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Recently I spent 3 1/2 weeks traveling in Central America with my husband to escape the cold in Berlin where we live. We traveled in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, but the majority of our time was in Guatemala. The trip was from mid January to early February.
Update: A year later, we returned, this time to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua for one month. The trip was also mid January to mid February. My packing list for Central America was roughly the same, but updates are noted.
Luggage we traveled with
I love to travel light and go carry-on only, so we didn’t pack a lot. Between the two of us we packed all our stuff into two daypacks, including our new Osprey Momentum 22, plus my REI Trail 40. We brought along our REI stuff bag and used it often on transport days to make sure our food was easy to reach. We also used two packing cubes for socks and underwear. So remember, everything I’ve listed in this post plus my husband’s clothing, laptop, etc. fit into these three small bags.
Update: I have replace the Vaude daypack (the green one) with an Osprey Escapist 25 daypack, and I love it!
This isn’t exactly what I brought with me, but it’s what I should’ve brought. I thought I was being so minimalist, but by the end of the trip I realized I still packed too much. I had one shirt I never wore and two others I only wore once. I almost always wore shirts twice before washing them, so a little goes a long way.
- 5 short sleeve shirts
- 2 long sleeve shirts – I only packed one because I didn’t think I’d need it too often, but in most places it was cool enough in the early morning and at night that I wanted my long sleeve shirt and my hoodie over my short sleeve shirt. The middle of the day was nicely warm though.
Update: If you’re traveling primarily in hotter places, one is sufficient. I did not need 2 for Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
- 1 hoodie or light jacket – I think the only place where I didn’t wear my hoodie at all was in Belize. Plus it’s always good to be prepared for freezing cold buses.
- 2 pairs of shorts – I had one pair of jean shorts and one pair of gym shorts.
- 1 pair of jeans – The temperatures were warm but still comfortable enough to wear jeans most days.
Update: I didn’t wear my jeans nearly as often in Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, but I was still happy to have them. You’d probably be fine leaving them at home.
- 1 pair of gym pants or leggings – Perfect for long transport days and for sleeping.
- 1 bathing suit – Bring two if you plan on doing lots of water activities. We were only at the beach for a few days in Belize.
- 4-5 pairs of socks
- 2 bras – I’d also recommend packing a sports bra if you plan on doing active things like hiking a volcano.
- Underwear – As many pairs as you feel comfortable with. I usually aim for 7 on the assumption that I’ll do laundry once a week. If you don’t mind washing your underwear in the sink, you can get away with two or three pairs.
I’m not a dress person and I never felt under-dressed in Central America, but if you like to wear dresses, pack something casual.
I did a lot of walking in Central America, including light hiking through forests and climbing on ruins at Tikal and Copan. It’s definitely important to have comfortable shoes. If you’re packing a dress or nicer outfit, bring a pair of foldable flats to save on space.
- 1 pair of sneakers or other comfortable walking shoes
- 1 pair of flip flops – For the beach and hostel showers.
- Tevas sandals – I brought these instead of my flip flops the second time around, and I was happy to have them for longer walks in seaside locations.
Toiletries and Medical Items
I saw grocery stores and convenience stores that sell all kinds of toiletries in every single place we visited on this trip, so if you forget something or run out of something, you will be able to buy things along the way.
- Shampoo and conditioner – Check out the HPL recommended toiletries for carry-on travel.
- Soap or shower gel
- Solid perfume
- Makeup – I suggest packing a minimal amount of makeup.
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Contact solution and/or glasses
- Hair brush and hair ties
- Bug repellent – Especially in the warmer areas, it was important to protect against mosquitoes.
- Tiger Balm
- Basic first aid items
- Laptop – If you’re working from the road, this is a must. If not, think about if you really need to bring your laptop; it might not be worth the extra weight.
- Camera and memory cards
- Kindle or other e-reader
- Cords, chargers, batteries
- Plug adapter – This depends on where you’re coming from. Central American countries use the same plug style as the US and Canada.
Other Items to Pack
- Travel towel or sarong – I always want to pack a normal beach towel since they’re more absorbent, but really if you’re going to the beach, it’s probably warm enough and sunny enough that you don’t need much to dry off. A travel towel or sarong will do the trick.
- Hat – I really hate hats, but there were a few days when I was glad to have it to protect my face from the sun.
- Headlamp – The power went out several times in Honduras, so I actually did use my headlamp.
- Laundry detergent sheets – Perfect for washing underwear, or anything else, in the sink.
- Passport – Make sure it’s valid for at least six months past the end of your trip, and make sure you have plenty of blank pages for all those border crossings.
- Travel insurance – Always worth protecting yourself with travel insurance.
- ATM and credit cards
- Small amount of cash – El Salvador and Panama even use the US dollar as their currency.
- Tissues – I’ve never regretted having a few packets of tissues with me.
Tips for traveling in Central America
Guatemala is packed with things to do and see. Lake Atitlan has several towns all around the lake, each with its own feel to it. Antigua is a pretty city to explore and has several tour options for day trips, including hiking a volcano to learning about coffee farming. Tikal is a fascinating set of ruins, most of which are still buried under the jungle, and it’s definitely worth getting a guided tour. And these are just the top sights – there are tons of other places worth seeing throughout the country.
Transportation in Central America can be a little tricky to figure out before you get there. We found information on some routes, but not all, before we started our trip. It’s worth doing a little research so you know the distances and how far you can go in one day, but you can figure things out on the road and book almost any route the day before or even the day you want to leave.
In Panama, I highly recommend doing a Panama Canal tour. However, the half day one is sufficient. We did the full day, and I kind of lost interest towards the end. Plus the full day tours only run once or twice a month, but the half day ones are more frequent.
If you’re on a budget, Panama and Nicaragua can be cheaper than Costa Rica, and they offer a lot of the same activities. I went ziplining in Bocas del Toro, Panama and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, and both were cheaper than what I saw in Costa Rica. We did a coffee tour and a cloud forest bridge tour in Boquete, Panama, both of which were cheaper than what we saw in Costa Rica. However, the La Fortuna/Arenal area of Costa Rica can’t be beat for a little splurge on the thermal pools.
The food was decent but not super exciting in most places. There’s a lot of eggs for breakfast and corn tortillas at any meal. I personally can’t eat a lot of eggs or corn without getting sick, but I was able to work around this by ordering fruit for breakfast, sometimes with bacon and hashbrowns, and I started looking for places that made smoothies. I also stuck to rice dishes and avoided the corn tortillas for most of the trip. Gluten and dairy were fairly easy to avoid also. So if you have dietary restrictions, you can make it work here.
Certain regions of Central America has a reputation for being dangerous, but we didn’t have any problems while we were there. Like anywhere, you have to be smart about things. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, keep your money in a safe place, keep your valuables with you on buses when your luggage gets stored below, and be aware of your surroundings. But again, I never once felt unsafe, and the people we met were warm and friendly.
>> Read about traveling alone in Guatemala for more solo travel tips on the region.
Have you been to Central America? What would you pack?
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