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Central America Guide: Top Tips for Travellers

What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘travel Central America’? Lush rainforest? Beautiful scenery? Health retreats? Cheap travel? If so, you’re right! A trip to Central America is all that and so much more. Keep reading our travel guide for the best places to travel in Central America and start planning your next vacation.

Best Places to Travel in Central America

Thinking about embarking on an adventure of a lifetime to Central America? Do you want to enjoy some of the world’s best coffee, hike volcanoes, relax on tropical beaches and snorkel in some of the world’s most picturesque reefs? Central America offers a little something for everyone. With a total of 7 countries on the continent, there’s something unique about each one. We’ve outlined the best parts of each country for you in this travel guide, including how to get around, where to stay, and the top experiences in Central America.

Costa Rica

pteroglossus torquatus in montezuma costa rica
Central America Travel Guide: Costa Rica

Best for: Nature lovers and thrill-seekers
Best time to travel: December – April for good weather and meeting travellers

Costa Rica and much of Central America was colonized by Spain, which is why Spanish is the main language in this part of the world. Costa Rica often pops up on listicles talking about the best country to live in. In fact, it’s in the number 2 spot for the best place to retire in 2019. So, while you’re trekking through the jungles in search of wildlife or photographing volcanoes and waterfalls, you may want to scope it out as a future home.

Nicaragua

Ometepe volcano in Nicaragua
Central America Travel Guide: Nicaragua

Best for: Surfing, culture, coffee
Best time to travel: Mid-January – April for lower prices or May – October for surfing

Nicaragua is known for volcanoes, surf breaks in Popoyo, and its immense beauty. There’s a lot of history and charm in the city of Granada, which makes it the perfect place to start your Nicaraguan holiday. And let’s not forget about their wonderful coffee.

Belize

king lewey island resort in Belize
Central America Travel Guide: Belize

Best for: Snorkelling and under the radar sights in Central America
Best time to travel: Wet season May – November is less crowded

As home to the second largest barrier reef on earth, Belize attracts divers and snorkellers from around the world. Tourists also flock to Belize for its amazing birdlife, canoeing, fishing and lush landscapes. A unique way to experience the jungle and its inhabitants is a zip line tour in Belize City. If food is more your thing, there’s a Chocolate Festival every year to indulge in the world’s favourite flavour.

Honduras

Comayagua Cathedral in Honduras
Central America Travel Guide: Honduras

Best for: Historical sights and coastal beauty
Best time to travel: December – April for the dry season

Honduras is full of natural attractions of the Mayan kind. Heavy in Mayan culture and history, visiting the Copan Ruins is one of the top things to do in here, as is trekking the national parks in search of wildlife. But it’s not all about what’s on land, the coastal regions of Honduras are equally beautiful and exciting.

El Salvador

Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador
Central America Travel Guide: El Salvador

Best for: Epic food, coffee and hiking
Best time to travel: April – October for baby sea turtles

Coffee lovers huddle together. El Salvador is one of the world’s top coffee producers so don’t worry, you’ll be all set for a decent cup of joe. Take a plantation tour, hike Santa Ana Volcano, and try a local dish called puspas, a dough-ball stuffed with beans and rice.

Guatemala

colourful paper crafts at a market in Guatemala
Central America Travel Guide: Guatemala

Best for: Natural sights and picturesque capital cities
Best time to travel: December – March for the best weather

Guatemala is full of vibrant colours, lively celebrations, and fascinating history. In Antigua, you’ll find an abundance of colourful buildings that are ideal backdrops for selfies and travel photos. You’ll also find a hodgepodge of international students here to learn Spanish. Tourist hot spots include the Mayans ruins at Tikal, Fuego Volcano (which erupted in 2018), and hiking to Los Amates waterfall.

Panama

downtown Panama City with skyscrapers
Central America Travel Guide: Panama

Best for: Panama Canal and beautiful surrounding islands
Best time to travel: December – March is the most popular

You can’t hear Panama and not think of the historic Panama Canal. The U.S. built the famous canal to allow boats to travel between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It was around this time that Panama became an independent country too. So, it’s a given that the top attraction is the canal, but there are cool island hopping opportunities too. Check out Monkey Island, Isla Iguana, and Isla Perro for the best animal and snorkelling trips.

Top 3 Things to Do in Central America

sunset over the san blas islands in Panama
Central America Travel Guide: San Blas Islands in Panama

1. Cruise the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a 50-mile stretch that connects ships travelling through Panama City to the Pacific Ocean. One significant feature of the canal is its ability to take ships to greater heights before lowering them to pass through the Caribbean. Take a boat cruise along the canal for the best viewing and sightseeing experience.

2. Tread through the rain forests

Mostly covered in beautiful rainforests and greenery, the Central America landscape is a sight to behold. Subsequently, it’s hot and humid, but it’s all part of the experience. Take a canopy tour around any of the cities in Central America for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding forests. If you’re more of a thrill-seeker, try a zip line ride that takes you over trees, which is nothing short of unforgettable.

3. Explore the coral reefs

No matter where you are in Central America, you’ll never be more than a few hours drive from the ocean. Diving and snorkelling the gorgeous coastlines on the Pacific and Caribbean are amongst the best things to do in Central America. For example, Utila in Hondorus has amazingly cheap diving and swimming with whale sharks too. Did you know that Belize is home to the second largest barrier reed, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia? Don’t miss the Belize Barrier Reef for sublime marine life encounters. Just remember to pack your reef-friendly sunscreen in your bag!

Flying to Central America

Choosing which airport to fly into depends on which country or countries you want to visit. Many airlines fly to Central America from Canada and the U.S. Copa Airlines offers direct flights from Toronto Pearson International (YYZ) to Panama City Tocumen (PTY), which is a popular route and entry point for travelling through Central America.

If you want to start in the north, fly into Belize (BZE) and travel south and fly home from Panama. If you want to base yourself in Costa Rica, fly into San Jose (SJO), or the closest airport to your first destination. Major airlines such as Air Canada, WestJet, American Airlines, and Delta also fly to Central America.

About Visas and Vaccinations

Travellers with a Canadian passport, and many other countries such as the U.S. and Australia, do not need a pre-organized tourist visa. All Central American countries allow tourists to stay up to 90 days, except Belize, which allows 30 days. Be sure to have evidence of onward travel and enough funds to sustain yourself. Aim to have a minimum of C$600 per month to cover food, accommodation and ground transportation. However, you’ll need more if you want to do lots of activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises travellers to guard themselves against public health risks before visiting Central America. Think about getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies, cholera, and yellow fever. Some countries may require proof that you’ve received a yellow fever vaccination. It’s always best to verify which Central American countries require vaccinations before you make your final itinerary plans.

bridge in the rainforest in Costa Rica
Central America Travel Guide: National Park in Costa Rica

Getting Around Central America

Once you’ve landed in your chosen Central American country, getting around can be fun and exciting. Definitely hop on a chicken bus, a public bus that transports livestock and humans alike. This is a must-do Central America travel experience, so don’t be shy or afraid of it. Plus, it’s cheap! The key is to be patient and bring water with you. Long-haul bus rides may turn into super long-haul bus rides so if you need to be somewhere in a hurry, you’d better take a taxi.

Taxi cabs may be a bit quicker than a chicken bus but it will cost more. Always negotiate a price before getting in the cab or insist they use a metre (most likely found in Costa Rica). If you can speak Spanish, use it and limit English as drivers may take advantage of green travellers. Only used authorized taxis.

In short, public buses are the best way to travel when you want to save money and bartering hassles. Panama City is particularly great with public transportation. The city provides several connecting bus lines that let you get around quickly.

Caution: It’s best to avoid public buses in Guatemala.

Those looking to travel between countries can also save big with bus rides. Typically, a trip across the region costs C$50. However, cross-country coaches do not have the same connections as city transporters and are sometimes too full to take on additional passengers.

Flights between Central America airports provide great value and are the fastest and most reliable way to travel between countries.

Central American border crossings

When travelling overland, border crossings between countries should not be an issue providing you are travelling with proper documentation and proof of onward travel. Some countries charge entry and exit fees, so always carry a small amount of local and USD cash to make things simple. Lastly, be aware that there may be scam artists dressed as immigration officers requesting payment of US$1-$3 per person. Always ask for a receipt and do not pay for customs forms as these are still free.

Is it Safe to Travel in Central America?

Like Mexico, Central America is, in general, a safe travel destination. But, some countries such as Guatemala are classified as “dangerous”. As a foreigner in a foreign land, it always pays to use common sense. Petty theft can be common in some areas so keep an eye on your possessions and pockets, especially in crowded places.

Be knowledgeable about the general customs of the countries you visit so you’re not caught-out upon arrival or taken by scams. Also, it’s helpful to know a little Spanish. Having the ability to effectively communicate with the locals lets you negotiate lower prices on souvenirs and taxis, and score better deals on some activities like scuba diving and boating.

blue lake and volcano in western Guatemala
Central America Travel Guide: Guatemala

Tips for keeping yourself safe in Central America

  • Don’t flash cash or expensive items around (including designer clothing)
  • Do not hitchhike
  • Do not go out at night alone
  • Avoid the beach after sunset
  • Use authorized and official modes of transportation
  • Cross borders at official checkpoints only
  • Do not carry large sums of money
  • Learn basic Spanish before you go

Where to Stay in Central America

Like most places, Central America has tourist accommodation to suit every budget and style of travel. The top vacay spots in Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras can offer coastal resorts, eco-lodges, and health retreats. On the flip side, every Central American country has several hostels aimed at budget-conscious travellers and backpackers.

Generally, backpacking through Central America is popular because it’s cheap, the people are friendly, and it’s easy to get to from Canada and the U.S. You’ll find many hostels when you travel Central America, so if you don’t mind sharing a room, you’ll save tons of money. However, staying in a hostel doesn’t always mean sharing a room. Many places offer private rooms at great rates. Places like Hostal Santo Domingo in Nicaragua and Best Hostel San Jose have double rooms for as little as C$11 per night!

The Infinity Bay Spa and Beach Resort in Honduras is perfect for family travel and anyone looking for 4-star accommodation with snorkelling at your doorstep. For a 5-star city stay, Barcelo San Jose in Costa Rica offers spacious rooms in a central location for very affordable rates (think C$140 per night). Guests rave about the breakfast, too.

Book Your Trip to Central America

Feeling ready a Central America travel experience? Start planning now with Skyscanner’s easy-to-use search engines and app. You’ll find cheap flights, awesome hotel rates, and even car hire suggestions.