It's OK to bargain in markets and at street stalls, but educate yourself first by asking around to get an idea of the pricing of different items and the specific factors that contribute to the quality of what you're bargaining for.

Further Information

Brush up on your bargaining skills at Central America’s markets, particularly when shopping for souvenirs and craft goods. Most accommodations' prices are fixed, but for long-term stays (or during low season) it’s worth asking for a discount. Indoor shops (such as grocery stores) generally have fixed prices. You may need to negotiate a price with a taxi driver. If you always approach bargaining with patience and humor, you’ll often end up with a price agreeable to both you and the seller.

Dangers & Annoyances

  • Parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are plagued by high crime rates and gang activity. Visitors are rarely affected, but some have been victims of grab-and-run theft, assault, rape, carjacking and murder.
  • Capital cities tend to have the highest rates of crime.
  • Many sexual assaults occur on isolated beaches.
  • Avoid night buses (with the possible exception of Mexico and Panama), as highway robberies often happen at night.
  • Avoid drug use entirely.
  • Seek out updates from other travelers, tourist offices, police, guesthouse owners and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree (

Darién Province

Certain parts of Darién Province, on the Panama–Colombia border, are restricted. Travel requires special permission from Servicios Nacional de Fronteras (SeNaFront) in Panama City.


In April 2018 political clashes between anti-government supporters and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega led to violence and death. Consult your government's travel advisory service before considering travel.


Marijuana and cocaine are available in many places, but are illegal everywhere in the region and penalties are severe. Recent reforms to drug laws in Mexico stipulate that first-time offenders are not punished for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use, but that doesn't mean the cops won't shake you down for a bribe.

  • Avoid any conversation with someone who offers you drugs.
  • If you are in an area where drug trafficking is prevalent, ignore it and do not show any interest, since drugs are sometimes used to set up travelers for blackmail and bribery.
  • Legal concerns aside, purchasing recreational drugs supports groups that engage in human trafficking and child prostitution, and contributes to violence and political unrest throughout the region.

Government Travel Advice

The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.

  • Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (
  • Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (
  • Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany (
  • Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (
  • Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (
  • New Zealand Foreign Affairs & Trade (
  • UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (
  • US Department of State (

Natural Hazards

Central America is prone to a wide variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions. General information about natural-disaster preparedness is available from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (

Police & Military

Corruption is a serious problem among Latin American police, who are generally poorly paid and poorly supervised. In many countries, they are not reluctant to plant drugs on unsuspecting travelers or enforce minor regulations to the letter in the hope of extracting coimas (bribes).

  • If you are stopped by someone claiming to be a plainclothes policeman, never get into a vehicle with them. Don’t give them any documents or show them any money and don’t take them to your hotel. If the officer appears to be the real thing, insist on going to a police station on foot.
  • Military checkpoints are frequent in places such as Panama’s Darién Province, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and are there as a way to combat drug trafficking.
  • In police stations, English-speaking interpreters are a rarity. Some cities have a tourist police service that may be more helpful.


If you are stopped at a military checkpoint, you may be asked to state where you're going, where you're coming from and the reason for your trip. You may be asked to show your passport, immigration card or driving license. Sometimes the police may even ask to search your vehicle, whereas other times they will wave you through with a smile. If you're stopped, be polite, helpful and courteous at all times.

Robbery & Theft

Thefts do happen, particularly in larger cities and transit points such as bus stations. Most is of the pickpocket or grab-and-run variety. To protect yourself:

  • Be wary of offers of food, drinks, sweets or cigarettes from strangers on buses, trains or in bars, as they could be laced with sedatives.
  • Don't use a smartphone or laptop in public places, as it may attract the attention of thieves.
  • Keep most of your money in a safe place and only carry pocket change (or whatever you can afford to lose) for daily use.
  • Purses or bags can be slashed or grabbed. Use a cheap, nondescript bag for walking around cities.
  • Be wary of anyone pointing out a spilled substance (mustard, dog feces) on your clothes. It’s a classic pickpocketing ploy: one thief helps to clean the victims, the other robs them.
  • Avoid night buses.
  • It's worth splurging on taxis after dark, particularly in cities. Don’t wander alone down empty city streets or in isolated areas.
  • When possible, keep valuables sealed in a signed envelope in a hotel safe.
  • Keep doors and windows locked.
  • Don’t camp overnight on beaches or in the countryside unless you can be sure it’s safe.
  • Get local safety news from guesthouse owners, tourist offices and other travelers.
  • Don't resist a robbery. Many thieves are armed.

If you are the victim of a robbery, go to the police to report the theft and to get a police statement to present to your insurance company. Say ‘Quiero poner una acta de un robo’ (I want to report a robbery). You may have to write up the report yourself, then present it for an official stamp and signature.

Photocopies or photos of original passports, visas and air tickets and careful records of credit card numbers are invaluable during replacement procedures. Replacement passport applications are usually referred to the home country, so it helps to have someone back home with a copy of your passport details.

Swimming Safety

Hundreds of people drown each year at Central America’s beaches. Of these, the vast majority of fatalities are caused by riptides – strong currents that pull the swimmer out to sea. They can occur even in waist-deep water. The best advice: ask about conditions before entering the water. If it’s dangerous, don’t tempt the ocean.

Discount Cards

A member card from Hostelling International (HI; isn’t terribly useful in Central America, except in Mexico and Costa Rica, where some hostels offer minimal discounts to cardholders. Those going on to South America, however, may want to invest in the membership, as the card is more commonly accepted there.

Carriers of the International Student Identity Card (ISIC; can get very good discounts on travel insurance, as well as discounted air tickets.


Most countries in Central America use plug type A or B, the same as is used in the USA. In Belize you may come across type G plugs. Voltage varies between 110v and 220v.

Embassies & Consulates

As a visitor in a Central American country, it’s important to realize what your own country’s embassy can and can’t do. Generally speaking, your embassy will not help much if you’re even remotely at fault in a situation – remember that you are bound by the laws of the country you are in. Your embassy will not be sympathetic if you end up in jail after committing a crime locally, even if such actions are legal in your own country.

In an emergency, you may get some assistance in obtaining a new passport, contacting family members or contacting a lawyer.

Entry & Exit Formalities

Customs Regulations

All visitors leaving and entering a Central American country go through customs. Be prepared for bag checks at both airports and land borders. Most are just a quick gaze-and-poke, more of a formality than a search – but not always. Be polite to officials at all times.


Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date and has plenty of blank pages for stamp-happy officials. Always keep it with you while traveling between destinations.


Generally not required for under 90 days. Belize issues 30-day visas. The Centro America 4 (CA-4) agreement allows 90 days in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.

More Information

At present citizens of the USA, EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other nations can arrive in all Central American countries (including Mexico) without arranging a visa beforehand. Check ahead from your country before planning your trip, as this may change.

Many countries charge an entry or tourist fee upon arrival – from US$5 to US$20.

Note that, if you need a visa for a certain country and arrive at a land border without one, you will probably have to return to the nearest town that has a consulate and obtain a visa. Airlines will not normally let you board a plane to a country for which you don’t have the necessary visa. Also, a visa in itself may not guarantee entry: in rare cases, you may still be turned back at the border if you don’t have sufficient funds for your visit or an onward or return ticket.

Sufficient Funds & Onward Tickets

Having your passport checked is a routine procedure upon arrival in a country, but some officials may ask about your financial resources, either verbally or on the application form. If you lack ‘sufficient funds’ for your proposed visit, officials may limit the length of your stay. (US$500 per month for your planned stay is generally considered sufficient; traveler’s checks, and sometimes a credit card, should qualify toward the total amount.)

Several Central American countries require you to have an onward ticket leaving the country.

Visa Extensions

Once you are inside a country, you can always apply for a visa extension at the country’s immigration office (migración). There's usually a limit to how many extensions you can receive; if you leave the country and reenter, your time starts over again.

Feature: Viva El CA-4!

Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua’s ‘CA-4 Border Control’ agreement allows free travel for up to 90 days within this sub-region for citizens of the four countries and many foreign nationals (including residents of the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia).

On paper, at least, you should only have to pay a tourist fee once to enter these four countries. Yet border patrols may also charge you a few dollars for ‘paperwork’; if they insist, you won't have much alternative but to pay.


  • Asking for help Say disculpe to get someone's attention; perdón to apologize.
  • Personal space Be aware that Central Americans often have fewer boundaries about personal space than is customary in Western countries.
  • Visiting indigenous communities Ask permission to take photos, particularly of children, and dress more modestly than beachwear. Bargaining may be appropriate for buying crafts, but not for lodging and food. The best gifts for children are those that are useful (pens, paper, notebooks, creative games or books).
  • Surfing Novice surfers should be aware of 'dropping in' on more experienced surfers, and of swimmers crossing their path.

LGBT Travelers

Central America can be an unwelcoming place for LGBTIQ+ travelers, but there are some bright spots. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Mexico in 2009 and in Costa Rica in 2013. The current president of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, has been unusually vocal in his support for gay rights.

Advocacy groups in other Central American countries are eager to follow suit. Consensual gay sex has also been decriminalized all around the region. That said, official and unofficial harassment is possible anywhere in Central America. In general, public displays of affection will not be tolerated and gay men (and possibly women) could find themselves the target of verbal or physical abuse. Discretion is definitely the rule in Central America, especially in the countryside. Lesbians are generally less maligned than gay men, so women traveling together should encounter few, if any, problems.

LGBT Venues

There is usually at least one gay bar in big cities. The following are some of the more public gay and lesbian scenes:

Costa Rica There are thriving scenes in San José and Manuel Antonio.

El Salvador The charming mountain town of San Vicente is a popular gay destination.

Guatemala Travelers will find a small and subdued gay scene in both Antigua and Guatemala City.

Mexico The biggest and best gay scene in the region is at the bars and clubs in Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

Nicaragua Travelers will find a few gay-specific bars in Managua.

Panama Bars come and go, but the gay scene in Panama City is surprisingly limited. The normally discreet population is more open during Carnaval festivities, which usually feature a gay float in the parade.


A travel insurance policy covering theft, loss, accidents and illness is highly recommended. Some policies compensate travelers for misrouted or lost luggage. Also check that the coverage includes worst-case scenarios: ambulances, evacuations or an emergency flight home. Some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities,’ which can include scuba diving, motorcycling or even trekking. Be sure to read the small print.

There is a wide variety of policies available. Policies handled by student-travel organizations usually offer good value. If a policy offers lower and higher medical-expense options, the low-expenses policy should be OK for Central America – medical costs are not nearly as high here as elsewhere.

If you are robbed and need to make a claim, you must report the loss or theft to local police within 24 hours. Make a list of stolen items and their value. At the police station, you need to complete a denuncia (statement), a copy of which is given to you for your insurance claim.

Worldwide travel insurance is available at You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Checking insurance quotes…

Internet Access

Internet access is widely available. Wi-fi is available at all but the most basic accommodations, as well as at some cafes and restaurants. Many hostels also have computers for guest use.

Internet cafes are less prevalent than they used to be; rates range from US$0.50 per hour in cities and touristy destinations to US$6 in remote areas.

Either Alt + 64 or Alt-G + 2 is the command to get the @ symbol on Spanish-language keyboards.


The best map of the region is the fold-up color 1:1,100,000 Central America Travel Reference Map (US$13), produced by International Travel Maps & Books ( in Canada.

ITMB also publishes separate maps covering each of the Central American countries and various regions of Mexico, as well as several maps of South America.


ATMs are widespread, except for in remote areas. Credit cards are accepted by midrange and high-end hotels, restaurants and tour operators. Bargaining is OK for informal transactions.


  • Bring an ATM (or debit) card. ATMs are available in most cities and large towns and are almost always the most convenient, reliable, secure and economical way of getting cash. Many ATMs are connected to the MasterCard/Cirrus or Visa/Plus networks.
  • The exchange rate from ATMs is usually as good as (if not better than) that at any bank or legal money changer.
  • Notify your bank of your travel plans so international transactions are not rejected.

Black Market

The mercado negro (black market) – also known as mercado paralelo (parallel market) – is generally limited to money changers at borders, who may or may not be legal. They are known to slip in torn bills or to short-change on occasion, though they accept local currencies that banks elsewhere sometimes don’t take. Such unofficial exchange rates for the US dollar can be lower than official bank rates.


It’s a good idea to always have a small amount of US dollars handy – enough to get a room, a meal and a taxi, at least – because they can be exchanged or even spent practically anywhere. It’s particularly useful when crossing the border or when an ATM isn’t available. Central American currencies don’t always fly in the next country; plan ahead before you head to remote areas and take more than enough cash.

Getting change for bigger notes in local currency is a daily concern. Notes worth even US$20 can sometimes be difficult to change.

Costs & Prices

  • Costs vary by country, with the cheapest being Guatemala and the most expensive Mexico and Belize.
  • The US dollar is the official currency in El Salvador and Panama, and is widely accepted in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Credit Cards

  • American Express, Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted credit cards in Central America.
  • Some card companies charge a fee (from 2% to 10%) for international transactions.
  • Some banks issue cash advances on major credit cards.
  • Although credit cards are widely accepted, it is not always economical to use them. In Costa Rica, for example, many hotels offer a discount for cash payment.

Exchange Rates


Euro Zone€1BZ$2.20
New ZealandNZ$1BZ$1.30

For current exchange rates, see

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua & Panama

US dollars are the official currency of El Salvador and Panama, and are widely accepted in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where many lodgings and activities list their prices in dollars.

Euro Zone€1US$1.16
New ZealandNZ$1US$0.66

For current exchange rates, see


Euro Zone€1Q9.03
New ZealandNZ$1Q5.13

For current exchange rates, see


Euro Zone€1L28.18
New ZealandNZ$1L16.02

For current exchange rates, see


Euro Zone€1M$21.88
New ZealandNZ$1M$12.43

For current exchange rates, see

Exchanging Money

If you insist on still using traveler’s checks, or you've got foreign cash to convert, you can handle this at a bank or a casa de cambio (currency exchange office). Rates between the two are usually similar, but in general casas de cambio are quicker, less bureaucratic and open longer or on weekends. Street money changers, who may or may not be legal, will handle only cash.

Sometimes you can also change money unofficially at hotels or in shops that sell imported goods (electronics dealers are an obvious choice). Compare exchange rates and commission fees first; big cities tend to offer better rates.

Don’t accept even slightly torn notes, as most locals won’t when you try to use them.


  • Restaurants Tip 10% (but check first to see if it's included in the bill).
  • Taxis Tipping is optional but you can round up to leave extra, especially at night.
  • Guides Tip US$1 to US$2 per person for day tours, with more substantial tips for specialized guides.

Traveler’s Checks

Traveler's checks are not nearly as convenient as ATM cards and you may have difficulty cashing them – even at banks.

In some countries, such as Honduras, traveler’s checks are nearly impossible to cash and banks and casas de cambio charge high commissions.


International postal rates can be quite expensive. Generally, important mail and parcels should be sent by registered or certified service; otherwise they may go missing. Sending parcels can be awkward, as often a customs officer must inspect the contents before a postal clerk can accept them, so don't seal them until the packages have been inspected. The place for posting parcels overseas is sometimes different from the main post office.

UPS, FedEx, DHL and other shipping and private courier services are available in some countries, providing an efficient but expensive alternative.

Public Holidays

  • New Year's Day January 1 (region-wide)
  • Martyrs’ Day January 9 (Panama)
  • Baron Bliss Day March 9 (Belize)
  • Good Friday March or April (region-wide)
  • Holy Saturday March or April (region-wide)
  • Easter Monday March or April (region-wide)
  • Juan Santamaría Day April 11 (Costa Rica)
  • Day of the Americas April 14 (Honduras)
  • Labor Day May 1 (region-wide)
  • Sovereign's Day May 24 (Belize)
  • Mothers' Day May 30 (Nicaragua)
  • Army Day June 30 (Guatemala)
  • Feast of San Salvador August 6 (El Salvador)
  • Mothers' Day August 15 (Costa Rica)
  • Assumption Day August 15 (Guatemala)
  • Founding of Old Panama August 15 (Panama City only)
  • National Day September 10 (Belize)
  • Battle of San Jacinto September 14 (Nicaragua)
  • Independence Day September 15 (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua)
  • Independence Day September 21 (Belize)
  • Francisco Morazán Day October 3 (Honduras)
  • Columbus Day October 12 (Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras)
  • Revolution Day (Día de la Revolución) October 20 (Guatemala)
  • Army Day October 21 (Honduras)
  • All Souls Day November 2 (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua)
  • Independence Day November 3 (Panama)
  • First Call for Independence November 10 (Panama)
  • Garifuna Settlement Day November 19 (Belize)
  • Independence from Spain November 28 (Panama)
  • Immaculate Conception December 8 (Nicaragua)
  • Mothers’ Day December 8 (Panama)
  • Christmas Day December 25 (region-wide)


Smoking regulations vary widely from country to country. In Belize and Nicaragua, there are few restrictions, and smoking in bars and restaurants is generally permitted. In Costa Rica and Panama, it is banned in enclosed spaces, as well as outdoor public places. The other countries' laws are somewhere in between, but generally ban smoking in enclosed public areas.


Internet cafes with net-to-phone (VOIP) service provide the cheapest way to make international calls, with rates varying between US$0.10 and US$0.50 per minute to the USA and Europe.

From traditional landlines, the most economical way of calling abroad is using phone cards purchased at kiosks or corner stores. You can also try direct-dial lines, accessed via special numbers and billed to an account at home. It is sometimes cheaper to make a collect or credit-card call to Europe or North America than to pay for the call where you are.

Many towns and cities have a telephone office with phone booths for local and international calls. Rates can be high. Avoid credit-card phones in Mexico and the black ‘press button’ phones in Guatemala, which charge extortionate rates.

Mobile Phones

Cell phones are widely used. You can purchase a local cell phone in a kiosk for as little as US$20, or a prepaid SIM card for around US$5 (the cell phone you use it with must be GSM-compatible and SIM-unlocked).

Country Codes

All of the Central American countries use the standard 00 as international access code. Country codes are as follows:

  • Panama +507
  • Costa Rica +506
  • Nicaragua +505
  • El Salvador +503
  • Guatemala +502
  • Honduras +504
  • Belize +501
  • Mexico +52


Central Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus six hours)


The toilets of Central America are fine; it’s just the plumbing that has issues. Nowhere in the region should you deposit toilet paper or anything else in the toilet unless a sign specifies that it’s OK to do so. Wastebaskets are generally provided.

Some public toilets have attendants who charge a small fee (US$0.10 or so) and provide paper. It’s a good idea to keep a spare roll of toilet paper handy while traveling.

Tourist Information

Travelers will find a tourist office in the capital city of each country; some countries have them in outlying towns as well. If you’re a student, look for student travel agencies in the capital cities of Costa Rica and Panama and in Cancún, Mexico.

Check, which has standard tourist-board coverage of all countries.

Travel with Children

Central America is a safe and exciting destination for families with children. Beaches on two coastlines, wildlife-rich forests and endless opportunities for adventure are guaranteed to thrill kids of all ages.

  • At the time of writing, pregnant women (and women who are trying to get pregnant) are advised against traveling to Central America, due to the Zika virus.
  • Be sure children are up to date on all routine immunizations. Some recommended vaccines may not be approved for children, so be careful they do not drink tap water or consume any questionable food.
  • For more ideas about family travel, see Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.


  • Do not expect all the amenities that are available at home, as you're unlikely to find conveniences such as high chairs in restaurants, cribs at hotels, or changing tables in public toilets.
  • Many car rental agencies offer child seats (for a fee), but they must be reserved in advance and quality is not guaranteed.
  • Formula, diapers (nappies) and other baby necessities are widely available in grocery stores.
  • Discreet public breastfeeding is common, though less so in urban areas.

Accessible Travel

Central America generally isn’t well equipped for those with disabilities: services such as specially equipped phones, toilets or anything in braille are rare to the point of nonexistence. Expensive international hotels are more likely to cater to guests with disabilities than cheap hotels; air travel or pre-arranged transportation will be more feasible than most local buses; and off-the-beaten-track destinations will be less accessible than well-developed ones.

Belize and Costa Rica are better equipped for travelers with mobility issues than other Central American countries (due in part to the many elderly travelers who arrive on cruise ships). In both countries, it's possible to find hotels and attractions that can accommodate wheelchairs, especially in the most popular tourist spots. Some of Costa Rica's national parks are also wheelchair-accessible, including Parque Nacional Volcán Poás and Parque Nacional Carara.

Accessible Travel Online Resources

Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from


Voluntourism allows travelers to learn more about a place they visit and – ideally – 'give back' to the host community.

Some international organizations make arrangements for volunteers, which can be an expensive endeavor. You can also find local volunteer opportunities once in the country (although advance arrangements are still recommended). Be aware that most volunteer opportunities require a minimum time commitment; volunteers also usually pay a fixed fee to cover room and board.

On offer are programs to teach English, pick up trash, work on farms, construct homes, maintain trails, monitor turtle-nesting beaches, care for rescue animals and assist at medical clinics. Volunteer opportunities are often in isolated locations, and may involve long hours and grueling work. But the work can also be tremendously rewarding.

Lonely Planet strongly encourages those considering volunteering to do research and make informed, responsible choices.

International Organizations

Some of these international organizations offer the chance to get college credit or take Spanish classes as a part of the volunteer opportunity.

Lonely Planet does not vouch for these organizations and strongly recommends travelers always investigate a volunteer opportunity themselves to assess the standards and suitability of the project.

Amigos de las Américas ( Youth-oriented summer programs range from working in a national park to helping with community development in Costa Rica and Panama.

Habitat for Humanity ( Help with home construction, clean air and water projects or community development.

Idealist ( A forum for advertising volunteering opportunities, internships and jobs around the world.

International Volunteer Programs Association ( Does not run its own programs, but partners with other associations to recruit volunteers and ensure a rewarding experience.

ResponsibleTravel ( UK-based, ecofriendly tour operator with many volunteer trips.

STA Travel ( A worldwide student-travel agent that offers trips with a volunteering element.

Transitions Abroad ( Has numerous volunteer links; look on its website under Central America.

Women Travellers

Women traveling solo through Central America typically find that popular perceptions overestimate the dangers they face. The biggest adjustment is getting used to the vocal male population, many of whom hoot, hiss and whistle. Ignore this behavior and most of the time you will be simply left alone.

Of course, women should take all the normal precautions they would in any new territory or big city. Dress according to local norms to avoid unwanted attention (often this means avoiding shorts). Talk to locals to find out which areas may be dangerous. Certain bars and soccer games tend to be testosterone-fueled territory where a woman's presence will invite attention.

Locals, particularly families, will often go out of their way to help a single female traveler. Keep in mind, though, that it’s more typical for Latin American women to socialize with other women, and women in Central America’s more conservative societies rarely have male friends – so befriending someone’s husband can attract resentment. Socializing with men here in general is a little unusual – it’s probable that they will think you want more than friendship.

In the case of sexual assault, contact your embassy and see a doctor.


According to law you must have a permit to work in Central America. In practice, people may get paid under the table or through some bureaucratic loophole, if they can find suitable work. Many travelers work short-term jobs (through the aforementioned loophole) for subsistence wages in restaurants, hostels or bars geared to international travelers. Before taking such a job, consider volunteering instead, as many of these jobs could just as well be performed by locals.

Teaching English is another option, though bear in mind that wages do not match international standards. Big cities offer the best possibilities for schools or private tutoring. Many schools will require Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) teaching certificates.

Some international organizations publish job opportunities.