Thinking about solo travel in Central America? The narrow stretch of countries from Mexico to Panama offers solo travellers a little bit of everything from gorgeous Caribbean beaches to historical cities, iconic Mayan ruins and enchanting rainforests. What’s more, it’s an incredibly budget-friendly destination and its small size means that it is very manageable to cover in a short time frame. Central America has a reputation as being dangerous however with some research and a little caution, it’s a region that captivates and rewards travellers at every turn. So, before you book your flights, here’s everything you need to know about solo travel in Central America.
Stay In hostels
Central America has plenty of budget-friendly hostels for solo travellers that are similar to the ones you get in popular backpacking regions like South East Asia. Whether you are starting your trip in Mexico or south in Costa Rica or Panama, you’ll probably want to pre-book a couple of nights accommodation before landing. Take a look on Hostelworld or booking.com for good deals.
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.
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. Most of the beauty and culture is located outside of the capitals. In fact, the main cities are the most dangerous places and 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. If you aren’t sure of where to go, then look at the itineraries for tours run by G Adventures.
Speak to people
Getting around Central America can be tricky, particularly if you don’t speak Spanish so that means that it’s even more important to put yourself out there and seek advice from as many travellers and friendly locals as you can. Because of the shape of the region, travellers either take a north or southbound route so that means Central America is a great region to buddy up with other travellers.
Bring 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 annoying, especially if you aren’t sure of your travel plans.
Avoid going out alone at night
Whether you are a seasoned solo traveller or not, it’s best not to go out alone at night in Central America. Drug gangs operate in popular tourist areas like San Theresa in Costa Rica, so wandering around by yourself at night is just asking for trouble. Go out with other travellers when it’s dark, always leave clubs together and stick to popular backpacker bars. There is no reason to skimp on fun (in fact some of the best nights out I had were in Central America). Just be sensible, don’t carry any expensive belongings and remember, you’re not in the west, respect the country that you have chosen to travel in.
In an unpredictable region, it’s crucial to be prepared in Central America. Don’t plan a rigid itinerary as having the flexibility to go at your own pace is crucial (plus you never know if you will have issues crossing borders). Bring a variety of clothing as Central America can be incredibly hot or incredibly cold depending on where you go. If you are solo travelling then bring a visa and Mastercard as it can be troublesome withdrawing money, with a lot of ATMs only accepting one of these cards. Make sure you withdraw money before you run out of it, just in case. It also pays to learn a little Spanish and download a translation app that you can use offline. Also, download the XE currency app so that you are not shortchanged. If you are looking for more tips read my other post here: Useful Hacks You Need To Know Before Travelling In Central America
Be savvy with flights
If you are flexible with time, then it’s easy to score some cheap flight deals to and from Central America. Take a look at Skyscanner or sign up for Jacks Flight clubs for deals. Here are some ways I scored cheap deals to and from Central America:
1. Outbound: Honeymoon flight deals
For my outbound flight, I realised that It was considerably cheaper to book a return ticket and waste the flight home than it was to buy a one-way ticket to Cancun. This is because many airlines like BA, offer ‘honeymoon deals’ to places like Cancun where cheap returns are part of the package.
I decided not to book my return home, as I didn’t know how long I’d stay. Then, when it came to it, the flight home from Costa Rica was very expensive. Instead, I booked the cheapest flight to the US (which happened to be Atlanta where my aunt lived) and then got a $30 bus to New York. I then stayed in the city for a few days before going on a super cheap flight home. All in all, I spent less than I would have done flying home from Costa Rica and I had a whole adventure in the US.
Remember with a little perseverance and flexibility, you can always find cheap flights.