We went to Central America for four weeks backpacking. Of course we did some research: we bought the lonely planet and googled a bit here and there. Although there’s a lot of info to find, already, at some points I wished we were better informed. Here you will find the info I think can help you prepare for your trip.
Length of your stay
Four weeks for five countries was a bit short. It looks like the countries and highlights are close to eachother, but it takes more time to travel around than we expected. (tourist) buses don’t go that frequently and journeys take long even though drivers like to speed. Especially in the more ‘high’ part of Central America, like Guetemala and Honduras, roads wind between mountains, and journeys can take a long time. If you need to cross a border, this can cost some extra hours as well. So on our trip, we ended up feeling a bit like being in a hurry. It’s possible to visit a lot of places in a few weeks, but than you need to plan it all well. Like looking up busschedules in advance and booking tickets. If you want to have a bit more space for spontaneous ideas, I will suggest visit less countries or go longer.
Do you need to speak Spanish to visit Central America’s countries? hm, I would say; at least a bit. Not speaking any Spanish, can cause inconvenient situations. Namely, if you want to travel a bit more of, of the tourist track. Most of the tourist places are equipped with people who speak English, so if you only plan on visit them, you can get around well with only speaking English. But we felt sorry for not speaking that much Spanish. It’s hard to interact with locals and find out a bit more about the country you visit. In Costa Rica it’s more common for locals to speak English though.
The locals use old American Schoolbuses, renamed as ‘Chicken bus’, stuffed with people and goods to get around. These buses are funny to use and very very cheap. If you carry around a big backpack or a suitcase, your baggage will be dropped somewhere you can’t keep an eye on, so maybe you want to avoid this. Also, the drivers don’t speak other than Spanish. So if you want to be sure you end up in the right place and your baggage is safe, the alternative transport by land, is called a ‘shuttle bus’. This are small 10-14 person vans, who shuttle you between the tourist places. This little buses operate especially for tourists and are kind of expensive (30-50 dollar one way journey). They are also not always going every day. And sometimes they are full and you need to wait for the next (day). Their are tourist offices in every tourist town that can inform you about shuttles and make a reservation for you. On the other hand, in Costa Rica you easily can use public transport buses. They go often, are comfortable and cheap as well! Using a boat or plane to get around, is possible but less common (and cheap). More details about transport, you find in subpages.
How much will it cost you? It depends on what you are planning to do. Of course on average, prices are low. On tourist hotspots, you will pay more. Also tours and transport (shuttle buses), are more expensive than we thought it would be. Hotels and hostels you will find on every rate, so there’s no need to spend a lot on that. In our experience, Guatemala is the cheapest country. Costa Rica is the most expensive, but still under western prices. ánd transport in Costa Rica can be very cheap because you don’t need to use the shuttle buses. We spent 1250 euro per person (1700 dollar) in 4 weeks. Sleeping in double rooms, using shuttle buses and having breakfast, lunch and diner at a restaurant, almost every day. We did not buy any expensive tours or anything like that.
Every country has a different currency. Most places accept American Dollars, but not everywhere! You can’t count on this, so you’ll need the local cash as well. At borders you can chance your money at this guys hanging around. They have a reputation to be honest. Be sure you’re (European) bankcard is unlocked or suitable for using abroad. Furthermore, we had some problems using Mastercard, as the common accepted credit card, is Visa. There are not always (working) ATM’s around, even not at airports. So it’s good to bring some American Dollars with you for your first days. We sometimes had problems with finding an working machine, so ended up carrying around lots of cash. A moneybelt is very useful in this case. Don’t be surprised if you get skimmed. This really happens a lot, especially when you use ATM’s in little, unsecured boots.
You hear everything is ok, and tourists shouldn’t be worried, but we experienced a bit of a different vibe.. Especially in Guatemala. Our government already warns tourists on their website. Asking around confirmed this information. For example in Guata it wasn’t save to make hikes without police escort. Furthermore in the other countries, we also heard a lot of reports about robberies, especially if you walk on a quite street after sunset. Going of the tourist route in Guatemala and Honduras isn’t anything you should do at all as we all know about ‘white routes’ etc. If you don’t mind stick to the tourist places and transport, and pay a bit of attention on your items, there’s no need to worry. But showing of with jewellery, smartphones and laptops, isn’t wise to do. You better don’t wear (expensive) jewellery at all and hide your cash in a moneybelt below your clothes.
What to bring?
First of all, if you want to be a bit flexible in choosing where you want to go, travel light. With a small backpack, you can take every kind of transport, and keep you stuff close to you. Sometimes, you need to walk a while before getting at a busstation, or ferry, or whatever. With a big backpack, you rather skip this kind of trips, and will miss out on valuable places. Of course you can bring lot of stuff and just take shuttle buses and taxi’s. This is not a problem at all. You can even bring a suitcase if you want to. Although it will get a bit cramped in your dorm maybe. Don’t bring expensive looking stuff, like jewellery, Ipad etc. as it will be a target of robberies. BUT, bring a smartphone. Internetcafé’s or computers with internet in hostels are dieing out and Wifi is everywhere.
We used a medium size backpack and unless all the previous research, brought too much stuff. So we ended up leaving a lot of clothes behind for locals. You really can’t imagine back home, but a lot of things you really don’t need during your trip. I would suggest to not bring clothes you want to lose or may not get ruined. Even in more fancy places you hardly find girls wearing heels, nice purses or fancy dresses, you can leave this home. Furthermore, in most places it was warmer than we expected it to be. Only the more ‘high’ places can get chilly in the evenings (Guatemala Antigua, Honduras Copan), but in the other countries and places I felt sorry for bringing so much warm clothes. You only need 1 or 2 cardigans or something like it. A shawl or sarong is convenient to bring as it can double as beachtowel. Try to bring clothes you can were in different situations, and are easy to combine. Therefore, choose a bit of the same colors. Make sure you have at least 2 skirts or pants below your knee. In town or less touristic places you gain unwanted attention running around too sexy.