It’s such a tiny area. The entirety of Central America – including the regions of Mexico we visited – could fit within the country of France. Yet every country is different than the next, each one having its own distinct culture. In Guatemala for example, the Mayan roots are very obvious; from physical features to traditional clothing and general way of life. While right next door in El Salvador, due to several tragic moments in recent history, the Mayan culture has been nearly wiped out completely.
Even the colours change. In Mexico for example, notably Oaxaca, everywhere you looked you’d encounter brightly coloured buildings or equally beautiful works of graffiti. Crossing into Guatemala, while colourful, it was different. Most noticeably was the lack of street art. Even in Antigua, while a colourful town, rather than bright eye-catching tones, the buildings were more conservative shades of pastel.
Then there’s León and Granada in Nicaragua, both cities are colourful across the spectrum. While towns in El Salvador had colour, it was sporadic. In San Jose, buildings themselves were quite bland, but the street art scene was front and centre.
Whether it’s subtleties such as dialect or slang in the language to literal in-your-face changes like colour and cuisine. Five months in Central America has shown us that borders are often much more than lines on a map.
Now that we’ve moved on, I feel it’s a good time to reflect on our time spent in the region. Although this is by no means a definitive guide to Central America, perhaps our experiences and opinions on matters will help you along in your future travels.
How Much Does it Cost?
The gringo trail of Central America is one of the top budget travel locations on the planet. Backpackers from around the world flock to this area and often stay for months on end simply due to it’s cost. Much like Southeast Asia’s banana pancake trail, it’s incredibly low cost of travel combined with a full spectrum of activities and scenery, make it a base for budget travellers and digital nomads alike.
Prices vary from country to country in different ways and budgets will always shift depending on the travellers style and how many activities they choose to do. For example, entry fees to ruin sites can get pricy, as can surfing lessons and scuba diving. Accommodation fees often go down on longer stays in some hostels and AirBNB’s, so if you plan to spend a little more time in one place, costs can be reduced in that way.
Overall, based on our experiences, Nicaragua is the cheapest overall country when considering accommodation, food, transport and activities. In Mexico, transport costs and entry fees to parks/ruins can be a little steeper, but food is incredibly cheap. Guatemala has pricier activities, but cheap accommodation, while El Salvador probably has the steepest accommodation costs but food and transport are some of the least expensive. Costa Rica is the priciest overall, yet due our brief visit, was doable on a budget.
Prior to our arrival, we had assumed that Mexico would be our most expensive country, as it’s technically part of North America and a much more developed country than some of the others nearby. However, Mexico was actually where we spent the least, while El Salvador – where we expected to save the most – was the opposite.
A Little Breakdown
For those curious, here’s our daily averages for each country visited (in Canadian dollars, based on two people):
In Mexico, we averaged $40 per day. This is much cheaper than we had anticipated, but much of that cost was due to the fact that we spent five weeks in Oaxaca city and rented a place for a month. Because we booked a place for a full month, our daily accommodation costs went from what would be closer to $20-25 per night to $14. On top of that, living primarily on street food when we weren’t cooking for ourselves saved us even more.
Guatemala was quite a bit higher at $49. Accommodation was only slightly more expensive than Mexico but food was quite a bit pricier. The biggest expense however, was a Spanish class that Kylee took during our time in Antigua. While the course itself was quite cheap overall, it definitely impacted our daily average.
Now, although there are budget options in El Salvador, the quality is often more than questionable. Stepping up from a fleabag dorm to a very basic private room caused a significant increase in price. Thankfully, if you’re willing to survive on a diet primarily of pupusas, it’s quite possible to counter the added accommodation costs. Our daily spending averaged $52 over our three week stay due to said room prices, but also that as much as we love pupusas, we needed to break up the diet a little. We also moved around a lot. Transportation may be cheap in El Salvador but if you’re using it every few days, it adds up fast.
Nicaragua, even though it’s the cheapest overall, set us at around $47 daily. This was completely due to the fact that we did more activities and splurged a few times on accommodation. It would have been easily doable on much less than $40 but we relaxed our spending a little in Nica.
Finally, because we only had a few days in San Jose before flying out of Costa Rica, we were limited on what we could do. Hearing how expensive the country is prior to arrival, we expected the worst. Staying in San Jose rather than heading to the beaches and jungles, where most of the tourism and activities take place, was our biggest cost saver. Limiting ourselves to exploring a city, while staying at an inexpensive AirBNB near downtown, kept our spending on par with Mexico at $40.
Overall, everything balanced out to just over $45 a day during our five month stay. Considering that cost is split between two people, we’re both quite impressed. All-in-all, there are a multitude of ways we could have easily doubled our spending or shaved off a few bucks each day. Regardless of what we did or didn’t do, it’s fair to say that Central America is definitely one of the cheapest travel destinations around.
Moving Around – Sometimes Sketchy, Sometimes Fun
Transportation is generally quite cheap throughout Central America, although the quality of the ride varies significantly.
One thing that had little change regardless of location was the busses within larger cities. While occasionally overcrowded to the point where you can barely move (or may find yourself hanging out of the door in San Salvador…), they’re a quick and inexpensive way to get around major cities.
The Real Experience
While always a hit-and-miss situation regarding safety and quality, chicken buses were our favourite mode of transport for relatively short distances between cities. Although they only really operate in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, they’re a great way to get a true local experience.
For those who have been to these countries, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, let me explain. Most developing countries all have the “budget” buses that many locals – often from smaller villages – use to get around. They’re usually in questionable condition, but maintained enough to get the job done. Central America is no different in that sense.
What is unique about the chicken buses, is that they’re former school buses imported from the USA and done up like a carnival midway. Bright paint jobs, faux chrome jobs, flashing lights and sound systems that blast music at deafening decibel levels the entire ride. They’re rarely a comfortable ride, but are the cheapest and most entertaining way to get around.
Another bonus regarding the chicken buses is playing digestion roulette with the hawker food. Some of the best snacks we tried during this trip were the sketchy-appearing snacks being sold on the busses. Thankfully, we always ended up with an empty chamber.
El Salvador has the cheapest and most well-connected bus system between cities, but often requires multiple transfers to reach a seemingly close destination.
The craziest rides were in Guatemala, where we’d often find ourselves barrelling down mountain roads at well above any relatively safe speed. The smell of cooked brake pads would fill the bus as it made wide passes around other vehicles on blind corners.
Given the rather uncomfortable ride on chicken buses, any ride longer than three or four hours, we’d opt for a shuttle. While often equally as unreliable as a chicken bus, typically they’re direct.
When we felt like spoiling ourselves, we simply paid for a proper bus. They were rarely in our budget, but they can make all the difference after a few too many chicken buses or sketchy shuttle journeys.
On top of all those options, the cheapest way to get around is good ol’ fashioned hitchhiking. We hitched quite a few times during our time in El Salvador without issue, never waiting more than a minute or two to flag down a ride. The same worked in Nicaragua, but drivers will often ask for some cash – though it was still cheaper than any other transport available. Those were the only two countries we used this method of transport, but met several people along the way who were transversing the entire region by hitching. While there are always additional risks involved, it seemed to work out fine for everyone we met.
All in all, getting around Central America was rarely an issue. Aside from a few hiccups, things went smooth the entire time we were there. And on any return visits, we’ll probably use the same mix of transport we did on this one.
As chefs, food is clearly a priority for us, so we went into Central America with high hopes. However, what we encountered when compared to our expectations was quite different.
Mexico – Unbeatable
Without question, Mexico has some of the greatest food in the world. Ranking with culinary heavyweights such as Italy, Thailand and Japan; it’s no coincidence we decided to begin our trip here. From common street tacos in San Cristobal to rich moles and unique snacks like the tlayudas of Oaxaca; the region greeted us with the epicurean Mecca that is Mexico. Unfortunately, this also meant that the bar was set impossibly high.
Guatemala – Dig Deep
Once crossing into Guatemala, it was immediately clear that the street food scene so abundant in Mexico, was absent. The odd street cart can still be found around towns, but tend to lack variety. Aside from some very interesting pickled-beet and boiled egg tostadas in Antigua, food was typically limited to some grilled meat with rice and potatoes. That and fried chicken. Fried chicken is everywhere in Guatemala.
It wasn’t until we were ready to move on that we learned that true Guatemalan cuisine is usually reserved for home. Rich stews such as Jacon de Pollo occasionally involve long cooking times and complex recipes see them most often during special occasions and holidays.
El Salvador – More than Pupusas
In El Salvador, it’s the mighty pupusa that fuels a nation. Probably the most simple of the regions foods, it’s a staple of Salvadorian cuisine and is found in many forms throughout the country. However, contrary to the common idea throughout the traveller community, there is so much more to offer. Simply head up to the Ruta de Flores and spend a weekend in Juayua for their weekly food festival. You’ll be pleasantly greeted with everything from locally produced chorizo and longanzia as well as some incredible seafood from the nearby coast.
Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Lumping these two together will probably upset some, but during our visit, the similarities in cuisine are undeniable. Gallo pinto for example, aside from the difference in bean varieties (red in Nicaragua, black in Costa Rica), both nations claim the dish as their own. The same is said with the uniquely delicious Vigaron.
Tamales are another shared specialty throughout Central America, but again, each country has subtle differences. Nicaragua and Costa Rica are no exception. The great Nacatamale of Nicaragua is considerably larger than it’s Costa Rican cousin and also much fattier. The Costa Rican version is often strong with garlic and always served with Salsa Lizano.
The cuisines of Central America vary from country to country, sometimes in subtle ways, other times significantly. There was no country we visited that we couldn’t find some amazing food.
Isn’t Central America Dangerous?
Personal safety is always on the mind of any traveller during their trip planning and we’re no different. Although we’d both visited Nicaragua and Mexico in the past, spending a significant period of time through the region was another story. Central America has an unfortunate stigma in regards to safety, which it’s slowly beginning to shed, though it still has some way to go.
With the idea of general safety, there are also health concerns that should be taken into consideration when visiting the developing world. These can be as simple as ingesting contaminated food or water and ending up sick for a few days or shitting your pants in public. It could also be much more serious, like the time I caught dengue fever in Vietnam. Diseases such as malaria, rabies and many others are not uncommon in lesser-developed regions.
Thankfully, aside from a few days here and there with an upset stomach, the odd sketchy boat ride, everything worked out quite smooth for us. The only time we thought we might be in trouble was due to our own carelessness. A wrong bus that saw us end up on the wrong side of San Salvador. Aside from that, not once during our five months did we ever feel unsafe.
That being said, most of Central America is quite poor; and with poverty comes desperation – which can often lead to crime. Petty theft and muggings are unfortunately common. We met two women from the UK who were mugged by a machete-wielding bandit in the hills near Juayua, in El Salvador. Fortunately, aside from some stolen goods, they walked away unscathed. The hostel we stayed at posted warnings about that specific area, so we stayed clear.
Unfortunately, their accommodation didn’t, so they had no way of knowing.
Another real concern are gangs. The drug trade sees quite a few areas controlled by these groups and occasionally break out in open conflict, especially in major cities. And while gangs rarely target tourists, being caught in the crossfire isn’t out of the question.
El Salvador in particular was a country we’d heard plenty of warnings about prior to visiting. And due to these warnings we almost skipped it altogether. Thankfully, we also heard enough good stories and decided to give it a shot – and are glad we did. It’s a fantastic country that too many people avoid because of it’s notoriety. Walking through the streets of San Salvador, people would stop us on the street just to thank us for visiting their country.
The only country we did skip due to safety concerns was Honduras. We initially planned on spending some time here after El Salvador, but due to some rather violent protests centring around the Presidential election at the time, we decided against it.
There’s always a risk when you travel, regardless of destination. And while there may be a handful of additional risks in Central America, we felt safe and well during our entire five months here.
Overall, our time in Central America was a great experience. As with anything, the trip had its share of misadventures, but thankfully nothing major. These things happen and are all part of the journey. For the most part, the whole experience was a positive one.
From questionable bus rides and cockroach hostels, to beautiful beaches and some of the greatest food we’ve encountered on the road. Central America is one for the books. Although this leg of the trip has ended, we’ll definitely be returning in the future. As long as five months may be in any region, let alone one of this size, we barely scratched the surface.