Central America is the thin section of land that links the North American continent with the South American continent. Geographically part of North America, it is made up of seven small, mostly tropical countries that have much more in common with South America and Mexico than the more affluent north. Mexico is occasionally considered part of Central America due to the language and indigenous/Hispanic cultural heritage it shares with several of the countries in the region. The northern geographic border of Central America is often considered to be the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico whereas the southern border is considered to be either somewhere in Colombia or Panama. Culturally Central America is often considered to consist only of the 5 countries that simultaneously gained independence on September 15 1821, thus excluding Panama (then part of Colombia) and Belize (former British colony)
The only Central American country without a Pacific coast line, and the only one where English is the official language. Still, many people here speak Spanish
Costa Ricans like to call their country "the Switzerland of Latin America" and indeed it does have mountainous terrain, political neutrality and relative wealth to back up that statement
The only Central American country without an Atlantic coastline marred by decades of civil war now thankfully in the past
One of the centers of Mayan culture and civilization and still blessed with many Mayan sites
A long Caribbean coastline graced with beaches and coral reefs, and a mountainous inland home to Mayan ruins and colonial hill towns
Nicaraguans like to call their country the country of lakes and volcanoes and indeed, those are the two defining geographical features
The wealthiest country in the region mostly due to the eponymous canal, this country only gained independence in the early 20th century from Colombia
- Belize City the former capital and still the most important city in Belize
- Guatemala City
- Managua the capital of Nicaragua, this city can seem at times bland and unappealing, after a 1972 earthquake destroyed most of the historic center, but a vibrant nightlife and cosmopolitan culture might just convince you to stay
- Panama City A very cosmopolitan city it boasts the only metro on the isthmus as well as visible wealth related to the canal
- San José the city offers visitors history museums, parks, restaurants and just a few historical and colonial sights. However, the city has a vibrant cultural scene with farmers markets, cafés, restaurants and live music bars, also, most cultural festivals happen around the city and it is the transportation hub for the rest of the country
- San Pedro Sula one of the most popular entry points to the region yet few visitors spend more time than necessary here
- San Salvador
- Cocos Island National Park the site of the Jurassic Park movies
- Coiba National Marine Park - marine paradise in Panama
- Copán Ruinas - Mayan ruins in Honduras
- Corcovado National Park - national park in Costa Rica
- Arenal Volcano - Costa Rica
- Isla Ometepe an island in lake Cocibolca made up of two volcanoes, one dormant the other not so much offers breathtaking views and nature
- Mesoamerican Barrier Reef a prime diving destination
- Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve
- Tikal a famous Mayan ruin
- Ruta del Tránsito this inter-oceanic voyage through southern Nicaragua once was part of the fastest way from the East Coast of the US to California
The five countries that formed the United provinces of Central-America (Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala) in the first half of the 19th century, a first short lived attempt on the -since then - ever elusive dream of a unified Central America, still have a lot in common and consider each other pueblos hermanos (brother peoples). One attempt at unity that is notable to tourists is the CA4-agreement that (in theory) allows free movement for everyone between El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala in a similar vein to the European Schengen agreement.
Since about the 1850s Central America was seen as the "backyard" of the United States and American influence in the region has ranged from corporate interests (United Fruit), private "fillibuster" expeditions seizing government control (most famously William Walker who at the head of a 250 men private army declared himself president of Nicaragua and launched an invasion of Costa Rica in the 1850s and was shot by firing squad in Honduras on his third attempt to unite Central America under his rule), and outright interventions (toppling of the Guatemalan government in the 1950s, Iran Contra in the 1980s, and several interventions in Nicaragua in the 1930s). Panama's very existence is often ascribed to US influence as the government of Colombia (Panama being part of Colombia back then) refused to grant the US the rights to build a canal and the US then proceeded to sign a treaty with Panama. During the cold war this overt and covert US influence reached an infamous maximum as a guerrilla war was fought in Nicaragua (left wing government vs. CIA backed rebels) and El Salvador (right wing military government vs. Cuban/Soviet/Nicaraguan backed rebels) and various administrations backed the less than democratic right-wing regimes in Guatemala. In Panama the unelected strongman Manuel Noriega established a US-backed regime that was heavily involved in the drug trade, only to be removed from power in the late 1980s after falling out of US favor in operation "just cause" (the "just cause" being the removal of a regime involved in the drug trade). Notably different was the development in Costa Rica where - after a short civil war - the President abolished the army altogether in 1948 and the country has enjoyed a relatively stable, peaceful democracy with free and fair elections ever since. Panama followed Costa Rica's example and abolished its military after the ousting of Noriega and the country has enjoyed several peaceful transfers of power since. Belize on the other hand managed to stay out of trouble by continuing to be a British colony until 1980 (as British Honduras) and after a peaceful transition independent Belize was never important enough for cold-war proxy fighting. This dark political and social situation changed with the end of the Cold War and after the signing of peace agreements at the beginning of the 1990s. However a constitutional crisis / coup d'etat (i.e. the President being unseated by the constitutional court and the military and forced to leave the country against his will) in Honduras in 2009 raised fears of unstable and / or delegitimized governments once more returning to the region. As of 2017 these fears have proven groundless and while the political situation is well shy of perfect uncorrupted democracies (most recently the Guatemalan government stepped down in the course of a corruption scandal and the 2016 Nicaraguan general elections saw a partial boycott by the opposition and allegations of fraud), political developments are unlikely to in any way negatively affect travellers.
Now the region is living a process of change and reforms that will hopefully allow travelers to discover an interesting and relatively cheap travel destination. Generally, the people of Central America are kind and warm, and welcoming to foreigners. There is a diversity of culture from one end of Central America to the other, and indigenous culture plays an important role in the region, especially in Guatemala, Caribbean Nicaragua and Honduras.
The Caribbean side saw more British than Spanish influence (with parts of the East coast of Nicaragua and Honduras forming a de facto British protectorate and Belize an outright colony under the name "British Honduras") This is still notable in the culture, language and (sadly) lacking infrastructure in parts of the region.
Due to the extensive Spanish colonial presence in the region, American dialects of Spanish are the primary language, especially of the government and in the cities. (English is the official language of Belize, a former UK colony, but you will still find yourself speaking a lot of Spanish in the country). Native languages are still spoken in many rural areas. English is co-official in Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, along with indigenous languages. English speaking people can be found on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. Note that the English spoken at the Caribbean coast of these countries is heavily Creole (if you are unfamiliar think Jamaican Patois for a rough approximation of what to expect) and sometimes hard or even impossible to understand for those unaccustomed to it. The most widely spoken indigenous language is Miskito, a language spoken mostly on the Caribbean coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua. Several Maya languages are spoken in the North of Central America and the South of Mexico, sometimes even by people who work in the tourism sector (though they invariably speak Spanish and often other languages as well).
People from industrialized countries should have no problem in crossing borders and might expect a border fee from around $2–20 depending on country. When crossing the border, no one will flag you down to get your stamp. You will need to find the immigration office on your own and get your stamp.
A visa ahead of time is usually not required.
Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala are parties to the CA4 (Central America 4) border agreement, that similarly to the European Schengen agreement allows visa-free travel between the countries. Once you have entered any of those four countries, visa- and fee-free travel to any of the other three should not be a problem (but there are reports of border officials collecting mysterious "fees", regardless).
By far the most popular entry points to the region are Panama City Tocumen Airport (IATA: PTY) and San José Juan Santamaria Airport (IATA: SJO) (actually located in Alajuela). Both those airports have a great number of transatlantic flights and serve connections to other airports in the region. Even if there is a direct flight to another Central American airport available, connecting through SJO or PTY can often work out cheaper. Keep in mind that to leave the airport in Panama you need proof of yellow fever vaccination.
Other airports are Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Salvador (IATA: SAL), Augusto C Sandino Aiport in Managua, La Aurora International Airport (IATA: GUA) in Guatemala City and the airports of Belize City, San Pedro Sula and Liberia (Costa Rica). Most of the latter have direct connections to the US and Mexico but few if any transatlantic flights making them suboptimal choices for avoiding travel through the United States.
It is actually much easier to bus from the United States to Central America than most imagine. It is a distance of about 1000 miles from the US border at Brownsville to the Guatemalan/Mexican border. The trip can be done in one full day (strongly not recommended), instead the wise traveller would take his time and enjoy the many interesting sites along the way such as Real de Catorce, Veracruz, Xalapa, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque etc.
From the Guatemalan Border, one can take a bus like the Tica Bus to get to Panama or any of the CA-4 countries for around 130 USD or less.
There are no roads leading to Colombia from Central America.
If you have money to burn or you're in a real hurry, both Avianca and Copa Airlines offer point to point connections throughout Central America but are relatively expensive due to the lack of competition. As of late 2014 Veca Airlines began service out of San Salvador to Guatemala City, San Jose Costa Rica, and Panama City on two Airbus A319 jets. However they suspended service in January 2017 "for three months" due to financial problems. There are talks for expansion from other smaller carriers from Costa Rica and Honduras to enter the market, though there is no confirmation either way as of March 2015.
Possibly partially in response to the woes of VECA mentioned above, Mexican Volaris expanded its network of Central American destinations in 2017 and now offers a range of direct flights between the major airports in the region.
A regular boat service exists between Corinto (Nicaragua) and La Union (El Salvador). You can also cross the Nicaraguan/ Costa Rican border by boat from San Carlos (Nicaragua) to Los Chiles (Costa Rica). The boat goes through a scenic jungle, but both sides of the crossing are a bit off the beaten path and departures have been reduced due to the opening of the bridge. A boat also connects Eastern Honduras and Belize.
International travel routes are mostly on the Pacific (west) side of Central America. The highway basically starts on its journey north in Panama City, crosses on the Pacific side into Costa Rica, passes by San José, crosses again at the Pacific coast into Nicaragua. It's possible to cross the Costa Rican / Panaman border at the Caribbean coast but it takes longer and the border is just open during the day.
Between Costa Rica and Nicaragua there are two official border crossings. The more frequented one is "Peñas Blancas" at the Pacific side and the other one is between Los Chiles and San Carlos as the bridge is now open to regular traffic.
Tica Bus connects all of the Central American countries except Belize.
Driving rental vehicles across borders is not allowed by most central American car-rental companies and even driving your own car across the border requires some advance planning, as the used car markets are tightly controlled in most countries of the area and you have to prove that you haven't sold your car when you leave and that you don't intend to when you enter. However every year many people do just that, so it is anything but impossible.
The region has long neglected its train lines and no trains cross any international borders. For the most part trains are at best entertainment, but not really faster or cheaper than the bus. The main exceptions to this are found in Panama, where the Panama Canal Railway links Atlantic and Pacific and in Costa Rica where a commitment to expanded train service exists and several lines radiate out of San José with more to come in the future, including a link to the airport just outside Alajuela. Panama City also boasts a metro, which is also currently undergoing expansion.
- The Cloud Forest of Cusuco National Park in Honduras. A biodiversity hot spot visited by Operation Wallacea scientific expeditions.
- The Cloud Forests of Panama in Boquete. Many hotels are actually within the cloud forest; or you can take a tour high in to the mountains, through the clouds.
- Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. One of the most beautiful spots on the planet. A volcanic lake with three volcanoes around it.
- Colonial Towns, such as Antigua Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, (Guatemala); Juayua, Suchitoto in El Salvador, Gracias and Comayagua (Honduras), León and Granada in Nicaragua (the oldest colonial city in the Western Hemisphere) or Panama City, San Blas Islands -Casco Viejo- (Panama, where the Panama Canal can be visited as well).
- Ancient Mayan temples in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The locals will be offended if you call them Mayan ruins.
- Amazing beaches in Tela,Trujillo, la Ceiba and the Bay Islands (Honduras) the Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Limón (Costa Rica); Montelimar, San Juan del Sur, Bahia Majagual, La Flor and Pochomil (Nicaragua); Bocas del Toro and El Farallón (Panama).
- Surf, especially in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.
- National Natural Parks, especially in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua which has the 2nd largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, after Brazil.
- Volcanoes in Guatemala such as those framing the southern shores of Lake Atitlán considered by some to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
- Semuc Champey and the Lanquin caves in the Alta Verapaz District of Guatemala are unmissable.
All these make this region a great yet undiscovered and affordable treasure which is worth visiting.
Someone once quipped you can do anything but skiing in this part of the world, but thanks to volcano boarding this is not entirely true any more!
Just about every country in Central America accepts the U.S. Dollar. Other currencies are difficult to exchange. You can exchange Mexican Pesos at the Belizean or Guatemalan Border but that is about it. The U.S. Dollar is the official currency of El Salvador and Panama so there is no need to exchange money in these countries, if you're from the US. You can buy pretty much anything or any service in U.S. dollars, but it is often cheaper to use local currency. Currencies such as the Córdoba or the Lempira are usually highly inflated so only get what you need (the Cordoba for example loses about 5% of its value every year compared to the US Dollar). Nearly all banks change money from U.S. Dollar to the local currency and a passport is usually required to do this. Beyond border towns, currencies are always useless when brought outside the country, so change money with official money changers at borders. If bringing U.S. Cash to Central America, make sure that the bills are new, clean and not torn or it may not be exchanged. Many stores that generally accept US Dollars do not accept 100$ bills for fear of counterfeiting, banks however will accept them. $2 bills are considered lucky so bring some for tips. Banks in Belize do not exchange the Guatemalan Quetzal; they must be changed at the border or at some travel agents and tour operators.
Euros are becoming more and more accepted, but the exchange rate you get for them is always worse than for US-Dollars. The same goes for other currencies if and where they are accepted at all (not all that common).
ATM's can be found in banks and in major towns but in the country side it is often hard to find working ATM's. Most ATM's dispense the local currency and U.S. dollars.
In Central America, you can often find cheap buys from gifts to personal necessities. Almost everything can be bargained for except for upscale department stores. Tourists will usually pay a higher price so this is where your haggling will be useful. More often than not speaking the local language (usually Spanish) may get you a small reduction in price or at least more sympathy when haggling.
Guatemala is the country of tamales, there are regular tamales made out of corn "masa" with either meat, chicken, turkey or pork filling and tomato, and sometimes "chile". "Black tamales" are similar to the former ones but are sweet, "paches" are tamales made out of potatoes, "tamales de cambray" are small sweet "masa" balls", tamales de "chipilin", and many others; rellenitos (sweet fried bean-stuffed banana bonbons) are a tasty dessert sold on street-corners. Black beans are the main staple after corn of course. There is a variety of soups ("caldos"). Guatemalan cuisine is a mixture of Mayan and Spanish dishes.
Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro or onion thrown in, it is the national dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica This mixture is called Casamiento ("marriage") in El Salvador and Guatemala. And on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua and Honduras it is made with coconut milk. While one might presume that rice and beans are the same anywhere there are subtle differences that locals will tell you about and a traveller spending some time in the region will notice Costa Rica uses another type of beans than Nicaragua, for example.
On the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras coconut milk is the not-so-secret ingredient in almost everything. Try coconut bread, Gallo Pinto with Coconut or fish in Coconut sauce. Seafood is also worth a try and often remarkably cheap for international standards ($8 Lobster, anybody?).
Pupusas and "chicharron con yuca" (pork skin & yucca) are very popular dishes originated in El Salvador.
Nacatamales, which are big tamales containing pork, potato, rice, chile, tomato, and masa is steamed in platano leaves, they originate from Nicaragua and can be bought in the colonial city of Granada.
Oven tamales, wrapped with platano leaves, are very good in Costa Rica.
Grilled octopus is a very tasty dish in Panama.
The fresh fruit is delicious but avoid fruit that you don't peel before you eat because if you are not used to Central America's food standards you may become ill. Generally follow the peel it, wash it, cook it or reject it rule when it comes to food to greatly reduce the risk of travellers' diarrhea.
Horchata is a drink made out of rice and it is of Spanish origin. It is drunk in most Latin American countries. A popular drink in most Central American countries is "Rosa/Flor de Jamaica" (Hibiscus sabdariffa). "Tamarindo" also makes a very popular drink
Piña Colada, a drink made from pineapple juice, coconut cream, crushed ice and rum, is drunk all around the Atlantic islands.
There are two major rum producers in Guatemala, distilling some of the best rums of the region, Ron Zacapa Centenario (aged to 12 and 23 years) and Ron Botran añejo (25 years). In Nicaragua there is Flor de Caña, rated one of the best rums in Latin America and also commonly exported to countries such as Costa Rica. It is made in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua. Trips can also be made to visit the Flor de Caña factory.
Costa Rica's domestic guaro the widely available Cacique is not bad, but notably not as good as the rum offered by its northern neighbors. This is however offset somewhat by various international liquors (including Flor de Caña) being widely available in supermarkets and bars, though at a notably higher price than domestic fare.
None of these countries is a traditional beer nation as the low temperatures needed for proper beer-production were unobtainable in the region prior to the invention of artificial refrigeration in the late 19th century. Notable brands include Imperial (Costa Rica) Brahva, Victoria and Toña (both Nicaragua; produced by the company behind Flor de Caña rum).
This area is home to some scarily high murder rates, particularly in the northern part. As of 2014 data, Honduras had 84.6 intentional homicides per 100 000 inhabitants, El Salvador had 64.2 and Belize had 34.4. Things are better in the southern part of the region with Costa Rica at 10.0, Nicaragua at 11.3 (data from 2012) and Panama at 17.2 (2013 figures). This is much higher than the US murder rate which was at 3.9 per 100 000 in 2013 and by extension dramatically higher than most of Europe, where murder rates below 1 per 100 000 are common.
However, those scary figures do not tell the whole story. Yes, the region has an endemic problem with gang violence and domestic violence, but the vast majority of all violent crime happens in areas few tourists would ever wander and both victim and perpetrator are usually locals and either personally known to one another or involved in drug enterprises. That said, it is never a wise course of action to offer any resistance when being mugged and you should exercise caution in the big cities, especially at night. Taxi crimes are a problem, so only take licensed taxis and if possible text the license plate number to a trusted friend when getting in. As the murder rate is seen as a national embarrassment and a deterrent to tourism (Nicaragua even has a placard at Managua airport informing how safe it is compared to other countries in the region), a "super hard hand" policy is sometimes enforced. This mostly shows in heavily armed police/military even at tourism sites. Don't worry, police are there to help, not harm tourists and any area patrolled by tourism police is safe enough.
Various underdeveloped rural areas (e.g. the Nicaraguan east) are a major area of operation for various drug related enterprises (mostly cocaine-trafficking) influencing the security situation, especially if you choose to consume or buy/sell (not advisable at all, not least because of the harsh prison sentences that face even first time offenders). It's best to avoid the issue and the topic altogether while in the region.
Crossing into South America overland might seem like a good idea when you look at a world map, however, it's not. The border to Colombia in Panama's Darien province is surrounded by a dangerous wilderness and the only break in the Pan-American Highway. Known as the Darien Gap, this is the playground of ruthless drug smugglers and militias who will be happy to kidnap or kill you. Unless you're a movie Predator, stay away.
Driving can be another scary experience, especially if you watch TV news that have a weird fascination with the latest accidents in the capital and you're advised to avoid driving at night, in big cities or on dirt roads. Some roads are cut into dramatic scenery with very little to protect you from the abyss to one or either side. Renting a car with a driver is usually not that much more expensive than renting a car by itself and it helps navigate the confusing layout of cities like Managua that have undergone wild and unregulated growth in recent years leaving them with neither a logical street grid nor even street names and navigation by landmarks (some of which don't actually exist anymore), gut feeling and what appears to be earth's magnetic field.
- See also: Tips for travel in developing countries
- Toilets are not always as readily available as what you may be used to in your own country, so take advantage of places where they are such as museums and restaurants. In many cases toilet paper will not be provided so it is best not to be caught short and carry your own. Water to wash hands is not always available so carrying antiseptic hand gel is a good idea. Trash cans are provided in all toilets for the disposal of toilet paper because the sewage systems in Central America cannot cope with it.
- Mosquitoes are quite common even in the dry season and bug spray is often hard to come by. Bring a spray high in DEET. To be extra safe, bring a bug net to sleep under.
- Malaria pills are a good idea but often expensive. That being said, the Malaria strains in this part of the world are notably less dangerous than those in Africa or many parts of Asia, as they have less resistances. For 90% of travellers taking standby medication is not advisable, but if you are insecure ask a tropical-medicine specialist before you head out. Remember to mention your travel to the region to your doctor if you have fever or other symptoms, as Malaria parasites can remain dormant for up to a year and cause people to fall ill months after infection.
- Dengue is another concern. It is transmitted by mostly day-active mosquitoes and causes a high fever for about ten days the first time you get it. There is no known treatment or vaccination besides anti-fever medication, but a first time infection is usually not problematic as long as you stay hydrated and the fever is kept under control. However if you have already been infected by one strain, being reinfected by another strain of Dengue-fever may cause it to become a hemorrhagic fever with significantly worse prognosis that is known to be occasionally fatal.
- Dogs are plentiful and not entirely rabies-free, so it is a good idea to get vaccinated, as rabies is one of the deadliest diseases and an anti-rabies shot after being bitten is usually effective when administered in time, but that is not always possible. Don't take chances when bitten by a dog go to the next hospital and get an emergency rabies vaccination and antibodies.
- Water is another concern as tap water is often full of microbes your body is not accustomed to. If you want to avoid "Montezuma's revenge" stay away from tap water and ice cubes (almost certainly made from tap water). "Agua purificada" means purified water and it's usually advertised when the drinks and/or ice cubes are made with it, but it never hurts to ask. "Sin hielo" means "without ice" and it pays to say it more than once, as many vendors of open beverages seem to put ice in by default.