Sunday Funday Pool Crawl in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
While Central America is somewhat of a lesser-known backpacking spot than South America, South-East Asia or Europe, it is a wild and unforgettable experience. You won’t see hoards of other backpackers dominating the streets here, like in the aforementioned continents, but if you choose the right cities and stay in the best hostels, you will party just as hard as any other trip. Expect to meet more experienced backpackers, including many solo travellers, mostly in between 21 and 28 years old and from all over the world.
It is very easy to meet others and you will probably end up with more people in your crew than you started with. Travellers spend anywhere from 1 month to 3 months going through Central America and often pair this trip with South America.
Most travellers will either start from the South in Panama and go North to Mexico or vice versa. Both of these countries also have big international airports. In Mexico, it is common to visit Playa del Carmen and/or Cancun, although the latter is more geared towards the American spring-breaker-type. The best party cities in Central America are San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, Utila in Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. Costa Rica, despite what you may think, is not a big party scene. Backpackers tend to avoid this country as much as possible because it is expensive (the other countries are very cheap – the good hostels are $5 – $10 a night).
If you do want to see Costa Rica (it is definitely a beautiful place with many cool activities – think Switzerland), your best bets for meeting other travellers are in Puerto Viejo, Tamarindo (more of a spring-breaker crowd), and La Fortuna. Most people tend to avoid leaving the coasts of Central America (Pacific and Atlantic), as they are safer than the mainlands of all the countries (except Costa Rica). Most travellers skip El Salvador. If you have the time, check out Guatemala, as Antigua is pretty popular. Check out my posts in the Central America category, where I go through the particulars of each city.
Where to Stay
Hostels in Central America are very cheap but, unlike South America, don’t expect anything nice at all if you want to stay in the party hostels. It is usually very hot in these countries and you will have to get used to seeing a lot of insects everywhere.
You will be so drunk each night that this won’t bug you anyway (no pun intended). The hostels here are probably more conducive to meeting other travellers than those in any other continent. They usually have cool bars with great theme party nights and cheep shots (great places to start your nights). Expect to meet the more rough backpacker-types and don’t expect noise in your room/the hostel to die down before 4 a.m. most nights. Hostels are pretty lax with their rules and also allow non-guests in to party (but will charge you a night’s stay if they find out you had a guest overnight). Check out the individual cities’ posts for party hostel recommendations.
Where to Party
Most nights in most cities, all backpackers will all go to a certain bar/club each night, depending on the event. For example, in Bocas del Toro, most nights everyone will go to Iguana Bar, but two nights a week they will go to Aqualounge. It is really easy to find out which bar is having the party each night – just ask any traveller who has been there for a few days or an employee of the hostel you are staying at. These spots are usually bars with lots of dancing and rowdiness. Most are open (and serving) till around 4 a.m. Some nights, the hostel will throw the city’s main party at their bar as well. Real nightclubs are pretty rare in Central America, so don’t expect anything too fancy unless you are in large mainland cities (like San Jose, Costa Rica, for example). Utila hosts large dance parties on full moon nights, as well as a legendary techno festival every summer called SunJam, so try to plan your trip around this if the timing works.
You will hear a lot of Bob Marley and reggaeton, especially on the Caribbean side (East coast). Expect to hear a lot of top 40 and popular house music at the clubs. Once in a while you will find a party with techno music, especially in Utila. The hostels in San Juan del Sur also play a wide variety of cool music at their events and during the day. Don’t expect to see any big concerts on the coasts of Central America, but you could get lucky in the major cities.
During the Day
Luckily, there are few tourist attractions here that you will feel bad about missing. You will spend most of your days on the beaches (but don’t expect day parties there). There is great surfing all over Central America and lessons/board rentals are very cheap, so I would suggest learning as there are waves for beginners, intermediates and experts. There is great scuba diving in certain cities, like Utila. A lot of travellers come to these countries for eco-tourism. You can go on some good hikes, check out volcanoes, or look at cool animals. Some cities, like La Fortuna, Costa Rica, offer great activities, such as white-water rafting, canyoneering, bungee jumping, thermal baths, etc.