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Border Crossing Costa Rica Panama

Long-term travel is all about the benjamins. Your budget becomes your bible, how much (or little) you spend determines how long you will be able to keep up the lifestyle of constant travel. We have already posted our six-month budget and our 1-year budget, but both of these include time spent either in the U.S. or Europe, which are much more expensive and so don’t adequately reflect the cost of traveling in Central America.

This is why we wanted to write a separate post specifically breaking down the costs of traveling through this region, in order for those planning a trip to have a rough idea of how much traveling through Central America costs.

Overall Budget Breakdown

We spent exactly six months traveling through all Central American countries – Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – spending a total of $10,685.65 for both of us.

That is about $890.47 per person per month, or $30.36 per person per day (for the exact amount of days we were in Central America).

Central America moneyOriginally we had a rough goal in mind to shoot for under $1,000 per person per month, per month, but we ended up spending even less thanks to keeping a close eye on our spending. This number is the average over six months, but there were major differences in how we spent our money in the various countries, so we have also broken it down per country:

Central America travel budget breakdown per country

Belize: $54 per person per day

Belize was by far the most expensive country in Central America, but we enjoyed our time there immensely. We could have spent less here, but couldn’t pass up the adventure ops available like snorkeling and caving, which would have been much more expensive in Europe or North America. Minus the adventure, Belize would have cost around $40 per person per day.

Accommodation: $7.50 – $12.50 per person in a double room average A double room cost $25 on Caye Caulker, but only $15 in San Ignacio.
Transport: A long-distance bus from Belize City to San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border was $3.50, boats between Belize City and Caye Caulker were $10.
Food: $10 per person including beer. Beer $1.50 – $2.50.
Activities: Full day snorkeling tour $40, cave tours between $45 and $70 per person.

Belize snorkeling

Guatemala: $23.12 per person per day

We splurged constantly in Guatemala. We took advantage of the high quality international cuisine in Antigua and around Lake Atitlan, putting away pots of fondue and bottles of wine, and discovering the wonders of Israeli food. Still, we managed to spend less than $25 per person per day by staying away from overpriced tourist shuttles and keeping our booze easy and local, plus we chose budget accommodation under $10 per person in a private room.

Guatemala hostelsAccommodation: On average we spent $9 per person per night. The cheapest private room we stayed in was $4.90 per person, the most expensive was $16 per person.
Transport: Local buses cost between $0.50 and $3.
The most expensive bus we took was a night bus from Flores to Guatemala City for $29 each. After that, we only traveled by local buses and never spent more than $3.
Food: $6 – $10 per person including drinks. Beer $1 – $2.
Activities: Pacaya volcano $13, Tikal including transport & guide $30, ruins in Antigua $5

tienda Chichicastenango Guatemala

Honduras: $28.68 per person per day

Honduras can be done on the super cheap, but as we spent the Christmas holidays here, we treated ourselves to nicer hotels (maximum $25 for both of us together) and special holiday meals. Only for that reason did we end up spending more per day than Guatemala or El Salvador. We avoided the famous islands of Utila and Roatan, however, and visitors to the islands would most likely also average similar costs, as the mainland is considerably cheaper than these popular diving isles.

Accommodation: between $7.50 and $12 per person in a double room
Transport:
Buses are between $2 and $4, the most expensive bus ride was $7.
Food:
$5 – $7 per person including drink. Beer $0.60 – $1.50.
Activities: The most expensive activity was visiting the Copan ruins at $15 per person

Honduras Tegucigalpa church

El Salvador: $24.05 per person per day

Accommodation was the most expensive aspect of traveling in El Salvador – we found everything else (transport, food, drinks) super affordable. We did fall hard for pupusas; eating them every meal (almost) kept our food costs way down. In general El Salvador doesn’t have much in the way of expensive tourist sites, museums are free on certain days, and even surfing can be done for $10 to $20 per lesson.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room with shared bathroom, $12.50 per person in a double room with private bathroom and hot shower
Transport:
Buses are seriously cheap here, between $1 – $2, with the most expensive bus ride costing $4.
Food:
A meal was around $4 per person, including drinks (beer). Again, pupusas cost 40 cents each, and beer is usually $1.
Activities: The most expensive activity was a guided hike in Alegria for $7.50 per person.

Sunset over river El Salvador

Nicaragua: $31.81 (including the Corn Islands)/$20.76 (excluding the Corn Islands)

In Nicaragua, we treated ourselves to a well-earned splurge, and made the trip out to the Corn Islands. This raised our daily average significantly, but not everyone is going to make the trip to the Corn Islands. Without the trip, Nicaragua would have been the cheapest country in Central America for us. Even with eating out twice a day almost every day, we barely spent more than $20 per person per day.

leon hostelsAccommodation: $7.50 per person in a double room average
Transport: Buses were usually less than $1; the most expensive ride was $1.80
Food: Breakfast was between $2 and $3.50; dinner was $4 and max. $7 with beer between 50 cents and $1.20.
Activities: Movie theater tickets cost $1.90 (snacks around $1.80), daily bike rental $3.90

Horse-carriage granada nicaragua

Costa Rica: $26.62 per person per day

Rumor has it that Costa Rica is more expensive than the rest of Central America, but we had a great time and easily kept costs down. Sure, it was quite a shock to see the prices in Costa Rica after coming from super cheap Nicaragua, but they didn’t vary much from prices in Honduras or El Salvador. Spend your money wisely, and those extras such as zip-lining, guided hikes and National Park visits won’t break the bank, or put you above budget, but if you’re not careful (and you like to drink beer), it’s easy to burn through Colones in a snap. There is cheap accommodation in Costa Rica, but the quality you get for $20 here is certainly far less than in the rest of Central America.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room
Transport: $1.20 for short distance bus rides, $2.50 for medium-distance rides, $8.00 for long distance bus rides
Food: A meal in a restaurant or in a soda runs at around $5 to $9. Beer $2 – $3.
Culture: The National Parks in Costa Rica are exceptionally beautiful and well worth the entrance fees, which range from $10 to $20. Ziplining is around $40 from the cheapest provider in Monteverde.

Monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Panama: $35.71 per person per day

Like El Salvador, Panama also uses the U.S. Dollar, but here the inflation caused costs in Panama to be significantly higher than anywhere else in Central America. Goods and services here are often priced equally to the US thanks to a seriously large ex-pat population (especially in Panama City), but with beer still average 75 cents a bottle…who’s complaining! The islands of Bocas del Toro were above average in price, while the mountain town of Boquete was easily affordable. As a global city, Panama City is home to the finest luxury accommodation as well as 25 cent bus rides and street food for $1.

Accommodation: $10 per person per night – the cheapest accommodation was $6.50 per person in a triple room, the most expensive was $12 per person (also in a triple).
Transport: $1.50 for short-distance bus rides, $7 for medium distances, 12.50 for long distances. Inner city buses in Panama City cost between $0.25 and $0.50.
Food: A meal is between $3 and $8, depending on the location.
Culture: The Panama Canal visitor center at the Miraflores Lock is $8, a ferry ride to Taboga Island is $12 for a return ticket, and movie theater tickets are $3.

Panama Hats in Panama City

Practical information:

  • We were able to stick to our budget mainly because we used Lonely Planet’s Central America on a shoestring guidebook, which has super useful budget information for each individual country. It’s not a light book and it takes up quite a lot of space, but carrying it was well worth it for us (not only for budget tips, but also hostel recommendations, maps, and up-to-date information on how to get from A to B.)
  • We chose almost exclusively very cheap local transportation instead of the more expensive tourist shuttles.
  • We ate at cheap local restaurants but also opted for pricier tourist restaurants more often than other travelers. If you eat where the locals eat and sleep in dorm rooms, you can travel Central America on less money than we did.
  • Note that we didn’t party a lot while we were there – we know lots of backpackers who party much more in Central America than we did – so if you’re planning on going out a lot, make sure to add that to your budget.
  • Wondering what to pack for your trip to Central America? Check out our packing list for the things we can’t travel without and the gear we’ve ditched over time.

Have you traveled through Central America? If you have, what countries did you find budget-friendly? Where did you splurge? If you haven’t gone through Central America, let us know if you plan to go and if you need any budget advice.

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Tags : Backpacking Budget Central Americalong-term travel budget

121 Comments

  1. Hey im wanting to do about 4-5 months in Central or South America and 4 months in SE Asia. Im unsure of what to do either Central or South, you generally think of Peru and Brazil when you think of Latin America but im kind of in love with central America now after heaps of research but i still want to go to places like Bolivia and Argentina, Peru etc. Do you think i have enough time? Also i have to pick between SE Asia or Latin America to be in low ‘wet’ season which would you choose?

    1. Hi Jessica! 4-5 months in Central AND South America is doable, but pretty rushed. I’d suggest three weeks for Bolivia and Peru each – are you planning to visit all of Central America? If you tell me which countries you’re looking to visit, I can give you an idea of how long you need in each place. And I was in both SEA and Latin America in the wet season but wasn’t too bothered with either one. The rains usually came in the afternoon and only lasted a couple of hours. When exactly are you planning to travel to SEA / Latin America?

  2. This is a wonderful source! My question would be, can you do a quick version of this trip -without spending too much time in places- in couple of weeks? Or does it sound impossible to you?
    Thanks

    1. Hi Ipek, absolutely impossible. Unless you hit only one city per country and take flights in between places. But even just Guatemala would be hard to see in a couple of weeks, I just helped a girl plan her itinerary and she had to skip a couple of places because she just couldn’t fit them all in her 2-week vacation.

  3. Hi guys! Fantastic guide. I was hoping to travel to Central America during the summer for three months (I know, the weather is not ideal but its the only time I have off). I was just planning to travel to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica as that is all my budget will allow. I was wondering how much time you would spend in these places and if you could help with an itinerary? As a first time female traveler I am a bit nervous and could use all the help I can get! Thanks so much

    1. Hi Nimmi, sure – I’d be happy to help you plan your itinerary, feel free to email me a draft and I left you know what you think. I’d definitely plan around three weeks for Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica (less in Costa Rica if your budget is really tight) and max a week in Honduras (a few days are enough, really, unless you plan to go diving in the Bay Islands?) and the rest in El Salvador (maybe even less if you don’t surf)

  4. Hi i am planning on travelling for 3 weeks, flying into cancun, travelling down to guatemala by bus then flying to San jose, Costa Rica. Do you think 3 weeks is enough for this. I also want to visit Nicaragua whilst there. Do you think this is possible? Thanks

    1. It’s an ambitious plan, but doable. You will rush through most places though, instead of getting a true feel for them. Lake Atitlan deserves at least three nights (in different villages, ideally), Antigua a couple of days, Tikal and Flores at least three days, Chichi for a day or two; Tulum a day, another stop in Mexico (Akumal to swim with turtles or Playa to visit a cenote, but you’ll probably want another beach day or two?), Belize can be done in a week, so that leaves not really time for Nicaragua I think. Maybe leave that for another trip because you should visit Leon, Granada, Ometepe, and San Juan Del Sur – which altogether would take at least a week. Make Nicaragua a separate trip (2 weeks?) and you can hop over to the Corn Islands then, too. That’d be my suggestion, but feel free to email me for more details 🙂

  5. Motoring to Nicaragua solo w/my 110# German Shep. late
    August, 2015. Concerned about safety factor traveling through Mexico since most of mileage seems to consist of travel through Mexico.

    1. There are safer parts and less safer parts in Central America- I’d probably not take the route through Honduras as a female solo traveler. I’d love to hear your feedback on how safe you felt in each place! Enjoy the journey (I’m jealous!)

  6. Hi ladies! Thank you for this very useful post!
    I am planning to travel to Central America for 2 months in oct/nov, starting from Panama up to Cancun (I do not plan to stop in Honduras & El Savaldor) ; I wanted to know if when crossing the borders you have been asked to provide a return or onward flight/bus ticket proving that you will leave the country?
    I have a flight ticket from Europe to Panama and return from Cancun to Europe. A travel agency also told me there is possibility the flight company would not let me in the plane to Panama for the same reason… Sounds strange since a lot of people travel this way… What it your experience about that?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Stella, the only place we were asked for an onward ticket was Costa Rica – for them our plane ticket out of Panama a few weeks later was enough proof that we’d be leaving Costa Rica, luckily. I don’t think we were asked when we entered Panama but sometimes they’re stricter when you fly in (especially before you board – less so when you arrive). To be on the safe side, I’d recommend buying either a fully refundable plane ticket just before you depart (most airlines give a full refund if you cancel the ticket within 24 hrs) or book a bus ticket out of the country with one of the trans-national bus companies in Central America, like Ticabus. I would maybe also check a Tripadvisor forum on that topic to see what other people’s experience was like. Enjoy Central America!! 🙂

  7. Hi, Dani!
    I’m travelling to El Salvador this summer for three weeks with a program. I’ll be staying with a host family, and the scholarship program I’m travelling with takes care of compensation for the host family, so therefore accommodation and most meals will be completely covered. What would you say I should bring for money for snacks, souvenirs, and just general spending money?
    Thanks!

  8. Hi there,

    I’m a solo traveler (or plan to be!), looking to spend August and September 2017 travelling through Central America. Have absolutely no concrete plans yet but ideally I want to travel according to my own timetable rather than having to follow any particular group. Do you know of any travel/tour companies (ideally EU based as I am from Ireland) who would be able to assist me with flights/transport and some vague travel plan?

    Thanks,
    Nikki

    1. Hi Nikki, thanks for your comment. Yay for you traveling to Central America! I think for flights and transportation Sta Travel is a good option and I think they’ve got some offices in Ireland. For inspiration as for what route to use I recommend checking out the itineraries that G Adventures and Intrepid use. Or even better: pick up a copy of the Central America on a shoestring Lonely Planet. The book comes with several itinerary suggestions and I used the book to get around Central America, too – the transportation information in the book about how to get from place to place was spot on. You’ll meet a lot of female solo travelers in Central America, trust me 🙂 Let me know if you have any more questions I might be able to answer. Oh and another tip: check if there’s an updated version of the guide book before you leave. The last edition is from 2013, I think there’s an updated version coming out soon. The transportation info usually remains the same, but hostels and prices will be outdated with the current version.

  9. Hi Dani,

    Meant to reply sooner but totally forgot. Thanks so much for all that info, it’s really helpful. Unfortunately Sta Travel only operate out of the UK but you never know, with Brexit they might decide to relocate to Dublin! I’ll definitely pick up the lonely planet guide and see if I can plan my route using those websites you mentioned. Thanks again for your help, I might be back in future with more specific questions!

    Nikki

    1. I am sure you’ll have a great trip!! Try Intrepid or G Adventures if you feel more comfortable traveling with a group – they’re aimed at young people 🙂 Enjoy Central America & yes let me know if you have any other questions.

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