In the spring of 2011, Gibran and I made a spur of the moment decision to drive to Costa Rica instead of flying. It turned out to be the right decision for us, and it was one of those situations where everything really fell into place and just worked. We didn’t have the perfect set up in terms of our vehicle/home on wheels, but it worked just fine for our first time doing the drive, (or trial run, as I like to call it). We learned a great deal about traveling long distances via vehicle and know exactly how we will do it next time. Here are a few things that we learned that could prove to be helpful for those on the brink of making a decision of whether to drive or not to drive to Central America.
The road conditions in Central America were much better than we had anticipated. We experienced two different “seasons” as we drove down in November, at the end of the rainy season, and then back in July, at the beginning of the rainy season; however, both times we were pleasantly surprised. We drove down the Interamerican Highway, and only a few times did we stray from it. The one country that stuck out to us as being in the worst shape (potholes, loose gravel and rocks, and bumps) was Honduras, which also happens to contain the shortest piece of the Interamerican Highway.
For the most part, the Interamerican Highway contains a great deal of twists, turns, and hills. It’s also single lane so you have to be prepared to do some sketchy maneuvers, and it is definitely recommended that the person who drives is someone with significant experience and comfort level behind the wheel. If you have driven anywhere in North America, the rules of the road are for the most part the same, but adhered to much more loosely.
Like all forms of travel, if you play it safe there is a very good chance that you won’t run into any troubles. Having a car definitely makes foreigners much more conspicuous and it can be more of a hassle, (for example having to find secure parking, especially in some of the older and more touristy cities). However, there are great benefits to having a vehicle — especially for those who want to surf their way down the coast — that far outweigh the risks.
We heard a lot of brouhaha about how dangerous Central America is, and as we traveled we realized that most of this was unfounded. In fact, in almost every country people think their own country is very safe while being suspicious that their neighbors’ country is incredibly dangerous. This did not prove to be true in our case; for us, with each new country we were welcomed warmly and treated very well.
Gibran and I are what you could call “old fogeys”… aside from surfing we don’t really do much that is considered exciting. We don’t really go out, we refrain from substances of all kinds, (except the occasional beer), and we go to bed pretty early. This might be one of the reasons that we had no issues in Central America… our time there was very “tranquilo”. In terms of driving, we stayed off the roads after dark, we didn’t stop at random places on the road, (and especially not rest stops/lookout points), and we didn’t stray too far off the beaten track. We also both speak Spanish and blend in pretty much everywhere we go, (the brown skin advantage), which is worth noting.
Driving North vs. Driving South
Everyone told us that driving north would be much worse than driving south in terms of sketchiness level and delays. Since the drug corridor is south to north, we also figured we’d be detained at borders and check points. However this did not prove to be true, in fact, our experience was that we were stopped much more going south than we were going north. At some of the borders they didn’t even look in our vehicle!
If you choose to drive through Central America you will find that some things are probably more expensive than you are used to, (Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Europe), whereas some are much cheaper. In general, Central America is a very affordable place to spend time, and specifically in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
- Gas: in some Central American countries gas is double what you would pay in Mexico or the United States
- Spare car parts/fluids: Be sure to stock up on anything that you might need as in many Central American countries things are difficult (and sometimes impossible, depending on the vehicle you have) to find, and/or extremely overpriced
- Food: from groceries to meals out, pretty much everything you find in Central America is at least a little cheaper, and more often quite significantly cheaper
- Lodging: there are always options for cheap lodging in Central America, and if you are driving you have the option of bringing camping gear and taking advantage of the camping options throughout Central America
In Our Experience
For us, the drive through Central America was really awesome and totally worthwhile. Our only regret is that we had a strict timeframe we needed to adhere to and didn’t get to spend enough time in the places we liked or exploring new places. We would do it again in a heartbeat and will, when we have another opportunity to.