We have been travelling through Central America for six week and in this precise moment we are on our last transfer to Puerto Jimenez, in Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula, where the group will start their volunteering with the Costa Rica Big Cats and Primates project. We had an amazing time, and we certainly learned some insights on travelling through this strikingly beautiful but at times not easy to understand region and we want to share some of them with you.
Many people consider Mexico City one of the most dangerous cities of the world, not easy to navigate and too crowded. Wrong. As most metropolis, Mexico City has its dangers, but you will surely not feel uncomfortable in walking around and enjoying the never ending cultural sites and colourful squares and markets. Moving from site to site could not be easier with the widespread metro system.
Public transports throughout the region
Chicken buses will take you places. A chicken bus is a public bus connecting local areas, typically those American yellow school buses (which will still have the “school bus” sign on the side) or those shiny and colourful big truck-like buses with flowery writings and painted decorations. You can just google how to get from one place to another with a chicken bus and you will get quite accurate information, or you can ask your hostel, they normally know. The driver will allow much more people and supplies than technically possible, and with the typical steamy heath, a chicken bus ride can be rather uncomfortable. So if you have a long journey, just look into direct shuttle buses, or private shuttles if the group if big enough, most tour agencies will offer this and you can haggle for an acceptable price.
Usually quite straightforward but often a bit slow and puzzling: at some borders you may have to pass through 3 different counters and pay 2 different fees for reasons difficult to understand. If you already have some information about the amount to pay and the currency to use, do not swear on it, rules change every day, so if for example someone told you they did not have to pay anything to get into Guatemala, you will know for sure only when you get there. Just go with the flow and do not upset the officers, sometimes they are the ones to decide who and how much to charge. At some borders official-looking men will try to sell you emigration/immigration forms, you will surely be enough well travelled to remember that you never had to pay for such a form in your life, so you know what to do. Other men will offer you to exchange money and will tell you that you will not be able to pay the border fees with the currency of the country you are leaving; again, you will be smart enough to double check this.
A tricky one. Central America is a happy region, the majority of people are friendly, you will have a great time hanging out with the locals, who will be happy to help you practice your Spanish or learn some salsa dance moves. The landscapes are idyllic and peaceful and you will feel like you have no danger to be afraid of. This is mostly the case and you will surely have no problem with safety, especially if you are in a group, but do not tempt fate: go out for a walk at night if you feel like it, but make sure you do not go alone on shady side roads and always bring a couple of friends with you. Also (as you would do on the metro in in any big city), always keep your belongings under strict control.
Most of Central American countries are quite cheap compared to prices we are used to. You can have a full meal at local eateries (generally called “comedor”) for very cheap prices, transportation is not expensive, actually really cheap if you go with public transports and you can find good accommodation in hostels for as low as 5 USD per person. However, you want to take into account unexpected costs or surge in prices, things are subject to unexpected changes in this part of the world, taxes may rise overnight and some long distance buses can be much more expensive than you would think. Also plan ahead if you are travelling during public holidays, prices skyrocket and availabilities drop dramatically as you approach the festivities.
Normally you do not have to plan your itinerary strictly, things can easily be arranged on site, often even the day before or the same day, so do not stress out if you have not booked anything in advance, just reach your destination and enjoy the ride.