Traveling to Central America is one of the most rewarding things to do, a unique, vibrant, and diverse destination, with many different landscapes, activities, tours, and food to try. Whether you are looking for adventure, culture, nature, history, or relaxation, you will find it here.
I have been traveling and living in Central America as an expat for over 20 years, and I have learned a lot along the way. Here are some travel tips and useful information that can make your trip more enjoyable and avoid any problems.
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Countries to visit
Reasons to Travel to Central America
There are a ton of reasons to travel to Central America, like the amazing architecture you can find, from colonial houses to Mayan buildings, or the desert islands and amazing beaches, just to name a few.
A region that has something for everyone and yet is undiscovered by many, here are some of the reasons why you should visit:
- It’s rich in natural beauty. The natural diversity is amazing, you can do different tours and visit, rainforests, volcanoes, lakes, waterfalls, mountains, caves, beaches, and coral reefs. Check out all the nature tours you can do.
- A paradise for animal lovers. It’s home to a highly diversified wildlife. You can spot different kinds of monkeys, toucans, turtles, dolphins, whales, sloths, and more. One of the most popular ways to spot animals is by doing a wildlife tour, check it out here.
- It has a unique culture and history. Learn about the lifestyle of the Mayan civilizations, the colonial era, and how it blends with the modern days on a cultural tour, most countries have different tours, so find one that suits you the most.
- A colorful and vibrant cuisine. The food in Central America is an amazing blend of traditional and Mayan food with colonial flavors, you can taste dishes like pupusas, tortillas, gallo pinto, or tamales.
- It’s accessible and affordable. One of the few destinations you can travel on a budget without putting aside comfiness, you can find affordable places to stay, food, activities, and transportation.
Don’t forget to get travel insurance for your trip—get coverage for:
• Medical emergencies
• Stolen or lost goods
• Canceled flights and more
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How to get to Central America
There are several ways to get to Central America, but the fastest and easiest way is by flying. Fortunately, there are a ton of international airports scattered around different countries, that connect with major cities in the world, from North America, to Europe and Asia.
Some of the main airports are:
- Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (Belize)
- La Aurora International Airport (Guatemala)
- El Salvador International Airport (El Salvador)
- Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport (Honduras)
- Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (Nicaragua)
- Juan Santamaria International Airport (Costa Rica)
- Tocumen International Airport(Panama)
Another great option to travel to Central America is by bus. Depending on where you are located, there are several companies that offer bus rides across the region with a reliable and comfy service.
You can book your tickets online here, it’s the site I use most of the time, or look for the bus stations and ask there.
Note: You must be aware of and research about the borders you’ll be crossing beforehand, some may require an extra fee, proof of travel, or extra paperwork.
How to get around Central America
Each country in the region has its unique ways of getting around, for example, in Belize it is popular to use golf cars but a common way that you’ll find across several countries is chicken buses, as well as other conventional ways like taxis or shuttles.
But overall, the best way to get around in Central America is by car, I recommend renting a car here, since it’s one fo the most comfortable ways and you can save some bucks at the end of the day.
By far the most affordable way to get around are chicken buses. They were school buses, which were converted into public transportation, painting them in different colors and giving each one a unique touch.
They are called “chicken buses” since, it’s a common thing to see people carrying live animals, mostly chickens, but you can see pigs and goats too.
If you want an authentic and fun way to explore a country, take a chicken bus. It’s also a good way to experience the local culture. But be aware, that these buses are well known for being noisy, uncomfortable, and crowded.
Need to Rent a Car?
Rent a car here, it’s one of the best options to go for if your car stops working or is stuck at the mechanic getting services.
Shuttles and tourist buses
A more comfy, faster, and safer way to get around is by shuttles, and you’ll find plenty of companies in each country. Most of the vehicles are modern vans, with air-conditioned and other amenities that offer services between popular places, many of them even offer rides to other countries’ attractions.
This is the best option for visitors who want to save time and all the hassle that public transportation entails. The service is overall better, so, you can expect to pay more for it.
Each country has its own companies for shuttles, you should research online or check out this website and spot the different options before heading there.
Taxis and ridesharing
Besides shuttles and local transportation, another amazing way to get around is by ridesharing or taxi. The fastest and most convenient way to get from one city to another, or to other attractions that are closer.
Not only that, but taxis are the safest way to get around at night in Central America. They are fairly easy to find in most cities, but always try to get a registered or official taxi.
It’s hard to pinpoint if they are cheap or expensive, a taxi ride is definitely more expensive than chicken buses, but cheaper than shuttles. Of course, it depends on the distance.
Essential Travel Resources
❗Don’t forget travel insurance
This company is the one I trust, it’s one of the most essential things for any trip. It has your back in case you get sick abroad, or have an accident.
🎒Pack smarter, not bulky
Check out this vacation packing list, including all the essentials you need to pack when traveling, from travel clothing to backpacks and more.
🏡Where to Stay – Here are Suggestions
This is my favorite place to look for accommodations, it offers different types, a ton of locations, and good price options.
🗺️Get Around Hassle-Free
This one is the perfect option to look for different transportation options between cities, from flights, buses, and taxis to minivans and more.
🛫Find Cheap Flights
Whenever I need to fly, I head to this website for low-cost flights.
Where to stay in Central America
Most countries in Central America offer a wide range of accommodations, depending on the country and area you can find resorts, hotels, guesthouses, vacation rentals, and more.
Hostels are one of the most affordable and popular options to stay in Central America. You can find an affordable room to stay for a few days, with common areas like lounges, kitchens, gardens, and bars, where other like-minded travelers gather
This is the best option for people who are traveling on a budget or want to save money. You’ll find a lot of backpackers staying in hostels, it’s a good way to socialize and share ideas.
But you should be aware, that sometimes hostels can be crowded, noisy and dirty. Check the reviews of the place you choose before booking it.
I recommend this website, which is the one I use, you can search hostels between most counties in Central America, with over 1,000 places listed, each one with detailed information, like photos, reviews, and ratings.
Maybe hostels are not suitable for you, and a more comfortable and private option to stay are hotel. You can rent a room and enjoy a ton of amenities you won’t find in hostels. From having your own bathroom to services, like including breakfast, laundry, parking, and Wi-Fi.
Hotels are an amazing option for travelers who want more privacy, security, and comfiness. But keep in mind they are often more expensive than hostels.
This website is the one I mostly use to check out and book hotels, it offers options all over the world and has fantastic prices for Central America.
Vacation rentals are a more personal and unique option to stay at and have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Nowadays, you can rent an entire house or a cozy room in many cities and towns in Central America.
Most of them usually offer all the amenities you would have in your own home and a lot of spaces like kitchens, balconies, gardens, and living rooms.
Vacation rentals are the best option for travelers who want to get a true feel of the local culture and lifestyle. However, many times homestays a more unpredictable and variable than hotels, which is why having good communication with the host and checking out reviews is a must.
This is the best vacation rental booking platform for Central America, make sure to check it out. It has a wide range of properties in Central America, from houses, and apartments to cabins and villas. It offers verified hosts, great customer support, and other options.
Find the best hotels, resorts, villas, and villas in any place around the world and the best prices.
Get the best prices for houses, condos, apartments, villas, and a ton of other options.
If you’re looking for cheaper options, check out Hostel World and browse budget-friendly accommodations.
What to see and do in Central America
Central America offers endless options when it comes to exploring places, as well as a wide range of activities to do. It’s a paradise for outdoor travelers or people who just want to relax and enjoy the beach on a budget.
Here are some of the best activities and places to see in Central America:
Explore the volcanoes
One of the most adventurous and thrilling activities to do in the region is to explore volcanos. Many countries have a ton of mildly active and highly active volcanoes you can explore and even see them erupt.
It may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s a one-in-a-lifetime experience and really worthwhile. You’ll be able to check out stunning views and complete challenging hikes.
Some of the most impressive volcanoes in Central America are:
- Pacaya (Guatemala): There are many volcanos in Guatemala, but by far the most popular is Pacaya, it’s not only close to Antigua but it’s also super accessible, you can sit on a day trip and hike or horseback ride to the top of the volcano and roast marshmallow on the hot lava rocks.
- Arenal (Costa Rica): Arenal was the most active volcano in the country, but it has been dormant since 2010. It’s actually illegal to hike or climb to the top but there are a ton of activities to do in the Arenal National Park area. You’ll be able to enjoy the waterfalls, lake, hot springs, and a lot more.
- Masaya (Nicaragua): This one is considered one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the whole world, you can actually drive to the top and park near the rim and see the fumes and lava glowing inside. On the way up you check out the museum and the bat cave that’s nearby.
📖 Recommended Reading: If you’re looking for more useful information, check out a complete guide about Acatenango Volcano Hike.
Check out the Mayan ruins
Another popular activity to do in Central America is to check out the impressive Mayan ruins and learn about their history. A long time ago, the region used to be the core of an advanced and one of the most influential civilizations in this part of the world. You can check out the art, religion, stunning architecture, and other things right there at the ancient sites.
The presence across the region is strong, leaving the sediments for today’s culture. You can still find in some old practices and a strong Mayan presence, as well as influences in the local food.
Some unmissable Mayan ruins in Central America are:
- Tikal (Guatemala): It’s one of the most impressive and largest Mayan cities in the region and you’ll be able to explore it entirely, from the temples, and plazas, to the pyramids and monuments. The place is also great for checking out Guatemala’s wildlife and spotting monkeys, macaws, and other animals.
- Copan (Honduras): This one is the most artistic Mayan city, with a ton of figures, and other draws carved into rock. You’ll be able to check out all the sculptures, altars, stelae, and buildings. Make sure to check out the town located nearby and the museum.
Enjoy the paradise beaches and islands
Embark yourself on the most relaxing and musing activity to do in a Central America trip and enjoy the islands and beaches. The region is home to endless kilometers of coastline that provide warm water, sandy shores, stunning views, and a ton of water activities.
Many of the countries enjoy a fair share of the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, offering some of the best snorkeling and diving spots in the world.
Some of the most stunning beaches and islands in Central America are:
- Manuel Antonio (Costa Rica): This is one of the most scenic beaches in the region, where you’ll be greeted with golden and white sand, and turquoise water surrounded by green trees and vegetation. Not only that, but you can explore the national park, raft in one of its rivers, and check out the diverse Costa Rican wildlife.
- Caye Caulker (Belize): This is a two-mile island off of Belize City and without a doubt one of the most stunning places my family and I have ever visited in Central America. The water is calm and turquoise, the sand is white and there are a lot of palm trees. You’ll be able to enjoy a bike ride or swim to check out different animals like sharks, turtles, and rays.
- Monterrico (Guatemala): Guatemala has many beaches, and it’s a popular destination for surfers, but one that stands out a lot is Monterrico beach, the sand is volcanic black, and one of its biggest draws is the turtles, you can release baby turtles or check out the turtle lay their eggs at night.
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Get a MONEY BELT before you start your journey
Experience the wildlife and nature
One of the most rewarding and inspiring things to do in Central America is to experience the wildlife and nature, and a complete must-do.
The region has over 10% of the world’s biodiversity and hosts some of the unique and, sadly, endangered species. You can also find some of the most pristine and diverse ecosystems in the world, making it the perfect destination for a wildlife watcher.
Some of the best places to experience the wildlife and nature in Central America are:
- Monteverde (Costa Rica): This is one of the most famous and spectacular cloud forests in Central America. It offers many activities to enjoy, like hanging bridges, checking out orchids, waterfalls the sky tram.
- El Biotopo del Quetzal (Guatemala): This diverse protected area is one of the last places where you can spot Guatemala’s National Bird, the Quetzal, a stunning exotic bird. Besides that, you can hike two of the main paths and check out waterfalls, and other animals.
- Semuc Champey (Guatemala): This natural monument is home to a set of stunning waterfalls and ponds where you can take a swim, you’ll be able to take a hike to its viewpoint, do some tubing, and explore the K’an Ba caves located nearby.
- Ometepe (Nicaragua): This is one of the unique and magical islands in Central America. You can hike up its two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, that rise from Lake Nicaragua. You can also see many types of plants and animals.
Learn about the culture and history
Another interesting thing to do in the region is to learn about the rich history and vibrant culture. Central America has a diverse heritage that you can still find today, it reflects its indigenous roots, and colonial influences
You’ll be able to experience some of the most colorful and vibrant traditions, festivals, music, and art.
Some of the best places to learn about the culture and history in Central America are:
- Antigua (Guatemala): Antigua is one of the most beautiful towns in the region, you’ll find old buildings depicting the best of colonial architecture, a ton of churches to explore, and museums.
- San Jose (Costa Rica): The capital and one of the oldest cities in the country, you can enjoy its colorful buildings cathedrals, parks, and monuments. You’ll find a lot of history while walking its streets or visiting its many museums.
- Granada (Nicaragua): This is the oldest city in Central America, it has a unique charm and boasts with vibrant culture and history. Explore its colorful architecture, cathedrals, and parks, and embark on a time-travel-like journey.
Make sure to check out all the landmarks and monuments a city has to offer, each of them offers something unique for you to learn.
What to eat and drink in Central America
Each country in Central America has a staple food to offer, but its charm is found in the typical dishes, a diverse and flavorful cuisine that does a good job of reflecting its geographical, cultural, and historical influences.
Some of the most typical dishes in Central America are:
- Pupusas (El Salvador): Tortillas! You’ll find tortillas across several countries, but a must-try are pupusas, they are stuffed with cheese, beans, pork, and or several other ingredients. Sometimes served with cabbage, salad, and tomato sauce.
- Gallo Pinto (Costa Rica and Nicaragua): A dish made of rice and beans cooked with onions, cilantro, garlic, and spices. It’s usually served with eggs, cheese, and plantains.
- Sancocho (Panama): This is a type of soup popular across several countries in the region, but it’s even more popular in Panama. It’s like a meat stew spiced with different vegetables, garlic, and onions.
You can check out all the food and tours here, I also recommend you do some workshops or take cooking classes.
Street Food and Snacks
One of the most interesting sides of the food scene in Central America is street food, which is what most of the locals eat on their busy days. It’s often affordable, tasty, and accessible. You can find a food stand almost in every corner.
Here are some of the most common street foods:
- Tostadas (Guatemala): The street food in Guatemala is amazing, tostadas are like large nachos, and crispy tortillas that make the perfect bed for different toppings, usually beans, sauce, avocado, and fresh cheese.
- Baleadas (Honduras): On the same way as the previous but usually thicker and softer, you can eat it folded and have several different fillings, from beans, and cream to eggs and cheese.
- Quesadillas (El Salvador): These are baked or fried cakes made of rice flour stuffed with cheese and topped with sesame seeds.
Drinks and beverages
Drinks in the region are as unique as the food, with several unique beverages for you to try, covering different flavors. You can find drinks and beverages that are made of water, milk, coffee, tea, chocolate, fruits, sugar, herbs, or alcohol like Zacapa Rum from Guatemala.
As you can see the variety is wide but here are some unique and popular drinks to try:
- Agua Fresca: This is basically juice and water mixed with different fresh fruits, sugar, and ice. You’ll find a ton of flavors, like lemon, tamarind, strawberry, and pineapple.
- Horchata: While this beverage is originally from Spain, it’s really popular in Central and Latin America is is a drink that can be served cold or hot and is made of rice milk flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar.
How to stay safe in Central America
Many Central American countries have a bad reputation, and while you do need to be on your guard, it’s really no more dangerous than any other city in a developing country, so don’t get paranoid.
However, you can avoid most of the risks by following some general tips:
- Research and check the travel advisories
- Leave expensive jewelry and watches at home, or hotel.
- Carry purses and camera bags close to your body or better yet, consider not carrying them at all.
- Take along only as much cash as you need.
- Carry a photocopy of your passport, leaving the original in your hotel safe,.
- At night stick to well-lighted and transited areas.
- Travel with insurance and documents.
- Use caution and common sense
📖 Recommended Reading: If you’re looking for more useful information, check out Essential Tips to Avoid Pickpocketing While Traveling.
Register Your Trip!
The US government has a great feature called STEP that EVERYONE who is traveling must take full advantage of it! Travel Registration! No matter where you travel to in the world, head to the Travel Registration section of the US Department of State website, and register your full trip!
This way if there is any sort of travel emergency, they’ll know exactly where you were and can assist you better. All you have to do is give them your travel dates and destinations, other people you are traveling with, your passport, and emergency phone numbers.
Blend with the Crowd
This is a pretty simple one and means don’t dress like a Tourist. If you do you become a target for scams and theft.
You know what I mean: leave the Hawaiian shirt or crop top at home! This serves two purposes: to avoid becoming a target for scams and theft by not looking like a tourist and to show respect because in certain places exposing too much skin can be offensive.
Chicken Buses – Go At Your Own Risk!
They are great for photographs but I wouldn’t trust them for transportation. They are too crowded, not always safe, and might take a long time for you to get to your destinations because they stop a hundred times along the way to let people in or out.
Buses are by far the cheapest and most efficient way to get around the Central American region but let me tell you, not all of them. here I have some more reasons to avoid them:
- You are pushed and pulled the whole way
- They tend to stop very frequently
- Because of all the stops, it takes forever to get anywhere
- The door is always opened
- They are usually crowded
Luckily in Costa Rica and other countries of the region, the emergency number is 911, but other countries have a different. So, just as a precaution, take notes of the emergency number of the country you’re traveling to and learn the address of the place you are staying at.
Here are some emergency numbers in Central America:
- Belize – 911
- Costa Rica – 911
- El Salvador – 911
- Honduras – 911
- Guatemala – 110
- Panama – 104
- Nicaragua – 118
Use a Money Belt or Bra
If you want to be even safer, why not carry a money belt or money bra when traveling? In it, you can carry all your money, along with your photo, ID library card, and some other papers, while keeping just a few bucks in your pockets.
Just make sure to not open it in public or crowded places, never revealing your hidden spots.
Health and hygiene
Central America has some health issues that may affect travelers, such as food poisoning, water contamination, insects and lot of them, or altitude sickness.
However, you can prevent most of the problems by following general tips:
- Eat and drink safely. Avoid eating uncooked or undercooked meat or meat that is not cooked just prior to serving. You should also stay away from foods that require a lot of handling before serving. This is because even if the food is good the hands of the people handling it may not be 100% clean.
- Protect yourself from insects. Use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, and sleep under a mosquito net or in an air-conditioned room. Also, is recommended to get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, and rabies
- Prepare yourself for the altitude. If you plan to visit high-altitude areas, such as volcanoes or mountains, take it slow and easy. Drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and rest frequently. Also, take medication or oxygen for altitude sickness if needed.
General Travel Tips for Central America
I have been traveling in Central America for several years, it was my home for a long time and I know exactly what mistakes I made before and can teach you how to avoid them.
Season Matters When Traveling to Central America
I figured out a way to enjoy traveling without spending too much but most importantly without having to spend my vacations locked up in a hotel room.
And this is my conclusion: Late April, May, and October offer good weather with lower rates. June to September and November offer good rates but not very nice weather.
For example, April to October is Guatemala’s Green season, this is when you can get the best prices. But it’s also the time of the year when you can do almost nothing because it rains almost every afternoon and sometimes all day long. So visiting it from November to May is highly recommended.
Change Money or Not to Change!
I advise you to use your credit card in as many places as you can instead of carrying cash around for safety reasons but in case you do need to use cash here are some safe methods:
- Do not change money anywhere, except for BANKS, and always bring a passport for this. DO NOT CHANGE MONEY WITH PEOPLE ON THE STREETS
- ATMs are plentiful, you’ll get the best rates however, you’ll pay a small ATM fee.
- Very few places exchange traveler’s checks these days, and even fewer give good rates, plus they charge 1-2% on top of it.
Is the Water Safe to Drink in Central America?
Water is generally not safe to drink from the tap in Central America. So carry around a water bottle with a filter at all times.
Most people traveling around Central America are very concerned about how clean the water really is. While, for example, Costa Rica has a fairly safe water supply, I still recommend you avoid drinking directly out of the tap.
Looking for More Inspiration?
I have been traveling and living in Central America for over 25 years
Check out these Hand-Tested GUIDES
Central America has a huge variety of food, check out the guide with top dishes in the region
For more travel ideas to add to your bucket list, check out the best places to visit in Central America and extra tips
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