Overland Travel Through Central America
Central America: it’s a lively, vibrant, lush, colourful part of the world, that I think is somewhat of a well-kept travellers’ secret. Whether it’s because people are scared of the level of violence they’ve heard about, the general lack of fancy hotels, or limited infrastructure – who knows? But it’s precisely because of some of these reasons that certain travellers do dare to experience the adventure, energy, and authenticity of the region.
I started my overland travel through Central America (from Guatemala to Panama, by chicken bus, coach, coaster, van, and boat) in June last year and have settled in Panama for now. The trip was at times really challenging, but overall, full of excitement, and truly rewarding. So if you’re thinking of experiencing similar awesomeness, I’ve put together some handy tips to get you help you survive overland travel through Central America.
This is top of the list for a reason: you’ll need to pack plenty of it! Chances are because you’re overlanding, you’re not particularly time pressed (good!). The concept of time in Central America is quite different to perhaps what you’re used to; things move very slowly. Transport fairly regularly breaks down, either before you start going (which isn’t particularly comforting ahead of a long trip), or during your journey (which can make for some lengthy road side waits, until the problem is fixed, using whatever the driver can find! Or until the next bus comes along). Many drivers in Central America make their money from the number of passengers they have on board (rather than for the hours they work), so you can expect frequent stops as they pick up anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Check, check and re-check! The amount of times I found schedules that were out-of-date, inaccurate, or just plain wrong, was crazy. So make sure you do lots of checks for accurate departure times (as accurate as they can be anyway). Ask several different people (including other travellers, as well as locals), check the internet, check the physical timetable, ask the ticket seller, ask the driver (he may just leave whenever he feels like it anyway, and often they’ll wait until they have a full load of passengers before leaving). Remember that schedules change regularly, so don’t rely on anything too heavily, and don’t have too many tight connections between transportation.
Food And Drinks
Always make sure you have some kind of snack item and a bottle of water. When overlanding through Central America, you never know when the next stop will be, or even if there’ll be food there you want to ingest (sometimes the places you stop at are super dodgy!). There might be vendors getting on and off the bus regularly, there might not. If you do see vendors, make sure you try the food! It’s cheap and often tastes great (sometimes not, but that’s half the fun!). You’ll probably see a range of empanada looking items, cassava chips, banana chips, of course rice and chicken, or rice and beans, noodles, and the trusty old sandwich.
If you’ve been lucky enough to get air-conditioned transport, be prepared for the air-conditioning to be WAY too cold (and you needing 50 sweaters), or for it not to be working at all (and you being bitterly disappointed, and sweating like there’s no tomorrow). Most clothes you can buy in Central America are cheap, and comfortable, just right for the climate and travelling, so don’t bring too many with you. There are also tailors pretty much everywhere if you need any clothes repaired, and they are super cheap.
There’s a different currency in every country in Central America, but US dollars are fairly universally accepted for exchange. So I recommend carrying at least a small amount of US dollars with you throughout your trip. You can actually get decent exchange rates at borders (despite what you might read), just make sure you find out roughly what the rate is before you get to the border. Of course there’ll always be someone trying to rip unsuspecting tourists off, but there are usually so many money changers, you can shop around (they seem to keep each other honest to a degree). A good tip when buying is to listen in to the locals’ conversations to find out how much things are, so you’re less likely to get ripped off.
Some of the seats on transport throughout Central America are less than comfortable (particularly if you’re taking chicken buses: souped up old American school buses), so take a small travel pillow along with you. These are handy because you can use them for sleeping, and when you’re not napping, for your butt too! Otherwise a sweater does the trick for both purposes too. Depending on the mode of transport, you might not even get a seat, and chances are you’ll be standing, squished up against people for a while. So learn to lean into the turns, have a firm footing, and hold on to whatever you can; the drivers often drive way too fast, and brake way too late.
Longer haul buses in Central America will often show terrible quality movies dubbed over (very badly) in Spanish, which you can sorta-kinda follow along. If you’re super lucky you’ll see something in English with Spanish subtitles. But don’t get too excited here, the movies usually stop and start frequently, and the sound is either barely audible, or so loud your ears are bleeding. If there’s no movie, you’ll be treated to the constant blaring of bachata, salsa, and merengue music (which all starts to sound the same by a few days in) from the speakers conveniently located everywhere, throughout the entire bus.
Depending on the transport you take (the cheaper you choose, the more this applies), make sure you have your bag within eyesight. Absolutely do not have any valuables easily accessible in your bag (at the top, or just a quick unzip away). I heard so many stories of travellers having their passports and money at the top of a bag, and someone taking the lot! I always carry an over the shoulder bag with most of the things I’m not keen to lose, and I always have a ‘throw down’ wallet (in my throw down I’ll put a small amount of money that I’m happy to hand over in lieu of my real wallet!). Another tip is to have a few stashes of cash hidden throughout your luggage, handbag and on you. So just in case you do get robbed, you’re not totally stuck. Finally, remember that border crossing areas often have a large number unsavoury characters who are more than willing to relieve you of some money or belongings.
Something to note: I did not get robbed my entire journey through Central America (about 6 months), so it’s more that I’m making a point to be aware of, not something for you to worry about constantly.
There aren’t a huge amount of English speakers across Central America, so I most definitely recommend learning at least the basics; it will make your trip that much easier. Take a pocket dictionary with you if you must, but don’t flash it around for everyone to see, as it’ll make you an instant target. You’ll learn a ton of Spanish on your trip anyway, as you’ll be fully immersed in the language.
An overland trip through Central America is most definitely something I would recommend. The Latin culture is truly unique, and for me, quite alluring. Hopefully this list will make your over land travel in Central America a little smoother, but remember to sit back, relax, and enjoy the slower pace, and be prepared for anything to happen – you’ll definitely have some great stories coming out the other side.
Have you got any tips for overland travel through Central America? Leave a comment below.