Backpacking in Central America is a unique experience. Beneath the layers of mosquito netting, each year thousands of Central America budget travelers discover a lifestyle that's more than dreadlocks and chickenbuses. Traveling on a shoestring might mean sacrificing luxuries, but it also means instant camaraderie with open-minded backpackers from all over the world and unequaled cultural immersion.
While nearby Roatan is larger, Utila, Honduras is internationally recognized as one of the cheapest places in the world for diving. The island's waters teem with an endless variety of marine life, including the haunting whale shark. Countless dive shops line the streets of this laid-back isle and draw in eager students -- many of them Central America backpackers -- from all across the globe.
You can book lessons at the Utila Dive Center, free at The Mango Inn and go for a visit to the magical Jade Seahorse.
Experts consider Antigua, Guatemala the most well-preserved colonial city in the Spanish Americas. Backpackers consider Antigua a budget traveler's mecca, an equatorial Europe filled with coffee shops, pubs, international restaurants, Spanish schools, and hostels, yet in easy reach of Guatemala's incomparable outdoor attractions. While Antigua doesn't offer true Mayan immersion like other Guatemalan villages, it does offer a one-of-a-kind blend of cultures against a superbly stunning backdrop of three volcanoes (one of them active) and many mountains.
Although it's possible to find a room within the perimeter of the Monteverde Cloudforest in Costa Rica, most Central America backpackers prefer to stay at nearby Santa Elena, a small town with offerings beyond howler monkeys and mighty trees. The town's crooked, cobbled, haphazard streets backed by green forest are undeniably charming, and accommodations are cheap. Los Amigos Cantina is the perfect place to brush up on salsa skills among the locals. From town, it's easy to book a canopy tour and adrenaline-pumping ziplining excursion for a good price.
Bocas Del Toro has emerged as Panama's most popular travel destination, yet in a country that largely remains untouched by cruise ships and package tourists, that's not saying much. The provincial capital of Bocas Town boasts the relaxed, beachy ambiance adored by Central America backpackers, and is an ideal portal for exploring the fantastically diverse isles of the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago. Hotel Las Brisas is a winning budget option, offering basic, waterfront rooms and complimentary beverages.
While nearby Ambergris Caye is the more luxurious isle, Belize's Caye Caulker is an inexpensive celebration of life, especially during the yearly Lobsterfest in July. Diving, snorkeling, strolling, sunbathing, and sipping Belikin beer are on the island's daily itinerary. As for accommodations, Tina's Backpackers and Bella's are the cheapest, simplest options, but a few extra bucks a night will get you an airtight cabana with a private hot shower at the Tropical Paradise Hotel or Trends Beachfront.
Big Corn Island, Nicaragua's only chunk of true Caribbean culture, is a melting pot made up of Carib, Miskito Indians, former mainlanders, and the occasional backpacker. Flour-soft white sand, turquoise waters, and exotic fruit trees ensure no one is ever in a hurry. The majority of the country's lobster, which is the third largest export, is processed here, which means backpackers and other Central America travelers enjoy top-quality tails at rock-bottom prices. Neighboring Little Corn Island is an unblemished tropical paradise.
Each of the villages edging the shores of Guatemala's heartrendingly beautiful highlands lake, Atitlan, is a Central America backpacker's haven in its own right. However, San Pedro La Laguna is the hub of them all. Wedged at the foot of one volcano with a staggering view of another, shaded by temperate green and dancing with butterflies, the village is notorious for its international denizens who made the pilgrimage to this lakeside wonderland years ago and remained. The backpacker community is unsurpassed.
Backpacking in Central America with a surfboard can be difficult, but that doesn't stop the masses of budgeting beach bums who swarm to La Libertad, El Salvador from trying. While the breaks of El Punto, El Zunzal, and El Zonte are best places for surfers to catch a wave, the best sunbathing beaches are eastward, at Playa San Diego. No matter where you go, you'll enjoy limitless fresh seafood barbecued to taste at beachfront eateries and discount backpacker accommodations complete with sandy floors.
San Ignacio, in Belize's western Cayo District, is where Central America backpacking and extreme ecotourism converge. Located among extensive protected jungle acreage on the eastern frontier, the town is Belize's primary destination for backpackers who wish to explore the area's rivers, caves, waterfalls, and glorious flora and fauna. Budget accommodations range from jungle lodges to tents along the riverbanks. As an added benefit, trips to the supreme archaeological Tikal ruins in neighboring Guatemala are easily arranged.
Throw in a pinch each of Rastafarians, wave-worshiping Gringos, Latin lovers, funky hippies, and camera-toting tourists, and you've got the ultimate party recipe: Montezuma, on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. Such a hodgepodge of cultures also means endlessly varied cuisine and tempestuous nightlife. Because of the steamy climate and gorgeous beaches, outdoor living is the only type of living here, with the city center serving as a mass meeting place - a people-watcher's paradise for backpackers of every persuasion.
Article edited by Marina K. Villatoro