When I think of Central America I think of people with personalities as bright as the paint on their houses. I think of the countless uninhabited islands waiting to be explored and the thousands of sea creatures that call the stunning coral reefs in this part of the world home.
For anyone considering exploring this corner of the world - DO IT.
But if you’re a newbie like I was, let me walk you through all the things you might need to know when visiting Central America for the first time.
Background: 7 countries make up Central America. They are Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize.
The region is known for its lush jungles, wild animals and incredible coral reefs.
Central America has seen its fair share of troubles due to political unrest in the 80s which kept many tourists away. But now, it’s a different story. Central America attracts backpackers, adventure seekers, luxury travelers, even retirees. Everything from snorkeling at the Blue Hole in Belize to zip lining through the jungles in Costa Rica. Your options are endless when it comes to experiencing this region.
Before we go further let me preface this by saying - this is not a backpackers guide to Central America.
While I would LOVE to believe I could pack all my belongings into a backpack and couch surf my way across Central America - I have not done that (yet…). Never say never, right?
Instead, I’ll walk you through what you can expect from the region, what sorts of things you should make sure to pack, suggestions on what spots you shouldn’t miss, and some other general travel info that’s good to know.
Best time to go:
Central America is prone to hurricanes and heat waves because of its tropical climate so you do need to be aware of the months you’re traveling. This is a blanket statement and may seem obvious, but the best time to visit any of the 7 countries is during the dry season. January through March is the dry season for most countries while November through April is the dry season for Nicaragua, Panama, and Honduras. But because you’re visiting a land of rainforests, you should expect rain...when you least expect it lol.
Each country’s vibe:
Belize: The locals love to use the saying “Un-Belize-able” when describing their country. And I gotta say that saying rings true when you see the lush jungles and caves that are millions of years old. Ooo and we can’t forget the blue hole. It’s the largest sinkhole in the ocean and you can either scuba dive or snorkel there - highly recommend!
Costa Rica: It’s not called the adventure capital of Central America for nothing! From white water rafting to zip lining high above the jungle - if you are an adrenaline rush junkie, this is where you need to be. And get this, 5% of the world’s biodiversity exists in Costa Rica. How crazy is that? There’s TONS of wildlife and beautiful plants and flowers to admire in this country.
El Salvador: If you’re a beach lover, this is your country. It’s a hot spot for surfers and is home to some pretty incredible coffee plantations. Just be aware of the country’s high crime rates if you decide to travel here.
Guatemala: Home to volcanos, rainforests, and ancient Mayan sites, Guatemala has something to offer every type of traveler. The country has a history that dates back centuries and the landscapes are simply stunning.
Honduras: Want to see the world’s second largest barrier reef? Visit Honduras. Head to the Bay Islands and explore Roatan, a diving & snorkeling paradise. Or if you’re feeling more adventurous bop on over to Cayos Cochinos which was just opened to tourists a few years ago. There you’ll find about 150 different types of fish and more than 100 types of coral.
Nicaragua: If you’re looking for the perfect place for a solo backpacking adventure - consider Nicaragua. It’s one of the largest countries in Central America but it’s also the least populated. If you’re seeking the road less traveled and a less expensive alternative to Costa Rica - this is your spot. I HIGHLY recommend a trip to the Corn Islands if you visit. The islands are laid back, not overrun with tourists and you can dine on delicious lobster for a super reasonable price.
Panama: I fell in love with the country. From the hundreds of uninhabited San Blas islands to the bright and vibrant town of Bocas del Toro, Panama should be high on your list. Oh, and of course you can’t miss the Panama Canal!
Things to make sure you see and do:
Check out the Volcanos: Never seen a volcano before? Go to Central America, they’re everywhere. The first volcano I ever laid eyes on was the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. And let me tell you, Costa Ricans are VERY proud of their 7,000-year-old volcano. But it’s certainly not the only one in the region.
Mayan Ruins: Want to see the remains of one of the most sophisticated civilizations in the world? Central America has many impressive ruins sites but some of the most notable ruins are in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And I mean, don’t you want to know more about the people who invented hot chocolate??
Panama Canal: It’s 50 miles long and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Sorry just needed to remind you in case you were snoozing during your middle school history class. It’s really pretty incredible when you think about it. Plus it only costs $5 to see the canal and visitor center so you kinda have to go.
The Rainforest: Central America is KNOWN for its array of wildlife and massive rainforests. Make sure to venture through one if you’re headed to this part of the world. You can see sloths chilling in trees and monkeys jumping from branch to branch. If you can, find a company that does zip line tours so you can glide along above the canopy and feel like one of the tropical birds you see flying around.
The Blue Hole: If you’re visiting Belize you simply MUST visit the Blue Hole. It’s the LARGEST sinkhole in the ocean. Isn’t that crazy? It’s about 300 meters across and 125 meters deep. You can either scuba dive or snorkel at the blue hole and I have to say the experience is incredible.
Central America Essentials:
There are a few things you should make sure to pack for ANY trip to Central America. Here’s my list:
Waterproof phone case: I know iPhones are water resistant or whatever but these guys can actually let you take underwater photos. I used this case while on Yacht Week and if it can live through that, it can live through anything lol.
Mosquito repellent: You’re going to want a GOOD bug spray. Cause, guys, you’re going to be in a rainforest...
Sunscreen: I have recently switched to only using SuperGoop products on my face and body. Their sunscreen feels like NOTHING is on your face while protecting it at the same time! PLUS, their mineral mist is reef safe! OOOO and they just launched a product to protect your part from burning (we’ve all been there…)
Raincoat: Again, rainforest...
Ouai beach wave spray: I love this stuff for styling your hair fresh out the water. It gives you the natural sea salt waves we all hope and dream for
Nerdy water shoes: I think I’m finally going to put my pride aside and get a pair of water shoes because honestly, they’re essential. These are the ones most people seem to like but I also think these aren’t too ugly either lol.
Sea bands: If you’re prone to seasickness I highly recommend. You might find yourself on boats visiting reefs or just on a joy ride and there’s nothing worse than feeling seasick when you’re supposed to be having fun.
Anti-itch ointment: Because inevitably you will get itchy bug bites and it’s good to be prepared
Body wipes: I swear by these guys when I’m visiting places where I know I’m going to be sweating A LOT.
Headphones: Because you’ll be on planes, boats, and sometimes bumpy roads and zoning out is sometimes important
Portable Charger: I NEVER TRAVEL WITHOUT ONE OF THESE
GoPro: YOOOO if you’re gonna snorkel, dive or zip line I can’t say enough about having a GoPro. I currently have a super old version but you should really consider the GoPro Hero 7 Black. I tested it out on my Hurtigruten Cruise and was BLOWN away.
HOORRAYYYY NO CONVERTERS NEEDED IF YOU’RE TRAVELING FROM THE USA!
Central America Style guide:
No matter when you travel to Central America it will be warm and in most places humid. So in those conditions I love to dress in light & loose clothing. If you’re doing any “adventuring” (highly likely) I recommend some comfortable athleisure outfits and of course GOOD walking shoes. OOO and a good hat is a must!