Tips for Travelling Central America on a Budget

With its magnificent volcanoes, stunning beaches and vibrant culture, Central America has to be one of the most exciting destinations for students on gap years, backpackers and long-term travellers alike. Due to its sheer size, tropical climate and growing popularity among tourists however, some Central American countries, such as Belize, Costa Rica and Panama, do tend to get more expensive than us budget travellers can happily afford. But don't fret just yet! As someone who has managed to explore this incredible part of the world while travelling cheaply, I'm here to share the best tips to get around the area on a shoestring, as well as our top FOUR countries in Central America to visit, and how to find unique rewarding experiences there, all while spending $35 or less a day...


Top Tips on Travelling Cheap in Central America

Avoid high season

Generally, Central America is a year-round destination thanks to its tropical temperatures. However, it is particularly hot and dry from December to April so this is when prices are more expensive. Aim to travel around May to November when the weather is hot but a little wetter. You’ll avoid the crowds and overpriced accommodation.

The wettest months are September and October, so travel can get tricky around this time due to heavy rain. However, as this is low season (and downpours are usually fierce but fast) it’s also one of the cheapest times to visit Central America.

Use the chicken bus

Although we know a few tips to find cheap flights, domestic flights around Central America will likely cost more than your international ticket to get there. Fortunately, you can travel pretty much go everywhere by bus. Known as “chicken buses” these repurposed North American school buses are an affordable option for those travelling Central America on a budget. There are a few safety tips for riding the chicken bus, but they are an interesting way to travel for as low as $1!

orange Guatemala chicken bus

Cash is King

If you are trying to save money while travelling, use your credit or debit card for bigger expenses such as accommodation and flights, but cash for everything else. Cash is still king in Central America and some places add a surcharge of up to 15% when paying by card. While the US dollar is welcome everywhere, you may also lose out on the exchange rate in rural areas so carry the local currency where possible.

Eat on the Street

If you’re searching for cheap eats, the roadside grills in Central America are where you’ll find them. Known as fritangas you can usually expect corn, rice, and beans in some variety. From the blue tortillas in Guatemala to the pupusas in El Salvador, street food in Central America will save you some megabucks. 
Guatemalan locals making blue tortillas

Affordable Accommodation

Although we are talking about the cheapest countries in Central America to visit, there are still a few tips to make the accommodation even more affordable. Firstly, a lot of rooms don’t have online reservations. This means showing up without a booking and bartering for a bargain is part of the norm. If you enjoy sleeping under the stars, many hostels also offer camping for as little as $5 a night as well as hammocks to sleep in. Don’t forget your mosquito net!

Use Workaway

What’s better than $5 a night? Zero dollars per night! When you join Workaway you have access to over 50,000 volunteer opportunities in over 170 countries – including the cheapest countries in Central America from this list. From surf camps to sloth sanctuaries, Workaway helps to turn your bucket list into reality without needing to pay for accommodation. All while connecting you with locals all over the world. 


Central America often gets a bad rep for being unsafe. Yet, the funny thing is every Central American country on this list has a better Global Peace Index rating than the United States, so do not let fear hold you back! Like most travel destinations, there are safe and unsafe areas so trust your gut, never travel alone at night, and do your research. The biggest concern for tourists would be theft which is why travel insurance is always important.

camping in Central America nature free accommodation

Cheapest Countries in Central America


Guatemala is not only a great option for those backpacking Central America on a budget, but also for those short on time. As it’s relatively small you can squeeze in so much in just a few weeks.

Starting with volcanoes! Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes, with one of the most famous (Volcano Fuego) still regularly erupting. It is situated around a 15 minute drive from Antigua, one of the most popular destinations in Guatemala. Once you see the beautiful colonial architecture, enjoy the delicious food, experience the lively nightlife and vibrant salsa scene, you’ll understand why tourists love it there.

One of the most epic experiences in Guatemala is an excursion from Xela to Lake Atitlan. It’s a three day hike where you can spend your evenings in remote Mayan villages, observing the incredible landscape and culture. Once in Lake Atitlan, you will likely meet many other travellers in the beautifully unique towns dotted around the lake.

It’s also worth spending some time in Xela (pronounced Shela) Known officially as Quetzaltenango, it is a side of Guatemala that many people miss. Not only is it cheaper and more authentic than the more touristy Antigua, it’s also ideal for those who want to learn a new language as Spanish lessons are incredibly affordable and popular here.

If you crave a cultural immersion like no other, head to the Ixil Triangle. Made up of three towns - Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal - the Ixil region is renowned for its rich Mayan traditions where locals still use the traditional dialect and dress.

While the locals are warm and inviting and generally tourist areas are safe, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Half the population lives below the poverty line and gang violence is increasing in certain neighbourhoods. Keep your valuables hidden, don’t travel alone at night but most importantly do not let the media scare you from this incredible country.

As a tip for US, UK or EU passport holders, you will receive a 90 day tourist visa on arrival - for free! The visa includes entrance and exit to El Salvador and Honduras, two more of the cheapest countries in Central America. 

Volunteer opportunities in Guatemala

If you’re a coffee connoisseur, Guatemala grows some of the best coffee in the world. This means there are many opportunities to learn about the coffee farming process. As well as coffee, you can get involved with permaculture projects and volunteering on macadamia and avocado farms.  

If you’d prefer partying over permaculture, perhaps volunteering in a hostel is for you. As tourism is on the rise in Guatemala there are many hostels in need of volunteers. Volunteering in hostels is the perfect way to gain hands-on experience in the tourism industry. It’s also an insightful way to learn how to run a business and provide you with the skills to land your dream job on your return.

  • Budget Hostel: Dorm bed $8-10
  • Local beer: $2
  • Budget Restaurant: $5 main meal
outdoor solo traveller enjoying view of Lake Atitlan and volcano


As the largest and one of the cheapest countries in Central America, Nicaragua is famous for its surf, hikes, volcanoes and some pretty epic partying. Also, for those in search of ways to travel for free, both hitchhiking and camping are popular here as Nicaragua is considered one of the safest countries in Central America. You’ll also find the cheapest hostels here - it’s no wonder it's fast becoming a backpackers haven!

Some would consider Nicaragua the land of lakes and lava. It is home to 19 volcanoes as well as the two largest freshwater lakes in Central America -  Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua. Other travellers just go for the beaches, because WOW the beaches!

In particular, the stunning stretch between San Juan Del Sur and El Transito (as a tip, San Juan del Sur is also a well-known spot for digital nomads.) If you’d like to learn to surf, Playa Madera is particularly popular, where renting a board costs just $10 for the whole day.

From the coast head to the colonial cities of Granada and León. This is where you’ll find the most hostels and backpacking accommodation as well as an epic party scene. Both cities have a rich history and are located near the Pacific coast. León is located in the North so is an ideal stop if you’re travelling from El Salvador. Granada on the other hand is further South so is an ideal stop if you’re coming up from Costa Rica.

For a completely different vibe, escape the city to the island of Ometepe. Formed from two volcanoes – Maderas and Concepción – Isla de Ometepe is said to look like an infinity symbol. Many believe it is a powerful place for spirituality, manifesting and healing. If that sounds too zen, you can also hike volcanoes, explore the island via motorbike or swim in waterfalls. The best part? We have over 30 Workaway hosts on the island!

Volunteer opportunities in Nicaragua

As many tourists flock to Nicaragua for the surf and sea, there are many Workaway experiences in marine conservation or at surf schools. If you’re more a fan of surfing online than offline, there are also many volunteer opportunities in social media. With surf schools, hostels and other small businesses in need of marketing guidance to boost their reach online your social media skills are in high demand.

If you’re looking for inspiration for travelling Central America on a budget, check out our interview with Workawayer Michael. He arrived in Nicaragua with only $15, volunteered at a surfing lodge in Poneloya and managed to travel the world with almost no money!

  • Budget Hostel: Dorm bed $7-12 USD. Private room around $25
  • Local beer: $1-$2 BUT Nicaragua has some of the best (and cheapest) rum in the world so skip the beer for the famous ‘Flor de Caña’ instead!
  • Budget Restaurant: Street food $3-$4. Meal for 2 people (3 courses) in restaurant $30
two travellers volcano hiking black sand explore natural sights


Although it’s one of the cheapest countries in Central America, I could bet money Honduras is not on your bucket list. In fact, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala all receive far more tourists than Honduras does annually. This is likely because of the endless negative news stories and tales of gang violence you’ll find online.

Excluding the Bay Islands, the majority of Honduras receives minimal tourists, so you need to be smart about where to visit. Most locals are kind and curious about visitors, but the country does sadly battle with high levels of poverty and crime. Despite this, Honduras is still relatively safe for backpackers. Most crime is gang related in specific neighbourhoods so violence towards tourists is rare.

It’s one of the best countries to visit in Central America for those who prefer authentic experiences off the beaten path. As well as the spectacular Mayan ruins at Copan, it is home to some of the best (and cheapest) diving in the world alongside incredible culture and delicious food. 

The main travellers hub is Utila, the smallest island on the Bay Islands. It’s also where you’ll find the majority of our Workaway hosts in Honduras. Many people flock here to scuba dive by day and party by night.

In fact it is one of the cheapest places in the world to complete your PADI Open Water course, with many local dive shops offering accommodation as part of the package. As a tip, head to heavenly Utila between March and May as you’ll get the chance to dive alongside whale sharks!

If you prefer dry land instead of diving, head to Pico Bonito National Park for all things outdoor adventure. The park is the most bio-diverse in Honduras and treats visitors to all kinds of adrenaline-inducing activities from white water rafting to hiking.

Another highlight of Honduras is the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. Although it requires you to splash the cash a little, it’s worth a visit as it’s home to over 2000 indigenous people as well as pumas, jaguars and even sloths.

Volunteer opportunities in Honduras

If you dream of becoming a teacher, there is a demand for language teachers in Honduras, especially those who can teach English or Spanish. Volunteering as a teacher is not only a fantastic way to improve your own language skills, but to gain experience working with children and build your confidence in front of a class. Intrigued? Read our tips on teaching abroad as a volunteer for everything you need to know.

  • Budget Hostel: $10-$15
  • Local beer: $2
  • Budget Restaurant: 3 courses for 2 People $25 - $30
beach classroom volunteer teaching workaway in Honduras

El Salvador

Although El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, it does not lack adventure. From countless volcanoes to coral reefs, there is so much to explore.

If you’re searching for the cheapest countries in Central America, El Salvador is an excellent choice as tourism is still up and coming. This means accommodation, food and activities are usually local prices and haven’t been inflated for foreigners.

Diving fans should head to the westside to Los Cóbanos. Here you can discover underwater rock formations, shipwrecks and reefs. If the depths of the ocean sounds intimidating, many beginners learn to dive in the volcanic crater lakes like Coatepeque and Ilopango. 

Known as the ‘land of volcanoes’ (there’s even volcanoes on the country’s flag) El Salvador has frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. If a volcano voyage is your kind of adventure, head for Cerro Verde National Park. Here you will find Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Ilamatepec. As a money saving tip, tours from San Salvador to the national park cost around $85. However, skip the tour and just show up at the park as then you only need to pay the $3 entrance fee.

For those in search of beaches and beers, add El Tunco to your bucket list. Although it’s a tiny town it is packed with popular party places and cheap hostels – aka a backpacker’s paradise! Try not to party too hard as you’ll need to be fit to explore the stunning black sand beaches and incredible surf spots here too.

We cannot showcase the highlights of El Salvador without touching on safety. Due to corruption and poor leadership, the lack of economy meant many people turned to illegal industries to make money. This means that drug trafficking and gang violence are common in certain areas of Soyapango, Apopa, Mejicanos and San Salvador. Rarely, these crimes are targeted at tourists and most touristy places are patrolled by police.

For those trying to become a more responsible traveller you will learn so much about sustainability by volunteering in El Salvador. As the landscape is so diverse, the local people are passionate about protecting it. From eco-hotels to organic farms there are so many projects for eco warriors.     

  • Budget Hostel: Dorm bed $10-15. $25 for a private room
  • Local beer: $1.50
  • Budget Restaurant: $3-5 (rice and beans) $8-10 USD (fried fish/pizza etc)
solo female Workaway traveller eco project in organic farm

These may be the cheapest countries in Central America, but more importantly, they are the countries in most need of your time. The more time and skills volunteers can share in these places, the better chance these countries have of reshaping their future. Crime and corruption will continue to rise if their economies cannot improve and one of the best ways to bring money in is tourism.

Travelling Central America (even on a shoestring budget) will prove such a rewarding experience thanks to the stunning natural beauty and rich culture. You will also be making a life changing difference to the local people by sharing your time, skills and knowledge. Don’t let safety concerns hold you back from visiting this incredible destination. You won’t regret it!
creating colourful street art with locals in Guatemala

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About Lauren

Growing up in a small coastal village in Scotland inspired Lauren to seek adventure and challenge the norm. Armed with just her backpack and trusty travel companion Darren, she quit her day job to liv... show more...

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