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From wild undeveloped beaches and lush sprawling farms to scenic national parks or even a person’s garden, camping through Mexico and Central America necessitates a varied adventure and often results in interactions with ordinary people that you may not find on more conventional road trips.
Even planning a camping trip across these countries requires a different strategy. Though there is valuable information online, especially via blogs, you cannot fully plot out your routes or book reservations in advance.
“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, and that quote does a nice job of summing up the experience of camping in this part of the world. Last October, my husband and I crossed the US-Mexico border in a VW campervan, heading southbound from California to Argentina. We had no idea when we would arrive. We still do not. The only thing that has been certain has been the unexpected.
We have woken to see dolphins leaping in the sun-drenched bay in front of our van in Baja California, Mexico; crunched through early morning frost while camping at the sacred Mayan lake of Laguna Chicabal in Guatemala's western highlands; gazed at the sun setting over El Salvador's Cerro Verde volcano from our overnight parking spot; and watched fireflies illuminate the trees like fairy lights while sleeping at the co-operative farm Finca Magdalena on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua. We have also been soaked in thunderstorms, hopelessly lost in every capital city we have visited, and were stranded in Honduras for weeks with a broken down van.
Mexico has a more developed infrastructure of campgrounds than the seven Central American countries, and with some flexibility, vehicle and tent camping locations are surprisingly abundant (though a relatively uncommon pursuit once you cross Mexico’s southern border). Some camping options will be purely functional one-night layovers, such as at gas station truck stops or car parks. Longer stops give the chance to explore, climb volcanoes, swim in lakes and oceans, or wander the region's cute colonial towns.
You can camp in quiet woods at Rancho San Nicolas, just a 15 minute walk from the cafes and bars in the hip town of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Or park up at the lakeside Rancho Alegre Restaurant for the night and swim in El Salvador's most spectacular crater lake, Lago de Coatepeque. In western Honduras, the tropical coffee farm Finca el Paraiso, in the village of Los Naranjos on the western edge of Lago de Yojoa, has easy walking trails and is a fantastic base for boating and bird watching on the lake.
The magnificently situated Rancho las Hamacas in San Jacinto, northwest Nicaragua, overlooks the natural bubbling mud pools of Hervideros de San Jacinto, where you can camp for the night before climbing the smoking Volcano Telica, one of the country's 12 fumingly active Maribios volcanoes.
With some planning, an open mind and a willingness to problem solve, camping is a rewarding way to see this incredibly diverse region, which stretches from Mexico's wide northern border with the US to the skinny southern tip of Panama.
Most people begin their trips in Mexico, where car camping is easier because many North Americans winter there, usually in recreational vehicles (RVs). Church & Church's Traveler's Guide to Mexican Camping is a good place to start, and information for camping facilities is often online (see “Resources” section below).
Once you leave the country, there is a dearth of information for camping in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, so the website Drive the Americas is working to bridge that information gap by consolidating tips, advice and profiles of current road-trippers and their useful blogs.