Central America has been firmly on the backpacker’s trail for years now, and for good reason. Whether you’re looking for ruins, jungles, volcanoes or beautiful beaches, Central America has it all.
But where in Central America should you go? Where do you begin? There are a ton of things to think about — and we’re here to help with that.
On my recent backpacking trip through Central America I found that although it seems small on a map, Central America is full of amazing things to see and do! Read below for more on how to travel Central America. We did all of these things in four packed weeks of overland traveling.
What to see in Central America:
We absolutely loved Guatemala. Here were the highlights we’d recommend to any girlfriend hoping to travel Central America:
The colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala (pictured above) is adored and beloved by many. Stay for a week, or a lifetime — you wouldn’t be the first!
Located in northern Guatemala, Tikal is one of the largest pre-Colombian Maya civilizations. There are huge stone temples that are largely intact and you can even climb the steps of a few.
Opt for a guided walking tour of Tikal at sunrise to see the mist burning off the ancient Maya city and listen to the deafening Howler Monkeys in the trees.
Semuc Champey is a natural limestone bridge, with gorgeous pools of shimmering water for swimming. Nearby is a series of caves that tourists can navigate by candlelight with a local guide.
Semuc is in central Guatemala and the launch point is the small town of Lanquin, deep in the highlands of Guatemala! Semuc Champey is still a very new stop off point, so hit it before development does.
Sometimes Volcan Pacaya can be seen smoldering from the quaint touristy town of Antigua. Pacaya is an active volcano that is an extremely popular “volcano trek” if you are in the city of Antigua.
The trek is definitely accessible to the beginner and the view at sunset is impeccable.
Most people just pass through El Salvador. Though the country has a bad reputation for being less safe than the others, but the country is awash in waterfalls, great surfing and natural beauty to those who wish to explore.
Playa El Zonte
Looking for an easy, breezy beach where you feel like a part of the local family instantly? Head to Playa El Zonte.
It is a pristine beach, with a few intimate hostels that offer beachside accommodations. The beach has sparkling black volcanic sand and the surf breaks are gentle enough to try out your skills.
As dusk falls don’t be surprised if you get invited to a local BBQ complete with fresh caught fish and homemade guacamole.
Archbishop Oscar Romero’s Grave
Oscar Romero was the Bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador and was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating mass. He is considered to be a hero of the poor in El Salvador as he openly spoke out against the cruelty and oppression of the Salvadorian government.
His grave is in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador and is a lovely tribute to an influential member of El Salvador.
This small fishing town is where to head to (en route to Playa El Zonte) when the smog and traffic of San Salvador gets you down. Just hop on the next chicken bus out of town and within one hour the countryside returns and salty air will hopefully provide some ventilation on the hot bus!
La Libertad has eco-villages to stay at, an open air fish market right on the pier, and enough outdoor seafood restaurants to make your head spin. The vibe is family oriented, reasonably safe, and very friendly.
Coffee and surprises in Matagalpa
In a previous article I discussed where to find the best coffee in Nicaragua. Matagalpa has the whole package: rich delicious coffee, an interesting highland layout (aka twisting roads into hillsides), and surprise culture!
A friend and I took a bus up to Matagalpa looking forward to quiet, coffee, and a cool break from coastal Nicaragua’s summer heat. We were floored to find the amount of Nica pride and culture jammed into this little town.
A Valentine’s Day parade, combined with a ridiculous food and music festival to celebrate the 150th anniversary of this mountaintop town earned it a “must see” in my book.
Oh my God, Leon! Leon is intense on so many levels, but oh so worth it. It is a swelteringly hot town located inland a bit from the coast.
Before the day gets too hot, duck into one of Leon’s many museums where you can educate yourself on the Sandinista history of Nicaragua and the FSLN movement. History buffs will appreciate the breathtaking wall murals which are artistically splattered all over. The smoothies are TO DIE for especially when you feel as though you might actually die at midday!
At night, as the heat subsides, head out behind the Cathedral of Mary’s Assumption for some sizzling fritanga food.
Granada is a beautiful, quaint colonial town on Lake Nicaragua. With its colorful buildings, and horse drawn carriages, it is hard to imagine leaving once you arrive. Why not settle in for a bit then?
Granada offers numerous language schools that boast one-on-one learning with native Spanish speakers and daily after school field trips. For a more in-depth look at the language, arrange for a homestay. Grenada is a great place to go and stay a while, as you become more fluent in Spanish.