Travel in Central America is on the rise as much as anywhere in the world. And why not? The region is home to some exceptional natural wonders, beautiful cultures, and some very interesting archeological sites. However, many people still have questions about the region. We asked Central America expert Brendan van Son for his tips.
Is English widely spoken in Central America?
For the most part, no. However, on the Yucatan peninsula a wide group of people do speak English although the primary language is Spanish. In Belize, the official language is actually English since it is a former British colony. In more touristy countries like Costa Rica you'll find that more people speak English. Still, you'll have a better time in the area if you learn a little bit of Spanish before you go, or better yet while you're there.
How much do meals cost?
Generally food in Central America is very cheap. However, there is a very wide range in prices. For example, if you ate at an upscale restaurant and wanted to eat filet mignon you'd likely pay about 15AUS$ for a meal. If you just wanted a set lunch at a local restaurant you can generally get a soup, main and juice for about 3-4AUS$. There really are options for everyone including tasty empanadas from vendors for about a dollar.
What is "must-see" in Central America?
For me, there is a lot of places, and there's such a diversity of places and experiences that it really depends on what you want to get out of the experience. I would personally say that my favourite is Guatemala as it has the amazing Tikal ruins, the brilliant Chichicastenango Markets, and the beautiful Lake Atitlan and its volcanoes. Costa Rica and Nicaragua are also amazing adventure playgrounds and Panama is highly under-rated.
Are there ATMs?
You'll find ATMs basically everywhere in South America now and almost all of them take international cards. Some only take Visa while others only take MasterCard/Maestro, but you'll never be all to far from a cash point.
Should I bring traveller's cheques?
If you bring traveller's cheque you'll be protected, however you're going to struggle to find places to change them without taking a massive commission. Don't bring traveller's cheques as a main source of spending, but having some as a safety net is never a bad idea. You'll be able to draw cash so easily from bank machines that traveller's cheques in Central America have become a think of the past.
Should I get foreign currency from my bank before I go?
No, like I said, there are ATMs basically everywhere. In fact, when you land at the airport you'll find a half dozen ATMs waiting for you. Also, in most places you can actually draw USD from the bank machines.
We've heard that Central America is dangerous, should we be concerned?
The truth is that much of Central America's reputation as a dangerous place stems from the many civil wars in the 1970s and '80s. Today all of Central America is open to tourists, and you'll feel very safe here. Of course, dangers do exist but if you take some minor cautions you'll never experience a problem. These days basically the worst thing that happens to tourists is they have their purse or camera snatched if they are not careful. Of course, that could happen anywhere.
How can I protect myself from getting robbed?
Common sense really, the same things you might do at home, but taken to the extreme. Don't flash valuables around loosely, don't be care-free in leaving your valuables out in the open, and don't carry things around town that you don't need (passport, credit cards, 4 million dollars cash, etc). If you're smart about your belongings you'll never have an issue.
I've heard you can't take pictures of people in certain regions, is that true?
Yes, it's true and it's a safety issue as well. Basically, the Maya indigenous people have the belief that taking pictures of them will actually steal a part of their soul. However, over the years this has lessened a little bit and people are more open to having their photos taken (although they'll sometimes ask you for money). As a matter of safety and respect don't take pictures of people unless you have their permission first.
Is the water safe to drink?
Maybe in Costa Rica, but I still wouldn't trust it from the tap. Buy bottled water, it's cheap anyways. Also, when buying bottled water check to make sure it's sealed, some people have been known to open bottles, fill them with tap water and then resell them.
What about food, is it all safe?
You definitely have to be careful with food in Central America. Traveller's diarrhea is a common issue. Before eating a meal that would have had to be washed with water (salads, fruits, vegetables, etc) ask to make sure it has been cleaned with purified water and not tap water. Street food is hit or miss. Generally the foods that are found along roadsides are iffy since they have been catching fumes from the vehicles all day. My recommendation is to stay away from street food that involves sauces or anything that's not fried.
What type of footwear do I need?
It really comes down to preference, but I would personally pack a pair of shoes that you can feel comfortable walking around in (they don't need to be hiking boots) as well as a pair of sandals or walking sandals. You'll see most tourist walking around in flip-flops, a dead giveaway that they are foreigners usually.
Can I bring my laptop? Is wifi available?
Wifi is becoming more and more popular. Nearly every hotel and hostel now has wifi in some capacity. Also, many cafes and restaurants offer it. Packing your laptop or notebook is worth it if you want to stay connected. If you don't want to pack your computer you'll find internet cafes just about on every corner for about a dollar an hour.
What type of plugs are used?
For the most parts the plugs in Central America are North American. They be the two prong flat plugs, or sometimes the two flat prongs and the round prong. Regardless, any adapter set to American standards with two flat prongs will do the trick.
Do you have any tips to add? Leave them in the comments section below. Then head to Twitter and Facebook to continue the conversation.