Central America is so much more than “that skinny bit” connecting two great continents – this isthmus (yes, there’s a word for that) packs a mighty punch on its own.
With seven countries under its narrow belt, it’s a stunning kaleidoscope of jungles, volcanoes, temples, beaches, delicious food and more spider monkeys than you can shake a stick at – and with a steady stream of fellow backpackers heading north to south or vice versa, it’s an amazing place to travel solo.
While I normally backpack on my own, after a health scare, I opted to jump on a 47-day Intrepid trip called Central American Explorer – and made loads of friends I’m still in touch with! But whether you’re going it alone or flying solo on a group trip, here are my top picks in Central America for solo travellers.
You better Belize it. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America, and with the friendly locals, relaxed vibe and ease of communication, it’s a breeze for solo travel. First up: off the coast is a tiny island paradise, Caye Caulker. The motto here is “Go slow” – it’s a car-free place where the roads are sandy, palm trees sway, rum punch flows and life moves at a chilled-out pace.
Belize is home to the second-largest barrier reef in the world, so a great way to spend a day is to get out on the water. Head out on a catamaran trip to meet new friends, soak up the sun and reggae tunes, and stop at snorkel spots teeming with colourful fish and docile nurse sharks. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a manatee – I had one gentle giant whoosh by right below me in the open ocean.
From afternoon onwards, the Split is the social place to be. Back in 1961, Hurricane Hattie ripped Caye Caulker in two – and now, the Split is where locals and visitors hang out, go for a dip and grab a drink from the beach bars. For dinner, gobble up shrimp off the grill or treat yourself to lobster for much cheaper than at home. And wash it all down with rum punch, of course.
Back on the mainland, San Ignacio is a base for outdoor adventures. Spelunking, anyone? For a challenging Indiana Jones experience, join a guided tour to the ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal). You’ll hike, swim, explore endless chambers and marvel at archaeological wonders like ancient Mayan pottery and sparkling calcified skeletons. Or, for something lazier, opt for a cave tubing expedition – just don a fashion-forward headlamp, float and enjoy.
Guatemala is one of the most popular countries in the region for backpackers, so it’s great to visit solo. There’s good travel infrastructure and plenty of fellow travellers, so if you’re looking to make friends, you won’t be alone for long!
In northern Guatemala, don’t miss Tikal, a heavy-hitter on any traveller’s list. This ancient, mysterious Mayan kingdom, famous for its photogenic pyramid, begs to be explored on foot. Wander through the ruined complex with spider and howler monkeys swinging overhead. Not far away is Flores, a pretty island town with colourful buildings, red corrugated roofs and flowers spilling down the slopes.
Antigua, full of pastel colonial buildings and watched over by looming, cloud-ringed volcanic peaks, is a solid base for your explorations. From the city, you can trek a nearby volcano, visit local coffee plantations or stay in town to browse the markets, try traditional Mayan drinking chocolate at ChocoMuseo and dance the night away at a salsa bar.
Chichicastenango is one of Central America’s largest open-air markets, exploding into a riot of activity Thursday and Sunday. Bring your best haggling skills or just enjoy the atmosphere! Not far south is crystal-blue Lake Atitlan, a crater lake in the highlands ringed by volcanoes. More than a dozen villages surround it, each with their own distinct flavour. San Pedro is a hub for backpackers, while San Marcos is known as a hippie hangout.
Tiny El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but it has a big heart – and it might just steal yours. While it sometimes gets a bad rap in the media, El Salvador is largely safe for travellers and well worth a visit. Of course, you should always follow normal travel safety ground rules, but the locals here are incredibly welcoming, prices are cheap and the water’s warm – surf’s up!
Quite literally – surfers (and backpackers) from all over the world flock to El Salvador’s Pacific coast for some of the best waves anywhere. For a beach break, don’t miss El Cuco or El Tunco. Grab a cheap morning surf lesson to catch your very first wave with other newbies, or you can lounge in a hammock, read a book or lounge on the beach to watch the pros.
The quaint colonial town of Suchitoto, the cultural capital of El Salvador, is a beauty. From here, you can visit Cerron Grande Reservoir to see tons of migrating birds, take a guided walk through Cinquera Forest (where guerrilla fighters hid during the civil war) or catch a ride to Los Tercios waterfall, a cool rock formation of hexagonal columns like a mini Giant’s Causeway.
And don’t leave the country without feasting on papusas – cornmeal flatbreads stuffed with cheese, refried beans or fried pork. One for a snack, two if you’re hungry and, well, three or four if you’re me. Yum!
There’s so much to see in Central America, we couldn’t possibly cover it all! But hopefully, this gives you a taster of this diverse continent – and lights the embers of inspiration for your next solo trip.
Ready to take on Central America solo? Intrepid Travel has 75 sustainable small group adventures for you to choose from.