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What 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.
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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.
Many thanks to Jan for Guatemala and CR updates and Monty for info on sailing to Colombia from Panama.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: Relatively small, nestled in between México and Guatemala, Belize is the only English speaking Latin American country. It is fairly developed in relation to it's neighbours, but in many places has a very backwater feel to it. Most of the main attractions are out at sea in the form of hundreds of cayes, many with beautiful beaches and the 184-mile long (longest in the Northern hemisphere) barrier reef, complete with whale sharks, sting rays, multi-coloured fish and clear blue water. On the whole the mainland is ignored, with the main focus of activities away from the beaches, being wildlife viewing or Mayan temples that are less grander than might be found in neighbouring nations. That does not mean the main-land is totally ignored. San Ignacio is a hive of travellers (although this does have something to do with it's position on route to Tikal) and a fantastic place. Elsewhere inland towns are less frequently visited and provide a great opportunity to get a little away from the Central American crowds and chill a little. The down-side however is that costs are much higher here than elsewhere in the region and considering this most travellers fleet through or stay less than a week. The whole Caribbean atmosphere of the place, including the 'Bob Marley' variety of English spoken and (on the whole) friendly people makes Belize a great place when you are there - less so when you are counting the cost for excursions. Your time on the cayes will come at a price.
Visa strategy: US, Canadian, Australian, and EU passport holders do not need a visa. There is a departure tax of about $US20 via land borders. If leaving by air this should be included in your ticket. Be aware of the scam that tries to make you pay it twice.
Typical tourist trail: From México to Guatemala (or visa-versa) via Belize City to Caye Caulker to San Ignacio
What to take: The Cayes are covered in a white dirt that may or may not be sand, however when the sun reflects on it, sun glasses are necessary for comfort. As mentioned before sun protection is important when on boats, snorkelling etc.
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?
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.
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
Communications: Internet no problem, you will find good Wi-Fi in most places
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
Accommodation: Cheap accommodation is never that cheap and normally of a low standard
Hot water: Don't expect hot water unless you are paying extra for a private bathroom
Average cost: Between US$20 and US$50 depending on where you are. A little less if off the beaten track.
Language: If English is not your first language then you may find the Belizean pronunciation of it hard to understand. Spanish is widely used around border areas.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot and sticky or hot and windy or hot and wet. Highland areas are beautifully cool
Books: Some second hand book stalls, nothing too stimulating. The Economist and Time can be found in Belize City
TV: Most bars and more expensive hotels will have American cable TV
Food: Great food, although the cost of eating out adds up. It is easy to eat out of fairly well stocked supermarkets to keep costs down
Vegetarians: Fine, lots of fish if that is okay
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Women will get some attention, even in pairs, but on the whole harmless
Tourist factor: 8/10
Local poisons for the body: Belize is pretty famous for it's herb and it is widely available. Seeing as most travellers hit the Cayes, it is here where you are most likely to be offered it. Given that (for example) Caye Caulker is so small with a police station right in the middle, risks seem high especially if buying off the street. Despite the numbers of Rastas, pot is illegal and can land you in the sort of trouble that you would look to avoid.
Intro: 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 perhaps overrated. It is not that it is uninteresting or unworthy of a visit it is just it is: a) over-crowded (during peak times) 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 'better heeled' tourists have the knock on effect of pushing up some prices and generating some 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
(seeing a sloth, coati, toucan or tamandu is fairly
Remember the focus is very much on flora rather than fauna.
Costa Rica, is lush and green so that won't
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. Directly flights from London, Paris and much of the USA also make it super accessible. If you want a less crowded and cheaper Costa Rica, take a chance and visit off-season, chances are the rain won't be too bad (or during the night) and it will be much cheaper.
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 (with some good surfing) 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.
There is a lot to see and do for a country of Costa Rica's size. 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, Manuel Antonio national park and the trek to Chirripo Grande (Cerro Chirripó). Visiting off-season.
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.
Visa strategy: Almost no one needs a visa, 90 days for most developed nations apart from Oz and NZ whom along with many other countries only get 30 days.
Hot, cold, wet and dry: In the Central Valley, there is a spring-like climate year round. On the coast, the temperature is much hotter and humid. The rainy season starts in May and finishes in November, but there are distinct regional variations. Technically the ‘warm' dry season is December to May.
Getting around: Public transport is easy to use and a good standard. In more remote areas transport is normally limited to a few buses a day, making connections hard to meet. Many wealthier visitors hire 4x4 jeeps for their trip. This is a fantastic option, but just out of the price range of most budget travellers, unless sharing between 3-4 (US$70-140 per day) - still they make hitching easy!
What to take: If you have one an international ISIC student card can be useful and save you a little bit of money.
Guide book: Lonely Planet (see details - UK or USA) good, but widely used. Footprint (see details/buy with Amazon - UK or USA) perhaps better. Many travellers use a multi-country guide for the region. For a full list of regional guides please see here.
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$25, but in the right places and without a bathroom you can find a room for around US$20. 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$25-50 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: Like in most touristy Latin American nations, petty crime targeted at tourists is epidemic in Costa Rica. There are plenty of stories of stories of stolen bags and petty crime. It is no worse than in many other parts of the [Central/South American] continent, but the developed feel of Costa Rica does seem to give many a false sense of security. Don't let it. We'd never heard so many stories of petty crime in one country. 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. On buses, be cautious about leaving anything in the overhead bins. Almost 100% of all thefts on buses are from the overhead bins. Keep it on your lap if possible.
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. Keep important documents on you in a money belt. Wikitravel has a good section on bus travel tips and avoiding theft.
Locals: Fine, but quite varied from coast to coast
Other travellers: Huge variety, Costa Rica draws tourists from all over the world, but mainly from America and Canada.
Communications: Internet widely available and excellent value/quality in the capital.
Language: English is widely spoken by those who work in the tourist trade and on the Caribbean coast.
Books: Very good selection of first and second hand books in the capital and other major tourist haunts. The Economist and Time are easy to find as are guidebooks
TV: Hostels and better hotels will have American cable TV, cinemas are numerous in big cities
Food: Many restaurants to cater for visitors, the meal of the day (casado) is normally excellent value as are the cheaper restaurants (sodas) they are often found in. Be warned better restaurants seem to slap as much as 23% onto bills. At the other end of the scale commonly found bakeries and supermarkets make basic self-catering a perfect money saving option.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited, more on the Caribbean coast
Women alone: Generally fine
Local poisons for the body: Pot is easily found all over Costa Rica, but most commonly on the Caribbean coast in small backpacker resorts such as Puerto Viejo (de Talamanca) where in hostels such as 'Rocking J's' can be hard for some to leave.
Rating: 7/10 - Costa Rica is perhaps worthy of a higher rating if you only have to travel from North America to get there. This might explain why it is often so highly rated.
Intro: It might be recent earthquakes or perhaps the memory of civil war that keeps so many away from El Salvador in such a well-travelled region, but it is more likely the fact that the attractions of neighbouring countries - and the lack of anything truly comparable in El Salvador prevents most from even passing through. Those who do are normally pleased they did, but would agree that any 'sight' is low key and as nice and friendly as the people are, they are also so in neighbouring nations.
Visa strategy: No visa required for most (Latin America, North American, European inc. Israel), but you have to buy a tourist card on the border/airport for $10 or a visa for $30 in advance.
Dangers: San Salvador is not the safest city in the region and care should be taken at night especially in the area where budget hotels are
Costs: US$20-40 per day
Money: Since 2001 the national currency has been phased out and is now rarely seen. US$ is the new currency easily pulled from ATMs in major cities, but outside of them make sure you have cash to hand.
Getting around: Old American school buses ply most routes. They are cheap, connections are easy and most roads are good (but not all)
Guide book: Any regional guide. For a full list of guides and reading material, please see here.
Locals: On the whole very nice, more so in areas less affected by the civil war
Other travellers: Few
Tourist factor: 3/10
Accommodation: Good hotels normally available, but at a price. In cities nice budget rooms are tough to find and basic ones will cost you between $15-$30. Outside the cities you can find a nice room for about the same price.
Hot water: Only in nice hotels
Average cost: See above
Communications: Internet and phone easy in major towns and the capital. These are a world apart from the country-side where internet cafés are only just starting to pop up.
Food: Plentiful American fast food (in big cities), good eating on a budget is not too hard, but not that easy
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: No problem
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' with beaches, tropical islands, widely spoken English and cheap diving. These islands are one of the world's most popular backpacker hubs, but pressure on resources will ensure prices are closer to Belize than elsewhere in Honduras and many times more than Asia. Don't arrive expecting prices akin to a Thai or Pilipino islands. Honduras is one for the cheaper Central American destinations, but visitors familiar with SE Asia will often bemoan the cost of travel higher than they are use to.
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.
Copán, the Bay islands (especially the cheap(er) 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Reading: Set mainly in Honduras on/in The Mosquito Coast, the story is told through the eyes of Charlie Fox, a typical American boy. The story he tells us chronicles the "adventure" his family has when his father, Allie Fox takes them all to live in the Honduran jungle. This is a stunning book and a cracking read. The story is fantastic; a mixture of sarcastic humour, adventure and emotion. (Click image for more info and other reading recommendations).
Dangers: Parts of Tegucigalpa can be bad for theft (the capital has an unenviable murder rate), but there is little to keep visitors here and certainly not in the areas with serious problems. Mosquitoes and sand flies can be an annoyance on the Caribbean coast. Walking off into the countryside with valuables around Copán is not advised.
Costs: US$20-40 per day, a much more on the Bay Islands
Hot, cold, wet and dry: The dry season is from November to April and the wet season runs from May to October. The north coast is very hot with rain throughout the year and mountains are of course cooler.
Other travellers: Budget travellers from all over the world: as always many northern Europeans and North Americans. Bay Islands have even more North Americans.
Tourist factor: 7/10
Accommodation: Wide range of accommodation. You can normally fine a nice room for US$20-35, not so nice rooms can be found for half that price. Nice rooms at the cheaper end are difficult to find in big cities.
Hot water: Depends on quality of room, but far from a given at the cheap end
Average cost: US$20
Communications: Internet easy and plentiful in major cities and Copán. On the Bay Islands internet is available, but is more expensive.
Books: Basic English language book shops in Tegucigalpa and book exchanges on major islands
TV: Most good hotels have American cable TV and so do some of the cheaper ones
Food: Fine, more expensive on Bay Islands. Major cities are over run with American fast food restaurants.
Hassle and annoyance factor: None really
Women alone: No real problem
Local poisons for the body: Alcohol is more pricey on the islands as other things are. Weed can of course be found on the Caribbean coast and larger islands.
Rating: 6/10 (if you can dive or want to learn cheaply, you can increase this rating by a point or two)
It's only a well travelled individual who would fail to be impressed
by Guatemala. Guatemala has no shortage of visitors for this reason
and most routes/sights are far removed from virgin ground, but in a
country of this size with time and effort it is easy to find
yourself a little space.
Here's what makes Guatemala such a deservedly popular destination: major ruins (Tikal and others that can be reached with time and effort are marvels of the ancient world), beautiful colonial cities (Antigua is one of the world's most beautiful), two coast lines (both distinctly different, far from first class beaches, but nesting turtles and good value compensate), scenic volcanoes plus dramatic mountains (does make transport slow in places, but keeps the climate cool and hides real gems), lakes (both Lago Atitlán and Lago Izabal are again right up there on the beauty scale) and people (the continuation of ancient traditions and costumes makes for a truly 'back-in-time' spectacle - plus some crazy festivals).
There is loads more besides, including a fast network of tourist-orientated transport that makes getting around a breeze if you want to use it. On the down-side, as previously mentioned (both here and in connection to the entire region), most routes are extremely well travelled by all types of tourists (both good and bad); in fact many businesses are owned by foreign nationals. In addition crime is an issue to be borne in mind. Nevertheless Guatemala is probably the best bargain north of Ecuador and is without a doubt the Nepal of the Americas.
A 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.
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
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.
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.
Dangers: Crime in Guatemala City, on the Caribbean coast and while walking around Antigua and Lago Atitlan is not a major issue, but one to consider. The foolhardy may fall foul.
Visa strategy: USA, Canada, Western European, Israel, Australia and New Zealand will all get 90 days visa free on the border. Extensions must be applied for in Guatemala City or you will be fined about a small amount for every day over stayed.
Typical tourist trail: Antigua to Lago Atitlan with a day side trip to Chichicastenango. Many travellers will then head to either Copan (Honduras) or Tikal (or both). Many also make the trip to the Caribbean coast.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Both Antigua and Lago Atitlan plus other highland areas are pleasantly cool. Lowland areas including Tikal are steamy and at certain times of the year are almost unbearably hot.
Costs: Since 'tourist mini-buses' (good quality small private vehicles) provide easy and efficient transport in many places (at a price) the temptation is to take them rather than public buses which are about 10 times cheaper. Equally, fantastic eating options (and bars) in both Antigua and Panajachel provide another temptation. On the beaten track without discipline you can spend between around US$40-50 a day with ease. Eating out can become a major expense with plenty of options to tempt. However with discipline and/or in more rural areas this cost can be cut in half. Guatemala is great value.
Money: The large majority of banks in Guatemala have ATMs, all will change USD cash to quetzals and most will change travellers cheques. Cash advances are much easier with Visa rather than MasterCard.
What to buy: Guatemala, along with Nepal, Bali and Zimbabwe is one of the best places on earth to buy cheap local crafts and textiles. The choice is staggering and the prices fair, even before bargaining. Make sure you have at least a little spare room in your bag.
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.
Tikal is perfectly safe to visit and a serious highlight of the region, but transportation has become unreasonably expensive: since Transportes Aereos Guatemaltecos is flying the route to Guatemala City twice 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.
Locals: Varied. People throughout Guatemala vary from blacks who speak English on the Caribbean coast to many tribes with their own language. On the whole Guatemalans are kind and friendly.
Other travellers: Many North Americans and as with a few other Latin American countries a massive amount of Israeli travellers. Aside from Americans and Israelis you also have travellers from the world over with many Germans and British as elsewhere in the world. Guatemala has long attracted alternative culture followers from North America in the same way India attracts the same type of people from Europe.
Guide book: No guidebook reviewed was particularly brilliant. The Lonely Planet is most popular as always. Footprint and Rough Guide are other okay options. For those who read German, the best guide is undoubtedly: 'Reise Know-How Guatemala'. Reise guides are normally no more than German translations of the LP, but here on comparison you'll notice much greater detail and accuracy. It's also nearly twice as fat as the Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides please click here.
Tourist factor: 8/10. Guatemala is touristy, but it is easy if you have the time and inclination to leave most tourists behind by heading off on long bus rides into the mountains. Numerous foreign owned hotels and restaurants are one thing, but it is common to see permanent 'hippy-esque' western backpackers selling jewellery on street stalls. This foreign investment is perhaps inevitable and on the whole not a bad thing, although one does wonder about the effect to nationals of this very poor country who start a restaurant or bar and then have to compete with flasher foreign investment. Still if there is a market for it... It is perhaps the selling of items on street stalls by foreign nationals - always items that could be produced and sold by Guatemalans themselves - that illustrates best the point trying to be made here. Every traveller can exercise his or her right to spend their money as they wish.
Accommodation: Numerous guesthouses and hotels throughout the country to suit all budgets. Brazil style hostels are opening up in Antigua. Away from tourist hubs rooms become more basic and cheaper.
Hot water: Only in cooler regions and in better hotels.
Average cost: US$20-30 (costs do rise substantially during festivals)
Communications: As Antigua is the hub of Central America, internet and international phone calls are both good value and good quality. Internet is available in most towns any traveller would set foot in.
Language: Like elsewhere in the region, knowledge of Spanish is incredibly useful, but not essential. Guatemala represents the best opportunity in the region for you to learn with numerous good value schools.
Books: Good book shops in both Panajachel and Antigua: good fiction, guidebooks and international magazines available.
TV: If into films come to Guatemala, apart from seeing them in the cheap cinemas that dot the country, in tourist centres many restaurants and cafes show films during the day and night. Several hotels and restaurants also have lounge cinemas showing a huge number of screenings per day for a small charge. In Antigua where most of these cinemas are, there are several bars that show live sporting events. Tennis, English/Spanish football and NBA is regularly shown. If following English football, here and throughout the region you can watch a full programme of highlights every Monday night.
Food: Food is excellent and very western in style within tourist centres as many restaurants are owned by foreign nationals. Quality does come at a price, but options in say Antigua are vast. Off the beaten track food is more basic, but always a bargain. Less flashy non-foreign owned restaurants in places such as Panajachel and Antigua are the best value even if they don't come with a flashy name, menu and decor.
Vegetarians: Fine (more difficult off the beaten track)
Hassle and annoyance factor: Very limited hassle. Some over charging on public buses, but easy to avoid by asking locals what the correct price is. Like everywhere else in the region, Spanish helps massively.
Women alone: Generally fine, but there have been some safety issues at Tikal, but authorities have now changed regulations in order to make the park safer. The same goes for the police escort now offered up Volcán Pacaya.
Local poisons for the body: The current hippy hangout centre is San Pedro La Laguna, a small village (now a backpacker hub) opposite Panajachel on the other side of the lake. Marijuana is easily available, harder drugs are also around. It easy to find Mary Jane on the two coasts in backpacker popular resorts.
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.
de Nicaragua) is the other big draw card. Geographically and
biologically speaking it and it's contents are very interesting,
(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
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).
Nothing to offer?! Major volcano hikes, islands in the Caribbean... plus off-the-beaten path, away from all the tourists swarming Costa Rica, Belize and Panama. But, even better - a place that will easily suck in the traveler looking to escape to the sand and surf - San Juan Del Sur!! Famous surf beaches, sunshine and eco lodges on the Pacific coast. Don't forget, being a very poor country, travel and food is super cheap!
Travelers are slightly less "party hard" like SEA and more "adventure hard" like NZ. Thinking Nicaragua might be ready for - Jenna
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?
Finding some space after/before Costa Rica. Good vaule and neat surf beaches /hang-outs.
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)
Typical tourist trail: Overland from or to Honduras stopping at Leon, Granada and Ometepe. Many tourists bring hire cars from Costa Rica as far as Granada.
Visa strategy: No visa required by most developed country nationals
Dangers: Less crime than Costa Rica and Honduras, but be sensible at night with your bag.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: As with the rest of the region be warned about travelling at the hottest time of year. It is still very possible, but heat is sometimes a little unbearable (especially at night) and AC rooms come at a price.
Costs: US$20-30 per day
Money: Cordoba can be taken from ATMs in Granada, Leon and Managua, but ATMs do need some hunting. USD cash changes easily and is worth taking. TCs can be changed in major cities and Amex travellers cheques are by far the best. Most banks in Nicaragua don't have ATMs, these are found (normally only one/two in a town) in mini shopping centres or other modern complexes. If in doubt ask locals. In Nicaragua simply stock up on cash when you can.
Getting around: Buses run around the country particularly on the Western side which is the good pan-American highway. Elsewhere roads are bad. Along the pan-American highway collectivos run at lightning speed. These are mini-buses that leave when full. Rates are fixed and good value.
Guide book: Footprint or a regional guide, not necessary if on the beaten track. For a full list of regional guides please click here.
Locals: Normal Central American folk, friendlier perhaps than in Costa Rica, those on the Caribbean coast as per normal in this region are friendlier. Some say the most friendly people are those on Ometepe since there was no fighting during the civil war here.
Other travellers: Standard gringos, many on side trips from Costa Rica rather than those travelling the whole region. You will also find plenty of Peace Corps volunteers on leave as this is the poorest country in the region.
Tourist factor: Up to 8/10
Accommodation: In large towns and on the tourist trail getting a room is never a problem and rooms can be found very cheaply, but basic.
Hot water: Pretty rare in budget hotels
Average cost: From US$5 for a very basic room, but bearable if in the cool season. To US$10-15 for an okay room to US$30 for a nice one. AC will cost more still.
Communications: Internet plentiful in major cities
Books: None really
TV: Hotels aimed at backpackers often have cable TV in the reception
Food: Food is quite basic and limited in most places apart from those on the tourist trail where in many cases backpackers are well catered for. Prices are a little high by regional standards, but a bargain if coming from Costa Rica.
Hassle and annoyance factor: None really, few hotel touts in some towns.
Women alone: Generally fine
Intro: This is where the Pan-American Highway and overland routes in Central America stop. The long thin country at the bottom of Central America is - like Costa Rica - easy to travel within, reasonably developed and little bit pricier than counterparts to the north. Like Costa Rica it is probably the best introduction to the region. It is decidedly Latin in places, Caribbean in others, with a heavy sprinkling of Americana – especially in the capital.
With attractions more thin on the ground and spread-out than in Costa Rica it is easy to see why it gets fewer tourists, but with the upside that if you are not looking at a ship pass through canal locks, walking Panama City’s old town or on the idyllic (and pricy) Bocas del Toro you won’t see many others. From the very comfortable Panama City you can reach the impressive sight of the Miraflores locks with ease and travel Ocean to Ocean in less than an hour on good roads if it takes your desire. Getting further takes time, but the bus network is decent and if you can afford it or have a group to share the cost, hiring a car and self-driving is easy. Having your own transport and getting off the main routes and to isolated accommodations is well worthwhile.
Starting off in the capital means you can explore with ease the Caribbean coast to the pretty town (and jumping point for continuation to South America by sea) of Portobelo (beach/Caribbean town), David (and nearby Boquete (adventure tourism center), Pedasi and around (laid back Pacific beach resort), El Valle (highland picturesque), Santiago (regional town) and others. All of these are great destinations, but far from the best and most exciting the region has to offer, nonetheless make a great and comfortable (to newer or single travelers) introduction.
Like Costa Rica it is hard not to like Panama for sheer vibrancy, sights and sounds mixed in with a familiar western feel and reduced security concerns than other nearby destinations – but those on a tight budget or time schedule (wanting to include Bocas and Panama City) may take against it, along with those searching for the most authentic Central American experience that is better found in Guatemala or Honduras.
Portobelo (fort and relaxed Caribbean without much to do), David (and nearby Boquete), Pedasi, El Valle, Santiago. Getting out of Panama City and especially watching a ship go through the canal. San Blas Islands.
Unless you are using internal flight or making an A to B trip (transit from Costa Rica) long travel and backtracking is unavoidable. As nice and laid back as many destinations are, there is not too much going on and if the USD is strong it is in places poor value. The Darién has exotic associations, but is far from exiting if you get this far.
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.
Fly: Flying is the easiest option and most readily taken with the option to head straight to Ecuador for those that would rather skip Colombia. At time of writings the cheapest quickest way across the Gap is to fly - Cartagena (CTG) / Panama City (PTY). Other one-way fares to Bogotá or Quito and on other airlines, can be considered expensive for the distance. Booking a return often brings much better value - sometimes even if you have to disregard the return leg.
Take a boat, chartering a boat from Panama to Colombia: Many long-term overlanders look to check-out Colombia following a positive experience through Central America. By the time they hit Nicaragua they often are so full of rum and bravado, they start talking about boat trips from Panama into Colombia.
'Sailing boats' to/from Colombia/Cartagena are now common place with over 30 vessels operating this route (although none are commercial ferries - these are many for travellers). They vary widely in safety, comfort, and price. The waters between San Blas and Colombia can be challenging at times so chose carefully and don’t depend on second hand information. Vessels depart regularly from Portobelo, Puerto Lindo and and Porvenir.
Typically they will cost US$550-600 and take 4-6 days (with 2 days on various San Blas Islands).
Never be seduced by a charter
offering a ride for dramatically less than 550$. Either the
captain will be a drunken fool, or you'll have rotten food
and no drink on the ride. Remember, you want a great boat
ride, so don't cut corners. Bring your own stock of
booze and other mixers. As a recommendation, if you want a
safe ride and great food charter with Captain Marcus and his
wife. If you don't have sealegs you'll probably hate it, if
you do, you'll love it. Captain Marcus will get your
passport stamped and you'll float into
Cartagena (Manzanilla port) after a great trip. See more
info in the Colombia
section of the site. That said, what use to be a wild west industry where getting stuck for days
on an unsafe lemon has now smarted up. Most of the crap captains and boats are gone and
all the famous sailboats and catamarans that have been on the market now for 8-10 years
are good and safe options. Very few options are below 550USD and any serious boats go for
550-600USD nowadays. We can recommend
colombiapanamasailing.com a good point to understand prices and options from an agency that
won't entertain unsafe and crappy option. The price will includes all food on the 4.5-5
day journey. 1.5 day is spent sailing on open sea, at this time you are generally not allowed up on deck during night time because there can be heavy winds and the captain has no way to find you if you
go overboard. Then you reach the San Blas islands which are amazing. Your captain can
practically choose an island and you have it for yourselves the whole day. The 3 days are usually spent lying on the beach on a tiny island, eating lobster and drinking rum with the Kunas
Thanks to Monty for help out with info on charting between Central and South America.
For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.
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