Travel Three Weeks in Central America for under $1,200

If you want to travel but don't because you think that you'll need an exorbitant sum of money to have a good trip - think again.
Traveling on a budget is a fun challenge and, while it definitely takes some extra labor, it's well worth the reward. Central America is one of the best destinations for a travel enthusiast looking to stretch their dollars or euros as far as possible. From the history of a quaint colonial town like Antigua or sledding down an active volcano in Nicaragua to the beautiful beaches of Costa Rica, there's a near endless amount of memories to be made in this part of the world. The amount of exploring and fun you can have is only limited by how creative you get with your planning. I've taken two separate trips that were both just short of three weeks a piece through Central America for less than $1,200 each time - and that includes the flight! Here's how I did it:

Enjoying some fresh lobster on the beach in San Juan del Sur

Food and drinks
To answer the inevitable question, no we weren't starving the whole time either. In fact, we ate very well. Most Central American countries have favorable exchange rates for the USD or Euro, which means your money can go a lot further down here. You'll find exquisite local cuisine for just a few bucks a meal. One of my favorites was 'splurging' in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua on lobster cocktail in a nice restaurant right on the beach. It set me back about 9 bucks for the best and freshest lobster I've ever had.

Even with restaurant prices so cheap, it's still more cost effective to cook your own meals here and there. Staying in hostels with a full kitchen is an added money saving benefit. We'd cook our own dinners or lunches occasionally - usually some type of pasta and sauce for just a dollar or two per person. Pick up some fresh fruit juice and you have yourself a meal.

On a similar note, don't overdo it on alcohol if you're on a budget despite the glaring temptations with ridiculously cheap drink prices (especially in Nicaragua). I'm not saying that you shouldn't drink, because God knows I sure had my share of mojitos in Granada and tropical drinks on the beaches of Costa Rica, but you should limit yourself because - even with cheap prices - it adds up fast and this is an expense you have full control over.

The Blue Lagoon in Tenorio National Park, Costa Rica
Getting around
Traveling through Central America is easy. If you avoid the tourist shuttles and unnecessary flights you'll save a lot of money and still get where you need to go. Sure, there occasionally are some cheap flights between countries, but it's usually much cheaper (and a crazy fun experience) to take a local bus.

For example, one trip I flew into Guatemala City, took buses and vans around the whole country and then another from northern Guatemala into Belize, where buses are so cheap it's almost ridiculous! We found a bus from Belize up into Mexico and then continued on from there, flying home from Cancun. I was able to pull this off from doing a good bit of research before hand, as well as checking with locals on the best way to get from A to B if I had any remaining questions while down there. Basically, if you can make an itinerary that is linked by buses or cheap shuttle vans you'll save hundreds.

That brings me to my next point, I've found that having a multi-city flight itinerary can bring you the cheapest flights down in Central America. That is, fly into one city and return home from another. Figure out the places you want to go and then start plugging in destinations in your multicity flight search. You might be surprised with what you get. I've noticed that San Jose in Costa Rica, Managua in Nicarauga, Guatemala City in Guatemala and Panama City, Panama are often cheap sites to fly in and out of - try those for starters! Cheap flights to Central America abound - do NOT bite the bullet on an expensive flight. Budget in 500-650 bucks for a flight, and use the rest of your money for exploring and having fun!

Where to stay?
Don't be afraid of hostels. There's some fantastic options all throughout Central America. Many mid-range hostels are better than a cheap hotel! I've covered most of this in my How to Find the Right Hostel article a while back. You can expect to spend anywhere between $5-$20 a night in most locations!

Taking in the epic view of the Arenal volcano
 just outside of La Fortuna, CR
Here's another one that will save you piles of cash. Tour operators will always try and get you to sign up for tours, they're everywhere too. My advice? Do everything you can without signing up for a guided tour! It will take a bit more time and planning, but going without a guide is far cheaper and gives you so much more flexibility as you can do things on your own schedule!  You'll just have to research more, finding local bus routes and be adventurous! Speaking even a little bit of Spanish will help immensely with this. I find it incredibly satisfying making my own day trip a success, especially when it saves 50-100 bucks a person.

Tours just usually just aren't worth it. Yes, there are some places you can't get to without a guide - like climbing a volcano, for example - so if that's on your list of things to do (and it should be) find a reputable tour group. I usually use Trip Advisor to check up on a operator before signing up for anything. Most of the time, however, I wing it - and it's awesome!

Souvenirs and Markets
Many souvenir shops and essentially all markets I've visited in Central America are flexible on prices. They want your business and will usually negotiate a fair price with you! It's actually kinda fun and oddly rewarding negotiating a discount with a vendor in a foreign country - give it a shot!

I love the sunsets in Costa Rica.
This one was taken on the beach in Tamarindo

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