Tips For Overland Travel Through Central America

Last updated on: 13 Comments

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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.

A Mayan ruin in Tikal, Guatemala. Overland travel through Central America.
A Mayan ruin in Tikal, Guatemala.

Patience

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.

Leon, Nicaragua. Overland travel through Central America.
Leon, Nicaragua

Transport Schedules

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 The amount of times I found schedules that were out-of-date, inaccurate, or just plain wrong, was crazy.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.

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala. Overland travel through Central America.
Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Clothes

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.

Money

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.

Comforts

Chicken bus in Central America. Overland travel through Central America.
Chicken bus in Central America

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.

Entertainment

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.

Casco Viejo Panama. Overland travel through Central America.
Casco Viejo Panama

Safety

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.

Spanish

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.

A church in Granada, Nicaragua. Overland travel through Central America.
A church in Granada, Nicaragua.

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.

Back of a chicken bus. Overland travel through Central America.
Back of a chicken bus.

About the author

Penny de Vine

Penny de Vine is an Australian travel addict, currently living in Panama, who is 1.5 years into a 1 year trip. Since the age of 17, she’s travelled to almost 20 countries across the globe, independently and mostly solo. Penny is the creator and author of Travelling Penster , a website featuring humorous stories, useful tips, and amazing pics from her travels. Check out her website, and follow her on Twitter, and Facebook.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Marco A.Aguirre

    More of a question,travelling on the cheap and being rather adventurous,I plan to travel by land from Tapachula to Panama,continuing into Colombia,via Bahia Solano,how much money would I need for a two week trip,roughly?

    Jeff

    Actually a question rather than a comment: I am planning to travel through Central America over land early next year. I’ve read on the State Department website that in countries like Belize and Costa Rica, you need proof of continuation/return home before they allow you to enter the country. How does this tend to work? Is this strictly enforced at the borders?

    I’m hoping to not have all my travel dates finalized, and rather buy tickets as I go trekking through Central America. Would love any insight you might have – thanks!

      Alesha And Jarryd

      Hi Jeff. We were never asked for onward transport when we crossed the border into Belize, but we never made it to Costa Rica. However with the amount of people overlanding through Central America every day, I doubt this is enforced 🙂

      Eden Pop

      Hey. I am a Belizean and I don’t believe that is true about Belize. As long as you are a tourist no problem especially if you are just going thru. I believe you can stay in the country for a month and after a month you will need a visitor’s visa and can renew every month like for US$15.00. Belize has very pretty places to visit. Crime is high but as long as you don’t go in secluded area alone or flash around money or expensive things then you will be ok. Stay with the main crowd… Enjoy the trip

    Rosalind

    Wow – thanks for the insight. We are retiring in March 2017, packing up the Prius and leaving San Antonio, TX to travel through Mexico and all countries to Panama and then on to Ecuador etc.

    The plan is to spend as much time as we feel the need for, in wherever we decide to stop, until the right place finds us and persuades us to stay even longer 🙂

    Lots of research has been going into starting this nomadic retirement lifestyle and we are still soaking up the tips from wherever we can find them. I learned a lot of street savvy tricks in South Africa during 26 years there but your trick about keeping a throw down wallet is one of the best that I have heard of – never even thought about that one – thank you !

      Alesha And Jarryd

      Hi Rosalind, Your plan sounds amazing. We wish you all the best. It will be incredible. What a way to retire. Travel safe and travel slow. 🙂

    mariana

    hi! i was just curious.. in what part of Panama are you living in? i live in panama too! (in paitilla, just in case you were wondering) I’m glad you like panama!!

    Penny @ Travelling Penster

    Yes, great tip! You seem to feel every little bump at the back, and it makes for a sore backside! Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for reading 🙂

    alley bates

    great article Penny! my comment for overland travel that i learned….never sit at the back of a chicken bus. it can make for a bumpy ride and long ride.

    Penny @ Travelling Penster

    Haha, yes! If you do manage to make it here, you will have some awesome stories to go home with. I really love this part of the world, it’s among my favorites. Glad you liked the article, thanks for reading 🙂

    Dale

    Thanks for sharing, Penny. Thought we’ve yet to make it to Central America, we have of course heard some pretty fantastic stories about both ends of the travel spectrum, from stories of kind people met, and the opposite – crazy, crazy trips on buses from a different decade.

    As you’ve shown, it’s just too unique an experience and too beautiful a region of the world to miss.

      Carolina

      How was it during rainy season? I am planning to start in June too? Thank youuu

      Carolina

        Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

        During the wet season isn’t too bad. We found that it would mostly be nice during the morning, with heavy rain in the afternoons. Of course if tropical storms roll through, things can get quite dangerous though. On a few occasions we had to stay in certain places due to road closures from landslides. But still, it is a region not to be missed!

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