Travel Guide to Central America and the Caribbean: Everything You Need to Know about these Tourist Gems
Sand, sun, stars, and everything nice. For some, Central America is just a junction that connects the southern and the northern states. But for seasoned travelers, it is a door to countless, colorful adventures. From rainforests to ancient ruins, this travel spectacle allows you to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences by giving you a taste of nature, culture, and history. But if you want the best of Central America, there’s one destination near the region that you shouldn’t dare miss: the Caribbean.
Backpacker or not, these snap-worthy travel destinations are complete with experiences that can quench your wanderlust. If you’re ready to begin your trip, below is a travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean.
Central America and the Caribbean in a Nutshell
Okay, let’s go back to grade school. If you remember it right, there are two continents in America: the north and the south. While both are national treasures in their own right, the northern part boasts calming, azure waters and lush, green jungles. These natural wonders, which you can mostly find in Central America and the Caribbean, promise double-tap-worthy sceneries that can excite every traveler.
Undoubtedly the realization of every islander’s dream, the famous tourist destinations in these regions are more than just their luscious facade. The Caribbean, often portraying a picture of white, fine sand and pristine beaches on famous movies, won’t disappoint if it’s water and sun you’re after. Central America, on the other hand, is a collage of natural and historical sites that offers travelers unlimited travel opportunities.
First things First, How Expensive is it to Travel to Central America and the Caribbean?
“If you want the best of Central America and the Caribbean, you must be willing to pay the price.”
Well, not necessarily. Just like traveling to expensive countries, you can always create a realistic travel budget by planning your trip. If you want to travel to Central America and the Caribbean, you can get a more accurate ballpark figure of your travel expenditures by mapping out your destinations and booking your accommodation ahead of time. As far as traveling is concerned, below are some of the thing you need to consider, budget-wise:
- Central America Hotels and Hostels: There are seven countries under Central America’s belt. These include El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The cost of an overnight stay in Central America hotels or hostels depends on how expensive the city is.
For instance, when planning a stay in the most expensive countries in the state, namely Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama, you’d have to pay around $25 – $30 for a private room. If you want to cut accommodation costs, you can ditch Central America hotels and book a hostel, which can cost around $15.
If, on the other hand, you’re planning a trip to less-expensive countries, your accommodation costs for hotels and hostels can be cut by half (or more). Generally, the average hotel or hostel spending for a trip to Central America is roughly around $10 – $30 per night. Pitch a tent at a camping site and you can lower your spending to around $5 a night.
- Caribbean Hotels: Unlike Central America, the Caribbean islands do not offer a wide diversity of low-budget accommodation options. An overnight stay on Caribbean hotels is pricier as the rates can go up to $40/person per night. Even its hostels aren’t as cheap as those you’d find in Central America with rates frequently starting at $20 per bed for a shared room. In touristy areas of the island, the cheapest Caribbean hotels charge around $195 per night.
- Food: If you’re a seasoned backpacker, finding cost-efficient ways to dine out isn’t going to be a huge challenge. When you travel to Central America and the Caribbean, you can survive by grabbing a two-dollar to-go snack. You can also cook your own food, but you do need to note that market prices in the Caribbean are typically higher. Also, sit-down restaurants in Central America usually charge only around $5 per meal. This figure can quadruple when you’re in the Caribbean islands.
- Travel Activities: Let’s admit it.Scuba diving and other water sporting activities aren’t for the cash-strapped traveler. The good news: you can still enjoy the best of Central America and the Caribbean by finding budget-friendly activities. Basking under the sun is free, and so is enjoying the beaches or taking a hike in one of Central America’s mountainous regions. But if you don’t mind going all-in for the experience, a two-tank dive can cost somewhere between $50 – $120.
The average travel budget in Central America is roughly 50% lower as compared to the Caribbean. So if you’re backpacking to any of these regions, prepare at least $50 per day. Book expensive suites in Caribbean or Central America hotels and your expenses can balloon to $350 per day. Quite a huge difference, if you ask us.
The main point: Regardless of where you are in North America, there are always sure-fire ways to lower your travel expenditures if you have the right mindset. Pack everything you need, fly off-season, and book early — all it takes is mindfulness when you’re exploring any tourist site.
Top Highlights When You Travel to Central America and the Caribbean
No travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean is complete without running a parade of their mind-blowing tourist attractions. While the two destinations are different, they have one major similarity. They host natural gems that can transport you to a world of endless possibilities. But to keep your confusion at bay, let’s divide our travel guide into two.
Travel Guide to Central America and the Caribbean Part I: The Best of Central America
The Great Blue Hole, Belize
Professional scuba divers aren’t new to the Great Blue Hole. As the largest sinkhole in the world, this world-renowned landmark is a host to diverse marine life. Magically lying near the Lighthouse Reef, the Great Blue Hole is about 410 feet deep and 984 feet across. Near the bottom of this natural wonder are never-before-seen stalactites. This, along with thriving rock formations, trash-free water, and incredible columns, makes the Great Blue Hole a must-visit site if you’re an intrepid traveler who loves exploring the unknown.
Costs: Of course, you can’t expect to dive into a deep chasm unguided. As the most bucket-list-worthy activity in Belize, taking a plunge into this huge sinkhole can cost up to $350. For some travelers, this can be insanely expensive. But if you’re after a mind-blowing diving experience, the Great Blue Hole is one of your best bets. It’s not the best of Central America for nothing.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Located near the Great Blue Hole is Ambergris Caye. This popular beach hub that makes scuba diving and snorkeling just a heartbeat away. It’s one of the most-visited sites in San Pedro, Belize, and it’s easy to understand why once you step foot on the island. Perfect for beach lovers, Ambergris Caye combines a lively but laid-back nightlife with the calming sound of the ocean waves. You can also spot a lot of restaurants and beach bars here, making it the ultimate go-to for local and international travelers.
Costs: The cost of a weekend stay at Ambergris Caye depends on your travel activities. If you love drinking on beach bars and engaging in water sports, your travel expenses can hike up. But overall, the average spending of tourists in Belize is around $67 per day.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
As one of the top destinations in almost every travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has otherworldly features perfect for every traveler. Built back in 1972, this Costa Rican landmark houses biologically diverse species, including 100 mammals, 1,200 reptiles and amphibians, and 400 bird species. This, along with 2,500 plant species, make up its rich flora and fauna. It also offers a wide range of outdoor activities, including ziplining, canopy tours, night walks, and horse riding. Name it and this massive reserve probably has it!
Costs: Entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is $25/adult and $12/per child aged 6 – 12.
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
If you haven’t seen a volcano fuming with smoke, a visit to Arenal Volcano will feed your curiosity. Once known for its frequent volcanic activity, this landmark is complete with trails of smoke coming out from its peak. If you’re done taking IG-worthy shots of its magical cone, you can engage in outdoor activities near the volcano’s foot. Here, you can hike numerous trails and enjoy hot springs, caves, and waterfalls. If you’re looking for something a bit more adrenaline-pumping, you can also try out flyboarding or rafting.
Panama City, Panama
From top-class Central America hotels to eclectic bars and restaurants, Panama City is the perfect picture of cosmopolitan life. While its skyscrapers are an ultimate scene-stealer, what makes Panama City phenomenal is its unique blend of nature, culture, and modernity. One of its attractions is the Panama Canal, which gives you a different perspective of the city. Our personal favorite: the Casco Viejo peninsula complete with its surrounding cobblestone streets. If you want to learn more about the Spanish colonial history of Panama, a visit to this historic quarter is something you don’t want to miss.
Costs: Panama is one of the most expensive cities in Central America, but you can still find budget-friendly options in the area. If you’re traveling to this city, prepare around $65 per day.
Enveloped in the Guatemalan jungle is a major site for the Mayan civilization, Tikal. With its first inhabitants recorded in the 6th century B.C., this world heritage site is known for its biodiversity and its archaeological significance. From ceremonial temples to ancient palaces, Tikal National Park allows you to dive into the world of the unknown. If you’re ready for some leg exercise, you can climb its pyramid to take breathtaking panoramic views of the lush rainforest surrounding the area.
Costs: The general admission is about $20 per adult. Children under 12 are granted free entrance.
Replacing five-star Central America hotels are dramatic colonial relics that fill Antigua’s dramatic landscape. First listed as a World Heritage site back in 1979, this humble neighborhood’s greatest asset isn’t just its looming volcanoes. A simple walk on its cobblestone streets allows you to take a sneak peek at the site’s cultural heritage. When you’re in Antigua, don’t forget to swing by Casa Santo Domingo and La Merced Church, which are some of the town’s highlights. If you’re done exploring the town’s unique history, you can also try overcoming its beautiful volcano trails and visiting coffee plantations, which offer you opportunities to engage with indigenous people. A town for the old, adventurous soul, Antigua showers you with its rich history and culture.
Costs: If you plan to travel to Central America and the Caribbean on a budget, Guatemala is one of the best places you can visit. Unlike in other cities, the average travel expenditure here is only around $35 per day.
Filling its palettes with an irresistible mix of arts and history is Nicaragua’s intellectual and political center, Leon. Its greatest highlight is its well-preserved Spanish colonial heritage, which can easily be seen on its array of historical churches, cathedrals, art centers, and public murals. It’s easy to get drawn to the city as you walk through its wide assortment of architecture and universities, but what puts Leon on top is its energetic vibe. Since the city is a hub for students, many of its local eateries and tourist spots project a sense of youth and vigor. Here, you can also find historical figures made by Rubén Darío, a prominent poet in the city, making it a must-visit site if you’re in touch with your artistic side.
Costs: Like traveling to Guatemala, you can set aside around $35 per day when you visit Leon. You can even find cheaper accommodation options in the area if you’re planning an extended stay.
Punta Roca, El Salvador
Punta Roca is on the map of every pro surfer for its incredible waves. And even if you’ve never tried surfing before, you can easily get beginner lessons, which allow you to dive into this exciting sport. As Punta Roca grew in popularity for its perfect point breaks, many resorts have also emerged around its beach fronts. So if you’re looking for fun and adventure under the sun, don’t forget to head out to Punta Roca, which is only around 40 minutes from San Salvador.
Travel Guide to Central America and the Caribbean Part II: The Best of the Caribbean
As our travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean continues, it’s important to note that these two destinations can’t be explored in just a week or two. If you’re up for a full-blown exploration, give yourself time to immerse into each city’s — or, in this case, island’s — culture to make the most out of your trip.
Also, the Caribbean is a large network of islands that offer diverse landmarks at different price points. When mapping your way around this natural gem, identify two important things: your travel priorities and your budget.
St. Lucia, or what we call the perfect honeymooner’s lane, comes with a pack of upscale resorts, spectacular volcanic peaks, and unparalleled beaches. From ziplining above luscious rainforests to diving into diverse marine life, the island stops at nothing when it comes to giving you adrenaline-pumping action.
While hiking the famous Piton Mountains and watching the Caribbean sunset is something you’d want to tick off your bucket list, driving thru the Sulphur Springs is one adventure you don’t want to skip. After a day out in the sun, you can also relax on the island’s dreamy spas and energetic nightlife. Needless to say, perfect is an understatement when you’re out exploring the natural wonders of St. Lucia.
The U.S. Virgin Islands
Look for any travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean, and they’ll all have one thing to say: the U.S. Virgin Islands is the easiest to visit if you need a quick, passport-free island get-away — if you’re visiting from the United States, that is.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is segmented into three: St. John, St. Croix, and St. Thomas. It’s easy to hop from island to island, so make sure to arrange sea transfers during your stay.
The three islands have their own charms. St. John is the smallest and most expensive among the three. It boasts unspoiled, Caribbean beauty as most of it is protected by the national park. If you plan to book an overnight stay, check on the rates of Caribbean hotels here first. Some of its most affordable rooms charge $195 per night, which is a splurge for some travelers. But if you’re after the best sunset and beach views, you can never go wrong with St. John.
St. Croix, on the other hand, is the largest island in the entire U.S. Virgin Islands. It mainly attracts scuba divers and honeymooners for its architectural and natural sceneries. But if you’re after a more diverse and family-friendly experience, St. Thomas can cater to your needs.
The British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is no virgin when it comes to giving travelers a once-in-a-lifetime water adventure. Made up of 60 islands, BVI’s wide stretch of picture-perfect coastlines offer non-stop opportunities to scuba dive and explore magnificent reefs. If you want more action, you can also try windsurfing and sailing, which gets you even closer to nature.
Some of the famous tourist spots here include Anegada Island, Dead Man’s Beach, the Baths National Park, and the Cane Garden Bay. BVI also houses high-end to all-inclusive Caribbean hotels, which are perfect for families and solo travelers.
The Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands is no stranger to divers looking for a travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean. Housing world-renowned diving spots such as the Kittiwake Shipwreck, Devil’s Grotto, and Eden’s Rock, the Cayman Islands are made up of three popular spots: Cayman Brac, Little Cayman, and Grand Cayman.
If diving isn’t in your itinerary, the island also has shallow sandbars and tranquil beaches that can give you that beautiful Caribbean experience. You can also swim with stingrays on one of its popular landmarks, the Stingray City. Even better, the Cayman Islands isn’t as expensive as other prominent beaches in the region. Here, you can easily find affordable Caribbean hotels and vacation rentals that won’t break your bank.
If there’s one thing we can learn from Jamaica, it’s that the Caribbean islands aren’t just about diving, snorkeling, and sunbathing on fine, powdery sand. An island where you can deeply immerse into a unique culture, Jamaica opens the door to an energetic musical and culinary scene. The locals are so accommodating, it gets even harder to pack your luggage on your last day in town.
Mouthwatering roadside grilling and playful reggae music aside, Jamaica is a top Caribbean destination for backpackers who love staying active. Aside from snorkeling on its beaches, you can also enjoy trekking its waterfalls and mountains. Some of the most popular tourist spots here are Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, Negril Beach, Rio Grande River, and Dunn’s River Falls.
The perfect sunset and the tranquil waters in the Bahamas make it one of the top dream destinations of every traveler. But while it is a member of the Caribbean Community, the Bahamas is actually an independent country that lies in the Atlantic Ocean. The Caribbean, on the other hand, is located — yes, you got it right — in the Caribbean sea. But as much as geography sets them apart, most Caribbean cruises include the Bahamas since it flaunts equally diverse marine life and seascapes. Not to mention, the two are only around 400 kilometers apart, so if you’re out for an all-in water adventure, a trip to both of these world-class beach destinations is something you should (seriously) consider.
The Bahamas is made up of 700 gorgeous islands that offer nature and leisure. A top destination for those who love sailing, snorkeling, and diving, the country is home to beaches and fishing villages tucked away from city life. If you want to pop over to the Bahamas, some of the prime destinations here include Atlantis Paradise Island, Harbor Island, Exuma Cay Land and Sea Park, and Nassau.
Costs: A go-to beach hub for famous personalities, the Bahamas is marked as the third most expensive country in the world. A cluster of picturesque islands that’s well worth the price, the average travel cost here is about $160 per day.
Traveling is for everybody, but it doesn’t mean that every bucket-list-worthy destination fits the needs of every traveler. To responsibly end our travel guide to Central America and the Caribbean, remember that traveling is always subjective. When planning your adventure, always make an allowance for your travel preferences and your budget. This way, you can own your adventures and take charge of your experiences without sacrificing your finances.