From wild undeveloped beaches and lush sprawling farms to scenic national parks or even a person’s garden, adventure camping south of the border.

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.

“When we set out on our own trips it was almost impossible to find any recent information on border crossings, dealing with police or finding places to camp or stay with a car,” said Tom Cummins, the site’s co-founder. “Travelling like this will take you off the regular tourist trail. It also opens you up to more interaction with the locals. From asking directions to trying to figure out how to say ‘camping’ in Spanish, you get to meet lovely, genuine people trying to help you find a place to stay… even though they may not understand why you’d want to sleep on the ground or in your car.”

In El Salvador’s mountainous western region, we considered setting up camp in a field near the village of Tacuba, on the boundary of El Imposible National Park. But the custodian of the adjacent village church insisted we squeeze our vans in a tiny space between the church and his family home, so they could watch over us. This family, whom it was obvious had very little, invited us into their house to access water, walked us to the community “jungle shower” and plied us with homemade tortillas.

That evening, after a small Easter parade passed through the nearby country lanes and ended at the church, 20 or more curious locals crowded into and around our vehicles, fascinated by our lives on the road. They chatted and looked on, bemused and amused in equal measure, as we cooked, ate and set up for bedtime. If nothing else, we had provided their village with an evening of entertainment.

Briton Mark Prior, who is travelling from Alaska to Brazil (also the name of their blog) in a camper truck with his wife Sarah, said they have also found people to be refreshingly welcoming. “What we’ve been surprised at is how many different places you can camp and how often people say ‘yes’ when asked if we can stay,” he said.

Campers on the road also often stay in touch with each other through blogs and Facebook, swapping location tips and occasionally trying to meet up en route. Having a virtual camping community is useful, especially for allaying safety concerns about specific spots, an issue every camper takes seriously.

“Security is, of course, very important for us. The trick is not to let the fear get in the way of doing what you want,” said Andy Roper, who is on the Latin America leg of an around-the-world trip he is chronicling on Earth Circuit. He prefers to park his converted Renault Dodge50 in locals’ gardens, when possible, for safety and friendship.

For them, as for all campers, the decision on where to put up camp depends on whether they need a spot for the night or longer, and if they are in the city or countryside. “In built up areas, we would be happy to stop pretty much anywhere, using the same criteria we would at home,” Roper said. “We wouldn't sleep outside all-night bars in a very run down part of town but we'd be happy to park by on a busy road or unguarded supermarket car park. For a few days parking we want a location where we feel comfortable leaving the truck unattended while we’re on the beach or hiking – it wouldn't always have a fence or a guard, it might just be on the road outside of a friendly house.”

One time, Roper spent a week in the beachfront garden of a house belonging to a waiter working at a local restaurant in Sambo Creek on Honduras's north coast, but not every  eventuality can be foreseen. The couple  were advised to camp in an urban park – called Parque Las Americas - in central Mexico City and awoke to find the weekly fruit and veg market being constructed around them, with one vendor using their truck to hold up his canopy.

“If there is ever any uncertainty, we ask the locals,” said Jared McCaffree, who is travelling from the US to Argentina with his sister and brother-in-law Jessica and Kobus Mans and updating their blog Life Remotely. “We've camped at 55 places since this trip started without a single problem. With very few exceptions the people we've met in every country have been friendly, helpful, curious and incredibly hospitable."

McCaffree prefers to camp in hostels/hotels with a lawn or national parks  such as Corcovado or Volcan Arenal parks, both in Costa Rica. “Parks are great because we get the nature experience around the clock: waking up to howler monkeys, enjoying the sunset on the beach and finding all sorts of crazy critters crawling around at night,” McCaffree said.

“The Latino culture is incredibly warm and generous, and by just chatting with someone, you may unexpectedly find yourself invited to stay with them. They might have a neighbour with a large plot of land, or tell you to look up their cousin in another city,” said Joe Schlefke , who is driving to Argentina with fellow American Erik Holmgren in a Toyota 4Runner with a roof-top tent and recording their adventures on their Apollo's Journey blog. “Sometimes fortune plays a hand and people open up their homes if they find out what sort of adventure you are on.”

The basics

  • Arrive before dark to scope out where you are going to sleep.
  • Decide on the level of security with which you are comfortable. Some look for locked gates or a security guard or other person being present overnight while others are happy to “free” or “wild” camp if the local advice is sound and it feels right.
  • If you do not have a dog, consider feeding one of the region's many strays. It will probably guard you if it is looking for another titbit.
  • In towns, most places with secure car parks, such as hotels, malls and supermarkets, are worth approaching. Many travellers park up on the quiet side streets of smaller towns and ask locals for advice about sleeping there, or head for the local tourist police yard or even fire station to park.
  • Hostels, hotels and restaurants with gardens or large parking spaces often allow camping, and will also have facilities such as water and toilets.
  • In the countryside, rural coffee fincas, farms, nature reserves, national parks and tranquil beaches are places where campers commonly find safe shelter.
  • Car parks in most archaeological sites, such as the Mayan ruins of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, are often happy to let campers sleep overnight. The same courtesy can be found at many other day-tripper attractions such as swimming areas (often called balnearios), sports facilities, picnic areas and turicentros, which are recreational centres that often include motel-style rooms.
  • On the road, gas stations serve as truck stops and will usually allow you to join them if you have a vehicle you can sleep in.
  • To get the most out of the trip, learn some Spanish.


Paula Dear is travelling between Mexico and Argentina with her husband, Jeremy Dear. Follow their adventures on their  blog, Seventeen by Six.