6 Safety Tips For Central America

Central America can still be a bit sketchy in places. Here are some key ways to avoid any trouble.

Watch your belongings when on a so-called ‘chicken bus’, as they can get very crowded.

Safety might be one of your first concerns if you are planning a trip to Central America. The region does still have a bit of a bad rep, and crime levels are unfortunately higher than in other parts of the world. Still, in reality most parts are also perfectly safe for visitors, and a responsible traveller should have little to fear. Here are some tips for staying aware and traveling sensibly:

1. Avoid outdated information

Safety and security levels can change in just a matter of years. For example, Nicaragua used to be a country torn apart by political and civil unrest, but it is one of the safest countries in the region today. It used to be that you could only visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala with a police escort (!) but that’s definitely not the case nowadays. While Central America is still rough around the edges, don’t let old information spook you needlessly.

Remember that your travel guide might be several years old or that the website you are reading might not have been updated recently. Try to get information from within the last 3 years or so and you will get a more accurate idea of what to expect. Things have often changed for the better.

2. Not all countries are the same

You can’t paint Central America with one brush, as each country is different. Currently in 2014 they can best be characterized as follows, based on UN crime statistics and supported by anecdotal evidence from my own travels:

  • Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua enjoy the best safety reputations, though do see the caveat below about capital cities. It’s well known that Mexico has deep-rooted problems with organized crime but it is generally very safe for tourists (which often surprises misinformed Americans in particular).
  • Guatemala suffers from quite a lot more crime including crime targeting tourists, and should be considered one level up from the aforementioned countries. Exercise increased caution in Guatemala, though you still have to be very unlucky to fall foul.
  • The facts don’t lie, El Salvador and Honduras (especially outside of the touristy Bay Islands) have some of the worst crime levels in the world. These are definitely more problematic countries that should be navigated more carefully.

Knowing the safety differences between countries allows you to adjust your behavior accordingly as well as plan a route that you are comfortable with.

3. Exercise more caution in capital cities

If there is one consistent pattern in Central America it’s that capital cities have the worst crime levels, often contributing hugely to the crime statistics of the country overall (while the rest of the country experiences far less problems). It’s best to assume that capital cities are going to be a bit rough; Guatemala City, Belize City, Managua, San Salvador, etc. all have poor reputations. Take official taxis at night and stay in a hostel/hotel in a good neighborhood.

Capitals in Central America also happen to be pretty dirty/chaotic/ugly, so your time is better spent in smaller cities and the countryside anyway. Apart from Mexico City (which has a lot of great museums and cultural sights) I personally found that capitals in Central America were places I mostly just transited through on my way to more interesting locations.

4. Keep your street smarts

This basically means everything that falls under the header “common sense”. Don’t wander the streets alone drunk at night, know which areas to avoid (if any), leave your passport and valuables in a hotel safe or hostel locker, and don’t openly show off expensive items.

If using local so-called chicken buses (converted US school buses) keep a close eye on your stuff, as these buses tend to be packed with people and luggage providing potential opportunities for theft.

5. Get local information

Knowledge is power. Ask staff at your place of accommodation about the area and you will be immediately a little wiser. Having a good lay of the land is always very helpful. Often this will also make you feel much more assured about the areas that have a good reputation.

6. Speak the language

Knowing Spanish will help tremendously in raising your situational awareness and your ability to get help or information from locals. If you are going to spend some extended time in Central America, it really pays off to learn some Spanish. Not just for safety reasons, but also because it will enhance your cultural experiences — you’ll find that the locals are often very friendly and curious and want to talk to you!

My personal experience

Safety is always very personal, so maybe it’s helpful if I describe how I felt about safety in Central America before, during, and after going there.

When I told family or friends I was going to Central America, I kept hearing words like “be careful” or “be safe”. At first I shrugged this off, but as the departure date approached the comments eventually got to me. I started getting a bit nervous… even despite cheerful reassurances from a friend who had already been in Central America for several months (and who I was to join up with for part of my trip).

During the first two or three days I was very much switched on and probably way too overly cautious. It was strange for me to see security guards at banks walking around with rifles or shotguns, especially as a European city guy who rarely ever sees a gun.

But within a few days I relaxed into the experience. People were helpful and friendly everywhere, the atmosphere was never threatening, and other travellers I met in hostels were almost universally positive about their time spent in Central America. The people who told me to be careful had never been here themselves, and now that I was actually there I felt so much more comfortable.

I spent about 6 months in Central America without any issues at all. Through chatting with different travellers every day, I did hear a couple of stories of people getting into problems. Some girls had items stolen from them in Antigua, Guatemala, and a guy met a local girl in Nicaragua who feigned an interest in him but ran off with all his valuables. (From the sound of it he did seem fairly naive about a random girl in a bar immediately wanting to have sex with him.)

The only places where I personally felt like I had to walk on my toes a bit were in Honduras and El Salvador. I did not enjoy my time in these countries quite as much as a result, though that mostly had to do with simply feeling more constrained. (It should be said though that the Bay Islands in Honduras are generally regarded as much safer than the mainland, and it’s here that most backpackers hang out.)

My impression overall is that Central America may not be quite as safe or easy as Southeast Asia for instance, but the situation on the ground really didn’t seem too much of an issue either so long as you are being sensible.

Make sure you’re adequately informed but don’t let Central America scare you! There are a lot of great things you don’t want to miss there: read my post Central America: Where Best To Go Backpacking for some trip inspiration.

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photo credit: To Uncertainty And Beyond cc

25 comments

  1. Comment by Brian McNicholas

    Brian McNicholas Reply January 17, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Hey Marek,

    Super info and tips about the safety in CA. I am planning a trip through and into S. America, and after some research safety seems to be my biggest concern. As an American, the news portrays this area as horrifying and a place no one should go. It seems any covered story is surrounded by death. Did you run into any experiences or people, especially tourists, who were genuinely scared for their life?

    Thanks

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply January 17, 2017 at 5:10 pm

      Hey Brian. It can definitely seem that way from the media, but from a tourist point of view I think the reality is far more nuanced and much less alarming.

      Since you asked, I have heard of one experience where a tourist was scared for his life (a guy I met in Guatemala). Though this involved a fight in a bar where the tourist chose to seriously escalate the situation. To be honest, I think he acted very irresponsibly and put himself in danger.

      For tourists I believe the main issue to be wary of is petty crime.

    • Comment by Rory

      Rory Reply January 17, 2017 at 5:19 pm

      Hi Brian, my 2 cents: You’re going to be fine if you keep your nose clean and keep your alcohol under control. The two biggest things that affect people’s safety in Central America are drugs and alcohol. Stay away from the drug scene and avoid excesses when you go out. You don’t want to be alone in deserted areas either (especially after dark). Additionally, set up a google alert for every country you intend to pass through between now and when you travel. This will give you a decent idea of what’s going on there and can tip you off to places and things to avoid.

      • Comment by Marek

        Marek Reply January 17, 2017 at 5:27 pm

        Very good tips – I suspect drugs were a factor in the situation I mentioned above.

        Anyone reading this should heed Rory’s advice. 🙂

  2. Comment by Claudia

    Claudia Reply June 2, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Mexico is not part of Central America.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply June 3, 2016 at 6:42 pm

      That’s geographically correct but as I mention elsewhere, it makes sense to group it together with Central America for travel information due to the cultural similarities and the fact that many people combine Mexico with Guatemala etc. I guess I forgot to mention that reasoning here.

  3. Comment by Jack

    Jack Reply May 30, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    Hey Marek,

    Any thoughts on safety related to drinking water in Central America? Did you use a water filter, purifier, or hybrid filter/purifier? Or did you rely primarily on water bottles? I’m thinking it’s probably a good idea to invest in a water purifier that ideally filters and purifies (removes bacteria as well as potential viruses). What was your strategy for drinking water during your 6 months in Central America? Thanks for the helpful post!

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply June 3, 2016 at 6:45 pm

      Hey Jack. I think it’s best to drink bottled water. It’s available everywhere. No point in bringing purifiers unless you’re going to do multi-day wilderness hiking or something. If you’re going to be anywhere vaguely near civilisation, there’ll be safe bottled water around.
      Marek recently posted…Packing Like a Pro and Traveling Light—My Ultimate GuideMy Profile

  4. Comment by KG

    KG Reply May 15, 2016 at 8:23 am

    Useful comments! Here some updates. This past 2014 UN declared Nicaragua the 4th safest country in the Americas with a yearly declining crime rate of 12.4 per 100.000 lower than Costa Rica’s 13.7. Managua’s old downtown has been rejuvenated with more parks, squares, and unique amenities by Lake Xolotlan such as a miniature replica of downtown Managua before the earthquake of 1972; Malecon a historical lake promenade filled with restaurants and bars; Port Managua where boats take tourists to several idyllic destinations like Chiltepe Peninsula or Momotombo Volcano within short distance. Also the way is going in Europe, it’s probably safer to go out at night in Managua.

  5. Comment by Rory

    Rory Reply April 5, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Hey Marek, nice summary of safety tips for Central America. You’ve probably noticed this as you come across people traveling, but unfortunately “common sense” when traveling isn’t as “common” as you might think when crossing borders into other cultures with differing expectations for keeping yourself and your property safe. I work with 50 – 100 North Americans a year traveling to Central America, and we constantly have to repeat the same messages:
    1. Stay in groups and be extra alert if you’re off the beaten path, on desolate roads, etc: whether you’re exercising, visiting beaches, wherever… especially after dark
    2. Don’t assume your stuff is safe if you leave it unattended or out of sight. Keep your eyes on it at all times. And a big emphasis on carrying a copy of your passport day to day instead of the real thing. Oh, and be discreet about your fancy things (Phones, tech, etc).
    3. Take reasonable steps to avoid/lower mosquito bites. Dengue, Chikungunya, Zika, Malaria risks all significantly reduced if you can stock up on Deet.

    My family got robbed big time in Costa Rica this past summer, so as a part of my “therapy” I put 20 tips down for travelers: https://commongroundinternational.com/immersion-in-costa-rica/street-smarts-in-central-america/

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply April 6, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Great tips, Rory!

  6. Comment by Jo Symo

    Jo Symo Reply April 1, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Hi
    I’m looking at walking from Guatemala City to Panama City, as a solo woman. Any thoughts or advice?
    Thanks
    Jo

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply April 1, 2016 at 11:47 am

      Hmm, not sure if I have advice for that. My experience in Central America is based on using public transportation or going on a road trip. I’m wondering if walking it solo is wise, but I might be wrong.

    • Comment by LN

      LN Reply April 26, 2016 at 2:11 am

      Don’t think is suggested to walk as solo, be it male or female, maybe you can have a group of people to do it with you but I believe is a wonderful experience if you have everything planned out.

  7. Comment by Doug

    Doug Reply March 7, 2016 at 7:57 am

    Hey Marek, I love your articles. I was just wondering if you have any tips on vaccinations for traveling this area. I went to a US travel clinic and was lectured for 30 minutes about Malaria, Typhoid, and Yellow fever. It seemed very exagerated for liability reasons. I took the typhoid pills and decided to avoid Eastern Panama for Yellow Fever reasons. My question is do I really need to spend $400 on Malaria pills? Is it as much of an issue as they made it out to be? If so can I obtain effective ones for cheaper down there? The nurse also suggested a LOT of deet and clothing spray. My trip will be from March-June and extends from Mexico to Ecuador.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply March 7, 2016 at 9:59 pm

      Hey Doug! So first the usual disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, but… 🙂

      Malaria risk in Central America is actually very low and not much of a concern. It’s more prevalent in eastern Panama around the Darien gap and some parts of Colombia and Ecuador – mostly the remote Amazon, and the remote pacific coastal areas of Colombia (not really on the tourist trail). You can get useful maps from the WHO country profiles: http://www.who.int/malaria/publications/country-profiles/en/

      My UK doctor advised me to only buy malaria pills locally in Colombia should I decide to go to such remote areas. I didn’t go to these parts and so didn’t take any malaria prophylaxis.

      You can get a vaccination for Yellow Fever which will make you immune for 10+ years. You can also get a vaccination for Typhoid and you’ll be immune for 3+ years (and afaik these should be standard for travellers).

      My personal view is that you’re probably right about liability. Precautions like mozzie spray with DEET are a good idea, but I personally wouldn’t take malaria prophylaxis in Central America, and only in some specific cases in South America. (Mainly if going to the interior Amazon region.)

      • Comment by Doug

        Doug Reply March 9, 2016 at 5:30 pm

        Thank you so much for the advice! I am relieved to hear that from an experienced traveller.

  8. Comment by Patricia

    Patricia Reply February 17, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Hello! I would like to share with you my experience, I was living in Central America for a couple of years, travel around and all that and during those years I never ever had any problem… the thing is that you must know the areas… I hardly see awful houses or anythings. I was in El Salvador for years and also in Costa Rica and I knew I had to avoid those dodgy areas in fact if noone would tell me the bad reputation of El Salvador I wouldnt know, really! I was living in San Benito and going to the Alliance Française each day during years and don’t see bad areas… lol

    I think you are right when you say that the information we all know is from about 20 years or so… now i don’t think it is true at all…You just need to be smart.

  9. Comment by Keith Gargus

    Keith Gargus Reply January 19, 2016 at 2:13 am

    I traveled Central America two years ago, and now have lived here a year. Mareks advice is very good. Here in Nica, most crime is opportunistic, and petty. No fancy watches, minimal jewelry if you look ‘gringo’. Also, I have a photocopy (laminated) of my info page of my passport. I carry it in lieu of my passport when I’m on the street. Do the same. Passports aren’t high value theft items, but a real pain to replace.
    Lastly, coyotes (money changers) and supermarkets both give better exchange rates than banks, especially the ones in airports. Enjoy.

    • Comment by Marek

      Marek Reply January 19, 2016 at 9:49 am

      Thanks for sharing your experiences Keith!

  10. Comment by Rebecca Brown

    Rebecca Brown Reply January 19, 2016 at 2:10 am

    Safety for women — watch what the local women who aren’t sex workers do. If they’re out at night, it’s pretty safe. I live alone in Nicaragua — no real problems after the first year where a Nicaraguan who’d hustled his way into a gringa’s life robbed her and got my keys and took things out of my house. I had, fortunately, not trusted leaving valuables in the house when I was away and he didn’t get what I suspect he’d come for.

    I think traveling here during the day is pretty unremarkable. Don’t over dress, don’t flash valuables, pretty much the same rules as for the guys. Also, for everyone, watch out for kids as they see stuff on TV (which is very common here even among the poor) and we have it.

    Speak as much Spanish as possible.

  11. Comment by Arnah Taylor Milan

    Arnah Taylor Milan Reply July 19, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Hi, I really enjoy reading your blogs 🙂 I am heading to Central America for 5 weeks, I feel a little nervous as I will be a single female traveller but do you think this is fine as long as I don’t get into silly situations. Thanks

  12. Comment by Louise Hutchinson

    Louise Hutchinson Reply January 23, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Hi, I’ve found your site to be extremely helpful. I note you did 6 months, I’d be very interested in the total cost of this? My boyfriend and I are considering a similar trip.

    Thanks in advance.
    Louise

    • Comment by Marek Indietraveller

      Marek Indietraveller Reply January 23, 2015 at 11:04 am

      I only kept a rough tally of my expenses, so I don’t have an exact number unfortunately. But it ended up somewhere around $6000. Some countries Costa Rica, Belize) are more expensive and others (Nicaragua, Guatemala) are much cheaper. But when it all evens out, I ended up spending around 1000/month. That’s by travelling backpacker style (hostels, local guesthouses) but occassionally doing more expensive activities (like scuba diving)

      • Comment by Louise Hutchinson

        Louise Hutchinson Reply January 23, 2015 at 11:56 am

        Awesome. Thanks for your help – I may be in touch again if we get the trip organised.

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