Travel to Central America; history, Mayan culture, entertaining local markets, jungles, Caribbean vibes, splendid beaches and delicious food. Read about the best places to visit in Central Americal. Guatemala, Belize and Mexico will be visited during this 16-day tour of Central America. And we guarantee you, backpacking in Central America is fun! Find yourself in unforgettable experiences from a volcano hiking trip to sipping a cocktail on the beach!
We will cover the following topics in this Central America travel guide to make sure you do not miss out on anything:
- Transportation in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico
- Where to stay Guatemala, Belize and Mexico
- Best places to visit in Central America: our 16-day Central America itinerary
Please note that there are still other destinations along this route 100% worth a visit. Pick & Mix with our tips below to create your own dream trip!
Stay tuned for more blogs coming up in the near future. We will spoil you with information more and more! Make sure to subscribe to our blog to not miss any update.
Transportation when you travel to Central America
- Guatemala: go for the fun rides and enjoy the so-called “chicken busses”. These are old school busses as we know them from the United States. For budget travellers this is the way to get around. The drives can sometimes be a bit long, but we took the opportunity and really enjoyed the time connecting with locals! To travel from and to other countries or popular routes you will have some night busses. For more information check Guatego.
- Belize: also in Belize the (former USA school) bus will be the cheapest option. Most touristic areas will be in the network of public transport, but it is not structured with timetables like you are maybe used to. Check with locals or the bus terminals for up to date information. To go to Caye Caulker from Belize City with a ferry, take the Ocean Ferry Belize.
- Mexico: the ADO bus is your best friend here! We had clean busses with a well organized and structured network to bring you to all your favourite places! Please be aware that you need to pick up your tickets 2 hours before departure, also if you have online reservations! Might be easiest to book the tickets at a bus station already right away.
A very nice website to use is Rome2Rio. Rome2rio searches any city, town, landmark, attraction or address across the globe with thousands of multi-modal routes to easily get you from A to B. It works perfectly for when you travel to Central America.
Where to stay during your tour of Central America
Below a few examples of great places to stay on this Central America backpacking route, With a link to the website Hostelworld.
- Guatemala: the trip started in Antigua in a great place “Lemon Tree hostel“. In Rio Dulce, we stayed in a real Jungle lodge Hotel Hacienda Tijax. This place has incredible huts above the water and in between all trees. Don’t worry about those noises… the jungle comes alive at night!
- Belize: In San Ignacio our rooms were ready in hotel Midas Belize. We also stayed in a hotel, Enjoy Hotel, in Caye Caulker. Another great recommendation for a hostel is Travellers Palm backpackers Hostel.
- Mexico: if there is one favourite Hostel group it is Selina! Check out all their hostels in Mexico, or around the world: Selina in Playa del Carmen.
16 day itinerary; The best places to visit in Central America
Day 1-2: Antigua, Guatemala
The first and very impressive location in our Central America travel guide. After arrival in Guatemala City, we recommend you continue travelling to the nicest city in Guatemala, Antigua! A colonial city with Spanish influences. We loved it that all the buildings are low and colourful. Besides that, you are able to hike (!) and see the volcanos around from many places in the city. The city is full of cute small (trendy!) restaurants and it has pretty viewpoints. A very vibrant place is the local market where you can get lost so so easily. We walked in endless rounds seeing the most interesting and sometimes a bit shocking (compared to our Western markets).
Transport: Guatemala City airport > Antigua about 1 hour
Day 3-4: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Ready to visit one of the prettiest places in Guatemala? When you travel to Central America, you cannot miss this part. Water overload at Lake Atitlan that is surrounded by a few villages with beautiful sceneries that are all worth visiting. It is very easy to cross the lake with the boats. Panajachel is well known and has a more touristic focus. We also crossed the lake for a night to have a homestay with a family in San Juan La Laguna. They showed us around and we had the opportunity to see how they produce some very traditional handcrafts. And when the afternoon comes to an end, do not forget to enjoy the magnificent sunsets!
Transport: Antigua > Lake Atitlan about 3 hours to Panajachel
Day 5-6: Rio Dulce, Guatemala
After a long drive we arrived in a vibe that we were much looking forward to; welcome to the jungle! The accommodation where we were staying was a jungle lodge on the Rio Dulce river. Fun fact, you could hear the animals at night! Hop on board a boat and enjoy the beautiful scenery around the river. Enjoy Lake Izabal and end up in the coastal town Livingstone. It is such a peaceful surrounding! Other exciting activities are a morning monkey kayak, visit a natural hot waterfall or going horseback riding. This will also be the place where you will find the first beaches and notice a difference compared to other places in Guatemala with many more Caribbean influences.
Transport: Lake Atitlan > Rio Dulce about 9 hours
Day 7-8: Flores & Tikal, Guatemala
Flores, the most popular place to make a stop when backpacking in Central America and before visiting the highlight of Guatemala: Tikal. Flores is a small colourful island on Lake Peten Itza. From here you have the possibility to a huge variety of activities from active hikes to nice swimming spots and the jungle! The place is much focused on the many travelers coming in and out with hotspot restaurant and bars. Enough to entertain yourself!
Don’t make it too late on this first day, the second day will be an early morning to visit the old Mayan city Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most popular ruins in Guatemala. It is a big national park where several ruins of great height and impressive stories. We were amazed by how empty this hotspot actually is, especially compared to the mass tourism in Chitzen Itza, Mexico. When you arrive early or stay later at night you can hear the birds and monkeys around. If you are in for a real adventure you are even able (with reservation and payment) to stay overnight! Do not underestimate it; witnessing sunset or sunrise in Tikal is highly recommended by many!
Transport: Rio Dulce > Flores about 4 hours & Flores > Tikal about 1,5 hours
Day 9: San Ignacio, Belize
After the visit to Tikal we moved on right away to Belize. This is the first border to cross when you travel this part of Central America. Oh, how much were we looking forward to crossing this border! Time to switch the language, money and to notice right away a difference in the costs of products and services. San Ignacio is often used as a stop between Guatemala and Belize. But it really has more to offer!
From San Ignacio, it is possible to discover more Mayan ruins in the area, but the most popular activity here is probably the caves! There are several hikes inside caves like the Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Maiden) where you will discover the deep inside in playful ways with climbing and swimming. Another option is to explore the areas by foot, horse, canoe or cave tubing. Unfortunately, we do not have any photos of our tubing activity.
Transport: Tikal > San Ignacio about 2 hours (depending on border crossing)
Day 10-13: Caye Caulker, Belize
GO SLOW! The well known Caye Caulker motto. The place for you to relax during your Central America travel tour! Hello Caribbean Reggae vibes, we were waiting for you! Hopping on a ferry in Belize City to Caye Caulker, we can slowly see the water getting prettier, more and more clear and in our imagination, the smell of fresh Lobster is coming closer and closer.
Only come here if you are interested in some tropical laid back days, eating delicious food, drink a fresh coconut, walking around (literally all distances are easy to do by foot), enjoy reggae and dance some hours in the night. Besides that Caye Caulker also has the most stunning sunsets and the ALL TIME FAVORITE underwater world!
Not only are you able to visit the Blue Hole Natural Monument that Belize is famous for, you can also discover the reefs in the closer surrounding with a dive or snorkel trip. This time we did not go for a dive but a snorkel trip and never ever did we see such a variety in the underwater paradise: tropical fishes, turtles, manta rays and NURSE SHARKS! What, really? Yes! And it really is the best experience ever!
Transport: San Ignacio > Caye Caulker about 4/5 hours (including boat to the island)
Day 14: Mahahual, Mexico
Hola! A new country to tick off your list in this beautiful tour of Central America, Mexico! To split the transportation hours over several days we made an extra stop in Mahahual before going up more north towards Playa del Carmen. Mahahual is a small village which is used as a stop for cruise ships. During the morning you will see it getting busier and in the beginning of the evening everything slows down drastically as all cruise visitors are returning back to their boat. Nevertheless, a perfect stop to enjoy the first Mexican hospitality.
So why should you visit Mahahual? It is still pretty unknown for backpackers but a real touristic touch due to the cruise ships and has a beautiful reef for a snorkel trip or dive (Banco Chinchorro). You can also enjoy some luxury of having a front-row beach cabin including a massage.
BUT, Mahahual would not be a place where we would like to return to (which to be honest is often the case with many other places we feel very hyper about)! If you do feel like a non-touristic spot we would suggest picking another stay than recommended here in our Central America travel guide; in the area, a paradise in Bacalar or to even move on to a way more vibrant place; Tulum!
Transport: Caye Caulker > Mahahual about 5 hours (including boat from the island)
Day 15-16: Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Getting closer to the airport to leave this beautiful area and end a very pleasing roundtrip we are heading towards Playa del Carmen. For many people a place to visit when backpacking in Central America. From Playa del Carmen it is very convenient to travel around in Yucatan and visit Cenotes, Mayan ruins like Tulum or Chitzen Itza or other beautiful places like Valladolid.
I was happy to return to Playa del Carmen after about 8 years but I was also in shock… the beaches are only still half of the size that it was before! Mother nature and the force of the ocean slowly washes sand away. It was a very harsh moment to see the changes.
Besides that it was fun to end the trip in Playa del Carmen! The center is full of energy and vibrant as ever and the backpackers are still in full party mode and the Coco Bongo show is still going strong. The souvenir shops are present everywhere and Mexican restaurants with a very tourist focus and menu are not to miss. Playa del Carmen is for those who would like to have some fun and experience a holiday vibe, but not for the explorers of the unknown. Being close to the Cancun airport it can be preferred to end the trip here compared to, even more, touristic Cancun.
16 days of impressive destinations with a huge variety when you travel to Central America in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico! Are you convinced of doing holidays in Central America?