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A Backpackers Guide to Central America and the Caribbean

The Caribbean is synonymous with luxurious holidays. Immaculate beaches, coconut palms, warm, turquoise water and some of the friendliest, happy go lucky people you could ever wish to meet (well, we’d all be pretty pleased with ourselves if we lived in the Caribbean wouldn’t we?)

You may think that if your budget doesn’t stretch to 5* luxury, then a trip to the Caribbean probably isn’t for you, but you have options… Quite a few of them actually.

The Eastern coast of Central America sits smugly on the west coast of the Caribbean sea so travellers can lap up the same glorious beaches and chilled out vibe, for a fraction of the price.

How to Experience a taste of the Caribbean on a Backpackers budget

I don’t know about you, but when I try to define the world ‘backpacker’ I think not only of someone who is trying to travel on a budget, but also a person who wants to engross themselves in a destination’s culture, history, local customs, and someone who wants to travel around and explore many aspects of life in the place they are visiting and not just spend their entire time sat on a beach topping up their tan (although this, does have it’s place in any trip of course!)

So here are 5 places in Central America and the Caribbean where you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

To really experience a taste of the Caribbean on a backpacker budget, head to Central America instead of the islands that generally cater for a more, free spending, type of traveller.

The plus points are that the beaches are less crowded (and actually, are better too) and there is much more to discover in terms of history, culture and diverse scenery.

For a good all round travelling experience Costa Rica is the perfect place to base yourself, and a trip such as Costa Rica Adventure will make sure that you get to explore the very best on offer.

Head to: Puerto Viejo. Amazing surf and a traveller hole, it’s the perfect place to while away a warm day in the Caribbean.

Cuba

A truly unique destination that, due to its strict communist culture, has barely changed in over 50 years, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time as you wander through the winding and weary streets of the capital city Havana, watching pristine vintage cars speed past you.

Cuba is a break from the norm when it comes to the Caribbean, it’s got the beautiful beaches (you can thank geography for that) but the prices are lower and the vibe is more unique than it’s neighbouring islands.

Head to: Playas del Este. A beach very close to Havana which is popular with locals as well as tourists, meaning you can stay in the budget B&Bs of the capital and head to the beach when you feel like it.

Check out High Five… Cuba! For a more in depth guide of the best things to do in this fascinating country.

Jamaica

An old school Caribbean favourite, and for very good reason. Escape the resorts and save big bucks by joining a tour such as Jamaica Encompassed that will not only cost you less than an all inclusive holiday, but will also introduce you to the ‘real’ Jamaica and help you to really understand what makes this place tick.

Hike through the lush green wilderness, meet real Rastafarians, visit a coffee plantation, the Bob Marley museum and laze on white sandy beaches (well it has to be done doesn’t it?!)

Head to: Treasure Beach. Paradise but not as you might imagine it, or maybe exactly as you would… There are no built up hotels, honeymooners or rocking night clubs here, just a whole lot of beach, some hammocks and an amazing sunset.

Mexico

Think of Mexico and you may imagine the huge hotels of Cancun and the wild party atmosphere of Coco Bongos, but Mexico has much more to offer to a traveller intent on exploring.

A trip such as Mayan Sun, will pull you out of the resorts and into drop you into a completely different Mexico. Historic ruins, Tequila, indigenous villages, Mexican wrestling and the obligatory gorgeous beaches. So, technically, you’re getting that Caribbean feel and so much more – for a lot less.

Head to: Tulum. A small town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast that’s steeped in Mayan history, with a beautiful beach thrown in for good measure. The perfect place to kick back and enjoy some Caribbean sun, all for the price of a hostel.

Mexico

Panama

Neatly perched at the base of Central America on the border with Colombia, Panama isn’t the first place that would spring to mind when contemplating a holiday in the Caribbean, which is the exact reason it makes this list.

Panama is an extreamly cheap place to travel and it’s entire Eastern side is met by the Caribbean Sea meaning you’re spoilt for choice of amazing beaches. A tour is a great way to see more than the norm, Panama Experience will take you through all the best bits including Boca del Torro, but best of all – you’ll get to explore not one, but two countries – as you’ll travel through Costa Rica too!

Head to: Boca del Drago on Isla Colon. Idyllic beaches to enjoy, but it’s not overly touristy you’ll find a good selection of bars and restaurants and a decent choice of low coast, welcoming accommodation.

Panama

Tips for Saving Money When Travelling the Caribbean

Eat local – move away from the resorts and beach side restaurants and try authentic cuisine where the locals eat.

Take local transport – most of the Caribbean resorts has a reliable, well developed public transport system, San Domingo the capital of the Dominican republic even has a subway!

Stay away from the beach – while B&Bs are relatively rare in and around the Caribbean they are there. If you’re really strapped for cash stay in land and use the public transport to get you to the beach.

Go somewhere different – those popular resorts will cost more (go figure!) so head to the places that are less developed and quieter you’re still in the Caribbean, so it’s not as if you’re going to find a beach like Weston-Super-Mare is it?!

Head to the mainland – If you want to travel around and experience multiple countries/states then you’re better off sticking to Central America rather than the islands, as it’s easier to travel around. It is possible to take a ferry between islands (the Virgin Islands are probably the best base if you want to do that as the ferrys are more regular) but unless you’re taking a cruise hopping between islands independently can prove costly and hard work to arrange.

If you are eager to fly into paradise make sure you check out our cheap flights and our selection of adventure tours through Central America and the Caribbean, to make sure you get your dream holiday at the lowest possible cost.
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Showing 9 Comments

  1. Steven

    Ridiculous… Is this a guide to the Caribbean? Surely it is a guide to Central America!?! Tenuous and lazy journalism!

    1712 days ago
    • Lisa Crowther

      Hi Steven, thanks for your feedback, based on what you’ve said I’ve decided to change the headline to make it clear the article is referring to the area around the Caribbean Sea (i.e parts of Central America as well as the Caribbean Islands themselves).

      1712 days ago
      • milly

        Hi, so are you saying there is only Jamaica for the budget traveller besides South/Central America? shame…:o(

        1151 days ago
  2. Michael Churm

    Shocked that you chose Bocas del Toro in Panama. The San Blas islands are far nicer and the nearest thing you can get to a Caribbean ‘paradise’ without the extortionate costs.

    They’re probably the most beautiful islands and beaches I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

    1711 days ago
  3. Victoria

    The Corn Islands are paradise on earth. I lived there for three weeks – best time of my life.

    1708 days ago
    • Maddie

      Hey Victoria, my friend and I are thinking of spending time on the Corn Islands, any recommendations for accommodation?

      1591 days ago
      • Sarah

        I stayed at Elsa’s on little corn, and loved it. Paid 15 dollars to stay right on the beach. Highly recommend little corn island! Its an amazing spot

        1562 days ago
  4. EvoSpiritHealer

    Hi Lisa, I only want to travel through CA quickly and economically and then cross into Colombia and head onto Peru. Final destination is Iquitos. I need to arrive by Sept 13th and want to do the trip in 1.5 weeks. Also, since I live in Flores, Guatemala I need the most economical and safe option (since I manage the quetzal). Any feedback and help is so appreciated.

    1547 days ago
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    325 days ago