Travel Tips For Central America

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Why Central America?

Central America is an ideal place for people that love the outdoors, that want to have a cheap rustic adventure on land, on or under the ocean. To put it another way, Central America is home to these fine things:

  • The second largest coral reef in the world
  • Some of the most beautiful beaches
  • A  crazy number of volcanoes
  • Amongst the highest rates of wildlife diversity in the world
  • Amongst the worlds cheapest SCUBA diving
  • And more.

And all for a decent price.

Central America is a place for those looking for an adventure. Don’t come looking for homely comforts or for astounding eats.

Sunset over El Tunco, El Salvador

Sunset over El Tunco, El Salvador

Where To Visit?

Here is a super quick summary of each country, which probably doesn’t do any of them justice. Click on the links to read more about each country.

Belize – Many of the tourists attractions are centered around the beautiful tropical islands and reefs off the coast of Belize. The country is home to the second largest coral reef on earth so there is plenty of opportunities for world-class scuba diving and snorkelling. The interior of the country is less visited but contains some worthwhile destinations (forests with diverse wildlife, Mayan ruins and impressive cave tours).  Many North Americans visit Belize on one week holidays. Tours are expensive relative to most of the other countries in Central America. Read More Here.

Costa Rica – By far the most visited countries in Central America.  Visit Costa Rica if you want to see an amazing abundance of wildlife and do outdoorsy adventures (zip-lining, white water rafting etc). The country is full of activities set up for tourists (i.e. virtually all parts of the country have tours for tourists). Because there are so many tourists,  many locals speak English. Expensive relative to most of Central American countries. Read More Here.

Guatemala – Another popular country to  visit. Good for people wanting to check out Mayan culture (both current and historical). Also has the highest rated attraction in  Central America on TripAdvisor (Antigua, old Spanish town). Has  something like 30 volcanoes so it is almost mandatory to visit a volcano  when you visit. Learning Spanish and  enjoying some great coffee are also popular. Read More Here.

El Salvador – Off the beaten track for most tourists. The visitors that do make it mostly head to the small laid-back surfing  towns which dot the coastline. Semi-ridiculous number of volcanoes for such a small country which can also be visited. Good place to do touristy things with the locals, and not other gringo tourists. Read More Here.

Honduras – There are only a small number of sites  where tourists normally visit in Honduras (Copan Ruins and Caribbean Islands being the primary ones). The rest  of the country is viewed as a little unsafe. Honduras is for those seeking Mayan ruins, white water rafting, SCUBA diving, snorkeling… and  saying you have visited the city with the highest homicide rate in the world (if that is your thing). Read More Here.

Nicaragua – Often  visited by people seeking a cheaper or less touristy equivalent to  Costa Rica. Cheap and a host of outdoorsy activities to do (climbing  volcanoes, surfing, SCUBA etc). Through in some nice old colonial Spanish towns. Read More Here.

Panama – Great for exploring beautiful beaches, uninhabited tropical islands, unique Indigenous cultures and the best skyline in Central America. One of the more unappreciated countries in the region. Often overlooked by tourists because of its northern neighbour, Cotsa Rica. Panama has great diversity of wildlife (especially birds). And great Caribbean islands. Read More Here.

Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico) – We know, not technically part of Central America but often included as part of a trip to the region. The Yucatán Peninsula is home to some of the most beautiful beaches you might ever see  and plenty of great water-sports (on, under and above the water).  Read More Here.

The Countries of Central America (source: http://www.wikipedia.org/)

The Countries of Central America (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Getting Around:

Getting around Central America can be exceptionally cheap – especially if you are using Chicken Buses (which you should definitely consider, and run at about US$1 per hour of travel). The other handy feature of Central America is that most destinations are pretty close together, so you shouldn’t be travelling long before getting to your next destination.  You might only want to travel on a chicken bus for 3-4 hours though, anything longer and you should consider a nicer bus.

In terms of VISAs, Central America is a pretty easy place to move through because for most travellers you won’t need to per-arrange your visit. Just turn up at the border with your passport ready to be stamped, and maybe pay a small entry or exit fee (US$1-20).

Central America is popular with backpackers. There of course there is no precise route that people take, but given the geography of the region you will find many backpackers either start in Mexico and head south, or start in Panama/Costa Rcia and head north (and a vague idea of where they are headed).

Chicken Bus, Guatemala

Chicken Buses, a cheap way to get around Central America

Planning Advice:

  • The coasts on either side of Central America are quite different. The Caribbean has nicer beaches, the sand is whiter, this is the side where most of the SCUBA diving takes places and some of the remotest parts of Central America are located on this side.  If you wish to avoid other tourists, generally speaking you have a better chance of doing this on the Caribbean side.The opposite side has less attractive beaches but far better surfing opportunities (especially in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica)

Money Saving Tips:

  • The cheapest countries are Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
  • The most expensive countries are Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. In Costa Rica for example. you should expect prices to be similar to the United States.
  • Travel like the locals and avoid the tourist buses, if you are looking to save money. Chicken buses are a great way to get around and will only set you back about US$1 for each hour of travel
  • Buy your fruit and vegetables at the markets instead of supermercados (supermarkets)
  • Order ‘Menú del día‘ (menu of the day) for good value and good sized meal (generally US$5 or less)

 

Other Tips

  • If you are worried about your safety, consider ordering your taxi by phone (as opposed to hailing it off the street).
  • If you are approached by muggers – keep things in perspective – reportedly, some thieves in Central America do not take well to rejection and can turn violent.
  • Many tourists that visit Central America during North American vacation periods, so there are definite high and low seasons. Prices tend to reflect these seasons. There is also a rainy season between late April to November (differs slightly by country). Prices are lower and destinations much less crowded during the low season.
  • It is worthwhile having a couple of means through which you can source money (i.e. a couple of different bank cards). It is reasonably common for the ATMs to only take particular bank cards, to have run out of money or have no power – in which case you will have to for alternatives. Given this, you may also consider stashing away a small amount of emergency money, in case you have difficulty accessing a bank/ATM. The further off the tourist trail the harder it might be for you to source money.
  • Most of Central America has a novel address system, that involves navigating from a locally known landmark to your destination (for example, a church). This can be tough for a traveller that doesn’t know any of the local area. You can read our guide to navigating this system here.

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What To Bring:

Anything you are going to need you can probably buy in each country – so don’t worry too much about forgetting something. However, the more time you plan on spending in the wilderness (and away from towns), the more you will need to plan ahead for what to bring.  The key though, is probably to pack light and not particularly fancy. Having said that, here is a list of things you might consider bringing:

Headlamp/Flashlight/Torch: In parts of Central America power outages can be pretty common. In other places night hikes are popular, or maybe you are staying in a hostel dorm and you need to make an early start without waking up all of the other guests. Whichever it is, a headlamp or flashlight is handy.

Flip Flops: Central America is a pretty laid back sort of place for travellers – you are going to spend at least part of your travels chilling by the beach some place.

Sunscreen and Insect Repellent: Okay, so you can buy either of these can buy there, but for whatever reason they are really expensive. So if you want to feel like you are getting slightly less ripped off during your travels, bring some of your own from home.

Place To Hide Some Money: Chances are you will need to be slightly more aware of  your valuables when travelling in Central America than in your hometown. One of the best ways of make sure you don’t get robbed is to not provide any would be thieves with opportunity. And an excellent method for avoiding this opportunity is to keep your money hidden. Think a money belt, a money necklace. These days there are many inventive ways for hiding your money. The other benefit is if you have your daypack/wallet stolen, you can still have a backup stash of money/bank card hidden on you.

Toilet Paper: Who isn’t a fan of toilet paper? You might come to realise how much of a fan you are in Central America, because it isn’t always available (even in places you might expect they would have some). Bring a small amount to fold away in a day pack (or buy it when you get there).

What to MAYBE pack

And by MAYBE I mean you PROBABLY want to take.

Medication: You can get medication in Central America (and it is normally cheap) – but cheap medication can have nasty side effects. If you want medication that you know is going to get the job done, and with less side-effects, you are best off being it from home.

Rain Gear: It can get wet in Central America, at any time of year but particularly during the wet season. It might also be handy to have a cover you can put over your backpack. Alternatively you can just buy a cheap poncho when you get there,  if you are somewhere urban than as soon it starts raining a whole bunch of entrepreneur will be out selling cheap rain gear. Do bring wet weather gear if you know you are going for multi-day hides in the wilderness and/or are travelling during the wet season.

What NOT To Take

Anything that makes you look like you are on a Safari:I am talking about a lot of the gear they sell at adventures stores (such as Kathmandu, REI etc). In Central America it just isn’t necessary. Wear comfortable gear that you already own, perhaps not the fanciest gear that you own. Only wear your adventure safari gear if you really want to stick and/or amuse the locals. Just remember, the money you do spend on that gear is money you can’t then use to enjoy yourself on the road.

Anything You Aren’t Prepared To Lose: Travelling in Central America can be a little rough on your gear. One day its being shoved in the back of a chicken bus, the next you are caught out in the rain on a hike, or maybe you are just worried about some valuables getting stolen. If you aren’t willing to lose it, don’t bring it to Central America. If you have to bring it, get travel insurance.

White Water Rafting in La Ceiba, Honduras

White Water Rafting in La Ceiba, Honduras

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