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Air

All Central American countries have international airports. Other than flights from South America, most arriving flights go via US gateways (particularly Houston, Miami or New York’s JFK) or Mexico City.

Airports & Airlines

Tickets

Central America’s slender isthmus shape makes ‘open-jaw’ tickets – flying into one place (say Cancún or Guatemala City) and out from another (eg Panama City) – an attractive option, and the good news is that it’s often not much more expensive than a round-trip ticket. If you’re flexible on where you start and end, shop around: discount fares come and go.

You might think going to a hub city, such as San Salvador on Avianca, would save money, but sometimes it’s more expensive. The reason – in the confusing world of airline ticket pricing – is that airlines are trying to compete with more direct options. Again, shop around.

High-season rates (generally July and August, Christmas to New Year, and around Semana Santa) can be considerably more expensive.

Student travel agencies such as STA Travel (www.statravel.com) offer student discounts for those under 26.

If you’re flying from Europe or Australia, the chances are you can get a free stopover in a US gateway city such as Los Angeles or Miami.

Round-the-World Tickets

Round-the-world (RTW) tickets are an option, as all Central American countries (and Mexico) are served by the largest provider, Star Alliance.

Departure Tax

All seven Central American countries levy departure taxes on air passengers, ranging from US$29 to US$40, although they are usually included in the price of the ticket.

From South America

Avianca (Colombia; www.avianca.com) and Copa Airlines (Panama; www.copaair.com) connect Central American cities to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

If you’re planning to visit both Central America and South America on a trip, note that some airlines allow a free stopover in Central America. Panama City is often the cheapest link to and from South America, especially Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela (unsurprisingly, given their distance from Panama).

Note that many South American countries require onward air tickets upon arrival.

Feature: Onward-Ticket Requirements

If you’re planning on flying into one country and back from another, note that immigration officials may require proof of onward or continuing travel. The restriction mainly ensures that nonresidents don’t stay long-term without permission.

Showing ‘continuing travel’ to another country (say, a flight home) and explaining how you’ll get there is almost always enough. Most travelers are never asked. It’s still a good idea to ask the airlines, as they can be fined for bringing in a passenger without proper documentation. Also, it may be worth showing a print-out of a ‘bus reservation’ for leaving the country.

This requirement also may pop up at land borders. Crossing into Costa Rica, for instance, it’s sometimes necessary to purchase a bus ticket at the border leaving Costa Rica – even if you don’t plan to use it. For private cars entering, no onward ticket is required but proper documentation for the vehicle is needed.

Land

From Mexico

Bus

It’s possible to take a bus from the US or Canada into Mexico and directly into Central America. The three most convenient land borders between Mexico and Central America:

  • The Chetumal–Corozal (Belize) border in Quintana Roo (Yucatán Peninsula).
  • The Ciudad Cuauhtémoc–La Mesilla (Guatemala) border.
  • The Ciudad Hidalgo–Ciudad Tecún Umán (Guatemala) border in Chiapas state (about 38km south of Tapachula).

Car & Motorcycle

Most people driving to Central America do so from the US (or Canada). Buying a car in the region (including Mexico) is very complicated: you're better off bringing a car (with all the ownership papers) from North America.

Prior to departure, purchase liability insurance that is valid in Mexico, such as Oscar Padilla Mexican Insurance. Make sure you bring your documentation, as you'll have to show it at the border. Mandatory insurance is for sale at the border as you enter Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Insurance is not required in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

Drive the Americas (www.drivetheamericas.com) is an excellent resource, with trip planning tips, vehicle recommendations, vehicle sales, road-tripper profiles and active forums for asking and answering questions.

A few other pre-trip considerations:

  • You will need a valid driver’s license from your home country.
  • Unleaded gas (petrol) is now available throughout Central America.
  • Make sure that your car's shock absorbers and suspension are in good shape for the bumpy roads.
  • A spare fuel filter – and other spare parts – could be invaluable.
  • Check with a national tourist board or consulate for any changes to the rules on bringing a car into Mexico, or Central America, before showing up in your vehicle.

From South America

There are no road connections between South America and Central America (via Panama). Instability in the Panama–Colombia border region, plus the difficulty of travel, have essentially made the trip over the Darién Gap an impossibility. All visitors to the Darién must register with the police.

Sea

Unless you’re a yachtie or on a cruise ship, options for boat travel heading to/from the region are limited. The most popular route is taking a (shared) chartered sailboat between the Archipiélago de San Blas, Panama and Cartagena in Colombia (US$550 per person). The five-day trip usually includes a few days on the islands and two days’ transit to/from Colombia. There is also a shorter route to/from the border town of La Miel, Colombia and nearby Sapzurro, Colombia (US$400 per person). For more information about the journey, contact the following.

  • Blue Sailing This company keeps the schedule for more than a dozen boats that sail between Colombia and Panama. Look online to see photos of the boats, to learn about the captains and to book the trips.
  • Sail Colombia Panama Does sailing trips to Colombia out of Puerto Lindo, Portobelo and El Porvenir, with an option for a (pricier) private cabin.
  • Casa Viena A Cartagena hostel that helps with boat trips to Panama.
  • Sailing Koala A recommended sailing operation.
  • Mamallena Tours This tour company – based at the hostels of the same name in Panama City and Cartagena – organizes sailing trips between the two countries, via San Blas.

Note that cargo boats are a risky business; smuggling is common on the Colón–Cartagena cargo route.