You’ve made the awesome decision to travel Central America. Maybe you’re doing a backpacking tour like my 85 day trip, or maybe you’re spending some time in one or more destinations. Either way, I organized this list of tips for traveling Central America to ensure that you and other travelers will have a good time.
Interesting Fact: Central America is considered the be part of North America, although it is considered to be at the southern tip. It’s sometimes called a sub-continent. In this article, I’m focussing on all countries from Mexico to Panama.
Why you should use my tips on traveling in Central America
You should only take advice from those that you trust. You choose whom you trust. Let me tell you my qualifications:
- I’m a full-time resident of El Salvador in Central America.
- During my 85-day backpacking tour from Mexico to Panama, I met my sweetheart Stephanie and moved my life to El Salvador.
- I’ve been to all of the countries.
- I’ve already overcome all of the challenges that you will confront.
- I speak Spanish.
- I took professional Salsa dance lessons.
- My latina girlfriend (soon to be wife) will vouch for me.
Central America is fun but you also need to be prepared, which is the reason that I’ve organized these tips for traveling Central America. A simple mistake while traveling can cause a lot of frustration and confusion. Some experienced travelers, like these two girls didn’t plan properly and something bad happened. It’s important that you’re careful because disappearances happen. Obviously that’s an extreme case, but it shows you how things can go sideways if you’re not careful.
These 18 tips will save you a lot of headaches on your Central America getaway. Alright, you’re ready. Let’s get to it!
#1. Always have a backup battery supply for your cell phone.
You will use this all of the time. A backup battery supply, also called a “power bank”, will absolutely come in handy. During both of my trips, I used them when I was on long bus rides in-between countries. If I didn’t have them, surely my phone would have died and I wouldn’t have been able to find my hostel or hotel.
An extra battery supply will save you in times of need. If you don’t have one, you’ll watch your precious phone life drain away at a moment when you need it the most.
Some people might discuss how it’s “sad” that we’re so dependent on our phones. True. But it’s a reality, especially when traveling. Without your phone, you can’t lookup critical information in moments of desperation.
Also, always keep it charged. If it’s not charged, there’s no point in having one.
#2. Install the “Maps.me” App on your phone now. Download the maps of the countries you will be traveling.
Maps.me is like Google Maps, but you can see the maps offline (without wifi or data connection). This App is incredibly helpful on the road. Central America has less Wifi infrastructure than more developed countries. If you’re on a bus in the countryside, there’s a very good chance that you’ll have a poor cellular signal.
Install the app and then download the maps into the App. Test out the App (Maps.Me) before you travel to ensure everything works as planned. It’s easy and it will save you a lot of headaches later on.
#3. Install a location tracking app on your phone. Share your location with a family member back at home.
This sounds weird and it might be uncomfortable to share your location. But do it. In the off-chance that you get lost or someone can’t find you for a few days, your phone’s last location could be critical to identifying your last location. This could save your life.
Note: Some phone tracking apps can drain your battery. Test them out. I used “Life360” and that worked for me. My father was always able to see my location. Even if I was out partying at 2:00AM, I didn’t care that my parents could see my location, because it was for my safety. Safety and security are always number one while traveling.
I don’t want to scare you. Central America is a beautiful and fantastic place to travel. The people are wonderful. Travelers have an incredible time, experiences they’ll never forget. But you must take some precautions to be safe when traveling in foreign countries. This list of tips for traveling Central America would be incomplete without this suggestion, because it’s very important.
#4. Learn the basics of the Spanish language.
We all know “hola” and “gracias”. That’s a good start. But you should also learn the basics of getting from place to place, describing basic things, asking for help, and similar.
Plus, people have respect for foreigners that try to speak Spanish. If you don’t even try, people will be less willing to help you. After all, you are in their country.
#5. Bring insect repellant (only a small amount)
You don’t need much. You only need a very small bottle. I use Ben’s insect repellant. It’s a small bottle and it’s powerful. You can buy more when you arrive, if necessary. You only need to bring a small bottle because inevitably you will forget to buy some when you arrive. Then, you will be stuck in an uncomfortable situation when you’re getting attacked by mosquitos. A small bottle will get you through the difficult initial moment.
The mosquitos in Central America are really bad. I’m convinced that white people don’t live in Central America because of the mosquitos. The mosquitos are terrorists here.
Living in Central America, I’ve learned all of the tricks to get rid of them. I’m even growing mosquito repelling plants outside our front door to prevent them from entering the house. I don’t play games with mosquitos.
#6. Only use non-scented deodorant for your armpits while traveling Central America.
Scent of any type, including all flowery peach blossom cherry pit eggplant natural earth tulip lavender…like stuff…attracts insects. Insects are bad. Insects are incredibly abundant in Central America. There are no shortage of mosquitos and they will love the smell of everything you wear.
Everything in the wild here is looking for something to eat. So if you smell like flowery eggplant aloe vera banana cupcakes, you will get eaten alive by bugs, especially in the early evening when the insects are out. I’m exaggerating for your safety. The mosquitos are relentless here.
We’re not saying not to smell good. Bring a small bottle of cologne or perfume for your fancy nights out with friends. But don’t use scented anything when it’s not necessary.
#7. Ensure your backpack is waterproof…like, really waterproof.
If you’re traveling during the rainy season, be prepared. Even if it’s not the rainy season, it still rains sometimes.
“Water resistant” is not enough. Some fabrics that feel waterproof are not truly waterproof. It’s important that your backpack is completely waterproof. It needs to be sealed from outside moisture. This is particularly important to anyone that will have a laptop, camera, or any form of electronics in their backpack.
Test your backpack:
- Putting a lot of dry newspaper in your backpack.
- Close your backpack.
- Dump a heavy bucket of water on your backpack.
- Let your backpack sit in a puddle of water for 30 seconds.
- Give the water a moment to “soak into the fabric”.
- Brush off the water.
- Open your backpack.
- Is the newspaper wet at all?
When it rains in Central America, it feels like a monsoon. The rain comes down in buckets and it does not stop. Everything get’s soaked. Even if rain doesn’t touch your backpack, the moisture in the air can make everything wet.
#8. If you will be backpacking from country to country on busses, buy a pocket knife.
Slow down Crocodile Dundee. I mean a small knife.
This tip is particularly helpful for backpackers. Please note…I’m not recommending buying a knife for security. In fact, if you are in a dangerous situation, it’s a bad idea to get a knife involved. I’m recommending having a pocket knife for the hundreds of possible uses, such as cutting open plastic, cutting fabric and string. I used mine almost daily. It comes in handy!
Airports will confiscate knives, so buy a cheap one made of stainless steel. In Mexico, I bought an awesome knife for $3. It had a really cool design. I used it to cut mangos and open plastic packages (food, etc) while I was on the road.
#9. Get in shape. Yes, physical fitness is important.
When people are traveling for more than a week, they’re often going on awesome adventures such as hiking volcanos, learning to surf on a surfboard, kayaking, snorkeling or going zip-lining. There’s so much to do.
All of these exciting things take energy. You don’t have to be a body builder or a marathon runner, but you should be able to climb three flights of stairs without suffocating or passing out. Endurance, stamina and strength all come in handy when traveling.
Also, if you’re traveling while you’re single, you will undoubtedly meet someone that you’re attracted to. Romance and pheromones are in the air when people are traveling. It’s natural. You can avoid rejection by getting your body into shape before (or during) your travels.
#10. Don’t pack too much in your bag. Don’t overpack.
A lot of people that go on big trips usually bring too much stuff. I advise to do the opposite. You only need the essentials. Bringing too much stuff will bog you down and make you enjoy the trip less. There’s nothing worse than needing to re-pack your bag for an hour everyday, or needing to find something at the very bottom of your backpack with a thousand things in your way.
Travel light. Remember, you can buy things on the trip. Things are cheaper in other countries. Central America has a lower cost of living than in the United States and Europe. If you need sunscreen or toothpaste, bring a tiny amount or buy some when you arrive.
#11. If you have crazy tattoos, cover them up. Important tip while traveling in Central America.
This is for people that are covered in tattoos or have tattoos of skulls and things people can potentially consider to be threatening. This isn’t for people that have a few tattoos of non-threatening things.
Tattoos are seen differently in Central America. These are not liberal countries. Remember, this is a catholic culture which means that people often judge others. They judge others for a good reason. Central America has a lot of crime and criminals here often have tattoos. Conservative people here often don’t have tattoos. The result of these things means that, in order to protect themselves, people often make judgements about a person based on their appearances. It’s just a different culture.
If you have a lot of tattoos, you might intimidate people or been seen as a threat. Try to keep them covered when you’re out in public. It’s for your own good.
#12. Don’t bring flashy jewelry or watches. Sun glasses are fine.
If you look too flashy, you’ll attract unwanted attention. Theft happens. Remember, the average wage here is $15 per day. That $400 watch you own can easily be stolen and pay a persons wages for the entire week. Thieves don’t care about you. They consider you to be a rich person, even if you are not rich. So, leave your valuables at home.
Personally, I recommend buying a nice pair of sunglasses and going simple with everything else. You’ll already stand out from the fact that you are not latin. Do you really want the extra attention of looking like a good possible target, too? No. Don’t risk it.
A lot of people want to go out into public looking like a million bucks. This is not the place for that. Poverty is high in Central America. People will see you as a target more than they will think you’re cool. This goes for women too…wear clothing that is attractive but NOT overly revealing. Literally, you will be targeted by the wrong guys. Latin guys often view women differently. Don’t attract trouble. This is one of my most important tips for traveling Central America, because it directly impacts your safety.
#13. Bring earbud headphones with a microphone.
I used my earbuds on so many occasions. And the microphone was especially helpful when I needed to make phone calls and keep my hands free. The microphone was also helpful when I wanted to make a call and be somewhat discreet about it, because it looked like I was just listening to music (and perhaps awkwardly talking to myself).
Sometimes I was on a loud bus and I wanted to block out the loud sounds. Sometimes I wanted to watch a YouTube video about a review of a hostel. Maybe I wanted to call my parents while I was preparing my backpack the night before traveling to the next city. Or maybe I just wanted to listen to music. The earbuds saved me in all of these scenarios.
Earbud headphones don’t take up much space. They’re usually fairly cheap, but I recommend buying good headphones. Good ones last longer and offer better sound when you’re jamming to your favorite tunes. Does anyone use the word “jamming” anymore? Maybe I’m getting old.
#14. Make your Facebook account presentable.
Everyone in the world is on Facebook. When I was traveling, countless times I met new people and added them to Facebook. I realized that I needed to scan my facebook account for anything I didn’t want sending the wrong messages about me. Remove old inappropriate pictures. Remove photos of your ex. If you meet a new crush, the last thing you want to do is explain why you still have photos of your ex.
Lastly, make your Facebook profile private so weird strangers can’t search you.
#15. Don’t go out at night alone.
When I lived in the United States, I felt very comfortable to do things alone at night. Sometimes I’d even do grocery shopping late at night so I could avoid the lines during peak hours at the grocery store. I don’t do that anymore now that I live in Central America. It’s too dangerous.
However, I get that going out at night is fun. I did it a lot. And I had experiences that I’ll never forget. So, as a general rule, do as I did. Anytime you’re out at night, be with someone. It’s ok to do small things alone during the day, but during the night things are different.
Even if you go to a bar and forgot your phone, don’t walk to the hostel/hotel alone to get your phone. People, including criminals, take bigger risks at night. There is less protection in the streets. And people in general are less likely to help you at night. So always be with a friend.
#16. Check the expiration date on your bank cards.
One of my debit cards expired while I was abroad. That meant that I could use the card at ATMs or stores. That sucked. It’s very annoying to have money but not be able to access it. Fortunately I had other bank cards with me and I was able to transfer money to the other cards.
Second to that, it’s a good idea to find out what fees your bank will charge when using your bank card internationally. Sometimes banks charge extra fees. That’s also very annoying, especially when you’re paying the fee and don’t realize it.
#17. Bring two heavy duty resealable plastic bags
Things get wet. Your bathing suit, for example. The last thing you want to do is put your wet bathing suit in your dry backpack with your other clothes. There will definitely be a time when you forget to hang your wet bathing suit to dry, and having extra bags will come in handy.
When I was backpacking through Central America, I used flimsy store-bags when I had nothing else. My other clothes got wet. Eventually I bought backup bags for this exact purpose and I haven’t had a problem since.
#18. Lastly, bring a pen.
This is stupid but it’s unbelievably helpful. When I was traveling, I can’t tell you how often I needed a pen. Sometimes I was getting directions or needed to write something down quickly and I had NO PEN!
Even a cheap pen. Any pen. Just bring a pen. You’ll be able to find paper, but will you be able to find a pen? No!
There are many obvious tips for traveling central america, such as “don’t flash your money” and “be careful who you trust”, but there’s so much more than that. After all of my experiences, I had to thing long and hard about organizing these tips for traveling Central America.
Best of luck in your travels. Send me a message via email or Twitter if you need any advice about traveling Central America. I’m here for you!
Absolutely important! If you meet someone nice,you can give your number with a pen, maybe oldfashion but romantic too, something from times without handys.
It’s quite true that last statement, “Don’t forget to bring a pen!“
I just recently returned from The Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. I had forgotten a pen, or writing utensil of any kind. Then I bought postcards for a couple of friends.
Guess what? No pen.
The hotel I was staying at is not giving out pens thanks to the Coronavirus.
Finally, returning on the plane back to the States, the airline crew handed out declarations forms. It’s the COVID-19 pandemic, and the airlines are no longer giving out pens either. Most things can be done digitally in this modern age, but – YIKES – not the declaration forms.
Yeah, don’t forget a pen, people!
Great article, by the way!