Backpacking Central America: From San Jose to Mexico City

Granada, Nicaragua by Carlos Adampol

One thing you quickly learn when you’re backpacking is that you’re not alone. You’ll keep bumping into the same people doing the same route and visiting the same places as you.

In Australia, the classic journey is from Sydney to Cairns along the east coast, while in the USA, a popular route is to follow the trail of the famous Route 66 from east to west.

Down in Central America, the typical adventure begins in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, and continues north into what is technically North America to end in the sprawling Mexico City.

While completing this 1,500-mile journey might not be particularly original, there’s a reason holidays in Central America so often take this form: it’s a fantastic trip.

Such is the popularity of this tropical odyssey that you’ll find┬átour companies with whole Central American itineraries┬ábased on this route. For a guide to what you can expect from this well-trodden path, read on.

San Jose, Costa Rica

One of the most bio-diverse countries on earth, Costa Rica is a haven for lovers of wildlife. It also has one of Central America’s most lively capitals in San Jose, where you’ll find historic forts riddled with bullet holes from the civil war which lead to Costa Rica becoming a demilitarised country, as well as numerous bars and restaurants.


Moving north, you’ll cross the border into Nicaragua, whose landscape, like Costa Rica’s, is punctuated by smoking volcanoes. Ometepe Island is formed of two magma-making marvels, which present great opportunities for trekking. Granada and second largest city Leon are famous for their spectacular Colonial-era buildings.


Keep heading north and you won’t fail to find Honduras, one of five Central American countries (out of seven) whose border stretches from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

There’s plenty to explore here, from the bustling markets of San Pedro Sula to the idyllic beaches of Roatan Island. History buffs will appreciate the ruins of Copan, one of the most important sites of the Mayan civilisation.

Roatan, Honduras by Adalberto.H.Vega (creative commons)
Roatan, Honduras by Adalberto.H.Vega (creative commons)


Guatemala is the next country you come to, and like Honduras it has plenty of Mayan heritage. Tikal is the largest excavated site in the Americas and home to the spectacular Temple I, which stands more than 150ft high.

Aside from indulging your inner Indiana Jones, you can relax on a riverboat on the Rio Dulce and walk the pretty streets of Antigua.


Before you leave Central America and enter Mexico, make time for a jaunt eastwards into Belize, which has some beautiful stretches of Caribbean coastline, including the limestone coral island of Caye Caulker. With only 1,200 residents, the island provides a cosy introduction to the country and is also a great place to get some fresh seafood.

Mexico City, Mexico

Although the journey ends in Mexico City, one of the largest metropolises on earth, it would be remiss not to make time for some of the most famous Mayan sites on earth such as Chichen Itza, Palenque and Monte Alban, as well as the beautiful beaches of the Cancun region.

Finish your trip of a lifetime with a blow-out night on the tiles in the capital’s numerous bars and clubs, although it might be best to go easy on the tequila if you’re flying out early the next day!