Central America Travel Basics

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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.

Central America Travel Basics

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Central America Travel Requirements

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Getting to Central America

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Central America Hotels

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Getting Around in Central America

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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:

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Central America Blogs and Forums

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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).

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