5 Tips On How To Travel Central America On The Cheap

[box size=”large” border=”full”]This is a guest post shared with us by Marek Bron. He is a fellow budget travel blogger who writes about Latin America travel (and other destinations) at his blog IndieTraveller. [/box]

Having just concluded a five month trip through Central America, I’d like to share some money-saving tips specifically for this part of the world. These can of course be used in combination with your usual cost-saving methods, which are covered in other articles on this site (such as here).

The cost of travel in Central America differs quite significantly from country to country. In some parts (like Nicaragua) it’s very easy to stay under $25 a day as prices are nearly as low as in South-East Asia. In other parts (like Costa Rica) you will certainly need a budget-conscious mentality if you are on a tight budget.

The colonial city of Leon in Nicaragua
The colonial city of Leon in Nicaragua

 

Here are a couple of tips for making your money go the furthest when travelling Central America.

#1 Avoid the more expensive countries.

Costa Rica oddly appears in lots of lists of ‘cheapest travel destinations’ online, however it’s significantly more expensive than other countries in the region. To holiday tourists it probably does seem cheaper, but it will certainly strike backpackers as expensive. Dorm beds start around $15 in many places and food is often costs twice as much as neighbouring Nicaragua. If you are on a budget, consider spending less time in Costa Rica (or make sure you cook your own food or bring a tent or hammock).

The stunning San Blas Islands on the coast of Panama
The stunning San Blas Islands on the coast of Panama

 

Belize is another expensive country. A hostel dorm bed sets you back about $15 there, with privates starting around $30-40. Most meals start at $10-15, unless you find a cheap Chinese eatery where you might still find a basic meal for $5. Caye Caulker is a popular stop on the Gringo backpacker trail, though stay there too long and your funds will dwindle quickly.

Mexico is still quite affordable, though can get expensive if you try to cover much ground in this large country. A rule of thumb for the cost of buses is about $5-7 for every hour travelled. (Mexico is technically part of North America, but it is often included in Central American trips.)

Generally speaking, the Carribean side in Central American is more expensive than the Pacific side—most likely due the remoteness of some of the towns there.

#2 Learn some Spanish.

Winners of a pageant at a fiesta in Guatemala
Winners of a pageant at a fiesta in Guatemala

 

Knowing some Spanish will pay dividends throughout your trip, as you can negotiate better deals and will be ripped off much less often. Bring some audio lessons along for your bus journeys, or stay somewhere for a week to take some Spanish classes. I wrote some tips about learning Spanish here.

#3 Use local transportation.

Most Central American countries can be travelled through very cheaply by using local transportation. Shuttle services catering specifically to tourists are a little more convenient, though can cost as much as ten times more.

Collectivos are short-distance minivan services. You can find them at bus terminals or you can usually flag them down on the road. While not that comfortable (I recently had to hang partly out of an open sliding door), they can be incredibly cheap. Driving for one hour in one will set you back about $0.50 – $1.

Chicken buses are converted former US school buses, named so because various goods including live chickens will sometimes be transported on them. They cover somewhat longer distances. People will usually be shouting out destinations at the bus terminal, so just hop on board one that’s heading the right direction. For prices, think single-digit dollars. A man usually comes to collect the money from you during the journey. Remember to keep a close eye on your bags.

A chicken bus in Guatemala
A chicken bus in Guatemala

 

Some travellers don’t use chicken buses because of reports of crime. It’s true that generally it is not advised to use inner-city buses in capitals such as Guatemala City or Managua as these are much less safe. However outside the main cities and during daytime, chicken buses are typically fine (inquire locally if unsure).

#4 Avoid flying.

Those accustomed to low airfares in North America, Europe or Asia thanks to low-budget carriers may be surprised by the high cost of air travel in Central (and South) America. There are few low-budget carriers here, so prices are high.

Beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is surrounded by volcanoes
Beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is surrounded by volcanoes

 

If you must fly, it’s worth checking flights that go via Miami or Fort Lauderdale airport – these are two key hubs for the region, and sometimes flying via Miami is cheaper than flying directly between two Central American capitals even though the distance might be much greater.

Within Mexico there are some well established low-budget domestic carriers, so if you want to cover lots of ground there you can do it reasonably cheaply.

Crossing the Darien Gap from Panama into Colombia is relatively expensive with prices hovering around $500 USD for a single one-way ticket. Many backpackers opt to sail from Colon to Cartegena instead.

#5 Be selective with your sightseeing.

The more touristy the place the more you will have to spend on sightseeing. So instead of seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza near Cancun in Mexico (typical price for a tour $60) consider going to Tikal in Guaremala ($30 for a tour). This also happens to be a larger and more interesting archaeological site.

 Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras
Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras

 

For diving consider going to the Bay Islands in Honduras, and skip diving off the Yucatan or Caye Caulker. While the diving is very good there, your money will go much further elsewhere.

Have you ever travelled in Central America? If so, what was your favourite country?

me53About the author: Marek Bron has been travelling the world since 2012. He writes about Latin America travel (and other destinations) at his blog IndieTraveller. Marek is the author is Travel the World Without Worries, an in-depth book all about preparing for a big trip abroad.

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58 Comments

  • Marek, maybe it should have been obvious for me but flying out of Miami makes sense. Are there other cities in the U.S. you would recommend as well for flying to Central America?? We flew from Houston to Cancun and back the same route. I must have stared at your picture of Lake Atitlan for several minutes…gorgeous! Good post, sir :)

  • I’d suggest that markets for ingredients and making your own food are generally your best bet for cheap in a lot of places. Hostels in central america are surprisingly good for having kitchens. This option is best for dinner.

    In a lot of places lunch specials are also a really good deal (markets or resturants), comida coriente, comida corrida, or especial del dia (please forgive my spelling).

  • Marek, what a great timing! I’m just about to go to central america after a few months in the US and since my budget is usually tighter that of most backpackers I’ll take a good look at your blog to get inspiration :)

    Do they have prices for tourist and prices for locals?? I ask this because I can easily blend in and pretend Im from there if that’s advantageous.

  • I hadn’t known it was expensive to fly in central America! I’ll definitely be sticking to the buses and like when I head to Costa Rica in June. Good advice.

    • Flights are expensive throughout Latin America. It’s nuts: sometimes a single 4 hour flight between two countries costs as much as a 10 hour flight return from my home in Europe.

      Internal flights are a lot cheaper though. There’s some decent bargains within Mexico. For South America you can find great internal flights within Colombia with Vivo Colombia for example, or cheap internal flights in Brazil (you can get all the way from the Amazon region in the north down to Rio for about $200). Basically the big countries can be used as ‘warp zones’… but cross a border and prices go up dramatically. Nothing like AirAsia in S-E-A!

  • Thanks for the nice comments everyone!

    @santafetraveler For cheap food your best bet is to find a local eatery. Look for signs that say Casado, or Soda (I know, weird… doesn’t mean the same thing) in Costa Rica. A typical meal includes rice+beans, chicken or some beef, and some salad or fried plantains. Prices ranging from $1.50 in Nicaragua to about $4-5 in Costa Rica, if I recall correctly. This set meal gets very samey after a while but it definitely fills you up. Other than that, there’s making your own food of course — quite a few hostels have kitchens, even in cheaper countries like Nicaragua.

    @Mike: Fort Lauderdale is the main hub I know – Spirit Airlines flies to loads of destinations from there. But you probably did well flying into Cancun – it’s such a tourist hub with so many flights going there that you are bound to find a good deal. I know that for a majority of Central America travellers Cancun is their starting point.

    @Yara: I have noticed doubling pricing only a few times (mainly at tourist sites), but you may be able to benefit :)

  • I loved Guatemala. Everything was super cheap especially market food and the people are nice. Agree with you with Mexico. Traveling can be expensive especially if you get the”nicer” buses, but the food in Oaxaca is well worth the trip.

    Don’t get me started on Costa Rica :-\

    • You’re right about the food in Oaxaca! The mole dishes are very interesting.

      Costa Rica was so expensive that it actually dampened my spirit a bit–I felt like I had to calculate my every decision there because I’m on a budget. Even grocery prices seemed to be on the expensive side.

  • That’s so true about knowing the local language – a good tip for saving money in many places. And being selective with sightseeing is a good one too – it also avoids the “ticking off the boxes” feeling people sometimes get when visiting a new country and they feel like they should see everything.

    • Knowing some local language is crucial in our opinion. We always pick up some basic words and keep practicing them with locals.

  • Great post and very helpful for me as I probably head to Mexico and the Central American region in the second half of the year :) unfortunately the countries I can’t wait to see most are apparently the most expensive ones (Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize).

    • Costa Rica and Belize are very expensive (similar to Western prices) but Mexico is more in the middle. There’s great affordable street food there, and if you keep a tight circuit (i.e. not travelling by bus from north to south or something) you can keep costs low. A lot of people combine southern Mexico with Guatemala (which many people consider the highlight of the region).

  • I really have done no traveling in Central America, something I need to change as soon as I can, and I’ll keep all these tips in mind. What a helpful post!

  • Good tips! We found Costa Rica to be quite expensive too. We’d love to spend more time in Central America. I have a friend with a baby I haven’t met yet in Panama and another old friend in Honduras, so it’s about time to plan a trio I think!

  • These are really great tips! Central/South America are “on my list” so this was quite helpful.

    I think you’re right about Costa Rica from what I’ve heard as well. Cheap holliday, not cheap for backpackers. :)

    Chicken busses sound like a really awesome experience!

  • Thank you this interesting and helpful post. Learning Spanish may indeed help you to bargain but above all, it will give you insights into the people and culture that a non-Spanish speaker would never have access to. I would suggest you to have a look at Nicaragua, one of the most affordable, friendliest and safest countries in the Americas. Just a minor error in your post: the photography you have at the top refers to Granada, which is a stunning colonial city too!

  • Great tips on how to survive in South America under $25 dollars. I am sure it must be OK. Certainly knowing a bit of Spanish will go a long way. Didn’t know Costa Rica was one of the cheapest.

  • It is a pity that after so many years that the European Union’s good will for trying to accomplish the Central American integration in order to aid the region it has been a failure. It started in the 90’s when first Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua came out with the idea of these 4 countries to be a save path for traveling without the hassles of having to be checked in with immigration and customs in every one of these tiny developing poor countries. All this was the result out of the selfishness of every country politician for protecting them self from criminal persecution for their wrong doings that this dream for the Central American people is becoming again apart. No wonder Costa Rica never wanted to be part of the integration deal because they knew corruption and regimens has been a persistent problem in those countries. Therefore, been Costa Rica the only through democratic country in Central America. The original idea that the European Union was supporting was to have a Central America united as one sort of federation that would make it easier to help in order to get them out of poverty. Now a days, all the good work that politicians did in the 90’s is already gone. Currently, when you travel between these countries, El Salvador has build a station which was supposed to work for controlling merchandise passing by their country, but instead it is harassing tourist and local traveler examining them as if they are delinquents or drug traffickers. My recommendation to every traveler who enquires me for a good destination in Central America is no longer to visit the countries member of the SICA (Central American Integration System), but to go instead to Costa Rica for tourism.

  • It’s really all about how long you can afford to go for and how much time you have. It’s more expensive for me to fly into Guatemala than Cancun but takes longer for me to travel to Tikal from Cancun than to Chichen Itza. Planning, planning and more planning is the key to maximizing the sights and budget.

    Great tips. thanks for sharing, Marek.

  • Some really awesome tips here, thank you! I’m planning a trip to central america in November, on a budget, and posts like these are SO helpful for planning how long I can afford to stay in each place. Great blog too btw.

  • I enjoyed your post, but we need to remember that in Esteli, travellers can visit the city and learn how people make tobacco cigars, and of course it’s cheaper than Granada.

  • I loved traveling around in Guatemala, it was so cheap and such a beautiful country!! I was surprised that for a first class (Guatemalan) bus, I could get from Rio Dulce to Antigua, about a 4 hour journey, for only $15. Then my friend and I found a great hostel where we got a dorm bed that included a breakfast better than I’ve had in any hotel for only $8/night.
    You’re definitely right about flights to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale. We went backpacking from Guatemala to South America, but always switched flights there. With the airline we chose though, no leg was more than $125.
    Guatemala will always stay in my heart as one travel destination I will always love above others. It may not be as clean and civilized as other locations, but it makes up for it in SO many other ways. :)

  • This is great information! I will be pinning this and referring to it I’m sure. I’m planning to take my 13 yr old son backpacking Central America next November to March (4 months). I think we will fly into Cancun since that’s going to be significantly cheaper than Guatemala or El Salvador. I guess we’ll probably take the bus to Playa del Carmen or Tulum and spend a night or two there then head to Belize via the express bus, spend a few nights or up to a week then head to Guatemala and set up camp in a hostel that teaches Spanish for a couple weeks. We’ll keep going all the way to Panama City where we have friends. My son will be doing virtual school so I want to move fairly slow to allow for him to do a few hours of school every day and I want to take Spanish classes and work on my new blog. Do you think 4 months is enough time? How long does it take to get from Belize to Guatemala City? Is there a good stopping point in between? Should I book places in advance or do hostels fill up?

  • This is great information! I will be pinning this and referring to it I’m sure. I’m planning to take my 13 yr old son backpacking Central America next November to March (4 months). I think we will fly into Cancun since that’s going to be significantly cheaper than Guatemala or El Salvador. I guess we’ll probably take the bus to Playa del Carmen or Tulum and spend a night or two there then head to Belize via the express bus, spend a few nights or up to a week then head to Guatemala and set up camp in a hostel that teaches Spanish for a couple weeks. We’ll keep going all the way to Panama City where we have friends. My son will be doing virtual school so I want to move fairly slow to allow for him to do a few hours of school every day and I want to take Spanish classes and work on my new blog. Do you think 4 months is enough time? How long does it take to get from Belize to Guatemala City? Is there a good stopping point in between? Should I book places in advance or do hostels fill up? I also wanted to mention that there is now a ferry service from Panama to Colombia. I just went to Panama and read about it during my planning.

  • I got my first impressions of Mexico while road-tripping from the south to the north, and what struck me was that the country’s landscapes are so diverse. In the far south you can find dense jungles and lush green valleys, in the Yucatan there’s many flat wetlands, while it’s mostly vast deserts in the north.

  • Your information helped me quite a bit putting my route together, thanks! :)
    This route which i call the ‘Mayan Circle’ was a lot of fun with so many different things to see and experience. Being able to fly to Cancun and also end there was very convenient and cheap. It took us 4-5 weeks, i can definitely recommend it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC1tgy_neD4

  • I am traveling through Mexico starting about 12/11 through to El Salvador. I am curious do you have a route that is beautiful and safe to drive. I am very excited about the trip I will be travelling back and forth for the next year or so but the 1st trip down will be a 19 year anniversary trip for my husband(from El Salvador) and myself(a guera). Any helpful tips and help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Great post. I just got back from Australia (overall expensive) and am looking forward to backpacking in a more economical place like Central America. I’m planning on traveling Central America for a few months in Feb 2015.

  • I’m currently traveling South America. I’m in Cusco, Peru right now and want to travel up towards Ecuador, etc. I definitely want to check out Panama and Guatemala. Any suggestions on routes, or must-see places?

  • Hi Agness,

    Very nice of you for sharing it to us.

    Sometimes travelling gets costlier, in the search of some extra pleasure we spend more and it damages your whole budget or many more. There are many tips by which you can easily save on travelling in any country or continent, by just smartly applying your brain.

    Using local transport and communicating in local language really helps everywhere in the world. You get one more advantage by learning the local language that you nener get stuck anywhere. You can communicate with any of local residential and clear your doubts or get ideas. Uptill haven’t travelled Central America, but planning soon, will make you know.

    Thanks for posting such a helpful article.
    Have a nice weekend.

    ~ Harshwardhan

  • I like Guatemala and Honduras . I feel Honduras has huge potential they are starting to get crime down. Costa Rica is super expensive

  • I loved Colombia, Medellin. Went there 8 times, was really great, one of my favourite things was going to a local cafe for empanadas for breakfast with coffee. Had a few scares whilst there when in some bad neighbourhoods but overall I loved the place, the people are really kind, friendly and welcoming.

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