I spent three months backpacking through Central America. I have got to admit, I knew almost nothing about Central America before I did this trip. I knew there was the Panama Canal, Costa Rica, and that was pretty much it. I was oblivious to what was down there and the only thing that came to mind was drug cartels. I was so wrong to think this way.
Now, three months later, being immersed in the culture every single day, I feel so much different! I know so much about the land, the culture, the countries, the weather, the animals, the people, etc. I ended up traveling through 6 countries; and in this order; Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. The only country I did not do in Central America was El Salvador. I had a blast! The time of my life! I’m going to give you some tips and tricks so you can better understand what to expect upon arrival.
This is obvious but the number one language is Spanish. Most of the population only speaks Spanish, very few, minus Belize speaks English. I somehow was able to travel relatively fine without knowing much Spanish, but it would be much easier if you brushed up on some phrases and words.
Most common words and phrases I used in getting around:
Buenas- You use this to greet people, walking down the road, passing people.
Bano- Bathroom. Damas and Mujeres is Women. Hombre and Caballeros is men. When I first got there, I knew such little Spanish that I walked into the men’s bathroom. I knew Mujeres and Hombre but I did not know Damas and Caballeros.
Parque Central- Pretty much anywhere you go;town, city, you want to get dropped off in the Center of town because that is where all your hotels and hostels will be. If you don’t get automatically dropped off at the bus station, which is what happens the majority of the time when traveling by bus, you say Parque Central. Or to the taxi driver.
Bus estacion- You are going to ask where the bus station is 1,000 times when you are there. And when you say bus, you don’t say it how you would in English. Imagine the U as a strong U. Like how you say it in the alphabet is how you would say it in this word.
ATM- Donde (where)- tarjeta de credito. When you say this, most people will understand you are looking for an ATM. Make sure that when you are going to an ATM, that it is in a good part of town, and if it has a locked door it is better. Or if it is in a mall or something. Many people go in at night to the ATM’s and put in a card scanner and steal people’s information.
What time is it? Que Hora Es?
How much is it? Cuanto Cuesta? This is very important! You always want to know how much everything costs before you buy it! Especially taxis. Never ever ever get into a taxi without negotiating a price first. And yes, I say negotiating because the taxi drivers (most of them) are awful. They will take as much as they can from you so you always settle on a price first. If you can, ask around (your hostel, someone you trust) to see how much the taxis are to where you want to go. If the price seems too high, say “muy carro” and walk away. This will get them just about every time and they will lower the price for you. Muy carro means too expensive!
Bar- Cerveza (beer); Vino (wine)
Como se llamas- What is your name?
Me llamo Shelly- My name is Shelly
Come estas? How are you
Estoy bien, y tu. I am doing well, and you?
De donde eres? Where are you from.
Soy de New York. I am from New York.
That is your basic conversation. I have literally gone through this conversation so many times! People really are interested in your name and where you are from. Learning a little Spanish goes a long way! Just knowing this will help you out so much. Learning basic food will help too!
Eggs (Huevos), Rice (Arroz), Beans (Frijoles), Chicken (Pollo), Plantains (Platanos), Sandwich (Emparedado), Cheese (Queso), Vegetables (Vegetales), Fruit (Fruta), Tea (Te), Coffee (Cafe), Sugar (Azucar), Salt (Sal).
This food I just listed will be most of your meals through Central America. I know that I will not have beans and rice for at least a few months. I can’t eat it anymore lol. I ate so much of it! And chicken. You will eat chicken, if not a vegetarian, just about every day.
Getting Around: By Bus
When traveling, even if you don’t have an itinerary of where you want to go, you will meet people along the way that will give you ideas on where to go. Once you have the town or wherever in mind, all you do is find the bus station (Bus Estacion), and once there, you will find buses all around. Look on the glass. There will be all the different towns written on the glass. Each bus has their own destination, so most of the time, there will only be two names written on it. The place that the bus is in right now, so let’s say you are in Metagalpa Nicaragua. All the buses at the bus station would say Metagalpa. Then the second name would be to the place they are traveling to. Ex. Jinotega. So once at the station, it is usually really easy finding your bus. Then you just ask someone (bus driver) when it is leaving. Cuando sale el autobus? They tell you the time and voila. You might want to brush up on your time too. Numbers are very important. You always ask how much everything is as well as when you are leaving. So when they say ciento cinquenta, you know that means 150. I would say it would be really helpful to learn at least 0 to 100. That way when they say the price, you won’t be completely lost.
Note: I took chicken buses all over Central America to save money and had no problem, but did get a warning in Guatemala. Some people come up onto these buses, with guns, and hold you up to steal everything you have. Computers, cell-phones, I-pods, wallets, etc. From this warning, I took private shuttles all over Guatemala. It is triple the price but for me it was worth it. It really is just a luck of the draw though. These kinds of things happen in more places than Guatemala. You just never know. But most of the time, you will be safe and chicken buses are fine. Always make sure you travel by day. It is just a lot safer that way!
I did not travel this way, but while traveling I met a lot of people who did. Most people rented a car or drove from the US by car, entered Mexico and then drove all the way down. Also, many people travel by motor bikes. If I were to travel here again, I would highly consider buying a motor bike, and traveling that way. That would be sweet!
It is also very important to understand the exchange rate in every country you go to and the currency they use.
As of January 2017, these are the exchange rates:
Panama (the easiest). 1 Balboa is equal to 1 USD.
Costa Rica: 1 Colon is equal to .0018 USD. 1 USD is 553 Colones.
Nicaragua: 1 Cordoba is equal to .034 USD. 1 USD is 29 Cordobas.
Honduras: 1 Lempira is equal to .0424 USD. 1 USD is 24 Lempiras.
Guatemala: 1 Quetzal is equal to .13 USD. 1 USD is 7.53 Quetzales.
Belize: 1 Belize is equal to .50 USD. 1 USD is 2 Belize Dollars.
Hostels and Hotels
Hostels are cheap pretty much throughout all of Central America. The most I ever paid for a hostel was 15 dollars per night and that was in Belize where it is most expensive. Costa Rica and Panama are the next most expensive countries considering hostels and I paid on average 9 or 10 dollars a night. All of the other countries are cheaper, but not by much. On average staying in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, I would pay 7 USD.
If you are not a hostel person, many hotels participated in the same price as well. And in some areas, you will not find hostels but rather hotels, and they would be the same price as hostels. Unless of course, you are staying at a ritzy place in a touristy area. Then expect prices to be higher. Especially in Belize, Costa Rica and in Panama.
Tip: When staying in hostels, bring a lock. It is pretty safe staying in hostels and having the hostel life. There are very little thefts, but they do exist and you can prevent this happening to you, especially the most important things by simply bringing a lock. Most hostels have a locker inside or outside the room for you to lock your most prized possessions. Most of the time, you can’t fit in your whole pack but you can fit in your computer, phone, i-pod, camera, passport, credit cards, money, and anything else that you feel that you would need to lock up.
The Roads here in Central America mostly are not paved roads, but rather dirt roads with many pot holes. Expect long bumpy bus rides almost always! The roads are best in Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.
And when travelling by bus, mostly chicken buses, expect to be squished. The chicken buses are by far the cheapest way to travel, but expect long bus rides, bumpy roads, and being squished by the many people they cram on these buses. I almost feel they call it chicken buses because they pack people in like chickens where many of the times, people were literally on top of each other. The bus drivers charge by seat, so if you have kids and don’t want to pay extra, you just put the kids on top of you. I saw a woman with three kids on her lap, literally four people to one seat! I never seen so many people on a bus before.
Note* Honduras is the most expensive country as far as transportation. I paid more for buses in Honduras than in Costa Rica! Most people don’t know this. Usually people just say, Costa Rica is the most expensive country. Well, I disagree. Honduras is the most expensive country from transportation! I never was at the ATM so much in my life!
Most places you go to, there will be a reason why you are there; a place you want to see, an activity you want to do, etc. Tours are great, but sometimes they are unnecessary. If you are on a budget, you can save a lot of money by sometimes doing the tours on your own. Not all the time, many tours it is mandatory to have a guide and in those cases, the guides are really important for your safety. But make sure you do your research to see if it is safe to do it on your own. There was only one time where doing a tour on my own, backfired, but I made a lot of mistakes on my part.
I decided to hike Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua without a guide. The biggest mistake I made was starting too late. If I started this hike earlier, then I would have seen people down there to ask directions, or possibly even follow someone else’s guide discretely to get out of there. Needless to say, I got a little lost, and it was so late that there was no one down there. I got out and everything was ok, but not going to lie, it was a scary experience, being in the middle of nowhere, with the sun going down, and no one to help you. Other than this experience though, I did many tours without a guide, and I was completely fine and saved soooo much money! So make sure you do your research. Can you get there by bus? Can you do this without a guide? Do you feel comfortable doing this without a guide? Do you have enough hours in the day to get back to your hostel before the night? These questions are very important to ask yourself. If you answered yes to all these questions, hell yeah, go on your own adventure and do it on your own. Some tours are simply just money makers!
The Nice People You Run Into
Many many locals help you out by navigating on where and what you want to do. At first, the people just seem so genuine and want to help you out, and I believe a part of them, that holds true, but at the root of it, they just want your money. Most people in these countries don’t hold real jobs. Many of them rely on the tourists to make money. Some working in tours (those people have real jobs), but others selling food on buses and on the sides of the street, and the locals that direct tourists on where they need to go (waiting outside of bus stops mainly). People come up to you, ask where you want to go, they tell you, and then hold out there hand. The locals, 99 percent of the time expect money. Many locals, for a job, literally just wait outside touristy areas or outside bus stops, to tell you where you need to go and expect money in return because that is what they are doing for their “job.” It’s great because you receive so much help, but it gets overwhelming when you have to hand out money to every person you talk to. It’s a problem.
I literally asked a guy where the bus stops, he pointed right across the street and then expected money. I was like no way! That literally took one second of his time. Bottom line is the locals all think we have money, and if they help you out the slightest, they expect money. Just something that will probably only get worse over time. I even lost my phone, asked a local to call a hostel, not a friend, and he charged me to use his phone. 5 dollars! Don’t expect freebies. I did manage to hitch hike though sometimes and did not get charged :).
If you are an animal lover, I am sorry to say that they generally treat animals like crap. Expect to see wild dogs everywhere usually matted up and starving. Sometimes even dried blood on their skin. There are not many cats. Some but mostly dogs. I have seen two dogs get run over being there, the one person not even slowing down or anything for the dog. It was very sad, so just be prepared on seeing starving dogs everywhere.
Make sure you travel off the beaten path a bit. Many times I found myself in places where there was no more tourists for hundreds of miles. And in most of these places, I found myself still safe. The only places I felt unsafe in all of Central America, that I traveled to was, Southern Honduras by Tegucigalpa, Juticalpa, and Catacamas (just don’t go anywhere around here,) and also Masaya, Nicaragua. Masaya is a tourist location for the active volcano where you can get a chance to see live lava. It’s great to come here, but you must take a tour! I tried to do it by myself and just did not feel safe! Book a tour from Grenada. This will be the cheapest way to see the live lava in Masaya. Don’t go to Managua either in Nicaragua. Not safe!
I know I talked a lot about depressing things. I’m sorry for that. Just want to completely be honest and prepare for what a third-world country really is if you have not seen one already. Hope this helps and I hope you have a grand adventure in Central America. Being there really opened my eyes to a lot of things. Everything may not be perfect over there, but I genuinely had an amazing time and really did meet good people, travelers as well as locals! Get out there, get your hands dirty and immerse yourself in these beautiful countries. You won’t regret it! Thank you for reading!