Travel Guide: Planning A Backpacking Trip Through Central America
As many of you know traveling and exploring the world is something that runs deep in my heart, and who knows maybe it's a part of my genes :) Exploration is one of The Well Essential Elements, because it truly is an inherent part of being human. I believe so strongly in the positive impacts that it can have on the way we see the world, and ourselves that I love to encourage more people to do more exploring, whether at home or abroad.
There is always something that we can learn from our surroundings, and sometimes all we need is a different lens to view it through. This is what travel does for me. It allows me to see the world through a different lens. It allows me to experience different food, cultures, and stories that I would have never experienced otherwise. It pushes me to constantly learn from my environment, and express compassion, and gratitude for the life I am fortunate to live. It also is a giant piece of my relationship with my husband, who equally feels called to explore the world, and it has helped us grow together into the people we are today.
But I know for many people travel can be overwhelming, seem out of reach (either financially or emotionally), and is something that many people find difficult to do. This is why I plan to share more of my travel experiences with you all including my tips for traveling on a budget, getting the most out of your trips, and help encourage you to take the leap to explore a new environment...even if that new environment is only a few hours away from home.
So now that I have confessed my wanderlust obsession with you all, lets get to this Guide to Backpacking In Central America.
Central America. You stole my heart with your beautiful mountains, turquoise waters, diverse culture, incredible tortillas, and the most delicious coffee that quickly converted this tea drinkers, into a coffee drinker. You taught me a lot about myself, and about traveling, and I can't wait to come back again.
For our trip we had roughly three weeks, my husband was going to be joining me after I had been working in Guatemala, and we knew that we wanted to see Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Since we live in New England, Copa Airlines had very affordable prices to Central America which allowed us to choose a "multi-city" option that allows you to fly into one country and home from another, with various destinations in between.
This is one of my best pieces of advice when planning really any trip where you will be seeing more than one location. Don't restrict yourself to flying in and out of the same airport, many times there are multi-city options which will give you far more flexibility and can even be more cost effective.
where to begin
We first began our central american backpacking trip by deciding which countries we wanted to see/could reasonably explore in three weeks time. We tend to be the kind of travelers that don't really need very much adjusting time, so our itinerary may be very overwhelming to others, so my best advice is to really be true to your own personality, and don't overbook yourself.
Since I was already in Guatemala and my husband was going to be meeting me there, we knew that Guatemala was going to be our first destination, and since we absolutely wanted to explore Costa Rica we decided that the best course would be to work our way down Central America and unfortunately skip Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. I luckily did get to experience El Salvador and Honduras during my time working in Guatemala, but unfortunately Mike and I weren't able to make it work during this trip.
Before we booked our flights we knew that we needed to figure out what activities we absolutely wanted to do in each country. This helped us decide how many days we needed to allocate in each, how expensive it would be, and how long we would be spending in "transportation mode". This is another BIG tip of mine. Do not underestimate the amount of time that you are going to have to spend in transportation on your adventures. You don't want to look back on your trip and realize that you spent more time in cars and airports then enjoying what the location had to offer.
This was the most difficult part of our trip planning because we wanted to do a lot, we wanted it to be on the cheeper side, and we wanted to be as active and authentic to the local culture as possible. While I will get into the actual details and logistics of all of our Central American destinations in another post, for now here is what we came up with as an itinerary.
- Two days in Antigua
- Three Nights/Days in San Marcos La Laguna
- We took a three hour shuttle (was more like 4.5) to San Marcos La Laguna from Antigua
- Three hour shuttle from San Marcos La Laguna to Antigua
- Three hour shuttle from Antigua to Guatemala City to Fly to Costa Rica
Costa Rica - Part one
- Shuttle to La Fortuna (three hours)
- Two days in La Fortuna/Arenal where we did the most intense/beautiful hike
- Rent Rental Car - Drive two hours to Rio Celeste (hike)
- Drive two hours to Rincon de la Vieja
- Two nights in Rincon de la Vieja
- Drive to Nicaraguan Border
- Drop Rental Car and cross border on foot - this would have been hard to do if we hadn't been backpacking, but since we had our backpacks it was pretty seamless and quite the experience.
Once we entered Nicaragua after crossing over the border, we looked for the taxi that we had hired through our AirBnB ahead of time. It took a little bit of time to find the taxi, but once we did we were on our way to Granada.
- Hired taxi to Granada (1.5 hours)
- Two days in Granada - See Masaya, Pueblos Blancos, Granada City
- Take 1.5 hour shuttle to San Juan Del Sur (actually took 3 hours)
- Two days in San Juan Del Sur
- Hire Taxi to take us back to the border (45 minutes)
- Walk across Costa Rican Border
Costa Rica - part two
- Rent car again, since we knew exactly where it was after dropping it off the last time this part was super easy the second time around
- Drive 2 hours to Playa Conchal and spend 2 days on the beautiful beach there
- Drive four hours to Manuel Antonio - spend three days in Manuel Antonio
- Drive three hours back to airport - Drop off rental car - take 30 minute shuttle
- Fly to Panama
- Take 30 minute taxi to hotel
- Three nights, two days in Panama City - we didn't have the time to go to Bocos del Toro but that will be on our itinerary for next time!
- Taxi back to airport - Fly home
Once we had our ideal itinerary nailed down we looked into what would be the cheapest flights and found the Copa Airlines was the best airline to take for all of our flights in between countries. I also cannot recommend enough renting a car in Costa Rica and driving down the coast of the countries. Even though it was a lot of driving, we were on our own time and really loved getting to experience the country this way.
what to bring backpacking
If you want to experience multiple countries in Central America the way that we did I highly highly recommend investing in a good backpack, and really editing what you are bringing to keep your pack as light as possible. Central America is typically hot and humid, although when we were in the Guatemalan Mountains, and in the Costa Rican mountains the temperature could actually get quite cool in the lower 60's.
Here are some of the items that I always bring with me and found to be super helpful on this trip:
- Patagonia Rain Jacket - Can easily role into itself for easy packing
- Osprey Backpack - This is the backpack I use and love
- Hiking Shoes - I have loved merrell hiking boots for years and definitely would recommend bringing a pair if you are planning on doing any hiking.
- Steri Pen - Great for hiking and if you aren't sure the water is safe to drink
- Silicone Jars - Love these for storing vitamins, and travel probiotics
- Travel Probiotics - Speaking of probiotics I always bring these with me while traveling
Later I will be getting into the nitty gritty details of how we were able to keep our trip reasonably priced, where we stayed, how the rental car process worked, what we wished we had done differently, and how to cross the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border smoothly.