Gap Year Ideas for Central America

Beach in Central America

Nestled between Mexico and South America is the dense group of countries that collectively form Central America. Due to its proximity to the equator and endless coastlines, Central America is paradise for gap year travelers looking to soak in the sun and warmth. We’ll be highlighting the top five tourist-friendly countries: Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. After spending time exploring ancient ruins, surfing on the Pacific, and zip lining through the jungles, you’ll never want your gap year in Central America to end.

Feel free to use this itinerary as-is, starting from Belize, and ending in Costa Rica, or by adding/subtracting destinations along the way. We hope these suggestions help you to plan the perfect gap-year adventure!

Beginning in Belize

Entry Requirements: Depending on the country of origin, most visitors are given an automatic tourist visa upon arrival. Visitors planning to stay more than 30 days must have their passport re-stamped by a local immigration office and pay a fee of approximately $25.

Caye Caulker, Belize
    Main Attractions:
  • San Ignacio: The hub for all things outdoors, San Ignacio is the most tourist-friendly city in Belize and the perfect base for a multitude of day tours. With a variety of ruins, caves, rivers, and jungle trails in the area, you won’t be struggling to find things to do. Consider visiting the ruins of Actun Tunichil Muknal, Cahal Pech, Caracol, or Xunantunich.
  • Caye Caulker: This small island off the coast of Belize is home to many budget-friendly hostels and restaurants. After taking a water taxi from the mainland, you won’t need to worry about getting around on the island as most people rely on bicycles or walking. Enjoy relaxing on one of the docks, or checking out local marine life at one of the reserves.
  • Belmopan: The capital of Belize is a smaller city, but it is steeped in a very rich culture. Visit some of the local markets and try the Belizean food while you’re there. Note: While Belize City is actually the largest city in the country, it is not recommended as a tourist town. There is not much to do or see, and is best used only as a transportation hub.
Find gap year programs in Belize.

Going to Guatemala

Entry Requirements: Depending on the country of origin, visitors are given an automatic tourist visa upon arrival, which is valid for up to 90 days.

Flores, Guatemala
    Main Attractions:
  • Tikal: Arguably the most popular Mayan ruin, Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Guatemalan jungle. It is a very popular tourist attraction, so be prepared for large crowds.
  • Flores: This quaint town on Lake Peten Itza is full of charming red-roofed colonial buildings and homes and is a great place to stay when exploring nearby ruins. Walking is the main form of transportation, as it only takes 15 minutes to circumnavigate this island town.
  • Antigua: As the former Spanish capital of Central America, the city of Antigua oozes with colonial architecture and charm. Although most of the town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1773, many historical fountains, ruins, buildings, and monuments still remain.
  • Quetzaltenango: The second largest city in Guatemala is situated among a variety of landscapes, including mountains, rivers, volcanoes, and hot springs. After exploring the natural surroundings, take some time to relax by grabbing a coffee in the historical center.
Find gap year programs in Guatemala.

Heading to Honduras

Entry Requirements: Depending on the country of origin, visitors are given an automatic tourist visa upon arrival, which is valid for up to 90 days.

Tegucigalpa cathedral
Main Attractions:
  • Tegucigalpa: Although the largest city, and capital, of Honduras was all but destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the colonial charm still remains. Walk around the cobblestone streets to discover hidden parks and eventually make your way to Cristo el Picacho, the statue of Jesus overlooking the town.
  • Roatan: This beautiful island in the Caribbean Sea has pristine beach coastlines and is one of the most popular diving spots in the area. Spend some time visiting the various beaches and taking the time to relax in paradise.
  • Copan: The extensive ruins of Copan boast more sculptures than any other Pre-Colombian city. Be sure to arrive early to start exploring before the sun is hot and the crowds grow large.
Find gap year programs in Honduras.

Next Up: Nicaragua

Entry Requirements: Depending on the country of origin, visitors are given an automatic tourist visa upon arrival, which is valid for 30 to 90 days.

Nicaraguan volcano
Main Attractions:
  • Granada: The oldest colonial city in Nicaragua, this colorful city is located on Lake Cocibolca. Spend some time around the Centro Turistico and check out the chaotic local market; next wander down the charming streets to the Central Park to grab a snack and do some people watching. If adventure is your thing, you can take a Canopy Tour where you’ll whiz through the treetops on cable zip-lines, visit the Volcano reserve, or snorkel in Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful crater lake with what’s known as the clearest water in Nicaragua.
  • Ometepe: Formed by two volcanoes rising from the center of Lake Cocibolca, this archaeological treasure-trove has a myriad of lodging options and is home to friendly and welcoming people. In Maderas you can hike up to the top of the now-dormant volcano through its tropical cloud forest and check out the locals’ organic coffee growing operation.
  • Leon: A colonial center of Nicaragua, Leon is a hub for art, culture, and religion. It is home to Nicaragua's first university and the largest cathedral in Central America, which was built in the 18th century. After your visit to the cathedral, stop to admire the political murals that cover the town's central plaza and reflect the city's progressive political movement.
Find gap year programs in Nicaragua.

Culminating in Costa Rica

Entry Requirements: Depending on the country of origin, visitors are given an automatic tourist visa upon arrival, which is valid for 30 to 90 days.

Jungles of Costa Rica
Main Attractions:
  • La Fortuna: Check out the very active Arenal volcano, wander around the butterfly conservatory, and take a horseback ride down to the Fortuna waterfall and swim in its beautiful streams. Round out your trip by bathing in the natural hot springs.
  • Monteverde: A tropical cloud forest awaits you in Monteverde, as well as delicious local food, tours of coffee plantations, and walks along hanging bridges that cut through the canopy and the clouds.
  • Manuel Antonio: The must-see here is the Manuel Antonio National Park, with several operators offering all kinds of tour options. A mecca for scuba diving and snorkeling, you can also get extreme with some white-water rafting, and then slow it down with a tour of the mangroves.
  • San Jose: El capital of Costa Rica, this big city is full of museums, tour options, fun street-life, and even some casinos if you’re feeling lucky.
  • Puerto Viejo: This Caribbean coastal town is world-renowned for having the heaviest wave in Costa Rica, the Salsa brava. There are also beautiful beaches to relax on and some fantastic kayaking nearby at Manzanillo.
Find gap year programs in Costa Rica.

Due to its proximity to the equator and endless coastlines, Central America is paradise for gap year travelers looking to soak in the sun and warmth.

Remember, if you’re thinking of spending your entire gap year in Central America, be sure to do as much research as possible and budget accordingly. The most common advice is, “take half the clothes, and twice the money”.

Having said that, Central America can be done on a shoestring budget, just make sure you plan for it. Keep in mind that you’ll almost certainly hear of new locations and things to do once you’re in-country, so don’t make too many concrete plans, as you’ll probably wander off the beaten path quite a bit. The most important thing, of course, is to have a great time, and be safe while doing it. ¡Buen viaje!

Photo Credits: bexwalton, SFS, brianfagan, Wikimedia, and m.a.r.c..

Dana Goble

After growing up in the Great Lakes state, Dana decided to embark on a more exciting journey by attending college in Indiana, studying abroad in Mexico, volunteering abroad in Chile, and working abroad in Peru. She now resides in Chicago, and is seeking out new adventures daily. You can follow Dana on twitter at @danagoble and Google+.