Are you interested in backpacking the Gringo Trail?
You’ve come to the right article, as this post will tell you everything you could possibly need to know about the famous backpacking route.
It’s the best way to see Central and South America, but it can be hard to plan a trip spanning multiple countries and lots of different currencies, cultures, etc.
Luckily for you, I’m a full-time backpacker with lots of experience in doing exactly that.
So I have put in all of the hard work for you and summarised everything you need to know about backpacking the Gringo Trail into one post.
Trust me, it’ll be an experience you will never forget. So let’s not waste any more time, and let’s get right into it.
What is the Gringo Trail?
The Gringo Trail is the most popular backpacking route through Central and South America. The name of the route comes from the local slang word for ‘foreigner’.
Don’t worry, it’s not an offensive name, or a slur or anything, it’s simply a description. You will likely hear the word “gringo” quite a lot during your time in this part of the world. You might have even heard it before in a movie.
Although there is not a definitive road with signposts marking the Gringo Trail, there is a generally agreed route to take or at least key stops along the way.
These key stops make up the route which we know and love.
Travelling to this part of the world has grown in popularity over the last few decades following the end of political and civil unrest in the ’80s.
With everything calmed down, there is no questioning why so many people choose to see this stunning part of our planet.
If you ask any backpacker anywhere in the world, the Gringo Trail – or a specific country along the way – will be on nearly every single person’s travel bucket list.
Where is the Gringo Trail?
As you might have figured out from the last section, the Gringo Trail guides you through Central and South America, taking you through 13+ picturesque countries.
The beauty of the route not being set in stone, is that you can pick and choose where you visit. If a country doesn’t stand out to you, that’s fine…you don’t have to go.
That being said, it’s generally agreed the trail takes you through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in Central America.
However, many people choose to start further up, in Mexico, which is in North America.
For some people, the route ends after Central America. For others, it continues into South America.
In South America, it’s widely agreed that the trail will take you through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
And instead of adding a country to the start like with Mexico, many people choose to expand the route at the end and include Argentina and Brazil.
In my opinion, including Mexico, Argentina and Brazil creates the ultimate Gringo Route, and if you have the time, you should definitely do it.
Why choose the Gringo Trail?
There are quite literally endless reasons to choose to backpack this extraordinary part of the world. To summarise, the Trail has got a bit of everything. I hate cliches, but it has got something for everyone. It’s true.
Ignoring the beauty of the countries for a second, a big selling point of the Gringo Trail is how cheap it is. Most people can travel around Central and South America for less money per month than it takes to pay the bills!
Similar to the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia, if you are on a budget, it’s one of the best options available.
I hate using the word cheap, maybe I should say affordable. It’s a much better word to use, and another term could be “good value for money” as you get 1000x what you pay for.
These countries are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries in the world, and you can explore them on a shoestring budget super easily.
Their landscapes and scenery are unmatched. Having the likes of the Amazon Jungle, endless volcanoes and thousands of beaches, it’s clear to see why some people describe South America as a real-life Pandora.
If you’re an animal lover like me, you can also see some animals and wildlife that aren’t possible anywhere else on Earth!
Another huge selling point of the Gringo Trail is the culture! The culture in this part of our planet is second to none. It’s so incredible that you might even end up wanting to move to the continent- I know I did.
The music, the dance, the food, the people, everything! It’s a whole new world along the Gringo Trail! The people are so welcoming and always have a smile on their faces. To put it simply, the vibes are great!
Is the Gringo Trail safe?
This is one of the most common questions people have before setting out on a backpacking trip to Central and South America. It’s understandable considering the news stories we are always shown, but it’s important to forget these stereotypes before travelling.
We travel to experience new things, meet new people and understand new ways of life. If you are going to be judgemental, then backpacking isn’t for you.
So, yes, it’s safe.
Whilst I cannot personally guarantee your safety, the Gringo Trail has been travelled by thousands and is widely considered very safe.
Like everywhere, there’s petty theft and taxi drivers trying to earn a few extra dollars, but if you follow basic safety rules then you will be fine.
There are places you’ll want to avoid, but this is the same everywhere in the world. There are some neighbourhoods, some streets, and some cities that are best not to visit, but everywhere mentioned in this blog post is safe to visit.
Top Tip: Learn some basic Spanish! English isn’t spoken as much along the Gringo Trail compared to South-East Asia or other backpacking routes. Phrases like “Do you speak English?” or “Where are the toilets?” can come in handy! Of course, it’s always nice to learn “Hello”, “Thank you” etc. too! Personally, I use Duolingo.
How much does the Gringo Trail cost?
This is one question which I always struggle to answer. Everyone is different. How I travel is different to how you travel.
The quality of hostels I’m willing to stay in is different to how you travel- you might not want to stay in hostels at all, or you might be willing to sleep on a blanket in someone’s living room. I don’t know, so I can’t tell you how much it will cost you.
But as I said, the Gringo Trail is extremely cheap to travel.
On average, it will “only” cost around $1500 USD a month. Which isn’t much at all considering how much of a life-changing experience it is, and how many wonderful things you get to do.
In a lot of cases, this is cheaper than staying at home and paying the bills! We live in a modern world where it’s easy to make money remotely, so there’s nothing stopping you from travelling full-time, particularly in Central and South America!
By reading this post, you are helping me to live this life (thank you!) but why not make this the life for yourself?!
Below is a rough guideline of a daily average of how much you would be likely to spend as the average backpacker travelling the Gringo Trail. I’ve divided it up by country so you can personalise it to your trip and the countries you plan on visiting. As you can see, there’s a bit of variety, so which countries you spend the most time in will affect your budget.
|Country||Typical Daily Budget (USD $)|
As always, when backpacking, there are 4 main expenses.
Food, Accommodation, Travel and Activities.
Along the Gringo Trail, you can get good street food for $2-3 a meal. This is also a great way of experiencing the authentic tastes of each country. So food isn’t going to have a huge impact on your budget.
If you are a backpacker staying in hostels throughout your trip, I’ll say to expect around $10 a night for a bed in a hostel. So again, it’s not going to have a huge effect on your budget. But it quickly adds up if you go for more expensive accommodation options.
As you might have worked out, or you might always know, with backpacking, the biggest expenses are transport and activities. Who decided it was a good idea to make it cost money to do things?!
Activities will more than likely be ‘cheaper’ than you would find in your home country. You aren’t going to find somewhere like Disney which costs over $100 just to get in, for example.
That being said, if you are doing an activity every day, it can quickly pile up and increase your budget drastically. As a reference, the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica has a $15 USD entrance fee. Not a problem if you do one activity every couple of days. Over 3 days, it would be $5 per day for activities- which is doable on a shoestring budget.
It’s more than worth it though, just look at that beauty! The Gringo Trail is definitely one of the cheapest backpacking routes across the world, but just be careful not to splash out on activities recklessly. It’s one of the easiest ways you can blow your budget.
And no one wants to have to book an earlier flight home. When people ask me how to travel on a budget, I always say to do more free activities.
When to do the Gringo Trail
Although I’m a firm believer of there not being a bad time to visit anywhere in the world, I do agree there is a best time to visit everywhere in the world.
And let’s be real, no one envisions lying on a beach in Colombia with grey clouds and a bit of rain, right?
The Gringo Trail takes you through many tropical countries, meaning downpours can occur at any point during the year. After all, South America is made up of many rainforests.
So, the best time to visit this part of the world across all countries is between October and April where you will have the least chance of storms.
Temperatures will be nice and warm, and rain will be at a minimum (compared to the rest of the year).
But don’t let this put you off. The Gringo Trail can definitely be enjoyed at any stage in the year, so don’t be restricted to only visiting in this time frame.
It just might mean that you might have to be a bit more flexible with your plans and check the weather forecast to make sure your beach day doesn’t turn into a storm day.
How long does the Gringo Trail take?
Another question I am always asked about backpacking routes, and one that is very hard to answer, is always, “How long will it take?”.
The answer is…there is no definitive answer!
Just like the budget, every person’s experience is different and everyone prefers to go at their own pace.
However, I would recommend a minimum of 2 weeks per country. So if you go to all 15 countries, I would spend at least 30 weeks travelling the Gringo Trail. This is equivalent to 7 months if you spent only 2 weeks in each country.
Personally, I would recommend longer. You could easily spend a year, or longer, travelling the Gringo Trail.
I would not recommend going quicker than 2 weeks per country. You will not get a true experience of the country, and you will be constantly rushing, travelling and not getting any time to relax and take in the beautiful land around you.
So if you only have 4 weeks for your trip, I would suggest picking 2-3 countries and travelling them really well, rather than trying to cram every single country into this short timeframe.
How to get to Central America
Obviously, this depends on where you are coming from. It’s going to be quite a different journey if you are coming to Central America off the back of backpacking Thailand than if you are coming from somewhere in Europe.
But most of the time, the easiest way to start the Gringo Trail is by flying into Mexico.
Even if you are not planning to include Mexico in your backpacking route, it has the most internationally available airports like Cancun which is usually the cheapest to fly to from Europe and beyond.
On average, you can expect about $400-500 for a one-way trans-Atlantic flight to Mexico.
If you are flying from the USA, it would be much cheaper. If you use websites like Skyscanner, you can find flights for less than $100 if you are flexible with your travel dates.
How to travel whilst in Central America
There are many options for getting around in this part of the world, whether that be around a city, between cities, or between countries. Naturally, there are modes of transport which are cheaper but take longer and ways which are faster but cost more.
This is where the budget dilemma comes in- what type of backpacker are you willing to be?
The most common form of transport along the Gringo Trail is “chicken buses“.
They are public buses which get their nickname from the chickens and rice that you can commonly see locals transporting on them. Quite a fun nickname I have to say, and it’s pretty wild seeing it for yourself for the first time too.
Chicken buses can get you pretty much anywhere along the Gringo Trail, however, you may wish to opt for a shuttle bus for longer journeys.
Shuttle buses are extremely popular amongst backpackers. They conveniently go along the most popular routes and stops.
They are a more comfortable option than a chicken bus (public bus) for those longer journeys. Both types of buses are pretty cheap.
Most of the time you can get between countries for around $20 a pop. Obviously, it may be more if your journey is longer.
I would try to avoid taxis if you can, as the drivers will often have “broken meters” or take you in a longer direction on purpose, to scam you out of your money. There’s also a big fuss with Uber in Mexico, so really, I try to stick to public transport and shuttle buses where possible.
Of course, if you have your wits about you, taxis are a viable option for short journeys, maybe into town if you are staying on the outskirts. But even then, I’d still just get a chicken bus.
It’s cheaper, and it’s a bit of fun too if there are chickens on board. Disclaimer, you aren’t guaranteed chickens on every journey, unfortunately :(.
How to get to South America
If you are doing the complete Gringo Trail including both Central and South America, then you will reach South America naturally.
Once you reach Panama, the next stop is Colombia, which is in South America.
Unfortunately, there are limited ways to go about this. Due to the Darien Gap, a 90km wide uninhabited area which is pretty much all jungle, you cannot get a bus. It’s also extremely dangerous and riddled with drug smuggling activity.
You have two options, and your two options are either to fly or to sail.
It’s not ideal but it is what it is.
Unfortunately, this will be one of your biggest expenses along the Gringo Trail.
This expense can come in two forms. Either monetarily, as a flight from Panama to Colombia typically costs a couple of hundred dollars despite being a short flight.
Or your expense can be time. Because if you opt for a ferry or cargo ship, it can take a few days to reach South America. On the other hand, it will likely leave you with plenty of stories. Which is what backpacking is all about.
It’s worth noting that it’s a very unsteady crossing in the open waters, so if you get seasick easily, it’s probably better for you to get a flight.
If you aren’t including Central America in your own personal Gringo Route, then it’s the same situation as flying into Central America.
You want to pick an airport that has lots of international connections, such as Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires.
In terms of price, you can expect to pay around $400-500 for one-way using Skyscanner.
How to travel whilst in South America
Travelling across South America is pretty much the same as Central America.
You’ll predominately use chicken buses to get around cities and for short journeys between destinations.
But for South America, I definitely recommend taking private buses or shuttle buses for longer journeys!
Because the “long” journeys in South America…trust me, they’re long.
Particularly in Argentina and Brazil, as these countries are so big, your journey times will be so much longer compared to compact Central America.
And you’ll want to have some level of comfort for 10-hour bus rides, right? No one wants to sit on a public bus for this long. It would be torture.
What to pack for the Gringo Trail
Packing for a long backpacking trip can be scary and overwhelming. I know the first time I went away for a long period of time, I definitely struggled with what to pack and what to leave at home.
Now, as a full-time travel blogger, I’ve got a lot better at packing. Whether I’m going away for one week or one year, I more or less take the same amount of things.
Be sure to take the essentials for all backpacking trips, but there are a few extras that can be especially useful for the Gringo Trail:
- Universal Charger Adapter – Central and South America use a combination of ‘American’ and ‘European’ sockets, so make sure to have both!
- Bug repellent/bite cream – these countries are tropical, you’re going to get bit!
- Travel-friendly Credit Card – having a card like Revolut that has no conversion or transaction fees makes for ideal usage when paying in foreign currencies.
- Portable Battery Pack– some journeys can get long, so you need to make sure your phone doesn’t die! It’s one of the most important backpacking hacks.
- Sunglasses and sunscreen – again, these countries are tropical!
Gringo Trail Checklist
As previously mentioned, the Gringo Trail does not have a direct road to follow.
Every backpacker’s route will vary slightly, but these are the MUST-DO stops in my opinion, in each country.
Each of these stops offers something a little unique, and I can vouch for them all. All of them will lead to amazing memories.
However, please take any opportunity to go off the beaten path, often these places provide the most memorable and authentic experiences.
And of course, pick and choose which ones you do decide to visit. Everyone travels differently and has different preferences. These locations are simply places I enjoy, and places I include on my route through Central and South America.
- Mexico City
- Isla Mujeres
- Playa del Carmen
- Isla Holbox
- Puerto Escondido
- San Cristobal De Las Casas
- Caye Caulker
- Ambergris Caye
- San Pedro
- Belize City
- San Ignacio
- Punta Gorda
- Guatemala City
- El Peten
- Santa Cruz
- El Paredon
El Salvador 🇸🇻
- Santa Ana
- Lake Coatepeque
- San Salvador
- Ruta de las Flores
- El Tunco
- El Cuco
- San Miguel
- Islas de la Bahía
- Pico Bonito
- La Ceiba
- Lago de Yojoa
- Cayos Cochinos
- Corn Islands
- San Juan del Sur
- Playa Maderas
Costa Rica 🇨🇷
- La Fortuna to see
- Arenal Volcano
- San Jose
- Puerto Viejo
- Manuel Antonio
- Santa Teresa
- Nicoya Peninsula
- Panama City
- Santa Catalina
- Bocas del Toro
- Playa Venao
- San Blas
- San Gil
- San Andres
- Santa Marta
- Cartagena de Indias
- Galapagos Islands (expensive)
- Puerto Lopez
- Machu Picchu
- Santa Cruz de la Sierra
- La Paz
- Salar de Uyuni
- Lomas de Arena
- Patagonia –> Torres del Paine
- Magdalena Island
- Lake District
- Cajón del Maipo
- Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
- Buenos Aires
- Iguazu Falls (Argentina Side)
- Mar del Plata
- Iberá Wetlands
- El Calafate
- Salta and Jujuy
- Iguazu Falls (Brazil Side)
- Rio de Janeiro
- São Paulo
Things to do along the Gringo Trail
Along the Gringo Trail, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of amazing things to do.
Every country has something different to offer. From the Galapagos Islands to the Christ the Redeemer Statue, the Americas are jam-packed with exciting things to see and do.
Somehow, I have narrowed it down to 5 MUST-DO things whilst backpacking the route. These are just a small snippet of what the Gringo Trail has to offer.
Make sure to make lots of memories, take lots of photos, and most of all, enjoy your time in Central and South America. There’s truly nowhere else like it!
Trek the Amazon Rainforest
It’s a must. You simply can’t backpack Central and South America and not go to the Amazon Rainforest. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you will see things not possible anywhere else on Earth.
I would recommend the Jau National Park, but there are so many other places you can see the Amazon across the Gringo Trail in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Many people choose to spend a few days trekking in the Amazon when backpacking in Brazil.
Explore Mayan Ruins
Mayans, the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America, left us some amazing ruins to see.
Particularly in Guatemala, there are so many beautiful sites. The most popular is the Tikal National Park where there are old pyramids, dating back as far as 600 BC.
To make it even better, you can climb them, and they’re situated deep in the Guatemalan rainforests!
Go Snorkelling or Diving
This part of the world is home to some of the most beautiful coral reefs. There are so many pretty spots along the Gringo Trail, particularly in Belize.
The Great Blue Hole is one of the most famous, outstanding naturally occurring dive spots in the world. Along with The Barrier Reef in Belize, it makes for a great diving country.
You can swim with wild sea turtles, rays, sharks and lots of other amazing sea life!
See LOTS of Volcanos!
Along the Gringo Trail, you will see a ton of volcanos! Each is as unique as the last. They are also so gorgeous to look at, creating lots of “pinch me” moments, particularly at sunrise or sunset. Along with the Arenal Volcano mentioned above, one of the best has to be Poás Volcano in Costa Rica. It is one of the largest active craters in the world!
Central and South America are home to countless extraordinary national parks, reserves and landscapes. It’s impossible to list them all, but Iguazu Falls, Colca Canyon and Torres del Paine are three of the best. I can’t put into words or do them justice, how beautiful they are. All I can say is, it feels like you are in the movie Avatar.
Gringo Trail: FAQ
Below are a number of questions related to the Gringo Trail along with my answers.
Approximately $1500 USD a month will be enough to do the Gringo Trail. This involves staying in hostels, taking the cheapest transport options and finding free and cheap activities.
Guatemala and Nicaragua are the cheapest countries in Central America. An average backpacker’s budget would be around $25 USD in these countries. That’s half of what it is in Costa Rica. So they’re extremely cheap countries to visit, but more than worth it!
Absolutely! Central America is a really popular backpacking route so there are lots of hostels and backpacking hotspots where you will meet lots of fellow travellers. Not to mention how friendly and welcoming the Latin American community in Central America are. You don’t get hospitality like it anywhere else!
The Gringo Trail: The Wrap Up
Well, there it is! A complete guide to the Gringo Trail.
It’s one of my favourite backpacking trips I’ve ever taken but I also know how many questions to expect before taking the trip.
Hopefully, this post has provided all the information you could need before booking your trip.
It’s one of the best experiences you can have as a backpacker and I would recommend it to anyone!
So get out there and get at it! Book the flight and have the experience of a lifetime 🙂