The golden bridge that connects North and South America, the seven Central America countries combine to create a whole new world that eagerly waits to be explored. Chilling beside Caribbean coastlines, rich with volcanic hotties, lush rainforests, those ‘you can only dream about’ beaches and home to captivating sunsets, indigenous ruins, evolving cities and the most charming people. It’s no wonder we fell in love. Hard in love.
We’ve agreed that while Mexico is still in the top spot, there will be no adventure quite like hiking Guatemala’s volcanoes and learning to surf in El Salvador, or kayaking across Nicaragua’s volcano-filled lakes and snorkelling along the coast of a Caribbean Island. We faced fears, we made discoveries and we so effortlessly created memories; living moments we never thought could happen, ticking off bucket-lists we didn’t know we owned.
We laughed with giddiness as we hiked with over 900 dogs in Costa Rica, and gasped with emotions as we released baby turtles into the wild, in El Salvador. We were introduced to chicken busses and enjoyed the many awkward adventures travelling across countries in them. We met so many people, the kind that need to write their own book. We created so many friendships. Oh, and we finally saw a sloth!
So while we continue to declare our love for Central America, we will do so quietly and instead leave you here with a list of simple yet unusual fun little quirks that we learned while travelling through. And while this post might seem full of useless information, you never know; it could come up in a pub quiz, or at the very least, help you kill a few minutes of your day.
#1 Drinks Are Served in Plastic Bags:
It’s not uncommon when you order a drink from a vendor, to have a plastic bag tied with the straw poking out, handed to you. Water, fruit juice, Coca Cola and even slush puppies, nearly all refescas are served in a plastic bag.
For years, our parents warned us about sucking on or playing with a plastic bag. Think of the dangers! And here it is the norm to see people of all ages, pass with plastic bags swinging from their mouths. I will admit it is uncomfortable to watch a young child suck water from a dirty looking plastic bag. In saying that, you soon get use to it.
I won’t act like I haven’t done it, and in fairness I’ve gotten cold sores from cleaner cups. That and hygiene (and worrying!) tends to take a back seat when travelling. It is also much cheaper than bottles, pity it’s not so environmental-friendly.
#2 Gallo Pinto Yo:
Gallo Pinto (pronounced ga-yo) is essentially just rice and beans, the red and black bean kind. If you plan to travel through Central America, it’s about to become your staple diet. Think of them as the equivalent of potatoes in Ireland, the potatoes of Central America if you will. Only gallo pinto never changes its form and is served with nearly every meal, even breakfast.
From Guatemala to Panama, we just couldn’t escape the combo. Not that we wanted to but there we times we just couldn’t handle it any more – like at 6am before an 8 hour boat journey.
So if you are not really a rice and bean fan then expect a half empty plate and maybe a funny look.
#3 Feeling Flushed:
OK so I didn’t expect to add this to the list, but it might help you towards the whole culture shock syndrome. No country in Central America flushes down the toilet roll. Their plumbing systems are just not strong enough to handle the big flush, and it’s not common practice.
It’s quite gross in public bathrooms, as the toilet roll stacks high in the bin, exposing fluids we shouldn’t share with each other. Some bins have lids, others don’t. So the eyeful is unavoidable.
As a woman, and one who has been flushing toilet paper since I said goodbye to nappies, this was a hard habit to break. I’d, excuse the pun, shit myself every time I realised the toilet was filled with loo roll and cross my fingers my flush wouldn’t be the reason for overflow.
Now what I have is a new habit that will be awkward to break when I’m, one day, back in Ireland.
#4 Hey, Gringo!
No one likes to be called anything other than the random jumble of letters our parents one day decided to name us. Being called a foreigner is expected, that’s exactly what we are as travellers but the one word you will hear a lot is gringo. I was a little naïve to this until I binged on Netflix’s Narcos series, so when I first heard it echoed my ear perked with delight.
In some instances, gringos are assumed to be American but a gringo is anyone who is not Latino. You will be called this word, locals will use it without any qualms and it’s not considered rude. So don’t take it personally. It is not used in a derogatory way whatsoever. You are now a gringo, welcome. Acknowledge, sometimes reply and always remember to stay kind.
#5 It’s Cheap. No, Like Really, Really Cheap:
When we think of Latin America, our brains jumped straight to the heights of Machu Picchu, the beaches of Brazil and the salt lakes of Bolivia. All these wonders that grab our immediate attention make most travellers opt in for a trip around South America first. If we could start again, we would do the same. Sure save the best, and the cheapest, for last!
One thing we have noticed since leaving Central America is just how cheap it was. It was genuinely hard to spend money and we met our daily budgets with ease. Local transport costs from as little as €0.20, delicious street food for less than €1-€1.50 and both accommodation and tours for no more than €10, depending. If you’re a budget backpacker, prepare for a life of luxury and enjoy how far your pennies will stretch, as for the more pampered traveller, literally live like a King in every way possible and still walk away with change.
It is worth to note is that thanks to their booming tourism industries, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama are by far the most expensive countries out of the seven. And by most expensive we’re still talking less than what you would spend at home.
So while South America might continue to jump loudly in your sights, waving its arms erratically with hopes you will visit, we recommend that you do so but be sure not to ignore the land of CA.
Happy spending and safe adventuring.
#6 The C4 Visa:
Crossing borders is always a fun and new experience. No border is the same, and although some borders aim to scam you for a few euros and others will ask for proof of onward travel before you can enter, overall the process is quite simple and not as intimidating as we original thought.
Usually a country will give you a 90 day visa to spend enthusiastically exploring. What we weren’t aware was that Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua all share the same visa. So those 90 days are for all four countries. Not ideal, especially since you don’t get a fresh 90 days when crossing borders in any of these four countries.
It’s simple to pass into Costa Rica or Belize to refresh your C4, money and time well spent if you ask us. Just don’t go in one thinking that you have 90 days each. I’m confident that over staying your visa won’t go down well in this part of the world.
So there you go, this might even come up in that pub quiz I was talking about!
#7 Street Food For Life:
If you are a frequent reader of this blog, no doubt you are sick of us harping on about how much we love the street food. Well here we go again.
Not once did we find ourselves sitting in a restaurant or dining out for date night. Instead we always chose to pull up a side-of-the-street seat and indulge in the food we saw cooked right in front of us. The cheap costs are appealing but what we love most is the chance to taste what is basically home-cooked food.
Walk down any street, board any bus and you will have an endless choice of foods shoved under your nose. In majority of instances you will find yourself sitting in someone’s living room or front garden as they whip up your meal and serve with so much pride and love. It’s also the best opportunity to meet and chat with locals and be prepared for nearly every passer-by to wish you “buen provecho” which means enjoy your meal.
#8 Chicken Busses:
The old American school busses are seen flashing through the streets, personalised and pimped to within an inch of its life. Xzibit and the cast of Pimp My Ride could learn a little something from these loud transporters.
At first glance, you might want to swear off ever riding the highly intriguing bus. It could be the fact that health and safety has no place on a chicken bus. Passengers swing from the back doors, teenagers sit atop, up to four people share a seat, there is no such thing as seatbelts, and there is always an animal on board. You may be even asked to hold a child from time to time.
Don’t bother asking the driver to turn down the pounding music, or expect anyone to move when you say excuse me, especially the vendors who board and sell to the rammed commuters. It’s the inside of a clown car, add a large backpack to the mix and you are one awkward tourist.
But trust us when we say, it’ll be the best ride of your life. There was never a time I didn’t enjoy road-tripping on a chicken bus. The madness is mesmerising and the entertainment is endless. The lack of A.C gets easier, the heat and smell of body odour becomes bearable and you will discover that sitting on a large ice cooler with nothing to hold on to, while children stare in horror, all while listening to blaring 80s pop ballads, isn’t so uncomfortable after all.
So all aboard, squash in, grab onto anything you can find and smile. It’s guaranteed the most fun and a real feel to local life.
#9 Currency and Cash:
Every country in Central America uses its own currency and every country accepts US dollars. There isn’t an ATM that won’t offer the service to withdraw a few dollars, so it’s worth having some stowed away. Sometimes, mostly through the more tourist areas, prices are advertised in dollars. It seems to be worth more as some vendors and businesses mostly prefer to be paid with USD, but the ‘make-y up-y’ exchange rate isn’t always appealing.
I found the drastic change between the currencies an absolute head melt. Thankfully Luke is in charge of our finances. Unless you like numbers, or are good at maths – trying to adapt and convert currency to work out our budgets is torture. The minute you get use to one currency, on you go and in comes a new one.
So while €1 = 34 Cordobas in Nicaragua, in Guatemala it equals 8 Quetzal and in Costa Rica it equals 640 Colon. Nope. Nope. Nope! My brain fried on a daily basis. So if you are American, using your own currency makes more sense but for the Europeans like us, do convert directly to the local currency, you will get that extra bang for your buck.
Cash is king, and paying with card isn’t that popular. The most annoying thing about the monetary system is that the ATM’s will only disperse large bills, however vendors and even big retailers hate departing from their change. We’re talking the equivelent to €10 here.
Prepare for some dirty looks and awkward exchanges if you don’t have any smaller change. Instead break the large bills in the bank, if you can, and save yourself some hassle. Oh such hassle.
#10 Central America Time:
CAT was a frequent phrase of ours. It means “who knows”. As in there is no such thing as a schedule and being “on time” doesn’t exist. Time-keeping isn’t high on the list of the Latinos, which is a nice way to live but tough for those with OCD time-keeping skills.
The displayed bus schedules are all void, ask a local what time something should arrive and you will get a generic answer, starting anything on time, whether it is Spanish class or a tour, is impossible. And a 4 hour bus journey can easily turn into a 6 hour one.
Although it’s not a trait you should pick up, being late is not considered rude. So prepare for it, embrace it and get used to it. I’m a fairly impatient person and I can safely say that I’m now a changed woman, and waiting has become second nature.
#11 Bugs, Bugs Everywhere:
Not the biting kind.
At home in Ireland, littering is a no no. We were reared not to litter. Jesus if you were caught throwing something on the ground that was the end of you as you knew it. Guaranteed for a passer-by to make comment or embarrass the hell out of you. Sure, I’ve been known to pull people up on their littering. It genuinely drives me up the wall. The fact you cannot walk too far without seeing a bin, and the litter warnings galore, means the bugs will very rarely attempt to throw their rubbish on the ground; especially not in plain sight.
Well you may keep your mouth closed when you see it across Central America. I’ll never forget pulling up to The Corn Islands on the passenger ferry, as we approached the shore; I swear I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. The pristine Caribbean sea, the sunshine, the ambience, and then some arsehole lift his bag to empty his trash into the sea. Luke gave me the ‘don’t, please don’t’ look and I bit my tongue. No one batted an eye-lid. It bothered me so much. Still does.
As hard as it is to watch, it’s perfectly normal to throw whatever you no longer want, wherever you are. It’s easy to see through the streets and particularly at the riverbeds, that litter is a huge problem. Clearly not big enough for anyone to give a damn. Such a shame for this to happen in such a beautiful part of the world. But hey, get used to it.
#12 Plug Sockets:
For me, this one is useful to know. Similarly to Europe, with the exception of Ireland, UK and Russia, all the plug sockets in Central America are universal, and it’s great. One double adapter socket and you are good to go. Pick up a one-4-all adapter before you travel, then pick up a local converter when you arrive as they are extremely cheap
Pity we can’t say the same for plug sockets, which are a little scarce, so maybe buy an extension lead too.
#13 It’s Loud:
Visit any country or city and it’s easy to notice every noise around you, but we found Central America to be noisier than Bangkok! Truth!
Shops blare a mix of music which clashes and forms an inaudible sound. Vendors, loaded with a PA, scream their daily sales throughout the street. The chicken bus’ ayudantes rise above the street madness by repeatedly shouting the destination, while taxis fill the air with power ballads and Reggaeton. Locals, unbeknownst to them, shout to speak to one another and every driver is horn friendly, beeped to say hello, thank you, to warn you or for no reason at all.
So if you think Jacinta from down the road has a mouth on her, wait until you hear this lot! At least, unlike when you are listening to Jacinta, you will enjoy all the sounds of Central America.
(Light sleepers, bring earplugs.)
#14 Bye Bye Personal Space:
I’m including this one because I kind of wish someone had warned me. If you are like me and dislike being touched, bumped into, or breathed upon while out and about – well, prepare for a shock.
At first, I genuinely thought people were just rude. There were many times, while some man coughed over me or a woman’s elbow rammed into my side, I thought that this entire place needed some time with my Nanny. That’ll soon kick some manners into them all.
Honestly, it’s not impoliteness and it’s certainly not intentional. I’m forever apologising to people, if I simply brush up against someone I send my pardons and do you think an eyelid is bat? Naah! In a nutshell, there is no such thing as personal space in this part of the world. No one cares.
People do have manners; in fact I think Central America is home to the most wonderful humans. It’s just that they do things a little differently here. So kiss goodbye to it and prepare for all the bumps, interruptions, smells and sights. As weird as it sounds, just enjoy it all. Don’t let it affect you, but let it change you.
All in all, Central America needs to go high up on your travel list.
Of course, it taught us a lot more than the above. I suppose you could say that this list are the little ‘every day’ things that made us realise how different and apart our worlds are. How at home, you would never get away with even half of what you will witness. Legally, or morally.
So mouths open and eyes wide, prepare for Central America to show off, and blow your mind while doing so.