Ah, the classic backpacking trip across Central America. A bucket list for many, we decided to try it out during a worldwide pandemic. And as you can expect, it was very challenging at times – but all the more rewarding.
There were headaches. There was heartache. And there were annoyances. But it is feasible to visit every country in Central America – even in 2021. In fact, I highly implore anyone on the fence to go ahead and do it. It could be the trip of a lifetime.
So if you’re wondering if it’s possible to make it through every country in Central America in 2021, the answer is an unequivocal yes. If even we can do it, you definitely can do it.
Complications traveling through Central America in 2021
Though Covid-19 upended travel throughout the world, Central America remained strong and resilient. Some countries, like Mexico, remained open during the pandemic. Many others closed themselves off completely. Some only re-opened in the last few months, and a couple only recently started allowing passage by land.
The complications meant traveling a bit by plane, some by shared shuttle, some by private taxi, a bit by TukTuk, a bit walking, and much by bus. It definitely was more complicated than even we expected after traveling to over 20 countries in the last year.
We definitely spent quite a few brain cells figuring out how to visit every country efficiently….
The best way to travel across Central America in 2021: Bus or Flying?
A huge part of our travel difficulties came from deciding how to get from country to country. Though flights are by far most convenient, we couldn’t convince ourselves to spend $400+ for some of the flights. But we also couldn’t get in contact with most of the bus companies that normally run the inter-country routes.
The only cheap Central America flights we found (but ultimately did not use) were:
- Guatemala City to San José, Costa Rica: $86 (Volaris)
- Guatemala City to San Salvador: $90 (Volaris)
- San Salvador to San José: $100 (Volaris)
Though these are great prices, they only align with itineraries skipping Honduras – which ended up being our favorite country. Guatemala City to San Salvador isn’t worth flying (in my opinion, even as a pilot) over taking a 6-hour bus ride.
Our struggles and research led us to depend on Tica Bus for most of our intercountry travels. They were the most reliable, most convenient, and most accessible bus company we found.
With Tica Bus, you can actually select your final destination along the route instead of continuing all the way to the next capital. This can be super convenient; for example in El Salvador, you can choose Ahuachapan as your destination to save time and money.
The upside and unfortunate reality of Central America after Covid-19
Despite the complications, the reward for traveling through Central America in 2021 was sublime. We saw so many incredible sights, like Tikal in Guatemala, without the hoards of tourists that normally placate them.
The positive side was being embraced warmly by locals. They were super friendly and welcoming to the first tourists they had seen in a year.
And accommodation that was normally out of our price range was now affordable, meaning we could travel without feeling the weight of our budget as much.
But unfortunately, we also witnessed firsthand the dramatic toll that a year without tourism revenue had on these beautiful developing Latin countries. So many businesses were devastated by this terrible year. Some are gone forever. Others had to make huge cuts. Many people were forced into working in agriculture, mining, or their family business. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see.
Let’s get the economy back on track
That being said, I sincerely hope this article will inspire travelers, backpackers, luxury seekers, digital nomads, and the rest of the world to visit this magnificent area of the world. Central America IS open for travel in 2021, and its people are more than ready to see the return of tourism.
Our 2021 Central America Ultimate Itinerary for visual learners
For those of you who appreciate convenience and ease-of-use, here’s a fully functional map of our itinerary and all the spots in Central America we visited.
First country in our 2021 Central America itinerary: Belize (5 Days)
Belize was probably our favorite country on this trip. From some of the world’s best diving to some of the world’s best Mayan sites, you just can’t miss in Belize.
We found that almost everything in Belize was open when we were there in March 2021.
Belize Travel Restrictions in 2021
The first thing you should probably know about traveling to Belize in 2021 is that the land borders to Mexico and Guatemala are still closed. This means that you’ll have to fly in and out of Belize. Make sure to budget for that, as flights to Guatemala and Mexico are often close to $200.
The second thing you should know is that you don’t actually need a Covid test to enter Belize. This is good news for those who don’t have easy access to testing at home.
It is recommended to complete an online health pass and get a covid test so you can enter a “fast pass” lane, but not required.
Getting to Belize, then to the Cayes (Islands)
We started our trip by flying from Atlanta (ATL) to Belize (BZE) on Delta Air Lines, the airline leading the recovery from the pandemic. Our flight landed in the early afternoon, allowing us to travel to the beautiful Cayos (small islands) of Belize on the same day.
Though we had the option to take a taxi to Belize City then take a water ferry, we decided to hop on a $75 flight with Maya Air directly to San Pedro – a much more convenient option.
Where to Stay in the Cayes of Belize in 2021
In San Pedro, we recommend Ramon’s Village Resort for epic villa huts (like the ones you’ve seen in Bora Bora) right on the water. It’s a pretty cool experience.
In Caye Caulkner, our favorite place to stay is the Colinda Cabanas. The value is purely unmatched on the island, especially when you consider it’s rated #1 on TripAdvisor!
For those looking to save some money on their booking, here’s a Hotels.com coupon code:
Diving the Blue Hole after Covid-19
The first thing to comes to mind when I think about Belize is The Great Blue Hole. A must-see for everyone, the Great Blue Hole sits in the Belizean portion of the Mesoamerican reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world.
Our recommended dive shop is the Scuba School and Family Dive Center Belize, where you can get dive lessons or participate in a plethora of dive tours, including the Great Blue Hole.
We opted for a Great Blue Hole dive (down to 130 feet) combined with 3 other dives in the area, and it was mind-blowing.
Seeing the Blue Hole from above – flight tours in Belize: affordable?
After seeing the Great Blue Hole underwater, we knew that we hadn’t gotten enough of it. We had to see it by air.
At first, we were set on a helicopter tour… until we noticed the price. At more than $1000 per person, these tours were quite simply unaffordable.
Luckily we found airplane tours of the Blue Hole with Maya Air! At $215, we felt the price was much more reasonable. And it was worth every penny.
After our wonderful flight, we took a water taxi to Belize City where we could catch a Chicken bus (local public transportation) to San Ignacio instead of paying ~$90 for a shuttle.
The best Maya site in the world is in Belize, and it’s open in 2021
Next up was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life: exploring deep into a cave filled with ancient Mayan artifacts.
Called the Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM Cave, it does not print out money… but it does print out amazing memories. Exploring the cave is a full-day activity and is probably my best memory from not only Belize but all of Central America.
Crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala or Mexico in 2021: Do. Not. Attempt.
We spent the next morning exploring some Maya sites such as Xunantunich before attempting to cross the land border into Guatemala.
Pro Tip: the land border is closed.
We scrambled to arrange a private shuttle to Belize Airport (BZE) and a flight on TAG Airlines to Guatemala City… for just shy of $300. Yay…
Second country in our 2021 Central America Itinerary: 10 Days in Guatemala
Guatemala had been on our list for so long and when we heard we could travel there in 2021, we were more than ecstatic. Guatemala was one of the few countries that only requires a rapid test. Even better, you can enter without a test if you’re vaccinated. Thank goodness, because taking a PCR test in Belize would have cost $400….
Guatemala 2021 Travel Restrictions:
Everyone (10 years or older) must present one of the following:
- Proof of a COVID-19 vaccine (full course) completed at least two weeks before arrival,
- -or- documentation of a recovery from COVID-19 within three months of arrival,
- -or- a negative COVID-19 PCR or Antigen test result within 72 hours of arrival.
Make sure to complete the Guatemala Health Pass prior to leaving.
This latest update in Guatemala’s travel restrictions adds Guatemala to the short list of countries allowing vaccinated passengers to enter without a Covid test. Considering that everyone in the US should have access to a vaccine or rapid test, Guatemala makes a fantastic option to plan a future trip.
How to get to Guatemala in 2021
Right now, the only way to get to Guatemala from Belize is to fly in. And Mexico has tightened its southern borders, which could make the process of traveling by land from Mexico to Guatemala more difficult – but I’ve confirmed that it is possible.
Flights from outside the country are all directed to La Aurora (GUA) International Airport to allow health personnel to verify entry restrictions are met.
We flew from Belize City (BZE) to Guatemala City (GUA) on TAG Airlines.
Fight or flight? How to get around Guatemala after Covid-19
Guatemala is big. Very big.
We really wanted to see Tikal, one of the largest Mayan cities ever discovered. But there was only one problem: Tikal is on the opposite side of the country from Antigua.
Because of some road closures, the total trip length to Tikal would have been 12-15 hours. No thanks.
We decided to take our trusty friends, TAG Airlines, from Guatemala City (GUA) to Flores airport. The round-trip was about $200 per person, so definitely on the expensive side of our trip. And honestly, it was pretty disorganized. Our bags arrived a couple hours after we did, which kind of defeats the purpose of flying over taking a bus.
In Flores, we rented a car with Guatemala Rent a Car and drove about an hour to stay in Jungle Lodge right next to Tikal. *Make sure to buy your Tikal tickets at the park entrance before driving to rest of the way to the hotel*
The best town to stay and relax in Guatemala: Antigua
After taking a quick (~1 hour / $7) shuttle to Antigua, an extremely cute colonial town surrounded by volcanos, we arrived at the Porta hotel.
For those looking to save some money on their booking, here’s a Hotels.com coupon code:
We found it a perfect fit; cute, quaint, and a great blend of nature and city. Our room overlooked the garden and we overall found the price:quality ratio to be excellent.
Antigua, Guatemala is a must-see. It’s basically on every shuttle/bus route used by tourists and is hard to miss. It’s also a great ‘base camp’ for day trips to the surrounding volcanos, lakes, and astounding nature that Guatemala offers.
Guatemala is on fire! Volcano tours have re-started this year in Guatemala
Quite literally, parts of Guatemala are on fire.
Guatemala harbors a seemingly endless number of volcanos. Many are active, some very active. At the time we were there, Pacaya was erupting, spewing enough lava to cause evacuations of entire towns.
We decided to join a 2-day hike on the Acatenango Volcano with a highly-reputed tour company called Wicho and Charlie’s.
The tour starts around 10AM, includes transportation, fantastic tour guides, and gear for a very nominal price. The hike is a pretty intense 4-6 hours up to the top of the volcano. But when you get there, be prepared to have your mind blown.
Wicho and Charlie’s provide protected aluminum tents with views right on the Volcan de Fuego, a volcano spewing chunks of rocks and bright red lava every 5-10 minutes or so. It makes for the most spectacular fireworks of your life. Combined with some hot chocolate, I’m not sure there’s anything better in life.
Our favorite favorite hotel in Antigua, Guatemala in 2021
After the hike, we were completely exhausted. We thought we were decently fit people, but the volcano taught us otherwise. Luckily, we found a hotel with great reviews called the Good Hotel and decided to try it out.
The name of the hotel did make us a bit nervous, but we were surprised to find that it really lived up to it. The rooms felt northern European; high-quality, quiet, super comfortable, and just what you need. The food was so good that we ate at their restaurant three times in two days.
But the best part is that they’re non-profit. They donate their profits to local schoolchildren and take care of the surrounding community. We were truly touched by their compassion and care.
Though we didn’t muster the energy to do it, we recommend planning a day trip to the Pacaya Volcano to see the lava up-and-close. Just don’t get too close.
Atitlán: A beautiful lake surrounded by volcanos and cute towns in Guatemala? Here’s where to stay in 2021.
Since Italy is closed and we can’t visit the beautiful Lago di Como, we decided to go with plan B: visiting Lake Atitlán. Surrounding the lake are a couple cute towns to explore including Panjachel and Santiago, which both have quite awesome markets for some great shopping.
We stayed at La Fortuna, a secluded resort right on the lake. It’s so secluded that you can actually only get there by boat. And it’s a truly great way to fully enjoy the spectacular feeling of being on an inverted volcano lake surrounded by a bunch of normal, non-inverted volcanos.
What you need to know before visiting Tikal in 2021.
We woke up early as hell to try and grab some insta-worthy shots in Tikal under beautiful golden light but our plans were undermined by nonsensical rules.
As I wrote in a previous article, you can only grab tickets at the park entrance, and only during office hours. With the delay of our bags, we entered the park too late. And thus our 36km trip to buy Tikal tickets and come back began.
It was worth it though. But we wish we hadn’t wasted the time and money renting a car ($200 for 3 days) and staying at the jungle lodge (shared bathrooms for a private-bathroom kind of price).
In the afternoon, we drove down to El Greengo hostel near Semuc Champey. It’s a no-frills kind of hostel, but it suited our needs for one night.
Pro tip: the drive takes 6 hours and the road is horrendous for about half of it. If you’re gonna do the drive, rent a 4×4. And leave early.
More Details: 10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Tikal in 2021
Semuc Champey: am I in Croatia? Caution: there have been changes since re-opening in 2021.
Semuc Champey was undoubtedly one of the coolest things I saw in Guatemala, literally and figuratively. It reminded me of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, where you can swim in crystal-clear ponds surrounded by waterfalls.
Just like in Croatia, you can hike up the mountains for absolutely epic views on this unforgettably beautiful part of the country. It’s almost unfathomable how nature comes up with such incredible beauty, but there it is.
The only thing to note for 2021 is that your time in the park is limited. You can only stay a couple hours, and when we were there, guards did check our time stamp.
We spent the afternoon driving 6 hours back up to Isla de Flores. In retrospect, we would have flown one-way to Flores and taken shuttles down to Semuc Champey and thereon to Guatemala City.
We did really enjoy Flores though – it’s a surprisingly relaxing, chill, and enjoyable place to spend a couple nights.
Our last day: how easy is it to get a Covid test in Guatemala?
Teaser: it’s super easy to get a Covid test in Guatemala.
Since our next country was El Salvador, we needed to get a full-on PCR test. We found that the Blue Medical Centers in Guatemala City were most convenient. They have a lab about 5 minutes from La Aurora International Airport in Las Americas.
We took a super-cheap uber there, got our brains tickled, and in only 6 hours received our PCR results by e-mail. This was far faster and more efficient than anything I’ve experienced back in the states. Rapid/antigen results, the kind required to return to the US, only take 15 minutes.
We stayed the night at the Westin Las Americas in preparation for our early morning start towards El Salvador the next day.
Third country: One week in El Salvador in 2021
From the outside, it’s easy to simply discard El Salvador as a country filled with street violence, MS-13, drugs, and crime. But that’s simply not true.
Our experience in El Salvador was seeing that most locals lead lives strikingly similar to ours back home. We were there during the Semana Santa, or holy week (Easter), which is taken very seriously in Central America.
As a result, we were able to participate in some pretty incredible parades, celebrations, and festivities. It was a very lively time filled with markets, music, and friendly, inviting people.
Our time in El Salvador also included some disappointments. Thought El Salvador did not feel unsafe, we don’t think it’s a country you need to go out of your way to visit.
It’s nice but it ended up our least favorite country in Central America.
Read for full details: Your Ultimate 2021 El Salvador Travel Guide
El Salvador 2021 travel restrictions
U.S. citizens are required to present proof of completion of their vaccination course OR an original negative RT-PCR test result issued within 72 hours of entering El Salvador at any point of entry (land, sea, or air).
This is great news for those who are vaccinated!
Our route into El Salvador from Guatemala City and the mistake we made
Once again Tica Bus came to the rescue. We decided to ride it from Guatemala City to Santa Ana, the last stop before San Salvador.
Though Santa Ana is a cute town, it’s not really special. We don’t necessarily recommend stopping there.
If you plan to take the Ticas Bus, you should choose Ahuachapan as your destination. It’s a lovely town in the Ruta de las Flores, an incredibly cute array of 6 pueblos up in the mountains surrounding volcano Santa Ana.
Alternately, you can ride the bus all the way to San Salvador from which you can rent a car. That’s probably the best option in 2021; as you’ll read below, getting around El Salvador is tough.
The Tica Bus cost us $25 each, and was overall decent. The ride always takes longer than predicted, especially with how slow the border crossings are in 2021.
Crossing the border from Guatemala to El Salvador in 2021 (very easy!)
Out of all the border crossings we did in Central America, this one was actually the easiest. We disembarked in Guatemala to collect our exit stamps but did not actually have to step off the bus in El Salvador. Instead, a border agent came on the bus, collect everyone’s covid test results and passports, and returned with stamps.
Getting Around El Salvador in 2021 (VERY tough)
This was the part we screwed up. Unfortunately, pretty much none of the shuttle services are running at the moment. We had no trouble finding them in Guatemala, yet in El Salvador we had to resort to taxis, private transport, or public buses.
We were hoping to rent a car in Santa Ana, but none of the rental car agencies shown on google (even those with working websites) were responding. So if you want to rent a car, make sure to go all the way to San Salvador (or perhaps El Tunco, where there are some rental car companies running).
The roads in El Salvador are excellent all around, even the dirt ones. Driving is relatively easy and painless.
Where to stay in Santa Ana, El Salvador in 2021
We had an amazing time at the Casa Verde hostel in Santa Ana. Carlos, the owner, is a super cool and helpful guy with all the contacts for tours, transport, and maximizing your time in El Salvador.
Santa Ana itself is not very tourist. It has lots of local (and very cheap) markets, a cute central square, but is otherwise not exceptional town. The street food is pretty good but there isn’t much selection of restaurants. And if you’re vegetarian, forget it.
Visiting the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador in 2021
After failing to arrange a rental car, we got ourselves an uber to our first stop on the Ruta de las Flores: Apaneca. Though it was an hour away, Uber only charged us $30.
An off-duty police officer picked us up, so we got to ask about violence and crime first-hand. He told us that El Salvador’s tourism initiative involved the government bulking up security forces including national police and even the military. There are some rough spots, but there is security basically anywhere that tourists would want to go.
It all seemed to have good effect. We never felt uncomfortable walking or driving around, even at night.
Our favorite town on the Ruta de las Flores was Ataco. It’s one of the bigger towns and simply has more to offer in terms of food and nightlife.
Speaking of nightlife, Nahuizalco‘s night markets are not to miss. They’re lively, exciting, and sprawling, even in 2021.
Chasing waterfalls in El Salvador
Central America has so many waterfalls that by the end, you should be tired of them… but you’re not.
We heard a local tip about some waterfalls close to the border with Honduras called the Salto de Malacatiupan. These are actually hot spring waterfalls and truly a must-see if you’re in the area.
Afterwards, we finished our tour of the Ruta de las Flores, exploring these incredibly cute towns during the Semana Santa. The streets were filled with locals flocking from all over the country, coming together to celebrate Easter with parades, parties, festivities, live music, great food, and awesome dancing. It was truly a spectacle.
Our full day tour of the Ruta de las Flores ended costing us $90 (total).
What you must see while in Juayua, El Salvador in 2021
We finished the night in Juayua, a tiny pueblo (town) with another must-see: the Feria Gastronomica, a weekend market filled with street food vendors. You’ll find everything from bao to barbeque to vegetarian food.
5 minutes from Juayua are the Chorros de la Calera, an amazing natural pool surrounded by cascades. At the moment, the cascades (main attraction) are closed, but you can still do a 2-3 hour hike to 7 waterfalls nearby.
There’s also a pretty cool maze nearby which features zip lining, biking on suspended lines, and other family-friendly activities.
The coolest place to chill out in El Salvador: Lake Coatepeque
Lake Coatepque is a ginormous crater lake situated between some gorgeous volcanos basically smack in the middle of El Salvador.
In my mind, Lake Coatepeque is the Lake Atitlan of El Salvador. It’s that nice. And during our stay in April 2021, everything (hotels, restaurants) was basically fully open.
Here, you can spend the day relaxing on a hammock enjoying volcanic views, take a jetski out, or go for a swim.
Getting to Lake Coatepeque in 2021
Remember how I said getting around El Salvador is tough in 2021? As we couldn’t find a shared shuttle, we hired a private driver to get us from the Ruta de las Flores to the lake. Cost: $65. And we definitely searched around.
This is where having a rental car would be an enormous help.
We stayed at the only place that had rooms left during the busy Semana Santa: the Captain Morgan hostel. We quickly realized why there weren’t rooms left. It’s extremely noisy until late at night, the shared bathrooms are horrid, and the service is absolutely lackluster.
Instead, we recommend staying at the Cardedeu hotel (or residences if you fancy) to full take in the tranquility of this incredible lake.
Surf City: El Salvador is the surf capital of Central America
Next, we took yet again another $65 private transfer to El Zonte, the “surf city” of El Salvador.
Surfers flock here from around the world to catch world-class swells and enjoy some of the cheapest beach living you can find on this side of the planet.
We stayed at Palo Verde “Sustainable” hotel, which was great but in no way “sustainable”. It’s right on the beach and has a lovely pool and great restaurant. You can also take surf lessons – unless red flag conditions, like we had, are present.
Food in El Salvador: great for meat-lovers, terrible for vegetarians
El Salvador was probably the toughest place to find good vegetarian food. Instead, you’ll probably eat side dishes most of the time – if they even let you. Most restaurant workers are simply confused by a request. When you say “no meat”, their reply is typically “ok so chicken?”
But in El Zonte, we caught or lucky break (surf pun?). The only place that was still open at 9PM, the last place we found, ended up being the best food we had in El Salvador outside of the capital.
The lovely restaurant, Beach Break, doubles as a boutique hotel close to the beach (obviously), and the owners are super friendly. You can eat with your feet in the sand while enjoying views on the river.
Best for last: Suchitoto and Cinquera, ex-civil war hotbeds
Another expensive private transfer later and we found ourselves flabbergasted by the beauty of the next area. Nestled in the highlands of El Salvador is a colorful, lively town with a background of civil war hardships, guerrilla warriors, and absolute devastation.
Seeing how far El Salvador has come since then is nothing short of mind-boggling. The town of Suchitoto was the closest thing we saw to Antigua, Guatemala except that the surrounding scenery was, in our opinions, even more beautiful.
We had dinner at a wonderful restaurant called 1800 Casa. WOW. Views. When you’re overlooking the massive Lake Salcoatitlan and its surrounding tallest mountains in El Salvador, you won’t want to leave. Trust me.
The next day, we took a tiny TukTuk to the ex-guerrilla headquarters of Cinquera, a town fraught with death, destruction, and violence. We took a tour into the forested highlands where guerrillas hid, lived, and fought to the death.
Our guide was the niece of an ex-guerrilla and much of her family had been directly affected by the tragedy and violence of the war.
As a result, hearing her firsthand stories felt like re-living the experience, the peril, the devastation. It was certainly more real than any movie or book I’ve ever seen or read.
It was truly touching and quite a meaningful end to our week in El Salvador.
Getting a Covid test in El Salvador in 2021: how tough was it?
Super easy. You can find a list of testing enters here. We ended up getting an antigen test with Analiza in San Salvador. It was easy, super quick, and relatively cheap.
We didn’t have to make an appointment or anything, so we arranged for a stop on our private transfer from El Zonte to Suchitoto.
The test itself wasn’t bad at all, nor was it expensive. And we had our results in hours, making the whole experience the least awful possible.
Country #4 in our 2021 Central America Itinerary: Honduras (8 Days)
Honduras was the country that surprised us the most. From the outside, it sounds like a country filled with violence and danger. But once we were there, we realized it was just like any other Central American country – except maybe more beautiful.
Crossing from El Salvador to Honduras & 2021 Travel Requirements
We took a 10-hour Tica bus from San Salvador to Tegucigalpa, and it was pretty tiring. The border crossing into Honduras was overall kind of sloppy and very slow on both ends (exiting El Salvador and entering Honduras).
*Make sure you complete the Honduras prechequeo online before attempting to cross the border.* You can’t start until within 48 hours of travel, and will need to print it out. TicaBus will check it before you leave.
Other requirements to enter Honduras in 2021 include:
- You’ll need negative PCR or Rapid Covid-19 test results from a test taken within 72 hours of entry into Honduras.
- There are fees to cross the border (on both sides), so make sure to have cash. US Dollars are accepted.
RELATED: 10 Surprising Reasons Honduras Was Our Favorite Country in 2021 – with info on “Is Honduras Safe in 2021?”
How We Got Around Honduras in 2021 (Highly Recommended)
Though it is possible to get around Honduras by public transportation, we heard bad things. Petty theft is common, buses run very full, and they break down often.
As private shuttles are abhorrently expensive, we decided to rent a car – which also wasn’t cheap. But it wasn’t bad, around $350 for a week with a diesel truck. We rented with Xplore Rent a Car, and had a mixed experience. Customer service was all over the place, from excellent to extremely poor depending on the employee. But overall, the operation is great.
Day 1: the Valle de Angeles is shockingly beautiful
I sent a picture of a town we stopped in to my family in Europe and asked where they thought it was. The answer I got back? Portugal!
This part of Honduras is astoundingly beautiful, and almost seems out of place in Central America. It’s green, full of pine trees, gorgeous Spanish-colonial towns, and cobblestone streets. It does not feel ‘developing’ in any way.
We recommend these two stops in the Valle de Angeles, Honduras:
- Santa Lucia: a gorgeous town looking down into the Tegucigalpa valley
- Cantarranas/San Juan de Flores: an up-and-coming tourist hotspot filled with street art
We stayed the night at Liquidambar, which was one of our favorite hotels in Central America. For those looking to save some money on their booking, here’s a Hotels.com coupon code:
Day 2: Deep in the Jungle of Honduras
Our next stop took us deep into the Cerro Azul National Park, right off the beautiful Lago Yojoa (Lake Yojoa). This is a vastly underrated jungle forest filled with waterfalls, hummingbirds, and all sorts of wildlife.
We stayed at the Panacam Lodge, which is as close to nature as you can get. Breakfast and phenomenal views are included in the reasonable price (~$60 per night).
There were 5 waterfalls and lots of hiking trails to explore, but the best treat was the birdwatching. Cerro Azul is a safe haven for species from all over the world and even some endemic ones.
Day 3: Exploring the Lake and heading to the Caribbean coast!
Our destination: Tela, on the Caribbean coast. But there’s a lot to see in the Yojoa area before finishing the 3 hour journey.
On our way out, we couldn’t help but stop at AGUALPA -Domos & Cabañas, where you can actually visit a retired Fokker prop airplane! Ok, maybe that’s just the pilot in me wanting to see that. There’s also a decent restaurant there.
Lake Yojoa features plenty of spots to rent kayaks and enjoy this wonderful hidden gem surrounded by lush green mountains, and lots of road stands selling pineapples! Good to know right?
The Pulhapanzak Waterfalls are right on the way to the Caribbean coast. There you can ride zip-lines for less than $40USD per person… right over some of the most incredible waterfalls I’ve ever seen.
We finished the night at Vista Maya hotel in Tela – which was fine. The best part was the great views overlooking the beautiful coastline, the food was average, and the rooms had air conditioning – much needed at sea level.
Day 4-5: Day Trips from Tela
We spent the next couple days admiring the beauty of the Honduran coastline – a nice change from the mountains we had lived in for the last couple weeks.
Here are the best day trips from Tela:
- Pico Bonito: white water rafting and jungle trekking
- Punta Sal: isolated beaches with great views about an hour boat ride away (~$40pp)
- Jeanette Kawas: mangroves accessible only by boat, where you may see crocodiles
- Tela Beach area itself is filled with beach huts, restuarants, and white sand!
Day 6: our best day in Honduras!
We never saw it coming. Our favorite hotel was one we booked minutes before arriving, just looking for something halfway back to Tegucigalpa.
This hotel had suspiciously great reviews on google. We were reluctant at first, thinking they could be made up.
It wasn’t as much a hotel as a private nature reserve with a couple lovely rooms, but it was the best we could have asked for. It’s called Luna del Puente Reserva Natural Privada and it was possibly our most relaxing stay of our entire 2-month trip.
The owners have lived there for 30 years, gracefully taking care of the enormous reserve they live on, truly embracing being one with nature. At night, we were invited to meet the red-eyed frogs that live all over the property – and their eggs and toads. It was… eye-opening. We LOVED it.
All you’ll hear is the sound of nature. Insects, frogs, birds chirping, and the occasional refreshing thunderstorm. The food here is homemade and absolutely delicious – plus there’s endless fresh hot cocoa and local coffee to enjoy.
Seriously we could spend a week here without leaving the property. It’s truly wonderful.
Day 7: taking care of the fun stuff
We spent as much time as we could enjoying Luna del Puente as we could before taking care of an important new element of traveling: Covid tests.
Let me tell you one thing – they’re not cheap in Honduras, especially considering you need a PCR test (not rapid) to enter Nicaragua, our next country.
This document has all of the Covid test centers available in Honduras. We decided to stop in Comayagua, where we spent $200 – but got our results back the same day.
Where to stay in Tegucigalpa
Our stop for the night was the Holiday Inn Express Tegucigalpa – which ended up being a really great stay.
It’s located in the nicest part of Tegucigalpa, with plenty of shopping and dining options. The rooms are great, breakfast is included, and so is the shuttle to the airport if you need.
In our case, we took an Uber for $7 to the TicaBus station for our next country – Nicaragua!
For those looking to save some money on their booking, here’s a Hotels.com coupon code:
Our Fifth Stop in Central America: Nicaragua (7 days) – a VERY interesting experience…
Nicaragua: the country where I got bitten by a dog, we had not one but two flat tires, we were asked (and declined) to bribe police at a traffic stop, and we had to spend $25 each just to cross the borders.
Yet, we loved it.
Nicaragua is such a unique country in Central America.
Yes, it’s communist.
Who cares? The people make it great. The food is great, the towns are amazing, and the nature is even better than all that. Plus, it’s CHEAP.
Despite all that happened to us, we would do it all over again. Dog bite included.
How we got detained entering Nicaragua
So, the only reason I’m telling you how important it is to fill out the Precheck/prechequeo a week before entering Nicaragua… is because we didn’t. We assumed, clearly incorrectly, that it was like the other countries where you fill out the form within 48 hours of entering. Wrong.
Customs & immigrations reviews each application individually and it can take up to a week to approve. If you don’t have one filled out a week prior, prepare to be detained on arrival pending an ‘interview’.
They just asked us what the prechequeo asks for: where you’re going/staying, how you’re getting there, health info, etc.
Requirements to enter Nicaragua in 2021
We were totally caught off guard by how much we had to bring to enter Nicaragua. Luckily TicaBus helped us (and everyone else) on the day of, but you may not have the same luck. Just in case, make sure to bring:
- PCR test results within 72 hours of entry – one original (color, printed) & two copies (printed)
- 3 color copies of your passport printed
- $15USD per person
- Prechequeo completed AND approved (or interview on arrival) – print the approval e-mail
How to get to Nicaragua in 2021
Flights into Nicaragua are unfortunately still extremely limited. If you want to fly, you’ll have to take Avianca. And unfortunately, their flight prices are very expensive ($400-500 each way).
We took a TicaBus from Tegucigalpa (operates twice a week). TicaBus also runs buses from San Salvador to Managua if you’re looking at a different itinerary.
Leon was our first destination of choice, but you can’t go wrong with anything outside Managua – the only city you don’t need to see in Nicaragua.
Word of advice if driving in Nicaragua: police bribes
We had been forewarned about bad cops in Nicaragua, but we’d heard the same thing a hundred times for every other country we visited as well – police here are bad and will try to force you to bribe them. Well, we had been lucky thus far in Central America…
But then it happened. We were pulled over for literally NO reason.
The exchange basically went like this:
Cop (Spanish) – “You took that turn a little fast. License and papers please.”
Side note: NEVER give your passport over. Repeat after me: never give your passport to the cops! This is their leverage for a bribe. Say you left it in the hotel.
It’s also better to pretend you don’t speak Spanish and say you will call your rental car agency to let them talk.
Us: “No we didn’t. We’re just trying to head to the volcano, please let us go.”
Cop: “It will be a fine and you will have to pay at the bank. Or you can just pay me here right now and I let you go.”
Us: “Ok fine, we’ll go to the bank with you” (knowing the cop didn’t actually want to do that)
Cop: starts arguing trying to tell us to pay him now. We told him what we was doing was unjust, he knows that, and there’s no way we’re going to pay.
In the end, we refused and were let free. As a last ditch effort, he asked us if we wanted to give a donation for the police force. HELL NO!
First Stop: Leon
Leon was such an amazing introduction to Nicaragua. Ever since Guatemala we had been missing truly colonial towns.
We got what we wanted – and more. Leon has some of the best food we had in Central America, and did I mention it was cheap?
Make sure to check out the Leon Cathedral right in the center of town. You can actually climb up to the rooftop (until about 5:30PM – they kick you out at 6).
Black Sandboarding: FYI
If you’re looking to participate in the black-sand volcano sand boarding (at Cerro Negro – literally means black mountain), Quetzaltrekkers (the main tour company in Leon) are unfortunately still closed for Covid-19. You’ll probably have to organize your tour through Viator.
Look into the bowels of an active volcano
There are only 10 places in the world you can peer straight into the crater of an active volcano and as you can probably guess by now, Nicaragua is one.
You can actually drive right up to this volcano 🌋, unlike most of the others in the world. All lazy people (like me), rejoice!
The entrance fee was around $10 per person and totally worth it. There is a restaurant in the park but it was closed when we entered last month.
Swim and meditate in an inverted volcano
Just to one-up how amazing Nicaragua is, have you ever swum in an inverted volcano?
At Lake Apoyo, you can! The water is pretty nice and clear, and warm. That’s nice.
We highly recommend staying at the Apoyo Lodge. It’s traditionally a yoga and meditation retreat, and I couldn’t think of a better location for it. You’re right up on the lake with boogie boards and tubes included.
In normal times, the Apoyo Lodge includes vegan food, but they haven’t been able to keep the staffing going because of Covid-19 induced drops in tourism. Nonetheless, it’s an amazing stay. One of our favorites.
Granada: another must-see
I hope you’re not tired of cute colonial towns. We personally couldn’t get enough, and Granada was our favorite in Nicaragua.
The food here was the best we had in Central America, the streets were the cutest we had seen since Antigua, and the people were just as friendly.
We couldn’t help ourselves but to eat at the Garden Cafe – which admittedly is pretty expensive. The smoothies and dishes they serve are fresh and delicious.
Our hotel of choice here is the Patio de Malinche. You won’t find a better price:quality ratio.
You HAVE to visit this magical volcano island in the middle of a lake
This was possibly our favorite thing in ALL of Central America. Here’s why.
Let’s go to the beach!
San Juan del Sur is a backpacker’s paradise. Good surfing, good food, and better views. It’s Costa Rica quality for Nicaragua prices.
We actually ran into a ton of expats here, the first we had seen since Belize and Guatemala.
If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of other beaches that are a bit more local!
Exiting Nicaragua: you have to pay (ca$h) to leave!
Before leaving Nicaragua, we made sure to exhaust our Cordobas thinking we were being smart. We weren’t.
Yep, they won’t let you leave via land unless you pay. It’s just $6 each but it caught us off guard.
Tired of the bus? Try one-way rentals
We were able to select Peñas Blancas (the border crossing into Costa Rica) as our drop-off location for our rental car. It was an extra $50, but totally worth it to not take another uncomfortable bus ride.
We dropped off our car and walked through. On the other side we found our next rental car waiting for us! I definitely enjoyed this SO much more than riding a bus for 8+ hours.
Do NOT use Sixt. They have horrendous customer service. Alamo on the other hand was one of my best experiences renting cars ever.
Last Stop on our 2021 Central America Adventure: Costa Rica! (7 days)
You can’t visit Central America without a stop in Costa Rica.
Is it touristy? Super.
Is it expensive? Very much so.
But it’s SO worth it. Costa Rica’s government started initiatives to preserve and promote nature in the 70s and 80s, and the results are fabulous.
I don’t think any other country in Central America can rival Costa Rica’s incredibly diverse wildlife and nature. Though Costa Rica’s landmass is less than 1% of the world, it holds 5% of the diversity of wildlife. That’s mind-blowing.
We really don’t like touristy places but we totally fell in love with Costa Rica.
Costa Rica 2021 Travel Restrictions & Land Borders
As of April 5, Costa Rica’s land borders have thankfully reopened.
Costa Rica does not require ANY Covid-19 test, but they do require travel health insurance. Read up more about the 6 best policies you can take in 2021 on Money.com.
You will need to fill out the online Health Pass within 72 hours of entering Costa Rica. You’ll get a QR code to present to the customs agent as you’re crossing the border.
Renting a car and driving in Costa Rica
The roads in Costa Rica are the worst we saw in Central America, period. Some are paved but you really wish they weren’t. The amount of potholes is absolutely staggering.
There are roads where you’ll have to cross rivers and your rental car insurance becomes void. Make sure to research or ask about these at your rental location.
You are required to get third-party liability insurance (often called SLI) but nothing else. I was able to only select this insurance by contacting Alamo directly by e-mail to get a direct quote.
I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve card as the primary rental car insurance with no issues.
Best wildlife in Central America
Even though Costa Rica only takes up less than 1% of the total landmass of the earth, it contains 5% of its biodiversity. This is a direct result of the government’s actions 30+ years ago to protect the environment.
So even though we hated paying Costa Rica prices, we were delighted by what we saw and experienced.
Wild parrots, hummingbirds, armadillos, squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, blue-tail magpies, sloths (and their babies) in our garden, and so much more.
Best Costa Rica 7-Day Itinerary in 2021
There’s so much to see and do in Costa Rica. The possibilities are almost literally endless.
Last year, I spent 3 days here in Guanacaste and I knew I had to come back and see more.
This time, we spent 10 days here and still only scratched the surface. That being said, an ideal itinerary from Penas Blancas might be:
- Rincon de la Vieja, staying at Hacienda Guachipelin where you have access to 7 waterfalls and hot springs
- Northern Guanacaste, staying at the JW Marriott Guanacaste and enjoying the beach, spa, and pool
- Southern Guanacaste, staying at the Barcelo Tambor and its secluded, magnificent beaches
- Rio Celeste/Tenorio Volcano area, visiting the spectacular waterfall and staying near Lake Arenal
- La Fortuna area where you have nearly endless activities (white water rafting, rappelling, sloth watching, night wildlife tours, and great dining). Stay the the Paradise Hot Springs for luxury and insanely gorgeous hot springs!
- The Monteverde Cloud Forest. This is a MUST-SEE in Costa Rica. Best wildlife, most incredible nature, and lovely town. For the best birdwatching, head to the Curi-Cancha Reserve.
- Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio with its awesome wildlife (tons of monkeys, crabs, and sloths), amazing beaches, and surfing. Make sure to plan a day at the Nauyaca Waterfall Nature Park as well!
- Limon for a taste of the Caribbean life, and more crabs and sloths! Great seafood and white sand beaches here.
- Parque Nacional Tortuguero, one of the greatest single places in Costa Rica. You can watch the Green and Leatherback turtles building their nests or leaving towards Florida depending on the season.
- And if your trip finishes in San José, pay a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park – unless you’ve had enough of waterfalls.
If you’re headed to Panama next, the Corcovado National park for some amaaaaaazing views! In that case, you may want to save Manuel Antonio as the last step on your journey before Corcovado.
…Our 2021 Central America trip to be continued…?
Though we had initially planned to continue into Panama, our plans changed about midway through. And we had already spent three weeks in Mexico last year – which, by the way, is open too!
Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to contact me.