8 best Central American countries to visit and tips to plan your trip
The ultimate list of the best Central American countries to visit and tips to enjoy them to the fullest even if you're on a budget.
Central America is a gorgeous part of the world. Nestled in between the USA, the Caribbean islands, and South America, it has a wide range of landscapes, native traditions, and unique cultures. It is most deffinitely worth a trip - or many! But what are the best Central American countries to visit? This is what you'll find out in this article.
A brief introduction to Central America
Though Central America isn’t very large in terms of landmass, it is rich in cultural and geographical diversity. The countries are quite small, with the exception of Mexico. Each one has their own distinct way of life and offers something different to travelers who stop by.
Spanish is the predominant language, though there are many indigenous communities that speak their own languages.
But since we'll be talking about the best Central American countries to visit, it's important to know that the list of countries that make up Central America is up for debate.
Some consider Central America to only include the seven countries of Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Some consider Mexico to be part of Central America, while others see it as part of North America. Some consider Caribbean islands like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic to be part of Central America too.
For this article, I won’t be including the Caribbean, but I will include Mexico. Though geographically, Mexico is part of North America, the culture and landscape of the country are similar to the Central American countries.
So without further ado, here are the best Central American countries to visit (listed in no particular order).
Best Central American countries to visit
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
I'll talk about each of them below, but before we get to that, I'll share a special travel tip: an amazing way to travel around Central America, or within a particular country there, is by joining a volunteer program, also known as work exchange.
That means you'll exchange a few hours of work for free accommodation and other perks, such as meals and tours.
You can find plenty of opportunities in the region (and all around the world) at the Worldpackers platform, which gathers all sorts of hosts looking for travelers willing to help them out.
I can tell you from experience that apart from being a great way to save money, volunteering is an amazing experience. You'll get to meet other travelers and locals, practice your skills or find out new talents, and live a deep immersion in the local culture.
Off to the list of countries, then! And once you've decided where to go, be sure to also check out our article with advice on travelling to Central America.
1. Costa Rica
One of the most popular countries to visit in Central America is Costa Rica. It has a reputation for being traveler-friendly, expat friendly, safe, beautiful, and fun.
Full of jungles, beaches, waterfalls, volcanoes, wildlife, and culture, Costa Rica has everything a traveler could want. It is also one of the best Central American countries to visit in December, as that’s when the rainy season ends and the weather becomes perfect.
The only downsides to its popularity are that it can feel quite touristy in some places, and traveling there is more expensive than in other Central American countries. But if you visit Costa Rica, you’ll realize the crowds of tourists and the slightly overpriced food are worth it. It is truly an amazing country!
For those looking to volunteer, there are some very cool Worldpackers work exchanges to choose from. You can live in a eco lodge and learn about greenhouse and cultivations or immerse yourself in Costa Ricas's gastronomy by helping at a kitchen, for instance.
2. El Salvador
Generally not that popular among tourists, El Salvador is surprisingly one of the best Central American countries to visit.
The country doesn’t have a great reputation due to the wars and violence that occurred there in the mid-late 1900s. However, these conflicts are in the past and El Salvador is becoming more and more safe for tourists every year.
Because it is not super touristy, El Salvador is cheap and there are lots of amazing retreats and eco villages scattered around the small country. There is good surfing, lots of incredible nature, and many lodges and retreats that focus on yoga, meditation, and healthy living.
You can even volunteer at an eco village and work as a cook, photographer, gardener or teacher, or explore El Salvador with other volunteering positions.
Situated just below Mexico, Guatemala is an extremely diverse country. It has ancient ruins, highlands, volcanos, mountains, jungles, rainforests, lakes, beaches, cities, small towns, and so much more.
Guatemala also has a strong sense of Mayan culture. Many locals still live the way their ancestors did, and they wear traditional Mayan clothes. If you venture to small villages, you’ll find that many people speak their native languages instead of Spanish.
Popular things to do in Guatemala include lounging on Lake Atitlan, hiking Volcan Acatenango and other volcanoes, surfing on the coast, visiting natural pools in the jungle, exploring the Mayan ruins in the north, and visiting its beautiful towns.
And if you're wondering whether is it safe to travel to Guatemala, read this article by a fellow traveler who spent some time there and shared his impressions.
Belize, a small and interesting country, is another one of the best Central American countries to visit. It is located on the Caribbean Coast, and therefore is sometimes considered a Caribbean nation in addition to a Central American one.
Belize is also very multicultural, with influences from all sorts of Caribbean, Latin American and African nations.
Though it is small, Belize is home to so much cool stuff. There are Mayan ruins, lazy beach towns, tropical forests, and lots of mindblowing marine life. Belize is one of the best Central American countries to visit for diving and snorkeling, because the underwater world is so amazing and vibrant.
As the biggest and most well-known country in Central and North America, Mexico is just as amazing as people say it is. With plenty of famous museums, landmarks, ruins, and monuments, there is much to do here for history, architecture, food and culture lovers.
And with a vast landscape that covers lots of different geographies, Mexico is one of the best Central American countries to visit for nature lovers. There is hiking, snorkeling, surfing, sailing, camping, fishing, rock climbing, and so much more.
It is also one of the most popular countries for doing a Worldpackers work exchange. With 185 volunteer opportunities in Mexico, there is no shortage of cool experiences to try.
Full of cheap delicious food, warm and welcoming locals, and unique natural sights, Nicaragua is an up and coming destination in Central America.
It is also arguably the best Central American country to visit for surfing. Because it is less touristy than Mexico or Costa Rica, you can often find stunning beaches with perfect surfing conditions and no other people there.
Panama is another one of the best Central American countries to visit. This long, thin country acts as the gateway between Central America and South America, and is bordered by Costa Rica in the north and Colombia in the South.
Panama is known for its incredible biodiversity, though it often is overshadowed by Costa Rica in terms of tourism. Snorkeling, diving, white water rafting, hiking, and bird watching are all fun pastimes over there.
Some of the best places to visit in Panama include the beaches and islands of Bocas Del Toro, the mountains and coffee plantations of Boquete, the volcanoes, waterfalls, and rainforests of Anton Valley, and the skyscrapers and entertainment of Panama City.
There are many work exchanges in Panama for those who want to try volunteering!
Before you travel, make sure to read the article The 10 best things to do in Panama.
Last but not least on the list of best Central American countries to visit, is Honduras. With a pretty long Caribbean coastline, Honduras boasts some amazing marine life and diving sites.
So if you love snorkeling, diving, and exploring the underwater world, Honduras is a great place to visit. The country also has many national parks filled with wildlife and mountains that are great for hiking.
There are also lots of cool archeological sites for those who love history. Honduras is not a super popular country to visit in Central America, but it does have a lot to offer.
If you got curious, don't miss out this guide about the best things to do in Honduras.
And yes, for those who want to live and work among locals, there are also work exchanges available in Honduras. You can learn permaculture with locals in a farm on a Caribbean Island or apply for a volunteering position in a beautiful fun hostel in Honduras as a bartender and live the experience of your life.
I hope you liked this list of the places to travel to in Central America! If you have any questions, let us know in the comments section.