When you think of a backpacking Central America holiday what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Like us, do you find yourself daydreaming of turquoise waters, lush jungles, gorgeous wildlife, impressive Mayan ruins and lively markets? This beautiful subcontinent consists of seven countries, all boasting a unique history, culture and array of tourist hotspots. There’s a lot to love but what makes our backpacking Central America bucket list? Read on…
The Bay Islands in Honduras
Enjoy the slower pace of life on the stunning Bay Islands, located off Honduras’ northern coast. With the second largest barrier reef in the world, this is THE place to go to get your diving and snorkelling fix. Have your own ‘Finding Nemo’ adventure underwater with some of the most beautiful fish, coral and sea life you’ll ever see. Utila’s wide range of hostels and low-cost accommodation make it a firm favourite with backpackers, while families and those on a higher budget can take advantage of Roatan’s upmarket hotels and guesthouses. We’d recommend visiting during the summer months when you have the best chance of spotting beautiful whale sharks in Utila.
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala
Lose sense of reality and experience what has been described as the most amazing lake in the world. Lake Atitlan is seriously stunning and will leave you feeling breathless at its sheer vastness and beauty. Green hills and impressive volcanoes are scattered in the landscape making it postcard picture perfect. Soak up the indigenous culture and try some of the local cuisine in one of the Mayan villages surrounding the lake itself. There are also plenty of vibrant markets where you can pick up cheap textiles and crafts to remember your trip by. The best time to travel is between December and January when the vegetation is beautifully lush after the rainy season and you can get exceptional clear views of the lake.
León in Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s León is culture vulture heaven – a bohemian city of crumbling churches, impressive art collections, cosmopolitan restaurants and stunning colonial architecture. You won’t be able to avoid the city’s violent history as you encounter bullet holes and revolutionary murals adorning building walls at every turn. The atmosphere is lively with music and dance performances taking you into the early hours. Explore León Cathedral, the biggest in Central America, and take advantage of the rooftop views of the sprawling city and smoking volcanoes in the distance. Visit between November and May to make the most of the dry season.
Panama City in Panama
Travel to Central America’s most cosmopolitan city for a break like no other. While the time away wandering down cobblestoned streets and taking in the awe-inspiring colonial architecture. Visit the world-famous Panama canal, sip on delicious local coffee and wear an obligatory Panama hat. You definitely won’t be stuck for things to do! Take day trips from the city to the surrounding golden beaches and lush rainforests when you want a break from it all. Panama is the most Americanised of all the Central American countries, making it your ideal starting point if you’re feeling a bit nervous. We’d definitely recommend planning your trip for mid-February when you can experience the extravagance of Carnaval and be wowed by the colourful floats and entertainers that take to the streets.
Arenal National Park in Costa Rica
Make a trip to Arenal National Park in Costa Rica and prepare to have your mind blown! The incredible Arenal Volanco looms in the distance as you wind through quaint towns and take in the amazing scenery on the route leading to the Park. There are many easy-to-navigate trails which bring you through former lava fields and rainforests. Pick a spot for a picnic and take in the gorgeous views. Arenal is also a birdwatcher’s dream with over 850 bird species being identified within its borders. To make the most of your trip, consider one of the many exceptional guided tours on offer. When’s the best time to visit? Mid-December to April when there is plenty of sunshine and the Park looks even more incredible than usual.
Safety in Central America
If those five dream destinations don’t inspire you to pack your bags, we don’t know what will! You may have read some concerning reports of crime in Central America in general but it’s important to remember that these are the exception and not the rule. Stay in the recommended tourist areas to ensure you have the best trip possible.
So there you have it, our top picks for places to visit in Central America. For more ideas to add to your Central American bucket list check out blog posts from Viva Tropical and Indie Traveller. Whether you’re after an action-packed or relaxing getaway, this incredible subcontinent really does have something for everyone.
Those travelling to Central America are strongly advised to book an appointment at a local TMB Clinic to find out which vaccinations they require and get the best health and safety travelling tips. Illnesses such as typhoid, hepatitis A and rabies are rife in countries like Belize and El Salvador so it’s best to take all the necessary precautions before you travel.