Bocas del Toro, Panama
Bocas del Toro, Panama. Via Shutterstock

What are the best cheap adventure towns in Mexico and Central America?

I want an adventure without crossing the pond, but don't want to break the bank. Where should I go?

Bocas del Toro, Panama
Greg Melville

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Talk about painting with a broad brush. I’ve got you covered, though. Using my not-at-all objective methods, I picked four of the best destinations based on adventure options, friendliness, small-town feel, and affordability. Here are my recommendations, arranged from north to south.

Creel, Mexico

Copper Canyon
Copper Canyon, Mexico. Via Shutterstock (Dubassy)

Creel, Mexico
People who think that Moab is the world’s best mountain biking town have clearly never been to Creel, located at 7,500 feet in the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua. Hundreds of miles of slickrock, narrow dirt trails, and forest roads wind through rock outcroppings, trees, and desert. Nearby is Copper Canyon, home to the Tarahumara Indians, the tribe famous for their barefoot running ability. Trail runners, road bikers, and hikers have also begun flocking to this dusty former timber town.

Stay: The spare but pleasant Margarita’s Plaza Mexicana is what passes for luxury in these parts, i.e. it’s clean, comfortable, and Wi-Fi-equipped. Rates start at $60.

Bocas del Toro Town, Panama

Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro, Panama. Via Shutterstock (Vilainecrevette)

Bocas del Toro Town, Panama
Bocas del Toro, a smattering of sandy islands off the northwest coast of Panama, are hardly a secret anymore. Yet its capital town, which goes by the same name, still clings by its fingertips to its small-village, thatch-roofed tropical charm. Even better, premier snorkeling and diving is only a short boat ride away.

Stay: Hotel Olas stands on stilts above the Caribbean in a less-trodden section of town. Its spare but nicely furnished rooms go for surprisingly affordable rates. Starts at $40 per night.

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala

San Pedro
San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala. Via Shutterstock (Sam Chadwick)

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala
There’s a reason this Mayan village is a backpacker, expat, and Spanish language school haven: it is one of the most gorgeous places in all of Central America. San Pedro la Laguna is carved out on the shore of chilly Lake Atitlan, near the base of 9,000-foot San Pedro Volcano. When you’re not partying at the bars in town, you can hike the mountain, kayak the lake, mountain bike endless miles of singletrack, or soak in a thermal pool. 

Stay: Get up early enough, and you can watch the sunrise over the mountains and lake from the inviting, eco-friendly Hotel Sakcari el Amanecer, which sits on the shoreline. Rates start at $20 a night.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Via Shutterstock (Tomasz Pado)

This town on a sugary, crescent-shaped cove on the Pacific Coast has become Nicaragua’s most popular destination for foreign travelers. But given the country’s trickle of tourists, that isn’t necessarily saying much—yet. Enjoy the festive small-town feel of San Juan del Sur, then venture by water taxi to its fringes to laze on a sugar-sand beach, go deep-sea fishing, or surf world-class waves.

Stay: Many of the area’s higher-end resorts lie outside of walking distance of town. The colorful, affordable Hotel Azul Pitahaya, on the other hand, is centrally located, a block from the beach and in the middle of the nighttime action. Perfect, as long as you don’t mind a bit of nighttime revelry happening outside your window. Rates start at $36 a night.

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