Latin America on a Shoestring Budget
Today on The Daily Meal
Most seasoned travelers know that Central America is one of the best regions in the world for budget finds. It’s also now attracting more and more visitors from the States and beyond than ever before. From Mexico down to Panama, wallet-friendly opportunities abound, and when you score a deal, it feels like the sun shines brighter, the food tastes better, and the people seem friendlier. Whether you’re looking for a steal on a beachfront shack, the local cocktail, national park entry, or scuba diving lessons, set your fare alert on Kayak to the following countries and take a few budget-friendly tips on your itinerary from us.
Honduras's Bay Islands (Roatan, Utila, and Guanaja) are a world-class scuba diving destination surrounded by the world’s second-largest barrier reef. Off miles of pristine beaches, snorkelers and divers can share aquatic real estate with dolphins, sea turtles, nurse and whale sharks, and eagle and manta rays. Even better, the Bay Islands offer some of the cheapest scuba diving in the world.
On Utila, an open water certification at Utila Dive Center is just $309, and comes with four nights of accommodations at The Mango Inn. On popular Roatan, the budget-friendly enclave of West End is home to gorgeous Half Moon Bay where Chillies, a backpacker hotel, offers unbeatable rates. Lucky for divers, popular local dive shop Native Sons is also located on the property. West End Village is also the prime spot to refuel after a day of dives. Breezy palapa-style joints, like Velva's Roadside, offer delicious, cheap food with heaps of local flavor.
Costa Rica is a nature lover’s wonderland. With more than 25 percent of the country made up of national park;, biological, forest, and wildlife reserves; and wetlands and mangroves, this is the Latin American country to visit when you’re seeking green diversion.
In the south lies the Osa Peninsula’s treasure: Corcovado National Park. A maze of untouched rainforest harboring more than 100 species including toucans and spider monkeys, as well as endangered creatures like boa constrictors, squirrel monkeys, and a variety of wild cats, entry is $10 a day, and you can camp within the park for less than $5. Reservations (for both general park visits and camping) are essential.
On the central Pacific Coast, Manuel Antonio National Park is where the rainforest meets Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches and protected coral reef. Located near Jaco, a surfer’s paradise with laid-back lodging and a healthy dose of sand and sea, entry is also $10.
In the north, Arenal National Park covers a variety of smaller parks and refuges that are home to canopy tours, hanging bridge hikes, wildlife adventures, hot springs, and the country’s most active volcano — Arenal.
Before you hit the park or the beach, power up with strong, local coffee at the tiny Café Milagro, and if you have room in your pack, be sure to take a bag or two home. Or to get a taste of the region’s succulent tropical fruits, try a batido, or a fresh fruit smoothie made with bottled water or milk. Places like Café Liberia and Pan Pay Café are known for them, but they can be found almost anywhere. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/etringita)
A diverse combination of modern Guatemala City, colonial Antigua, and the rustic, bohemian lake towns surrounding the breathtaking Lake Atitlan, Guatemala is the kind of place where you can happily lose yourself for a while. The eastern side of this textured land bordering Belize and Mexico is home to the ruins of Tikal and a slice of Mayan history. Crowds at Tikal tend to be less dense than at Mexico’s Mayan counterparts, and if you’re savvy with the guards, you can slip them 100 quetzales (roughly $13) around 4 a.m. to let you in to catch a sunrise from the top of one of the ancient temples that tower above the surrounding jungle. Once you’re in, you can stay all day (Tikal opens at 6 a.m., closes at 6 p.m.). (Photo courtesy of Flickr/realworldphotos.net)
If you’re hungry, there are a bunch of small restaurants just outside the main gate that serve heaping plates of chicken, rice, and beans for less than $5. They’ll even pack it up for the road.
After you’re done exploring the ruins, tuck into nearby Flores, a tiny island of budget hotels and dive bars surrounded by tranquil Lake Petén Itzá that has enough charm to keep you occupied, relaxed, and well-fed for a few days.
Though Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo harbor some of the world’s most luxe hotel accommodations, there are plenty of spots that don’t sport the hefty price tag. In San Jose del Cabo, book time at El Delfin Blanco, seaside cabanas just a few kilometers outside of the sleepy city center. Local taco stands like Rossy’s (for fish tacos), Guacamayas (for tacos al pastor), and Hangman (for taco combinations) offer killer grub for just a couple of bucks.
In the rowdier Cabos San Lucas, hang your hat at the Cabo Cush Hotel, a swank boutique hotel in the center of things that feels way more expensive than its $50 price tag. Then, hit the Marina for fresh all-you-can-eat-sushi specials and $1 cervezas along the strip. If you’re a gal, you’re in luck at the local watering holes. The Nowhere Bar offers free drinks for ladies on Tuesdays, while free margaritas for girls are featured every night from 8 - 9:30 p.m. at Zoo Bar and Dance, Cabos’ newest club. Oh, you’re a guy? It’s OK; you should also head to Zoo for daily 2-for-1 round-the-clock specials on national drinks like Mexican beer and tequila. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/CasaDeQueso)
One of the up-and-coming surf destinations in the world, Nicaragua’s west coast offers both skilled boarders and aspiring novices a chance to shred some serious waves. All-inclusive surf camps that span short weekends or longer weeklong packages and cover everything from lodging to meals (yes, some with alcohol!) to lessons have been cropping up with greater frequency to lure surfers to Nicaraguan shores. The larger the group, the bigger the discount, but tried-and-true camps like Giant’s Foot Surf in Playa Gigante, Arena Caliente in San Juan del Sur, and Nomad Surfers just south of Managua deliver the goods in terms of results, while Bigfoot Surf School and Hostel in León has the best deal going with rooms for $6 per night and two-hour lessons (including celebratory beer and mojitos) starting at $25 per person.
Because León is a student-populated town, the eats come cheap. Your best bet? Stop in the small town of Nagarote on the road between León and Managua and sample some quesillos, a local dish that consists of warm tortillas wrapped around cheese, onions, sour cream, and salt, from the vendors.
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