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A Gap Year in Central America

Advice for travelling in Central America

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Why go backpacking in Central America?

Central America is one of the world’s most exhilarating regions. Caught between the two mighty continents of North America and South America, this sliver of land may not look like much on a world map, but it is home to some of the most volatile landscapes and vibrant cities on the planet.

Perfectly symmetrical volcanoes rise majestically from emerald jungles, turquoise oceans teaming with extraordinary marine life nudge golden shores, and hectic cities buzzing with culture draw visitors like moths to flames. Just seven countries comprise Central America – Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – but between them host an amount of biodiversity difficult to find anywhere else in the world.

Tours in Central America

Central America tours

A fantastic way to see the amazing beauty of Central America is on a guided tour. Whether you want to volcano-surf in Nicaragua, wander around colonial architecture in Panama, scuba-dive in Belize or visit stunning mountain lakes in Guatemala, you’ll find it all the more enjoyable if all the practical bits are being organised for you. We have an amazing selection of tours in Central America, to fit every kind of travelling style, be it adventurous, cultural or relaxed. Have a browse and get in touch!

Working in Central America

Central America jobs

You can’t legally pick up casual work in Central America without a permit, company sponsorship, or permanent residency. This means the vast majority of paid work comes in the form of teaching English, and will almost always be arranged before you leave home. This kind of work tends to pay relatively well, and looks good on your CV when you come back home. Most teaching jobs will require you to have a degree. But don’t worry, you won’t need to speak the native language, as you’ll usually be paired with a teaching assistant and encouraged to speak English at all times to help your students. You’ll also need a TEFL qualification. Most of the time you’ll obtain this in the UK after a weekend-long course, but it is sometimes possible to get one while abroad. Some schools may accept people without a degree or TEFL, but always be wary of this: it can be a sign of poor standards and conditions. Before accepting any teaching job abroad, it’s worth looking up reviews and testimonials from people who have worked there in the past. This will give you an idea of what the job really entails, and what conditions you can expect.

Volunteering placements in Central America

Central America volunteer placements

There are absolutely loads of volunteering opportunities available in Central America, the majority of them with animal and conservation projects, though there are opportunities to work in school and internship positions in order to gain valuable work experience. Central America is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, meaning there’s no end of incredible animal volunteering opportunities. You can work rescuing sloths, jaguars, and turtles in Costa Rica, conserving important reef environments on the coast of Belize, or caring for monkeys in Nicaragua. These are all incredibly important projects working to preserve vulnerable wildlife, so it’s important that you think carefully about your strengths, weaknesses, and natural interests before committing to anything. If you leave a project early you can really leave them in the lurch.

Budget accommodation in Central America


Although Central America doesn’t quite have the established backpacking infrastructure of other regions in the world (love you, South Asia), there are still plenty of accommodation options to suit any budget. How much you pay will often depend on the time of year. Travelling in the wet season means you’re more likely to find some great accommodation deals, but it could mean your trip is a washout. If you want to avoid high season when prices are highest, look into travelling at its beginning or end, the so-called ‘shoulder seasons’. Conditions can be unpredictable, but you should still get plenty of good weather. Accommodation costs can also vary greatly depending on the country: the popularity of Costa Rica means it’s always likely to be more expensive than somewhere like Guatemala or even Nicaragua. Plan carefully depending on your budget and what you’d like to see.

Finding & booking

We recommend pre-booking accommodation in Central America whenever possible. If you’ve never visited before, it can be more stress than it’s worth to turn up in a new place and have to lug your backpack around looking for somewhere to stay. That said, if you’re feeling brave it is possible in most areas of Central America to negotiate some bargains by turning up without reservations, especially in the off season. If you’re willing to be flexible with the type of accommodation, this can be a great way to save money.

Types of accommodation

There are lots of different types of accommodation available in Central America, offering plenty of options depending on your preference and budget. Hostels aren’t as common as elsewhere in the world, but you’ll find plenty of budget hotels, guest houses, and eco-lodges throughout the region.

Hotels and guesthouses

The likes of Costa Rica and Belize are packed with luxury hotels lining the beaches, but unless you’re really feeling flush these probably aren’t for you. Instead you’ll find plenty of budget hotels throughout Central America, offering simple furnishings for a fair price. Almost all places offer a private room as standard, but you may need to pay a little more if you want a private bathroom, and some may not offer this at all. Make sure to check before booking. There will also usually be a common area, offering some of the social aspects of a backpacker hostel. If you’re travelling alone and looking to make friends, this makes hotels or guesthouses a good option.


Hostels are not particularly common in Central America, and are generally only found in popular tourist areas of busy destinations like Costa Rica. These will offer shared dormitories for a low price, alongside simple private rooms that cost a little more. If you’re looking to meet people and make friends, hostels are the place to be.


You’re probably going to Central America for its incredible wildlife and national parks, and eco-lodges aim to protect that by offering accommodation that is environmentally friendly. You might pay a little more, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind. Note: do some research ahead of time if you’re looking to book eco-lodge accommodation. Some will bill themselves as eco-friendly when they’re actually not.

Getting to Central America

Getting there

Most of the time, the cheapest and easiest way to travel to Central America is to fly, though other means are possible, including driving down from North America or up from South America, or coming across by boat (sometimes from the Caribbean).

By plane

The majority of travellers will come to Central America on a flight into Costa Rica’s Juan Santamaria Airport, located just outside capital city San José, or into Tocumen International Airport, serving Panama’s capital city Panama City. You can also fly into Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Belize. These airports are accessible from most major Western airports, and will comfortably be the quickest means of reaching Central America from anywhere in Europe and most of North America. It’s also easy enough to fly around the region when moving between countries, although this is the most expensive way to do it (and isn’t really in keeping with the environmentally friendly approach much of the region is taking to the tourist trade).

By land

The most famous way to reach Central America overland is taking the Pan American Highway. This epic road begins in Alaska at the top of North America, and goes all the way down to the tip of Argentina at the bottom of South America. If you were to drive eight hours per day it would take around three months to drive the entire thing. Thankfully you probably won’t be doing that. What the Pan American highway does offer is the chance to drive into Central America from the southern USA and Mexico, or up from South America. Although it’ll take significantly longer than flying, it can work out significantly cheaper, and gives you the chance to experience some of the incredible landscapes between popular destinations that you miss when flying. Train infrastructure in and around Central America is incredibly limited, meaning it usually isn’t an option for overland travel.

By sea

There are a few options to reach Central America by boat, though it’s often the domain of cruise ships, which are considered anathema by most backpackers (and not just because of the high price). If you’re travelling from the Caribbean (you lucky thing), there are numerous smaller boat services you can use to move between islands and the Central American coast. As ever this is often slower than flying, but offers the opportunity to reach more remote areas not covered by flights.

Getting around Central America

Transport in Central America

Transport in Central America is fairly plentiful and reliable in popular areas, but can be a little patchier elsewhere. If you’re planning to move around the region a lot but don’t want to fly, it can be worth renting a car so you’re not relying too much on public transport. Hitchhiking is also common in Central America, but is obviously a little less reliable.


If you’re tight on time but not on money, domestic or short-distance flights are a great way to move between destinations. The only downside is you’ll have a little less flexibility in where you can travel, as you’ll often be restricted to major hubs. National airlines are generally reliable, but we recommend being careful when it comes to low-cost and discount carriers, as some may have dubious safety records. Do your research before you book anything.


Driving is a good option in Central America, as there is a solid road network to take you around the region and beyond. If you’re driving between countries, be sure to check your route properly before you set off, as there are places where paved roads turn to dirt, and some routes may become impassable depending on weather or the season. Hitchhiking is not uncommon in Central America, and although chances of anything untoward happening are slim we always preach caution if you choose to try it. Let somebody know where you’re going and trust your instincts.


Bus travel is common in Central America and offers one of the cheapest ways to travel, but often also the most unreliable if you go with public buses, especially over longer distances. They tend to move slowly, stop anywhere for passengers, and rarely go anywhere directly. They can also be incredibly late, busy, and uncomfortable. Tourist buses are available in some areas. These cost more, but are quicker, more reliable, and more comfortable. Fewer chickens too.

What visas do I need for Central America?

Visa information

The information on this page applies to UK residents only. Visas are a complicated business, and will vary depending on where in Central America you wish to visit and how long you plan to stay. Mercifully, UK citizens can enter any Central American country without a visa, though length of stay varies. As ever, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months from your planned departure date.

No visas required

British passport holders have it easy when it comes to visiting Central America as no countries require them to have a visa if entering as a tourist. Belize and Guatemala allow British citizens to stay for up to 30 days without a visa. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama allow stays of up to 90 days. If you plan to stay for longer than these periods, speak to your travel agent about your options. Some visitors to Central America decide to visit Cuba while they’re in the general vicinity. All nationals need a 30-day tourist card to enter Cuba, which must be obtained before leaving home. You will need proof of booked accommodation and a return or onward flight in order to get the card.

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