We traveled through all eight countries of Central America over the course of more than three months. Our 12-week Central America route took us overland from the Yucatan region of Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and finally to Panama. During this Central America overland journey, we really tried to pack in as many adventures, meals, and drinks as possible.
We’re often asked what place we liked best in Central America. It’s so tough to say because we honestly liked different places for different reasons. So here are our best bets, recommendations, tips, and advice through the entire subcontinent.
Best Adventures Around Central America
Best Multi-Day Excursions:
3) Learning to Scuba Dive Belize
Back in the States, it takes two separate weekends to get your certification. Instead why not do it in three days in arguably one of the best reefs in the world! Belize may be one of the most expensive places in Central America to get certified but experiencing this underwater wonderland is a must. See more at: Scuba Diving the Belize Great Barrier Reef
2) Climbing Volcan Tajumulco (Guatemala)
Climbing Central America’s highest mountain was no easy feat. This two-day guided trek to summit Tajumulco left us struggling with altitude sickness. Although Tajumulco presented its challenges, we were greatly rewarded with both a spectacular view and a sense of accomplishment.
1) Sailing the San Blas Islands (Panama)
Initially this was simply a way to get from Panama to Colombia but it turned out to be so much more than that. Fantastic snorkeling, exploring remote deserted islands, meeting the local Kuna inhabitants and just sailing through the beautiful Caribbean waters all made for an unforgettable multi-day maritime adventure.
Best Extreme Sports in Central America:
3) Spelunking the Wet Caves of (tied) Kan ‘Ba (Guatemala) and ATM (Belize)
Swimming your way into the depths of the Mayan underground by candlelight is an insanely thrilling experience. During Belize’s ATM tour you even had to swim under rocks and try to find your way in the pitch black when we turned out the lights. Now turn the lights back on only to find ancient Mayan skeletal remains. Eek!
Meanwhile at Kan ‘Ba in Guatemala you climb up a waterfall within the cave, get flushed down the “toilet!” and follow it all up with the added adventure of Semuc Champey. So which is better: Semuc Champey Kan ‘Ba vs ATM in Belize? That’s a really tough call. The Mayan remains made the ATM cave way more interesting, while Kan ‘Ba’s obstacles made it a more thrilling experience.
2) Volcano Boarding Down Cerro Negro (Guatemala)
This was crazier than any thrill ride imaginable. There’s some risk of injury when speeding down the side of a volcano at 90 kph but the rush is absolutely worth it. This once-in-a-lifetime bucket list item is unquestionably not to be missed for any dare devil.
1) Paragliding over Lago Atitlan (Guatemala)
“3-2-1-Go!” is what we heard when the wind grabbed our chute and we took off over a cliff above the picturesque mountain lake. The initial take off and acrobatics that came later provided jolts of excitement but the experience of paragliding over Lago Atitlan and the volcanos that surround it turned out to be more calm and serene than expected.
Best Beaches in Central America
Honorable Mention: San Juan Del Sur (Nicaragua)
This surfer’s paradise on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast not only packed in gnarly swells, but it also yielded spectacular sunsets and is just a good ol’ Central American beach town.
3) Tulum (Mexico)
Here you’ll find ancient Mayan pyramids set along a beautiful stretch of Mexico’s coastline. Soak in the warm Caribbean waters as you marvel at anthropologic wonders in front of you.
2) Manuel Antonio (Costa Rica)
One of Costa Rica’s most popular National Parks is well attended for a reason. It’s simply stunning. Get to Manuel Antonio early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Going then, the only company you’ll have is from the monkeys poking their heads out from the palm tree lined coast.
1) Coco Bandera (Panama)
Relax on your own secluded private island! This beach in the San Blas islands was just a tiny sliver of tropical paradise. You can walk around the entire isla in just a few minutes. But it’s better to just plop your ass down in the sand and relax.
Best Freshwater Swimming in Central America:
3) Llanos de Cortes (Costa Rica)
We loved discovering this enormous waterfall in Costa Rica that was off the tourist trail. The best part was being able to take a swim in the refreshing waters right under the pounding falls.
2) Cenotes (Mexico)
Mexico’s cenotes really impressed us. These craters to the underworld were stunning natural formations to take a dip in. Among the dozen or so cenotes we visited while in Mexico, the ones near Cuzuma were our favorite and we’d highly recommend.
1) Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (Mexico)
What a neat experience to just float down this ancient canal in SianKa’an Biosphere Reserve dug out by the Mayans centuries ago. Strap a mask on and watch the world go by both above and below the surface. After about 30 minutes, meet back up with you boat to whisk you around more of this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site. Intrigued? Here are full directions on how to get to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Best Places to Paddle in Central America
3) Kayaking on Lago Atitlan (Guatemala)
Where else can you kayak around permanently flooded and abandoned houses? This was a very cool and surreal experience that usually isn’t listed as something to do in San Pedro La Laguna but we certainly recommend.
2) Kayaking Rio Istiam on Ometepe (Nicaragua)
We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this kayak trip full of wildlife including crocodiles, monkeys, and more exotic birds than we could count. This is a great excursion to embark on in the tranquil paradise of Ometepe, a volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.
1) Pacurae River Whitewater Rafting (Costa Rica)
Our last adventure in Costa Rica was our favorite. Whitewater rafting down the Pacurae River was a fun thrill ride through a natural wonderland that finally delivered the Costa Rica we’d been searching for.
Best Hikes Around Central America
3) Volcan Tenorio National Park (Costa Rica)
We loved hiking through the rain forests of Volcan Tenorio National Park where a gorgeous aqua blue river would pop in and out of view before culminating into a spectacular waterfall.
2) Cerro Chato (Costa Rica)
This was just one of those hikes we had low expectations on that really ended up being a enjoyable challenge. Don’t be fooled by the flat and well-manicured paths taking you towards the actual Cerro Chato trailhead. You’re in for quite the climb! On the way down you can live out your inner-Tarzan fantasies by grabbing hold of the jungle vines as you descend.
1) Volcan Tajumulco
Should this be a “best hike” or “worst hike?” We’re not sure. Either way, climbing Volcan Tajumulco was a hell of an experience and we now have the bragging rights of submitting Central America’s tallest mountain.
Best Ruins in Central America:
Honorable Mentions: Tulum, Chitzen Itza, and Coba (Mexico)
While we enjoyed the grandiosity of Chitzen Itza, the busloads of tourists and tenacious vendors set up everywhere took away from the overall experience. We also loved Tulum’s beachfront location but with only room for a “top 3” we simply found these other ruins to have a slight edge over it.
Easily accessible from Tulum, the Coba ruins is spread out among a tropical forest. We really enjoyed how you can rent bikes and ride around under the shade of the canopy from one ancient site to the next. If that wasn’t enough, you are permitted to climb up the deceptively steep Ixmoja pyramid to get a birds-eye view of all that is below.
3) Uxmal (Mexico):
We found that it was very worthwhile to go beyond Chitzen Itza to explore the ancient Mayan ruins of Uxmal. It’s a fairly large complex with ruins you can climb. Crowds and touts were both absent during our visit making it a very enjoyable experience in Mexico.
2) Palenque (Mexico)
Set in the lush Mexican jungle, the magnificent temples of Palenque emerge. Wander deeper and down the paths and you’ll find hundreds of ruins yet to be excavated. Climb high a top them for spectacular views of the site as howler monkeys roar. On your way out, marvel at the awesome waterfalls that dot the trail. Palenque is spectacular and a must-visit ruin in Mexico.
1) Tikal (Guatemala)
Tikal was most definitely our top Mayan ruin highlight among the over fifteen ancient sites we visited while in Central America. We had no idea how enormous it actually was with miles and miles of trails connecting series of excavated structures to one another. The towering pyramids were impressive and it was awesome that you’re actually permitted to go up to the top of many of them. On top of all that, the wildlife here was also incredible (see Best Wildlife).
Best Volcanoes in Central America
Honorable mention: San Pedro (Guatemala)
The dormant Volcan San Pedro at Lago Atitlan provides a great hike and spectacular views.
3) Volcan Arenal (Costa Rica)
This volcano gets a lot of attention and probably for good reason. She’s a beauty. We loved quietly admiring this cone from the restaurant at the observatory and hiking around its lesser-known little brother Cerro Chato.
2) Volcan Cerro Negro (Nicaragua)
You can go volcano boarding down Volcan Cerro Negro in Nicaragua. And you should. Awesome. No further explanation needed.
1) Volcan Pacaya (Guatemala)
This was the only volcano we visited that was active which is why it tops our list. During our time of visit the lava had stopped flowing but the smoke and ashes it spewed made for a memorable sight. This is a great half-day trip out of Antigua.
Best Wildlife in Central America:
Honorable Mention: Celestun (Mexico)
Where else in the world can you see thousands of flamingos up close not only feeding on shrimp in the shallow lagoons but actually in flight soaring through the air. This was an absolutely spectacular sight that needs to receive more attention.
3) Manuel Antonio (Costa Rica)
Sloths had been elusive creatures during our journey through Central America but we finally spotted some here. Also the monkeys aren’t as shy to visitors as they were in other places. Pack that all in a rainforest setting on a beautiful beach with tidal pools and you have Manual Antonio, a worthy spot for wildlife in our top 3.
2) Belize Great Barrier Reef (Belize)
Wildlife isn’t just on land. The ocean life under the sea in Belize wowed and amazed. Nurse sharks swimming past playful moray eels, cubera snapper as big as a child, and rather large spotted leopard rays gliding off in the distance. The underwater world of Belize is simply not to be missed.
1) Tikal (Guatemala):
Perhaps we got lucky but we spotted more wildlife in Tikal, and in such a short amount of time than we did anywhere in Central America. Monkeys hanging from trees, howlers roaring in the distance, foxes running up ancient temples, toucans soaring overhead, enormous deer appearing at our doorstep and curious coatis greeting us from the bushes.
Best Eating Around Central America
Honorable Mention: Vegetarian Omelets (tied: Mexico and Guatemala)
Sure it may not be an authentic dish to these countries (hence not making it into our top 3), yet we found the vegetarian omelets here to be unbelievably jammed packed with all sorts of great local veggies and delicious cheese. Veggie omelets in Mexico even included chaya, a leafy spinach-like vegetable native to the Yucatan. We devoured a few of these throughout our trip and they were always a standout.
3) Johnny Cakes (Belize)
These fried up biscuit-like breakfast delights can be stuffed with a variety of fillings for a hearty on-the-go breakfast. Our favorite Johnny Cake was a combination of refried beans, cheese, and eggs.
2) Tacos (Mexico)
Tacos for breakfast? Yes. There’s many taco stalls set up in the AM and when they’re around, you’ll find us there piling the pickled onions onto fresh tortillas stuffed with so many different varieties of eggs, chicken, and other meats. This was always a great start to the day. Our favorite tacos in Mexico? Try Wayan’e in Merida. For details, see our full review of the best restaurants in Merida.
1) Gallo Pinto (tie: Nicaragua and Costa Rica)
It’s simple, unassuming and usually an option at any breakfast in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It may seem like just beans and rice mixed together but there’s more going on here and was always a tasty breakfast choice. Gallo pinto is actually the national dish for both Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
So what’s the difference? Costa uses black beans while Nicaragua uses red beans. There are feuds on which is truly better. We’re going to stay out of it and just call it a tie. Some visitors grow tired of this dish day after day. We never did and would love to have a nice hearty plate of gallo pinto right now. A little hot sauce accompanied by some eggs and we’re fueled up for a day of adventure!
Best Snacks around Central America
3) Deserts (Guatemala)
Ridiculously good tiramisu, marbled cheesecake, and decadent slices of pie could all be found in Guatemala’s cafés for about a buck or less. When priced at a less than a dollar, we’ll gladly indulge each and every day.
2) Elotes / Maize (Corn) (Mexico)
In Mexico, ask for corn “con todo” and you’ll get an expertly prepared ear that is doused in butter, slathered in sour cream or mayonnaise, covered with a freshly grated hard white cheese, then spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with cayenne pepper. Biting into the cob, the mishmash of intense flavors just tickles your taste buds.
Mexico may be known for their churros (also good) but it was the marquesitas (pronounced: “mar-ka-see-tas”) found at almost any street vendor stall throughout the Yucatan that really won us over. What is a marquesita? A liquid batter is placed on a hot griddle until it’s heated to almost a waffle-cone like taste and texture. Then it’s filled with a variety of toppings and rolled up. We took our cues from locals who all seemed to get the combination of cajeta and Edam cheese. Although this is street food, they use good Edam cheese imported from Holland. The gooey savory cheese melts together oh-so-nicely with the sweet cajeta, which is a caramel-like concoction of sweetened condensed goat’s milk.
Best Local Dish in Central America:
3) Filete in Salsa Jalapena (Nicaragua):
Nicaragua is slowing starting to get recognized for its quality beef. The Nicaraguan steaks certainly stood out to us while in Central America. Our favorite preparation would be when it was covered with a generous amount of grilled jalapeno slices in a creamy sauce. Surprisingly this dish is not too spicy. Much of the heat is cooked off and the smooth cream helps further to mellow things out.
2) Pescado Ajillo (Mexico)
Fresh fish filet lightly pan-fried and smothered with copious amounts of garlic was found not only in Mexico but throughout most of Central America. It is simple yet absolutely wonderful and became a staple for us during our three months in the region. Sometimes lime would be incorporated as part of the garlic sauce while other times wedges were served on the side. The type of fish varied too from red snapper to mahi and other local varieties, yet our unconditional preference was for snook (or “robalo” in Spanish), a fish unavailable for sale back in the states due to overfishing there. The ajillo preparation could also be applied to shrimp and other seafood such as lobster. But it was the fish, and particularly the snook, which always had us ordering this dish again and again.
1) Conchinita Pibil (Mexico)
This is a typical Yucatan dish that is made from suckling pig marinated in sour orange juice and a spice from the annatto seed. It’s slow cooked in underground pits for hours that gives it a juicy fall-apart consistently as if someone slightly shredded it. It is melt-in-your mouth and bursting with flavor. This was often served as a dish by itself alongside tortillas, of course. But you can also often get it as a taco or torta filling to get your pibil fix on-the-go. Our favorite cochinita pibil was at Chaya Maya in Merida, Mexico. Once you’ve had your fill of conchinita pibil, also be sure to try the pollo pibil, made with a chicken instead of pork, which is likewise fantastic.
Best Local Cuisine in Central America:
Plentiful freshly prepared seafood was truly an indulgence. In Belize we learned how to cook the perfect lobster and treated ourselves to delectable ceviches. Fresh conch seemed to come in all sorts of forms, from ceviche to burgers, fried conch, grilled conch, and even in conch burritos! The seafood was definitely the standout dish in Belize, yet even the ubiquitous fried chicken, which seems like a staple to the Belizean food, was remarkable. Some of our favorite eats in Belize were the inexpensive restaurants on Caye Caulker. Here, you can find our guide to Cheap Eats in Caye Caulker.
Nicaragua is far from becoming the next foodie paradise, but this country sure did score some major points with us. Cuisine consisted of fantastic steaks, particularly those covered in a creamy jalapeño sauce. And Nicaragua offered some terrific seafood too. Granada introduced us to the delicious local cuisine of the “ugly fish” yet it was the red snapper we ate throughout the country that really won us over.
You simply can’t dispute Mexico topping this list. The food scene in the Yucatan is “en fuego” (on fire)! There are a number of excellently prepared local Mexican dishes to try like pollo en mole poblano. Then throw in cuisine specific to the Yucatan area such as pibil, soupa de lima, and queso relleno. You can head to the coast and get your seafood fix as well. There’s a variety of establishments to eat at from five-star restaurants to street carts and we found both ends of those spectrums to be equally delectable. We were quite fond of the taco carts and marquesitas, yet indulged in some fabulous restaurant meals prepared by culinary wizards. The cities of Oaxaca and Puebla often seem to get all the love when it comes to standout Mexican cuisine, but we can vouch that it was the Yucatan region that really sizzled our taste buds.
Best Drinking Around Central America
Honorable mention: Belize
There are only a few beers to choose from in Belize, dominated by Belikin, but they’re all pretty good choices. We loved that you can easily grab a decent stout at nearly any store or bar, whereas the rest of Central America typically limits you to pale lagers. And we thought that Belize beer rendition of Guinness’s Export Stout was a pretty damn good one.
Panama City had some decent brewpubs and a few Panamanian craft beer choices at some of its bars. Casa Bruja was our favorite, particularly their Chivo Perro IPA. La Rana had a nice Porter and a fun atmosphere. Other Panamanian craft beers were just okay but all were a very welcomed option instead of yet another yellow fizzy beer.
Pass on the Corona and instead enjoy a Bohemia. Better yet seek out some of Mexico’s craft beers such as Cucapa. Or go local while in the Yucatan and try Ceiba, a beer brewed in the Yucatan region. Whatever you’re into. there’s a beer here for you to enjoy under the hot Mexican sun.
1) Costa Rica
Skip the ubequetous Imperial and even Costa Rica Brewing Co’s offerings and instead seek out other harder to find micros and nano brewed beer in Costa Rica. You won’t be disappointed. There is a terrific burgeoning beer scene just beginning in San Jose, yet there are still many hidden gems to discover throughout the country. Many of the beers we stumbled into were very tiny operations yet we thought the quality was on par with some of our favorite American craft beers. And they’re starting to get very creative too. We came across a 9.9% ABV “beer brandy” which was aged in tequila barrels and was out of this world.
Best Local Drink in Central America:
Honorable Mention: Mojitos (tie: Mexico and Guatemala)
Sure these cocktails originated in Cuba but they can be found broadly throughout Central America. We mention Mexico as a good choice because the expertly prepared mojitos at Batey in Tulum were the best we’ve ever had. Yet Guatemala deserves a mention too since they were more commonplace throughout the country, of great value (often under a buck), and yet still delicious.
3) Nica Libre (Nicaragua)
The simple formula perhaps stolen from Cuba (although don’t tell them that) simply calls for light rum, coca-cola, and a lime. How is this different from a Cuba Libre? In Nicaragua, Nica Libres use light rum while a Cuba Libre uses dark rum. We preferred the Flor de Cana brand light rum in our Nica Libres, which made an excellent way to end an adventure-packed day.
2) Coco Loco (Guatemala, Panama)
Simple: add rum to the coconut milk found in said coconut. This combination works quite well on any beach town throughout Central America.
1) Panty Ripper (Belize)
Coconut rum and pineapple juice may seem like a girly concoction to be sipping on, but on the beaches of Belize it just felt right regardless of your gender. Perhaps it’s the Belizean coconut rum or the fresh pineapple juice that does the trick. Or maybe it’s the relaxed Caribbean atmosphere, which ties it all together. Whatever the case, Belize’s national drink just works here.
Best of Traveling Around Central America
Best Medium or Big City:
3) Merida (Mexico)
The best thing about Merida Mexico may have been its centralized location for so much of what the Yucatan has to offer. But its restaurants, bars, museums, nightlife, and friendly people are what really made it the perfect hub for exploring the area. Plan your trip there on a Sunday when you can whiz around this beautiful colonial city on a two wheels!
2) Panama City (Panama)
This was our last big stop through rural and developing Central America so this big and incredibly modern city really surprised us. It reminded us of Miami or if someone had dropped a piece of NYC right into the heart of Central America. Huge office buildings, malls, movie theatres and condos were all things we hadn’t seen in months, yet they were on full display in this Central American metropolis. The nightlife is absolutely rocking here on the weekends. There are also a few brewpubs that made us particularly happy.
There’s a varied restaurant scene that not only offers local Panamanian food but lots of international cuisine such as some excellent Greek and Italian joints. And there’s a lot to do. Go to the beach and visit the old town. And no trip to Panama City is complete without visiting the Panama Canal, of course.
1) Granada (Nicaragua)
It was Granada’s colonial charm that won us over and just seemed to have a perfect mix of local culture and tourist infrastructure. But we also really enjoyed the variety activities here. Volcano hikes and zip-lining were just quick jaunts away. But no trip to Granada is complete without visiting the famous islettas or a horse drawn carriage ride.
Best Overall Value for Your Money:
3) Tie: the rest
All of Central America is really quite the travel bargain. People often say that Belize, Costa Rica, and Mexico can be more expensive than elsewhere but we still consistently found very reasonable accommodation under $50 in all of these locations. Transportation was likewise always very affordable throughout too. The cost of recreation, excursions, and tours varied a bit, but at its absolute worst was still only comparable to US prices.
Food costs were of such great value there was never any need to cook in. Seafood like lobster and ceviche could still be had for a just a few bucks in Belize. While complete fish dinners in Costa Rica only came in around USD$5 at the local diner-like restaurants called “sodas.” In Mexico a plate full of tacos was never more than a few bucks and complete seafood dinners never ran much more than that at local restaurants. El Salvadorian papusas (<$1) were a delectable cheap eat. Meanwhile platters of traditional Panamanian dishes were a steal at less than $5 per person. With all these deals, it’s hard to say one is better value than the other.
Steak or lobster dinners for about $5 simply can’t be beat. Cheap private rooms can be had for about $10 while nicer hotel rooms with all the amenities can be easily found for somewhere under $50, often with ocean or lakefront locations. Recreation is a bargain too with surfboard rentals at $5 a pop and zip lining running about half the cost as it would in nearby Costa Rica. Nica Libres and Mojitos can be found for $1 or so during happy hour. And to this day I’ve never had a better haircut in my entire life, which only cost me $1.50 (although I did add a generous tip to that).
Undoubtedly Guatemala had the best value for our buck. Budget-friendly towns will yield reasonable accommodation for two for about $10 and well into the single digits for a bed in a dorm. Want to splurge a bit? Private lakefront rooms with all the amenities at proper hotels shouldn’t run you more than $40 in San Pedro la Laguna and elsewhere. A week of Spanish lessons at one of the best schools in the country (if not all of Central America), including room & board comes in at less than $30 per day. A very complete meal with drink should cost under $5.
We had a number of delicious grilled chicken lunches with plentiful sides and a drink for under $2. Want to instead splurge for filet minion at the nicest French restaurant in town? That’ll cost ya a whopping $12 per person. Fantastic mojitos can be had for less than a buck and even American craft beers are just a few dollars. A favorite budget treat for us in Guatemala was its fancy deserts like tiramisu at the cafes for under a dollar (see favorite snacks). Recreation, guides, and tours also tended to be of great value.
Best Places to Stay in Central America:
Honorable Mentions: Utopia Semuc Champey and Tikal Inn Tikal (Guatemala)
3) The Pickled Onion (Mexico)
What a cool little unique place that’s kinda out in the middle of nowhere in Mexico (near Uxmal). We loved the local style of the adobes placed amid the winding garden paths. And the pool at the Pickled Onion was just as inviting as its friendly owner Val who even sent us a well-wishing email after our short one-night stay.
2) Xalli (Ometepe, Nicaragua)
Staying at this small beachfront hotel on Ometepe was just a tiny sliver of paradise and definitely the most relaxing place we stayed at during our trip. There’s no need to walk the half mile into town for dinner because the food onsite was spectacular. Come to Hotel Xalli to relax, unwind and eat well!
1) Hotel Sakari (San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala)
Sometimes its the simple pleasures of strong wifi and a good shower with hot water that make us very happy when jumping from hotel to hotel. We found that here at Hotel Sakari in San Pedro la Laguna, but it was everything in addition which really delighted. The large comfortable room with big windows overlooking the lake felt like we had a suite at a 5-star resort. We also appreciated the complimentary use of the kayaks and some good Guatemalan coffee each morning. This was just one of those places where everything goes right and left us not wanting to leave. In fact, we didn’t and were thankfully able to extend our stay many more days than we had initially planned.
Best Transportation in Central America:
3) Panama City Taxis (Panama)
In the capital of Panama you can get anywhere in this major metropolis for never more than a two-three dollars. There were always dozens of taxis just waiting to take you to your next destination. Regular traffic jams would give you time to practice your Spanish with the taxi drivers at no added cost. And we’ve never seen such a mixed bag when it comes to taxi drivers. Some were just out to get their share of the gringo dollar while others were incredibly helpful, nice, and friendly.
2) Belize Ferry System (Belize)
When getting from point-A to point-B involves whizzing by tropical islands as dolphins leap around in the distance, its hard to imagine any better way to get around Central America. We found the Ferry system to be very efficient, frequent and reasonably priced.
1) Chicken Buses (Guatemala)
If you’ve ever been to Guatemala before, you’ve almost certainly taken a ride one of these old converted American school buses to get from one city to another. And you may be quite surprised to see this at the top of our list. Sure, they can get extremely cramped with people but that’s all part of the experience. If you think about it, it’s really not much different than being on the New York City Subway system during rush hour. And these refurbished and beautifully decorated busses haul ass! You may need to hold your breath as you take dangerous mountain corners but you’ll get to your destination in record time while you jam out to the thumping Latin tunes belting out from the well equipped sound system. Busses stop only oh-so-briefly as the ayuande (helper) climbs through windows in order to strap patrons’ sacks onto the top of the speeding bus. Getting hungry? No worries, someone will hop aboard at a stop to sell you some snacks and refreshments. You also get entertained by the travelling salesmen pitching their miracle products in a style reminiscent of American infomercials. All of this beautiful chaos costs only about a buck for every hour you’re travelling and were always somehow incredibly reliable.
Best People Around Central America:
Culture in Mexico can be so fun, festive, and friendly. Love it! Mexican people can be so generous and kind. There always seems to be a fiesta somewhere and you’ll always be invited.
We were fond of the Belizean sense of humor and laidback vibe. They always just seem to be smiling, laughing, and going slow. They’re often up for a chat or even a joke. Belizeans never seem to be shy in introducing themselves, which always makes you feel welcome.
We found Guatemala to have the friendliest folks in all of Central America. People here helped you, simply to help you. You could often let your guard down and make friends. Although sometimes a bit shy or reserved, people were genuinely interested to talk to you and usually quite friendly once the ice was broken. We greatly appreciated their deliberately slow Spanish as they spoke with us and their patience as we would attempt to talk back. Strangers routinely provided us with impromptu lessons while at the market or food stall, teaching us new phrases and correcting our pronunciation. We experienced numerous acts of sincere kindness here that continually delighted. On packed buses locals would give up their seats so that we, the tourists, were comfortable. Always so polite!
Where We’d Like to Spend More Time
3) Costa Rica
Our week in Costa Rica was rushed and mostly limited to the main tourist destinations. We’d love to come back to explore some of the country’s less trodden areas at a more leisurely pace.
2) El Salvador
Because we were running out of time we only spent a day passing through the country as a way to get from Guatemala to Nicaragua. But thankfully our shuttle bus broke down in a small town on the Pacific coast. Here we found gorgeous beaches, good surfing, nice accommodations, friendly people and even some good craft beer. Our breakfast stop in the capital for incredibly delicious papusas, left our mouths watering for more. We’re saddened we couldn’t have spent more time here but we’ll be back!
We only scratched the surface of Mexico by exploring the Yucatan region. But it’s quite a big country with so many other appealing destinations calling at us. We’d love to roam around Sayulita, Mexico City, Copper Canyon; indulge in the foodie town of Oxaca; and discover more about tequila & mescal.
Update: We’ve made good on this desire by returning to Mexico for 4 months in 2016! We now love Mexico even more than our initial visit!
Where We Would Recommend YOU go in Central America:
Go everywhere! This is an incredible region to travel in and it’s all fantastic. Yet if we had to narrow it down to three countries, this is what we’d recommend:
Belize really is unBelizable. We found the adventures here to be just as fantastic above the water as below. Island hopping around this laidback nation full of friendly people gave it more of a Caribbean feel than Central America. And the fact that English is the official language just makes things easy for folks who don’t speak Spanish. From Belize City you can easily reach the Cayes of San Pedro and Caye Caulker to relax on the island paradise. But save some time to explore inland too! There’s cave tubing, the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha, and the ATM cave tour is something that simply cannot be missed.
2) Yucatan (Mexico)
We simply can’t forget the about the amazing cuisine and drinks in Mexico we discovered throughout the Yucatan alongside some simply unforgettable experiences like watching wild flamingos, traversing ancient ruins, and exploring the natural wonders of cenotes. There’s so much more to the Yucatan peninsula than Cancun and the Mayan Riviera. You can catch a cheap flight to Cancun but maybe consider Merida as a base for exploration instead. See the ruins but don’t just go to Chitzen Itza and Tulum. Consider Uxmal and Coba too. Explore the cenotes and Valladolid is a great little town to do so. Don’t miss Campeche either and definitely find flamingos in Celestun or Rio Lagartos. Have a culinary journey throughout the trip and enjoy a margarita or ten.
For its incredible recreation, amazing value for the money, and its kind & welcoming people – Guatemala tops our list of Central American countries you should visit. It may not be at the top of your radar but it absolutely should be. You will find beautiful coasts on the outside and volcanos and mountains within. Take in ruins and rain forests for a few days then experience the culture of a city. Guatemala has got it all. Fly into Guatemala City, visit Antigua, relax at Lago Atitlan, take in Semuc Champey, and explore Tikal. You could easily spend a month here (we did), but a week or so would give you a nice packed itinerary with lots of amazing places to roam around. And despite what you may have heard somewhere, yes, its safe.
Are You Going or Have You Traveled to Central America?
Are you going to Central America? We hope you found this helpful to give you some ideas of where to go and what to do during your Central America adventure! Feel free to drop us a line in the comments with any questions you may have!
Have you been to Central America? If so, what were some of your favorites?