Covering seven countries and countless beaches, jungles, volcanoes and lost cities, Central America is surprisingly compact. The Pan-American Highway stretches nearly 2,000 km (1,240 miles) along this chain of Spanish-speaking countries, but the isthmus is no wider than 560 km (35o miles) at its widest point.
With enough time and patience, the seven countries can be traversed by bus, daisy-chaining from Guatemala and Belize through Honduras and El Salvador to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. With less time to spare, it’s easy to pair countries – perhaps Mayan pyramid jumping in Guatemala combined with scuba diving in Belize, or toucan sighting in Costa Rica combined with cruises along of the famous Panama Canal.
Here’s what you need to know to get around Central America.
The easiest and cheapest way to explore Central America is by bus
Central America has a bus for every budget and every type of traveler. The backbone of bus travel in the region is the “chicken bus” – these repurposed, brightly painted North American school buses cruise the highways, belching black smoke and stopping in every town and hamlet. The buses cover fixed routes with the destination displayed on the front windshield, and are as much a cultural experience as a way to get from point A to point B.
Many minivans follow similar routes to chicken buses, leaving when full for a slightly higher fare. Then there are tourist-oriented shuttles connecting the main hubs, such as those provided by Interbus in Costa Rica. In keeping with its famous green credentials, Costa Rica is testing electric buses in San José, with the aim of transitioning the entire country to all-electric buses by 2030. Pura vida!
For long-haul journeys between major cities, there are long-distance bus lines such as Ticabus, which serves destinations in the seven countries of the region using comfortable buses equipped with toilets, air conditioning, WiFi, reclining seats and on-board safety for less. stable parts of the isthmus.
Other useful lines include Trasnica, which operates in Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua, and Transporte del Sol in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
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Taxis are plentiful in all major cities.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful throughout Central America. However, tourists are often charged high fares, so try to use a radio taxi or an official taxi, rather than signaling a taxi on the street. If the taxi has a meter, insist on it being on or take another taxi. For longer journeys, you will normally need to negotiate a price – and confirm the currency! – Before leaving. Carry small tickets to pay for taxi rides and collect all your luggage before handing over cash.
Much to the chagrin of local taxi drivers, Uber is now available in Panama City (including Uber Assist for those with accessibility issues), Guatemala City and Antigua, San Salvador and the Central Valley of Costa Rica, and drivers will often take you across the country from these urban hubs. The local ridesharing app, inDriver, is available in all of the countries above, plus Honduras and Nicaragua.
Three-wheeled mototaxis – the Central American version of tuk-tuks – are becoming increasingly popular in many parts of the isthmus, with negotiated fares similar to taxis.
Renting a car is expensive, but great for exploring
Renting a car isn’t cheap in Central America, but it’s a great way to get off the beaten track and explore the isthmus at your own pace. Driving in Central America isn’t for the faint-hearted – you’ll face challenges ranging from bumper-to-bumper traffic in cities, to rural roads jammed with cows and wild animals, and erratic drivers ignoring traffic signs. traffic signs everywhere.
All major car rental companies have outlets at international airports, capital cities and popular tourist destinations. Most countries allow you to drive with your national driver’s license, but there’s no harm in having an international driver’s license just in case. You’ll pay a lot more for picking up a car from one location and dropping it off at another location, and even higher premiums for crossing international borders (if the company allows it).
A decent 4×4 vehicle is a must if you’re going off the beaten track and planning to tackle dirt roads. Always make sure the vehicle comes with all necessary safety equipment, including a working spare wheel, and always read the fine print of the rental agreement and carry as much insurance as possible to reduce what you may have payable in the event of an accident.
On the road, keep emergency service numbers handy in case of breakdown, and drive carefully and cautiously. Never leave valuables unattended in your car and avoid driving at night. Also keep your passport, driver’s license and rental papers handy in case you come into contact with the police.
A boat trip in Central America will take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise reach
Central America has two beach-studded coasts facing the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea and dozens of beautiful lakes and jungle-lined rivers. A boat can be the best – and sometimes the only – way to get from A to B.
On Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is only accessible by boat or plane, with small boats plying the wildlife-rich canals of its namesake national park. On the Pacific coast, a regular ferry service connects Puntarenas with Playa Naranjo and Paquera, providing easy access to year-round surf spots on the Nicoya Peninsula. And daily ferries operate from Golfito to Puerto Jiménez on the beautiful and wild Osa Peninsula.
In Guatemala, you can explore the myriad of Mayan villages that dot the shores of Lake Atitlan by lancha (public boat); Panajachel is the main hub for ferry services. And don’t miss a trip along one of the planet’s greatest man-made wonders, the Panama Canal, as you weave through these famous locks and admire the engineering genius of Culebra Cut. A partial transit of the Isthmus by cruise ship takes about six hours.
Let the plane take the pressure
If you’re rich in money and short on time, flying can take hours off many car journeys, though there’s an environmental impact to factor into those calculations. For example, the flight from Guatemala City to Flores – gateway to the towering temples of Tikal – takes just one hour, compared to an eight-hour bus ride.
Panama-based Copa Airlines and Colombian flag carrier Avianca operate the majority of services on the isthmus, and both are part of Star Alliance, which facilitates international transfers. Mexican carrier Volaris offers very reasonable low fares to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador.
You can also take a “puddle-jumper” – a small propeller plane used for short local hops and between the mainland and the island. You’ll share the small open space of the cabin with the pilot, and you’ll often be weighed with your baggage at check-in, so pack light.
These small planes are a popular alternative to long car journeys and bumpy boat rides to the outer islands of Central America. Useful routes include the Tropic Air service from Belize City to Caye Caulker, and the La Costeña shuttle from Bluefields and Managua to the Corn Islands of Nicaragua.
Urban transport is easy in major cities
Trains may be rare in Central America, but Panama City has the region’s first and only metro, connecting the northern and southern parts of the metropolitan area to downtown, with other lines in the works. development. You will need to buy a rechargeable Metro, MetroBus or RapiPass card to use the service, and these tickets also work on city buses.
In Costa Rica, the Interurbano line is a commuter train linking the provinces of San José, Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago in the lush Central Valley. In other major cities, transport to the city center is provided by fleets of local buses, mototaxis and conventional taxis.
My favorite way to travel in Central America is the “chicken bus”
Traveling in a chicken bus is an experience like no other. On trips across the isthmus, I’ve shared a seat with a shrill caged rooster and been swept off the bus by the voluminous skirts of Guatemalan ladies eager to get to market.
It’s always easy to strike up a conversation with fellow passengers – if you can hear them above the tinny music playing at a deafening volume on the bus stereo – and a little Spanish is enough to break the ice. The buses can be cramped, hot, dusty and sometimes downright dangerous as they spin around blind corners at breakneck speed, but the experience is never dull.
Accessible Travel in Central America
Central America still has a long way to go before it becomes a truly accessible destination, but it’s not all bad news. Strict accessibility laws made Costa Rica the world’s best accessible travel destination in 2021, and awareness of accessibility issues is growing in the region.
Throughout Central America, barriers include buildings with steps, poor (or absent) sidewalks, hotels with no elevators, a general lack of safe railroad crossings, and few accessible buses or boats. In general, renting a vehicle or using taxis is often the easiest option for people with reduced mobility. For more information, see Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel Resources page.