Wal-Marts have now invaded most central American countries and it's fairly easy to get anything you want from them, but they tend to found in cities, as opposed to be dotted about the place in each country. Your next option for buying food is the family-run supermarkets, which have basics, but don't expect to make any culinary masterpieces from their limited supplied.
Markets are common, selling fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. We found bananas weren't particularly great, as the best ones tend to go to westernised countries. Ironic eh?! Street food is cheap, tasty and everywhere. There's a complete range of quality throughout Central America, from greasy chicken and fries in Guatemala to kebabs skewers in Nicaragua, but the real winners are the Mexican dishes.
As a general rule throughout Central America, only drink from sealed bottles. The tap water can be hit or miss and it's not worth the risk, when bottled water is so cheap anyway. Also, be more inclined to go for fruit you can peel. Just remember the traveler's mantra: wash it, peel it, cook it OR forget it.
Here is our summary of each country:
Mexican food is now on the international cuisine map. As it's popular throughout the world, you'll find many foods you'll be familiar with, such as nachos, guacamole, enchiladas, fajitas, tamale, quesadillas, tacos, tostadas, sopes, chilaquiles.
Ceviche (chopped raw fish with onions, tomatoes marinated in lime juice), served with tortilla chips is very common, and is delicious. You'll be recreating this dish when you get back home.
Like you'd expect with a big country, you'll find many areas and towns have their specialities. In Guadalajara, for example there's the famous tortas ahogada (literally drowned sandwich), which is a blisteringly spicy chilli-soaked pork sandwich. Try them - we never had anything we didn't like and wouldn't have again. Beware of asking for it ‘bien ahogada’; spicy is an understatement. We also liked Mexico City's carnitas (braised pork). Mole is huge in Oxana, and although we'd say try anything once like the chocolate mole, we did not like it at all.
The food isn't particularly healthy and you'll notice the dumpy look of most women and the obese statistics raking up to those of Americans, but you're on holiday, it's time to ditch the diet and enjoy it. We loved the food in Mexico. Although the portions may be big and cheese layered on everything, the food was surprisingly fresh, simple and locally grown (not like it's northern neighbour).
As a side note, the food in Mexico isn't all spicy. Chillies are used as a flavouring ingredient and to provide intensity in sauces. As a general rule, we found, if it's incorporated in the dish, it doesn't blow your head of (this is coming from a non-spicy fan), but if it's side salsa or relish, I'd test it out first before dunking your nacho in there. The Yucatan habanero chili is the spiciest pepper in the world. Dare to try? We actually completely forgot to do this challenge, but we heard that chile de argol used in the tortas ahogada (above) that we did try is on similar par. I actually couldn't speak for 5 minutes!
Sugary drinks are high on the drink menu, along with the international carbonated favourites. You'll also find a variety of fresh fruit juices all over the country and iced tea type drinks. Quite nice.
However, alcohol rains supreme here. Ticate is one of our favourite beers in this part of the world, probably because it was a relief each time we got a cold one in the intense Baja heat. Others you would've heard of include Corona, Modelo and Pacifico.
Drinking tequila in Mexico is an unwritten law and if you actually go to Tequila town itself you'll be surprised how it's not just the cheap nasty crap you shot up in bars at home. Enjoy ;-). Mezcal is tequila's brother, but the difference is, it doesn't have to come from the blue agave plant or from the tequila producing areas of Jalisco.
Cocktails are popular in Mexico and come strong, with, you guessed it, mostly being tequila based. Margarita anyone?
Mexican food was cheap, definitely cheerful and there was loads of it everywhere. Of course, street food was incredibly reasonable on the price front, but the restaurants were hardly on the expensive side also. If you're heading to the Baja or eastern coast, then expect to pay tourist prices ie the American equivalent.
Given its Garifuna and Caribbean influence, breakfast in Belize typically includes fresh fruit, eggs, cheese (it's not great, so don't expect much), tortillas and refried beans. You'll also come across Fry Jacks (deep fried dough balls) and Johnny Cakes (biscuits) served with butter and/or jam. They're nothing to write home about, but they fill a hole.
Given how multi-cultural Belize is, Belizean meals range from typical barbecued chicken with rice, beans and coleslaw (very common on the coast and the islands), to Chinese dishes (found in mainland towns from the influx of Chinese immigrants). There is also a wide range of fish dishes. This was the first time we had conch. We didn't really like it, but the snapper or shrimp cooked in coconut broth (Hudut/Hodot) is to die for.
You'll also find stew chicken dishes again, with the typical rice and beans; ceviche; and garnaches (fried tortilla coated in refried beans, cheese, cabbage and carrots).
A personal favourite was these little pasties things called Pastelitos de Carne (pastry filled with some type of curried meat). They are very cheap, but only good for a snack.
You can pick up westernised snacks like Pringles and European chocolate bars too (with the expected import price tag).
Belizeans love their fruit juices and carbonated drinks. For something different, try Seaweeds, which is uniquely Belizean, made with seaweed (of course), milk, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla.
Belkin is the beer of choice in Belize (you can even visit the brewery if you pre-arrange), and given it's Caribbean influence, rum is the leading spirit. You'll find cocktails (mostly rum based) are popular in the islands and main town restaurants.
Belize is definitely the most expensive country in Central America to eat either out or even going to the supermarkets, so budget on paying westernised prices or more. Street food can be fairly cheap, but it didn't really fill us up.
Guatemala dishes tend to consist of eggs, tortillas, beans and rice, and plantains, and have a strong Mexican influence with nachos, enchiladas, guacamole and ceviche being common. You'll also see meat stews (caldos) and soups (soaps) on restaurant menus. Street food was a little disappointing for us here, as it was mainly just the option of having greasy chicken and fries.
Guatemala has a wide range of international cuisine and I'd go as far as to say they can pull of other countries famous dishes better than the finding country could themselves eg the many Mexican eateries around Guatemala and Thai food in Livingston was the best I have ever had.
In Guatemala, popular drinks include limonada con soda (freshly squeezed lemonade with soda water) and Licuados (fruit shakes), which are cheap and delicious. Licuados can be made with water (agua) or milk (leche). The latter tasted better to us.
It goes without saying that you must try the international reknown Guatemalan coffee. If you weren't a coffee drinker before you come here, you could be by the time you leave.
The national beer in Guatemala is Gallo, but you can also get Dorado, Sol and Victoria. Guaro liquor is also a local favourite.
Guatemala is cheap to eat and drink, but expect to find a distinct price increase around touristy destinations, like Tikal ruins, Livingston and Antigua, where you could potentially pay westernised prices
Given the influx of American and Canadian expats living in Honduras, the food is quite similar to what you'd find in the States. Franchise companies and American restaurant chains are big in the cities. The three burgers we had here were possibly the best we have ever had anywhere though, so enjoy a taste of home.
Again, like it's neighbouring countries, breakfast will consist of Central American favourites: scrambled eggs, beans and tortillas. Personally, I'm not a fan, but Gwyn loved it.
Other meals will traditionally consist of rice, beans, tortillas and some kind of grilled meat. Expect an abundance of seafood restaurants along the coast and my favourite little snack Pastelitos de Carne (also found in Belize). Mexican restaurants are quite common, with Ceviche and Burritos being popular dishes amongst both Hondurans and tourists.
We loved tostones (plantains fritos), which are deep-fried plantains, and come as part of a side package of many dishes.
You'll find the usual carbonated drink brands and sugary juices. Honduras coffee is also lovely (we preferred it more than Guatemala), with many coffee growers being local (essentially somone's garden), rather than on a big scale.
The beers of choice in Honduras are Salva Vida, Port Royal, Barena and Imperial. Guaro is a sugar cane liquor and if you like you sweet alcohol drinks, this is for you. Definitely try Guifiti, a powerful Garifuna liquor. It's a mysterious concoction; the ingredients of which varies from brewer to brewer, but it will contain some herbs and spices in it. You can't pick any up from supermarkets, maybe because some of the ingredients aren't technically legal, but we found it quite common in bars along the coast. It's times like this when the rules are made to be broken.
As you'd expect it's a lot cheaper to eat the staple Central American food than those westernised food fix meals you'll pay for. We also spent a lot more money on food on the Bay Islands, where almost everything is shipped in.
Nicaragua's food is represented by its residents - it's diverse. For us, it epitomises Central American cuisine, compromising of Spanish, Creole, indigenous and Garifuna dishes. You have your typical eggs, cheese, tortillas and gallo pinto (rice and beans) for breakfast, washed down with orange juice or coffee.
Main dishes consist again of your usual Central American staples: corn, beans, sweet or tostones plantains (deep-fried), meat or seafood and a cabbage salad.
You'll also find some stew-like dishes, tamales (corn flour stuffed with meat) and chicharrones (deep-fried salty pork skin). They're very cheap, so go for it and see if it takes your fancy.
Tropical fruits mixed with water (like a fruit juice), milk (like a milkshake) and yogurt (like a smoothie) are common on streets to buy.
For some ice-cold cervezas, go for local brews such as Tona or La Victoria. You can find international brands in most places.
If you like your alcohol, don't leave Nicaragua without drinking sweet El Macua (rum, guava and lemon juice). It was recently voted the official beverage.
Nicaragua food is cheap and cheerful (two words we love to hear). You can get some tasty and inexpensive street treats and full on meals, especially in big towns and cities like Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. It goes without saying, but budget on paying at least double for food on the Corn Islands, although in our opinion it's definitely worth the splurge. We had amazing meals there.
A typical Costa Rican breakfast consists of gallo pinto (rice and beans), cooked plantains, tortillas or toast and usually scrambled egg. A traditional dish is called casado and consists of gallo pinto, fried plantains, a chunk of cheese, salad and meat (usually chicken, beef or fish). Continuing to be a favourite is Ceviche (see above).
You can pick up westernised snacks like Pringles and European chocolate bars too (with the expected import price tag).
We packed in the refrescos (fruit smoothies made with water (agua) or milk (leche), which was the next best thing to getting our milkshake fix. Agua dulce (water sweetened with sugar cane) is still popular as ever, but I personally didn't really warm to it.
Coffee is still a national favourite, but not as well known as it's neighbouring countries.For beer (cerveza), the national beer of Costa Rica is Imperial, but you'll also find Pilsen and Bavaria.
In comparison to other Central American countries, Costa Rica is pricier with most basic dishes ranging from $5usd to $10usd. If you dine locally it's a fraction of the cost and Costa Rica's native cuisine may be simple, but it's tasty and inexpensive.
Breakfast in Panama tends to be the deep-fried variety including the eggs, meat and tortillas, but continental breakfast favourites are easy to come by.
Panama still has the Central America classics, like plantains, ceviche and gallo pinto, but it excels on seafood. I've never come across lobster so cheap in my life, caught right in front of me.
There are also stews, empanadas (flour pastries stuffed with meat, potatoes and cheese), carnimanola (fried yucca filled with meat and boiled eggs) and my little tamales (pockets of corn dough with some sort of meat inside)
The coffee in Panama was some of our favourites through Central America and you'll be missing out if you don't do a tour in Boquete. Whilst you're there, try the most expensive coffee in the world - Geisha coffee. We're converted coffee snobs now.
Beer brands include Balboa, Atlas and Soberana. For something stronger, try Panama deco, a fermented sugar cane liquor.
Although food here may not be as cheap as other Central American countries (as the US dollar is the national currency), the beer is. Even in a restaurant, it should cost around $1usd for a cold one. Not too shabby.
Of course, to keep costs down, nibble at roadside stalls, but just make sure it's cooked in front of you. The food markets also offer a good variety of produce at backpacker prices.