Central America - tips
|In short||A bit less varied than South
America, in particular with regards to the climate. Still, distances are smaller, it's easy to get around and there are lots to see,
both with regards to wildlife and culture.
For wildlife and nature, people tend to go for the national parks of Costa Rica, although the Carribbean side of Honduras and Nicaragua and most of Panama are actually much better. Guatemala, by far, is the most interesting country with regards to people, and together with Mexicos colourful Chiapas province, it's the only place in Central America with a majority of Indians. Still, the various high- and low-land Indians of Panama shouldn't be forgotten - in particular the Kuna of the San Blas Archipelago, and the Miskito of Honduras and Nicaragua are worth mentioning too.
|Highlights||Quite a few! Archeology buffs may
not get quite the same kick as climbing the Macchu Picchu of Peru, but Tikal (northern
Guatemala) is such a wild experience, and even the more polished Palenque and Chichén
Itzá (Yucatán, Mexico) are great. Copan in Honduras is smaller but still
For nature, places not to be missed are the Carribbean Coast (Belize, Nicaragua and Honduras), Tortuguero (Costa Rica), Isla Utila (Honduras), Isla Omitepe and Isla de Maíz (both Nicaragua), the highlands of Costa Rica and the amazing rain forests of Panama.
With regards to culture and architecture, the classical cities of León and Granada (both Nicaragua) are amazing, and the classic towns of Antigua (Guate) and "Ruta de las Flores" in western El Salvador are equally great. In the other end, the Panama Canal shows another (and quite beautiful) side of the man-made stuff.
For people, go for the places with no or few toursists. Since my first visit to Costa Rica in 1990, it has become more expensive, more unfriendly and much less virgin - definitely the bad side of too much tourism. In contrast, you'll be hard pressed to find more friendly people than the ones in rural El Salvador or the Peninsula Azuero, Panama.
Photo samples from Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador HERE.
Photos from Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panamá are to be found HERE.
|Places to avoid||As with South America, avoid the bigger cities. Spend a lot of time in the countryside - much better, much cheaper and much safer. Guatemala and San Salvador both rank among the most dangerous cities on earth. The murder rate in El Salvador is about 10 a day, and most of them are gang related and take place in the capital.|
|Seasons||The climate is determined by the altitude rather than the latitude and longitude. On the pacific side, try to hit the European winter (November - April) in the highlands as well as the lowlands. In most of Central America (and the Carribbean), the summer means heavy rains and/or the hurricane season, usualling lasting into November or even January. For the Carribbean, February through May is safer.|
|Do's and don'ts||Not much, however, beware that Latin American officials are very keen on "looking good". Dress code is more conservative than in Europe and people tende to spend an awful lot of money to dress nicely, and you should do the same - at least before crossing a border. Looking like a true freak won't do you any good.|
|Visa||Usually no requirements, unless
you're Kiwi, Aussie or even Canadian. Check Panamá.
Recently, Guate, Honduras El Sal. and Nicaragua have made a kind of "union" meaning that they are treated like one country and you usually get three months in total for all of them with no stamps in between. Extensions are easy to get.
|Value for money||Less good than South America, mainly
due to the fact that the standard of living is higher, in particular in Costa Rica,
Belize - and, above all, Mexico. Apart from Mexico, though, and excluding the entry fees
of the Maya ruins, you should do ok with 20 USD/day. Bear in mind that the
Mexican ruins may still
be free of charge on Sundays - and therefore very crowded.
Due to the hot climate, camping is less of an option than in the South American highlands or in Patagonia.
|Others||Speak Spanish! As with South America
(see that one), Central America is a region where the value of your stay will depend on
the contact with the locals, so do yourself the favour and do a bit of legwork back home,
and your trip will be much more rewarding.
In addition, your own security will improve a lot, and it's not a bad idea to start a conversation with "Lo siendo, no soy americano".