I love Central America! Surrounded by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the slender land bridge of Central America runs from Mexico to South America and is made up of seven countries — Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Political and civil unrest in the 1980s kept most tourists away for a long time, but this reputation is beginning to change. Central America is becoming one of the most popular regions for backpackers (and, in the case of Panama and Costa Rica, American retirees). The region’s rainforests are filled with unexplored Mayan ruins and wildlife, its beaches are great for surfing, and its reefs great for diving. Accommodation, food, and transport are all cheap in the region making it a budget traveler’s dream. Your money will go a long way here and this travel guide will give you all the tips you need to have a memorable trip.
Accommodation – A night in a hostel will range between $5-15 USD for a dormitory room while a private bed will cost you between $15-30 USD for single or double bed with private bathroom (in Costa Rica or Panama, you will pay on the higher end of that range). Family-owned guesthouses or hotels will be the most affordable accommodation, besides hostels. These rooms average $25 USD per night for a private room with an ensuite bathroom, and most of these serve breakfast, not to mention the added bonus of meeting a local. In cheaper countries in the region like El Salvador, a private room can cost $15 USD per night while in a more expensive destination like Panama City, you can expect to pay on the higher end, about $30 USD per night. Airbnb is also an option, with shared accommodation starting around $10 USD per night. For an entire home or apartment expect to pay at least $40 USD to per night (though prices are often double that). Camping can be done easily in hostels and in certain national parks. Most hostels have space where you can pitch a tent or string up a hammock for under $5 USD per night. National parks require camping fees that vary from country to country. See country guides for specifics on where to stay!
Food – The cheapest way to dine is to eat at the roadside restaurants that dot the region. At local restaurants, you can expect to pay around $5 USD for a meal. If you want really cheap food, you can find empanadas (fried pastries filled with meat, cheese, or potatoes) for $0.50 USD. If you are into cooking, head down to the local market and pick up fruit, vegetables, meats, and dairy for around $15-25 USD per week. The local markets will have fresh fruit for incredibly cheap, so fill up on that when you can. A typical restaurant meal per the main dish and a drink is about $10 USD, however, western food will cost about three times as much as the local dishes. See country guides on specifics of where to eat!
Transportation – In cities, public buses are the cheapest and most convenient way to get around. Fares cost less than a dollar, and buses are widespread. Longer bus rides and overnights from one country to the next are generally between $10-30 USD. Be prepared, though — buses here (often called “chicken buses” due to the abundance of chickens and rice transported on them) stop everywhere to let people on and off. They are slow and very few are direct. Not surprisingly, this region of the world actually relies a lot on hitchhiking. The buses can be late or sporadic and sometimes extremely full. I’ve done this in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama because there is a limited regional air network here and flights are expensive. A flight from Guatemala City to Belize City is $250 USD, whereas the bus is only about $35 USD and hitchhiking is free!
Activities – Entrance to the national parks is typically inexpensive, usually under $10 USD, as are trips to see the Mayan ruin sites. Diving is likely to be your most expensive activity, costing between $50-100 USD for a two-tank dive. The entrance fee to Tikal in Guatemala is $22 USD per person. A half-day manatee-spotting tour ranges from $35-50 USD. A visit to a wildlife sanctuary costs around $4 USD. The Copán Ruins can get expensive if you factor in entrance fee ($9 USD), entrance to the tunnels ($10 USD) and a guided tour ($22 USD). Canopy tours (zip lining) usually costs between $20-40 USD per person.