North America : Central America
Central America is the thin section of land that links the North American continent with the South American continent. Geographically part of North America, it is made up of seven small, mostly tropical countries that have more in common with South America than the more affluent north. Mexico is occasionally considered part of Central America due to the language and Mayan/Spanish cultural heritage it shares with several of the countries in the region.
Until the 1990s, the region, (apart from peaceful Honduras, Belize and Costa Rica), was subject to brutal repression (Guatemala), civil wars (El Salvador and Nicaragua), and proxy wars between opposite parties supported either by the US or the Soviet Union.
This dark political and social situation changed with the end of the Cold War and after the signing of peace agreements at the beginning of the 1990s. Now the region is living a process of change and reforms that will hopefully allow travelers to discover an interesting and relatively cheap travel destination. Generally, the people of Central America are kind and warm, and welcoming to foreigners. There is a diversity of culture from one end of Central America to the other, and indigenous culture plays an important role in the region, especially in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Due to the extensive Spanish colonial presence in the region, American dialects of Spanish are the primary language, especially of the government and in the cities. (Belize, a former UK colony, is the officially-English-speaking exception.) Native languages are still spoken in many rural areas. However, English is co-official in Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, along with indigenous languages. English speaking people can be found on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Regular cheap flights are available from the United States to Central Americas airports. Very regular buses run from Chetumal in Mexico to the town of Corozal in Belize, a journey lasting one hour and costing around $4 US. You may have to pay an exit tax, or a fee to validate your Mexican visa for multiple entries when you leave Mexico, and there is also an exit tax when you leave Belize.Juan Santamaría airport in Costa Rica also gets flights, from Europe (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid; US (Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York City, Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, Orlando, etc). Agusto C. Sandino International Airport in Nicaragua and Comalapa Airport in El Salvador also have many destinations.
Because flights directly to Central America are very expensive it is often cheaper to fly via the US. For example a flight Sydney->Mexico City costs about $2500. If you fly with Jetstar  to Hawaii, then with Hawaiian Airlines  to LA and afterwards by bus (or plane) to Mexico City it will cost less than $1000.
It is actually much easier to bus from the United States to Central America than most imagine. It is a distance of about 1000 miles from the US border at Brownsville to the Guatemalan/Mexican border. The trip can be done in one full day (strongly not recommended), instead the wise traveller would take his time and enjoy the many interesting sites along the way such as Real de Catorce, Veracruz, Xalapa, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque etc. Bus fare from Brownsville to the Guate border runs about $130USD currently (Jan 08).
The international travel route leads mostly on the Pacific (west) side of central america. It basically starts south in Panama City, crosses on the Pacific site into Costa Rica, passes by San Jose, crosses again at the Pacific coast into Nicaragua. It is possible to cross the Costa Rican / Panaman border at the Caribbean coast but it takes longer and the border is just open during the day. Between Costa Rica and Nicaragua are two official borders. The more frequented one is "Penas Blancas" at the Pacific side and the other one is between Los Chiles and San Carlos, Nicaragua.
- Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. One of the most beautiful spots on the planet. A volcanic lake with three volcanoes around it.
- Colonial Towns, such as Antigua Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, (Guatemala); Juayua, Suchitoto in El Salvador, Gracias and Comayagua (Honduras), León and Granada in Nicaragua (the oldest colonial city in the Western Hemisphere) or Panama City -Casco Viejo- (Panama, where the Panama Canal can be visited as well).
- Ancient Mayan ruins in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
- Amazing beaches in Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Limón (Costa Rica); Montelimar, San Juan del Sur, Bahia Majagual, La Flor and Pochomil (Nicaragua); Bocas del Toro and El Farallón (Panama).
- Surf, especially in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.
- National Natural Parks, especially in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua which has the 2nd largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, after Brazil.
- Volcanoes in Guatemala such as those framing the southern shores of Lake Atitlán considered by some to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
All these make this region a great yet undiscovered and affordable treasure which is worth visiting.
Guatemala is the country of tamales, there are regular tamales made out of corn "masa" with either meat, chicken, turkey or pork filling and tomato, and sometimes "chile". "Black tamales" are similar to the former ones but are sweet, "paches" are tamales made out of potatos, "tamales de cambray" are small sweet "masa" balls", tamales de "chipilin", and many others; rellenitos (sweet fried bean-stuffed banana bonbons) are a tasty dessert sold on streetcorners. Black beans are the main staple after corn of course. There is a variety of soups ("caldos"). Guatemalan cuisine is a mixture of Mayan and Spanish dishes.
Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro or onion thrown in, it is the national dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica This mixture is called Casamiento ("marriage")in El Salvador and Guatemala. And on the north coast of Honduras, casamiento is made with coconut milk.
Pupusas and "chicharron con yuca" (porskin & yucca) are very popular dishes originated in El Salvador.
Nacatamales, which are big tamales containing pork, potato, rice, chile, tomato, and masa is steamed in platano leaves, they originate from Nicaragua and can be bought in the colonial city of Granada.
Oven tamales, wraped with platano leaves, are very good in Costa Rica.
Grilled octopus is a very tasty dish in Panama.
Horchata is a drink made out of rice and it is of Spanish origin. It is drunk in most Latin American countries. A popular drink in most central american countries is "Rosa de Jamaica" (Hibiscus sabdariffa. "Tamarindo" also makes a very popular drink
Piña Colada, a drink made from pineapple juice, coconut cream, crushed ice and rum, is drunk all around the Atlantic islands.
There are two major rum producers in Guatemala, distilling some of the best rums of the region, Ron Zacapa Centenario (aged to 12 and 23 years) and Ron Botran añejo (25 years) Flor de Caña, rated one of the best rums in Latin America. It is made in Chinandega, Nicaragua. Trips can also be made to visit the Flor de Caña factory.
Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica are generally safer than Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Belize. Some areas of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala suffer from the maras (street gangs), they also have the highest crime rates in the region. Like in Mexico, sadly the police are often not seen as reliable or trustworthy. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last year that Guatemala had the highest murder rate in all of Latin America, with 70.0 homicides per 100,000 population. In comparison, the murder rate in the U.S.A. is 5.6 homicides per 100,000 population. Night-time travel is dangerous anywhere in Central America, especially in national capitals. Illegal drugs are common in the region, stay clear!
- Toilets are not always as readily available as what you may be used to in your own country, so take advantage of places where they are such as museums and restaurants. In many cases toilet paper will not be provided so it is best not to be caught short and carry your own. Water to wash hands is not always available so carrying antiseptic hand gel is a good idea. Trash cans are provided in all toilets for the disposal of toilet paper because the sewage systems in Central America cannot cope with it.
This page was last edited at 17:47, on 27 March 2009 by Ryan Holliday. Based on work by Peter Fitzgerald and Fabian Kern, Wikitravel user(s) Duende, Globe-trotter, Episteme, Ypsilon, Cacahuate, Morph and Infrogmation, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.