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Cuanto Cuesta? How much will travelling in Central America cost me!

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It is always prudent to investigate what a potential trip will cost. Especially when perceptions are as varied as they are about Central American costs. Many want to compare Central America to Southeast Asia but, in truth, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest places on earth to travel. Central America is certainly not that cheap. But that doesn’t necessarily make it expensive.

Your cost for a Central American trip will depend, first of all, on which part of Central America you plan on visiting. The seven different countries range from poor to semi-modern, all have their own currencies and their own unique price points. Beyond that, you should ask yourself a number of questions; the answers to following questions will shape your budgeting:

1)  Are you prepared to eat local food? 2)  Do you consume liquor and if so, what kind? 3)  What style of accommodation is important to you? 4)  Do you like to travel for the experience with local people or does getting somewhere quickly outweigh that? 5)  Are optional activities important to you or is just soaking up the vibe enough?

Let’s start with food. Eating the local cuisine will almost always be less expensive than indulging in your favorites from back home, even in a fancy restaurant. Pasta or pizza that may be cheap in Italy and reasonable in your hometown of Sydney, probably won’t be cheap in San Jose, Costa Rica. What will be cheap in San Jose is the super tasty local dish called casado. Exactly what the locals eat!

You should know, too, that Central America isn’t only rice and beans. There is so much local variety to sample. It’s understandable, though, that you may sometimes want to stick with what you are used to. But, even then, chances are that the pizza or sushi might not be exactly what you are used to. Your Lebanese plate in Masaya, Nicaragua might not be quite what you thought it would be and will cost more than the local food.

So, home faire or local faire? It will seriously affect your budget.

Then there’s drink. One of the best lines we’ve heard on tour was, “I’m spending almost $300 a week on alcohol.” This was a LOT to be spending in Nicaragua and Honduras where a beer generally costs you about $1, and rum tasting, which includes 15 shots, is $20. Something was not quite right. She clarified that she was drinking tequila. Now, tequila is produced in Mexico, not Nicaragua. Here it was $7 for a shot of tequila as opposed to the local liquor that was $1.50. The local liquor is always going to be cheaper. Rum would be your go-to drink in Central America, where they produce some of the world’s finest. And beer is as cheap as water. Wine, though, is extremely expensive, especially if you are a wine connoisseur.

Now how do you feel about your sleeping arrangements? Central America isn’t as cheap as it once was but there are lots of options! Hotels are in abundance in the bigger cities and you can often find really good deals through online booking platforms. A 5-star hotel in Panama City, on the right day, might cost you only $35; staying in a beautifully restored old monastery in Antigua, Guatemala, only $98. Airbnb is also popular throughout Central America and you can choose exactly what you are after, a whole apartment, just a room, a room with private bathroom or a shared one. Some come with cooking facilities, a bonus if you are on a long trip and want to save some pennies. The options are endless. Couchsurfing is also popular but not something we would recommend. There are also many hostels and hostals throughout Central America, ranging anywhere from $5 to $45. What is the difference between a hostal and a hostel, you ask? Officially, this: “A hostal is a cheap hotel, generally consisting of private rooms and bathrooms, while a hostel is a commercial overnight lodging place with dorm style accommodation and shared bathrooms and more of a party atmosphere.” It’s really important, especially if you are on the fussier side (like this author) to know exactly what you are after, keep your expectations realistic and keep in mind any local festivities that might affect those expectations. It’s a good idea to book in advance if you can; it may also end up keeping the cost down.

What about transportation? Does the thought of seventeen hours on a bus terrify you or get your juices flowing? In Central America there are lots of options for buses. International buses run the length of Central America and on into Mexico, too. Generally, you have to purchase tickets in advance. Seats are comfortable enough and you will be blessed with one bathroom. But take a moment to think about how that bathroom will be after a few hours and 60 people on said bus. “Chicken buses” are, by far, the cheapest and most entertaining. Old American school buses completely blinged up including bigger motors to take on those curves. They are super cheap to ride on. And, although they generally won’t take you directly from point A to point B, you will have a fun time getting to point B, most likely via points C and D. It’s an epic way to really get to chat with locals! But keep an eye on your belongings on these buses and try not to look flashy or too much like a traveller.

Flights, in general, aren’t that cheap. But it all depends on your route. In Guatemala, for example, you can travel from Guatemala City to Tikal by bus in around 11 hours, or you can take a one-hour flight. It’s about $25 versus $95.

Finally, are there a lot of optional activities that you want to take in or are you happy just to take in the local vibe? Costa Rica, for example, is a hot bed of adventure activity and also a coffee lover’s paradise. But, you aren’t going to see all of that in the capital city of San Jose. Some people think that just by being in the country, the culture will jump out at them or activities will be on every street corner. That’s unrealistic! Seeing the best a country has to offer doesn’t come free, often not even cheap! Some of Costa Rica’s finest tours, such as zip-lining through a cloud forest, start at around $30. An all-day boat trip is about $65, and “Gravity Falls” waterfall jumping, an experience like no other, is around $120. The entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park is $16 and a guide will cost you another $15, but you may get the perfect photo of a mama sloth with her baby or perhaps a crocodile on a beach consuming a monkey. These experiences can be life-changing, but the costs will vary a lot!

We suggest: Do the trips that include the vibe. “I remember that one time I climbed an active volcano in Nicaragua, son . . .”

So, how much should you budget for optional activities? That’s like asking, “How long is a piece of string . . . ?” We suggest $30 – $50 a day as a starting point for building your budget; that will get you some good activities but not all the most pricey ones.

So, put it all together: Add the costs of your accommodation, your food, your alcohol, your transportation and your optional activities. Compare that to the packaged options that tour operators may provide. And compare tour operators to one another.

West Adventures has prepared a chart to make it easier to budget and compare, to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck. Click here to download the comparison chart.

To assist in your planning, here is a list of countries in Central America, from least to most costly to travel in:

Nicaragua
Honduras
El Salvador
México
Guatemala
Belize
Panama
Costa Rica