--------
--------


[i] Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, tips, info and summaries for: Central America - Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua - and onwards to South America.

MayanWhat follows are only basic snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out), to see why click here.

» It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info

Editorial..

Central America is a relatively compact region, easily travelled and very popular. Travellers are attracted to Caribbean beaches, temples and it's 'easy access' proximity to the United States of America. On the whole the region is over rated with it's northern reaches (México (see North America) & Guatemala) being the most interesting. It's an excellent place to learn Spanish and highly recommended to get the most from your trip.

When compared to South America, Central America is a more favourable destination in many ways, mainly due to beaches and beauty within a compact circuit, but it lacks many of the 'wow' exotic factors/sights of South America which should not be missed.

Up Many thanks to Jan for Guatemala and CR updates and Monty for info on sailing to Colombia from Panama.





*   Central America

 * Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region

» Belize

  • The Cayes?: Small islands. There are hundreds off Belize, many of them picture perfect and uninhabited. When backpackers talk about the Cayes they generally mean Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker (picture), being the two largest (the former much larger than the latter). Simplifying greatly: Ambergris Caye is far 'richer' and a package tourist favourite, whereas Caye Caulker is smaller and more backpacker orientated.

  • Dangers: Belize City does have a bad reputation, but with normal care, it is no real threat. Most trips and transport use boats where the sun can be very dangerous - water-proof block, makes life much easier. Sand flies can also be a major annoyance on the Cayes depending on the time of year.

  • Costs: Including a few trips, but not diving you can easily spend US$50-70 per day or more, even if staying in cheap rooms. This cost is normally reflected in eating out and trips on boats, not transport on-land using public buses.

  • Money: A US $ is worth twice that of a Belize $. This is a fixed rate and because of this simple and consistent exchange rate, U.S. dollars (notes not coins) are widely accepted, but this means you should be careful to clarify which "dollars" you're talking about when negotiating prices. International ATMs are found in Belize City. Around the country all other ATMs are generally not international (but this might change). For this reason USD cash, a stock of ATM cash from Belize City and backup travellers cheques are best. One question: in a black country, what is a white chick doing on the bank notes?

  • Communications: Internet no problem

  • Getting around: Old American school buses ply routes. These are fairly frequent and cheap if a little over-crowded. There are also some express buses, but distances are not too far. To the Cayes there are speed boat services (water-taxi) through-out the day. Prices are not cheap, but not unreasonable.

  • Guide book: Both the Lonely Planet: Belize (see details - UK or USA) and Rough Guide: Belize (see details - UK or USA) are popular and good. The Rough Guide covers Tikal and the Bay Islands so has the edge. Many travellers use a multi-country guide for the region. For a full list of regional guides please click here.

    Add Comment: After about a year of living in San Ignacio I decided to set up a site for the town with the intention offering good advice to people coming through, since San Ignacio is the transfer point between Guatemala and Belize. It is a neat town but almost everyone that comes here is using a guide book and things in the town change very quickly, so most everyone that gets here winds up listening to some shady tour dealer and get hustled for a fair chunk of change. My site - www.sanignaciotown.com has prices and directions and all the other information you'll need - Travis James

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Locals on the whole welcoming and friendly, although you can see how large Rastas with huge bundles of hanging dreads have led to a popular belief that Belizeans are less friendly than elsewhere in the region

    • Other travellers: Normal crowd of Europeans, large numbers of Americans and Canadians

--------



» Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica FlagIntro: Costa Rica gets a lot of attention as a travel/tourist destination, after all its name translates to rich coast, but more often than not it is over hyped and as a country somewhat overrated. It is not that it is uninteresting or unworthy of a visit it is just it is: a) over-crowded. b) comparatively pricey. c) similar activities/sights can be found all over the region and indeed world.

Costa Rica's ignoble position stems from several sources. For one, being a democracy and thus peaceful and calm, coupled with large amounts of tourism marketing it receives huge numbers of visitors, generally from North America who might consider anywhere else in the region as 'too dangerous'. These large numbers of wealthyish tourists have the knock on effect of inflating prices and tourist targeted crime. Another factor is the national parks and wildlife card so often played by the tourist board appeals to many traveller's sense of wanting to view wildlife. Well in Costa Rica just like anywhere else, the only place to see large amounts of guaranteed wildlife is in the zoo and as beautiful and interesting as national parks are - with the exception of monkeys - if you go with high hopes of seeing loads of wildlife you will be sorely disappointed. Remember the focus is very much on flora rather than fauna.

With all that cleared up, lets look at why Costa Rica is so popular and the good reasons why. The country is on the whole spectacularly beautiful with easy access to both coasts (unusual in Central America). In many places it is easy to have a good time if partying is your style and you don't mind too many gringos. Although prices are higher than in the rest of the region they are still okay and quality does raise with prices. Accommodation is expensive in comparison, but there are plentiful supermarkets so eating costs can be reduced.

However, it's tours that really cost, and some you can hardly avoid if you want to see the best of what is on offer. Still the demand for them means if you have the money to spend there is a hive of activities (still reasonably priced) you can take part in, such as white water-rafting. Along with two coasts Costa Rica also has cool mountains and the chance for some good trekking.

Did you know that 25% of Costa Rica is national parks? You might also be interested to know that Belize's ratio is 35%. Costa Rica does have most things, but not everything as so often claimed.

  • SurfboardHighlights: Volcán Arenal if in an animated active state (you have to take pot luck here), the beautiful cool highland areas around La Fortuna and Monteverde (although the jury is out on the cloud forest), Montezuma and the Nicoya peninsula, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast and the trek to Chirripo Grande (Cerro Chirripó).

  • Lowlights: Petty crime, cost of tours and tourist numbers. In the most 'gringo-infected' area, which is the northwest (Province Guanacaste), there is more tourist-related thievery. In Costa Rica, with the exception of the public buses and the great Centenario rum, everything is more expensive relative to the rest of Central America. Almost twice as much as Guatemala and even more in relation to Nicaragua.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: Climate and humidity vary dramatically across the country. December to February which are the best times to visit are also the most crowded. Outside of these months heavy rain falls are sporadic depending on location and exact time of year. Just remember at least some rain is likely during your trip and for that reason at least an umbrella is a good idea.

  • Costs: US$30-40 a day for most travel excluding tours and activities. To give you an example of how the cost of these can add up: the short trip to see the Volcano from La Fortuna - at least US$30 (inc. hot springs), the 30km (Taxi Boat Taxi) short cut ride from Fortuna to Monteverde (saves you a day compared to on public transport) again at least US$30. At Monteverde canopy walks US$20, high wire rides much, much more. Add rafting to this and activity costs go sky high. There is a feeling in Costa Rica that with so many North American visitors on two week trips splashing money around, tour costs are just a reflection of what the market can stand and not good value.

  • Money: ATMs in most towns, even smaller ones. TCs and USD easy to change. Credit cards can be used in some circumstances and are worth having.

  • Tourist factor: 8/10 (one individual who had lived in Costa Rica for many years told that she thought in parts of the country, you might as well be in South Florida!)

  • Accommodation: Among more expensive options catering to tourists, guesthouses and cheap hotels are plentiful. The price of these averages about US$20, but in the right places and without a bathroom you can find a room for around US$15. In the high season many of the better rooms, especially in smaller places like Montezuma fill up quickly. In the capital there are many hostels, which charge about US$25-35 for a basic double room (no bathroom) and have many dorms (per-person from about US$10) cheaper. These hostels generally have TV rooms, kitchens, sometimes free internet or breakfast, are always crowded and noisy with either music, drunkenness or backpackers sitting and having the same conversations late into every night. Some people love this, others loath it. And finally on the Caribbean coast, beach huts and cheaper still, hammocks. These range from $5-15. Camping is possible in many places if you can be bothered with the hassle.

Dangers / Crime

Dangers: Like in most touristy Latin American nations, petty crime targeted at tourists is epidemic in Costa Rica. In one two week encounter we have heard (first hand) two separate stories of stolen bags, a tale of a money changer taking money and them claiming 'what money' and two stories of police stopping hire cars to extract a bribe. The developed feel of Costa Rica does seem to give many a false sense of security. Don't let it. Having travelled to many crime hot spots such as Nairobi, Delhi, Lagos and Colombia, we'd never heard so many stories of petty crime in one country. Now this does not mean there is more crime in Costa Rica than the aforementioned places, it probably means that there are more easily targeted tourists in Costa Rica. Luckily hardly any of these crimes are violent or serious. Nevertheless if you have your stuff stolen this doesn't make everything alright. On public transport keep any bags you have with you close to hand if under your seat or above you chain then up. It doesn't matter if no one else is doing it. Everyday travellers get off buses - which are frequented by professional thieves and stop everywhere - without their bags. There are notices in a few bus stations, but not all. Most bus companies seem indifferent to the problem. The buses to and from San Jose to both Putarenas and Fortuna are notably bad. As is crime in the Coca-Cola bus station. Don't let anything distract you and keep everything together. Literally it can be that bad. Embassies are no strangers to people who have lost everything while away. Keep important documents on you in a money belt. Wikitravel has a good section on bus travel tips and avoiding theft.


Add Laura Sawyer (a traveller of 20 years in Costa Rica) emailed to explain how hard it has become to enjoy the natural beauty of the country due to this extreme annoyance. Beaches such as Nosaro, Mal Pais, Tamarindo, Grande, and Manuel Antonio (just to name a few) are so bad, that one cannot even leave a towel on the beach to go into the water without worrying about it being stolen.

--------



» El Salvador

--------



» Honduras

  • Intro: Honduras has two main focuses with most travellers exploring little else. The first of which is Copán, one of the largest Mayan sites in the region. Copán is an easy side trip from Guatemala and sits just over the border, thus it's popularity. The second focus is the Bay Islands which are touted as budget Caribbean and rightly so with beaches, tropical islands, widely spoken English and cheap diving. Therefore making these islands one of the world's most popular backpacker hubs. As for the rest of Honduras it does hold a few surprises and beautiful (sometimes difficult) routes through hilly countryside. Gracias for example is a pretty colonial town with many trekking options surrounding it, not to mention a beautiful alternative route to the capital (over windy roads with poor connections and lack of transport.) Most do head straight for the blue waters of the Caribbean, but remember that this is a very well-travelled region so you are never really off the beaten track. Nevertheless the hillside paths of Honduras are interesting and a good chance to find some space for yourself.

  • Highlights: Copán, the Bay islands (especially the cheap diving and the chance to see Whale sharks), Gracias and trying to get off the beaten track a little. The Parque National La Tigra often comes highly rated and is a good way to see a cloud forest without the crowds or expense of Costa Rica.

  • Lowlights: The capital and major cities, plus crowds/sand flies/mosquitoes on the Bay Islands. Diving is great and cheap off the Bay Islands, but if you don't dive, there's little else to keep you entertained.


  • Visa strategy: Nationals of almost all developed countries do not require a visa.

  • Typical tourist trail: From Guatemala to Copán to San Pedro Sula (overnight stop) then on to a Bay Islands (Roatán being the most popular, second to Utila). Many will then transit through Tegucigalpa, the capital.

  • Money: ATM's in major towns including Copán and on Roatán. Stock up where you can or take TCs and/or cash. ATM's normally dispense 500 Liempira notes that can be difficult to change. Not all banks will take TCs.

  • Getting around: Chicken buses (old American school buses) ply most routes, along with more standard looking buses often called express because they're not supposed to stop so much (they still do). On major routes such as between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa you can find nice, genuine express, AC buses although they are much more expensive. The road system in Honduras is in fact probably the best in Central America. However, head into the hills and roads soon deteriorate and become very windy. You will of course need to take to the water to get out to the Islands. To major islands this is not a problem, but internal flights to and from the islands which can often take you as far inland as Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula are good value and save lots of time.

  • Guide book: Multi-regional guide. For a full list of regional guides please click here.

Comment

Add I spent an extensive time in Central America, and although I saw many amazing things in all the places, the one place that I truly hold in my heart in Honduras. In my 4 months that I spent in Honduras, I managed to see such a diverse range of places yet all within one country. I went from down trodden cities, to beautiful white beaches, to Mayan ruins, to the jungle, to waterfalls.

It's a wonderful place, with amazing people, and I often feel that its a country that gets forgotten because its surrounded by Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. If anybody has the time to visit this country, then La Mosquitia (the Jungle) has such friendly people, and beautiful scenery. The Bay Islands have the party vibe, and lush beaches, Copán Ruins has the culture, and the architecture. This country has something for everybody and is well and truly worth taking the time to explore. - Laura

--------



» Guatemala

* Miss at your peril: (despite the crowds) - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

  • Highlights: Numerous: Antigua (especially Easter Week (Semana Santa) * and learning Spanish), Todos Santos Cuchumatan (crazy festivals, beautiful scenery), Tikal (inc. the town of Flores and wildlife seen in surrounding areas) *, very touristy, but nevertheless fantastic are the weekly markets at Chichicastenango and the climb to the top of the active Volcán Pacaya. More off the beaten track: both El Estor and Lanquín are worthwhile stops.

    Volcano Santiaguito, taken from top of Mt. Santa Maria (3772m) - kindly supplied by JanA trip (even express) to visit Quetzaltenango is recommended. The country's 2nd biggest town and nearly as nice in colonial aspects as Antigua, the "European Barocco Town" of the Americas. You'll find traces of Italian, French, German culture, architecture and life everywhere mixed with the traditional way of life of the Q'iche - and Mam-Mayans still living in that region of the Altiplano. 'Xela' (short name of Quetzaltenango) has a high number of Indians involved in work and social life - there's no crime risk at all and you'll feel safer than anywhere else in Central America. Tours are much cheaper from Xela than from Antigua too. To climb Vulcan Santa María with a little active Santiaguito (see photo left) beside is about US$20-30 for whole day tour incl. experienced guide.

    i There are over 20 different Mayan cultures in Guatemala with fantastic diversity. See comment.

  • Lowlights: Crime is an issue and can inhibit your freedom of movement in the countryside, such as when walking between villages with all your stuff, for fear of robbery. Such events happen frequently to unguided (even in groups) hikers around Lago Atitlán and volcanoes around Antigua. Lago Atitlán is the country's major tourist destination (both domestic and national tourism) and as beautiful as the lake can be on a clear day, Panajachel is nothing more than a tack and trinket emporium. Smaller towns around the lake are nicer, but in the lake itself and surrounding paths/roads, much litter (trash) is notable and as mentioned there have been many cases of crime against tourists walking in the area.

    Equally, the Caribbean coast which has a different and interesting flavour to the rest of the country holds a risk of crime especially from beach hut break-ins and better beaches can be found elsewhere in the region. Another low light is transport. In areas off the beaten track, chicken buses are slow and tiring as they wind up and down endless hills.

    Comment: 'Be careful when you talk about "ancient" costumes and going "back in time". It's a pretty colonial view. Indigenous peoples are thriving and modern right now. They aren't stuck in the past, they choose to live the life they are leading according to their traditional culture and language. The Huipil and Corte that Mayan women wear is just as dynamic and changing as western fashions, your eye just might not be trained to tell the difference.' - Danielle DeLuca

  • Getting around:

    • Tourist geared mini-buses are well out of reach, price wise, to most locals. These white mini-buses are still however okay value and run several times per day along main tourist routes. These almost always focus around the network of travel agents in both Panajachel and Antigua. Routes to Copan, Rio Dulce, Chichicastenango, Guatemala City and Monterrico are easy to arrange. To travel from say Panajachel to Antigua expect to pay about US$15, compared to about US$1.5 in a chicken bus. However your journey will be much quicker and you'll be dropped at your hotel. It is up to you if you use these buses, it will significantly increase your budget, but make things a little easier (and much more comfortable/faster). Prices to further destinations such as Copan are much higher. In all cases shop around in Panajachel and Antigua, since many companies under-cut each other and saving a few dollars here and there is easy.

    • Chicken buses are as much as a national symbol in Guatemala as Tikal. They are a great experience to use and your only option in many cases. They are frequent, slow and always interesting throughout the country.

Getting to/from Tikal

Tikal is perfectly safe to visit and a serious highlight of the region, but transportation has become unreasonably expensive: since TACA is flying the route to Guatemala City with the new Airbus A319 several times a day, standard price is about US$100-150 (oneway) - but you're there in something like 70 minutes. Higher prices are charged for bigger aircraft and the cheapest ticket may certainly gets you a seat in the cheapest/crappiest plane. It is possible to visit Tikal in one day by flying if very short of time, but this is not recommended as Flores is worth seeing. However, you don't necessarily need more than one day to get a good feeling for Tikal.

There is a new overnight bus going to and from Flores. You'll get TV, food, cushions and a toilet onboard - the trip takes (via Rio Dulce) only 5 and half hrs. to the capital. Of course there's still the Chicken Bus option, but this takes you whole day or even two, depending on season and luck. Furthermore there are first- and 'firstfirst' class buses that run to the capital (Linea Dorada y Maya de Oro), which are from 90 - 125 Quetzales (Rio Dulce - Flores) and up to 250 for Gua - Flores.

--------



» México - see North America



--------



» Nicaragua

  • Intro: More than just a lake? Nicaragua gets more than it's fair share of visitors compared with what it has to offer due to it's proximity with Costa Rica. Towns like Granada which are quite pleasant, but nothing too special, are hives of activity, full of budget travellers. Granada for example picks up on the Central American trail where the Bay Islands in Honduras leaves off. Towns such as Granada and León are the main sights in Nicaragua along with several volcanoes that can be visited near-by. Again these volcanoes are interesting but not on the same level as those found elsewhere in the region.

Ometepe The lake (Lago de Nicaragua) is the other big draw card. Geographically and biologically speaking it and it's contents are very interesting, but Ometepe (pictured), the largest and by far the most visited island, apart from being picture perfect will not hold your attention for very long. The lake can often get a little rough, but transport is easy, on the island itself mountain biking is the best way to enjoy your time, but more than often it is too hot for this. Other activities such as tours and volcano climbs, aren't expensive, but not good value. If you want to really see the island, public transport will be quite time consuming, so make sure you have a few days and a good book to really 'do' Ometepe (although if you only spend a day or two you are not missing out on too much). Continued next column...

This route through Leon, Granada and Ometepe is by far the most popular and if transiting through, worth several short stops. Elsewhere there are of course many other destinations that due to their location and difficulty to reach are off the tourist trail. The Corn Islands for example. Sure get off the beaten track, but don't expect too much to reward you when you get there - not unless you are big into relaxing and are completely ignoring the much easier to reach and more impressive near-by attractions in Costa Rica and Honduras. Still the people are nice, the revolution is long over and if you're in the region like everywhere else: why not stop?

  • Highlights: No real highlights apart from the fact you are abroad somewhere new travelling! The most interesting and attractive places to visit are León, Granada and Ometepe with perhaps a stop to see a volcano from the top (drive right there) on the way.

  • Lowlights: Lack of anything to really impress, tourist trail and lack of accommodation that is comfortable (not a complete hole which are available in plenty at bargain prices), but not over-priced (Granada aside)

--------



» Onwards to South America..

Although connected by land (via the Darién Gap), Central and South America are not readily connected by anything near an easy overland route. Between Panama and Colombia, the Darien gap is a stretch of about 80 miles where there is no road. The Pan-American Highway comes to a girding halt, all roads stop and jungle begins. To cross the Gap involves a sharp machete, the dry season, a strong arm, good mosquito repellent, malaria prophylactic, food, and lots of patience. This is however not a practical option because since the early '90s crossing the Darien on foot is considered by most locals as dangerous (read suicidal), since it is a channel for drug smugglers and is rife with guerrilla activity. With the land route out of the question this leaves three options: fly, take a boat, or turn around. Latin America

! Note, there is currently no scheduled ferry service of any kind. Getting a car (and less so a motorbike) between Central and South America will be an expensive logistical nightmare - but far from impossible.

Add Thanks to Monty for help out with info on charting between Central and South America.





[

? Please find Mexico info on North America page.

* The best source of planning information is the RG First-time Latin America.

]


[i] For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.





Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.

 

If you have food in the fridge, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of this world. If you have money in the bank and spare change somewhere, you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy. Oh, and if you can read this you are more blessed than more than two billion people in the world who cannot read.




back to top - back to country index - home - comment - resources & resources


[
]