Travel tips for backpacking in Central America
The little strip of countries in between the USA and South America is one of the most beautiful, diverse and fascinating parts of the world that I’ve ever travelled in. With some of the most beautiful landscape, towns, wildlife and beaches ever this tiny region of countries, stretching from Mexico to Panama really does have it all, and the fact that’s it’s so condensed means its more manageable and less overwhelming for travellers than South America.
Over the years some parts of Central America have got-bad reputation however if you stick to the backpacker route you’ll fall in love with a region that you’ll want to go back to time and time again. Here are my top travel tips to know before travelling to Central America.
1.Bring US dollars
Most of the countries in Central America have their own currency however US dollars are widely accepted so they are useful to have with you, especially if you have an issue withdrawing money from the ATM’s. In El Salvador USD is the official currency anyway and most other countries will accept them and then give you the change back in the local currency. In the bigger towns, there are usually ATMs that will let you take out dollars.
2. Proof of onward travel
For most nationalities like Brits you don’t need to pre-arrange visas for Central America. When you arrive in Belize or Mexico you are allowed to stay for thirty days, and thanks to the Centro America 4 agreement between Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, you can stay for 90 days visa free, then Costa Rica 90 days and Panama 180. One of the most important things to note is that although you don’t need to pre-arrange your visas, you are still required to show proof of onward travel when entering Costa Rica or Panama only. This can be really annoying, especially if you aren’t sure of your travel plans.
what is proof of onward travel?
Proof of onward travel can be a bus ticket or flight, basically, anything that shows you are leaving that country, and unfortunately it has to be out of the exact country, so showing a return ticket home from Mexico when you’re trying to get into Panama doesn’t help. You could risk it and not get proof of onward travel but if they do ask they may not let you board your plane if you don’t have it. As I wasn’t sure what to do I just booked a refundable flight with LastMinute.com which I could cancel. Just be sure to put the leaving date near the end of the total period you’re allowed to stay, as they may only give you until this date.
3.Bring a Visa and Mastercard
I found that Central America was really troublesome for withdrawing money, especially in the smaller towns. A lot of ATMs only accept one of either Visa or MasterCard so it’s a good idea to have one of both in case there is an issue. Try and withdraw money before you run out so that you’re not left without cash. Paying by card isn’t widely accepted.
4. Change your money at the border
If you have currency left over then the best place to exchange this is at the border. There will be unofficial money exchangers there who will take the local currency off you and exchange it for the currency of the next country. Just be sure to double-check the rate you should be getting to make sure you’re not getting ripped off.
5. Avoid the capital cities
It can seem a given that you should always visit the capital cities however in Central America this isn’t the case. Not only is most of the beauty and culture located outside of the capitals but the main cities are also the most dangerous places and are often the reason that an entire country gets a bad reputation. So if you’re travelling in the region then do yourself a favour and skip San Jose for Santa Theresa, Belize city for Caye Caulker and Guatemala city for Antigua instead.
6.Know the expensive countries
Central America is one of the most diverse regions on the planet and this diversity is mirrored in its prices. There is a massive difference between the cost of living between say Belize and Honduras so adjust your time in the countries according to your budget. The most expensive countries from highest to lowest are; Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
7. Avoid the ‘Gringo’ food
Western food is becoming really popular in Central America but do your waistline and your budget a favour and stick to local food. When you’re travelling between destinations, the main eating options tend to be Pollo Campero (Central America’s version of KFC) or Subway, but there are usually independent local restaurants which are much better. Not only will the local food be tastier and better for you but it’s usually a quarter of the price and it’s nice to support independent local business rather than big chains. My favourite local dish was pupusas in El Salvador.
8. Learn Useful Spanish phrases’
It’s all well and good doing Duo Lingo before you go but it’s far more useful to learn some practical phrases than just the basics. Even in very touristy parts of Central America, communication can be an issue. The useful phrases I used a lot were; ‘Cuanto cuesta? (How much?), para llevar (Takeaway), bolso ( bag), numbers (otherwise you won’t understand how much things cost), regresar (I’ll be back) and sin azucar (without sugar).
9. Bring warm clothing
For such a small region, the weather in Central America can vary a lot. In the hot season, temperatures can easily reach 40’c and above although in the higher altitude areas like Monteverde, Costa Rica or Antigua, Guatemala, it can actually get quite chilly especially at night, so it’s a good idea to bring a couple of sweatshirts, long trousers and a rain jacket.
10. Take the bus not flights
Travelling in Central America is not the same as travelling within Europe or Asia. Whereas in these places you can fly between countries for under £50, in Central America it can actually be cheaper to fly to the US than in between the countries. Save money and book yourself a bus or join a group tour that takes advantage of private transfers to travel between the countries instead.
11. Bring a refillable water bottle
I found that a lot of the countries in Central America offered very cheap (or free) water bottle refill services which is better for both your budget and the environment then continually buying new bottles. Also in Costa Rica you can actually drink the tap water so if you’re an environmentally conscious traveller then consider bringing your own lightweight bottle with you.
I hope you found this post helpful. There’s more advice I could give you for travelling in Central America however the best thing about this region is that it throws the unexpected, the unusual and the exciting at you no matter how much you plan or prepare. So really the best bit of advice I can give is just to go and experience the beauty and craziness of Central America for yourself.