Central America is wonderful little collection of tropical countries that separate North from South America. I spent the last three months traveling through Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Belize. Three months was no where near enough time and I regrettably missed seeing El Salvador and Panama and only got to see a tiny bit of Honduras. It was my first time backpacking, so I was a bit of a novice at traveling in general, but I learned a lot about travel through Central America in those three short months. I’ve compiled a few of the things that I think would be most helpful to a first time traveler in Central America, however these tips could likely be applied to most places backpackers venture!
- Bugs- learn to love them! I come from a very Northern town on the globe where bugs are like the trees- puny, unimpressive and of little variety. So coming to Central America, where bugs are especially abundant, diverse and terrifyingly large, was a little shocking! Luckily, I adapt quickly and got used to the idea that I would be sharing my most intimate of areas- my beds, my showers and my toilets- with an abundance of creepy crawlies. The room I’m currently in had a hand sized crab next to my bed when I checked in. Then this huge dung beetle was on his way in the door last night before I diverted him. This beautiful butterfly was hanging out by the light switch. When I lifted my bag to grab something today a cockroach scuttled out from under it. The guy in the dorm next to me had a spider the size of his hand- no exaggeration, the man was nearly crying– inside his bag. I almost stepped on a toad the size of a guinea pig on my way to bed my first night. And all this in just one place! The deeper in nature you go, the more bugs there will be! And trust me, there will be bugs. There will be lots of bugs. My advice to you? Bring a bug net with you so you can sleep in peace at night. Bring and wear bug spray. NEVER have food in your dorm room. But most of all? Learn to face your fear of the creepy crawlies- it’s like anything, enough exposure to it and it loses it’s intimidation. I’ve blown three flying ants off my arm as I wrote this paragraph.
- Get your vaccines- all of them. Lots of bugs, remember? That carry lots of awful diseases. Central America also has a terrible stray cat and dog problem and many of them end up feral with diseases. There are also loads of bats and monkeys – yes the rabies vaccine is expensive, but I’m pretty sure your life and health are worth it. Head to your local health clinic, tell them whereabouts you plan on travelling and what you plan on doing while travelling (scuba diving, hiking etc.) and they will let you know what vaccines you should get. If nothing else, ensure you get your yellow fever as I was asked at the Nicaraguan border for my yellow card.
- You can’t flush your toilet paper here- they don’t have the same kind of plumbing we have back home that can handle so much. Help the countries you are in and abide by the rules- toss all your toilet paper in the bins provided- yeah it’s raunchy, but just do it!
- Money: a few things:
- Always carry small denominations of cash with you. The ATM will dispense you large bills, so try to break them at larger establishments every chance you get, as many smaller places won’t take them.
- Always carry a few American dollars around with you. They won’t accept them everywhere, but it can usually get you out of a snag until you can get your hands on some local currency. I always keep some for emergencies. Just be aware that when you pay with American, you will receive the local currency in return and not get your money’s worth.
- Be wary of the ATM’s- they can steal your cards, never to spit them out again, or they can be rigged to wipe clean your entire account. If it looks sketchy, don’t use it. Try to find an ATM attached to a bank as they are much more reputable and safe.
- DO NOT leave home without a spare card! Bring your debit card and at least one credit card that can function as a debit card as well. I brought a debit and two credit cards and i’m glad, as one card was lost/stolen in Honduras along with my drivers license and i was able to keep moving while i ordered a replacement card sent to my home address back in Yellowknife. My friend is bringing the card down to me in July, as there is no rush for me to need it since I have my spare. My friend had his card stolen by a machine and ended up having to whole up for TWO weeks in Granada waiting for a new card! Trust me, two weeks is too long in Granada!
- Download a conversion app on your phone- it doesn’t need internet to work, just to update the most recent exchange rates. Before you head to the borders- check the exchange rates for the money you want to exchange so you have some ammunition against the scalpers who will give you terrible rates. If you know the rates and can show them they are ripping you off they will change their rate- it still won’t be what you get on your phone, but it will be better than nothing. On that note…
- Exchange money at the border- just do it. You can’t expect to magically find an ATM or bank with not a dollar to your name. Use your converter, bite the bullet and exchange enough money to get you to where you need to go to find a bank. I met a girl who showed up in Honduras trying to get on the ferry with no Honduran money and no American money and figured there would be an ATM at the pier- not the case. Luckily we all helped her out to cover the cost, but it’s a stressful situation you don’t want to find yourself in.
- Don’t feel like you have to spend every last dollar of your current country’s currency (that’s a mouthful!) before heading into the next country. Why spend money on things you don’t really need? You’re already on a tight budget, don’t waste those precious dollars. You have a few options. Keep it and exchange it all at the border (for a mediocre rate), keep it in hopes of finding an exchange shop in town, or take it with you and find other travellers that are heading into the country you just came from. I came over with $700 Honduran Lempiras (about $35CAD) and met a guy at my hostel who was heading into Honduras so I used the converter and traded for a fair rate on Guatemalan Quetzales.
- Dry season means it’s f**king HOT season. Temperatures rarely dip below 30C here and often times climb into the 40s with intense humidity. Be prepared for the heat. Always ensure you have a foldable fan to fan yourself with, lots of water and take advantage of those hostels that only have cold showers- trust me, you won’t want a hot one! When things get really hot, I usually put on wet underwear and/or wet shirt to keep me cool. Wear sunscreen, wear a hat and seek shade as often as possible. Schedule hikes for sunrise to avoid the heat of the day. Heatstroke is nasty business and totally preventable if you’re smart, and in the dry season in Central America you have to be smart.
- Ask a local- the local people in Central America have been wonderfully friendly and exceedingly helpful. Sometimes I don’t even have the chance to ask for help before they are asking how they can help me (they see a gringo with a massive backpack looking confused and lost and feel pity!). Obviously it helps if you can speak a little Spanish, but even If you can’t some of them may speak a little English. And on that note..
7. Learn some Spanish. Seriously. I absolutely cannot even imagine trying to travel through Central America without the little bit of Spanish that I know. Everyone I have met that doesn’t know any Spanish has the same regret- they wish they had taken lessons before they came traveling because it has made their travel incredibly difficult. Get on Duolingo before you come for a few weeks. Make sure you bring a phrase book or dictionary with you. Download the Spanish Dict. App, it doesn’t need internet to function so you can use it in the street! Take a crash course for even two days when you arrive just to get your feet wet- you have no idea how far two days of lessons will take you- far! You will get ripped off far less, life and travel in general will be far less stressful, you’ll feel more a part of the countries you visit and the locals will appreciate it.
8. Bring a big bottle of sunscreen and bug spray with you- don’t bring little skimpy bottles. Why? Because locals don’t need or use those products- therefore they are for sale strictly for the gringos at exorbitant rates. You will pay $15 USD for a bottle of crappy sunscreen. You will use a lot of sunscreen and a lot of bug spray here, so sacrifice a little space in your bag and bring the big bottles from home where it’s cheap or you’ll blow your budget on sunscreen in your first month.
9. Border Crossings- these can be the bane of your existence… If you don’t speak any Spanish, these will be the bane of your existence, unless you are flying into each country, which is a ridiculous waste of money. If you are crossing borders on a shuttle, this will be relatively painless as the shuttle drivers take care of most everything for you and can usually speak enough English to help you out. If you are using local transport- buses- then be prepared. Before you leave a country you almost always (except Guatemala) have to pay an exit fee BEFORE you get in line to get stamped. If you wait in line to get your exit stamp without paying they will tell you, in Spanish, to go and pay. And they won’t exactly give you good directions as to where to pay (read about my adventures crossing some borders here and here!). So before you get in line for stamps, ensure you’ve found where you pay your exit fees first. Also be prepared to pay an entrance fee to get into the next country as well.
10. Transportation- chicken buses, shuttles, express buses, luxury buses, planes, taxi’s, truck beds, scooters, ferries, tuk tuks, boats, two feet and a heartbeat- I’ve taken all forms of transportation to get around central America and you had better steel yourself to be ready to do the same! Don’t take any mode of transport that you feel particularly unsafe on- but to be honest, you’re going to feel pretty unsafe on all of them, save the luxury buses. People drive like maniacs here! Half the time there are no seatbelts in the taxis and never in the buses. Half the time you don’t even get a seat. Half the time you’re not even inside the vehicle, but rather clinging to the outside of it, or riding in the truck bed. This is the way of life in Central America, and this is the way everyone gets around. Unless you have a bottomless wallet and can take a fancy cab with seatbelts and air conditioning everywhere you want to travel, you are going to find yourself taking some sketchy modes of transport- but you know what? It’s fun! You meet some great people, get a chance to talk to locals, and see some great sights along the way. My favourite rides have usually been down winding dirt roads in the back of a pick truck bed with 10 other people and a bunch of gear. I recommend trying all the modes of transport and finding out for yourself what you are comfortable with and what you’re not. I took a chicken bus all the way from Guatemala City to Managua Nicaragua (and then immediately booked a luxury bus to finish the trip from Managua to San Jose!- read about that wild adventure here!) and would never do such a trip again. However I took a chicken bus from Belize City to San Ignacio, a 3 hour trek and it was a great and very cheap ride and I would do it again in a heart beat. Do your research and ensure the cabs you are getting into are licensed cabs and agree on a price before hand. Check the local bus times, but be prepared to wait as they will likely be late.
*I wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking in Central America. I met a few people who were taken at gunpoint and robbed of everything.*
I’m sure there are a million other great tips out there for travel through Central America- what’s your best tip for travellers trekking through this marvellous spot on the globe?