Many flights connect the region, run by international carriers as well as the national airlines. Some smaller domestic airlines provide services too. Occasionally it will be necessary to change planes in the carrier’s hub city (eg a Managua–Panama City flight may change planes up north in San Salvador).
Cost is an obstacle. Despite relatively short distances, individual one-way and round-trip tickets within Central America (whether bought abroad or within the region) can be expensive.
- Flights can sometimes be overbooked; reconfirm your ticket before arriving at the airport.
- Airfares can vary wildly – depending on the length of stay, time of year and special promotions – so treat high-season fares as a rough gauge only in identifying potential routes.
- Note that San Salvador and San José are the most popular hubs. Occasionally a promotional return flight may be even cheaper than a one-way fare.
- Worthwhile domestic flights include Managua to Nicaragua's Corn Islands (about US$165 return), which saves a two-day bus/boat trip each way. Flights within Panama and Costa Rica can also be cheap.
Long-distance cycling in the region can be dangerous, as few drivers are accustomed to sharing narrow streets in cities, or often-shoulderless two-lane highways, with bicycles. That said, cycling is on an upswing, with mountain rides and coffee-plantation tours (including guide and bike) available all over Central America.
You can rent bicycles in several cities and traveler hangouts, such as San Cristóbal de Las Casas (Mexico), Flores (Guatemala), Granada (Nicaragua), La Fortuna (Costa Rica) and Panama City. There are many mountain-bike tours available (notably in cooler locales such as Guatemala’s highlands and San Cristóbal de Las Casas). Consider the seasons if you’re planning to cycle a lot. The dry season (roughly December to April) should spare you from getting soaked.
If you’re planning to cycle across borders, keep a document proving your ownership of the bike handy for immigration officials.
Check out El Pedalero (www.elpedalero.com) to read cyclist Gareth Collingwood's adventures and tips on cycling around Latin America.
Traveling by boat is a common way to get around the region, including several border crossings:
- Travelers between Palenque, Mexico, and Flores, Guatemala, cross the Río Usumacinta near Frontera Corozal, Mexico, and Bethel, Guatemala.
- There is a regular water taxi between Punta Gorda, Belize, and Puerto Barrios (and sometimes Lívingston), Guatemala.
- A newer weekly boat services make trips between Placencia, Belize, and Puerto Cortes, Honduras, and Belize City and Puerto Cortes (via Dangriga, Belize).
- There’s a river border crossing between San Carlos, Nicaragua, and Los Chiles, Costa Rica, though nowadays most folks use the new bridge at Las Tablillas.
Key domestic water journeys include the ride down the Río Dulce in Guatemala, or down the Río Escondidas to Bluefields, Nicaragua, and then out to the Corn Islands in the Caribbean.
Other Caribbean islands reached by boat include the Bay Islands in Honduras; Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye in Belize; and Cozumel and Isla Mujeres in Mexico. And of course, the Panama Canal is one of the world’s most important waterways, connecting the Caribbean and the Pacific.
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.
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 try to shortchange, so 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.
- You have to pay a land departure fee when leaving Belize (US$20) and Costa Rica (US$7).
- Note that, technically, there’s a border agreement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, allowing travel for 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.
Some of the most memorable moments of your trip will come from bus rides. Bus service is well developed throughout the region, though not always comfortable. While some buses are air-conditioned with reserved seats that may recline, many others are colorfully repainted former US school buses (aka 'chicken buses'), with a liberal policy toward lugging merchandise (though it's unlikely you'll have to share your seat with a chicken).
Avoid night buses throughout the region (with the possible exception of Mexico and Panama), as these have been popular targets for highway robbers.
First-class and some 2nd-class buses depart on scheduled times from a terminal de autobuses (long-distance bus station); others leave from parking-lot bus terminals once they are full (these stop to collect more passengers all along the way – so you’re likely to be able to get a lift from the highway if need be). Be aware that many cities have more than one bus station. Bus companies can have their own terminals as well. Departure frequency varies.
Luggage may be stored in a lower compartment or piled on the roof of the bus. Keep an eye on your luggage if you can, particularly on the easily accessible racks in a packed bus. Always keep your valuables tucked away on your person. Watch out for pickpockets on crowded buses and in bus stations.
In some places, travel agents run private shuttle services (mostly vans with air-con) to popular destinations. They’re more comfortable and more expensive than public buses.
Colectivos & Minibuses
Connecting hub towns with smaller ones on short-haul trips is an array of minibuses (called rapidito in Honduras, chiva in Panama, and colectivo in Costa Rica and Mexico). When available, these are cheaper than 1st-class buses and run frequently. The catch: they also make frequent stops and the driver rarely considers them full.
Remember that bus connections and border-crossing formalities can add extra time to the trip.
Copán Ruinas, Honduras
San José, Costa Rica
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico
San José, Costa Rica
San Salvador, El Salvador
Car & Motorcycle
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.
To drive in Central America, you must have a valid driver's license from your home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is issued by automobile associations worldwide.
Be prepared for police checkpoints – always stop and have your papers handy.
Hire & Fuel
Central America is relatively easy to explore by private vehicle. This option would be more popular if it weren’t for the cost (rental, insurance and fuel). Rentals range from about US$15 per day in Nicaragua to US$55 per day in Belize, but 4WD vehicles are more expensive (generally US$30 to US$80). If your goal in renting a car is to reach some otherwise unreachable areas (such as isolated beaches south of Tulum in Mexico and around Costa Rica’s Península de Nicoya), it's worth paying for a 4WD: paved roads only go so far.
- At the time of research, the price of gas ranged from about US$0.87 (in Panama) to US$2.99 (in Belize) per liter.
- In many cases it’s cheaper to arrange (even same-day) rentals with major car-rental agencies on their websites.
- To rent a car, you’ll need a passport and a driver’s license.
- Some agencies rent to those 21 and over; others to only those 25 and over.
- All of Central America drives on the right-hand side of the road.
- Rented cars are usually not allowed to leave the country – though Budget, for example, allows travel from Guatemala to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, with some restrictions.
- Scooters and bigger motorcycles are available in some places, the latter usually costing about the same price as a compact car.
Mandatory insurance is a huge add-on to the cost of car rental in most Central American countries, and your insurance policy back home is not accepted here. The (usually) mandatory Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) can double your daily rate, while many companies will give a hard sell for more expensive comprehensive insurance. If your credit card provides insurance on car rentals, be sure to bring the documentation to prove it; in most cases, you'll still have to pay for the CDW.
Hitchhiking (tomando un jalón – literally ‘taking a hitch’) is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and Lonely Planet does not recommend it. However, it is common in parts of Central America. Travelers who hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. If you do get a ride, it is polite to offer to pay gas money, even though the driver may turn it down.
The only worthwhile train trip in the region is a very scenic, glass-domed luxury ride from Panama City to Colón, Panama, alongside the Panama Canal. Costa Rica has a commuter train in the Central Valley, but it's mostly utilized by locals.