The ins & outs

Overland holidays through Central America vary in style, but the one thing they have in common is that they are at least two weeks in length. Travelling in a small group, usually around 16 people maximum, there are plenty of solo travellers and a mixture of age groups although the minimum age tends to be 16. In Central America the majority of overland trips use public transport, in particular buses, and boats when necessary – making them overwater trips too in most cases. What with two coastlines and a wonderful collection of islands, cays and peninsulas to explore, ferries are often the only way. So, how to choose a Central America overland holiday?

Central America overland routes

Some trips cover as many as seven countries; others may do a smaller block such as Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama make another trio of treats. Your holiday company will follow a carefully crafted itinerary; however, these are also trips that invite an independent traveller approach rather than a spoon fed one, so there is usually plenty of time to do your own thing.

The classic route is one month long, starting in Mexico, and working your way south down through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. That’s pretty much everything on the menu, without Panama. In two weeks, you can usually do two countries and still have time for lots of wonderful experiences. Start in Nicaragua and take in the volcanoes, rainforests and lakes, then into Costa Rica starting with the stunning Arenal Volcano and then down the east coast to Tortuguero National Park and the white sandy beaches of Cahuita National Park. You might also squeeze a few coastal moments in Panama too on the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

You can also go much more off the beaten path in just two weeks in Central America, on an overland holiday through El Salvador and Honduras. Here, the tourism infrastructure is less developed, and so you will be travelling by private transport most of the time, and being led to highlights such as the Mayan Copán ruins or hiking though Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras, or bird watching at Suchitlán Lake in El Salvador.

Are we nearly there yet?

Not surprisingly, there may be long days of travel, or border crossings that involve some patience, but this is all part of the adventure. The itineraries are planned so that after a long travel day you will have time to chill in some beautiful place, but these are still trips where you can justify investing in a good travel pillow and a top refillable water bottle. If you are booking a month’s trip, do check with your tour operator how many days might be spent on the road, and how many days you will be stopping to really enjoy what each country has to offer.

Does overland mean cheap?

Overland trips do vary in price, and to understand the variation we recommend you take the following factors into consideration:

  • How long is your trip? 15, 21, 31 days? The longer ones usually spend a few days in one place so that you can explore in more depth. Or chill for a bit.
  • Are flights included?
  • Are you travelling on public or private transport?
  • Are you staying in hotels or more budget accommodation such as homestays or camping?
  • If you are travelling solo, will you have your own room? In most cases you won’t, but one will be available for a supplemental cost. Check how much extra that will be.
  • Are meals included? Some trips only include breakfasts in the cost, leaving you the freedom to budget for the rest of your food, be it in markets, small cafes or higher end restaurants.
  • Check out the ‘inclusions’ – some trips include a white water rafting trip, guided tours to Mayan sites or city tours. Others may make these optional extras, in which case do research the cost of each one. You should never be put under pressure to buy these – optional means optional.

Choosing an overland trip in Central America


Tom Smith from our supplier, Intrepid Travel: “Guatemala as a whole needs to be on more people’s bucket lists (or maybe not – it’ll get too busy!). Tikal is simply stunning, as is Lake Atitlán in the highlands. Caye Caulker in Belize is well regarded, and with good reason; the relaxed Caribbean vibe and amazing snorkelling and diving make this Belizean hideaway a must. And of course El Salvador. It’s a country with a bad reputation but the people are wonderful, and are always trying to ensure that guests leave with a better impression of this tiny country.”
Jess Millett, from our supplier, Tucan Travel, shares her advice on Central America overland trips: “To make the most of an overland tour you need to be very flexible, quite patient, and up for a really good adventure. Due to the very nature of these tours, there’s always a chance that something can go wrong – like a tyre blowing, or a break down – so you need to be able to shrug that off and make the most of it. An overland trip is ideal for solo travellers as it’s a very sociable style of travel; you’re mucking in together, you’re cooking together, you’re cleaning together, so there’s a definite community spirit. You’re almost guaranteed to make some really good friends and share some incredible memories.”
Nancy Ableser, from our supplier Tucan Travel: “Panama has a large indigenous population. The Kuna are known for their “molas”, a type of needlework. The Emberá make some extremely high-quality baskets. They also do intricate carvings out of a type of really hard, giant seed.”
Photo credits: [Intro: Cloud2013] [Are we nearly there yet: John Barrie] [Advice - Jess: Laura Hadden] [Advice - Tom: John Hurd] [Advice - Nancy: Ben Kucinski] [Helpdesk: Stefan Krasowski]
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