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Ultimate Central America Backpacker Itinerary

Written by Alice McLeod on 29 / 11 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

Central America remains incredibly popular with gappers and backpackers alike, and for good reason. It’s awash with culture, delicious food, and ancient history. It’s easy to navigate for backpackers, with cheap internal flights, and well-trodden routes. We constantly have gappers asking us about what route is best through Central America, so we’ve put together a 3-country 3-month itinerary for you to get the ball rolling and the ideas flowing.

Costa Rica:

Start your Central American adventure in Costa Rica, the land of waterfalls, rainforests, and world-class surfing. Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they prefer to be called, are proud of their slice of paradise, and invite visitors into the easy-going rhythms of the pura vida.

Fly into San Jose, the country’s capital. It’s not the most beautiful city, so only spend a day or two here to acclimatise and get over any lingering jetlag. You can visit the National Theatre and Gold Museum, check out the street art, and enjoy some of Costa Rica’s best restaurants. About an hour northwest of San Jose is the Poás region and National Park, where you can hike to the crater of the large and accessible Poás volcano. Also explore La Paz waterfall gardens for stunning waterfalls and rescued monkeys, tropical birds, and wild cats.

From Poás to Monteverde, where you need at least two/three days to explore the pristine Cloud Forest. Often shrouded in mist, this is a vibrant and beautiful place of natural beauty, mossy vines, and abundant wildlife. You must do the canopy tour through the trees (keeping your eyes peeled for sloths!), and if you're feeling brave you can zip line and bungee jump too.

North of Monteverde is the Arenal Volcano, which is worth exploring (do the climb to Cerro Chato), as are the hot springs nearby (some are free, some are fancy).

After your time in the centre of the country you’ll be ready to head to the beach, and the Nicoya Peninsula is the place to go. Santa Teresa is famous for its beaches, many of which have blue flag status. There are some of the best surf beaches in the world, so if you're a keen surfer already then rent a board, and if you're not then take a lesson or two. Santa Teresa has a very trendy vibe, with a vibrant arts scene and yoga and juice bars galore. Tamarindo is a little more buzzy, especially in terms of nightlife, but with equally stunning beaches.

You could wind your way back to San Jose via the Manuel Antonio National Park, where you can explore clearly marked trails through the rainforest, even more beautiful beaches with views to the outer islands, along with plenty of wildlife. It’s definitely worth taking a guided tour to get the most out of CR’s smallest but most popular national park.

Fly out of San Jose and onto your next country…

Want to explore all the highlights of Costa Rica without having to plan the logistics yourself? Join one of our Costa Rica team programmes, where the planning is all done for you and all you’ll have to do is turn up.

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Guatemala:

Guatemala has exploded in popularity with backpackers over the last few years. It’s an incredibly diverse country that offers lots of contrasting experiences for travellers, often steeped in ancient Mayan history.

Fly into Guatemala City, which many travellers then leave again as soon as possible as it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of capitals, and there are lots of other sights to see elsewhere in the country.

Head straight to Antigua, which is only 40 minutes from Guatemala City and makes a great starting point (and a great place to learn Spanish if that kind of thing is up your street. There are some famous institutions that attract people from all over the world). The centrepiece of the city is the Cathedral de Santiago – a stunning 17th century cathedral surrounded by cobbled streets and cute plazas brimming with street vendors, cafés and fabulous markets selling all kinds of wonderful souvenirs.

Towering over Antigua is the Acatenango volcano, where you can book onto amazing tours to witness the exploding Fuego volcano in the distance. This is a tough hike up the volcano, taking about 4.5 hours, so don’t arrive for this with a hangover. You’ll climb through fields, up into rainforest, and finally above the trees and into the volcanic area. You’ll stay in base camp, where you can witness the Fuego volcano spewing ash and fire. Base camp is about an hour from the summit of Acatenango, so you’ll start the summit trek at around 4am the next morning in order to catch the sunrise before starting your descent. It’s tough due to the altitude, but absolutely stunning so well worth adding to your itinerary.

If you're going to go to one place in Guatemala then make it Lake Atitlán. The lake is ringed by volcanoes, and its shores are dotted with villages with thriving indigenous culture. Explore the villages of Panajachel, San Pedro la Laguna, and Santiago Atitlán, with different boat tours and ferries linking the villages around the shore. If you're an adventure seeker then you certainly won't get bored, with paragliding, kayaking, paddle-boarding, and hiking all at your fingertips.

Semuc Champey is still far enough off the beaten track that lots of backpackers don’t add it to their itinerary. It’s nestled away in the densely forested mountains of Alta Verapaz, and turquoise-coloured water cascades down a series of limestone pools, which you can go tubing down. Definitely something to add to the route if you're planning on visiting Guatemala.

Round off your time in Guatemala in Flores and Tikal. Flores is on the doorstep of a vast jungle reserve and is an excellent place to recharge your batteries. It’s also a great place to find companions for Tikal, or further afield. Set amongst the rainforest is the ancient Mayan site of Tikal – a complex of temples, plazas and broad limestone causeways, who have been protected over the centuries by the canopy of their jungle setting. The most striking features of Tikal are the towering, steep-sided, partially restored temples, rising to heights of more than 44m, the plazas - which have been cleared of trees and vines, linked by causeways set under a jungle canopy which home monkeys, agoutis, foxes, and ocellated turkeys. The best time to see this is at sunrise – to see the ruins emerging in the dawn jungle light and listening to the dawn chorus.

You can either head back to Guatemala City to fly to your next step or you can head to Melchor de Mencos to cross the land border into Belize.

If you’d like more help planning your Guatemala itinerary then get in touch and we can chat it through with you, answering any questions, helping you with logistics, and sharing more of our travel knowledge. Get in touch.

Still have questions?

If you've read all this and still have questions then get in touch with us. We've sent hundreds of gappers to Central America and know the routes well. We can help you make a plan for your gap year and chat you through the best Central American itinerary for you.

Contact Us

Belize:

Belize might not be the first place you think of when you think of Central America, but it’s slowly becoming more and more of a must-hit destination for backpackers. It may be small, but with one foot in the jungles and the other in the Caribbean Sea, it’s packed with excitement and culture.

If you're coming from the land border in Guatemala then you’ll be crossing through Melchor de Mencos border and travelling onward into Belize from there.

Did you know that Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world? Make your way to Caye Caulker, which is the unofficial backpacker hub of all the Caye islands, and enjoy the mellow Caribbean vibe. Make sure you take a trip into the Hol Chan Marine reserve and to Shark Ray Alley where you can snorkel amongst nurse sharks and stingrays. The water is so clear that it’s easy to spot turtles, manta rays, and an underwater safari of fish and coral.

From here you can bounce around the coast, stopping along the way to dive at the famous Blue Hole, which drops 400ft into the blue ocean and was made famous by Jacques Cousteau, who declared it as one of the top five scuba diving sites in the world. Because of its uniqueness and ecological makeup, diving in the Great Blue Hole offers up a very special, once in a lifetime experience.

If ruins are your thing then Altun Ha are the most accessible of Belize’s ancient ruins. There are 10 structures here dating from the 6th and 7th centuries. You can climb to the tops of the temple to take in the panoramic views of the surrounding jungle.

Return to Belize City for your departure home or to continue even more travels… perhaps dropping down into South America to continue your adventures.

If you've still got questions about how to plan the best backpacker routes for your travels around Central America then get in touch. We’ve sent hundreds of gappers to this neck of the woods in the past, and have lots of experience navigating this part of the world. Also check out our Ultimate Guide to Central America.

FAQs

Do I need a visa for Central America? No, you don't need visas, but it's always best to check the FCDO site for each country you're planning on visiting. You also need to make sure that your passport gets stamped when you're entering or leaving any countries , especially if you're going over land borders.

How much money do you need to travel in Central America for 3 months? As a rule of thumb you need to budget around £1000 per country per month. Some will be more expensive (Costa Rica) and some will be cheaper, also dependent on any big ticket items you might want to do.

Is it safe to backpack in Central America? Wherever you travel to you need to keep your wits about you, but don't let fear stop you from exploring this incredible part of the world.

When is the best month to travel in Central America? December - April is the best time as it's the dry season in most of the region. You'll need a range of clothes though, as if you're up early climbing volcanoes you'll want plenty of layers.

Still have questions?

If you've read all this and still have questions then get in touch with us. We've sent hundreds of gappers to Central America and know the routes well. We can help you make a plan for your gap year and chat you through the best Central American itinerary for you.

Contact Us

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