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Cheap Central America Travel Tips

Tips for budget travel in Central America


A Street Cart Vendor in San Salvador

A Street Cart Vendor in San Salvador

Kirsten Hubbard
Central America is a great destination for budget travelers and backpackers, even those with total shoestring budgets. Of course, some costs are inescapable, like airfare (ouch!), passport, and entry/exit fees. But if you're savvy, most other travel costs can be cut or significantly reduced. Here are some tips for traveling on the cheap in Central America.

Eat at street carts
Street carts are a huge part of the Central American lifestyle. They're absolutely everywhere, from tiny villages to big cities. What they sell depends on the country and destination; popular Central America street cart fare includes tamales, fried and grilled chicken, snow cones, French fries, hot dogs, fruit salad, chicharrones, fried plantains, and so much more. Not sure where to find street carts? Try the park – street cart vendors typically collect at public parks and squares, especially in the evening.

Buy souvenirs in the supermarket
When it's time to bring some gifts home for your friends and family, local marketplaces are fantastic for crafts and souvenirs. However, if your destination has a supermarket, stop by there too. They're great places for lower prices on items like hot sauces, coffee, tea and local candy, all which make great gifts.

Find Hostels with perks
Check out the perks each area hostel offers before you book your stay. Many offer free breakfast (usually fruit and pancakes) for guests. Even more offer free coffee and tea throughout the day. Communal kitchens are also common, which make it easy to grocery shop and cook a few cheap meals during your stay. Most hostels offer internet access – or if you have your own laptop, free wireless internet access. Internet café fees can stack up, so free internet is very helpful.

Strap up a hammock
Some Central America budget hostels, surf camps and national parks allow guests to strap up a hammock for super cheap – often as little as a couple dollars. Factors to consider are the safety of the area, and mosquitoes (for many places you'll also want to bring a treated mosquito net).

Almost all prices in Central America – outside the supermarket or mall stores, of course – are negotiable. Haggling is a way of life in Central America, and though it might feel awkward at first, you're not offending anybody by bargaining. Start by suggesting a price lower than what you hope to pay, and go from there. Always be prepared to walk away! But don't get stuck arguing over a quarter or two – locals need to make a living.

Take local buses
Local buses in Central America – known as chicken buses – are often crowded and chaotic. They're also extremely cheap. Sometimes a couple coins will get you where you need to be. As long as your travel timing is somewhat flexible (because chicken bus schedules are a world of their own) and you don't mind a bit of dirt and discomfort, the chicken bus is the way to go.

Buy booze at the store
Drink prices in Central America are typically much cheaper than you'd find at home. But depending on the trendiness of the bar or disco, your wallet can still take a heavy hit after a few nights out. Alcohol in grocery stores and supermarkets is much less expensive.

Find cheap (or free) activities
Some activities in Central America, like zip lining and Scuba diving, can get pretty costly. They're worth the splurge, of course – but the splurge is a lot easier if you emphasize free or cheap activities in your itinerary as well. Many Central America national parks have entrance fees of just a few bucks, and you can easily hike the day away inside them. Simply strolling through town is one of my favorite ways to spend time in Central America. Many museums and cultural attractions have reduced or even free admission days every week.

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