The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua


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Amazing Wild Animal Encounters

Spotting critters is a big goal and a definite highlight of our Trans-Americas Journey and we’ve had some amazing wild animal encounters as we’ve traveled through the Americas. Back in 2010 we put together a list of our top wild animal encounters to that point which included grizzlies in Alaska, scarlet macaws in Mexico, and (almost wild) jaguars in Belize. This updated list now includes whale sharks, resplendent quetzal birds, hammerhead sharks, turtles, and so much more.

Our most amazing wildlife encounters (so far)

Red eyed Tree frog Costa Rica

One of many red-eyed tree frogs that stared us down in Costa Rica.

See more of this adorable little guy, and his other rain forest friends, in our post from Rainforest Adventures in Costa Rica.

School of Hammerhead sharks

We were surrounded by hammerheads (and loved it) while scuba diving around Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of the Undersea Hunter Group

Hammerheads were just the beginning of our underwater wild animal encounters. Get the full sharky story in our Cocos Island post.

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male quetzal emerged from its nest and posed for us in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Learn how you can visit this wonderful protected forest and lodge and bag your own quetzal sighting in our post from Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Gentoo Penguins Port Lockroy Antarcica

Gentoo penguins proved they are even more adorable in person when we visited Antarctica.

We also sighted killer whales, chin strap penguins, and crabeater seals in Antarctica. See them all in our photo-filled posts from Antarctica.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

A small snorkeler with a massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico where we also got in the water with these giants. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo

More whale shark details, including how to make sure sea sickness doesn’t ruin your encounter, are in our post about snorkeling with whale sharks near Cancun.

A herd of buffalo literally roamed through our campground in Badlands National Park.

Find out which campground and more in our Badlands National Park post.

Baby sea turtles El Salvador

We held life in the palms of our hands when we helped release baby olive ridley turtles near Barra de Santiago in El Salvador.

Watch these hatchlings scramble to the sea in our post from Barra de Santiago, El Slavador.

Black bear and cub Yellowstone National Park

A black bear and her cub explored downed trees in Yellowstone National Park.

See more bears and learn about the park’s wolf population too in our Yellowstone National Park post.

Hummingbirds - Giatemala

Hungry hummingbirds barely noticed we were there on a porch in Guatemala.

More amazing shots of these tiny stunners are in our photo essay of hummingbirds from Guatemala.

This young wolf seemed as curious about us as we were about it when our paths crossed on the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota.

See more in our Minnesota North Shore photo gallery. Read more in our Minnesota North Shore travel journals part 1 and part 2.

Harris Hawk Chucky - El Salvador Falconry

We had a wild animal encounter of a totally different kind when we tried falconry in El Salvador.

Find out why hiking with a bird of prey is way cooler than normal hiking in our post about falconry in El Salvador.

A moose and her calf appeared around a bend during a hike in Grand Teton National Park.

See more in our Grand Teton National Park photo gallery.

We spent nearly an hour watching this female grizzly and her cub feast on blueberries in Denali National Park.

See more in our Denali National Park photo galleries – part 1, part 2, and part 3. Read more in our Denali National Park travel journals part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Muskox roamed the tundra on the North Slope in Alaska where we spotted them from a helicopter.

See more in our Deadhorse, Alaska photo gallery. Read more in our Deadhorse, Alaska travel journal.

This arctic fox already had its winter white coat on so it was easy to spot in the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.

See more in our Dalton Highway photo gallery. Read more in our Dalton Highway travel journals part 1 and part 2.

Gray whales put on an impressive show for us in Baja.

We wandered among millions of migrating monarch butterflies near Valle de Bravo in Mexico.

See more from this epic annual migration in our monarch butterfly migration post.

Crocodiles of all sizes lazed near our boat as we traveled to La Tovara Springs in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico.

See more in our San Blas, Mexico post.

Thousands of flamingos went about their strange pink business as we floated through the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in Mexico’s Yucatan State.

There are plenty more flamingo antics in our Rio Lagartos post.

We failed to find the whale sharks we were looking for during some SCUBA diving trips in Belize but a pod of bottlenose dolphins found us.

Learn more about our search for whale sharks in our post from Hopkins, Belize.

A keel-billed toucan stayed put long enough for us to capture its impossibly long beak at La Milpa Field Station in Belize.

More toucans (and pygmy owls and laughing falcons and many other species) can be seen in our post about Milpa Field Station in Belize.

Jaguar belize

Full disclosure: Tikatoo is not a wild jaguar but she is the closest we’ve come so far to seeing this elusive big cat in the jungle.

For more beauty shots of Tikatoo at her rescue home at Banana Bank Lodge check out our post from Belmopan, Belize.

A clan of howler monkeys befriended us while we camped at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas, Mexico.

Learn how you can have your own howler encounter in our full Las Guacamayas post.

Wild scarlet macaws gorged themselves in a tree above our tent at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas.

Want your own face time with macaws? Check out our full Las Guacamayas post.


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Photo of the Day: The Essence of Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

Semana Santa Antigua Guatemala

The essence of Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.

We spent Easter in Antigua, Guatemala (along with about 200,000 other people) and enjoyed one of the largest and most extravagant Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in the Americas. It’s a true spectacle for travelers and locals and Eric took hundreds of photos during Semana Santa. However, this photo captures the essence of Semana Santa as 80 costumed men delicately maneuver a 5,000 pound float over a meticulously created carpet on its way out of incense-filled San Felipe Church.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday the cobble stone streets and historic churches of Antigua are taken over by dozens of processions take place during all hours of the day and night featuring enormous wooden floats carried by up to 100 people at a time. Toss in vibrant street carpets hand-crafted out of dyed sawdust and flower petals (which are then destroyed under the passing feet of float bearers), special holiday foods, and lots and lots of incense and you’ve got yourself one heck of an Easter celebration. See more from Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala in our 6-part series of posts.

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Border Crossing 101: El Florido, Guatemala to Honduras

Crossing Latin American international borders is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. We hope the following border crossing tips help you get prepared to travel across smoothly with or without a vehicle.

Date: June 8, 2011

From: El Florido, Guatemala

To: Honduras

Lay of the land: This border crossing, referred to as El Florido on both sides and used primarily by big rigs and day-trippers visiting the Copan archaeological site, is dusty and quiet. No touts, no hassles, no services, banks or other facilities. The immigration office on the Guatemala side is well-marked and efficient. A brand new immigration and customs building has been put up on the Honduran side. A charming Honduran customs agent named Fabricio handled our truck importation with an absolute minimum of hassle. He barely inspected the vehicle at all but he was a bit of a Chatty Cathy which ate up some time. Before we drove away Fabricio gave us his cell phone number in case we had any questions or problems in his country and he tipped us off about a German man making excellent small batch beer in the town of Copan Ruinas just a few miles away.

Honduras Border Crossing - El Florido


Elapsed time: 1.5 hours (mostly spent talking to Fabricio)

Fees: US$3 per person for a Honduran visa; US$35 for temporary importation of the truck into Honduras

Number of days they gave us: 90 days for us and for our truck. See warning below regarding CA-4 regulations for overland travelers.

Vehicle insurance requirements: We were not required to show proof of Honduran liability insurance and there was no place to buy insurance at this border.

Where to fill up: Fill your tank before you leave Guatemala. Fuel is much more expensive in Honduras. If you’re headed to the El Florido border from Chiquimula, Guatemala the best place to fill up is the Shell station about a mile and a half before you reach the turn for El Florido. There’s no fuel immediately available on either side of this crossing.

Duty free finds: None

Need to know: Police officers in Honduras are serious about seat belts and you are required to carry reflective emergency triangles and a fire extinguisher in your vehicle (as is the rule in most of Latin America). We were pulled over about three miles into Honduras by cops looking for our front plate (we only have a back plate because a front plate won’t fit underneath our winch). The cops were not hassling us at all nor were they looking for a bribe. Once we showed them the temporary importation papers we’d just been given they explained that all vehicles registered in Honduras are required to have front and back plates then sent us on our way.

CA-4 warning: In 2006, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras joined together to create the so-called CA-4 (Central American 4) group of countries all honoring and enforcing one CA-4 visa governed by rules spelled out in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement.

Tourists are allowed to spend up to 90 days in total in any combination of the four participating countries and the clock starts ticking on your CA-4 visa the moment you step foot in any of the CA-4 countries.To complicate things further, in 2009 Honduras stopped honoring CA-4 regulations and started issuing its own 90 day visa. This means that you can spend 90 days in the other three CA-4 countries then enter Honduras and receive a new 90 day visa for that country.

But be warned: Honduras is completely surrounded by other CA-4 countries and, unless you fly, the only way out is overland. This requires entering one of the other CA-4 country which still abides by the 90 day limit starting when you first entered Central America. If you’ve used the 90 days Honduras give you, you will not be allowed to enter another CA-4 country overland.

We learned this the hard way after we spent almost three months in Guatemala, entered Honduras and got another 90 day visa and then tried to enter El Salvador which denied us entry because we’d (unwittingly) overstayed our allotted 90 days in the region as defined by the CA-4 regulations.

Overall border rating: Excellent. The El Florido crossing between Guatemala and Honduras was smoothly run, hassle-free and relatively quiet despite the presence of quite a few big rigs.

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Rear View Mirror: Guatemala Travel Tips After Four Months Exploring the Country

We spent a total of 140 days traveling in Guatemala in Central America during our Trans-Americas Journey road trip. We trekked through the jungle to El Mirador archaeological site, witnessed drunken horse racing in Todos Santos, returned to lovely Lake Atitlan again and again, got robbed while camping at a lake inside a volcano and fell in love (again) with Tikal. Here are our top Guatemala travel tips.

Lake Atitlan and San Pedro Volcano sunset, Guatemala

San Pedro Volcano across Lake Atitlán.

Guatemala travel tips

The word Guatemala means “land of forests” in one of the local Mayan dialects. Ironic, since deforestation is such a problem in Guatemala. We wonder what a Mayan word for “land of mudslides” is…

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male quetzal emerged from its nest inside a hollow tree trunk and posed for us on a nearby branch in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

The impossibly technicolor quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. It’s also the name of the country’s currency and a really great reason to start planning a visit to Guatemala right now.

The awesome ceiba, sacred to the Mayans, is the national tree of Guatemala. The thing starts its life covered in enormous spikes and can grow more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall.

karen at uaxactun archaeological site guatemala

Karen at the Uaxactun Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala, one of our favorites.

Guatemala is part of the Mundo Maya (along with southern Mexico, Belize and Honduras) and home to Uaxactun archaeological site just a few miles beyond Tikal. We’ve visited more than 60 Mayan archaeological sites since the Journey began and Uaxactun is our top spot for anyone interested in being part of authentic, less-crowded ceremonies marking the mysterious end of the Mayan long count calendar in 2012.

In the most recent Presidential election the wife of the then-sitting President  of Guatemala divorced him so she could, in her words, “marry the people.” This was widely seen as a blatant attempt to get around constitutional rules against family members of an outgoing President taking over the post. It took months, but Guatemala’s Supreme Court eventually saw it that way too and ruled that she had to abandon her campaign for the Presidency.

Postage to mail a postcard from Guatemala to the United States is a whopping 6.5Q (about US$0.84).

In October of 2011 Guatemala City introduced a few women-only buses.

We appreciate the no-nonsense language of our Lonely Planet guidebook to Guatemala in which the author wisely reminds readers that his guide (or any guide) “is not God talking.”

There’s a division of the Guatemalan Tourism Department called PROATUR and their sole job is to assist tourists with questions, problems and conflicts. We can tell you from first hand experience that this unique program gets results.

Colonial streets of Antigua with Agua Volcano

Colonial architecture lines a cobblestone street in Antigua with the Agua Volcano–one of three that ring the city– in the distance.

Antigua, Guatemala was settled by the Spanish as the capital of all of Central America. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site city just outside Guatemala City is famous for its Colonial charm and for its Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions and pomp. It’s the largest Easter celebration in the Americas and a must see for the religious or the just plain culturally curious.

Guys reflexively put their thumbs inside the mouths of their beer bottles and pop them before drinking. As if your thumb is cleaner than the bottle???

It’s far from a foodie destination but for some reason you can get great pesto sauce in Guatemala. Go figure. Also, they do a mean fried chicken and we had some of the best ceviche we’ve ever had in the midst of Guatemala City.

Guatemalans use the ancient “libra” measurement which weighs the same as a pound and is actually the Latin word from which we get the “lb” abbreviation.

Topes are called tumulos in Guatemala and these speed bumps in the road are just as ubiquitous and annoying as they are in Mexico and the rest of Central America.

dancers - Chichicastenango festival

Costumed dancers representing Spanish conquistadors strut their stuff during the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

We thought the Mexicans were crazy for fireworks and noise makers but Guatemalan festivals out-boom anything we ever saw (or heard) in Mexico. Don’t believe us? Check out our video from the Festival of Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango.

Guatemalans have butchered Mexican food, perhaps even more so than we have in the United States. US fast food chains, on the other hand, are amply represented in the cities.

Spanish is the national language in Guatemala, but words that are common in Mexico are not used here and vice versa. As if our language skills weren’t struggling already…

Guatemala is so small and sparsely populated that there’s only one area code for the whole country. And everyone seems to have a cell phone.

The grounds of the Mayan sites in Guatemala are extremely well-kept. We watched busy, busy caretakers literally sweep the paths at Yaxha (where a season of Survivor was filmed, by the way) and even remote and rarely visited sites like Dos Pilas (which averages about 30 visitors per month) were totally tidy and free of jungle debris.

Tikal main plaza - Temple 1

Temple 1 in the Gran Plaza at Tikal archaeological site, the most famous in Guatemala.

In Guatemala City, motorcyclists are required wear helmets and reflective vests with their license plate number on them. It’s also illegal to carry a passenger on a motorcycle in an attempt to thwart a favored mode of transportation for thieves and assassins targeting people stuck in traffic.

Gas prices vary by up to 40 cents per gallon, so shop around.

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The Majestic, Mighty, Magical Ceiba

We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this majestic, mighty, and possibly magical tree. Here are a few of our favorites.

Twin Ceiba trees at Caracol Mayan ruins

These twin ceiba trees are at the Caracol archaeological site in Belize.

Ceiba Tree

A mature ceiba tree.

A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.

All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.

Buttress supporting a giant Ceiba

Buttressed above-ground supports like these help keep massive ceiba trees upright, even when they grow to 200 feet tall or more.

The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.

Young Ceiba tree spikes

A young ceiba tree–it loses these spikes as it matures.

Cieba El Mirador National Park

Karen dwarfed by a ceiba tree at the La Florida archaeological site near El Mirador in Guatemala.

Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.

Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree

Ceiba tree at Hacienda Uayamon, Mexico

This ceiba tree is as old and stately as its home, the historic Hacienda Uayamon hotel in Mexico.

The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestrial realm in which we live, and the underworld (xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.

Giant ceiba tree in Costa Rica

This giant ceiba at the Shawandha Lodge on Costa Rica’s Carribbean coast is over 205 feet (63 meters) tall and is believed to be the second tallest ceiba in all of Costa Rica.

Ceiba tree painted on a school in Belize

A ceiba tree painted on a the side of a school in southern Belize.

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.

Bathroom built around Ceiba tree at Hacienda San Jose, Mexico

A ceiba tree continues to grow in the middle of the bathroom in one of the rooms at Hacienda San Jose hotel in Mexico.


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