Central America Travel Guide: Overview
Made up of seven different nations, this narrow strip of land that connects North and South America offers opportunities for every traveler. Whether you’re looking to find serenity on a quiet beach or you’re seeking the mysteries of ancient ruins, Central America is a beautiful, exotic, colorful hodgepodge of adventure tourism, pre-Columbian civilizations and colonial remnants.
In the pre-Columbian time period (before significant European contact or influence), prominent indigenous groups of Central America included the Mayans and the Aztecs. Spanish conquest of this region began in earnest in the 16th century, but by 1811, significant movements for independence began breaking out in El Salvador. Although the initial rebellion was easily suppressed, the nation won independence from Spain in 1821 and full independence (from Mexico and all other foreign nations) in 1823.
In the same year, the notion of a “Central America” was formed. Modeled after the United States, this union (the United Provinces of Central America) was meant to be a federal republic. From 1823 to 1840, however, this union devolved into civil war, which eventually led to the federation’s disintegration.
Shortly after, the member countries formed separate nations, but tensions, unrest and civil war continued for much of the 19th century. There were also several attempts during this period to reunite Central America, all of which failed to last.
While overt political unification never came to fruition, the nations have grown politically closer through various initiatives and organizations. For example, in 1907, the Central American Court of Justice was formed, from 1960 to 1969, there was the Central American Common Market, and the advisory body known as the Central American Parliament has been operational since 1991.
Signifying another step toward geopolitical unification, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all part of the Central America-4 Border Control Agreement. Much as the Schengen Agreement essentially abolished border checks within Europe’s Schengen Area, this treaty allows for free movement across the borders of the participating countries.
Today, traveling between the various Central American nations is easier than ever, and with their largely uncrowded beaches and diverse flora and fauna, it’s no wonder these countries are now consistently popping up on “best of” and “best undiscovered” travel guides.
Because of the pervasive nature of European conquest, much of current Central America is highly influenced by Spanish culture. The predominant religion, for example, is Catholicism, and Spanish is the most widely spoken language. That being said, the countries within this region have all formed unique and diverse cultural identities.
Music is a particularly important and integral part of Central American culture. It reveals many contributing influences, including Latin stylings, salsa, reggae, calypso, mariachi and more. Each country has its own spin on musical expression, which can be seen in distinct subgenres like Panamanian salsa. The marimba (a musical instrument in the xylophone family) plays a key role in Central American folk music and can be heard in music throughout the entire area.
On the literary front, Guatemalan author and journalist Miguel Ángel Asturias won the Nobel Prize in 1967, and Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli was honored as one of the hundred most important poets of the 20th century.
Central American actors are also making an increasing splash in Hollywood. Star Wars: The Last Jedi featured Poe Dameron, played by Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac, and Honduran-American actress America Ferrera established herself in the Hollywood elite with Real Women Have Curves, as well as the TV shows Ugly Betty and Superstore.
Good to Know
In many restaurants in Central America, a 10 percent gratuity is already added into your bill, so tipping is not usually strictly necessary. However, if you received particularly great service or you dined at a more upscale restaurant, an extra 5 to 10 percent will always be appreciated.
If a porter helped you with your bags or a cabbie went out of his or her way to be helpful, a tip of a few dollars is always a nice gesture. (For shorter rides around town, it’s not customary to tip taxi drivers. If you want, though, you can round the fare up to the nearest number and have the driver keep the extra.) In a nicer hotel, people tend to leave the housecleaning staff a few dollars a day for their services.
Central Americans tend to be open, friendly people, and it’s customary to greet others with a heartfelt buenos días (good morning) or buenos tardes (good afternoon). If you’re struggling with whether or not to use tu (informal) or usted (formal), don’t give it too much thought. Locals aren’t likely to take genuine offense if you use the socially incorrect form, and they’re particularly forgiving if Spanish isn’t your first language.
While boisterous cheek kissing is common in many South American countries, Central Americans are a bit more reserved with their greetings. When in doubt, stick with a simple handshake.
Avoid gesturing to anyone by bending your index finger. In the States, it might mean “come here,” but in Central America, it’s a vulgar gesture.
In six of the seven Central American countries, the electric current is 110 volt, and El Salvador operates on 115 volt. If you’re traveling from the United States, this means you won’t likely need a converter. However, you’ll encounter many different plug types across Central America and, sometimes, even within one country. To be on the safe side, throw in a universal converter to ensure you’re never stuck trying to fit a three-prong laptop into a two-prong outlet.
US travelers shouldn’t be overly perplexed by Central American restrooms. (They aren’t, for example, the squat toilets so often seen in Asia. More often than not, it will be a Western-style flushing commode.) That being said, when in Central America, assume you shouldn’t throw your used paper down the toilet, unless there’s a sign specifically saying it’s OK. More than likely, there’ll be a small waste basket in the facilities for the purpose of depositing all used paper.
Some bathrooms will charge a nominal fee for use (anywhere from the equivalent of $0.10 to $0.50), and you should always have a few coins handy for this purpose. Toilet paper and a way to wash your hands are often not provided in these facilities, so an extra roll of toilet paper and a small bottle of hand sanitizer should become staples in your day bag.
Don’t expect buses in Central America to be equipped with facilities, but don’t worry. Long-distance buses tend to make at least a few bathroom breaks.
The quality and safety of drinking water vary between Central American countries. In Costa Rica, the water is generally considered safe in most regions; in Honduras, tap water should be avoided entirely.
Especially if you’re traveling across multiple countries, you’re more likely to encounter unsafe drinking water than safe drinking water, so it’s best to stick to bottled, filtered or sanitized water at all times.
There are seven countries within Central America, and their official currencies are as follows:
- Belize: Belize dollar
- Costa Rica: Cota Rican colón
- El Salvador: US dollar
- Guatemala: Guatemalan quetzal
- Honduras: Honduran lempira
- Nicaragua: Nicaraguan córdoba
- Panama: US dollar
Outside of El Salvador and Panama (where the US dollar is already the official currency), you can still find many places throughout Central America that accept the American dollar. Nicaragua and Belize, for example, will widely accept US dollars, as well as their own currencies. In other countries, you might be able to use US dollars in large cities or touristy locations, but if you’re planning on getting off the beaten path, always make sure to have a stash of local bills. Note, you’ll almost always get a better rate in the local currency.
Backroads Pro Tip
When in Belize, be careful to always ask if what you’re paying for is marked in US dollars or Belize dollars. The symbol ($) is the same for both currencies, but the exchange rate is different.
ATMs are readily available throughout Central America, but you’ll have the best chance of finding one in a city or tourist destination. Make sure to shop around a bit to find the ATM that offers the best terms and rates for cash withdrawal using a foreign card. If your travel plans will take you to overtly rural locations, make sure to hit the ATM before you hit the road.
Most major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club and American Express) are accepted in Central America, and plastic tends to offer the best exchange rate. That being said, even when the official currency is the US dollar, your bank will likely still charge a transaction fee every time you use your card abroad.
You can exchange money at most airports and border crossings, but make sure you’re getting a favorable rate.
When To Visit
If you’re looking to avoid the rain altogether, aim for January to March for most of Central America or November to April for Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua. While heavy rains and even flooding can occur in September and October, other months might bring an hour or two of rain in the afternoon and then lusher, greener scenery in general.
If you’re looking to partake in specific activities (turtle spotting, whale watching or others), research the peak times for those specific outings, and plan accordingly.
Full Article Coming Soon!
- The Pan-American Highway runs through Central America. The highway holds a Guinness World Record as the longest “motorable road.”
- No matter where you stand in Central America, you’ll never be more than 125 miles from the ocean.
- Central America houses some of the world’s most endangered languages. Less than 100 people are fluent in the Pipil language (of El Salvador), and only a handful can still speak the Honduran language of Lenca.
- Only five countries in all the world use Fahrenheit to measure temperature: the United States, Palau, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and the Central American country of Belize.
- During World War II, El Salvador gave over 40,000 Jewish people fake citizenship papers in order to save them from concentration camps.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
Half Caribbean getaway, half jungle-packed adventure hot spot, Belize offers a dizzying array of activities for every type of traveler. Explore the second largest barrier reef in the world (second only to Australia’s), trek through wildlife sanctuaries, and delve into the mysteries of the ancient Maya.
Belize City: While Belize City is still notably less relaxed than the rest of the country, recent governmental efforts have made the streets considerably safer than in the past. Today, it’s a colorful, vibrant mix of local characters representing the entire range of Belizeans. In a city where slums rest aside expansive colonial homes, no one can accuse this place of ever being dull.
Placencia: Always popular with tourists and expats, Placencia is a sunny, sandy wonderland. While it doesn’t offer much in the way of nightlife, it’s the ideal way to unplug, and the restaurants on offer are some of the best in Belize.
San Ignacio: From its bustling market to budget accommodations, San Ignacio is firmly entrenched as the buzzing center of the Cayo District.
With its stunning biodiversity and penchant for adventure tourism, there’s no place quite like Costa Rica. One of the most tourist-friendly locations in Central America, this safe, fun, idyllic spot offers up ziplining, hiking, biking, up-close rain forests and so much more.
Bajos del Toro: Remote, charming Bajos del Toro is small-town mentality at its best. The Río Toro valley is a place of stunning beauty, and you truly feel part of nature surrounded by the misty cloud forest. Just make sure to stock up on cash beforehand. There aren’t banks here.
La Fortuna: For years, La Fortuna was little more than a quiet agricultural town, and then Cerro Arenal erupted in a hail of lava, ash and chaos in 1968. Suddenly the town was a tourist destination, and although the mountain hasn’t shown any activity since 2010, it’s still one of the biggest draws in Costa Rica.
San José: Bleating horns and concrete buildings turn many away from San José, but that just means it only offers its delights to those who scratch beneath the surface. Marvel at colonial-era mansions skillfully converted into sleek art galleries. Gorge yourself in Barrio Escalante, Costa Rica’s gastronomic heart and soul. Dance into the wee hours at any number of buzzy nightclubs. Take an extra day, and San José could just surprise you.
Read our Costa Rica Travel Guide.
Arguably the most diverse of all Central American countries, Guatemala is a convergence of colonial architecture, still-breathing Maya traditions, adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting and unparalleled natural beauty.
Flores: Distinctly Mediterranean in its feel and ambiance, the island town of Flores provides clear emerald waters and charming rooftop terraces with stunning views. Santa Elena, which offers shopping, bus routes and banks, is connected via causeway.
Guatemala City: Deeply divisive, Guatemala City (known also as Guate) either enthralls or repels its visitors with its extremes: from soaring skyscrapers and rundown shanties to lumbering buses and shining luxury vehicles. There’s been a recent push for renovation, however, and now you’ll see more bars and restaurants than ever before and an overall more visitor-friendly feel.
Worth a Visit
Great Blue Hole
This submarine sinkhole is a mecca for all scuba divers thanks to its impressive stalactites and diverse marine life. Off the coast of Belize, this undertaking isn’t for newbies, though. You’ll need at least 24 dives under your belt.
Connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Panama Canal is one of the most significant and historically difficult feats of engineering ever undertaken. Began in 1881 by France, the project was eventually completed by the United States in 1914.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Central America
In general, US citizens don’t need visas before entering any Central American country, provided the stay is 90 days or less (30 days in Belize). The Centro America 4, sometimes known as the CA-4, is an agreement between El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It grants a traveler a cumulative 90-day stay in all four countries.
While you won’t need a visa, you might encounter an entry fee upon arrival. This can range from $5 to $20, so make sure you have some cash on hand at the border.
Backroads Pro Tip
Theoretically you should only have to pay the entry fee once within the CA-4 zone, but border patrol might insist on an additional nominal fee for “paperwork.” In these instances, it’s best just to pay the fee, and consider it all part of the traveling experience.
Each of the seven Central American countries has an international airport, so if you’re entering by air, you’ll be able to land directly in your desired country.
The following are the most widely used international airports in each country:
- Belize: Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City
- Costa Rica: Juan Santamaría International Airport, San José
- El Salvador: Comalapa International Airport, San Salvador
- Guatemala: La Aurora International Airport, Guatemala City
- Honduras: Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport, San Pedro Sula
- Nicaragua: Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, Managua
- Panama: Tocumen International Airport, Panamá City
Smaller domestic airports can easily connect you to other regions within the countries.
While the entire Central American region is not overly large (roughly the size of France), overland travel can take longer than you might expect. Most roads are just two lanes, and many badly need repairs. Major highways tend to be crowded with traffic, including buses, trucks and farm vehicles. Whatever mode of overland travel you’re planning, make sure to build in some extra time for delays.
If you’re opting for bus travel, just about every Central America travel guide is going to highlight the camioneta (“chicken buses”). These old US school buses are easy to sport as they’re painted in bright and colorful arrays. They transport people, produce and (as the name would suggest) chickens. This option is cheap, and the routes and schedules are fixed, but the bench seats, intended for school children, are uncomfortable, they’re overcrowded, and petty theft is a real problem.
Long-distances buses will cost you more than chicken buses, but your ride will be significantly quicker and more comfortable. Air conditioning and bathrooms are fairly standard on these rides, and some even have security checks before boarding to help minimize onboard theft. These buses tend to connect major cities and prime tourist destinations.
Taxis are another common form of transport, particularly around a given town. Before getting into a taxi, determine the going rate. (The government regulates fares within city limits.) A motorcycle taxi, or tuk-tuk, is an even more affordable option, and because motorcycles are cheaper to maintain than cars and use less fuel, this is a prevalent transportation option throughout Central America.
Trains, once prominent in Central America, are rare nowadays, and most lines have fallen into disrepair.
Renting a car is an option, and most major car rental agencies have offices in all Central American countries. Before renting a car, though, make sure to look into the terms of your deductible and security deposit. Road conditions are poor, and local drivers don’t always abide by strict rules of the road. If you get into an accident, you want to make sure it’s not going to blow your trip budget.
Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Central America, followed by Mayan languages in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. You’ll also likely encounter various forms of English creole in Nicaragua, Belize and Panama.
In large cities and touristy areas, you’ll typically find people who speak enough English for you to get your point across. Tourist information centers will also generally have English-speaking workers.
To help overcome some of the language barrier—and to immerse yourself in the Central American culture—try your hand at a few common Spanish phrases:
- Hello: Hola
- My name is…: Me llamo…
- Yes: Sí
- No: No
- Thank you: Gracias
- You’re welcome: De nada/Por nada
- I’m sorry: Lo siento
- Please: Por favor
- Please help me: Por favor, ayúdame
- How much does it cost?: ¿Cuánto cuesta?
- I don’t understand: No entiendo
- Do you speak English: Habla inglés
- Where’s the bathroom: Dónde está el baño
BackRoads Pro Tip
Respect plays a key role in many Latin cultures, and attempting to speak Spanish—even if it’s choppy, broken or incorrect—is a big way to earn the respect of locals. Even if the person you’re talking to has a command of the English language, attempting to converse in Spanish can set you apart from all the other tourists, and it can even open doors to cultural experiences that would otherwise be shut.
Food and Drink
Central American food is quite varied from country to country, but some common staples you’ll find include maize-based dishes (tortillas, tacos, tamales, arepas and more) and Latin-spiced condiments, including guacamole, pico de gallo, mole, chimichurri and others. Beans are also extremely common and can often be found in breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes. From shrimp to lobster to caught-that-day fish, seafood also plays an important role in Central American cuisine.
The type and proportion of spice give a dish its country-specific flair. Honduras, in particular, is known for its use of coconut, and this appears in both sweet and savory dishes.
Common drinks include coffee, chica and horchata (regionally referred to as semilla de jicaro).
Food in Central America: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
In general, Central America travel is safe for foreigners. Some parts of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador suffer from high crime rates (particularly gang activity), but this doesn’t often affect tourists. To be as safe as possible, however, follow these tips:
- Capital cities, on average, have higher crime rates, so take extra common sense precautions in big cities.
- Isolated beaches are the most common spots for sexual assault. If you’re traveling alone, aim for beaches with at least some human activity.
- Rather than wandering unknown streets at night, always take a taxi.
- Highway robberies tend to happen at night, so if you can avoid overnight buses, you limit this risk.
- Cocaine and marijuana are readily available, but both are illegal and carry heavy penalties. Some people will use drugs as a means to blackmail or extort well-off tourists, so show zero interest if you’re offered anything of the sort.
- Corruption in the police force has historically been a problem throughout Central America. There’s even been reports of police officers planting drugs on tourists in order to garner bribes (coimas). If a plainclothes cop stops you, never get a car with him or her, and don’t show or give him or her money. Insist on walking to the nearest police station to resolve the issue.
- Petty theft and pickpocketing are possible, and these activities are particularly prevalent in bus stations and other crowded areas. Always watch your belongings, keep essentials (passport, credit cards and cash) on your person, and don’t flaunt expensive gadgets or jewelry as it can attract unwanted attention.
- If you’re being robbed, don’t resist. Assailants can be armed.
Many safety hazards in Central America are actually the result of natural elements. Riptides can be unexpectedly strong—even in shallow water—and account for hundreds of drowning every year. Always ask about the safety of a particular swimming area before diving in.
If you find yourself in need of emergency services, the following are the numbers to use:
- Belize, Costa Rica, Panama: 911 (police, ambulance, fire)
- Guatemala: 110 (police); 128 (ambulance); 122 (fire)
- El Salvador: 911 (police); 132 (ambulance); 913 (fire)
- Honduras: 112 (police); 195 (ambulance); 198 (fire)
- Nicaragua: 118 (police); 128 (ambulance); 115 (fire)
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Central American adventure!