Summary of Driving Through Central America: To Do Or Not To Do

Driving Central America

Camping in Antigua, Guatemala

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.

Road Conditions

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.

The Truck Reposing

A few days’ stop in Barra de la Cruz, Oaxaca

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.

Safety

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!

Expenses

A Delicious Pancake Breakfast

Maintaining the budget by cooking

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.

More expensive:

  • 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

Cheaper:

  • 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.

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28 Responses to Summary of Driving Through Central America: To Do Or Not To Do

  1. Jake Cooper says:

    Hi,

    Thinking of driving up from Panama to Belize at the beginning of May and wondered if you could offer any advise. Our plan is to buy a largish vehicle in Panama and spend a month or two driving up and sleeping in the car, do you think that’s possible? Where did you guys sleep?

    Any advise would be awesome,

    Cheers,

    Jake

    • Gibran says:

      Hey Jake,

      My first piece of advice it to DO IT! It’s a great road trip. Sleeping in the car is surely an option, that was our lodging of choice (followed by camping and cheap hotels/hostels). That being said, you don’t need a very large vehicle, we slept in our Ford Ranger :). I will say that you do have to be careful and prudent about where you setup camp, and if you have the slightest inclination that it might not be a good place to car camp then just find a cheap hotel/hostel with parking. Make sure the car’s paperwork is in order (in your name or have a notarized piece of paper saying you have permission to take it across borders), you have your passports, and you should be all set. Be prepared to do a bit of running around at borders getting the vehicle permits, if you speak spanish it shouldn’t be a problem, and regardless just remember to be patient. One last thing, it’s been raining in Costa Rica (started early this year) so you may want to be prepared for some rain while driving and camping. Good luck, be safe and enjoy the ride!

  2. ollie says:

    hey me and a friend are driving down from mexico down to Argentina and was wondering if you had any sort of advice where we might encounter any trouble?
    any tips or advice would also be greatly appreciated. thank you.

    • Gibran says:

      Hi Ollie, sorry for just replying so late. The best tips I can give you are to: use common sense, keep a low-profile, and be patient at the borders. Enjoy it! Safe travels.

    • Bill says:

      Darien “gap” (100 miles?) at the border of Panama and Colombia is not drivable. Jungle, swamp, mountains, etc. infested with paramilitary that like to kidnap for ransom. A few jeep expeditions over the years have made it thru the terrain but not for the casual tourist. Good luck!

  3. Hola. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    I’ve been living in Costa Rica for a few years and am thinking of heading back home to the US. I really really want to drive back, I think it woud be amazing. My main concern is my dog. I didn’t see any mention of you having one, but do you? or did you see any dogs crossing borders?
    Bringing her into Costa Rica was a b*tch – so much paperwork. I can’t imagine having to do that while driving through all the borders…
    I’m wondering if I could just let her out, cross, and then call to her LOL.

    • Gibran says:

      Hi Erin, sorry for this overdue response. We don’t have a dog (or pets for that matter) but I know people do cross borders with their dogs. I don’t know anything about crossing borders with dogs so I’m afraid I can’t be of much help to you. I can however recommend you contact the good people over at sprinterlife.com, I know they travel with dogs. Good luck!

  4. Erica says:

    Thanks so much for the awesome information! My husband and I are driving from San Jose, Costa Rica to Cancun in November. We have to make it to a wedding so we unfortunately will only have four days for the trip. I’m just beginning my research and I’m wondering if you think four days is a realistic amount of time to complete this trip? I know we won’t be able to stop for much. I really appreciate any suggestions.

    Thanks!

    • Gibran says:

      Hi Erica! While it’s possible to drive that distance in 4 days, you may want to give yourself an extra day or two because anything can happen at the borders. For example, each time we went to cross the border between Honduras and El Salvador there was a border closures due to protesting truck drivers. We were lucky to be able to get through on the same day but road/border closures are risks when driving through Central America. I don’t say this to scare you, but it would be a shame to drive all that way and not make the wedding, so I would suggest you play it safe – at least on the way up. If you drive back and have more time, plan on spending some time Guatemala (it’s AMAZING!). Hope it all works out!

  5. Fredy Guzman says:

    Did you drive the truck back to the states? I’m driving to Brazil for the World Cup but I don’t want to drive the car back. I wouldn’t care to donate my car but I know that Brazil doesn’t allowed the import of vehicles not unless they are new or antiques. I have driven to Central America before and they stamp my passport with the vehicle information so I can’t just leave the car even if I wanted to. Any tips?

    • Gibran says:

      Hi Fredy! Yes, we drove the truck back to the states. I know of people driving to Central and South America one-way and selling their car, however I know that it’s tougher to sell a car in certain countries because of the country’s vehicle importation laws. I don’t know which countries in South America are more lenient but you should be able to find somewhere to sell/donate your vehicle. That’s probably not much help, but maybe it gives some hope 😉 Good luck!

  6. Glenn says:

    Hey, thanks for your posts and I have a couple of questions… we are living in Belize and will drive to Costa Rica in March wanting to surf along the way and take our time doing it. Can you suggest a route and spots you experienced to be memorable. Also, is it possible to get from Guatemala to El Salvador without entering Honduras? Did you surf in El Salvador? What about Nicaragua? Hope to hear back from you soon.

    Thanks in Advance,

    Glenn and LInda

    • Gibran says:

      Hello Glenn and Linda!
      You must drive through Honduras, there’s no way around it. The most memorable surf was in El Salvador around the El Tunco area, but there’s so many spots to surf in the country, it’s incredible! Also surfed Nicaragua (down south at Playa Maderas), though we didn’t get any decent swell, but it was still fun. We were in Nicaragua in November, if you go during the winter be sure to have some neoprene, I was told they wear full suits (3/2) in December/January, so be prepared!

      As far as a route, it all depends on your timetable. We always like to try to see a mix (Guatemala = mountains, El Salvador = beaches, Nicaragua = lakes and beaches), and if we like a place then we just stay for a while longer.

      Hope you have an amazing trip!

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Glenn/Linda,

      March 15th I’ll be driving from Costa Rica to Belize (maybe backtrack to Panama for a bit), want a car to explore the surf coast. Will you be selling your car once you’ve travelled to Costa Rica?

      Gibran, where did you purchase your car from, Costa Rica? Any hints and tips for a woman purchasing a second hand vehicle in Costa?

      Cheers,

      Michelle

      • Gibran says:

        Hi Michelle,

        Our car was from California, we drove California – Panama – California. I have not bought a car in Costa Rica but I don’t think I would recommend it because cars are very expensive there. Good luck!

  7. Michael says:

    Hi,

    Two friends of mine and I want to drive from Belize to Panama end of August beginning of September( we know quite rainy, but the only time possible for us). We are all European, but I live in the US. Do you think 3 weeks are a reasonable time frame? Also what would be the best option in terms of getting a car, renting is not an option I believe, as one way is not allowed over borders.
    thank you in advance for your feedback
    Best
    michael

    • Gibran says:

      Hi Michael,

      3 weeks is plenty of time to drive from Belize to Panama, it’s actually not that far (in miles or km). It all depends on how often you stop and for how long because there’s A LOT to see. You already mentioned it, but take into account the rainy season, though you should be safe there will still be the risk of heavy rains which means potential road closures. As for the car, you’d probably be able to sell the car in one of the countries, but I’m not sure what that would take because we drove our car down and back to California. Hope that helps, safe travels!

  8. Evelyn Cruz says:

    Hi Gibran. Iam planning a trip from Costa Rica into Miami Florida in a couple of weeks and planned on driving thru central America. My concern is how safe is it for a woman to be driving thru central America alone. What things do I need to look out for and also Iam traveling with my dog. I did some research on the net and found that dogs are okay to travel thru central America without being quaranteined. Please tell me your thoughts and I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks.

  9. Richard Bronson says:

    Great write. Thanks. I was wondering if you would add a few comments on border crossings, specifically paperwork, time delays, good to know kind of stuff. I’m considering a ride down. Like you I found both CR & Nicca easy to travel. (We did have to pay the police off once in Massaya $40) for a very minor infraction. Not doing so would have necessitated a visit to the court house. Our idea of corruption is their idea of doing business. And it is intertwined into the policing and the justice system. Another words, stay out of trouble! If you do get entangled it is down the rabbit hole. Have someone with you that speaks very good Spanish. Thanks.

  10. Susie says:

    Hi! My friend and are taking a trip around Central America. Thinking of renting a car and driving through the different countries. We were thinking of driving from Belize and ending in Panama City, seeing all the countries along the way. How can we get authorization to cross all the borders with our vehicle? I read earlier it’s best to drop the car off before crossing Colombia since the roads are swamp and jungle. Is this true?

    We also wanted to spend some time in Ecuador and Peru. Is there a ferry that leaves from Central America to Ecuador? We’re dying to swim with the manta rays!

  11. Jill says:

    Hello,
    I was wondering if it was more expensive to travel with a vehicle.You still had to rent places for showering and cooking, correct? how did that work? i’ve spent months traveling Central before and stayed cheaply at hostals as you mentioned.Most were never in a city and very off beaten paths.The gas was extremely high a couple of years back, and I’m wondering about border fees with a vehicle.Also how do then you go about getting a notarized letter saying its okay to take the car out of the country?Did you have to make any insurance adjustments? and lastly,where were y’all allowed to sleep in your vehicle? I know you said you were smart about everything,so I doubt you just parked in random spots.was it campsites mostly?thank you for any input,Im on a tight budget and wanted to drive to bring my dog and save money on lodging .cooking was extremely vital to keeping it low budget prior.I guess I should add,I.had zero camping gear backpacking so maybe that’s also what yall utilized .thanks again!!

  12. Jeff says:

    I’m just curious about driving thru thes countries with my pick up truck it’s sort of flashy with lots of chrome. Do you think this is a bad idea?

  13. Barry Kraham says:

    Hi guys,

    My wife and I live 4 months a year in Guatemala on Lake Atitlan.

    We plan to fly down to Guatemala in very early December getting our 4 wheel 4 year old Hyundai Tuscan and driving from Guate. to Panama we will have about a month to 5 weeks making a round trip back to our house.

    Any suggestions, we are not on a tight budget but like comfort with good value.

    I would like to think we are in very good shape for 69 and 70 years old and being thru much of Central America we can always learn what not to do and what we might discover.

    Thank B.

  14. Yisenia says:

    I’m in the process to take this drive to Costa Rica from Florida someone mentioned to me years ago and I just gave this look like are you crazy but I’m in a stage in my life that taking this trip will do me some good, I have no time restrictions since Im doing this for me. If anyone reading this and willing to take this journey with me your welcome to contact me. It’s just going to be me and my loyal friend. Sailandtrailcostarica@gmail.com

  15. Kelly Root says:

    Hi there,
    I am in the beginning stages of planning a trip from California through central america as far as costa rica and then back to California with my 10 year old daughter and boyfriend. We are going to be driving a camper van with the hopes of finding wonderful spots to camp and explore; also planning to WWOOF along the way. My question is, will we be fine traveling with limited Spanish skills? My partner and I both had years of Spanish in high school and plan to do a rosetta stone course or something before we head out in May, but hoping for a realistic perspective on the fluency level required to navigate borders and all.
    Thanks for your help!!
    Kelly

  16. Crystal says:

    Thank you so much for this page and sharing your experience! I was watching a Spanish film and the idea popped into my head that I want to take 6 months-1 year to drive from the US through Central America and maybe down through South America. I feel like I had a past life there and feel very called to spend a chunk of time there. What a great way to explore another part of the world! I’ll get back to y’all when I plan it out someday 😉

  17. kari says:

    Hi-

    I’m living in Panama but going to Costa Rica for at least a few months. We have a dog and a car. I’d like to take the car (and the dog!) across the border, but heard it’s very difficult because of bureaucracy and possibly paying taxes of 30% of the car’s value. I know the dog needs a lot of paperwork, and we’re more than willing to do that part of it. My question is: did anyone else encounter anything like crazy taxes on a vehicle at the borders, or was it easy to enter as a tourist with a car? Any advice would be super appreciated!

    • Gibran says:

      Hi Kari,

      The tourist tax for the vehicle was not very high in 2011-2012. I would assume that it’s gone up but I highly doubt it’s 30% of the vehicle’s value. I think the 30% you are referring to is when one is importing and registering a vehicle that is going to stay in-country permanently. Best of luck!

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