Okay, you’ve booked your trip, you’re headed to Central America! One of the great things about Central America, and probably one of the reasons you’ve booked your vacation there, is the chance to explore another culture, see something new, and try some great foods. So remember, when you arrive there, chances are it will not be like “back home”- wherever that may be! Instead relax and enjoy your travels in Central America and appreciate the differences.
Below, we have detailed some of the subjects about traveling in Central America that drive people crazy. Depending on your view, these can make your holiday the best or the worst vacation ever! Over time we have spent what amounts to several years traveling through Central and South America, so this is based on our own experiences as English speaking, Western travelers.
Mañana (or Tomorrow)
Most other cultures do not share the Western concept of time, and they certainly do not in Central and South America.
With a more laid back sense of time, things can wait ‘til tomorrow or mañana. Why do today what you could put off until tomorrow?
This makes the lifestyle much more relaxed, but as a tourist, with a limited amount of time, it can drive you crazy!
Just know, it doesn’t matter how impatient you are, it won’t speed things up. The only person getting upset is you!
Tip: If you need services, ask at your hotel, often they will refer you to places experienced with travelers and they are more aware of the need to be on time (or show up at all!). Be aware that the cheapest option is not always the best option.
Transportation for your Travels in Central America
Road infrastructure, despite the marketing, is not usually too good. Driving and even following laws and traffic patterns varies from country to country, but generally don’t expect the same standard as at home. Slow moving, overloaded vehicles, dangerous passing, failing to indicate and lack of driving in lanes are all common.
If you do rent a car, the agency will usually warn you of any scams or hazards to be aware of locally. (And often make you sign something to acknowledge you have been told). Check the price quote includes insurance when you make the reservation. The most common complaint we hear from travelers about Central America is they arrive to pick up the rental car and the price charged is much higher than quoted- sometimes more than double the cost! Insurance is mandatory and often not included in the quote. Our post about avoiding “surprise” fees and charges when you rent a car explains this and offers some advice.
If you don’t want to drive- consider internal flights, tourist buses or hiring a car and driver. Places that don’t seem that far in distance, can take a long time via road due to poor infrastructure and/or mountainous terrain. Sometimes it is just easier to fly. Check domestic airlines. Sometimes booking internal flights separately is much cheaper than booking them as part of your international airfare.
A car and driver can also be a comfortable option at a reasonable cost. Your accommodation can usually help you organize this option. Tourist class buses (not the local bus- pictured above) can also be a good option. Tourist buses are usually modern and have air conditioning. They do not usually have restroom facilities; the bus will stop somewhere on the route. Safety, quality of the buses and being “on time” varies by company. Check other traveler’s reviews, read blogs, or ask your accommodation for a reputable carrier. Rome2Rio can help you find transport options between two destinations. We use it all the time.
Accommodation in Central America
There is something to suit every budget. We tend to like small, locally-owned accommodation. Often, we rent an apartment using Airbnb or finding a great hotel using Booking.com. You can find our advice about finding the perfect accommodation in this earlier post.
Everything is not air-conditioned. A lot of rooms without air conditioning do not have screens in the windows. Leaving the windows open in a busy area can create issues with noise and /or safety. Depending on your needs you need to check these things.
For some reason, hot water seems extremely difficult to find in some parts of the world, Central America included. The shower is either freezing cold, or scalding hot, somehow warm to hot is not an option! Check other traveler’s reviews, we find most people will mention this one!
Most of the world seems to have access to the internet. We find it relatively easy to find accommodation with free Wi-Fi. More upmarket, luxury hotels will sometimes charge exorbitant rates for internet access, so if that describes your accommodation you might want to check.
Don’t expect your mobile phone to work. This is the subject for a whole other post, but quick tips- check with your carrier before you go about access and charges. Don’t just flip your phone to roaming- the data charges might cost more than your entire trip and I’m not kidding!
Central America speaks Spanish! While some people do speak English, don’t expect everything to be in English and everyone to speak English! Learn a few of the basics: “good morning”, “nice to meet you”, “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you”, “do you speak English?” “sorry, I don’t understand Spanish”. If you try, people will be more willing to help you. If you want to learn some Spanish DuoLingo is a free app for your phone.
Being rude to people because you don’t speak Spanish is not a way to make friends! And yes, we see it all too often. If the person you are trying to communicate with can’t understand you, chances are someone nearby can assist.
Check for government-issued travel advisories. For Australians check the SmartTraveller site, for British Citizens travel advisories are found here, and for Americans the State Department website has travel warnings. They are usually updated with weather and other current events, as well as less urgent warnings. They will often list common scams.
Leave your jewelry at home. Petty theft, sometimes violent, is unfortunately not uncommon for travels in Central America. Watch for pickpockets in crowded places and markets. We tend to leave our valuables in the hotel and only carry what we need. If we lose a few dollars to a pickpocket, our wallets and credit cards are still safe.
And don’t forget travel insurance. Yes, you need some sort of coverage for Central America and anywhere else.
Use common sense and you will be fine.
More Information about What to See and Do in Central America
If you are looking for more information about Central America- you might enjoy other posts about:
We absolutely loved Costa Rica and Panama when we where there last year and we never felt unsafe as well. Our biggest enemy actually was the sun, as we got terribly sunburned when we did some snorkeling. The good thing is, that you can get Aloe Vera Gel with Lidocaine without prescription. Something you could not even imagine in Switzerland 😀
Great advice there Tom. We often take the sun for granted, but taking precautions with good sunscreen is not a bad idea. Thanks for your comment.