How to survive backpacking in Central America

Getting around in Central America:
The best way to get around around Central America is to take buses. While, this is very cheap, you are able to visit many places and see lots; it does come with a few challenges – so brace yourself.

The main flaw is applicable to almost all buses – they are slow. While Central America is not particularly large in size and distances are not too far, transport takes longer than in other countries where train options and well constructed roads are available. Consequently, it is important to lose all hope of a bus being punctual. The slow pace of life reverberates through everything, waiting for food at restaurants, walking in the streets and yes, of course, buses. Just expect things to be relaxed, slow and late and you will have no surprises or disappointments. This said, chicken buses are manic, crazy and the drivers desperately try to cram as many people on as fast as possible to make the maximum amount of money. While they work quickly the bus will still at least an hour to get around.

This brings me onto my next point – choice of buses. Now this varies slightly between countries. However, the general idea is the same. There is always a public bus available which is cheaper than the private tourist shuttles.

In Mexico public buses are called collectivos and are in the form of shared taxis or small minivans. In Mexico the well known bus company for any long distance journey is called ADO – this is the best way to travel between states in Mexico. There are no private tourist shuttles unless you book prior to your trip – I was under not recommended this. Public ADO buses are super easy and as comfortable as a bus can be.

Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all have the same options. There are chicken buses (public transport) which is dirt cheap. You may not get a seat but it is great fun watching the locals commute, vendors hop on and sell you things and watch the scenery pass by out the window. Downfalls are, they are extremely hot, stuffy and sweaty, cramped with not much room and sometimes people play music to you to try and get money. However, you must take one at least a few times to get the local culture. It’s a good idea to sit near the front so the driver can tell you when to get off or ask the person next to you to point you in the right direction. Always ask, everyone wants to help. Personally, I lived on these chicken buses, talking to locals, watching families and friends chat and saving a tonne of money while enjoying the journey. Latin American music is normally blaring, the atmosphere is great and your Spanish improves.

However, towards the end of my trip I was tired of chicken buses so took taxi shuttles which were a luxury. They cost a lot more but relatively speaking they were still cheap compared to London taxis and even buses. You can spend between 10 and 30 US dollars for a private shuttle taxi from place to place. Whereas chicken buses cost 1 or 2 US dollars.

Then there are the tourist shuttle buses – like the taxis they are more expensive but still rather uncomfortable. The buses are usually old dilapidated and falling apart. However, the pro is you meet other tourists – if your in the mood to be sociable with gringos. They are also easier in the sense you don’t have to change buses. They take you from a to b.

Border crossing in Central America:

When crossing borders chose your transport option wisely. I have taken tourist shuttles across borders, which is easy as it is all organised for you. You pay your shuttle fare, get to the border hop off the bus, pay to cross then get back on the bus. The thing which annoys me with these is the shuttle companies do not always tell you that the bus fare does not include the taxes to get into the next country. So it ends up being relatively expensive. This said, it’s still cheaper or the same price as taking the national express in the UK.

There is also the option of taking Tica or Nica buses. These are local public transport coaches that cross the borders. Still not cheap but they are easy. Also the issue is you have to wait for all 50 passengers to get off and on to cross the border queue up and pay etc. It’s the same idea as the tourist buses just a bigger scale, more comfortable buses and less travelers.

My favourite option, is to take a taxi or public transport to the border on your own or with a friend. Get out walk to cross the border (which you have to do anyway if on an organised bus). Then once through get a bus from the other side to where ever you want to go. It is much cheaper, quicker and you can go at what ever time you want. Also I’m not sure if we were lucky but for some reason we avoided paying tax into Costa Rica this way. Normally it is the most expensive border to cross and we paid just a couple of dollars to leave Nicaragua, nothing to enter Costa Rica. Sometimes I think if you are in a big tourist group they rip you all off – making everyone pay. I honestly, think they make up the tax prices. Crossing to Mexico I just gave some pesos (less than I was told they would charge me). They accepted them and didn’t say a thing. Next my friend was asked to give more. It is luck I guess but if you calmly give over some cash with out asking how much you are meant to you might just get away with it.

Top tips for crossing borders in central America:

Bring US dollars – this is an absolute must. Always have cash with you, there are not always cash machines on the border. No money =no entry.

Change your currency – men with wads of money will come up to you saying change (cambio). The rate seems pretty fair on the borders. Its ideal to have no money left but if you need to change, here is the place to do it. Make sure not to hand money over when feeling rushed or in a crowded place. It is here when you don’t check or are confused that you may be conned. Watch carefully as they count your money and download a currency converter netter on your phone to double check.

Go early or late to the border – check what times they open and aim to get there very early or later in the day to avoid long queues. As I said before it is quicker going with a couple of friends as you do not have to wait while your bus load of people get out.

Be calm, careful and relaxed – it is easy to get stressed at borders meaning your prone to getting conned. Take it easy check that you actually do need to pay two people and do not rush. Question anything if it seems strange and copy what locals do. Pay people behind the desks not random others. If you cross alone and not with a company you will need to pay a small fee for the form to fill out to cross. This should be 25 cents and sold by someone with an official looking badge. There are many police and while scary looking they can point you in the right direction. People will try and sell you bus tickets, souvenirs and food. Do not say yes to the first one – check around first and look for public buses at the other side or the border once your done getting all your stamps.

-Getting into some countries you need to prove your will leave within three months. So make sure to have a screen shot of a flight you have home or something similar. This is the case getting into Costa Rica but did not apply to any of the other countries I visited. Of course you may be lucky and not asked to show the evidence – this happened to me getting into Costa Rica. Be prepared in case though.

While, this post may make traveling seem an arduous task please do not be put off.  Border crossing only happens when ever you choose it to. It is never as bad as you think it will be and there is always a story to tell at the end. As for the public transport – it is where I have made many friends, been emersed in local culture and more importantly it has taken me to where I have wanted to go.

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