I just thought I'd post some random thoughts on traveling the region as a whole...
Local food: Usually pretty boring! Rice and beans are the dietary staple in Central America. A lot people will eat that every single meal! So while I did enjoy my rice, beans, and chicken, it’s easy to get tired of it after a while. There were also a couple local specialties like baleadas in Honduras and tostadas slathered with guacamole and other stuff in Guatemala that were tasty. Fresh fruit costs very little and is delicious. Lots of avocados too! You can also find some nice grilled meats and fresh seafood for cheap. Western fast food is also readily available, stuff like hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken and pizza are definitely significant parts of the Central American diet. Oh and some excellent tacos stands! But that’s just the local cuisine. There’s tons of restaurants catering towards tourists in the major locales where you can find anything from sushi, to falafels, indian curries, and texas style BBQ. Definitely a lot of good stuff out there!
Danger Issues: Most people think most countries in Central America are pretty dangerous. The stats don’t lie, crime and murder rates are very high, especially in El Salvador, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The two biggest cities in Honduras, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula have the highest per capita murder rates in the world! But that’s the thing, most of the violence is contained in certain parts of the big cities (similar to USA), and not so much in touristy or rural areas. So as long as you’re not spending much time in the capital cities and not wandering around sketchy places at night, you should be fine. I had no problems during my trip here (and met very few people who did), although concerned locals told me on a few occasions that I shouldn’t walk here or there with my camera, which is something that almost never happened in Asia. There’s also a non-zero chance the bus you’re riding on could get robbed, especially in Honduras. So there’s certainly some extra safety considerations in Central America, but like usual, if you’re smart about your traveling and not carrying much cash or valuables on your person, most risks can be mitigated.
Spanish: You can get by down here if you don’t speak any Spanish, especially if you’re only staying in touristy areas, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Your average person in Central America knows little to no English, and you can definitely put yourself in some tricky spots if you can’t speak any Spanish. Plus I’ve noticed that sometimes if you go up to a person and ask them a question in English right away (not even bother to ask hablas ingles?) you might get a disapproving look or some attitude, even though they do speak English. On the other hand if you try to speak Spanish even though you suck at it, people will be much more likely to be accommodating and friendly. I really enjoyed working on my Spanish when I was here! Well until I got to the tenses…
Nightlife: There’s plenty of good places to party in Central America. San Juan Del Sur, Grenada, and Leon are all fun places in Nicaragua to hang out and see some good live music. Utila in Roatan off the course of Honduras both have cool bars that are built out on the piers extending into the ocean. Antigua, San Pedro, and Panajachel all have good bar scenes in Guatemala. Although Central America is nowhere near is crazy as some of the party scenes in Thailand and SE Asia, which is for many is probably a good thing…
Public Transit: You’ve normally got 2 options for longer distances: chicken bus and shuttle bus. And sometimes coach buses.
The cheap way: The good ole chicken bus: They use American school buses that have gotten too old, repaint them, and keep em going for who knows how many more years. These things are basically always packed, hot, and take a long time because they stop for anyone they see on the road. They’re obviously the least expensive option and they’re readily available so I used them quite a bit. It’s worth it to go directly to the bus station so you can grab a decent seat, which usually won’t happen when you’re flagging one down from the roadside.
Shuttle bus: Used mostly by tourists to get around. In places like Guatemala, the chicken buses go so slow and you have to change buses so frequently it makes the shuttle buses the preferable option. Only problem is some companies jam pack the shuttles, so you feel like you might as well be taking a chicken bus.
Coach buses: Not enough of these in Central America! They have them a lot in Costa Rica and Honduras. Usually the best option if they’re available! In Honduras the main reason is safety, as there is a problem with buses getting stopped and robbed by bandits. The more reputable companies put an armed guard in the bus :0
Side Note: Speedbumps. There’s so many! I think Central America must have more speed bumps per mile than any place on Earth. I mean I understand the ones when you’re in a populated area and you want to make sure vehicles are going slow. But then there’s all the ones where you’re out in the countryside and it’s like ‘hey lets put a bunch of random speed bumps here for no particular reason!’ It’s really fun when you’re in the back of a packed bus. Or you’re on a crappy bumpy winding road that you can’t even go 20 mph on, and what do you know? More speed bumps! I need someone to explain this to me.
Prices: Pretty damn cheap! Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala all have fairly similar prices, Belize is a bit more expensive, and Costa Rica is the most expensive. I enjoyed Costa Rica, but almost everything you can find in Costa Rica you can find in other Central American countries for half the price. Most places (excluding Costa Rica) a plate of rice, beans, and chicken would cost $3-5, a beer $1-2, dorm rooms in a hostel about $7-10, and basic room $10-15. Only thing that really bummed me out was that renting a motorbike/scooter cost about $25 a day, compared to like $7 a day in Asia. If you’re staying in dorms, using mostly public transit, and eating local food, you could definitely spend less than $1,000 per month if you really wanted to. I didn’t.
Wifi: Better and more readily available than I expected
Weather: Had terrible weather the first week of the trip, and then it was mostly fantastic the rest of the time. Sunny and mid 80’s was about the norm. Guatemala was the only country where I needed a jacket at night, as a lot of it is higher up elevation. Even though the countries are small there is usually a pretty big difference in weather depending if you’re on the Caribbean side or the Pacific side. Carribbean side is a lot more jungly and rainy!
Volcanos: Lots of good Volcanos to hike in Central America. The volcano called Acatenango in Guatemala is probably the coolest volcano hike I’ve done and gets my highest recommendation! Lots of good ones in Nicaragua too. They have two different ones that you can look into the crater and see lava (if you’re lucky), or hot ash and smoke, like me :/
Scuba Diving: Certainly not as good as Asia, but still some really good stuff to see. Utila (in Honduras), is the place to be for good, cheap diving. ($30 a dive). Actually some of my favorite days were because of the stuff we saw in between dives. One day we had a bottlenose dolphin leading our boat and jumping through the water for a good 10 minutes. Another day the captain spotted a whaleshark and we all threw on our snorkel gear and slid off the back of the boat to check it out. We saw for maybe only 15 seconds before it dove down, but still that was the first time I’d seen a whale shark in its totally natural environment. And another day we found a pod of spinner dolphins and got to go snorkelling with them! So even though I wasn’t amazed by the diving, it was still a great time. Oh, and diving at the cenotes (underwater caves) in Mexico were fantastic as well!
Quick note on the Blue Hole: You always see this place listed in ‘top places in the world to dive’ lists, but the more and more I talked to people who did it, the more underwhelming it seemed. From what I’d heard, it’s got some cool stalactite formations, but not many fish, and it’s so big you can’t even really tell you’re in a big blue hole. Plus it’s 2 hours to get out there and 3 dives will run you at $250+, so I decided to skip it and save my money for the cave diving in Mexico.
Caves: Some fun caving tours in Guatemala and Belize!
Ruins: Lots of Mayan ruins in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. I kind of get tired of seeing piles of rock quickly, but Tikal in Guatemala was pretty damn cool.
Sweet Photoshops: I'm not totally sure why but it seems like every home you walk into in Central America has photos of family members photoshopped (badly) in different exotic locations. One of the homestays we were at in Nicaragua had some great ones. Check out this guy's awesome wedding photo:
Overall I had a very good time in Central America. I enjoyed the Spanish culture, the laid back lifestyle, the beaches, volcanos (and volcanic lakes), the diving, and the general compactness of the region! I just wish renting motorbikes was cheaper and easier! The one thing I will say though is that it just doesn’t have as much of the ‘wow’ factor (visually or culturally) like many of the places I’ve been to in Asia. Lot’s of very nice places, but not many that really blew me away I guess. So I still think Central America is a cool place to visit, especially Nicaragua and Guatemala, but I’m not planning to go back anytime soon. Too many other places on the list!