Rica to the difficult travel one finds in Honduras. Prices also vary, but on a global scale Central America is still a cheap and relatively easy region to visit.
With some many small countries so close together, your biggest challenge might be deciding how to allocate your time. Do you want to spend it traveling in one country or would you like to see them all? The options are limitless. Check out our Central American highlights below.
Central American Pillars
When planning a trip of any kind, most have their pillars, or must-see, destinations, and Central America is chock full of amazing sites, cities, and activities. While Mexico is technically part of North America, the indie traveler reality is that many Central American journeys will start or finish in Mexico City, so for these purposes we will include travel up to Mexico City.
Here are a handful to plan your trip around:
- Mexico City – A massive metropolis, one of the most populated in the world, is teeming with possibilities. It has a deep and cultured history, amazing food, the most museums in the world, and is a great jumping off point for trips to the rest of the region.
- Beaches – From Cancun, Playa del Carman in Mexico, to Caye Caulker in Belize, to Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, to the Corn Islands in Nicaragua, to Bocas del Toro in Panama, and everything else in between, there is plenty of sand and water to keep all beach bums happy for quite a while.
- Maya ruins – There is a glut of Maya ruins all over the region. Here are a few to put on your list:
- Chichen Itza – One of the most popular (and thus most crowded), Chicen Itza, in southern Mexico, is worth battling the crowds to visit.
- Tikal – Another really popular ruin, Tikal, in Guatemala, is spread out enough to make the large crowds seem not nearly as bad as other popular sites.
- Lamanai – These less visited ruins in Belize are worth the trip because of the trip itself. The route follows a 26-mile path along the New River and has extensive ruins on the bluff of the lagoon.
- Copan – Honduras’ most famous Maya ruins has well preserved hieroglyphics and sculptures.
- Volcanoes – If you have an affinity for the beauty and power of volcanoes, this is the region for you. Every single country has at least one volcano, but Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua stand out with the most options for exploring them.
- Study Spanish – There are a multitude of places to improve your Spanish by taking classes, but why not do it in Antigua, Guatemala? Set amongst several volcanoes in a gorgeous colonial town, Antigua is a great place to hunker down, stay for a while, and learn a new language.
- Ride a chicken bus – A trip to Central America wouldn’t be complete without riding one of the famous chicken buses. Old US school buses have been transformed into brightly colored, jam-packed (with people, luggage, and all matter of wildlife) buses for dirt cheap prices. An always eventful way to get around the region.
- Visit the less visited countries – Central America is been getting more and more popular as the years go by, but El Salvador and Honduras are the least visited. Get there now before others find out what the hype is all about.
- Isla Ometepe – You’re be hard-pressed to find a more naturally beautiful and unique place than this volcanic wonderland in Nicaragua. Two volcanoes linked together by the magma that cooled the island, Ometepe has ridiculous views, sandy beaches, trekking possibilities, and believe it or not, is not bombarded by tourists.
- Adventure travel – If you’re into adrenaline fueled activities, head to places Monteverde in Costa Rica, Boquete in Panama, or Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala.
- Panama Canal – Check out the expanse of the world’s most important canal at the southern tip of Central America.
Unless you are driving south from Mexico you’ll want to book a flight to Central America. Guatemala City and San Jose, Costa Rica are two of the cheaper places to fly into, and Panama City can be affordable as well.
There are a plethora of transportation options in Central America, from the dirt cheap chicken buses to private, hired cars with drivers. Check out the transportation section of Extended Travel in Central America for more in depth information about your options.
Where to stay
The good news here is sleeping in this part of the world tends to be relatively cheap. There are of course many hotels in Central America, and prices can range from surprisingly high to amazingly cheap. There are also quite a few hostels in Central America, especially in the larger cities. In some places there are no hostels because hotels are so cheap and there just isn’t much demand for dorm rooms to save just a bit of money. You’ll also find quite a few of the cheaper hotels listed alongside the hostels, so it’s worth checking anyway.
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