It’s 2 am and I’ve got 8 tabs open - scouring the internet for potential travel destinations. I’d always dreamed of taking a backpacking trip. It wasn’t something that anyone around me had done, but it seemed like the ultimate way to travel.
With plans to quit my job very soon, I’d be embarking on a long-term trip alone for the first time. This raised plenty of questions & concerns for me, but deciding where to go was at the top of my priority list. I knew that I wanted squeeze as much out of my travels as possible, in terms of budget and experiences.
After some intense Googling (is this a word?) and blog-reading, Thailand seemed like the most obvious option. According to the everyone on the internet, Thailand is a backpacker’s paradise. Apparently it’s affordab...wait, no. Apparently, you can live like a king for like two dollars. At least that what everyone said….
Super-duper cheap? Check.
“I can travel for longer”, I thought.
Great for a first time solo back packer? Check.
“I might not feel as unprepared/scared as I actually am”, I thought.
Beautiful beaches? Incredible landscapes? AND yummy Thai food? Check. Check. CHECK!
Thailand sounded perfect!
....Until I stumbled across a blog with dreamy photos from Central America.
Wait. What about Central America? Sure, it’s not Thailand….but it’s closer and research proved it to be only slightly more expensive. I’d traveled to both Costa Rica(my first solo trip abroad) & Panama(my first trip abroad ever) already, getting a taste of how amazing and diverse Central America could be. I also wanted to become fluent in Spanish, so why not kill two birds with one stone?
After more intense Googling, I made my decision. I’d go to Thailand eventually, but I’d start my first long term backpacking trip in Central America - Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panamá & Costa Rica. Looking back, I couldn’t have made a better decision. Here’s why:
...By western standards, of course. The money that you’d spend traveling throughout Europe for a week could easily be stretched for 2+ weeks in most countries throughout Central America. If you’re on a budget and you’re privileged enough to be from a western country, you’ll find that your money goes far.
With so many local markets and sodas(restaurants), you can have some dang good meals for under $6-$7.
In Guatemala, I stayed in hostels for $6-$7 a night. If hostels aren’t your thing, this just means that you’ll be getting luxury at a lower price than you normally would.
In most countries, you can budget to spend about $20-$35 dollars a day. Guatemala and Nicaragua are the cheaper countries, while Costa Rica and Panama will be a bit more costly.
Keep in mind, tourists hot-spots will always be more expensive. You can keep costs down, have better cultural experiences, AND put money directly into the citizen’s pockets by simply roaming a few streets back & visiting markets.
EASY TO TRAVEL
My home state of Texas is bigger than the entire region of Central America. Let that sink in. It can take up to 12 hours aka pure hell to get from one end of Texas to the other while it only took 15 hours for me to pass through 3 different countries in Central America.
Although Latin America isn’t the king of backpacker destinations like Thailand, there is a well known backpacker/tourist trail throughout the region. To my surprise, I had zero issues using local transport within countries and to neighboring countries.
I’ve received many questions regarding how I planned my trip. Honestly, I didn’t do much planning. I flew into Cancun, Mexico from Houston,Texas for $100 and traveled south overland(using buses). Most people either fly into Cancun & travel south or fly into Panama & travel north.
My desire to become fluent in Spanish was the major reason I chose to backpack through Central America. What better way to learn than through immersion?
Guatemala is known to offer some of the cheapest language classes in the world. I signed up to do a homestay with a Guatemalan family for complete cultural and language immersion. I took daily 5 hour 1:1 classes for $200 per week in Antigua, Guatemala. This price included a homestay with a local family and 3 meals per day. Such a good deal! This experience proved to be extremely helpful, but I’ll save the details for another blogpost.
In Central America, you get the opportunity to speak Spanish across multiple countries as you are traveling through the region. I felt more confident visiting various countries, because I was still able to communicate(regardless of how minimal) and I had the opportunity to continue learning as I moved around.
You have so many opportunities to practice in markets, taxis, restaurants, etc. Use the app Duolingo to begin brushing up on your Spanish before you arrive. And when the struggle gets really REAL(because it will), Google translate will become your best friend. You don’t need to be fluent to get around, but knowing key phrases will definitely enhance your experience.
The food, music, languages, history, people, customs, etc. in Latin America vary WIDELY throughout countries, regions, and even cities.
For example, you’ll find plenty of Afro/Black-Latinos in Caye Caulker, Belize. I was mistaken for a ‘Belizean gyal' numerous times because I blended right in - brown skin with kinky/curly hair. However, I stuck out like sore thumb in other parts of Belize. Central America is home to a large number of ethnic groups, including over 25 indigenous groups.
You may hear in English-Creole in Belize, Mayan in Guatemala, Spanish in Nicaragua, Embera in Panama, or all 4 languages in each country. You’ll enjoy rice & beans served as a typical side, but each country has its own specialty dishes - even the tamales differ as you move down south. Depending on where you are, you’ll be dancing cumbia, latin pop, merengue, salsa, bachata, reggae, or reggaeton. Let’s put it this way - you’ll never get bored.
There are cultural similarities in each country, but you still have a huge opportunity to observe cultural diversity in each new place you visit.
NATURAL LANDSCAPES AND BEAUTY
I visited Panama for my first trip abroad and Costa Rica for my first SOLO trip abroad. I was able to witness firsthand the breathtaking breathtaking waterfalls, enchanting rainforests, smokey volcanoes, and white-sand beaches. I knew that the rest of Central America wouldn’t disappoint.
Belize has the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world, right after Australia. Guatemala boasts Semuc Champey, a series of cascading natural limestone pools. Nicaragua has active volcanoes that you can hike and surf. Panama has the laid back San Blas Islands. And being the most biodiverse country in the world, Costa Rica has it all.
The best part about these natural landscapes? They’re not just for viewing. You get the chance to fully engage - to get down & dirty or to simply bask in their beauty.
*I ended up passing through El Salvador & Honduras as I heard they were only worth it if you’re a big surfer(El Tunco, El Salvador) or diver(Utila, Honduras) - maybe one day, I’ll visit.
You don’t know it yet, but you’ll find yourself dancing to the reggaeton that rings throughout the region - whether you like it or not. And trust me, you’ll learn to like it.
I know Reggaeton isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It just happened to be my favorite and I had to fit in somewhere.
If you’re wondering, I do plan to eventually fulfill my backpacker dreams by visiting Thailand & the rest of Southeast Asia. But looking back, I now know that I was meant to stumble across that random blog that one day. My journey through Central America ended up being everything I needed after quitting my job - in terms of challenges it served, the personal freedom it allowed, and the inevitable growth that I experienced while being there.
I could share 100 more reasons why you should travel or backpack through Central America, but you know what they say….
You have to go and see for yourself.