How Long Should You Spend In Central America? A Quick Guide
It’s always difficult to tell anyone exactly how long they should spend in any one place, especially somewhere as culture-rich as Central America. In reality, how long you spend depends on the time and money you have available to you.
You could spend anywhere between just a few weeks and a few years(!) exploring this part of the world but if you can afford to I’d recommend allowing yourself at least 3-6 months in Central America.
The first thing to decide when thinking about how long to spend in Central America is what type of trip you are taking. If this is just a holiday from work and you have 2-4 weeks, you shouldn’t go too gung-ho and expect to see everything. Alternatively, if you are taking an open-ended gap year you’ll want to keep in mind that you may fall in love with a certain place and end up staying way longer than you originally planned!
Secondly, you need to consider which countries you want to visit. Do you want to see them all? Do you have just a couple in mind? Are there certain places that are on your must-see list?
In this post I’ll take you through some thought-provoking topics to help you unravel your reasons for wanting to visit Central America and give you the tools you need to figure out how long you should travel for.
How Many Countries Should I Visit on my Trip to Central America?
Two to Four Weeks
If you have around two to four weeks in Central America I’d pick one or maybe two of the smaller or less-well-known countries (Belize, Honduras, El Salvador or Panama). This should give you time to explore some cities, visit a ruin or two, enjoy some diving and perhaps hike a volcano.
Two to four weeks is a good length to get a taster of Central America but if you try to squeeze too much in to one trip you’ll end up feeling like you’ve missed out on the actual feeling of a country and have simply scratched the surface. As much as you want to tick off places on your bucket list you don’t want to feel as though you’re just working your way through a checklist, hopping from one site to another.
One to Two Months
If you have between one and two months you can get a bit more creative. You can choose to stay in one country e.g Guatemala and explore loads of the country, getting a bit further off-the-beaten-path. Alternatively, you can combine three or four countries for a whistle-stop tour of the Mayan lands.
Travelling between countries allows you to understand the different cultures a little better and by exploring both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts you’ll be able to enjoy a better variety of activities.
If you want to visit all of the countries in Central America (not including Mexico) I’d suggest giving yourself at least six months so that you can truly begin to get under the skin of each country. You could easily pick just one country to spend six months in, but spending 2-4 weeks in each will at least give you a good start.
Having an open-ended ticket allows you to enjoy a slow pace of travel and you won’t worry about saying “Mañana! Mañana!”, as the locals do, when putting something off until tomorrow.
How Do I Choose Which Countries in Central America to Visit?
It’s possible that before planning your trip to Central America you may have had just a couple of destinations in mind. Maybe you thought “I want to visit the Tikal ruins in Guatemala so I feel as though I’m in real-life Star Wars”. Maybe you’re desperate to witness the wildlife of Costa Rica or have simply seen some stunning pictures of the beaches of Bocas del Toro in Panama (and I wouldn’t blame you!). Whichever it was, it is worth delving into some further research before booking your flights as you may well discover that there is much more to see than you originally thought.
Central America is home to some epic temple complexes, colourful markets, amazing natural wonders and lively festivals. When you know what time of year you will be travelling it’s worth having a look at what’s going to be on during your time there so you can coincide with some cool cultural events.
Whichever country you choose there are a range of attractions that are sure to take your fancy. The activity section below will also give you a bit more insight into each country.
What Activities Can I Do in Central America?
Another thing to consider when choosing the Central American countries you want to visit is the activities you wish to undertake. Each country is hugely different and thanks to their history, culture, landscapes and location, each has widely different activities on offer.
If you love diving you’ll want to consider Belize and Honduras. These countries lie on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS) also known as the Great Mayan Reef which have some spectacular dive sites throughout. As the diving sites are coastal or accessed via islands, it can take some time to get to/from your destination. Therefore, you’ll need to factor these travel days into you schedule when planning timings.
Pretty much all dive destinations in Central America offer PADI courses run by fully-certified instructors. The PADI Open Water Course takes between three and five days so it is a good idea to spend at least a week in on beach location to complete it. Although PADI prices will be relatively cheap by US/European standards, keep in mind that if the price sounds rock bottom it’s probably too good to be true.
If you like to keep your head (mostly!) above water, you’ll want to head to the Pacific Coast (namely El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) for some of the world’s best surf. The waves, barrels and breaks here are famed worldwide, bringing surfers from all corners of the globe who want to try out their skills in a Human vs. Mother Nature stand-off!
Even if you’ve never surfed before and just want to give it a go, there are some beaches and coves that are perfect for beginners. El Cuco in El Salvador is practically empty so is a great place to start. Stay at Tortuga Verde, a relaxing beach resort, where they usually have a resident surf teacher offering lessons for just $10 an hour.
If you prefer your activities firmly on land you may want to include some of Central America’s exhausting yet exhilarating hikes on your list. The Central American Volcanic Arc is a chain of volcanoes which runs (as you may well do) from Guatemala all the way down to Panama. This route of volcanoes (most of which are open to hikers) means that you have some incredible volcano hikes peppered all the way along your journey.
From birds to big cats, Central America is home to some pretty cool resident wildlife. Although the wildlife sightings here aren’t on the same scale as the plains of Africa or the islands of the Galapagos, you’ll still be in for a treat. Costa Rica is the wildlife and eco-tourism hub of Central America so is a must on any wildlife-lovers list. Explore the cloud-forest of Monteverde to spot the colours of the quetzal, visit Tortuguero National Park to seek out tiny yet colourful poison arrow frogs, and head down to hike in Corcovado in search of the elusive jaguar and pumas!
What About the Dangerous Countries?
\There are some countries in Central America which have a slightly unstable past (such as El Salvador and Honduras) and therefore a dangerous reputation precedes them. There are others which are currently going through tumultuous times (Nicaragua and Guatemala) and therefore may need to be reconsidered depending on when you travel. It is important to check your own country’s current regulations and recommendations for a certain country before you travel. (FCO for UK travellers)
However, just because you have heard one negative story about a place doesn’t mean you should scratch it off your list entirely. When I visited Central America, I had heard so much about El Salvador and Honduras being the tainted “murder capitals of the world” that I was petrified of going to them. In the end I spent 10 days exploring El Salvador and they were unexpectedly some of the best days of the trip. The locals were extremely friendly, chicken buses (although busy) felt safe and as not many tourists visit the country we had some spectacular locations all to ourselves!
As with all travel, keeping your wits about you, using common sense and travelling with an open mind are all vital to having a great experience.
So, What Would You Say is the Ideal Length of Time in Central America?
Essentially you could spend any length of time exploring the sights, sounds, smells, sand and sea of Central America, so it really depends on the length of time you have and your budget as to how long you go for. The longer you have the more relaxed your trip will feel, and the more variety you’ll be able to encounter. From colourful colonial cities, to rainforests, beaches, ruins and more you’ll be sure to find something you love about this part of the world.
I travelled for four months in Central America which felt like a perfect length of time for me. However, there is still so much I want to see and I know I could go back over and over again!
Other Things You May Ask
Is Mexico Part of Central America?
Officially no. Mexico is considered to be part of North America yet as it has a rich Mayan heritage and is Spanish speaking many consider it to be more closely related to Central America than the US or Canada.
As there are great transport links between Mexico and Guatemala and Belize many backpackers choose to make Mexico part of their route through Central America.
Can I do a Tour of Central America?
There are a number of tours that run through Central America whether they are singular country tours or multi-destination trips. Intrepid Travel runs some fantastic whistle-stop tours from Mexico to Panama and even including Cuba en route. These range from short seven-day trips to mammoth 65-day adventures!
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