When I first started this blog I was intending to build a resource for people planning long-distance overland backpacking trips, where I’d share & pool information for people to easily check and where readers could also share information and updates.
To that end, I made a separate page for every country I’d ever visited with tips for including it on a regional overland itinerary etc
It never really took off in that regard though and many of those pages hardly ever got any traffic, so I’ve since replaced most of them with regional summary pages instead. This page covers Central America from Mexico down to Costa Rica, and I’ve kept a separate Panama page here
Central America works really well for overland travel, as you have seven small countries strung out in a straight(ish) line between Mexico and Colombia. Those seven countries and Mexico are connected by good highways and are easily navigated by bus – the highway stops in Panama though, so getting between Panama and Colombia is less straightforward.
If you’re going to fly in to Mexico and out from Panama, or vice versa, it’s an easy trip to plan for and works really well. Of course you could travel all the way through Mexico too, and use the US (or even Canada) as your starting or finishing point.
The Darien Gap
If you want to travel right through the Americas overland, connecting North and South America through the Central American isthmus, you have to deal with the Darien Gap – the completely undeveloped region of swamp and jungle blocking the land route between Panama and Colombia. There’s no road, and only if you’re seriously hardcore or a total nutter do you attempt to cross it on foot (like this guy). For everyone else you need to go by sea, but there’s no regular passenger boat service so you have to go by yacht. See my separate Panama page here
Route and Tips
This map shows our route from Mexico to El Salvador (from where we continued on to Panama in a much more straightforward fashion):
With the exception of the Belize-Honduras boat and the Utila ferry this was all done by bus, mostly public passenger buses plus a few minivan transfers.
Tica Bus is a particularly useful bus company you’re likely to use at some stage. Their buses basically split the Mexico to Panama distance into four 1-day legs, namely Tapachula to Guatemala City, Guatemala City or San Salvador to Managua, Managua to San Jose, and San Jose to Panama City. They also have routes connecting Tegucigalpa, though it’s not necessary to travel via the Honduran capital.
Tapachula is on the Mexican Pacific coast near the Guatemala border, but a lot of backpackers go through San Cristobal instead (as we did – it’s a lovely mountain town to spend a few days in). You can easily arrange direct minivan transfers between San Cristobal and Lake Atitlan through your hostel or a local travel agent.
Likewise, minivans are easily arranged between Lake Atitlan and Antigua, and also Antigua and Guatemala City. From there we took a bus up to Flores for the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and then the bus to Belize from there.
If you’ve already come down from Flores to Antigua & Atitlan, and rather than Mexico or El Salvador you want to go straight to Honduras from Guatemala, you can also arrange minivan transfers from Antigua to Copan Ruinas (the major Mayan site in Honduras)
You can also cross directly between Honduras and southern Belize by boat, skipping Guatemala. This is useful if you’ve already been to Guatemala and don’t want to backtrack, though it’s definitely a bit of an adventure (think small and very fast boats blasting through tropical storms in the open water of the Caribbean – it’s a pretty mental way to cross a border!) and you can’t make it all the way between Belize and the Bay Islands in the same day.
Flying to/from Belize City is definitely easier, but for overlanders the route is a bus to Dangriga or Placencia, stay overnight there (or longer, to explore southern Belize), and then a morning boat departure to the Honduran port of Puerta Cortes. From there it’s a bus (or shared taxi) to San Pedro Sula, and another bus from SPS to La Ceiba. SPS is a bit sketchy and it’s better to push on to La Ceiba even if you don’t feel like another few hours on a bus. From there, you can take the morning ferry to Utila or Roatan.
In our case we boarded the boat in Dangriga, which was good as we had it all to ourselves for the initial ride down the coast to Placencia, a pleasant start on a sheet-of-glass sea. The boat completely filled with passengers in Placencia, but we had the best seats in the house on the bench just in front of the captain. Everyone else was jammed down in the floor of the boat, and when the heavens opened they were covered up under a blue tarp; must have been pretty unpleasant sweating away under the tarp and feeling the boat smashing around in the waves and not being able to see out! I was glad to be sat on a bench with a backrest, tarp covering my body but able to peak out over the top and see the crazy shit we were driving through and feel the wind blasting over my face. It was nuts, but I don’t usually get seasick and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Belizean immigration officials boarded the boat after we left Placencia to stamp everyone out; upon arrival in Puerto Cortes we weren’t checked or stamped in immediately and had to actually go ourselves to the immigration office some distance from the port (cue lots of nonsense with taxi drivers insisting there was no bus so they would have to take us to SPS directly from immigration, etc. Those of us who took the bus actually got there faster, for a fraction of the price). It seems this has since been changed, with immigration now being done at the port itself – this is good as it means less messing around and you can get to La Ceiba faster.
In the other direction, you’ll need to be in Puerto Cortes around 9 in the morning for check-in, so you’d need to leave the Bay Islands the day before and spend the night in SPS (leave on the first ferry to arrive in SPS good and early – it’s sketchy at night) or in Puerto Cortes itself.
The schedules for the Belize – Honduras boats are hard to pin down and subject to change so check locally for exact departure points and times.
El Salvador-Honduras Buses & Getting to the Bay Islands
The main transportation hubs in Honduras are San Pedro Sula and the capital Tegucigalpa, with buses running all over Honduras and to San Salvador (El Salvador) and Managua (Nicaragua). For the western border with Guatemala you can take minivans from Copan Ruinas directly to Antigua.
Going from the Bay Islands to Copan, make sure you catch the first ferry of the day or you won’t make it – we missed the ferry because our passports were stuck in the guesthouse safe as the receptionist was late opening up (guess she fancied a lie-in – people are pretty laid back in Utila! Make sure you get your passports the night before to be sure of an early start), and we rushed to the dock just in time to see the ferry casting off. We had to kill a few hours in a cafe before the next ferry, and ended up stuck in SPS overnight… that city has the highest murder rate in the world, and it does feel threatening after dark (we went to a pizza restaurant and it had an armed guard either side of the locked and reinforced door, and the outer guard had to signal the inner guard to let customers in); taking the first ferry should mean you make Copan by evening. In any case, wherever you’re heading, if you’re changing buses in SPS try to arrive early enough to leave the same day, or at least to get everything sorted (including dinner) before it gets late!
The ferries to the Bay Islands (Utila and Roatan) go from the port of La Ceiba, a few hours by bus from SPS. You can book the Roatan ferry online with Direct Ferries, but not the Utila ferry.
If you want to go from Copan down to San Salvador, you need to take a minibus to La Entrada, where you can switch to one of the buses coming through from SPS heading south towards El Salvador (you’ll probably have to change transport again at the border).
We did this Copan-San Salvador route when we left Honduras; it was a pretty rough ride on mountain roads with some hectic switches of transportation, and the bus from La Entrada was completely packed… but the scenery was cracking and seated passengers on the bus were taking it upon themselves to periodically offer their seats to those standing; such cheery politeness goes a long way towards negating the stressfulness of being on a packed-out bus winding through the mountains!
Another cheery thing was the bus we took from the border to San Salvador; they decorate them brightly, and ours was randomly decked out with Thundercats emblems. We left Copan Ruinas early doors and arrived in San Salvador in the afternoon, with plenty of time to find the Tica Bus office, book tickets for the next day and check in to the upstairs hotel, then go and do some exploring before an early night and a pre-dawn alarm for the bus to Managua. Coffee and breakfast vendors wait downstairs to sell their wares to the bleary eyed Tica Bus passengers, and it’s a nice bus ride through El Salvador’s beautiful scenery.
To go from San Salvador to western or northern Honduras (for Copan Ruinas and the Bay Islands), again you can bypass Tegucigalpa and head directly north. For the Bay Islands, take the bus to San Pedro Sula and then from there to La Ceiba for the ferry; get an early start to avoid being stuck overnight in SPS. For Copan Ruinas, take a SPS-bound bus and get off at La Entrada, then a minibus from there. A change of bus at the border will often be necessary too.
The Central America-4 border agreement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua means that once you’re stamped in to one of these countries, you’re good for all four for the duration of your stamp (usually 90 days) and can travel freely between them.
Guatemala’s other borders are with Mexico and Belize, we had stress-free crossings at both. We didn’t cross the Belize-Mexico border, but friends did and said it was fine.
If you’re heading to Costa Rica/Panama, the other two borders you’ll cross will be Costa Rica’s. The Costa Rica-Nicaragua border was pretty slow & tedious, the Costa Rica-Panama border was absolutely ridiculous – 3 hours worth of ridiculous. See my separate Panama page here for more on that
A couple of other sea crossings worth mentioning: if you want to travel directly between Guatemala and southern Belize without going around via Flores, there are boats between Punta Gorda (Belize) and Livingston & Puerto Barrios (Guatemala).
Crossing from Mexico to Belize at Chetumal, buses run through to Belize City but a better option might be the water taxis from Chetumal straight to Caye Caulker.
There’s also a ferry between El Salvador and Nicaragua across the Gulf of Fonseca (bypassing the road via Honduras) from La Union (El Salvador) to Potosi (Nicaragua) which you can book here
Here’s our route again:
Another route idea you could consider would be starting from Cancun as we did, but heading straight down to Belize if you don’t want to swing around through Palenque & San Cristobal. Then you could do it like this:
Mexico- Belize- Guatemala- El Salvador and/or Honduras- Nicaragua- Costa Rica- Panama
Or if you’re coming through from the direction of Mexico City, entering Guatemala via San Cristobal, it would work like this:
Mexico- Guatemala- Belize- boat to Honduras- (El Salvador)- Nicaragua- Costa Rica- Panama
(El Salvador in brackets as you can take the direct route via Tegucigalpa and totally skip El Salvador, or take the dog-leg route through El Salvador to check it out)
La Mosquitia/Corn Islands: La Mosquitia is the border region of eastern Honduras & Nicaragua on the Caribbean coast. It’s a flat region of heavy jungle with a system of inland waterways which function as the roads between the remote settlements in the area i.e. travel there is by riverboat (panga) instead of bus.
To reach Nicaragua’s Corn Islands overland, first take the bus to El Rama; from there you may be able to take the cargo ship direct to the Corn Islands, but if the schedule isn’t right you can continue to Bluefields by panga and then take the ferry from there.
Some Pics & Highlights
Visit the ancient Mayan cities: we went to Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum (all in Mexico), Tikal (Guatemala), and Copan (Honduras). Chichen Itza is the most famous (and most visited – think hordes of cruise ship passengers from Cancun, souvenir vendors, and so on) but the most atmospheric were Palenque and especially Tikal.
Check out my Mysterious Cities of Gold post for more
Volcanos: the town of La Fortuna is situated below Volcan Arenal which until 2010 was constantly erupting, and the night view of the lava flowing down the mountainside was one of the most famous sights in Costa Rica. Unfortunately we were there in rainy season and didn’t see the volcano at all! But it was still a nice town to hang out in for a couple of days and visit the hot springs… and I’m sure it still is, even though the volcano is now dormant. Another famous Costa Rican volcano to visit is Volcan Poas, just outside San Jose – this one actually has a road up to the crater, making it one of the easiest volcanic craters you can look down into anywhere… unfortunately for us, again, the view was of grey clouds and nothing more.
In Guatemala, Antigua and Lake Atitlan are surrounded by volcanos. The Acatenango volcano hike in Antigua is popular, though we didn’t do it.
Ometepe, the figure-of-8 shaped island in Lake Nicaragua, is formed by two volcanoes rising up out of the lake. While it’s a great place to just relax or go exploring on bikes, the hike up Volcan Concepcion is pretty tough work, but worth it.
Coffee: San Jose and Panama City are easy places to visit coffee plantations from. If you drive up Volcan Poas from San Jose, you pass through coffee plantations on the way – a good reason to take a private vehicle instead of the public bus so you can easily stop off.
Coffee plantation outside San Jose:
Rum: be sure to sample Ron Zacapa, a Guatemalan rum which is one of the world’s finest. I carried two bottles of 23-year Zacapa all the way back to the UK! And in Nicaragua there’s Flor de Caña – a national institution, and it’s good stuff (especially good while lying in a hammock)
Tequila: forget the cheap shit you drink (or drank) at student parties; fine tequila deserves the same respect as fine brandy.
San Cristobal, Mexico: a lovely mountain town in Chiapas. If you take a minibus to/from Palenque you can visit a couple of nice waterfalls on the way, including the one from the end of Predator
Cavern diving: Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is known for its cenotes – sinkholes in the ground which give access to underwater cave systems. Diving in them is a totally different experience to diving in the sea; it’s freshwater and you have visibility for as far as the cave walls and the light allow you to see. At times you’re swimming through narrow tunnels (with a roof overhead – not recommended for the claustrophobic) with only your flashlights to see by, but then it opens up into large caverns with sunlight coming down through the cenotes like a curtain of light falling across the rock formations. There aren’t any corals or tropical fish, but it’s really quite an amazing experience. For non-divers, guided snorkel tours are also available. You can do this in the area around Tulum and Playa del Carmen; the regular scuba diving off that coastline is also world famous, especially around the island of Cozumel.
Mexican breakfast! Mexican food is generally really good, but I particularly loved breakfast there. Huevos Mexicanos and huevos rancheros made it my favourite meal of the day!
Obviously Mexico’s a pretty big country and there’s a lot of it I haven’t seen but would like to e.g. Oaxaca, Teotihuacan, and Copper Canyon. For in-depth info on those places and more, check out the awesome Mexico Cassie blog.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: beautiful mountain lake surrounded by volcanoes. It’s a fantastic spot to stay a while, with stunning scenery, local Mayan culture, and a relaxed pace of life.
Antigua, Guatemala: beautiful old Spanish colonial town packed with pretty buildings and cobbled streets, surrounded by volcanoes, with a somewhat crumbled and fading grandeur, all of which makes it extremely photogenic. It’s the kind of place where you find yourself just sort of hanging out, wandering round, eating, drinking coffee and people watching, and some backpackers end up staying for weeks or months on end.
Tikal, Guatemala: largest of the ancient Mayan sites, the most impressive one we visited, and the remote jungle setting means it doesn’t get the hordes of visitors you see at Chichen Itza while also giving you the chance to see some wildlife. The jungle was on form when we visited; we saw lots of monkeys, vultures and other birds, encountered (and got bitten by) an enormous army of ants swarming across the path, and even saw a snake eating a (still struggling) frog. I also accidentally ate a whole chili pepper that was hiding in the salsa, which was thoroughly brutal.
Jungle wildlife at Tikal:
Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, Belize: chill out, dine on lobster and sip on rum, listen to the tapping of the crabs running across the corrugated iron roofs, and try to follow the creole as you listen along to an amusing story about this guy’s friend crashing his golf buggy into the steps over there.
Do some diving or snorkelling – coral reefs are found all along the Belizean coast, and the Blue Hole is a world famous dive site.
Whale sharks: if you visit Belize from March to June, you can dive or snorkel with whale sharks near Placencia (we were there at the wrong time unfortunately, but I did later get to swim with these amazing creatures in the Philippines). Whale sharks are also found around Mexico’s Holbox island from May to September.
Granada, Nicaragua: a lovely old Spanish colonial city with cobbled streets, pastel facades, friendly locals, and lake views.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica: you can explore the forest canopy on the network of elevated walking trails, or for more excitement (but probably less wildlife spotting) they have zip lines. Monteverde and La Fortuna are both situated near Lake Arenal, so it’s easy to go from one to the other.
Resources and Useful Links
Search for hotel deals in Mexico
Search for hotel deals in Guatemala
Search for hotel deals in Belize
Search for hotel deals in Utila
Search for hotel deals in San Salvador
Search for hotel deals in Nicaragua
Search for hotel deals in Costa Rica
Search for hotel deals in Panama
Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (this can be a crucial point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok). If you’re planning on doing some diving, check out their scuba cover
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