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7 Weeks in Central America

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7 Weeks in Central America

I have done a lot of research and think I have found some great destinations throughout Central America to travel to. But I need some help with ideas and maybe identifying some overlaps in offering at destinations. I have 7 weeks and would prefer to travel cheap via buses between destinations. I wouldn't mind lossing some locations if this isn't doable in 7 weeks. I plan to start in Panama City, Panama, because flights were cheap, and head north until I end up in Antigua, Gautamala--because it's also cheap to fly from. Also the order can be tweaked if it's more efficient. The order of travel is: Panama City, and Boquete, Panama; Jaco, San Jose, Monte Verde, and La Fortuna, Costa Rica; Ometepe Island, Granada, and Leon, Nicaragua; Utila, Honduras; Placencia, The Great Blue Hole, and Caye Caulker, Belize; Tikal National Forest, Lago de Atitlan, and Antigua, Gautamala.

I'm open to all suggestions and ideas. I haven't bought a ticket so I'm wide open but these are the areas that seemed the coolest. I'll be going in July and August. Thanks in advance for your input.

Slovenia
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1. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

That is an ambitious itinerary for only 7 weeks using local bus transport. Not so sure if even doable, apart of spending most oy your time on buses. Just a note about Costa Rica part; skip Jaco (instead go to Manuel Antonio). And stay in San Jose only if needed for ongoing transfer. Good luck with planning, and safe trails!

St. Petersburg...
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2. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

Thanks for the advice. Yea, I know I'll only be able to stay a day or two in each location. I deleted San Jose and Jaco. I've got to trim the vacation down to something more realistic.

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3. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

I agree with xelas that this is an ambitious itinerary and that it will require a lot of time on buses (e.g. it's 7-8hrs just to get from Panama City to Boquete, and that doesn't even get you out of the 1st country, let alone the other 5). But I still think it is basically doable, particularly if you're willing to shed some of your goals. I know because I did a shorter but similar trip from CR to Guatemala and back a few years ago in just a month. I count about 14-15 seperate destinations on your trip, if you figure the better part of a day (give or take) getting between most of them, that leaves you only a couple of days or so at each one doing whatever it is you're gonna do there. That certainly isn't very much but its not totally out of the ballpark. OTOH, if you're willing to shave off some of them, that would leave you more time to do something other than look out a bus window, while still covering nearly as much ground.

So where to start. First off you said that the least expensive places you've found to fly in or out of is Panama City and Guatemala City (the international airport nearest Antigua). But how much are you really saving? Maybe $20-30 if that? Buses are relative cheap, but they're not free. For example, when you consider the cost of bus travel from PC to SJ ($40 if you went the whole way by Ticabus or maybe half that by local buses), you may not be saving any money at all. So the question then becomes how badly do you want to see the things at that end of your trip, after considering all the extra time it would mean on a bus and the time it would take away from the other places you would want to see on the rest of your trip.

OTOH, if you decide you still want to include Panama on your trip (and don't forget that some of your time will be taken up by whatever you want to see near PC and the Canal before you even start on your bus journey), you could consider 2 ways to enter CR from Boquete. The most obvious way would be the southern route through Paso Canoas. If you go that way, I'd recommend you make Corcovado part of your itinerary. Its about 6 hours from Boquete to Puerto Jimenez, then after you're done there, 8 hours to San Jose. Or you could hit Corcovado from the Drake Bay side (which would also break up the long ride to SJ and provide diving opportunities You could also go the northern route through Guabito/Sixaola. If you go that way, you could also see the San Blas Archipelago and Bocas del Toro (5-5.5hrs from Boquete and great diving opportunities), then after you're done there ~8hrs to SJ (with another possible stopover in Puerto Viejo on the CR's Caribbean side. That's 3 full travel days and, if you wanted to spend 2-3 full days at each stop, 7-10 days total just to get to SJ.

After that, if you want to do both Arenal (La Fortuna) and Monteverde, I would go to La Fortuna 1st, then take the boat across the lake to Monteverde, which will leave you in a better position to rejoin the Pan American Hwy for your journey onward into Nicaragua (it is also possible to go in the opposite order, MV and then Arenal, and then go to Ometepe by way of Los Chiles, but I don't recommend that). I'd also suggest you consider working a white-water rafting trip into this part of your trip as you can combine that with travel between some of your destinations at no extra charge and save both time and busfare. You could do that to get between PJ and SJ, SJ and La Fortuna or, perhaps better yet, PJ and La Fortuna (thereby cutting out the need to go through SJ at all).

From Monteverde to Ometepe by way of Penas Blancas is still a long jump. It is ~6.5hrs in actual travel time but that could be a LOT more because of the border formalities and all the possible connections (1.5hrs to get to the PAH and catch a passing Liberia bound bus, 1.5hrs to Liberia and another 1.5 to the border, 1hr to Rivas and a cab or bus from there to the nearby port of San Jorge and then whatever wait for the 1hr ferry ride to Ometepe). You might want to split that up too with a stopover in either the Rincon de la Vieja area of CR or the beach town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. If you opt for the volcanic area Rincon de la Vieja, you could possibly skip the Arenal Volcano area, but that would preclude you're skipping SJ by doing the rafting route between PJ and La Fortuna. This is getting really complicated and we're not even halfway through your trip, but let's suppose you go by way of SJ, Arenal, Monteverde and SJdS. Now we're talking 4 travel days to Ometepe (although all of those are either partial travel days or combined travel/activity days). If we figure 2 more days around Arenal and 1 full day each in Monteverde and SJdS (not including the partial days at each of those), we're up to 8 more days plus the 7-10 we figured to get to SJ.

Its about 3hrs from Moyogalpa to Granada by way of Rivas or 4hrs from Altagracia on the other side of Ometepe to Granada by boat. From Granada to Leon, its about 3hrs or more depending on your connection in Managua (you'll probably need to negotiate a cab to get between bus stations there, but do not spend anymore time there than you have to as it is MUCH more of a pit than even SJ). OTOH, if you can work in a visit to Masaya Volcano between Granada and Managua, I think it could be worthwhile. From Leon, its about 2.5 hrs to the border near Somotillo and 4-5 hours from Guasale to Tegoose (depending on your connection in Chuloteca). Tegucigalpa definitely has its grubbier aspects too, but I actually found it to be a much more attractive capital than either Managua or SJ (haven't been to Panama City). Check out the hill above the stadium for beautiful views of the city and take a day trip up to the mountain town of Valle de Angeles and La Tigra NP, if you can work it in. Its 6 hrs from Tegoose to La Cieba, where you catch the 1 hr ferry to Utila, making for another very long day when you add in the connection time in La Ceiba. 2.5 days in Granada, 1/2 day to Leon, 2 days Leon, travel day to Tegoose at least a day off (or more) there before another long travel day to Utila then a couple of days there for some more diving, adds up to another 10 days and now you're probably up to 4 weeks of your trip (if not more).

The next part of your trip, getting from Utila to Placencia in Belize, could be the trickiest one. First you'll need to hop back on the ferry to La Ceiba and bus to Puerto Cortez, which means switching buses in the transport hub city of San Pedro Sula (another real s-hole city if you don't mind my saying). Figure an hour for the ferry, connection time in La Ceiba and close to another 5 hours just to get to Puerto Cortez. Not too bad so far, but the real catch is that the ferry from there to La Placencia leaves only on Mondays and then only at 11:30am. So first you'd have to time your itinerary so that you arrive there on a Monday and secondly you probably couldn't make it there by 11:30am if you start out in Utila. Assuming you didn't want to overnight in Puerto Cortes (and there is nothing else there besides the ferry that would make you want to), you could split up that drive by stopping in the beach town of Tela, which is midway between La Ceiba and SPdH, but that either way it kills another night.

Assuming you make it to Placencia, the next leg of your journey to Caye Caulker could take anywhere between 5-8hrs because of multiple bus and boat connections. From Caye Caulker to Tikal, its 6 hours plus connection time and border formalities. You might want to split that up with a stop in San Ignacio in the Cayo District of Belize, which is supposed to be very nice. From Tikal to Guat City, its a 9.5-12hr bus ride (depending on what class of travel you choose), with not a lot of promising ways to break that up. OTOH, most of the buses are overnights (putting you into GC in the wee hours of the morning). Or you could just bite the bullet and spring for the domestic airfare for that part of your trip.

So what are we up to now? Two days to get to Placencia, at least a day or 2 there, another very full day to get to Caye Caulker, at least a couple more days there, another long day to get to Tikal, unless you want to break that up with a day or 2 in the Cayo District, a day in Tikal (personally I don't think that area was worth much more than that) and then the overnight to GC. That adds up to another 10 days or so, leaving you just barely enough for Antigua and the Lake Atitlan area (e.g. don't miss Chichicastenago). So, in summary, your itinerary could be done, but that doesn't leave much more than just a couple of days anywhere. Nor does it allow for transportation complications (including the Honduras>Belize ferry as well as any number of other places along the way). Nor the unforeseen. You'll probably want to slow down at some point as hopping on to another long bus ride every 2-3 days will probably get very old after 7 weeks. Plus, you'll probably get to at least one place (probably more than that), where you'll really want to spend more time, rather than rushing on.

Probably your best plan for this trip is to have no plans, or at least not any hard ones. You can start out with a rough plan like I've described but allow space for contingencies. If, god forbid, you decide to spend more time somewhere earlier in your trip, you can always alter your plans a bit. For example, assuming you don't decide to skip Panama and southern CR, you could cut out Ometepe. Although I would cut out Leon first (after all you will get to see other colonial cities with Granada and Antigua) and travel directly to Tegoose by way of Managua and Esteli. You could cut out Utila and go directly from Tegoose to Placencia (although you'd have to leave Tegoose before 6am in order to make the 11:30 boat) and still get your diving in at Caye Caulker (or in Panama or CR). Or you could cut out Belize and northern Guatemala entirely (and not have to deal with that problematic ferry ride to Belize) and travel from Utila to GC by way of Copans in western Honduras (I've been to both Copans and Tikal and think Copans is nearly as interesting without all the extra travel although YMMV) or even cut out Utila too and travel from Tegoose to Copans.

I have one last suggestion for you. I don't know what your spanish proficiency is but you also might want to consider doing this trip in the opposite direction and soend a week or two at the very beginning taking spanish classes in Antigua. It’s a beautiful city with an active nightlife (student and backpacker population) surrounded by 3 volcanoes. With 3-4 hours of classes each morning (and the opportunity for such things as free salsa dance lessons in the afternoon and time to practice what you learned earlier in the day) you'd be surprised how much your spanish can improve. And any increased fluency will greatly enhance the rest of your trip.

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4. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

After Boquete, you might consider Bocas del Toro and then hit Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

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5. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

Man, you should write some guide book! Or put up a web site! What a wealth of informations!! Gracias!

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6. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

I think what Prolijo is saying is accurate -- I only skimmed his recommendations but the gist of the time spent traveling is accurate.

Unless you plan on cutting down some travel time by flying where possible (for example, you could fly from Boquete to Jaco or San Jose) you will spend too much time on land travel. Lago Atitlan in Guat is really special and has a great vibe and you could get "lost" there easily for 7 weeks. Also, Guatemala is big and travel times are often long. Also note that in many of these countries, night-time travel is not really recommended -- especially Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras. So, you don't even save hotel fees and precious daylight hours by taking long nighttime bus rides. You'll be exhausted at the end of 7 weeks. You're also doing a lot of east coast to west coast crossings as you are travelling north. Maybe for this trip, try to stick to either east or west mixed in with some central so you don't spend alot of time traveling across/sideways. Many of the places you mentioned are great and deserve more than 1-2 days. If you catch the vibe of Utila, you'll def want to be there more than 2 days. I would recommend skipping Belize altogether and maybe even northern Guat (Tikal). Guat is very mountainous and travel times can be long and Tikal is far off in the north of Guat. Tikal is exhausting because you spend the whole day there and you are walking the entire time. Don't underestimate needing to chill the day after a trip to Tikal. Save Belize and northern Guat for another trip which you can combine with Mexico. If Atitlan is your last major destination, then you could go to Antigua 2 days before your flights and spend your last 2 days there which is close to the airport. I dont remember offhand but Atitlan/Panajachel to Antigua is about 6 hours by bus -- not bad.

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7. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

I appreciate what Falasafa tried to add but I think a few points really need to be corrected.

First off, you definitely can't fly directly from Boquete to Jaco. There are direct flights between David (1hr from Boquete) and SJ, but only 3 per week (otherwise you have to fly back to Panama City). You could then fly to Jaco from SJ, but I can't imagine anybody on this forum recommending that over taking the bus or actually even recommending you choose any other beach area in CR. More to the point, I've reccommended at least 4 places you could stop at between Boquete and SJ that are actually even more interesting places to go than Boquete itself. So if you were so pressed for time to leapfrog over to SJ after Boquete, I'd actually just recommend that you skip Boquete and Panama entirely.

Secondly, the only place I even vaguely suggested taking an overnight bus was between Tikal and GC and if you read what I wrote more carefully I wasn't even really recommending that. Its true that traveling in a bus overnight in that part of Central America is not as secure as day travel (plus you miss out on the passing scenery), but the main reason I wouldn't recommend that particular overnight is that you'll get little sleep (because of having to switch buses in Flores) and arrive in GC in the wee hours of the morning (@4am after 6 hrs of sleep if you go 1st class, or a bit longer sleep in a more uncomfortable ride on a 2nd class bus). That is why I actually suggested you bite the bullet and spring for the airfare for that part of the trip.

In fact, I'll go further to add that if you fly ANYWHERE on this trip you do it between Tikal/Flores and GC (as I did), All the other places where you might do it, are ones that have very worthwhile places to stop along the routes and/or exceptional scenery to help you pass the time OR where flying direct is not practical. This last point is important. I already pointed out the impracticality of flying between Boquete and Jaco. Where are the other big jumps in this itinerary? Leon, Nicaragua to Utila Island, Honduras and Utila, Honduras to Placencia, Belize. Places like these if they have airports at all, often only are accessed by domestic carriers (I know that to be the case on Leon and Utila). Of course, you could travel to someplace that does have an international airport (like La Ceiba in the case of Utila and Managua in the case of Leon) but most of the flights through secondary international airports like La Ceiba (or Liberia in CR) either fly through that nation's capital anyway (Tegoose in the case of La Ceiba) or fly only on certain days of the week. When you get done with all the added back and forth or having to tailor your schedule to fall on certain days, the actual time savings may not be as great as you think.

And then there is the cost factor. This past fall, I took the bus from SJ to PJ in CR and flew back. That 1hr flight saved me from 8 hrs of riding the bus (basically a whole day) at an added cost of well over $100, but that was during a 10 day trip where every day was at a premium. If it were a 50 day trip (which was already going to cost quite a lot), my values might have been a lot different.

The 3rd point about Guatemala being big and travel times long is certainly true, but the same could easily be said about Honduras and Nicaragua. OTOH, if you skip northern Guatemala and Tikal (and don't forget you could easily visit a great Mayan ruin at Copans instead), then the travel times around the other parts of Guatemala that you'll be most interested to see become much more manageable. Similarly, you're not gonna be traveling anywhere in the entire eastern half of Honduras beyond La Ceiba or the entire western 2/3rds of Nicaragua,

A 4th point where I'd disagree with the previous poster is the comment about east-west travel. First of all, though I suppose one could travel to Bluefields (or even Corn Island) on Nicaragua's caribbean coast, there isn't much else there to see and I seriously doubt the OP is gonna want to bother with that. The vast bulk of tourist-worthy things to see are concentrated on Nicaragua's SW/Pacific side. Secondly, if you refer back to the 3rd paragraph in my last post, you'll see that the total travel time between Boquete and SJ (assuming you don't fly) is about the same whether you go via Corcovado on the Pacific or Bocas and PV/Cahuita on the Caribbean side. The one place where this argument MIGHT apply would be in Honduras, but that would depend largely on whatever the onward travel plans would be. If you plan to go from there to Belize, which doesn't even have an western/Pacific coast, then at the very least you're gonna have to go through SPdS and then you might as well make a side trip a little eastward to Utila, if you really want to go there (even though you could get some diving in at Caye Caulker anyway). OTOH, if you decide to skip Belize and Tikal, you could still go to Utila and then to SW Guatemala by way of Copans. Utila would be slightly more out of your way, but you'd have more time for it since you won't be going to either Belize or northern Guatemala (or have to deal with the ferry to Placencia).

To confuse everyone a little more, I'll throw out yet a few more possibilities. If you want to follow Falasafa's advice about sticking to the Pacific by foregoing not only Belize and northern Guatemala but also Utila, IMHO there are a few other highly worthwhile possibilities. From Tegoose, you could go to Copans (probably still by way of SPdS) and then on to GC. Or you could take a side trip south to western El Salvador (which I found to be a truly wonderful country) and then on to GC by way of Lago de Coatepeque and Ruta de las Flores (with a side-trip to Suchitoto). Or you could go directly to San Salvador and visit those places from there before traveling north to Copans and then on to GC.

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8. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

Oh yes, I forgot to add a 5th point. The bus ride between Panajachel (on the shore of Lake Atitlan) and Antigua is only about 2.5hrs not 6. However, there is only 1 direct bus each day (in the morning), so you would have to make it at LEAST an overnight trip from Antigua. Chichicastenago is also about 2.5hrs away from Antigua and Panajachel is only 1.5hrs away from Chichi (with several throughout the morning and early afternoon). So, I suppose, if you went by way of Chichi, the drive part could take 4hrs, but if you were doing that then I'd suggest spending some time in Chichi to check out its very colorful market (why anyone can get excited about SJ's Central Mercado when other countries have markets like that is totally beyond me). Also I suppose one could get lost in the Lake Atitlan area for 7 weeks, but I think that would be even more extreme as only spending 1-2 days there (considering all the other places you want to see). Personally, I think if you store your pack in Antigua and pack a daypack with a few extra clothes, you could do a nice little loop over just 2-4 nights (early bus to Chichi to see the market, afternoon in Panajachel, a day to boat around the lake, with maybe another day or two to chill out somewhere along the way, then direct bus back to Antigua). Of course, you could take up more of your trip chilling out there, but given the relatively short bus times involved I don't think even this short loop is overly rushed (heck, there are some people who spend more time than that driving from SJ to Arenal and back as a day trip)

Edited: 18 March 2014, 17:46
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9. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

I can't speak for all of Central America... BUT you can get to Placencia, Belize via boat from Puerto Cortes, Honduras by ferry. It only leaves Puerto Cortes to Placencia on Mondays:

aboututila.com/TravelInfo/…

http://www.belizeferry.com/

guidetobelize.info/en/travel/belize-water-ta…

If you bypass Roatan, visit Copan, the beaches of Tela and Punta Sal and end in Puerto Cortes. Enjoy the beaches of the Placencia peninsula, Laughing Bird Caye, Ranguana, Silk Caye, Pumpkin Caye, etc...

Nice, affordable, locally owned hotels ON the beach:

http://booking.com/0d451c698a2482f4

http://booking.com/87ffe0f3a866c

http://booking.com/81ef5f8284a412

http://booking.com/ed2b115aa72f

http://booking.com/5b700ec59123c66

In Hopkins, check out the Garifuna culture/food/drumming styles, snorkeling/scuba diving, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, Blue Hole National Park, Mayflower Bocawina National Park, 5 Blues Lake, hiking and numerous waterfalls:

tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g635532-d120850…

http://www.hopkinscabanas.com/

Then head to San Ignacio and check the out the Caracol Mayan Ruins, Xunantunich Mayan Ruins, Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins & Museum, Actun Tunichil Muknal, Crystal Cave, Chechem Ha cave, Barton Creek Cave, Actun Chapat, the Belize Botanic Gardens, 1000 Foot Falls, Big Rock Falls, Masewal Forest Garden Medicinal Trail, Crested Caracara Reserve. You can book an overnight trip to Tikal from there or head for Guatemala from there, as well.

Nice, affordable, locally owned hotels in the San Ignacio area:

http://booking.com/1fe469725cb50c5

http://booking.com/c0062055acd68ad

http://booking.com/bc00d9feff211

http://booking.com/13870b56e65aadcfb

Consider staying on the Hummingbird Highway for a couple days. Visit Guanacaste National Park (the one in Belmopan NOT Costa Rica), the Belize Zoo, Old Belize Cultural and Historical Center and the Bacab Eco Park on your way to Orange Walk.

http://booking.com/0fe2f93a2303b435d

In Orange Walk, there are very affordable Lamanai Mayan Ruins, Community Baboon Sanctuary, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and Cave Tubing tours, Banquitas House of Culture and a freshwater lagoon beach:

tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g291978-d630006…

http://www.hoteldelafuente.com/index.html

tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g291978-d250736…

http://honeycampranch.com/hcH.htm

Get the ADO Bus up to Tulum, Akumal and Xpu Ha, and check out the best beaches and cenotes you'll ever see in your life:

http://booking.com/4dd8d3c03aea84

http://booking.com/c1c2fe774eb4239c

http://booking.com/4346cf3b0d9d13354

http://booking.com/f08d8fa5f2610e

http://booking.com/5319455c7519ad5

http://booking.com/fc7d252e10609

http://booking.com/0cfb53012b38fc

OR transfer buses from Orange Walk to Chetumal (Mexico), then onto Bacalar, and take your time making it there:

http://booking.com/203f871ee8054

http://booking.com/a97fda02dfd3baf

http://booking.com/648cae0cefe6fe44f

http://booking.com/d8a9ca767e5f4

http://booking.com/f3dc44e97058

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10. Re: 7 Weeks in Central America

Wow. Thank you all for such great and well thought advice. I agree, prolijo should ride a guide book--I'd buy it. I think after everyone's advice I'll start trying to break this trip up into 2 separate vacations; maybe, a north and a south trip and also scratch and swap some more locations. Oh, btw, I'm completing Spanish 2 in college as we speak and am so thrilled to halbo con todo el mundoen espanol. Thanks, yall.