Central American ruins
I love Central America! Surrounded by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the slender land bridge of Central America runs from Mexico to South America and is made up of seven nations – Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Political and civil unrest in the 1980s kept most tourists away for a long time, but this reputation is beginning to change as Central America becomes one of the most popular regions for backpackers (and, in the case of Panama and Costa Rica, American retirees). The region’s rain forests are filled with unexplored Mayan ruins and wildlife, its beaches great for surfing, and reefs filled with life. Accommodation, food and transport are all cheap in the region making it a budget traveler’s dream. Your money will go a long way here and this travel guide will give you all the tips you need to have a memorable trip.
Accommodation – A night in a hostel will range between $5-10 USD for a dormitory room. A private bed will cost you between $15-25 USD for single or double bed with private bathroom. In Costa Rica or Panama, you will pay on the higher end of that range. Family owned guesthouses or hotels will be the most affordable accommodation besides hostels. These rooms average $25 USD per night for a private room with an ensuite bathroom, and most of these serve breakfast, not to mention the added bonus of meeting a local. In cheaper countries in the region like El Salvador, a private room can cost $15 USD per night while in a more expensive destination like Panama City, you can expect to pay on the higher end, about $30 USD per night. Camping can be done easily at hostels and in national parks. Most hostels have space where you can pitch a tent or string up a hammock for $1-3 USD per night. National parks require camping fees that vary from country to country. See country guides for specifics on where to stay!
Food – The cheapest way to dine is to eat at the roadside restaurants that dot the region. At local restaurants, you can expect to pay around $5 USD for a meal. If you want really cheap food, you can find empanadas (fried pastries usually filled with meat, cheese, or potatoes) for $0.50 USD. If you are into cooking, head down to the local market and pick up fruit, vegetables, meats, and dairy for around $15-20 USD per week. If you are looking for slightly fancier restaurants, you can except to pay at least 25% more. A typical restaurant meal for a main dish and a drink is about $10 USD. Western food will cost about three times as much as the local dishes, so wait to have your favorites until you get back home. See country guides on specifics of where to eat!
Transportation – In cities, public buses are the cheapest and most convenient way to get around. Fares cost less than a dollar, and buses are widespread. You can catch most routes for $10 USD. Longer bus rides and overnights from one country to the next are generally around $30 USD. Be prepared though – buses here (often called “chicken buses” due to their abundance of chickens and rice transported on them) stop everywhere, let people on, and let people off. They are slow and very few are direct. This region of the world actually relies a lot of hitchhiking. The buses can be late or sporadic and sometimes extremely full. I’ve done this in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama, because there is a limited regional air network here and flights are expensive. A flight from Guatemala City to Belize City is $250 USD, whereas the bus is only about $35 USD.