I traveled around Central America for 6 months so let me share with you my Central America Backpacking Route!
Also what I recommend, what I learned, what I would have done differently.
I am adding Mexico to this itinerary because although it is not technically Central America, it is on the route for most backpackers, including myself.
The route I recommend, that you can also easily do in reverse!
The reason why I and many other travelers start in Panama is obviously for geographical reasons but also, some of the best and cheapest flights to Central America from Europe and the USA are to Panama. It really is an economical and logistical hub of Central America!
The other good airport is Cancun airport in Mexico, which is why I recommended that you can easily start the other way around too!
In Panama a must do is the Capital - Panama City! Not only because of the lovely old town, skyscrapers, and the promenade but also to experience one of the great examples of human engineering - the Panama Canal.
Other popular destinations in Panama that I researched worth visiting are:
Gulf of Chiriqui
I knew I wanted to explore one of the hot beach destinations in Panama, so for a long time I couldn't decide on Bocas del Toro or San Blas Islands, but I did decide in favor of San Blas because the place is just so so so picturesque! Also, Bocas del Toro is known to be a good party place and that is just not for me. So if you want to meet other travelers and have a good beach party, Bocas del Toro will be your choice. Those wanting to visit a corner of paradise - San Blas!
Then either with a bus through the city David, you drive to Costa Rica or take a flight to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica, you can easily spend a month. There is so much to do in so many different places. Beaches on the Pacific side, rainforests in the middle, and also amazing nature reserves and beaches on the Caribbean side.
Here is a structured breakdown of all the top places I researched and recommend in Costa Rica. ⬇️
Rainforest Magic in the middle of the country:
These 3 places are also amazing to see animals and experience the rich rainforest life in Costa Rica.
Great beach spots by the Pacific Coast that are also good for surfing:
Other good locations by the Pacific:
Playa Dominical - more for those loving yoga and chill vibes
Santa Teresa - good digital nomad base, reliable wifi
Uvita - whale watching & good beaches
And some further areas worth mentioning:
Although Costa Rica offers so much, it also is quite expensive. A lot of focus is on tourism so traveling through Costa Rica is not budget-friendly. Which is why I decided that I would experience the most significant part of Costa Rica - the rainforest. Because similar beaches can be enjoyed in other Central American countries, just for less. And I decided to base myself in La Fortuna which is a town in the rainforest, with the Arenal volcano next to it and loads of activities to do around.
This country I would have traveled to next after Costa Rica but because I travel and work, it is extremely important for me to be connected to wifi 24/7. And turns out that currently, the ruling power can simply switch data/wifi off for the whole country. On my list was to visit the beautiful city Granada and surf at some great beaches as the value for money in general in the country is great. I wasn't aware of the situation, so Nicaragua from the beginning was a solid stop on my Central America backpacking route, but then traveling and hearing information about the current political situation in Nicaragua I decided to skip it.
Some places on my Nicaragua travel itinerary would have been: ⬇️
Playa La Flor
Lake Nicaragua or also called Cocibolca and its islands
Beaches for surfing: Maderas, Remanso, Hermana (all 3 are near San Juan del Sur)
EL SALVADOR (and HONDURAS)
The plan was to then travel from Nicaragua through the islands of Honduras and get to El Salvador.
But because we last minute decided to cancel on Nicaragua and book a flight to the next destination, just way better flights were to Guatemala City so we decided to fly there first. And then if time and money allow we will drive into El Salvador.
Honduras was never really on my list because the statistics of murder cases and especially regarding women really made me think twice if it is worth it. The islands are supposedly very beautiful and fairy safe which is why I had the idea of at least visiting a small bit, but due to travel arrangments, we skipped Honduras completely.
Without a doubt my favorite country in Central America. Guatemala has no competition - nature, people, value for money - Guatemala is one of the best travel destinations ever!
Plan was to stay in each country for a month but because we skipped Nicaragua, we stayed 2 months in Guatemala. That is how much we loved the place.
2 things I missed out on in Guatemala were Semuc Champey and Tikal! But this is all I managed to visit and do and highly recommend: ⬇️
One of the top life experiences I had in Guatemala! I saw an active volcano erupting! It was a hard 8h hike up but the views were incredible:
More about the hike read here: Acatenango Volcano Hike!
Then one of the most beautiful places in the world is in Guatemala - Atitlan Lake! This place is so picturesque. Imagine swimming in a lake surrounded by volcanoes. A must visit when in Guatemala:
Then you can't leave Guatemala without visiting the vibrant city of Antigua, which holds a rich tapestry of cultural heritage, colonial architecture, and breathtaking landscapes that are quintessential to the Guatemalan experience.
Mexico is a place where you need a month minimum...so much to see and do! From amazing cities to stunning natural landscapes and pristine beach destinations. This country really has a lot to offer. I have prepared a detailed blog article about All the best places to visit in Mexico! So if you are also planning to include Mexico on your Central America backpacking route then check it out!
Here comes my main tip of this article! However you can try to find a flight to Belize, but it will always be expensive! There are no cheap flights from any Central American countries. The trick is to travel to Mexico, the Caribbean side, and from there get a bus to Chetumal which is a little Mexican city by the Belize border. You can get a bus there from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. And then from Chetumal, you take a bus to Belize City!
In the end, I decided to skip Belize purely because of the budget. Belize is not a budget traveler destination for sure. 2 things I wanted to do in Belize are to see the Great Blue Hole and go on a snorkeling trip in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve as the reefs around Belize are incredible. But I managed to do amazing snorkeling by Cozumel in Mexico so I decided not to go to Belize just for one thing. Also, the best way to see and experience the Great Blue Hole is with a helicopter or small plane ride, and again that is 🤑🤑🤑