Central American Traveler's Guide

 

 

Introduction.

The web site www.centralamericanroadtrip.com was set up to document an overland trip from Puerto Jimenez to Tulum Mexico and back in 2008.  In 2009, I traveled from the United States to Costa Rica overland as well.  I also made the same trip in 1994.  The experiences have  been very rich and diverse, and I imagine that I am likely to be repeating some variant of the trip off and on for the rest of my life.  In order to provide a little assistance to those that come along afterward, I am opening this section to haphazardly put down as much helpful information as I am able in the event that it may help future travelers.  I welcome readers to provide me with additional information picked up from your own experiences, and I will try to maintain this section as up to date as reasonably possible.

The Countries

The following description is not intended to be unbiased.  I liked some countries and disliked others, and I am not shy about telling you why.  If I happen to slam your favorite destination or extol a place that you found tedious, we can perhaps come together in the tenuous middle ground that every experience is unique and that perceptions and experiences go a long way toward forming dramatically different impressions.

Mexico

General.

The reputation as a war zone has stygmatized the nation of Mexico dramatically and caused deep inroads into tourism, a primary economic mainstay of the nation.  Travel advisories and portraits of endless streams of violence make the nation appear to be a marginal state in which the security forces are not even in control of the nation.  To make matters worse, Mexico suffers a reputation from decades of routine corruption among its police and border officials as a nation in which foreign travelers can expect to be targeted by police officers for extortion of bribes.  My own personal experience with Mexico throughout the years led me to assume the worst in terms of endemic corruption, and the reputation as a new war zone left both Dan and me frankly unnerved by the Mexican leg of our trip.

Our experience could not be any more different from the expectations.  There was indeed a large military and security presence nearly everywhere that patrolled streets.  Members of the military and police forces were all armed with automatic assault weapons, bullet proof vests, and a litany of accessories, including radios, automatic sidearms, frightening looking uniforms.  Many jeeps had 50 calibers mounted, with a gunner in place.  And we were indeed pulled over on more than one occasion by moving police vehicles and the car was searched cursorily on numerous occasions at military checkpoints.  On no occasion did officers behave in any manner other than one of strict professionalism.  We were never questioned beyond what was reasonable, and unlike our experiences in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, we never had a police officer start digging to come up with something just to extort a bribe.  In every case we were informed in advance by the officer why we were being checked, told that it was routine, and once the task was completed, we were waved along our way politely. 

I have belabored under another impression of Mexico, perhaps an unfortunate cliche, that of the angry Mexican resentful toward the United States that takes it out against American travelers.  This misimpression proved particularly unfair and out of place.  We were treated with courtesy, friendliness, and respectful curiosity everywhere from the the gasoline pump boy outside Reynosa all the way to the final border guards in Chiapas state and by everyone in between.  When we asked strangers for information on the streets, we were invariably treated graciously and given the best information available, and people stopped to take the time to make sure we understood.

Food.

Mexico is one of those places in the world, like China, France, or Italy, where cuisine is a dramatic and vital part of the culture itself.  And just as the nation of Mexico has over seventy languages that are spoken inside its borders, there are perhaps as many regional culinary variants.  The food in Puebla is different from that in Oaxaca, and the Chiapas menu is distinct from the Tamaulipas dishes.  The mountain Indians have a palate that differs from the coastal mestize communities, and everywhere the chile sauces are different.  And it's all spectacular. 

Roads

The highways of Mexico are for the most part good, certainly transitable.  We chose a route that featured a number of highways not extensively traveled, and in places had potholes to contend with.  The signage is typically very poor in all but expressway type thoroughfares and major cities.  Often bypasses are too confusing and poorly marked to be able to even transit without getting lost, so except in major cities, these should probably be avoided, even if it means driving through the middle of town and enduring the traffic lights.  It is a bad idea to drive after dark in Mexico.  While the mythical bandit posts, rumored to be set up on desolate stretches of highway, may or may not be a real concern in all but the more lawless parts of the country, nocturnal dangers are dramatic, including:  speed bumps, bicyclists and pedestrians with poor markings, drunks stumbling in the road, speed bumps, damages to the highway, cattle, vehicles with poorly functioning signal lights, plus the additional dangers associated with limited visibility after dark.  Find a hotel before sundown and get off the road is my best advice.

Internet

We found Internet in most of the hotels that we stayed in, but there was always some security issue that made the Internet access only partial.  We were never able to use Outlook or Outlook express as smtp-server authentications always failed with the connections provided by hotels, even in nice ones that catered to the business class.  Often the configurations of the Internet access did not allow me to use FTP programs to update my web site.  Finally, on a number of occasions, hotels said they had it, and it turned out once we were checked in and in the rooms that they had it only in the lobby and in some cases that it was out of service and did not work at all.

Border.  If you plan to drive into Mexico please note that you cannot enter through just any border.  We crossed at McAllen/Reynosa, only to find out that we could not process our vehicle entry except at the International Bridge, which is one of just three crossings in the Brownsville/Matamoros border region.  We crossed at Reynosa at 4:30 and with accurate instructions could have gotten the car permitted by the 6:30 closing time of the offices at the International bridge, but with poor directions, we arrived around 7:30 and had to find a hotel in Matamoros and return the next day.  But the entry into Mexico was otherwise painless and expedient.  We paid $20 for an entry fee apiece, and the vehicle paid $40.  Requirements to bring a car into Mexico are:  title and certification of the vehicle, passport, driver's license; proof of Mexican insurance is not required to enter the country, but it is required by law, so it is best to take care of , which can be taken out at Sanborn's inside the United States at all border crossings.  Please note that there are border agents at the border itself and also a checkpoint 30 kilometers into Mexico.  At this secondary checkpoint, all papers of the vehicle must be in order to proceed, and the vehicle is subject to further inspection.  No inventory of personal effects is required for "transmigrantes" (persons traveling though the country to continue into Central America), but new electronics equipment or other new items are subject to tax assessment that will be assessed by Customs.

Exchange.    You should look for a Casa de Cambio or a bank and exchange your dollars there or be prepared to trade your money at less than the official exchange rate.  Credit and debit machines work in ATMs.

Guatemala

Political / Economic.

The nation has come a long way from the relatively recent military dictatorships of the eighties when roaming death squads were part of the political vernacular and the indigent descendants of the once glorious Mayan empire the primary target.  The slogan beans and bullets, then epitomizing the begrudged tough love social justice line taken by military despots today appears, to use the words of one of America's leading voices of institutional tyranny, John Yoo, as almost quaint.  The nation does not sport the sort of institutional and back-breaking poverty that you still see in barren wastelands of Mexico and of course in the slums of Lima or Rio.  Of course, this spectacular country with its fertile soils and panoply of crops and native tropical fruits and vegetables, is arguably a place where much can be done with few financial resources.  Tourism is clearly an ascendant industry, and while it gets a bit stuffy and overblown, for example, in Panajachel, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, the vendors are not quite as pushy elsewhere, and the national infrastructure is superior in general to that which we experienced in Mexico, though this could be a product of focusing our visits in areas patronized by foreign visitors.

Food.

The cuisine of Guatemala is completely unlike that of Mexico and bares virtually no similarity.  They do have a tortilla, but it is three times as thick and not served with the ubiquity that tortillas are served in Mexico.  From meals in Coban, Antigua, and in the vicinity of Lake Tikal, Guatemalan cuisine appears strongly informed by European traditions.  There is a reliance upon sauces and cheeses quite unlike its neighbor to the north, and sides are also dramatically different in a society in which the bean does not figure as such a central alimentary fixture.  The Mayan cuisine is rich and variegated and is somewhat more similar to its northerly neighbors, but anything cooked over a wood fire winds up being good, and the Indians all cook with wood.  In Panajachel and Antigua, there is a profusion of kitschy eateries featuring a wide range of ethnic delights.  Guatemala is filled with culinary variety and is a great destination for an amateur gourmand.

Roads.

Other than the maddeningly ubiquitous speed bumps on all but the most major thoroughfares, the Guatemalan highway system is well developed, well marked, and well designed.  The drivers are not particularly dangerous, though the bus drivers are particularly aggressive and far too familiar with their claxons.  Curiously, Antigua has its own municipal law forbidding horns, but Antigua is not unlike a principality in its own right, with public Wi-Fi in its main town square and a vast support staff that monitor and direct traffic and parking and assist tourists.

Internet.

We found wireless Internet to be available nearly universally, with no smtp authorization black holes or other inconveniences.   Nearly all hotels have it at least in their lobbies and common areas and many have it in the rooms.

Border.

Entry into Guatemala carries a $3 immigration fee per person.  There was no fee for the truck, and the tourism visa on the truck was for six months, which allows for use throughout this time period.  However, be sure when you depart the country for the final time to have this permit "finalized."  Otherwise, importation taxes will be assessed and the owner of the vehicle will face an unhappy return to the nation in the future, when the taxes will be expected to be paid.  No insurance was required.  The paperwork processing was all orderly and intuitive and did not require the senseless back and forth and twister games that are so popular with the Honduran and Nicaraguan authorities.  At the Belizean border, beware of the Extortion bridge on the Guatemalan side, where the local municipality assesses a dramatic $12-20 toll to cross the bridge in either direction.  Local municipalities at other border crossings are less greedy, and at San Cristobal, we were charged only $1 in municipal tax to exit. 

Exchange.

In tourism centers dollars are traded at parity with national banking rates.  Native crafts salespersons in the markets are also savvy about foreign currency and will trade it for official rates.  In Rio Dulce, however, the Princesses found themselves stuck at breakfast holding only dollars and had to send one of their party off to a bank to change currency as the restaurant owners would not take American dollars.  The Guatemalan currency is the Quetzal.

El Salvador

Political / Economic.

For all of those political science junkies that lived through the decade of the eighties, the name El Salvador conjures images of institutional repression equal to anything that any of the military of Argentina, Guatemala, or Somozan Nicaragua ever took on as national fare.  Perhaps more insidious than the circumstances that gave rise to agrarian revolutions in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, El Salvador is a small nation with a middle class and not a nation fractured into the economic dichotomy of infinitesimally small percentages of the population holding galactically large proportions of the national debt.  So, the revolutionary fervor in this nation was more intellectual and nuanced than in the neighboring venues.  And where the intellect and revolution intersect, the result inevitably blends a degree of sadism with the repression.  All that is gone today.  The pockmarked bullet-ridden buildings that i drove past in '93 are all patched up, and the opposing sides have taken their dispute off the killing fields and into the nation's polity, where they have not completely overcome their enmity but treasure it with the secret knowledge that a civil war is not winnable by either side.  Today, the real political enemy is one common to all political classes.  The Maras are the purveyors of violence, and El Salvador is riddled with their numbers.  In this country, everybody has a gun, and every store has a guard with a sawed off shotgun.  The people are professional, friendly, gregarious, boisterous, and it does not "feel" dangerous.  But there is an undercurrent of slack-eyed criminal opportunism that haunts the streets like well-fed rats under a silvery moon.

Food.

Whatever native cuisine this small nation may have once had is fairly neutered by the flux of American chains and a predisposition of today's youth for the mall.  I know that you are supposed to mack out on pupusas, and I guess my experience was not complete having not partaken of this national mainstay.  The meals I have had in this country have not been particularly memorable.  And the beers are without exception poor.

Roads.

The roads are good, but the traffic signage is abominable.  There is no point in trying to navigate your way through San Salvador.  It is not possible to do so without getting profoundly lost.  If you have to thread the needle, you should just hire a taxi driver to guide you.  El Salvador does not publish highway maps, so you cannot buy a navigation tool.  And different highways have the same numbers.  The many traffic circles are annotated by large green signs inscribed with hieroglyphics and the ostensible names of towns that you have never heard of because you don't have a map and can't get one.  In San Miguel, for instance, there are two highways that go to Honduras, but the road signs show the way only to the road that leads eventually to Tegucigalpa.  So, you have to know that the other one must also go to Honduras, to Choluteca, and if you do not know this or intuit it, you will simply wind up taking a much longer route to get where you are going.  El Salvador has the paradox of having arguably the best roads and the poorest signage of all the countries in the region.

Internet.

This contemporary and modern society seems to have good access to the Internet with wireless access typically in mid-priced hotels and up.

Border.

El Salvador has a somewhat onerous procedure for importing a vehicle.  It does not cost anything, but it requires several steps, involving multiple offices and copies and is best negotiated with a handler.  Be prepared to provide a manifest of everything you are carrying that will be stamped and authorized so that you can transport personal effects through the country without paying taxes.  The Salvadorean immigration and customs officials have a mutual tolerance with their Guatemalan homologues.  But the Salvadoreans consider themselves cut from a considerably better bolt of cloth than the neighboring Hondurans, and perhaps the prejudice shown leads to the repressive environment at the Honduran crossings, or perhaps it is a cause rather than an effect.  I found that the Guatemalan/Honduran border crossing did not present the same set of national tensions as those on display at the Salvadorean/Honduran border.

Exchange.

Money handling is easy in El Salvador.  They use the US dollar as currency and call quarters "carters."

Honduras

Political / Economic.

The less said about the present confrontation between the Zelaya and Micheletti camps, arguably the better.  The nation is presently convulsed with institutional illegitimacy and has not viable way out of this place.  There is a great irony in their situation.  By all measures, the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, was certainly involved in activities clearly proscribed by the nation's constitution and was certainly vulnerable to indictment and impeachment.  But rather than take this obvious step, his opponents (both of the opposing and same parties, and both other branches of government, the judicial and the legislative) decided rather than arrest him to send him off packing.  And so the world had to deplore the military coup.  Yet the real bad guy was Zelaya, so democracy loving nations are put in the impossible position of having to vocally support a power grab by a populist Hugo Chavez protege and denounce the social democratic interim regent that was put in power by the Supreme Court acting in conjunction with the military.  With world bodies refusing to recognize the outcome of elections held under a non-elected governmental framework, Honduras is in the impossible position of having to restore the bombastic ultra-left populist gadfly to office in order to have a presidential secession that the rest of the world will accept.  It is a disaster for Honduras, and it is not likely to have any easy, quick, or pat fixes.

Food.

There is nothing that I have found in my travels to Honduras to extol in the national diet of this poverty-stricken nation.

Roads.

The Honduran highways are mediocre to average.  Signage is reasonably good, and highway numbers do not change and revert back and change again as they do in other places.  Military checkpoints dot the national highway system.  Where the military does not have outposts, the national police do.  We were clipped twenty miles into the nation by a trio of police officers that found our papers in order but nailed us for not having emergency reflector triangles and a fire extinguisher.  It was Friday at three p.m., and he was going to hold us until after the banks closed at 4:30 so we would have to wait until Monday morning to be able to pay the fine and get out of the country.  Extorted for $30, ten for each of the officers on that post.  They all had gentle smiles and soft eyes and were eager to help us be on our way.

Internet.

I was not allowed to use my laptop in Internet cafes, because--get this--they would not be able to monitor what I accessed.  That was what they explained to me.  Apparently there is a prohibition against porn or something, and public places are expected to police this or something.  It sounded impossibly orwellian to me, and surely it was just the Internet cafes that were drinking their own restrictive koolaid.  Don't expect wireless in your hotel unless you're at an expensive nice hotel.

Border.

The sign above the border crossings might as well read:  "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."  Without question, Honduras has the most repressive, nonsensical, odious, and counter-intuitive customs and immigration policies of any country in Central America.  The crossing near Coban is perhaps the least troublesome simply because of its small size and small numbers of travelers.  Yet, when we crossed last year there, I was missing a second copy of my registration, and the power was out in the neighboring town, and I was forced to hang around until the border officials grew tired of my face at their window and finally made an exception to one of their silly requirements and let us in.  This is a nation in which you must go through one step then have that paper copied and passed to another official in a next step, so it requires an intimacy with a copy machine that cannot be achieved without hiring a runner.  For American vehicles, it costs $45 to get the car in the country.  For vehicles from other nations this fee is $20.  And there is a $21 circulation fee that must be paid.  The border helpers are like blue-bottled flies buzzing around steaming excrement, and they run at your car and hawk you over the voices of actual customs officials who ignore them as they query you and then advise you in their presence to not hire any of them, provoking protestations from the hustlers and conmen.  Crossing a Honduran border is truly one of the most miserable three hours you can possibly experience, and as if the bureaucracy and moral subornation were not outrage enough, the lowland border crossings are blistering hot and filled with the addled, deformed, schizophrenic, sex-working, and possibly criminally insane that huddle around and allow flies to settle on their features to stare at you through unblinking eyes stripped of any remnant intelligence or decency.

Exchange.

Border money changers give bank rates, more or less, presupposing a black market in currency.  Other than these money changers, exchange currency in banks or be ready to take a hit on the rate.

Nicaragua

Political / Economic.

To bright-eyed college kids back in the eighties, Nicaragua was like a promise of what might be possible following the overthrow of a clearly tyrannical autocracy.  As my cohorts celebrated the assassination in Buenos Aires of Somoza and lauded the Nicaraguan revolution and reviled my nation's support of the Contras and picketed the American embassy on the Thursday protests in the Managua of 1985, the one thing that was invisible and unknowable was the future.  Thirty years later the FSLN has swapped places with the right in the presidential palace, and the nation teeters between political extremes each too busy to undo nominal gains of their predecessors to advance Nicaraguan interests.  And after three decades the Nicaraguan character bares the frustration of this thwarted process in the visage of its people.  They are not friendly and curious, not welcoming and interested.  They don't give a damn about service to others as they have never been served.  They are not elevated from the pride of free enterprise from its long association with satan by the communists who can't provide the poor with an economic alternative better than what decades of economic subjugation by a tyrannical strong man provided.  Briefly, the nation flirted with the idea of eco-tourism and expatriate investment a la Costa Rica, and then shot itself in the foot by ascending the land-reforming aspirant, Ortega once again to office.  Daniel Ortega has been accused in public by his step daughter of having sexually abused her as a child and yet the disaffected return this man to office.  With Ortega's advocacy of Chavez's Bolivarian Canard, he joins the ranks of Zelaya of Honduras, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Ecuador's president to lean into the headwind of an Obaman America, suddenly defanged by the removal of the world's boogeyman from the geopolitical scene by the American electorate's 2008 decisions.

Nicaragua forms a common political zone with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  Citizens of these countries can travel freely without restrictions within these four countries bearing only the national identification card of their native country.  I think they are entitled to work as well in other countries.  Our passports were not stamped going into El Salvador, Honduras, or Nicaragua.

Food.

Marginal.

Roads.

The highway systems are reasonably good, with adequate signage.  It's straight forward, outside the morass of humanity that is Managua.  But Managua is easy to avoid in all routes north and south through the country.  The road to the Guausaules crossing is long and in poor repair.  I would advise the El Espino crossing instead, or Las Manos if you are going to or coming from Tegoose.

Internet.

The better hotels all have it.  There are lots of cybers.

Border.

The Nicaraguans have an abiding affection for bureacracy, and there are plenty of places to take papers to and instances in which some things need to be copied and small taxes to be paid.  In all other nations of Central and North America, border crossings involve immigrations and customs.  In Nicaragua, the national police become the third star of a triumvirate of forces all directed toward the wasting of time.  Getting into Nicaragua is not as hard as getting out, especially if you are headed into Costa Rica.  I speculate that the needless tedium of the Penas Blancas crossing is a form of psychic retribution for the low esteem in which Costa Ricans traditionally hold Nicaraguans.  In all our travels through seven nations, the most intense inspection of our vehicle anywhere was by the Nicaraguan police official inspecting our car on our way OUT of Nicaragua and into Costa Rica.  He looked silly tapping walls of the truck as if we were hiding special compartments, and it just did not make any sense to us.  Even though Honduras is the most onerous and miserable of the countries for their customs/immigration policies, the arguably least tasteful actual crossing must arguably be Penas Blancas with its masses of daily bus traffic, large buildings for the processing of human traffic and the lengths of trucks that extend from the border inland lined up back to back for two miles or more, suggesting lag times for commercial traffic of perhaps 12-18 hours. 

Exchange.

Best to change in banks.  The national currency is the cordoba.

Costa Rica

Political / Economic.

Costa Rica has tethered its financial future to propitious economic engines, including eco-tourism, environmental sustainability, and increasingly high-tech manufacturing and the service industry.  While its taxation policies would classify the nation as clearly socialist, it is the longest standing democracy in Latin America and as a nation does not stand up an army.  Despite a history of cross-border meddling during the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary parts of Nicaragua's recent history, It has a national policy of neutrality.  It's sitting president is a Nobel peace prize laureate, and the nation has a stated national ambition to become the world's first carbon neutral nation by the year 2021.  Infant mortality is low, literacy high, the nation's water supply is nearly all chlorinated and potable, and the nation enjoys a social welfare net unparalleled in Central America.  Having never been invaded by the United States, the people are friendly to both Americans in particular and foreign visitors in general.  With a colonial history more of abandonment by its colonial taskmaster than the choking exploitation experienced by more prosperous colonies in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Peru, Costa Rica is blessed with an institutionally large middle class and class divisions that are much less dramatic than in other parts of Latin America in which great wealth and power was sown from the exploitation of slaves and lands stolen from the forbears and the spiraling cycles of violence and upheaval that so often results from that historical legacy.

Costa Rica is a truly remarkable country with a highly distinct national character that is intelligent and curious, well-informed but empathetic.  The national character is forged in a small pond where thought has never been regulated.  Even the most rural bumpkin here understands and treasures liberty and would probably fight for it if it were ever necessary. 

Food.

The cuisine of Costa Rica is bland and unremarkable.  The typical lunch, the casado, is arguably the nation's greatest culinary advent and is quite a lot of fun as it may feature as many as seven different foods on the same plate:  rice, beans, a meat, squash fricassee (picadillo), salad, fried sweet bananas, potatoes, pasta salad, spaghetti, boiled egg, and other sides that might appear on a single plate.  Gallo pinto for breakfast gets boring after the first time or two.  The tourism industry has brought in a wide range of foreigners and ethnic eateries, however, so dining can truly be exciting in places with lots of options, like San Jose and small tourism getaways, like Dominical, Manuel Antonio, Jaco, and others.

Roads.

Costa Rica has perhaps the worst highway system in all of Central America.  All the highways are narrow and without shoulders.  And road beds are notoriously underbuilt so that slumps and failures are very common, eating away small sections of road.  The coastal road only now being completed between Domincal and Quepos shows that current development recognizes the need for improvement.  Costa Rican police wave people over for routine inspections and also operate radar checks.  The transit police nearly universally solicit bribes from foreigners, and it is clear that US-licensed vehicles are targeted.  The way the police officers have framed the consequences of our presumptive infractions makes it clear that an architecture for extortion is well established, reminiscent of Honduras.  It was what we expected in Mexico and were pleasantly surprised to find did not rear its head there and not for lack of contact with police and military.  Based on the Costa Rican nation's notoriety as an exemplar in many progressive ways, the eagerness of the national police to extort visitors for graft is disappointing.  And oddly, rental car drivers do not face the same tendencies and are given more lee-way.  It is strange and a bit unnerving.

Internet.

Internet is nearly ubiquitous in Costa Rica.

Border.

Easy border entry.  Immigration is a wave through stamp.  For the vehicle we had to have car insurance, which cost $18, but no entry fee, and the paperwork required was nominal, the bureacracy streamlined.  A customs agent looked over our load, but no more than the glances we have gotten from all the other customs agents at all the other crossings. 

Exchange.

Most businesses accept US dollars and colones interchangeably and at approximate parity with official exchange rates.  Credit cards are nearly universally accepted in businesses.  The national currency of Costa Rica is the colon.

Panama

Forthcoming

 

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