How to travel smart in Central America

I finally realized one of my biggest dreams: Backpacking in Central America. In April, 2016 I visited Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Panama and went to my dream spot: Grand Canyon in the US.

People often said that traveling is good because it broadens your perspective. I think that this statement is correct in every singel way. You meet a lot of people with different personalities and backgrounds. Most of time, the only thing common between you and them is the endless curiosity about the world.

Before I traveled to Central America, I had a presumption that it would be very expensive. I looked at various travel blogs and most of them claimed the same thing. However, my experiences in those countries told a different story. In fact, I only spent 40% of my initial budget. You may think I must be very cheap then? The answer is Nope, I still be able to do the things I wanted but without letting my wallet cry.

Depending on the time of the year you travel, high season is between October and April, and low season is from May to September. In high season, the prices of everything are normally higher. In low season, less tourists, prices become cheaper but the weather is not so good, usually rainy.

Transportation and getting around

My trip looks like this: Stockholm- Puerto Rico (flight) : Norwegian air- non stop flight, took around 10 hours 160 $

Puerto Rico- Costa Rica (flight):  One stop flight (usually Miami), Spirit airlines, 245 $

Costa Rica – Panama (two way bus ticket):  40- 50 $

Costa Rica- Las vegas: 170 $ (2 stops), Spirit Airlines

Las Vegas- Stockholm: non stop flight, Norwegian air 160 $

As you see, my trip to multiple cities was under 1000 $, so it is possible to travel cheap, the only thing you need is to plan in advance. According to multiple researches, the best time to book air tickets is 53 days before the departure day.

I really enjoyed to travel with Spirit Airlines while in Central America, this is a low cost airline and they do not serve meals or drinks, and neither do offer any fancy services,  but it is nothing I actually bother about. This airline operates on a number of major cities in Central America, connecting to multiple cities in the US. https://www.spirit.com

Central America has a very good bus system so it is very convenient to travel by bus. You can basically go anywhere by bus. The tickets are very affordable and easy to purchase. I used to buy my last minute tickets at the counters located at the bus stations.  In Costa Rica, I used to travel with the bus company called MEPE. The only disadvantage is although the distance is not very far but it still takes a lot of time due to the traffic, so plan your schedule ahead.

Accommodation

There are a wide range of accommodation types, from fancy hotels to budget hostels. If you are enough adventurous, you can bring your own gears to camp. There are also camping gears available for rent. Budget hostels are from 10-25 $/bed in a dorm.

If you plan to stay in Central America for a longer period, then there are also a lot of  opportunities for volunteering. I met many people come to Central America and work for free in hospitality, in exchange they get free accommodation. They may work as receptionists, waiters, bartenders etc. Many hostels and bars in Central America need staff who can speak fluently English. Believe it or not, although many places in Central america are a very popular tourist attractions but many locals can not speak English. Normally, tourists used to volunteer a couple of days a week for the hotels/bars and the rest of the time, they spend on the beach or go to language schools. I think that this is really a smart system. If you are outgoing and love to meet travelers, this is a very great opportunity.

An other way is to use Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com). This is a website that allows travelers to find local hosts and stay for free. As this site became more popular, there are people using it for bad purpose. I have heard and myself experienced situations where hosts flirted with female guests. So always do your research and use your judgment before sending a couch request. Make sure to look for the hosts who have a great profile with positive references and who accept BOTH GENDERS, not only prefer hot girls.  Myself, I only had great experiences with my hosts. I spent a lot of time reading their profiles and see if we really have something in common before I sent them request. My goal is to find a quality host that I can connect with and share great traveling experiences. It was never about free stay. Also make sure to spend time on writing a proper couch request, many of my hosts complained that travelers did not even bother to read their profile carefully and write a customized request. In many cases, they even forgot to change the the host’s name. Treat couch request letter like a job application and write accordingly.

Food

Huge portion. I wish I could speak Spanish because in doing so I can dine at Local restaurants. Eating at local restaurants are much cheaper than going to restaurants for tourists. For example the same meal, at local restaurant is 2-3 $ while in tourist restaurants is 7-10 $. 

Many hostels and guest houses have kitchens with equipments so you can also cook your meals there. The hostels offer basic ingredients such as: salt, suger, pepper, oil. Many places even offer coffee and tea.

Alcohol is widely available in stores.

Shopping 

Stay away from shopping in Central America, especially in Costa Rica. It is so expensive and I don’t think the quality is worth the price. Before you travel, just make sure you brought sun protection, swimming suit and personal items from your countries. Those are expensive in Costa Rica. 

Is Central America dangerous?

I heard that question many times and the answer is: Depend. I have heard stories about people were robbed here. Under my 2 weeks in Costa Rica I was told about three robberies. However, according to my experience, like in other countries, bad things can always happen. The only thing you can do is to try to minimize the risk. I often heard from friends in Costa Rica who claimed that bad things happen after 2 AM. So, if you are not outside after 2AM, then it is less likely something bad will happen to you. I never for example accept drinks from strangers when I am outside, neither I accept to accompany strangers to unknown places. Never go out with valuable items or bring a lot of cash with me. Always make sure to tell friends where you are going and keep updating them information. Always travel with caution is my advice. 

Things I wish I knew before traveling to Central America 

I wish I knew Spanish as I would be able to experience more interesting things.

I wish I never underestimate the amount of mosquitoes and bugs there. They are many and are so aggressive. Make sure to bring plenty of coconut oil, the only liquid that actually help. Mosquitoes spray is useless.

Never pay for organized tours in Costa Rica. They are very expensive, even though the experiences are great, but still the value aren’t matching the price. Most of the things you want to experience in Costa Rica, can do in the neighbor countries  such as: Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras to a much cheaper price. So, if you are on budget just stay away from those tours.

A final note 

Again, travel the world is neither something that is difficult nor unreachable. I realized my dream while being a student. It was neither about time nor money. It is about planning.

There are many ways to find opportunities living abroad, example: exchange programs at university, internships abroad  or scholarships. Just ask your international coordinator about available opportunities.

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