Central America on a budget

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If you’re a budget-conscious traveler looking to explore Central America, start by checking out these money-saving tips.

With seven countries, two endless coasts, and countless attractions, Central America should be a top pick for budget travelers, whether you’re on a 2-week vacation, an adult gap year, or an indefinite vacation and you’re looking to stretch every dollar.

There are always more ways to cut costs, from taking the bus to dining with the locals. The money you save on day-to-day expenses that you can then use to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime experience – maybe snorkeling with stingrays in Belize, touring deserted islands around the San Blas in Panama or surf the waves in Costa Rica. Or you can just keep extending your trip.

Choose the cheapest Central American countries to explore

While each of the beautiful countries in Central America has unique attractions, some are undeniably more budget-friendly than others. You will find that the most advantageous destinations are Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador; in each, by staying in a hostel, taking public transport and eating street food, you can get by on around $30 a day. Expect to spend double in Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.


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Avoid peak season and highest prices

Although subtropical Central America is a year-round destination, it is most popular (and most expensive) during the hot, dry season, around December through April; expect price spikes over Christmas, New Years and Easter. Travel during the hottest rainy season – May through November – and you’ll avoid the crowds, plus great deals on flights, accommodation and organized tours.

September and October are the wettest months, when heavy rains can make it difficult to travel on rural roads. Still, since the rains usually come in short bursts in the afternoon, you usually plan around the downpours.

Chicken buses are the most popular and economical way to travel short intercity distances in Central America © Barna Tanko / Shutterstock

Ditch the domestic flights and join the locals on the bus

Domestic flights in Central America can cost more than your international airfare. Luckily, you can get almost anywhere by bus. Chicken buses (repurposed North American school buses) are the most cost-effective – if not the most comfortable – option for shorter trips. Long-distance bus lines such as Ticabus are the most luxurious, though still a bargain compared to flying: the 18-hour bus ride from San José to Panama City costs around $45, a direct flight $75 minutes about $230.

If you’re short on time and need to catch a border flight, Volaris from Mexico offers low-cost fares to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador.

Take local currency

Cash is still king in Central America. Credit cards are a necessity for pre-booking flights and accommodation and are accepted at more upmarket establishments, but using plastic sometimes incurs a 5-15% surcharge. The US dollar is welcome everywhere – it’s the official currency of El Salvador and Panama – but you can get bitten by the exchange rate. Carry small bills and local currency to use in markets and in rural areas, and when the ATM is not working.

Sleep in a dorm or stay with a family

In Central America, you’ll find a bed to suit every (modest) budget, from a hostel bunk bed to a private room (try to negotiate a better rate for longer stays) to accommodation in family with three homemade meals a day thrown away.

If you feel like splurging, consider a boutique hotel with a mission. Hotel con Corazón (doubles from around $32) in Granada, Nicragua, reinvests profits in education; Good Hotel in Antigua (doubles from around $100) invests in poor communities.

A man in a bathing suit looks at the ocean while relaxing in a hammock suspended between palm trees on Relaxing in a hammock on Islas San Blas in Panama
Pack a lightweight hammock for your trip to Central America and stay between two palm trees of your choice © Jana Hake / Shutterstock

Forget beds and sleep in a hammock

You will see hammocks hanging from verandas everywhere, especially on the coast. Many hostels offer hammocks as a cheaper alternative to a bunk or bed, and there are hammock shelters in some national parks – including Tikal in Guatemala – where you can sleep surrounded by the rustle and hum of the jungle. . You can even pack your own lightweight, compact hammock and thread it between two swinging palms of your choice. Don’t forget the insect repellent.

Eat on the street

Some of Central America’s best – and cheapest – restaurants can be found along its streets. In Honduras, vegetarian strolls (wheat flour tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese) are a hearty snack; add scrambled eggs for a big all day breakfast. The national dish of El Salvador is the portable pupation (fried corn tortilla). Try one stuffed with cheese and lorocoa native edible flower.

In Nicaragua, watch out for nacatamales (steamed corn dough packets filled with meat and vegetables) and vigoron (chicharrones, boiled yucca and coleslaw wrapped in a banana leaf), which will keep you going all day. Follow the locals to their favorite stall: if there’s a queue, you know it’ll be clean and tasty.

Don’t drink bottled water, filter it instead

With the exception of urban Costa Rica, tap water in Central America is generally not potable. The standard solution is to buy bottled water, but with plastic pollution being a huge problem in the area, you can save the environment – as well as money – by investing in a bottle of filtered water before you go. to leave. A good option is the LifeStraw Go, which you can fill from any water source. As you drink, it will filter out all the unwanted elements, keeping you hydrated and healthy.

Drink the local drink

Thirsty travelers should avoid imported beer brands and opt for a local lager. Each country produces its own passable beers, including Belikin in Belize, Gallo in Guatemala, and Toña in Nicaragua. Hop lovers will revel in the booming craft beer scene in Central America, with increasingly creative flavors on tap at breweries in big cities.

For something stronger, award-winning rums from Ron Zacapa in Guatemala and Flor de Caña in Nicaragua mean you can sip a Nica Libre happy hour for a fraction of the price at home. Anywhere in this coffee-growing region, you can also expect top-notch caffeination the next morning.

A colorful Sunday produce market in front of the pastel colored cathedral facade in Antigua, Guatemala
Head to the outdoor produce markets to get the freshest (and cheapest) fruits and vegetables around © Lucy Brown – loca4motion / Shutterstock

Swap the supermarket for the local market

Each town has a market stocked with fresh, seasonal produce – including rainbow-colored mounds of tropical fruits such as granadilla, pitaya and guava – as well as staples like rice and beans. Look for accommodations with kitchens so you can prepare your own meals and picnics.

Since tours cost money, be your own guide

There are times when you need to take an excursion or hire a local guide – a volcano tumbling down the black ash slopes of Cerro Negro in Nicaragua, for example, or traversing the trails of rugged Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. But with a bit of homework – and (ahem) a solid guide – there are plenty of sites you can explore independently, including the ornate carvings at the Copán ruins in Honduras.

Learn the language in less touristy cities

There’s no shortage of schools to learn or improve your Spanish, but you can save money by going off the beaten path a bit. In Guatemala, a Spanish course in the mountain town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) will be cheaper than in Antigua. With 20 hours of private lessons for around $180 per week, including a host family, you’ll be speaking like a Guatemalan in no time, while getting a taste of local life.

Island life is more expensive, so head to the mainland beaches

There are plenty of idyllic islands in Central America, with icing sugar and soft white sand lapped by crystal clear waters, from the car-free islands of Caye Caulker in Belize and Little Corn in Nicaragua to palm-fringed sand circles that make up the San Blas in Panama. archipelago. But island life comes at a higher price even before the flight to get there. so with miles of beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, take the bus to a nearby shore instead. As alternatives, consider Placencia in Belize, Playa Maderas in Nicaragua and Santa Catalina in Panama.

Take a scuba diving course in Honduras

The smallest of the Bay Islands of Honduras, heavenly Utila is one of the cheapest – and best – places on the planet to learn to dive, for beginners and divemasters alike. The average cost of a PADI Open Water course is around $300, but if you shop around at local dive centers, you might find some great accommodation deals. Note that if you go there between March and May, you will have the chance to dive with majestic whale sharks, gentle giants of the ocean.

Daily costs in Central America

Hostel dorm 7 at $20
Basic room for two $15-50
Bus ticket $0.25-10
Dinner for two at a local restaurant $6-20
Beer $0.85-3.50
Coffee $0.75-5

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