Visiting Central America - Itineraries

Friday, September 16, 2016

When visiting Central America, itineraries really take a back seat. We found this out instantly and all our planning efforts became a distant memory once we entered Central America. When you can get from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast in under 10 hours. And cross through one country into the next in under 8 hours, itineraries for your Central America trip become very flexible.

Visiting Central America - Itineraries


The best customised itineraries and travel plans for Visiting Central America

Planning for your trip in Central America can be really easy if you just go with the flow and realise your route will most definitely be subject to change. Here's some of the most popular and common backpacking routes through Central America for a 4 week Central America Itinerary. 

Our Central America Trip and Itinerary 

We had a lot of time to spend in Central America, 12 weeks in total. But I know that this isn't always the case for others and that's why I've based these itineraries around a 4 week Central America Trip. Our original plan for a Central American itinerary was one we put together a long time before leaving the UK. We spent many hours hunched over a Central America on a Shoestring Lonely Planet guide, writing on post-it-notes and highlighting great sounding locations and quirky hostels.

We wanted to find the best route, to experience it all. Our Central America itinerary had everything there was to see from the beaches of Honduras' Bay Islands to the Costa Rican Rainforest and everything else in between.

Palm Trees in Panama

Planning ahead for your trip is always good practice, but as many of us know this level of organisation and decisiveness often disappears as soon as you hit the road especially as a flexible backpacker. There's something so unpractical about creating an itinerary before even seeing the country you're about to visit, but it helps to have a rough outline of your backpacking route.

The initial itinerary we had for our designated 3 months in Central America was long, unrealistic and left us no time really to just be anywhere. It soon changed once we left Mexico and found ourselves skipping Belize in favour of Guatemala.

See below for our 12 week Central America itinerary. 

 
Our Central America Itinerary and final route map looking a lot different to the unrealistic one we had created before leaving

Backpacking Central America 

When it comes to getting around in Central America life is easy. I guess this is the main factor that impacts your itinerary so much when backpacking. There's always a bus of friends leaving to another cool beach two hours away or a group travelling inland to take part in some volcano boarding - a Central American adventure.

Whether it's a chicken bus you need to catch, a collectivo taxi or a backpacker filled shuttle bus, getting from one place to another in Central America is very easy. And thus, becomes the first problem for itineraries in Central America, everywhere is so accessible. You can be in El Salvador, at lunch time and Nicaragua by night fall. This makes for some very fun and indecisive travel. 

I say indecisive because accessibility, good infrastructure and cheap travel really screw up your plans and Central America plays host to all three of those things.

Travel Hack: Catch a collectivo taxi with the locals, common across Latin America if you know where to go

This is a common theme for backpackers and all travelers visiting Central America. Last minute decisions and buses that don't quite go the full way leave you spending a night in yet another fantastic location you never thought you'd be visiting.

Often in Central America a large scheduled bus from one city won't go to your destination so you have to take a shuttle to the capital. Making for even more indecisive travel.

This happened to us more than once whilst on the road, We left Leon in a overcrowded, uncomfortable collectivo with our bags on knees to get a bus to Managua. Our final destination being Granada. No direct buses are a big thing throughout Central America. Don't be surprised to find yourself doing a similar journey. But don't dwell, your new route may take you on an unexpected journey to a place you had totally written off in your planning.

Travel Hack: If someone tells you there are no more busses, ask someone else. Don't take your first answer as the truth. 

Whether you think you have everything planned or not I can guarantee you that everything will change once you're on the road. I'm going to share with you some of the best and most common routes and itineraries when visiting Central America on a 4 week Central America backpacking trip, bearing in mind you can't always go from place to place without a mini detour.


Central America Itinerary 4 Weeks

Backpacking Route 1 - Belize, Guatemala, Honduras



The Belize and Guatemala route is a pretty standard one. We met a lot of guys heading from Merida  in Mexico to Belize City or Antigua in Guatemala to do a similar 4 week itinerary before heading to South America. We never got to see Belize but we've heard Caye Caulker is the place to be. Lobster, diving and a big blue hole. For four weeks fly to Belize City and head straight to Caye Caulker to dive. Skip the capital as mostly Central American capitals aren't as tourist friendly as you'd wish. This itinerary could possibly be done in 2 or 3 weeks at a push. 

Belize, Guatemala, Honduras - 4 week Central America itinerary

Belize City, Belize - Yellow
Caye Caulker, Belize - Blue
Semuc Champey, Guatemala - Purple
Optional - Lake Atitlan Guatemala.
Antigua, Guatemala - Pink
Copan Ruins, Honduras/Guatemala Border - Green

Central America Itinerary 4-5 Weeks

Backpacking Route 2 - The Islands 



Love diving? Then Central America's Islands are perfect for you. Take 4/5 weeks and head from Lake Atitlan to Copan then straight to Caye Caulker for diving. Don't forget to stop by The Bay Islands in Honduras for even more diving. Take this further by flying down to Little Corn Island, Nicaragua for some more world class diving spots.This is a fabulous and extremely common itinerary for divers.

The Central America Island Itinerary - 4/5 weeks

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala - Green
Copan Ruins, Guatemala - Orange
Caye Caulker, Belize - Yellow
Roatan, The Bay Islands, Honduras - Pink
Utila, The Bay Islands, Honduras - Purple
Optional - Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Central America Itinerary 4-6 Weeks

Backpacking Route 3 - Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama 


How about a Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama 2 week backpacking itinerary? Three incredibly diverse countries with more wildlife than I could name. From Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur, Cloud Forests in Monteverde to island hopping in Bocas del Toro in Panama. Take your time travelling through Costa Rica to see some of the rainforest and wildlife with this 4 - 6 week Central America itinerary.

Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama - 4 - 6 weeks Central America itinerary 

Granada, Nicaragua - Yellow
Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua - Purple
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua - Pink
Monteverde, Costa Rica - Green
San José, Costa Rica - Orange
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca - Blue
Bocas del Toro, Panama - Brown
Optional - Panama City, Panama

Travel Hack: Do some research before arriving in Central America, some capitals are sometimes best avoided unless you need to visit to catch a bus. Tegucigalpa? No thanks.  

Overland Border Crossings in Central America

An important point to mention is border crossings. In Central America the overland border crossing go pretty smoothly and when you're on a budget backpacking trip that's important. Some close early - Costa Rica to Panama to name one and others are open all night. Each country has more than one crossing too, which makes life easier when planning your Central America backpacking route. Some countries require entry and exit fees but don't expect to pay more than a few dollars on exit or arrival. 

Costa Rica to Panama as mentioned was the only time we found ourselves forking out to pay to get across the 'closing' border. A footbridge and rail bridge you have to walk across to exit Costa Rica and arrive in Panama.

From our experience of backpacking Central America border crossings are easier in large groups and on organised shuttle busses. Most nationalities get a 90 day visa on arrival but double check because I know certain countries give certain nationalities a harder time. El Salvador in particular was very interested in anyone with an Israeli passport. Do a little research or ask at the hostel you are leaving.

Travel Hack: Check onward travel information for border crossings. Some places require your onward travel documents. It's not uncommon people are forced to buy a bus ticket they don't need just to enter a country.


Fill out your entry and visa forms quickly and stick with your group. Border crossings during the day in Central America can get busy and you can get lost in the masses of money exchangers that are always found at border crossings in the region - they can be quite handy at times too. Another thing to remember is to always make sure your bus driver locks your bus. And do not leave any important documents or personal items on the bus.


Travel Hack: Got some left over cash you won't need? Swap it at the border. You'll only ever be hustled out of a dollar or so, so it's really worth while having some local currency on you for your arrival in your destination. Most guide books advise against this but we found it useful. 


Whichever backpacking route you decide to take, wherever your starting point is in Central America these backpacking itineraries show how simple it is to get from one place to another. Whether you're doing one country in 4 weeks or all the countries for a longer trip like the one I took myself. Central America is a very accessible place to be especially for budget backpacking travellers. 

Now, I don't want to say it's the perfect place for a backpacking trip or a first time backpacking trip but it probably is. Border crossings can be a breeze providing you do a little research and group travel is something that just kind of happens. Whether you're doing a 4 week itinerary or 5 a month trip, enjoy the accessibility and ease of travelling in such an incredibly diverse area of the world.

Click here for more of the Visiting Central America series


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