Central America is fast becoming the go-to destination. More travellers than ever before are heading to these idyllic shores to sample the flamboyant local flavour and bathe in the splendour of ancient civilizations. Recently, I’ve noticed many-an-Instagram-story of the palm-fringed beaches of Tulum or the colourful (if not sometimes creepy) costumes of Día de los Muertos. And hey, Mexico is Hostelworld travellers’ first choice when backpacking Central America in 2022. But, unsurprisingly, there’s a whole world of cities in Central America that will make you “accidentally” miss your flight home. Want to know these addictive spots? Here are the top 10 most visited cities of Central America based on Hostelworld’s backpacker data. Yes, that’s you!
If you take one look at this developed ribbon of sand strewn across aquamarine waters, you’ll see why it’s the top-booked city in Central America. Resort town it may be, but venture into Cancun Centro and you’ll find colourful markets brimming with local flavour. A food seekers’ paradise, travellers to Cancun are rewarded with full bellies of cochinita pibil as they lounge under thatch-roofed restaurants before venturing out to party along a 35km stretch of powdery white sand.
A short stroll through Mexico Cities’ downtown reveals a shapeshift of styles. Impressive colonial-era structures; contemporary glass skylines; and winding Xochimilco canals work together to produce a hodge-podge maze that travellers lose themselves in over and over again. Old-school cantinas remain reliable pillars of society. They scatter the streets, ready and waiting to serve you a hearty meal and crisp beer with all the familiarity of your local back home.
Some see San José as little more than a pit stop taken before venturing into the steamy Costa Rican tropics (a must for anyone backpacking Central America). But, this young city deserves to be properly explored. A few days in Costa Rica’s cultural capital reveals contemporary art galleries housed in colourful castles and throbbing underground discotheques to dance the night away. Venture to Barrio Escalante to enjoy the region’s best street food, craft beer and coffee.
No, not the island. Once Guatemala’s capital, Antigua’s true beauty unfolds under the shadow of three towering volcanoes. At their feet lie streets bathed in pastel hues and clusters of colourful colonial buildings. As a world-heritage-listed site, expect to find global-chains masquerading as restored barroco antigueño townhouses. This is a place for explorers and layabouts alike. If toasting marshmallows over the hot rocks of Volcano Pacaya doesn’t tickle your fancy, discover one of the city’s many rooftop bars to sip world-class cocktails high above the cobblestone streets. Either choice is more than acceptable for your Central America travels.
A beach-bums paradise, Tulum is world-renowned for its silky sands and leafy palms. If you get tired of slurping Pina Coladas on the Yucatán Peninsula, head to the nearby Gran Cenote. This network of cavernous pools weaves like vines across the jungle floor, connected by wooden walkways. Here, the clearest waters reveal moss-covered rocks shrouded in immersed roots and freshwater turtles gliding between them. If you forget to bring your snorkel, there are plenty of opportunities to lounge around in the dappled sunshine after a refreshing (if not slightly chilly) dip.
Is this the ultimate surfers’ paradise? Mexico’s Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca is known by wave riders as one of the best surfing spots in the world; think 3.5km of golden sand buffeted by magnificent waves every 2 seconds. Even if toppling on top of a 30ft wave isn’t exactly your thing, this rugged port town attracts travellers from around the world to stroll the sandy streets of La Punta and dodge surfboards swung across bronzed shoulders. Playa Carrizalillo provides a welcome calm from surfer-claimed Playa Zicatela. This picture-perfect cove is fringed by small bars and restaurants nestled into the leafy jungle, perfect for fueling a day of much-needed chill time after weeks, months, or even years (we know who you are) of backpacking Central America.
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Yes, yes, Colombia is technically in South America. But the City of Eternal Spring is only a 1-and-a-half-hour flight from neighbouring Panama. Screw the technicalities, you can be sure eager travellers aren’t skipping it over when backpacking Central America! Squeezed between the narrow Aburra Valley, Medellin’s slums cling almost vertically to the surrounding hills, overlooking the dizzying skylines of the downtown district. At night, Reggaeton and Salsa music fills the streets as beautiful people spill out of bars and nightclubs. In early August, the streets are transformed by fragrant parade floats blooming with orchids and lilies in the famous Feria de Las Flores/Flower Festival.
San Cristobal de las Casas
If you venture into the Mexican Central Highlands, past rippling fields of corn and grazing cattle, you’ll come across a valley engulfed in pine forest. Here lie the sleepy cobbled streets and russet tiled roofs of San Cristobal de las Casas. This is a town of ancient customs, where the surrounding Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages leak indigenous culture into bustling craft markets. Travellers can kickstart their day with a Chiapan coffee on Real de Guadalupe, before sampling Pox, a corn-based local liquor, at one of the city’s many bars and nightclubs.
Home to some of Mexico’s most outrageous festivities, Oaxaca is a city pulsing with indigenous culture and Mayan enchantment. Yes please. Seeped in ancient history, this Central American city is surrounded by archaeological treasure troves; from the hilltop ruins of Monte Alban to the unearthed tombs of Zaachila. Vibrating alongside the colonial streets is a distinct air of grittiness; satirical graffiti splatters crumbling walls and underground mezcalerías promise evenings filled with regional passion. One of Mexico’s many cultural centres, travellers to Oaxaca can immerse themselves in local cooking classes or even sweat out toxins (we know you’ll have plenty of those) in an ancient Temazcal Ceremony.
Playa del Carmen
Rivalling Tulum as one of Mexico’s chicest spots, this Riviera beach town’s shores are rammed with eager backpackers and holidaymakers. Divers, this is the place for you. Coral reefs dance below the clear Caribbean waters, eclipsed by majestic reef sharks, eagle rays and loggerhead turtles. Running parallel to the sandy beach strip, Quinta Avenida offers up a sensory-overloaded ribbon of nick-nack stalls, steamy restaurants and flashing nightclubs. Yes, it can feel crowded at times. But Playa del Carmen somehow always succeeds in maintaining a laid-back bohemian vibe reminiscent of the fishing village it once was.
Have you been backpacking Central America recently? How was your experience? Let us know your favourite cities of Central America on our social channels and be sure to share your pics too!