7 Weeks Backpacking CENTRAL AMERICA Itinerary | My Route From Cancun, Mexico to San Jose, Costa Rica
Updated: Jun 16
I recently spent seven weeks backpacking in Central America. Starting in Cancun, Mexico, I made my way down the continent through Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to San Jose, Costa Rica.
When I was first researching for my Central America trip, I found it difficult to find accurate information on transport and similar backpacking itineraries to what I had in mind for my trip. I'd given myself 7 weeks to get from Cancun, Mexico to San Jose, Costa Rica overland. Before setting off, I only had a couple nights booked and decided to 'wing it' as I went. Thankfully, this ended up working out fine. It's only really necessary to reserve accommodation and transport in advance in Central America during super busy tourist periods like Christmas or Easter. Outside these times, it's perfectly fine to make reservations only one or two days in advance.
Luckily, I found 7 weeks to be the perfect amount of time for me to travel from Cancun through to San Jose. I chose to visit Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and made the decision to skip Belize, El Salvador and Panama. I travelled the following route through Central America:
I wrote a blog post on everything I packed for this trip. See:
Mexico (13 days)
I began my Central America trip in Cancun, Mexico. Although Mexico is technically not in Central America, many backpackers begin their CA trips in Cancun as it is the cheapest place to fly into. I spent 13 days in Mexico travelling through the Yucatan. I wrote a detailed blog post of my Mexican itinerary, see:
Cancun (2 nights) - before/after my fights to Cuba
I stayed in the Mayan Monkey Hostel - amazing pool and close to the bus station!
Isla Holbox (3 nights) - beach & good food!
I stayed in Tribu Hostel - really great location and fun hostel activities!
Tulum (6 nights) - cenote diving, Tulum ruins, Chichen Itza, cenotes & Playa del Carmen
I would recommend Che Hostel if you're after a party vibe and Hostel Chill in for something more relaxed.
Bacalar (3 nights) - lake boat tour & chilling by the lake
I would recommend staying at the Yak Lake House Hostel - a great social vibe and perfect location.
Getting around the Yucatan was super easy, inexpensive and comfortable with Mexico's ADO buses. You can buy tickets online or in-person at ADO outlets. Prices averaged $20-$30 for a 5-6 hour bus ride.
From Bacalar, Mexico I caught a shuttle which I booked through the Green Monkey Hostel to take me through Belize into Flores, Guatemala. The shuttle costs around $60 USD and took 13 hours - with two border crossings it was a long day...
At the Mexican border, I was made to pay 550 pesos/$30 USD to leave the country. I'd actually already paid this 'tourist tax' as it was included in the price of my airline ticket into the country, but it is a common scam for Mexican officials to make you pay the fee regardless and refuse to give you a receipt - there was no way I could get around it!
After the Mexican immigration, we got back on the bus and drove through 'no man's land' into Belize. We had to take all our luggage off the bus and go through immigration and customs. We got back on the bus and drove to Belize City to drop off passengers at the Caye Caulker ferry terminal. I'd made the decision to skip Belize as I'd heard it was super expensive and I figured I could do everything that Belize offered in other, cheaper destinations in Central America.
Although I only just transited through the country for the day, I still had to pay a $17 USD fee to leave Belize at the border into Guatemala. Finally, 13 hours later I arrived on the tiny island of Flores in Guatemala. There was no fee to enter Guatemala.
Guatemala (16 days)
Guatemala was possibly my favourite country in all of Central America. I wrote a whole blog post on all the reasons why I loved it so much! For a full run down of my time there see:
While in Guatemala I visited:
Flores (3 nights) - Tikal ruins & Flores town
I stayed in Los Amigos Youth Hostel - the best hostel in Flores with a super cool common area and soundproof disco room! (Just remember you have to email them to reserve)
Semuc Champey (3 nights) - Semuc Champey, river tubing & Zephyr lodge
Zephyr Lodge is a legend in itself - this hostel is probably one of the coolest hostels I've ever stayed in!
Antigua (6 nights) - Acatenango volcano hike & city exploring
I stayed in Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel - super lovely and in a great location.
Lake Atitlan (4 nights) - San Pedro, Santa Cruz & Panajachel
I stayed in Casa Felipe in San Pedro, Free Cerveza in Santa Cruz (BEST hostel ever!) and Selina in Panajachel (newly renovated, with an awesome resort-style pool).
From Antigua, I caught a shuttle to La Ceiba, Honduras. The shuttle only goes two times per week, leaves at 2 am in the morning and cost $60 USD. I got lucky as there were only two other people on the shuttle so I got a whole row to myself to sleep. The border crossing into Honduras was a breeze and cost $3. The shuttle took 13 hours and arrived at the ferry terminal in La Ceiba in time for us to catch the 4:40 pm ferry to Utila (The Hedman Alas bus company runs a slightly cheaper bus along the same route but it doesn't get to La Ceiba in time to make the ferry so you would have to stay the night and La Ceiba isn't a particularly desirable place to spend time).
Honduras (5 days)
I spent my entire time in Honduras on a tiny island off the north coast of the Honduran mainland. Utila is one of the Bay Islands and is known for its cheap scuba diving. I spent my 5 days on Utila diving every day and completing my PADI Advanced Scuba Diving course. I wrote a blog post about the experience. See:
Many tourists also visit the Copan ruins whilst in mainland Honduras but tend to avoid the country's dangerous and dirty cities.
The journey from Utila to Leon, Nicaragua was an extremely long day. I took the first-morning ferry from Utilia to La Ceiba then caught a shuttle from La Ceiba to Leon, Nicaragua. The shuttle left at 9 am and arrived in Leon at 1 am with stops for both lunch and dinner. Nicaragua's immigration building looked like a dilapidated shed. When we arrived, our shuttle driver collected everyone's passports and took them into the immigration office along with each person's $14 USD border fee. When he came back, we were given our stamped passports back along with a receipt for a $10 USD border fee. I guess the shuttle driver got a nice commission... But what could we do? At midnight after a 15 hour day, none of us were in the mood to argue!
Nicaragua (3 days)
I only spent three nights in Nicaragua, and only in Leon, but really enjoyed my time in the country. I would've loved to have stayed longer, but my travel insurance required me to pay $20 extra per day on my policy to be covered in the country as it was classified as 'reconsider your need to travel' by the Australian Government at the time I visited (as of March 2019 the Australian Government has downgraded their warning to 'High degree of caution'). This made visiting Nicaragua quite expensive (but still way cheaper than flying from Honduras to Costa Rica)!
I felt really safe in Leon. It was just very quiet as due to the recent events, many businesses had been forced to close due to lack of tourists. While in Leon, I did a great walking tour of the city and went volcano boarding! See:
While in Leon I stayed in Poco a Poco Hostel which had previously been named as the 'Top Hostel in North America' by HostelWorld - it was a great base to see the city.
To get to Costa Rica, I had to catch a taxi to the collectivo station, a collectivo to the capital Managua and then a bus to San Jose which cost $45 USD altogether. It was another long travel day - I left my hostel in Leon at 3 am and arrived in San Jose at 4 pm!
Costa Rican immigration was the most official-looking of all the border crossings I did in Central America. However, it took forever to get through as there was a super long line - but entry into the country was free (there is a fee of approx $12 USD when you exit Costa Rica by land). I was asked to present a ticket showing proof of onward travel and had to put my bags through a scanner - a first in CA.
Costa Rica (17 days)
Before arriving in Costa Rica, I was told by many travellers I'd met that the country was beautiful, but really expensive for backpackers. I had a little bit of extra time, so decided to seek out a volunteer opportunity to save some money and relax in one destination for a while (as I had been constantly moving around for weeks). I ended up volunteering for the Arenal Container Hostel and Varco Travel Agency in La Fortuna. They gave me free accommodation for 8 nights and sent me on all their tours for free in exchange for me writing blog posts for them! Whilst normally, I wouldn't have stayed in La Fortuna for more than 2 nights (it's quite touristy and overpriced), I really enjoyed the slower pace of travel and all the activities I did there.
While in Costa Rica I visited:
San Jose (2 nights) - 1 night each when arriving & leaving the city
I stayed in Fauna Luxury Hostel both nights - a super nice base for transiting through the city.
La Fortuna (8 nights) - zip-lining, Arenal National Park, hot springs & volunteering
I stayed at Arenal Container Hostel - a great centrally-located budget option
Monteverde (2 nights) - cloud forest & night walk
I stayed in the family-run Hostel Cattleya in Monteverde that offers a really lovely home-cooked breakfast in the morning.
Manuel Antonio (3 nights) - Manuel Antonio National Park, scuba diving
I stayed in Hostel Vista Serena which has an insane view of the ocean!
Jaco (2 nights) - beach
In Jaco, I stayed at the Selina Jaco hostel which is located right on the beach in central Jaco.
I used local busses (which were slow, but inexpensive) to get from San Jose to La Fortuna, Manuel Antonio to Jaco and Jaco to San Jose, the 'Jeep-Boat-Jeep' to get across the lake from La Fortuna to Monteverde and a shuttle ($45 USD) to get from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio.
Costa Rica felt a lot different to the other Central American countries I visited. It is a lot wealthier and a lot more built-up - you can even drink the tap water! It attracts lots of American tourists and families which raise prices and create a different vibe that's not always so inviting to backpackers. However, the country is super beautiful and pristine and I felt super safe the entire time I was there! My time in Central America sadly came to an end in San Jose. From San Jose, I flew to Lima, Peru for the next part of my adventure!
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