Traveling Central America – Facts and Fictions

Americans have been traveling Central America, in large numbers, for decades – they move there just as frequent.  I am just not sure why.  I do not understand the draw.  I guess it is easy to learn the language, it is in the same hemisphere, and a quick flight back home.  And, I have been told, it is easy to score pot – that might be a big selling point for folks.

Traveling Central America

How Central America Kind Of Makes Me Feel

Other than that, I am not sure why people are so fascinated.  In our 2+ months traveling Central America, we had a handful of good experiences.  But, it did not live up to expectations.  Central America travel is hard.

At the end of our trip I reviewed our tour book, Rough Guide, once again. I also took a look at what Lonely Planet had to say.  I came across several claims about traveling Central America – some fact and some fiction – so I thought it would be a good time to take a moment and provide some closing thoughts on Central America.

Facts on Traveling Central America

Traveling by chicken bus is an economical and unforgettable experience.”  

  • This is true – it is cheap, sometimes as little as $.50 for an hour ride.  It is also unforgettable – it’s hot, sweaty, cramped, dusty, and noisy.  My butt will never forget the lack of cushion on those old school bus seats as we bumped across the Guatemalan countryside. 

The [chicken buses] stop on demand, wherever passengers ask to get off or people flag down passing services.  Sometimes it can seem like you’re stopping every thirty metres.” 

  • This is true – it does not just seem like the chicken bus is stopping every thirty metres, it actually stops that frequently.  I could not understand why people would not just get off when the bus stopped and walk the extra 20 feet to their destination. 
Traveling Central America

What you don’t see here is the itchiness on the beach in Guatemala

Taking steps to avoid getting bitten by insects, particularly mosquitos, is essential.”

  • Another truth.  The mosquitos, and bugs, were out of control.  I never experienced so many bites from so many different kinds of bugs.  Unfortunately, every step I took to prevent the bites just seemed to make things worse.

Sandflies, often present on beaches, are tiny and very difficult to see, and hence avoid – you will be made aware of their presence only when they bite, and by then it can be too late.  The bites, usually found around the ankles, itch like hell, and last for days.”  

  • Unfortunately, a big time truth. I spent days trying not to itch my ankles and feet, which had so many bites that my feet burned in pain.

No matter when you visit, or how long you’re there, daily adventures are there for the taking. They come in all styles – fun, easy, bumpy, challenging, surprising, fulfilling – the sort you’ll be talking about for decades.”

  • This is entirely true.  I will be talking about my dislike of Central America for decades.

El Salvador “has long struggled to gain tourists’ trust.

  • I understand why.  I was miserable, transportation was awful, and in the week we were there, we were never able to access cash at an ATM.  It was also unnecessarily and irrationally expensive. 

Fictions of Traveling Central America

Traveling by bus in Central America is by far the most convenient and comprehensive way to get around.” 

Traveling from place to place is easy and won’t break the bank: a combination of the colorful local “chicken buses”, border-crossing international coaches...”

  • Anyone who says traveling in Central America is easy is sadistic.  It is true that it is cheap, but I have experienced better value transport in Southeast Asia, and the border crossings are easier.  It was strange, in a land where I can speak the language, I dreaded the border crossings.  In Asia, they were easy and I can’t even pretend to speak the language.
  • The international coach we took across the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border was also loud, broke down several times, and did little to ease the time spent at the border.  In fact, it took less time to cross the borders on our own, while walking.

Tiny on a map, Central America packs in more diversity than any similar-sized area on the planet.” 

  • I have to disagree from the diversity standpoint, perhaps there were more people of European descent in Panama than in Guatemala, and the roads were better maintained the further south we went, but other than that, I felt a lack of diversity, particularly in the food.  
Traveling Central America

Lazying Around in a Hammock, Nicaragua

With its elegant colonial buildings, Granada is Nicaragua’s architectural gem.” 

  • Granada, overall, was filthy.  The tourist heart of town was kept pretty clean, but as soon as you crossed the end of the line to the wrong side of the tracks, the area surrounding the central park and the market were some of the most despicably dirty roads I have ever seen.

Los Cobanos, El Salvador, features “idyllic, white sand beaches

  • I don’t even know where to start with this one.  The sand was almost white, but the beaches were dirty and unaccessible.  It was a fishing village more than anything.  It was far from idyllic.

Concluding Thoughts Traveling Central America

Traveling in Central America I have not been shy with my feelings on traveling in Central America thus far.  It is not as though I hated Central America, I was just utterly disappointed.  My expectations were not super high, they were manageable.  We also had a particularly good experience in Guatemala, setting the bar high for the next few countries, which each were entirely disappointing.  

But, I travel on my stomach.  I am drawn to great food and cultures that embrace the concept of eating well.  I even love the concept of meat, beans, and rice.  But, we got bored quickly, found a hard time finding something decent to eat on a regular basis, and, of course, we got sick.

The most unfortunate thing is that we decided not to stick it out to travel through South America, where I wanted to spend time with friends.  Instead, we realized we needed to spend our time, money, and energy following our passion, Asia.  For that, I have to thank Central America, but I am sorry we did not see our friends.

I also recognize that this is a RTW Problem – we are lucky to be living the life we are.  But, not every day is easy.  Not every day is unicorns and rainbows.  We don’t enjoy every country we go to.  Hopefully that is about to change.  Adios Central America.

16 Comments

  1. Pretty crazy the different experiences that each traveler has. I loved it so much I'm headed back in a couple of months!

    I do have to agree with you on the food. It's great at first, but can become rather redundant. Chicken rice and beans only goes so far. haha I think the thing that helped for me last summer was that I was going back and forth from beach towns to towns inland. Having some varieties of fish every now and again was a pleasant option.

    Also, not sure if you were in Mexico, but that's one country with tons of food! A large variety of dishes for every meal, some of my favorite food for sure!

    I still need to make my way to Asia, I always hear great things. : )

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  2. Yeah, Pablo, everyone has their place that they connect with. Central America was certainly not mine. Come to Asia!! We can meet up.

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  3. Oh my – you two just scream “Asia people” to me, and as someone who also considers herself an “Asia person” (ie I LOVE traveling + eating there) you’ve scared me away from feeling like I needed to branch out. Haha. Still look forward to experiencing Central America soon, thanks for the information.
    P.S. Sand flies are the DEVIL. Seriously!

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    • Yeah, we do scream Asia, right?? Enjoy CA when you go, and check out Guatemala – Antigua and Montericco. I have some recommendations for you.

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  4. My only experience in Central America was Costa Rica. We traveled through a good portion of the country, driving our rental car along those bumpy, underdeveloped roads. And we loved it, including the food. In fact, we loved it so much, we have talked seriously about moving there.

    So, yeah, every experience is different. Just like how I hate Florence, Italy, but millions of people love it. Pffft.

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    • Costa Rica is sooo much nicer than the rest of the region. It was much easier and more enjoyable, but was also a lot more expensive, but I think those things come hand in hand – the more developed, the more it costs.

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  5. Well, I must say after seeing Anthony Bourdain in El Salvador, I know the food was not going to be for me. Costa Rica and Guatemala are on my list but will steer clear of the other places for now.

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    • I really enjoyed Guatemala, and Costa Rica, but the in between was not for us. I would fly between.

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  6. This is the opposite experience we had! We went to Central America and fell in love with it, we were supposed to spend a year in Latin America and we spent a year each in Central and South America. We want to have our babies there!
    The only point I agree on is the food, especially being vegetarian, but we usually cooked for ourselves so the variety was excellent 😉
    We also love Asia, but there is something about Central America that has me longing to spend more time there.

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    • I am glad you enjoyed it, just goes to show some people love a place and others might have an entirely different experience. I am looking forward to finally returning to South America though.

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  7. after reading your comment that SA is filthy, dirty, smelly and hard, i am now not so keen on going there.I had wanted to try it out and totally avoid those filthy chicken buses

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    • Well, I might still suggest going because loads of people love Central America. I’m just not one of them.

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  8. You guys sound really whiny and extremely closed minded people.

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    • Thank you for your comment.

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  9. Haha this made me laugh I had a similar rant on the bus today! Despite being a geographer and noticing diversity in countries and cultures I also agree a lot of the countries seemed very similar (except Costa Rica); and If I never see a volcano in my lifetime I’m okay with that. Currently in Nicaragua in Leon and wondering why I’m not at home in comfort with a cup of tea – travelling Central America is tough and surprisingly costly! Taxis always trying to trick you, lots of border crossing fee’s, difficult travel with the options of breaking the bank with shuttles or braving the chicken buses! Despite the long distances, S.America seemed so much easier and I’m not sure if I’ll return home without half of my body missing from bites. Not that I’m not enjoying travelling, it’s just nice to hear someone speaking the truth rather than saying everywhere has a ‘charm’ :L I’d still recommend visiting, but agree that it’s not easy to travel and I’m craving flavour (and I like simple food!).

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    • Like minds. I also like hearing someone who has had similar experiences. Makes me feel less crazy. Good luck with the rest of your time in CA!

      Reply

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