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 Avoid outdated information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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- How To Keep Travel Safety Information In Perspective
- 5 Ways To Secure Your Belongings When Travelling
photo credit: To Uncertainty And Beyond cc