Wanderlust Welshie
Backpacking Tips for Central America

What you need to know before traveling Central America

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Central America is made up of seven small countries. These are Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Which means its relatively easy to get from one country to another. It has something to offer everyone. From vibrant culture, jungles, and wildlife, to chilled-out beaches with some great surf. It is also known to be the capital for exploring Volcanos. However, some of these countries are still developing and although you might have done your research, things you think are easily accessible, may not be as available compared to the rest of the countries you have been to. I’ve put together a list of twelve things you should know before traveling Central America so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

1. ATM charges

Most ATMs will charge you to take money out (it can range from $1-$4). My friend found out the hard way that although the ATM 5B are everywhere in Guatemala, you might have trouble taking money out if you have a MasterCard. (always bring a back-up card)

2. Look out for hefty service charges

Most places (hostels) will charge you a 5% service charge for paying by card so cash is the best option. A lot of places in Central America use the US dollar & will give you change in their local currency. There are many places where you can get overcharged due to the exchange rate. Be wary especially when paying cash in hostels.

3. Prepare yourself for the border crossings

It definitely paid off researching border chargers beforehand exit & entry fees in CASH (They DO NOT accept card at most borders). If you’re crossing the border in a more luxurious mode of transport than a chicken bus, the driver will take your passport to get it stamped. Don’t worry, he hasn’t run off with it, it’s a common protocol when using that type of transportation. Be aware that border crossings can be a dodgy place to be at night so make sure you’ve done your research and have everything you need. My post on transportation in Central America goes into more detail about border charges.

4. Choose your countries wisely

This depends on how much time you have, what kind of budget you have and what you want to do throughout your trip. Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize are known to be more expensive countries. Whereas El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are the cheaper scale. However, Honduras and Nicaragua have grown to have a bad reputation for crime, and even though it is increasingly more than other countries in Central America. I was glad to have listened to the recommendations of other travelers than to people who’ve not been there and had the most amazing experience there. Had I listened to them, I would have missed out! Like any country, use your common sense, and stay clear of the capital cities.

5. They Speak little English so it pays to learn the basic Spanish

Check out my post on the best way to learn Spanish HERE, where you will find the best resources that will suit your learning style. I underestimated how many people throughout Central America don’t speak English. A little bit of Spanish will get you a long way enhancing your travel experience and helping you integrate with the locals. It also got me out of many stressful situations I found myself in! Spanish Podcasts are great for a long day of travel along with Spanish gaming apps when you’re lounging around in a hammock. I also took Spanish lessons in Guatemala which benefited me greatly throughout my travels. You can read about my homestay experience and going to a Spanish School in Guatemala, which I highly recommend.

6. You’ll need to get used to eating Corn, Rice, and Beans

Corn, Rice, and Beans is pretty much the norm throughout the whole of Central America and is dirt cheap. There are many traditional local cuisines that you should definitely try. Pupusas, Baleadas, Ceviche, Empanadas are some of the must-haves which are so good and cost so little.

7. The local chicken buses are an adventure itself!

These are yellow retired school buses from the US that sometimes add a splash of color. Their easily accessible throughout Central America and will cost you half the price of a shuttle. Be wary of your belongings, bring lots of snacks, and ensure you go to the toilet beforehand. Sit back and enjoy the local food hawkers that seem to hop on and off the bus or the local singers serenading you for a small tip. Prepare to get cozy, not only with people but with animals as well. I did a mix of chicken buses, shuttles, and coaches, check out my experience on my post taking transportation in Central America.

The most authentic experience of Central America

8. Carry small change

This is in case you need to pee and also to buy tissues (don’t forget the tissue goes in the bin here not the toilet). It’s also handy to have changed if you want to buy any snacks or any suvinears from local stalls. You could be waiting a while for the seller to go round the other stalls asking his pals for change!

9. Stray Animals are Everywhere

This was a particular issue that is very close to my heart that I found rather difficult especially in Central America and especially when it comes to dogs. They are everywhere, and it is completely heartbreaking! Make sure you’ve had your rabies injections before even thinking about approaching a stray animal. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer at sanctuaries and animal charities that could benefit from your help.

10. Bring a jumper/hoodie as it can get cold

Although Central America is known for its tropical climate, places like Monteverde in Costa Rica can get a bit cold at night. I would also recommend having one when traveling from place to place as they tend to blast the air-con. Better to be safe than sorry then catch a dreaded cold.

11. Medication is easily available throughout the countries

When you’re away from home in a different country, it is much easier for you to pick up a bug, food poisoning or develop some sort of infection. Ensure you have had your travel injections beforehand and have a decent supply of medication from your home country. Medication is easily available. When I developed a chest infection in Guatemala, it was easy enough to buy antibiotics over the counter. Travel Sickness was a big issue for me, especially in Guatemala as the roads are very windy so be sure to stock up and prepare beforehand. Check out my post for tips on how to deal with motion sickness.

12. Proof of onward travel for Costa Rica & Panama

Book a shuttle/refundable flight or San Blas Tour to Colombia- however, I have also known travelers to use best onward ticket website or rent a ticket to show at the border. As long as you have some form of documentation, they don’t care or check. However, what I will say is DON’T risk it by having nothing as the majority of the time they will ask for proof.

Most people of Central America are very open to sharing their culture and lifestyle with you (even with limited Spanish) however, be respectful of their religions and their political beliefs as this is a sensitive subject amongst many countries there so be sure to do a little research and respect their opinions.

Do you have any other useful tips for traveling Central America?

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