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How to travel on a budget in Central America

How To Travel on a Budget in Central America: A Guide for Backpackers

Discover how to travel on a budget around Central America with these practical tips and money-saving strategies. In this guide for backpackers and budget travelers, we’ll explore affordable accommodations, cheap eats, local transportation options, and more.

Central America, long part of the old backpacker’s “Gringo Trail”, is still a destination for adventurous budget travelers. While parts of the region – and certain countries – have become more gentrified in recent years, that hasn’t stopped backpackers from coming down to explore and experience all Central America has to offer. The region’s diverse cultures, stunning natural beauty, and (still) relatively low costs continue to draw those seeking maximum experience on minimal budgets. Savvy planning and cost considerations can mean the difference between a short trip and an extended adventure.

Before we dive into the details of how to travel on a budget around Central America, let’s look at some money-saving tips to help you stay on track:

Top Tips on How To Travel on a Budget in Central America

  • Set a daily spending limit: Determine a realistic daily budget based on your travel style and destination. There are apps that can help you track expenses on the go, ensuring you stay within your limits.
  • Embrace slow travel: Spending more time in fewer places not only reduces transportation costs but also allows for a deeper cultural experience and often leads to finding better local deals.
  • Use a mix of cash and cards: Use local currency when you can. US dollars are accepted everywhere, but you’ll always get your change back in local currency. Better to just use it in the first place. Carry some US dollars for emergencies, though, and border crossings. Don’t be afraid to use your cards, either. It used to be a lot more expensive to use cards in Central America, but those days are gone.
  • ATMs for better rates: Use ATMs to withdraw local currency as needed. They often offer better exchange rates than currency exchange offices or hotels.
  • Get an eSIM: This affordable alternative to traditional roaming allows you to use local data networks without excessive charges. Research the best eSIM providers for good Central American coverage before your trip.
  • Book tours locally: Avoid booking tours online or through your hostel. Instead, shop around with local operators for the best prices. Often, you can negotiate better deals in person.
  • Eat like a local: Street food and small local restaurants offer authentic cuisine at a fraction of the cost of tourist-oriented establishments (more below). Be wary of restaurants with menus in multiple languages. These are often overpriced and less authentic.

By keeping these tips in mind, you’ll be well-prepared to stretch your budget and make the most of your Central American adventure.

Best Time to Travel to Central America on a Budget

Timing your trip to Central America can significantly impact your budget. The region generally experiences two seasons: dry (December to April) and rainy (May to November). While the dry season offers perfect weather, it also brings higher prices and more crowds, especially during the peak months of December and January.

For budget travelers, the sweet spot lies in the shoulder seasons: May and November. These months offer a balance between good weather and lower prices. You’ll find cheaper accommodations, less crowded attractions, and still enjoy plenty of sunshine with only occasional showers.

The rainy season, particularly June to October, offers the lowest prices. While you’ll encounter daily rainfall, it usually comes in short afternoon bursts, leaving plenty of time for exploration. This period is ideal for lush landscapes and wildlife spotting, though some outdoor activities may be limited.

Ultimately, the best time to visit depends on your specific destinations and priorities. If you’re flexible, consider traveling during the shoulder or rainy seasons for the best deals. Just pack a light rain jacket and embrace the occasional shower as part of your Central American adventure.

Getting to Central America on a Budget

Securing affordable flights to Central America is crucial for budget-conscious travelers. Major hubs like Panama City, San José, and San Salvador often offer the best deals. Use online flight comparison tools like Skyscanner to find the lowest fares by comparing prices across different airlines and dates. Setting up price alerts on these platforms can help monitor fare fluctuations, allowing you to book tickets when prices drop.

Flexibility with travel dates—consider flying mid-week or during off-peak seasons (between May and November)—can significantly reduce costs. It’s generally advisable to book flights well in advance, as last-minute deals in this region can be less predictable.

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Getting Around Central America on a Budget

Navigating Central America affordably requires strategic use of transportation options. International bus services like TicaBus are popular among backpackers for their affordability, crossing borders and connecting major cities throughout the region. That said, it’s always almost cheaper when crossing international frontiers to get a local bus to the border, walk across, and get another local bus on the other side. A service like TicaBus, while inexpensive compared to flying, is still more expensive than local buses. You’re paying a little more for convenience, if not so much comfort.

Within individual countries, local buses are really the only way to get around on a budget, though they can be crowded. Put it this way; in Costa Rica, Central America’s most expensive country, the longest and most expensive bus journey is less than $20. For more comfort and convenience, rideshare apps like Uber and local equivalents operate in cities, offering a safer (and often cheaper) alternative to traditional taxis.

Budget Accommodations in Central America

When backpacking through Central America, savvy travelers can find a range of affordable accommodations that fit various budgets. Hostels are a popular choice, offering dormitory beds typically priced between $8 and $25 per night, depending on the country and location within it. Private rooms in hostels generally range from $15 to $60 USD per night, providing more privacy while still keeping costs reasonable.

For budget-conscious travelers seeking more privacy, Airbnb is an option across Central America, where private rooms start at approximately $30 USD per night. Entire homes or apartments can typically start at $70 USD per night, offering more space and amenities, though prices can vary widely based on location and season.

Free Accommodation Options

Couchsurfing, another alternative, allows travelers to stay with locals for free, often on a couch or spare bed, in exchange for cultural exchange and company. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture, get insider tips, and make new friends along the way. Safety and mutual respect are key aspects of Couchsurfing, with users building profiles and reviews to establish trust within the community. Sites like Workaway and Worldpackers connect you with hostels and eco-projects in exchange for a few hours of work each day. It’s a win-win – you get free accommodation and food, while helping out a local business or community project.

Guesthouses and home-stays are also affordable choices, offering private rooms with shared or ensuite bathrooms, often including breakfast and the chance to interact closely with local families or hosts. Prices for these accommodations vary by country: in Guatemala, for example, guesthouses may range from $20 to $40 USD per night, while in Costa Rica or Panama, prices might be on the higher end due to more touristy areas.


For those interested in camping, some hostels and national parks in Central America provide affordable options. Many hostels also allow guests to pitch tents or hang hammocks for under $10 USD per night. National parks may have camping fees that vary by country, so it’s advisable to check local guidelines and fees before planning a camping trip. Wild camping – just pitching your tent anywhere – is not recommended in Central America. Factors like crime, weather, and even animal encounters make this a bad idea.

When booking budget stays, it’s wise to plan ahead, especially during peak travel seasons, to secure better deals. Exploring beyond major cities can also lead to finding more affordable options in smaller towns and rural areas. Prioritizing safety is crucial; researching accommodations, choosing safe neighborhoods, and securing valuables are essential practices to ensure a pleasant and secure stay in Central America.

Cheap Eats in Central America: Food and Drink

Central America offers a wealth of affordable dining options, particularly through street food, local markets, and basic restaurants. In Honduras and Guatemala, look for “comedores” or “fondas,” small eateries serving up traditional dishes at wallet-friendly prices. You’ll find BBQ shacks or local vendors with drum barbecues on streets all over Belize, offering tasty, affordable, and authentic grilled dishes.

In Costa Rica, “sodas” are casual eateries where you can enjoy gallo pinto (rice and beans), casados (a typical dish with rice, beans, salad, and a choice of meat), and ceviche (citrus-marinated seafood). Nicaragua’s “fritangas” are renowned for their grilled meats, plantains, and traditional dishes like vigorón (a dish of boiled yuca, chicharrón, and cabbage salad). El Salvador’s “pupuserías” specialize in pupusas, thick corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans, or meat, served with curtido (pickled cabbage).

Cooking for Yourself

You’ll find a basic meal in a soda, fritanga, or comedor for less than $10 pretty much anywhere in Central America (and a lot less than that in some places). But cooking your own meals can be a cost-effective option if you’re traveling on a budget. Many hostels and guesthouses in Central America provide communal kitchens where you can prepare meals using fresh local ingredients from nearby markets. This not only saves money but also allows you to experience local produce and flavors firsthand.


When it comes to drinking and going out, sticking to local beers and spirits is a smart way to keep costs down. Central American countries have their own iconic brews, like Gallo in Guatemala, Imperial in Costa Rica, and Toña in Nicaragua. These local beers are usually much cheaper than imported options and offer a taste of the region’s brewing culture. Similarly, local rums from Guatemala and Nicaragua count as among the best in the world, and are more affordable than imported liquors. Local spirits like guaro in Costa Rica are dirt cheap, and chiliguaros are a party staple in that country.

Heading to local bars rather than more touristy spots can also save money while providing a more authentic experience. Local establishments tend to have lower prices and a more genuine atmosphere.

Average Daily Costs Across Central America: Budget Insights for Travelers

When planning a budget-friendly trip through Central America, it’s important to know the average daily costs for each country. This information helps in managing expenses and making the most out of your travel experience without overspending. The following travel cost rankings, from, are based on the travel budgets of real travelers, giving you an idea of what to expect in terms of daily expenses per person.


Average Daily Travel Price: $49 per day. Guatemala is the least expensive country in Central America. From indigenous markets, Mayan ruins, and colonial towns to Pacific beaches and the natural beauty of Lake Atitlán, you can enjoy a memorable trip without spending a lot.


Average Daily Travel Price: $54 per day. Known for its colonial cities, expansive beaches, and friendly locals, Nicaragua is one of the cheapest countries in Central America, making it ideal for budget travelers.


Average Daily Travel Price: $58 per day. Honduras offers affordable travel options, especially for those staying on the mainland and avoiding the more expensive Bay Islands.

El Salvador:

Average Daily Travel Price: $61 per day. El Salvador, known for its surfing and volcanoes, provides budget-friendly travel experiences, especially in beach communities like El Zonte.


Average Daily Travel Price: $79 per day. Panama offers a mix of modern cities and beautiful landscapes. Costs are higher in Panama City but more reasonable in other parts of the country.


Average Daily Travel Price: $105 per day. Belize offers a blend of beaches, scuba diving, and eco-adventure. These attractions come with a higher price tag than other countries around the region, though. That said, it’s still possible to get by on a budget in Belize by staying in hostels and eating locally.

Costa Rica:

Average Daily Travel Price: $115 per day. Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America, and many backpackers try to avoid it nowadays. Costs can add up quickly in Costa Rica, especially in tourist-heavy areas like Manuel Antonio and Tamarindo. That said, budget travelers can still find affordable hostels and local eateries to keep costs down.

For budget-conscious travelers, the cheapest countries in Central America are Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, with daily costs averaging between $49 and $61. In contrast, the most expensive countries are Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama, with daily costs ranging from $79 to $115.

These costs are averages across all types of travelers, from budget to luxury, so it’s certainly possible to spend less. Use these figures as a general guide to help plan your trip according to your budget.

Budget Activities and Attractions

One of Central America’s biggest draws for budget travelers is its wealth of stunning, free-access beaches. From the Caribbean coast to the Pacific, you’ll find miles of pristine shoreline where you can swim, sunbathe, and surf without spending a dime. This alone makes the region a paradise for budget-conscious beach lovers. Whether it’s the surf spots of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua or the laid-back vibes of Cahuita, Costa Rica, free beach access is a cornerstone of budget travel in Central America.

But the region offers more than just beaches. Free walking tours in cities are a great way to explore urban areas. Local guides share insider knowledge, helping you discover hidden gems. Many tours operate on a tip-based system, so you can pay what you can afford.

Nature and history lovers will find plenty of affordable options too. Central America is a hiker’s paradise, with trails ranging from volcano treks in Guatemala to cloud forest walks in Costa Rica. Belize is full of Mayan archeological sites where you can get up close and personal with the ruins for cheap or even free. Many national parks offer reasonable entry fees. Keep your eyes peeled for monkeys, toucans, or even the elusive quetzal. Please note, though, that many hikes recommend guides for safety reasons, and sometimes – in the case of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, for example, a guide is mandatory. Safety is never worth skimping on.

Local festivals provide free entertainment and a chance to experience Central American culture. From Day of the Dead celebrations in Guatemala to street parties in Nicaragua, these events offer music, food, and opportunities to mingle with locals. Keep an eye out for community events too – you might stumble upon a local market or street performance that becomes a highlight of your trip.

Wrapping Up

Traveling Central America on a budget isn’t just possible – it’s an adventure in itself, and the region offers countless experiences that won’t drain your bank account. Remember, the key to budget travel is flexibility. Be open to changing your plans, trying new things, and stepping out of your comfort zone.

As you plan your trip, keep these tips in mind: mix up your accommodation options, use local transportation, eat where the locals eat, and take advantage of free activities. But most importantly, remember that the best experiences often don’t cost a thing. A sunset viewed from a beach, a conversation with a local in broken Spanish, or the thrill of spotting a tapir or jaguar in a national park – these are the moments that make travel in Central America truly priceless.

So pack your bags, but travel light. Now you know how to travel on a budget through even the most expensive parts of Central America, you’re good to go. Your adventure awaits, and you’re all set to make the most of every dollar, colón, quetzal, or córdoba. Happy travels!

CA Staff

CA Staff