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Air

All Central American countries have international airports. Other than flights from South America, nearly all 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, 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 if coming from the US or Europe, but a lack of flight connections between Australasia and Central America have all but taken Latin America off RTW ticket options from that part of the world.

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. If you're staying on the ground, you will still have to pay a land departure fee when leaving Belize (US$18.75) and Costa Rica (US$7).

From South America

Avianca (El Salvador; www.avianca.com) and Copa Airlines (Panama; www.copaair.com) airlines connect Central American cities to and from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The Chilean airline LAN (www.lan.com) also offers many connections between Central and South America.

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

Border Crossings

Border crossings in Central America are usually a straightforward, albeit stressful, affair. There are plenty of border posts, so crossing the border does not usually require going too far out of your way. Most crossings are by road (or bridge), but there are a few that involve boat travel.

International travelers are not a new sight to border guards. Remember that they will appreciate being treated with respect and being spoken to (at least a little) in Spanish.

See individual country content for specifics on each border crossing.

Feature: Tips for Border Crossings

Going from one of Central America’s seven countries (or Mexico) into another can be a frenetic, confusing experience. But with a little planning it’s usually a breeze (make that a slo-o-ow breeze). Some considerations:

  • Before you leave one country for another, read up on your destination’s entry requirements.
  • Don’t leave a country without getting your passport stamped at that country’s immigration office. Occasionally, agents are not vigilant so be on the lookout.
  • Crossings often require changing buses at the border, walking a few hundred meters across, or catching a colectivo (shared taxi or minibus taxi) to the nearest bus station. Not all of the borders are open 24 hours, but bus schedules tend to match opening hours.
  • Many travel agents offer organized trips across the border; many travelers prefer the ease of having someone there (a driver, for example) to help if things get sticky.
  • Money changers linger around nearly all borders; rates can be fair but some changers do try to shortchange; count carefully. If you’re carrying only local currency, try to change at least some before moving on, as it’s possible no one will accept it once you’re across the border.
  • Note that, technically, there’s a border agreement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua allowing travel up to 90 days in the four-country region – and you shouldn’t have to pay to cross into another country. In practice, there are usually some 'fees' at any border.

From Mexico

Bus

It’s possible to take a bus from the USA or Canada into Mexico and directly into Central America. The three most convenient land borders between Mexico and Central America are at the Chetumal–Corozal (Belize) border in Quintana Roo (Yucatán Peninsula); the Ciudad Cuauhtémoc–La Mesilla (Guatemala) border; and the Ciudad Hidalgo–Ciudad Tecún Umán (Guatemala) border in Chiapas state (about 38km to the south of Tapachula).

Another popular border crossing is by boat across the Río Usumacinta at the Frontera Corozal–Bethel (Guatemala) border, south of Palenque.

Car & Motorcycle

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

A drive through Central America will likely offer an amazing trip, but it's unlikely to save you money. In addition to fees, there's paperwork, tolls, parking concerns and other red tape. Border crossings are a particular hassle. You’ll also need to be prepared to stop for passport checks at military checkpoints. Also, highway robberies aren’t unknown, so avoid driving at night.

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, roadtripper 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–Columbia border region, plus the difficulty of travel, have essentially made the trip over the Darién Gap on foot 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 (per person US$550). 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 (per person US$400). For more information about this journey, contact the following.

  • Blue Sailing This company keeps the schedule for more than a dozen boats that sail between Columbia and Panama. Look online to see photos of the boats, to learn about the captains and to book the trips.
  • Captain Jack's Captain Jack's Hostel in Portobelo, Panama books trips on boats traveling out of Portobelo or Carti and El Porvenir.
  • 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.