If you’re a budget traveler looking to explore Central America, start by checking out these money-saving tips.
With seven countries, two endless coasts and many attractions, Central America should be the best choice for budget travelers, whether you are planning a two-week vacation, an intermediate year for matures or a permanent stay and want to stretch every dollar.
There are more and more ways to save on costs, from driving a bus to having dinner with the locals. The money you save on everyday expenses can be used for a unique experience – maybe snorkeling with stingrays in Belize, solo jumping on an island in the San Blas archipelago in Panama or surfing the waves in Costa Rica. Or you could just extend your trip further.
Choose the lowest Central American countries to Explore
While each of the beautiful Central American countries can offer unique attractions, some are undoubtedly more economical than others. The lowest destinations are Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. In one of them you can spend about a day with a hostel, public transport and street food. Expect to spend twice as much in Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.
Avoid the high season and the highest prices
Although subtropical Central America is a year-round destination, it is most popular (and most expensive) during the hot and dry season from December to April; expect high prices for Christmas, New Year and Easter. Travel during the warmer rainy season – from May to November – and you’ll avoid the crowds while making deals on flights, accommodation and organized tours.
September and October are the wettest months, when heavy rains can make it difficult to move on country roads. However, since the rain usually arrives in the afternoon hot flashes, they usually plan around showers.
Ditch the domestic flights and take the bus with the locals
Domestic flights to Central America can cost more than your international airfare. Fortunately, you get almost everywhere by bus. “Chicken buses” (converted North American school buses) are the most economical – if not the most convenient – option for shorter routes. Intercity bus lines such as Ticabus are the most luxurious, although cost-effective, compared to flying.
If you are short on time and need a cross-border flight, Mexican Volaris offers inexpensive fares to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador.
Carry the local currency
Money is still king in Central America. Credit cards are a necessity for booking air tickets and stays in advance and are accepted in more upscale establishments, but the use of plastic sometimes costs between 5 and 15% extra. The US Dollar is welcome everywhere – it is the official currency of El Salvador and Panama – but you can participate in the exchange rate. Carry small banknotes and local currency with you for use in markets and in the countryside, as well as when the ATM is not working.
You can sleep in a dormitory or spend the night with your family
In Central America, you will find a bed for every (modest) budget, whether it is a bunk bed in a dormitory or a private room (try to negotiate a lower price for an extended stay) or a homestay with three homemade meals a day.
If you want luxury, think of a charming hotel with a mission. The con Corazón hotel in Granada, Nicaragua, is again investing its profits in education; a good hotel in Antigua is investing in poor communities.
Lower the beds completely and sleep in the hammock
You will see hammocks on the verandas everywhere, especially on the coast. Many hostels offer hammocks as a affordable alternative to a bunk bed or a bunk bed, and some national parks, including Tikal in Guatemala, have hammocks where you can sleep surrounded by the noise and buzz of the jungle. You can even pack your own lightweight and compact hammock and string it between two swinging palms of your choice. Do not forget about the insect repellent.
Some of the best and lowest restaurants in Central America are located on the streets. In Honduras, vegetarian baleades (wheat flour tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese) are a hearty snack. Add the scrambled eggs for a great all-day breakfast. The national dish of El Salvador is pupusa (fried corn tortilla). Try one with cheese and loroko, a local edible flower.
In Nicaragua, look for nakatamales (steamed corn paste packets filled with meat and vegetables) and vigoron (chicharrones, cooked yucca and kale wrapped in a banana leaf) that will keep you moving throughout the day. Follow the locals to your favorite kiosk: if there is a queue, know that it is clean and delicious.
Don’t drink bottled water – filter it instead
With the exception of urban Costa Rica, tap water in Central America is generally not drinkable. The standard solution is to buy bottled water, but since plastic pollution is a major problem throughout the region, you can save on the environment – as well as money – by investing in a filter bottle before you leave. A good option is LifeStraw Go, which you can recharge from any water source. While you drink, it filters out unwanted impurities and keeps you hydrated and healthy.
Drink a local sip
Thirsty travelers should avoid imported beer brands and opt for a local warehouse. Each country produces its own passable beer, including Belikin in Belize, Gallo in Guatemala and Tonia in Nicaragua. Hop heads will appreciate the burgeoning beer scene in Central America, with increasingly creative flavors in big-city tap breweries.
For something more robust, the award-winning rum Rona Zacapa in Guatemala and Flor de Caña in Nicaragua means you can enjoy the Nica Libre Happy Hour at home for a fraction of the price. Throughout this coffee-growing region, you can enjoy first-class caffeine, even in the morning after.
Swap a supermarket for a local market
Each town has a market for fresh seasonal produce, including rainbow-colored tropical fruit hills like Granadilla, pitaya and guava, as well as staples like rice and beans. Look for rooms with kitchens so that you can prepare your own meals and picnics.
Since tours cost money, be your own guide
There are times when you need to take a guided tour or use a local guide – climb aboard a volcano on the black ash slopes of Cerro Negro in Nicaragua or walk the trails of the indomitable Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. But with some homework – and a (ahem) reliable guide – there are plenty of attractions you can explore on your own, including the skillful carving on the ruins of Copán in Honduras.
Learn the language in less touristy cities
There is no shortage of schools where you can learn or improve your Spanish, but you can save money by driving a little away from the Gringo Trail. In Guatemala, the Spanish course in the high mountain town of Quetzaltenango (abbreviated Hela) is affordable than in Antigua. With 20 hours of one-on-one lessons for about per week, including the host family, you’ll be speaking like a Guatemalan IVF and getting a glimpse of local life in no time.
Island life is more expensive, so head to the mainland beaches
Central America is full of island idylls with soft white sand and powdered sugar bathed by crystal clear waters, from the Caye kolker Islands in Belize and the little corn of Nicaragua to the palm-fringed sand circles forming the San Blas archipelago in Panama. But island life comes at a higher price even before you cross a puddle. having miles of beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean coast, you should head to the nearby coast instead. As an alternative, consider Placencia in Belize, Playa Maderas in Nicaragua and Santa Catalina in Panama.
Take a diving course in Honduras
The smallest of the islands in the Gulf of Honduras, Sky Utila, is one of the lowest and best places on the planet to learn diving, for beginners and masters of diving. The average price of a PADI open water course is about, but if you go to local dive bases, you can find good quality accommodation offers. Note that from March to May, you will have the opportunity to dive with the majestic whale sharks, the gentle giants of the ocean.