Central America Travel: Variety is the Spice
Your Central America travel should be as eclectic as the cultures and landscapes freckling the region. To put it all together, get some help from the Web. You'll find sites dedicated to each of the region's seven countries, as well as advice and shared experiences from other travelers. Whether you prefer to keep your itinerary open-ended or you want to book everything in advance, the Web can enhance your experience of Central American tourism. We've selected some sites to help you get started.
In a word: vibrancy. Perhaps more well-known for its brutally war-torn past, Central America has emerged as an inexpensive, mostly peaceful place to explore. The region accommodates adventure seekers, surfers, backpacking culture fiends, families in need of rest and relaxation on sandy beaches, and just about anyone else you can imagine.
- Central America is a compact isthmus less than half as big as Mexico, but don't be fooled by its size: the region is brimming with culture and ecology. Although it may be tempting to include several countries in your agenda, take it easy. Leave yourself enough time to fully experience what you see, and to wander off the path a bit if the opportunity presents itself.
- If you want to take an eco-friendly vacation, the region is a valid choice. Ecotourism is popular in Costa Rica and is growing in Panama, particularly in Boquete. However, be aware that some tour groups use the phrase incorrectly as a marketing tool. Ecotourism should be sustainable, in that it should include the participation of the local population, be protective of the environment, and have fair economic return for the industry and its host community. Not every vacation package that involves nature can accurately be described as ecotourism.
- If you want an authentic travel experience, consider Nicaragua. Rampant poverty and the stigma attached to past civil war have prevented the country's tourism industry from reaching the level of other Central American countries, which is part of its charm.
- Many big-name guidebooks are accessible on the Web, and each has a distinct style. Check out a few to determine what you are most drawn to and comfortable with. We've selected online guidebooks for this section that best capture Central America's unique combination of flair and grit.
For general information about Central America ...
was started by backpackers and maintains an appreciation for traveling off the beaten path, with a nod to improvisation and spontaneity. You'll find rich details, woven with historical context and advice from seasoned travelers who have an intimate understanding of the region's energy and character.
introduces you to each Central American country in a quick, relaxed style. Be sure to check out the intriguing "Image Galleries." In addition, use the interactive map, catch up on history and culture, and consult the recommended attractions and events. You may want to read advice from other travelers in the "Thorn Tree" forum or the "Bluelist", which you can get to by scrolling to the very bottom of any page.
provides summaries of each country's history and economy, but the feature articles and photos are what make this guide so enticing. The interactive MapMachine
provides a variety of maps for a bird's eye view; check out the "Physical" map to get a sense of the topography in this region.
For countries or attractions that may be of interest ...
's focuses on travel to Belize, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Mini-guides go beyond the typical, delving into each country's appealing quirks, such as Guatemala's Day of the Dead and Costa Rica's cloud forests.
's provides text-heavy travel information for Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama. The "Best of" section for each country may be especially helpful in narrowing your travel choices, if you want to create your own itinerary.
presents a list of the 20 best adventures in Belize, Costa Rica, and Honduras. The list is divided into "Mainstream" and "Off the Beaten Path"; click through any item on the list for more detail, and click the "Book it on GORP" icon to make reservations. Membership to the site is free and gives you access to daily newsletters and alerts of travel and gear deals.
For planned tours ...
Journey Latin America
is led by people who've lived or traveled extensively in Central and South America. The U.K.-based company offers a selection of planned holidays, and can help you plan a tailor-made trip. They also show you some of their favorite hotels, and share "Tales From the Road" (found on each individual country page) to give you a taste of each country.
outlines three possible travel itineraries: a two-week tour of rivers and beaches; two months along the surf circuit; and a one-year sampler, mixing archaeology with scuba diving. This article is helpful even if you have less travel time, as it points out a diverse selection of sites and attractions, cities, natural features, and routes to follow. The left sidebar includes past features and photo galleries on the region.
, in partnership with National Geographic, takes travelers through Costa Rica and Panama on the only passenger ship permitted to explore Barro Colorado Nature Monument. Traverse the Panama Canal with natives as your guides, as you explore off-the-beaten-path rivers, rainforests, and coastlines.
For ecotourism ...
is the global journal of practical ecotourism, and has a section about eco-travel in Central America. Click on links to each country in the region for feature articles about eco-friendly travel, natural features, and environmental issues.
National Geographic Adventure
has a number of full-length articles online, including this one about Costa Rica, where Central American ecotourism got started. Four adventurous excursions are discussed, as are tour companies, if you'd prefer to be led by a guide.
Political unrest and violence have largely subsided in Central America, but traveling the region still demands common sense and vigilance with regards to personal safety. To prepare yourself, be aware of government warnings and of crime rates, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras. Try to become familiar with the recent history of the countries you plan to visit, as most Central American nations are young democracies still trying to figure themselves out.
- Government agencies online are a great help in preparing for your travels. You'll want to take care of the paperwork and other official stuff as far in advance as possible to give yourself ample time to pack and plan your itinerary in the weeks leading up to your trip. Plus, you'll be relaxed and free to roam once you arrive in your desired location.
- Consular Information Sheets, provided by the U.S. Department of State, provide crime information, statistics, and safety advice. This may help you decide which locations to avoid (or to be especially careful traveling through).
- The region is Spanish-speaking but you'll find many English-speaking locals in tourist-heavy areas of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama. Regardless of where you travel, however, it will be beneficial to know some basic Spanish.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
provides "Travelers' Health Information" for all countries. Find out about any travel notices that may be in effect, become more aware of diseases in each country, and learn how to prepare for and remain healthy during your trip.
The U.S. Department of State
's "International Travel" page informs you of passport and visa requirements, and tells you everything you need to know before traveling abroad, including health and safety warnings, family and children's issues, and embassy registration.
The U.S. Department of State
"Background Notes" pages for every country in the world can be linked to from here. Facts about land, people, history, government and political conditions are given, as well as economic activity and foreign relations.
provides historical background and details the natural resources, language, religion, and economic development of Central America. This overview can help you begin to distinguish the unique qualities of each country in the region.
The Latin American Network Information Center
(LANIC) is maintained by the Latin American Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin, and provides a base from which you can link to information about each Central American country. LANIC is separated into sections including academic research resources, politics, the environment, arts and culture, human rights, and more.
To learn Spanish...
provides beginner and intermediate online courses in Spanish with a tutor and interactive features. Lessons are free, fast, and entertaining.
has a language school search engine that helps you find schools throughout Central America. You can read essential information about each school, and link to school Web sites to make an informed choice.
is a publication focused on cultural travel, international living, and work and study abroad. This article by travel writer Volker Poelzl offers thorough advice about Spanish-language study in Latin America, and provides links to schools.
For students ...
The International Student Travel Confederation
offers the International Student Identity Card (ISIC), the only internationally accepted student ID card. With it, you'll be eligible for discounts and benefits in 106 countries. On this site, you'll learn more about the card and find out how to get one.
You can fly in from the United States relatively easily and inexpensively. All seven countries have international airports, so it shouldn't be a problem finding a flight to your desired location. Driving is another possibility, provided that you've equipped yourself with the proper documentation-both for you and for your vehicle.
- Check out travel forums to get advice from other travelers regarding flights. You can often find recent posts giving you up-to-the-moment information and the occasional good deal. Virtual Tourist has an active forum for travel to Central America; search by country to find what you need.
- Most major airlines in the United States have yet to discover Central America's potential as a popular destination. Until they catch up, TACA is a solid choice for flights to the region, and flights depart from several major U.S. cities.
- If you are traveling on a budget to countries bordering Mexico, like Belize and Guatemala, you can usually save some money by catching a cheap flight to southern Mexico and then renting a car or riding a bus into the next country. Tica Bus has a bus from Tapachula, in Southern Mexico, that takes you into Guatemala.
- Due to deterioration and poor conditions, all railroad travel has been suspended in Belize, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. You'll find isolated local rail lines in Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama, but all are local and do not cross national borders.
- If you want to drive to Central America from the United States, consider following the Pacific Coast Highway to avoid heavy traffic in Mexico City. Drive Me Loco can help you plan your route.
For air travel to Central America ...
searches for the lowest international fares for you. A fun-to-use, interactive map lets you zoom into each country to display airport locations, and lets you click on your departure and arrival locations.
is a quick and easy way to search for flights from several different carriers. Enter your desired schedule (just once), then click the provider icons of your choice to view prices.
has service to all countries in Central America. You can book flights within the region, between the United States and Central America, and take advantage of special fare offers on its site.
, which calls itself the world's first and only zero-emissions airline, has daily service in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. You can fly into numerous locales offering a variety of ecological attractions. Nature Air has a "Low Fare Finder" and special deals posted on its site.
Sansa Regional Airlines
caters to Costa Rica. You can book flights or purchase a Costa Rica Air Pass, good for unlimited air travel within the country for either one or two weeks.
For cruises to/around Central America ...
has information about cruises around and through the Panama Canal. You can link to cruise lines, and learn what to see and do on your trip. A sailing calendar helps you determine the best time to go.
presents a selection of cruise deals to Latin America and Mexico. You'll find a mix of options, several of which have been reviewed by editors, including routes stopping in Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize. You can link directly to cruise lines' Web sites to book your vacation.
Sunstone Tours and Cruises
provides information about several different family-oriented cruises around Central America. Ships are small, which allows them to dock away from huge liners, bringing you closer to volcanoes, rainforests, locals, and perhaps a sloth or two.
You don't have to rough it-but you can. Tourism is strong and growing across the region, which makes it easy to find accommodation to suit your needs. Whether you long to doze in a hammock slung between two trees on a beach or in a plush bed in a luxury suite, you won't be disappointed.
- In most areas in Central America, even hotels and resorts that are considered high-end can be affordable, which means you can travel luxuriously without shelling out too much money.
- It isn't easy to find organized campsites in Central America, but many beaches allow you to pitch a tent or sleep in hammocks in designated areas. Safety may be an issue, however. This thread from a BootsnAll travel forum discusses the issue.
- If you are trying to conserve cash, camping is not your only option. You can stay in guesthouses or hostels, often for less than $20 per night, or arrange a home-stay with a local family, usually for under $100 per week. Home stays are more common in language-school areas; GoAbroad provides a language school search engine for all countries.
For general accommodation information ...
provides listings and traveler reviews of hotels, B&Bs, inns, and hostels. Often reviewers post photos and write candidly about their experience with each place. You'll find a good mix of luxury and inexpensive lodgings, but you'll also find a busy site with many ads.
is an efficient hotel search engine. Locate accommodation in the country and city of your choice, then search by date of travel, and book online after viewing photos and learning about area attractions, driving directions, and property information. Discounted rates are often available.
For budget accommodations ...
provides listings and reviews of hostels around the world. You can search by country and by the type of room you want, and link to hostel Web sites. Reviews are candid, give a good sense of each hostel's atmosphere, and provide practical information about reservations, Internet access, curfew, and more.
allows you to search for hostels, budget hotels, guest houses, campsites, and apartments in Central America. Search by date and location for best results.
For luxury accommodations ...
Luxury Latin America
reveals the latest in luxury hotels and tours in Central America. Reviews are detailed and thorough, and are written by experienced travel writers. You can browse listings and reviews by country, and link to hotel/tour Web sites.
Drake and Cavendish
is a luxury-hotel directory with a section devoted to Central America. You can search by country, view photos, read reviews, and link to hotel Web sites.
Journey Latin America
has a hotel finder for luxury accommodation in Central America. There are not many listings, but each has stand-out features, and has been visited by Journey Latin America staff- people who've lived and traveled extensively in the region.
offers an inside look at Spa Tranquilo at the Rancho Pacifico Hotel
, surrounded by rainforest on the southwest coast of Costa Rica. In this article, you'll learn about a few of the spa's treatments, chocolate wrap included, and follow the author's transformation from spa skeptic to pampered pedicure devotee. To locate spas throughout Central America, try Resorts Online
, which organizes listings by country and links you to resort and spa Web sites.
You can travel around the region cheaply, and there is a good chance that your ride will be entertaining. Organization, regarding time schedules and seat reservations, depends on the country and mode of transportation. Driving yourself from place to place might be a better option if you plan to travel to remote areas, but you'll need to be aware of varying road conditions depending on season and country. We've found some Web sites that can help you determine your best course.
- Central America's major airline is El Salvador-based TACA, which flies to all seven countries. However, because the region is so compact you might find buses and cars more efficient than flying between cities.
- Flights and car rentals can be booked online but that's not the case with bus rides. Instead you can use the Web (particularly the sites recommended below) to get a better sense of where bus stations are and plan around those locations to ease your mind before you go.
- Be prepared for some crowding and disorganization when you travel around Central America. In some countries, you may be flagging buses down from the side of the road, or squeezing into a seat next to a vendor selling food and drink. Patience and a sense of humor should make things easier.
- As we mentioned in the "How will I get to Central America?" section of this guide, train travel in the region is sparse. Where it does exist, train travel in Central America is unfavorable. You won't find many lines for passengers, as most were built to transport produce to harbors and markets. Alternate methods of transportation are generally more convenient and available.
- In Guatemala, you'll find what are known as chicken buses. These boisterous school buses pack in people and, at times, chickens. First-class Greyhound buses also run here, and both modes are inexpensive. But the chicken buses, although less comfortable, may offer a better glimpse of Guatemalan culture. See these articles about endearingly unpredictable buses in Guatemala:
For general information ...
has a "Getting around" section for each country. Evocative descriptions show you what to expect as you traverse the region by bus, bike, car, or plane.
For buses ...
provides bus service throughout the region, and lets you view schedules, get rates, and make reservations online. A map pinpoints locations of agencies and terminals, and shows routes between countries.
If you're driving ...
Drive Me Loco
tells you everything you need to know about driving in Central America. The "Guide" describes what you will encounter as you cross borders, and discusses routes, documents, insurance, and what to expect from the border patrol. In addition, the "Central America" section covers individual countries including specific routes, entry points, and fees you will encounter.
Budget Car Rental
has a Central America section that lets you link to each country to make a rental reservation (country pages are in Spanish, so click the "English" icon, or American flag). It may be cheaper to book ahead of time, rather than waiting until you arrive.
For flights ...
's site is fun, simple, and efficient. An interactive map lets you zoom into each country to display airport locations, and lets you click on your departure and arrival locations. Vayama then searches for the lowest fare on the Internet.
and its affiliates, Aviateca, NICA, TACA de Honduras, and Lacsa, service all countries in Central America. You can search for flights and book online. Based in El Salvador, TACA has numerous satellite offices, and promises low fares around the region.
For train travel ...
The Railroad Development Corporation
(RDC) is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, management and investment organization that maintains trains in developing countries. You may contact RDC for information about steam train tours in Guatemala.
provides rail tours of Costa Rica, including one-day tours and customized itineraries. You can read about tour packages and make reservations.
Panama Canal Railway Company
is the oldest transcontinental railroad in the world, and has been connecting Panama on the Pacific Coast with Colon on the Atlantic since 1855. You'll find schedules, rates, and historical background.
The Web can give you a taste of a destination before you go, and one of the best ways to prepare for a trip is to read about and view photos of other travelers' experiences. Doing so may inspire you to include a particular attraction in your itinerary, or to leave one out. Central America is a popular destination for a wide range of traveler personalities and budgets, so you'll find diverse opinions regarding the region.
- Blogs and forums offer potentially helpful collections of travel musings for you to consider. Just be sure to consult several sources and opinions before you come to any conclusions about a place.
- Blog search engines Technorati and Blogpulse can help you search for general or specific information about travel in Central America.
- Blogrolls can link you to other blogs and Web sites of interest. Typically located in the front-page sidebar of a blog, the blogroll is a list of links to similar sites.
- See our findingDulcinea Blogs Guide for further information and advice about consulting blogs (or writing your own).
For blogs about Central America ...
is a travel blog with daily entries arriving from several sources and places. Previous posts are organized by country (to the right, if you scroll down), making it easy for you to find those relating to Central America, such as water bungalows in Panama
and Guatemalan hot waterfalls
calls itself "the pop culture travel guide." You can read Central America travel stories and blog-type entries written by contributing editors and members. Postings are unusually savvy and unapologetic; for example, a recent entry disputed a hostel recommendation made in a major guidebook.
La Antigua Guatemala Daily Photo
is maintained by an art director living in a Spanish colonial town in Guatemala. Vivid photographs of various local attractions are presented, along with discussions of historical background with an emphasis on aesthetics, color, and architecture.
The Tranquilo Traveler
is written by guidebook writer and freelance travel writer/photographer Joshua Berman. This blog features entries about various locations around the world, including Belize, Nicaragua (for which Berman has written guidebooks), and El Salvador. Links to his published articles are also included.
in Granada is the blog of Steve Jackson, a travel writer and photographer living in Granada, Nicaragua. Jackson's amazingly colorful photos are a draw on their own but his posts are equally intriguing. You'll get a glimpse into his daily life with features like video footage taken on a Nicaraguan bus. Also read his reactions to local food and lodging, and his commentary on current events.
For message boards and forums discussing Central America ...
lists recommended attractions and hotels with user ratings for each country. You'll find plenty of opinions and photos submitted by other travelers.
BootsnAll Travel Network
has a Central America message board where you can post questions or comments. The good mix of voices means that, whether you have traveled extensively in Central America or are inexperienced and looking for advice, you should be able to find what you're looking for. Posts are listed by pithy headings, so you can see what each is about before you read any further.
provides a message board quite similar to the one on BootsnAll, but it may be worthwhile to check both forums to get a more well-rounded collection of ideas and opinions.
The Thorn Tree
is Lonely Planet's travel forum, organized by region. Posts are listed in their entirety and you may click to read replies, if you wish. Lonely Planet occasionally posts updates regarding its guidebooks and new Web site additions.
For travelogues about Central America ...
is a monthly online travel publication with feature stories and photo essays, all submitted by freelancers. The emphasis is on cultural experiences rather than on practical information or advice. You can read the current issue, browse past issues, or search by region.
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