Off the Gringo Trail: 8 Experiences in Central America

Stepping off the Gringo Trail isn’t easy, considering some of the best experiences are dotted along the well-trodden path. So, we asked Nomad Katelyn to reveal a few unique things to see and do as you weave your way through Central America.


Two backpackers walk along the coast of Little Corn Island, on the Carribean coast of Nicaragua Photo © iStock/cnicbc

Let’s be honest, it’s no wonder Central America is one of the most popular destinations for backpackers. With an abundance of adventurous activities, diverse culture, cheap beer, and easy transportation between countries, we can see so many reasons why travel has boomed here.

Cave Tubing & Diving in Belize

There's more to Belize than just Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Spend a few days exploring the islands – especially the laid-back, backpacker-friendly island of Caye Caulker.

Don’t miss the Great Blue Hole if you’re a scuba diver. The massive submarine sinkhole was made famous by famed explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1971. Since he named it one of the top ten scuba diving sites in the world, it’s been a popular dive site, where you’ll see colorful reef fish and Caribbean Reef Sharks.

After working on your tan, head inland to the jungles. Go cave tubing with Butts Up Cave Tubing, in Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve. As you tube through the cave systems, you’ll soon see why the ancient Mayas regarded Caves Branch as a sacred underworld, home to many powerful gods.

Exploring Rio Frio cave, Belize. Photo credit: iStock

Trekking to Score Unreal Views in Guatemala

Guatemala is a diverse country with so much to offer backpackers. The colonial city of Antigua often serves as the hub city for many backpackers traveling throughout Central America. For adventurous travelers, you don’t want to miss the two-day Acatenango Volcano trek. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see fiery Fuego erupting.   

The three-day, 40 km hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan is a unique way to experience the remote highlands of Guatemala and meet the local villagers along your way. It's a challenging hike, but well worth it. Check out Quetzaltrekkers, which is a volunteer-run organization that donates profits from the hike to the local schools.

Travelers watching the sunrise over Lake Atitlan from La Nariz de Indio. Photo credit: iStock

Surf’s Up in El Salvador

Many backpackers skip El Salvador, but this little country that uses the US Dollar, should not be missed. Nestled on the coastline of the warm Pacific Ocean, El Salvador is home to some of the best waves in Central America.

El Tunco on the coast of El Salvador is a hot bed for surfers from all over the world. Many of El Salvador’s best surfers can be found in this tiny village. On the weekends, the village comes alive with Salvadorans who escape from the chaos of San Salvador for some fun in the sun. During high season, the nightclubs and bars will be hopping.

Tunco beach, El Salvador. Photo credit: iStock

Find Ancient Mayan Ruins & Learn to Dive in Honduras

Honduras is the place to be if you want to learn to scuba dive or snorkel with whale sharks. Utila is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn how to dive. The tiny island is home to tons of dive shops, delicious restaurants, and good nightlife. Once you’re there, you’ll quickly see why some people just never leave Utila.

For some history and culture, don’t miss Copan Archaeological Park on your way back through the mainland.   

Who wouldn’t want to join this guy to see the Mayan ruins at Copan Archaeological Park? Photo credit: iStock

Take a Ferry to Get Off the Beaten Path in Nicaragua

Nicaragua today is like Costa Rica twenty years ago. It offers similar activities, food, and culture, but at a much cheaper cost. From the beautiful colonial city of Granada and nearby Lake Nicaragua to surfing in San Juan del Sur and volcano boarding, Nicaragua has much to offer backpackers.

For an off-the-beaten-path experience, take the ferry to the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast where you can relax, surf, and explore the islands at a leisurely pace.

Kayaking on Lake Nicaragua. Photo credit: iStock

Zip-lining & Eco-friendly Tours in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the pioneer of zip-lining and adventure sports. With 90% of its animals and 50% of its plant species living in the upper parts of the rainforest, zip-lining through the jungle is the best way to get up close and personal with the native wildlife. Diamante Eco Adventure Park is home to one of the top 5 zip-lines in the world.

Costa Rica is home to tons of biodiversity-rich National Parks, like Manuel Antonio National Park and Arenal Volcano National Park. Many backpackers often skip Arenal as it is expensive, but it’s worth the splurge. Jacamar Naturalist Tours is an eco-friendly company offers a range of adventure tours in Arenal, like canyoneering, white water rafting, and hiking.    

Rio Celeste Waterfall, Costa Rica. Photo credit: iStock

Get to Know the Local Tribes on the San Blas Islands, Panama

Panama is a diverse country with something for everyone, from the dense jungles dotted with coffee plantations to Bocas del Toro where you can sleep over the ocean at night and dive or snorkel during the day.

The San Blas islands offer stunning white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters. Stay on the islands with the local tribe called the Gunas, formerly known as Kuna and historically known as Cuna.

Spend a few days in Panama City explore the mix of the old city, Casco Viejo, and the new modern city. Don’t forget to tour the Panama Canal, which changed the way the world did shipping in the 1900s.

Local village on the San Blas Islands, Panama. Photo credit: iStock

Learn Some Español!

It’s also a great place to practice your Español! Check out our tips on how to pick the right Spanish school for you, here.

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  • f said

    Most of these suggested spots are nice but still on the well-trodden gringo trail.
    Arenal is the most gringo you can get in Costa Rica. What about Corcovado?
    Panama Canal, Casco Viejo and Bocas Del Toro are overrun with gringos. What about Darien Gap?
    The northern part of Nicaragua is untouched....etc., etc...
    This article unfortunately has not hit the mark on it's intended subject matter.......Many missed opportunities in C. America...........

  • Humberto Altieri said

    Gringos are everywhere, a trademark of the imperialist mentality that goes back centuries in search of the the last frontier.

  • iwakeupscreaming said

    Sorry Katelyn, I agree with f. The article is a little overly simplistic. Everything you wrote about here is exactly on the so called gringo trail... you gotta venture out a little. There's a lot more to explore -- hope you will someday!

  • g said

    Agree, I don't understand the heading of this article at all... Click bait

  • Ruth said

    Thanks for writing about Central America. It is a wonderful area to visit! However, I am wondering what process was used to edit this article since it contains several errors. For example, El Tunco is not in northern El Salvador, people from El Salvador are known as Salvadorans (not El Salvadorians), the caption on the waterfall photo is incorrect (it shows the Rio Celeste Waterfall, not La Fortuna Waterfall) and the language used in El Salvador is Español no Espanol. It would be nice if more care is used on these matters.

  • AmeliaMcGrath said

    Hey Ruth,
    Thanks for letting us know! We'll make these changes to the piece now.

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