Backpacking in Central America is a lifetime adventure! It may appear small on the map, however, in actual fact, our trip from Canun, Mexico all the way to Panama City was almost 3000KM and we spent 10 weeks to complete the trip (including a quick getaway to Cuba)! There is just so much to see in this region!
There are a total of 8 countries in Central America if including Mexico. It contains hundreds of hidden ruins of past civilizations, countless volcanoes, and world-renown sites for adrenaline junkies that enjoy both sea and the mountains. For a couple who’s been to 80+ countries or more, Central America is easily one of our top destinations!
We loved it so much, we even published a book on backpacking in Central America with a publisher in Taiwan. Unfortunately, it’s only in Chinese, so if you are interested, you can click the link here. Otherwise here’s a detailed summary of what we recommend to do in Central America as well as the basic public transport & accommodation details. Enjoy!
Backpacking in Central America & Cuba Itinerary
Australia→ Central America— Bogota (2N)
Bogota Attraction Recommendations:
- Museo del Oro (Bogotá Gold Museum): The museum house the most important pre-Colombian gold artwork in the world, totalling 38,000 pieces. Visitors can see them in a 360-degree showroom displaying thousands of golden suns, plants. Entry is free every Sunday, otherwise, the admission fee is COP 4000 on weekdays.
- Museo Botero：This free art gallery is located in La Candelaria. It displays hundreds of pieces created by the famous Colombian artist- Fernando Botero, including the “Fat Mona Lisa”. There are also many masterpieces of Picasso and other renowned painters in the museum.
- Free city tour in Bogota: Three-hour free guided tour by Gran Colombia Tours is highly recommended. It allows tourists to get a quick orientation of the city.
- Bogotá has a complete BRT system called Transmilenio. There are shuttle buses to all corners of the city every five to ten minutes. Bogota also has a complete bus route that compliments the BRT system. When arriving at the airport, you can buy a transport card called “Tu Llave card” (COP5000) at the “Tu Llave counter” and top up the card to whichever amount you need. This card can be shared between multiple people if travelling together.
- Transmilenio costs COP 2300 per trip and the general bus is COP 2100. Transferring between transports are free if within 95 mins.
- To depart the airport, go to exit No. 6 & 7 and take the 16-14 Aeropuerto shuttle to the Transmilenio terminal. This bus is free of charge. Later, you can swipe your card at the main station after the gate to take Transmilenio.
Accommodation: As we are Hilton members, we stayed in DoubleTree Calle 100 which was very nice.
Bogota → Mexico, Cancun (4N)
- Chichen Itza– Seven Wonders of the World and possibly one of the most famous Mayan ruins in the world.
- Tulum– A Mayan ruins along the Caribbean coast where you can swim at the same time.
- Coba– Has Mayan pyramids that could be climbed all the way to the top.
- Diving or snorkelling in one of the natural sinkholes called cenotes.
- Plenty of high-end resorts in Cancun.
All of the above Mayan sites can be done by doing day trips from Cancun. We booked our day trips in advance through www.cancun-discounts.com. For “Chichen Itza + cenote one-day tour” &”Coba + Tulum+ cenote one-day tour”, the two totalled to be USD $ 99 per person.
After arriving in Cancun, we realized the local tours are similar prices as ones we booked online. Of course, by joining the local tours it means our times at the sites were short, so if you want to enjoy the monuments in peace, it might be worthwhile to go there with your own transport. However, together with the entrance fee, the total cost may not be that much cheaper.
Arriving at Cancun Airport transport：
- You can buy tickets in advance online from the airport to Canun downtown or nearby towns via Mexico’s largest transportation company- ADO. However, in case your flights are delayed, it’s better to buy them after you arrived.
- There is an ADO counter in the departure hall, however, they close at 8 PM. Therefore, if you arrive later than that, you will have to exit the terminal and turn right.
- The people inside the airport will pressure you to buy their over-priced taxi or shuttle service, just be brave and walk out.
- Once you turn right, there will be a gate that says “NO ENTRY”. Tell the guards that you are going to catch ADO, then he will open the gate and let you through. You will arrive at a brightly lit departure hall with booths outside the terminal. One of them will be the ADO counter.
- Buses leave for Cancun every 20 minutes and there are 30 seats on a bus. If the seats run out, you’ll be given a ticket for the next bus.
- During peak hours, you may need to wait up to an hour for your bus. Though it is usually worth it as ADO buses are half the price of what other transport companies are charging at the airport. Their buses are also new, clean, and safe.
- ADO official website sometimes doesn’t work, you can use Busbud.com to book your tickets
We stayed at the Cancun Hostel Inn which was in an alleyway opposite to the ADO bus station. We had a private ensuite with breakfast and it was only $50 USD a night. The showers were hot and the rooms were cleaned daily.
Cancun → Havana, Cuba (3N)
- Take a car ride around Havana in one of the American classics and pick from Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks, Dodges, Plymouths, and Studebakers.
- Explore the UNESCO Havana old town.
- Eat cheap lobster everywhere, even if it’s not on the menu. All you have to do is just ask! Two lobsters can be as cheap as $12 USD!
- Visit a cigar factory and I assure you that the guides will definitely try to sell you some off the table!
Arriving at Havana Airport to CBD:
- The official taxi from Havana Airport to the city is around 25 CUC-30 CUC (1CUC = 1USD).
- If you want to save money, you can walk 2 KM from the international T3 terminal to the T2 terminal, then take the P12 or P16 buses to the city. The bus cost is 0.5 CUP (1CUC = 25CUP), but you usually don’t have CUP just after you finished exchanging money at the airport, so we paid 1 CUC to the driver which he happily accepted without giving us back any changes.
Accommodations at Havana:
There are many homestays and B&Bs in Cuba. Hence it usually isn’t a problem if don’t pre-book your accommodations. However, I do prefer to book mine in advance through Airbnb as there are reviews. For those of you who are yet to sign up for Airbnb, feel free to sign up with my referral link to get USD$55 off your first booking!
Havana → Vinales, Cuba (2N)
- Horse riding through the tobacco plantations and see how cigars are made in the countryside.
- The horse riding trips are usually 15 CUC per person for half day. You will be visiting other plantations too.
- Visit the local stalactite caves.
Private transport to Vinales from Havana was 35 CUC for two people. This was arranged by our Airbnb owners and we shared the car with two other people. One of the good things about getting private transportation is that they pick you up from the accommodation in Havana. Otherwise, if you take the Cuban bus company Viazul to Vinales, you will have to find your own way to the terminal either via a local bus or taxi. The bus tickets are about$ 10-$ 15 USD. Please check the official website for the latest information.
Vinales → Havana, Cuba (2N)
- As private transportation takes us back to any locations in Havana, we choose a different district in Havana- Centro Havana.
- Hotel Nacional de Cuba is located in Centro Havana. This hotel is one of the few 5-star accommodations in the country with unlimited access to wifi. It is a UNESCO heritage site with many secrets. Even a scene from Godfather Part II was about a conference held in this place!
- Every morning there’s a guided tour of this hotel and its rich histories surrounding Cuba. I highly recommend reading Lauren’s blog on “A Walk Through History at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana” where everything is thoroughly explained!
Havana → Playa del Carmen, Mexico (2N)
Playa del Carmen Recommendations：
- A great base for exploring the nearby island of Cozumel if you are into diving and snorkeling.
- Plenty of unique underground sinkholes called cenotes for you to explore!
- We actually did our open water PADI certification just so that we can explore the beautiful underwater stalactites in Dos Ojos cenotes.
- Playa del Carmen is similar to Cancun, where there are day trips departing here to visit various Mayan ruins.
- There are ADO buses from Cancun airport directly to Playa del Carmen
- Either you can join group tours or you can purchase a ferry ticket to Cozumel Island.
There are plenty of hostels in Playa del Carmen (which is now closed), not many resorts though.
Playa del Carmen → Bacalar, Mexico (1N)
- Kayaking or swimming on Lake Bacalar- Mexico’s second-largest freshwater lake.
- Lake Bacalar is also known as “The Lake of the Seven Colors”, as the colors on the lake are distinct. It will change according to the weather and time of the day.
Transport to Bacalar：
Buses from Playa del Carmen can be booked locally at the bus station or ADO bus website. Once you arrived in Bacalar, the terminal is about 3 KM from the lake, you can either walk or take the local cab.
We stayed at Nido del Quetzal as it is close to the lake. The hotel offers free breakfast and first hour of kayaking rental is free.
Bacalar → Xpujil, Mexico (3N)
- Xpujil is a town with less than 4000 inhabitants. It lies deep within the Mayan jungle, therefore not many tourists visit here.
- The town Xpujil is in fact, right next to a small Mayan ruin called Xpujil.
- Other Mayan ruins available to visit include Chicanna, Becan, Hormiguero, Rio Bec, and most importantly Calakmul (UNESCO).
- Highly recommend a trip with the local guide Abel from https://www.facebook.com/tourscalakmul/. His knowledge of the ancient civilizations really made the sites come to life!
- One of my personal favorites is visiting the nearby “bat cave” where tens of thousands of bats flying out of the cave at dusk! It felt like we were at a scene from Animal Planet!
You can take the ADO Bus from Bacalar or any other places in Mexico. You can then join a local guide or take private transports to local Mayan ruins.
We stayed at the Hotel Chaac Calakmul. It was only USD$20 a night without breakfast. The rooms were basic but clean, with hot showers and working air-conditioners. The location of the hotel is only 2 minutes away from the ADO bus station.
Xpujil → Palenque, Mexico (2N)
- Palenque is home to one of the most complete archaeological Mayan sites. It is recognized as a UNESCO and it contains a few of the finest sculpture, architecture, roof comb as well as bas-relief carvings of the Mayan era. The ticket to Planeque includes the museum entrance, which you usually won’t have time to do so if you join a tour.
- As Palenque is quite hot, Agua Azul and Misol Há waterfall are two popular places to cool down and swim.
- When going to San Cristobal de la Casas from Palenque, it is advisable to take a stop at the town of Ocosingo. 13KM from the town centre is Tonina– a site that contains one of Mexico’s tallest Mayan pyramids.
Tours & Transports from Palenque：
- There are several different travel agencies in town that take people to San Cristobal de la Casas via the ruin Palenque & nearby waterfalls.
- There are trips from Palenque that can take you to Guatemala via ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak or simply to the ruins as a day trip to and from Palenque.
- In order to go to Palenque ruins, you can catch the local minibusses from the town centre or walk 6 KM.
- Hotel Maya Tulipanes Palenque: Stayed at this resort-like accommodation because I had to catch up on blogs. I thought it would be nice to type by the poolside. However, their cheapest room doesn’t have any windows which are quite depressing.
- Posada Aquila Real: Our favourite out of the two places we stayed in Palenque. Very comfortable and many local eateries around.
Palenque → San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico (4N)
San Cristobal de las Casas Recommendations：
- San Cristobal de las Casas is located in the Central Highlands of Mexico and is known to be the cultural capital of Chiapas. The city’s centre maintains its Spanish colonial layout and much of its architecture. Walking down the streets you can see with red-tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, and wrought-iron balconies often with flowers.
- At an elevation of 2200m, this town is pleasant all year round. Hence many foreigners are permanently based here. As a result, there are quite a few good quality restaurants in the area.
- One of the most popular day trips is to join a day tour to see the Sumidero canyon- a canyon that is as old as the Grand Canyon in America. We booked the tour with Jalapeño Tours as they have good reviews.
- There are many other Mayan tribes nearby that are open to tourists. Many sell nice handicrafts on the streets as souvenirs.
Eating in San Cristobal de las Casas:
- We highly recommend the traditional restaurant Restaurant El Cadero which serves soup. Be prepared to line up as many locals come here for lunch & diner!
- Mexican restaurant El Tacoleto serves high-quality tacos.
- There are many chocolate stores in the town and my personal favourite is Coco Nativa for their chocolate drinks! They have many branches scattered throughout the city.
- If it’s been a while since you had nice pastries or cakes, then do visit Oh La La! Real patisserie Guadalupe for a treat!
You can arrive in San Cristobal de las Casas either via ADO bus, private minibusses, or tours. The city itself can be easily explored on foot.
We booked Los Camellos Hostel which was affordable, although a bit further than other hostels from the city centre.
San Cristóbal de las Casas → Palenque (2N) → Yaxchilan & Bonampak, Mexico (1N)
About Yaxchilan & Bonampak：
- Since the next country on our list is Guatemala and we would like to visit Tikal, which means we would have to backtrack from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque before we can go there.
- Enroute there are are two off-the-beaten-track ruins, and one of them can only be reached via boat!
- Yaxchilan and Bonampak are perfect ruins to visit if you grew up watching Tomb Raider & Indiana Jones series. Yaxchilan especially, as it’s only accessible by boat. The place is like an over-grown jungle with few tourists making their way there. Our guide even told us to watch out for snakes when we stepped into the site!
- Bonampak has one of the best-preserved Mayan murals which debunks the fact Mayans were peaceful civilizations (on the murals there were images of human sacrifices).
- Yaxchilan is about 170 KM from Palenque. You can do it as a return day trip from Palenque for 800 MXN pp (2018 price) which includes brunch and entrance fees. Or you can do it as a 2D1N trip continuing on to Flores of Guatemala for 1400 MXN per person (including 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch & 1 dinner).
- We booked our tours with Kim Tour which was a little bit more expensive (50MXN more) than Trans Tulum. Turns out no matter who you book with, you will end up with the same group anyway, especially during the low season.
- Our friend tried visiting Yaxchilan independently (the adventurous guy who told us about the Dinosaur footprints in Bolivia), but it turned out to be more expensive than joining a tour. The main reason is that the boat ride is monopolized, therefore you can’t get the fare for any cheaper (or had to accept whatever they want you to pay). The bus also doesn’t take you all the way to the boat station, so you have to hitch a ride with a tour group and the driver can charge you whatever they want.
Stayed in a small local hotel organized by the tour company. It was adequate, at least we had a private bathroom.
Yaxchilan & Bonampak, Mexico → Flores, Guatemala (2N)
- Most people visit Flores to see Tikal– a UNESCO site and the world’s largest Mayan site according to its area. Just like Chichen Itza, Tikal is the main attraction of Guatemala. Though less touristy than Chichen Itza, you can climb up the pyramids via stairs.
- There are three types of tours available for Tikal- sunrise, sunset, or visiting during normal hours.
- Since the ticket offices aren’t open till 6 am in Tikal, one will have to purchase the ticket the night before at Ban Rural Bank in cash if you were to see Tikal during sunrise.
- Hostel Los Amigos has the most reasonable tour price for Tikal. They even include a guide!
- If you are extremely active, you can do a 5-6 day jungle hike to El Mirador. It has the world’s tallest Mayan pyramid. Definitely a lifetime adventure for anyone backpacking in Central America.
Tips for moving around in Guatemala：
- When crossing the border between Mexico & Guatemala, watch out for border scam! The immigration officers may insist on collecting entry and exit fees that don’t exist. They may even go as far as collaborating with your driver. Therefore, it is important to do your research beforehand when crossing any borders. This is true for South America as well.
- If you can’t find transport information on the internet, you can usually email the accommodation and ask. Most of the time they are more than happy to provide you with the schedule & bus companies.
- Don’t buy tickets at local travel agencies! Always purchase them at bus terminals! A travel agency on Flores island sold our friend fake bus tickets!
People backpacking in Central America usually stays on Flores Island of the city Flores. The entrance to the island is patrolled by securities. We stayed at Hotel Villa Del Lago which provided us with a room with ensuite.
Flores→ Quetzaltenango (Xela) Guatamala (4N)
- The climate here is pleasant and many people come here to learn Spanish when they are backpacking in Central America.
- Join the non-profit organization Quetzaltrekkers for a local tour. Particularly challenge the almighty Volcán Tajumulco! It is the highest peak in Central America. I can guarantee you the view on the summit would worth the hike as you being surrounded by clouds!
- We took Linea Dorada (one of Guatemala’s best bus companies) from Flores to get to Quetzaltenango (Xela) via Guatemala City. We heard Guatemala City is quite dangerous, so we never left the transit terminal.
- One of the most common local transports in Guatemala is the chicken bus! Locals take them to go everywhere! It is certainly a transportation method that you can’t miss out on if you are backpacking in Central America.
- If you can’t speak Spanish, just write down the destination on a piece of paper, the local bus drivers will direct you to the right bus.
Since I was raised in NZ, we choose to stay at Kasa Kiwi Hostel to give our fellow Kiwis some support. Not only this hostel has great reviews, but their website also has tonnes of information. From bus timetables to what to do in Guatemala, they have got everything covered. However, just like everywhere you go, always ask the receptionist for the newest details.
Quetzaltenango (Xela) → Panajachel, Guatemala (1N)
- Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America (340 meters). Surrounded by three volcanoes, the lake is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
- Many people backpacking in Central America would stay here for a few weeks to relax.
- Panajachel is the largest tourist town in the area with many resorts nearby the waterfront. From here you can catch buses or boats to different parts around the lake.
- The small town of San Marcos is located on the west side of the lakeshore. It has many meditation and yoga retreats.
- San Pedro is a lakeside town for backpackers. There are plenty of hostels to choose from with exciting nightlife. From here you can also climb Mt San Pedro.
How to catch the chicken bus from Quetzaltenango (Xela) → Panajachel chicken bus route?
- Quetzaltenango (Xela) Parque Central→ Terminal Minerva 25Q
- Terminal Minerva → La Cuchilla：15Q（There’s also a direct bus to Panajachel, but only every hour。）
- La Cuchilla → Solola：5Q
- Solola →Panajachel：3Q
- Advise people to write the destination on a piece of paper. Even with limited Spanish, the drivers are usually happy to guide you to the correct bus.
After staying in a hotel next to Lake Kawaguski with a view to Mt Fuji, I have developed an expensive taste to stay in a room with a view to the lake if possible. Every room in Porta Hotel del Lago that’s above 2nd story gives you a view of the lake from the window for around USD$100 per night. A bit of a splurge for us who’s backpacking in Central America. Sometimes you gotta treat yourself once in awhile.
Panajachel → Antigua (5N)
- Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, three of which surround Antigua. So visiting volcanoes when in Antigua is a must!
- Located 1,500 meters above the sea level, Antigua is the former capital of Guatemala. It is home to many Baroque buildings and was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
- There are many buildings in Antigua that have been destroyed by earthquakes. You will discover many interesting sites just by taking a stroll inside the old town.
- One of the many interesting observations I had in Antigua was their fast-food chains, many of them were located in heritage-looking mansions. McDonald’s was the most intriguing, as you can see from the video below.
- If fitness permits, we highly recommend you to do the 2D1N Acatenango volcano hike– the 3rd highest peak in Central America! From the campsite, you are able to see one of the most active volcanoes- Fuego in action! The volcano explodes every 10-15 mins! If you tip the guide, they may even take you to Fuego volcano itself where you can get a VIP seat of volcano eruption!
- Do a day trip to Volcán Pacaya to see the lava if you didn’t do the Acatenango & Fuego volcanoes hike. However, I’d imagine it won’t be as exciting.
Transport：Panajachel → Antigua Chicken bus route
- From Panajachel to Antigua, you can take the 2.5 hours chicken bus or spend a bit more on a tourist bus.
- There is only one bus a day leaving Panajachel (10:45 am) and you board the bus on Calle Principal. Best to check the most updated information from the chicken bus driver who takes you to Panajachel. The fare is 35Q.
- If you don’t get on the direct bus, you’ll need to bus to Solola, Los Encuentros then Chimaltenango before you can get to Antigua. Hence we recommend you to arrive at the stop early in case you miss the bus.
As Antigua is a very touristy destination, there are plenty of accommodations to choose from. The place we stayed at was Hotel casa Cristina. One thing to note is that food is quite expensive here in Antigua (or Guatemala, in general, compare to Mexico), so we ended up eating Chicken Compero– an international fried chicken chain from Guatemala.
Our view of Fuego eruption which happens roughly every 15 to 30 mins.
Antigua → El Tunco, El Salvador (1N)
El Tunco Recommendations：
- Be sure to try El Salvador’s most popular delicacy- Pupusa! It’s a thick flatbread stuffed with various savoury or sweet ingredients and is a national dish with a specific day to celebrate it! It is one of the must-try food to try when you are backpacking in Central America! Plus they are less than USD$1 per piece.
- El Tunco is a safe surfing town, hence it is one of the most popular places for a stopover for people transiting between Guatemala and Nicaragua.
- Other places to see in El Salvador include Santa Ana- the country’s third-largest city. You can visit volcanoes such as Cerro Verde, Mount Issac and Santa Ana.
- The small town of Chalchuapa in Santa Ana province is home to the Mayan ruin of Tazumal.
- La Libertad is a town 36 KM from the capital city. It contains a World Heritage site called Joya de Cerén. The place was buried by volcanic ash in 600 A.D, therefore it is also known as “Pompeii of Central America”.
- El Salvador may not have world-renown sites, but people we spoke to who were backpacking in Central America said it’s one of their favourite countries due to relaxed vibes & friendly people! I wish we stayed longer and not being deterred by the fact it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Transportation Companies in the area：
- Gekko Explorer: Informative website where you can check the routes and buy tickets online in advance. Website: https://gekkotrailsexplorer.com/
- Big Foot Hostel: This chain hostel operates in Leon and Antigua, you can purchase bus tickets locally or online. Website: bigfoothostelantigua.com/ & www.bigfoothostelleon.com/
- Trans-Land Shuttle: Only sells Tickets from Guatemala to El Salvador, they are cheaper than other companies. Tickets need to be purchased online. Website: https://trans-land.com/
- Surfo’s Shuttle: El Tunco’s local company with many positive reviews. We bought our tickets here from El Tunco to Leon. They even gave us a piece of paper of how much we suppose to pay at the customs, so we won’t get ripped off. Website: facebook.com/surfosplayaeltunco/
El Sunzalito was the best hotel in El Tunco in relation to the cost. It’s hard to find a place with hot showers here in El Tunco. This place didn’t have a hot shower when we visited, not sure if it’s different now.
Honduras （Bypass the country only on our way to Nicaragua）
El Tunco → Leon, Nicaragua (6N)
- Leon was the capital of Nicaragua since 1824. The old city of Leon (Leon Viejo) not too far from here, was buried in ashes due to a volcano eruption. It is now a UNESCO site since 2000.
- As Leon is surrounded by volcanoes, be sure to do volcano boarding at Cerro Negro! It is rated by CNN as one of the top things to do before you die!
- Highly recommend people to join the tours operated by the non-profit Quetzaltrekkers. They do a lot of outdoor activities and volcano hiking in this area. The one we did was hiking up Telica Volcano on a full-moon night. It was impressive to see steam coming out from the crater with 700M in diameter!
- Inside Leon Cathedra, there’s this sad-looking Lion to commemorate the Great Poet of Nicaragua- Rubén Darío.
Leon is very walkable and well connected to nearby towns via shuttles or chicken bus.
We stayed in Hotel Real de Leon as the room price includes air conditioning & breakfast. It was one of the better rooms we stayed at during our backpacking in Central America. They even have little turtles inside their courtyards.
Leon → Granada, Nicaragua(4N)
- Granada is Nicaragua’s 6th largest city and is known as the “colonial jewel” due to picturesque streets inside the old town.
- Located next to the largest lake in Central America- Lake Nicaragua. There are many water activities such as kayaking among the islets of Granada.
- One of the most well-known sites in the region is Masaya Volcano 30 KM from Granada. There is no hiking involved, all you have to do is hire a car or a driver to reach the summit where you can see lava inside the crater.
- Typically the tours cost USD$20pp departing Granada including admission and a guide. Otherwise, you can take a local bus to the small town of Masaya and pay USD$10 at the entrance. Then either hitch a ride to the caldera or walk 5KM. Returning at night would be more difficult if by bus.
- Laguna de Apoyo is a crater lake located 48KM from Granada. It is a great place for swimming and has one of the clearest waters in the country.
- If you are into chocolates, the Choco Museo is a great place to visit with free displays. You can buy chocolates there or take a chocolate making course!
Granada is a very walkable city. There are also horse carriages made for tourists too.
As Nicaragua doesn’t generate much electricities, this reflects on price. You are expected to pay USD$5-USD$10 on top of your accommodation fees in order to use the air-conditioners. The place we stayed at in Granada has closed down, however, this city is quite touristy, so it shouldn’t be hard to find a place to stay.
Granada – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua(3N)
Ometepe Island Recommendations：
- Isla de Ometepe is a large island in Lake Nicaragua known for its twin volcanoes. Due to the discoveries of prehistoric artifacts, the island is now a UNESCO site since 2010.
- Despite the fact the island only has a population of fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, they receive about 60,000 tourists per year, mainly for Europe & USA.
- Archaeologists have found nearly 1,700 petroglyphs on the island. Many of these can be seen at the museum in Altagracia-the island’s second-largest town.
- Enjoy a kayaking trip with “Ometepe Secret Adventures” and admire the lake and volcanoes from a different perspective.
- You can climb both Concepcion and Madras volcanoes (the two volcanos that formed this island), they are both very different from each other.
Transport：Granada to Ometepe Island Guide via local buses
- Granada Bus Terminal is located near the traditional market. We recommend you to ask your hostel for the correct location. If time permits, go to the bus terminal a day prior to confirm the departure time too.
- Usually, there is a chicken bus leaving for Rivas every hour. It’s a two-hour bus ride and & 32C per person.
- The bus ride from Rivas to the port town of San Jose is 20C per person. You can also catch a local taxi for 40C to 60C per person.
- At the San Jose port, you will need to pay a $1 USD tax per person.
- Larger ferries cost 50C pp and the smaller boats cost 35C-40C pp. The differences between the two would be the steadiness of the boat. Both will take an hour to get to the island. Personally I don’t find many differences, just take whichever leaves first.
- For larger ferries, you buy the tickets at the counter, for smaller boats you pay the tickets onboard.
- Other fun way to explore the city can be using second hand mobility scooters to go faster through museums, art galleries and parks.
Ometepe Island Transport Tips
- You can find the majority of the information for Ometepe (including boat time table) online at https://ometepenicaragua.com/.
- There are buses on the island but they are not very regular. Taxis are available but are expensive. Therefore, the best way to get around the island is to hire a scooter that costs USD$15-30 per day.
- We hired our scooter from Hotelito Aly for USD$15 per day at the port.
Most people come to Ometepe to enjoy nature. As a result, there are many eco-friendly accommodations on the islands. The eco-resorts so connected with nature, you often see reviewers saying they get spiders, lizards, etc entering their room at the middle of the night. Thankfully we found El Encanto Garden-Hotel, a place which is “bug-free” for $50 a night. Having an air-conditioner was also a bonus!
Ometepe → Monteverde, Costa Rica (3N)
- Monteverde is famous for its cloud forests and is a heaven for bird watchers or anyone who appreciates wildlife.
- The actual Monteverde Rain Forest covers more than 10,000 hectares and is home to more than 2,500 species of plants, 400+ species of birds and more than 100 species of mammals. One of the must find in the rainforest is the Resplendent Quetzal– a rare species that appear in Central America’s ancient legends. We also saw hummingbirds, sloths in its natural habitats.
- Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is another cloud forest in the area with cheaper entrance fee. This reserve feels completely different from Monteverde Rain Forest as it is more humid.
- Children’s Eternal Rain Forest is a reserve created by the fundraising of Swedish children. The area of Children’s Eternal Rain Forest is 6 times larger than the Monteverde Cloud Forest. The climate here is less humid. The trails are well planned and there are plenty of benches for the elderly and children to rest.
- A Large Ficus Tree once featured in National Geographic is one of the few free places to visit in Monteverde. The tree is located next to Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge and the exact location can be found on the APP MapsMe.
- Other activities you can do here includes horse riding, 4WD and zip-lining through different cloud forests! We had tonnes of fun with 100% Adventura, they have the longest zip line in Latin America reaching 2000M!
Transport：How to get from Nicaragua to Costa Rica/ Monteverde?
- In order to reach Costa Rica, you will need to reach the border town of Penas Blancas.
- After taking a ferry from Ometepe island to San Jose, there will be a bus heading towards Managua or Granada, both will bypass through Rivas.
- The taxi drivers and the bus drivers waiting at the port will tell you that the buses will not go through Rivas (BUT THEY DO!). Don’t be let down by then. The bus driver will eventually let you on when it’s time to depart and will drop you off at Rivas.
- After getting off at Rivas, there will be a bus that heads to the border Penas Blancas every 20 minutes for 50Cpp which is an hour away.
- There’s a fee of $3 USD fee upon leaving Nicaragua.
- In order to enter Costa Rica, you will need an onward journey out of the country. There are many bus companies outside the customs area if you happen to not have a ticket.
- From the border, you can take a bus the capital- San Jose.
Transport: How to travel to Monteverde from Nicaragua/ Costa Rica Border?
- If you are heading towards Monteverde, you will need to purchase a bus ticket to La Irma.
- Tell the bus driver that you need to get off at La Irma after you get on the bus, they will drop you off at the intersection
- There are two buses to Monteverde (10 AM & 3 PM), therefore you will need to depart Nicaragua as early as possible if you want to do all this in one day.
- The bus ride to Monteverde is USD$3 per person and if you missed the bus, the taxi would be USD%60.
We stayed at Pension Santa Elena which was a hostel with a great atmosphere. The tap water here is drinkable in Montverde.
Monteverde – La Fortuna (3N)
La Fortuna Attraction Recommendations：
- La Fortuna is famous because you can see one of Costa Rica’s most active volcano- Arenal Volcano from town. Unfortunately, the volcano is currently dormant since 2010. Therefore the town itself is just another nature’s playground.
- There are many natural hot springs and outdoor activities nearby such as abseiling from the top of the waterfalls. Although it wasn’t as exciting as we thought. On top of that, you have to purchase your own water shoes.
- We went swimming at La Fortuna Waterfall which was 70-75M in height and about 5.5KM walk from the city. There are tours that allow you to horse ride to the waterfall.
- You can go visit Volcano Arenal National Park by catching the 8 am bus towards Tilaran and get off 2KM from the park entrance. The return bus is at 2.30 pm. Always ask locally for the latest timetable.
- There is free hot spring at Tabacon which is around 10km away from the city centre.
Transportation between Monteverde & La Fortuna:
- La Fortuna’s bus terminal is next to the Mega Super supermarket.
- There are two ways to travel between Monteverde and La Fortuna.
- The first way is to take a boat ride across Lake Arenal. It is around USD$20pp. This route only takes 3 hours and you get to enjoy the view of the volcano from the lake.
- The second way is to transfer through Tilarán which is only USD$5 per person, however, it is a 7-hour bus journey.
We stayed at the Regina Hotel, it has a small kitchen in our room.
La Fortuna – San Jose, Costa Rica (4N)
San Jose Recommendations：
- San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and is one of the safest regions in Central America.
- Apparently you are able to spot wild sloths on the tops of the trees at the University of Costa Rica.
- The tickets to symphony orchestra at the national opera house- Teatro Nacional starts at USD$10! This building was built in the 19th centuries and it is one of the most sophisticated buildings in the city.
- Museo Nacional de Costa Rica is one of our favourites. Located in a former fortress, the museum has a butterfly garden with Costa Rica’s largest butterfly- Blue Morpho landing on your shoulders!
- If you are into ice creams, do not miss the 1910 old cinnamon ice cream stall at the central market- “La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora“!
- Taxis are available, but Ubers are cheaper.
- If you want to go to other Central American countries, you can either choose Tica Bus or Transnica. It is important to check in advance where the terminal is located as each company has its own terminal.
- San Jose is one of the safest cities in Central America and we felt relatively safe walking home at 10 pm after seeing the orchestra.
We stayed at Costa Rica Guest House, it was quite comfortable. Although a bit far from the international bus station.
San Jose – Panama City (1N) – San Blas Island San Blas Islands (1N)
San Blas Island Tips:
- The San Blas Islands are located in the Caribbean with 378 islands in total. Of which 49 of them are inhabited. The islands make up the autonomous region of Panama which belongs to the natives of Colombia- the Kuna people.
- Every single island is different and various levels of comfort. We stayed on Diablo Island which is only 30mins boat ride from the mainland and stayed there for a night.
- The reason why we choose this island is because the place allowed us to snorkel above a sunken ship just off the beach.
- You can do the trip to San Blas Islands in a day from Panama, however 2D1N would be more relaxing.
- Apparently you get to eat fresh seafood here, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with us and we made a complaint to the company we booked the trip with.
Transport：How to get from Central America to South America? Panama to Colombia By boat
- The land between Panama and Colombia is blocked by tropical rain forests with no roads, so the only way to travel from Central America to South America is to fly or take a boat.
- If you plan to travel by boat, you can do it by travelling through San Blas Islands to the Colombian town of Sapzurro. This trip takes around 4D3N. You then catch a bus to Medellin or Cartagena from there.
- The main travel agency for this tour is San Blas Adventures, which costs about USD$400 per person.
- Most of the online reviews were positive and you get to eat fresh seafood every day. Quite a luxury for people backpacking in Central America I’d say.
- The only drawback for me is that you sleep in a hammock for three nights in a row, which can be a little uncomfortable.
- The Caribbean typhoon season starts in June and finishes in November. The strongest typhoons are around August, September, and October. Therefore ideally, spare a few days in your itinerary if you are travelling by boat during those months as your schedule may be affected by the weather.
Very basic accommodation with sands directly beneath your feet even inside the rooms. Toilets are shared with 10+ other people.
San Blas Islands – Panama City (4N)
Panama City Recommendations：
- Panama City is known as “Dubai in Latin America” due to the vast amount of highrise buildings in the city.
- Most people come to Panama City to visit the Panama Canals. It is one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the World”. The amount of earth dug up for the canal is enough to build 63 Egyptian pyramids!
- The old town in Panama city has an extensive history and is listed as a World Heritage Site. The Spanish people established Panama in 1519 as an important trading centre for the Europeans on the New American continent and used it as a base to invade the Inca Empire in Peru.
- Metropolitan National Park s a national park at the centre of the city.
Transport in Panama City (In General)：
- Panama Transport Card (Metrobus Card) can only be purchased at the Albrook Terminal and MRT station for $2 USD. The card can be shared between 4 people. If you don’t want to purchase a card, the locals are generally happy to help out by accepting cash from you and pay for your fares.
- Panama City is the first city that’s integrated with Google Map, so as long as you have data or wifi then you are fine.
- The fare For the Tocumen-Corredor Sur route which takes you from the airport to the city is US$1.25.
- Otherwise, the MRT fees are $0.35 one way and the bus fees are USD$0.25 one way.
How do I visit the Panama Canal via public transport?
- First take the MRT or bus to Albrook station, then transfer to Miraflores visitor centre to see ships going through the giant locks at the Panama canal.
- The ships travel one way through the locks in the morning and the other way in the afternoon.
- Usually, the last ship passes the lock by 9:30 am in the morning and there will be a gap till 2 pm. That’s when you will see the ships travelling in the other direction.
- Therefore, there are usually no ships going through the locks between 9:30 am and 2 pm at the Miraflores visitor centre.
- If you have time, you can book a sightseeing boat that takes you all the way through the canal.
- You can also take a bus to Colon, where you can watch the ships going through Agua Clara Locks on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal.
- Since we are members of Hilton, we stayed in 3 different brands of Hilton hotels in Panama.
- Among the three, Hilton Garden Inn Panama is our favourite. Not only they let us check-in at 5 am free of charge and it was only $20 more a night compared to most local hostels with a private room.
- The other two five-star hotels we stayed in were Hilton Panama and Waldorf Astoria Panama. They were average and services were below Asian Hilton standards.
Backpacking in Central America Summary
This 8000-word blog pretty much sums up our 10 week trip in Central America. It has always been our dream to visit this part of the continent and we knew it would be a tight squeeze if we included in our round the world trip back in 2016 (we covered 35 countries in 325 days)! Turns out it was definitely worth the wait. This trip turned out to be one of the best trips of our lives!
I hope you will find this blog useful as I didn’t have time to type up individual blogs for each country. Hopefully, the information here is enough for you to plan your trip of a lifetime for backpacking in Central America!
If you find this page useful, please follow us on Instagram at @travelwithwinny