Central America overland travel guide

Central America overland travel guide


Central America is one idyllic isthmus flanked by both the Caribbean and Pacific. A troubled region for many years, with a history of coups and crises, many parts of it remain untouched by tourism, even though they are now living through much more peaceful times. To travel around a selection of them, it can be hard to get your head around where to even start, with Mayan ruins a plenty, adventures abounding and beaches a go go. This is where overland trips step in, taking you on well crafted odysseys created by local experts. With an itinerary that might take you through six countries in a few weeks, you don’t have to do any planning, but you do have plenty of time to get off the bus and just do your own thing. Be it blissing out on a Belizean beach, doing a night hike on a Nicaraguan volcano or white water rafting in Costa Rica.
Find out more in our Central America overland travel guide.

Is a Central America overland holiday for you?


Overland holidays through Central America vary in style, but the one thing they have in common is that they are minimum two weeks in length. Travelling in a small group, usually around 16 people maximum, there are plenty of solo travelers and a mixture of age groups although the minimum age tends to be 16. In Central America the majority of overland trips use public transport, in particular buses, and boats when necessary – making them overwater trips too in most cases. What with two coastlines and a wonderful collection of islands, cays and peninsulas to explore, ferries are often the only way.
Not surprisingly, there may be long days of travel, or border crossings that involve some patience, but this is all part of the adventure. The itineraries are planned so that after a long travel day you will have time to chill in some beautiful place, but these are still trips where you can justify investing in a good travel pillow.
Some trips cover as many as seven countries; others may do a smaller block such as Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama make another trio treat. In each country, your holiday company will follow a carefully crafted itinerary; however, these are also trips that invite an independent traveller approach rather than a spoon fed one, so there is usually plenty of time to do your own thing.
Overland trips do vary in price, and to understand the variation we recommend you take the following factors into consideration:

  • How long is your trip? 15, 21, 31 days? The longer ones usually spend a few days in one place so that you can explore in more depth. Or chill for a bit.
  • Are flights included?
  • Are you travelling on public or private transport?
  • Are you staying in hotels or more budget accommodation such as homestays or camping?
  • If you are travelling solo, will you have your own room? In most cases you won’t, but one will be available for a supplemental cost. Check how much extra that will be.
  • Are meals included? Some trips only include breakfasts in the cost, leaving you the freedom to budget for the rest of your food, be it in markets, small cafes or higher end restaurants.
  • Check out the ‘Inclusions’ – some trips include a white water rafting trip, guided tours to Mayan sites or city tours. Others may make these optional extras, in which case do research the cost of each one.

Things to do on a Central America overland holiday


Things to do...

Take in at least one Mayan site.Some may be optional extras, but it would be a terrible shame not to see one of the greats. Such as Xunantunich in Belize, or Copan in Nicaragua. The Mayan Trail, or Ruta Maya, follows a route of great archaeological finds dating back to between 600-900AD.

Go out on Belize’s Barrier Reef. Few people realise that this small country has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and so do book in a trip to go snorkelling or swimming around one of the country’s cays, or sandy atolls. Caye Caulker is one of the most popular, with good conditions all year round.

See the wildlife. You will be travelling through some of the world’s most fauna fecund countries, so do take a guided hike out into the wilds. In the jungles around Tikal National Park in Guatemala, for example you will see spider monkeys, toucans and other stunning birdlife. Same goes for Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, with its capuchin and howler monkeys. In Costa Rica there are endless opportunities to see wildlife, such as at the primates, deer and wonderful birdlife in Monteverde Cloudforest or turtles in Tortuguero National Park.

Eat up the local culture. Literally. Always eat what and where the locals eat if you can. Try the casado set lunch in Costa Rica, güirilas tortillas in Nicaragua, falmaau fish cooked in coconut milk in Belize and arrachera, a really tender cut of steak in Mexico. And Choco Guate Maya in Guatemala is the biz.

Things not to do….

Exploit the poverty. Some tourists think you can get everything on the cheap in Central America, especially in countries like Nicaragua and Guatemala. But as tourism infrastructures improve, prices go up too. As do local costs. So, don’t come demanding everything for a dollar. It’s just demeaning.

One of the biggest safety issues in Central America, with so many beaches, is riptides. Few beaches have life guards. Never go into the water in areas where there are known to be riptides –If you do find yourself being carried rapidly away from the shore, don’t swim against the current; you won’t beat it. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the rip, or float until the current subsides.

Buy anything made from coral, tortoise shell and ancient jade. Central America is packed with artisans, from food to fabric, so leave room in your luggage for those instead.

Arrive into a tiny village armed with cameras but no sense of subtlety or empathy for local people’s feelings. Treating people as objects for your entertainment is wrong. Or at least ask first, after you have spent a bit of time there. ‘Puedo tomar una foto?’ is the phrase you need for that one.

Central American countries are well policed now in tourist areas. Avoid walking around cities at night, where gang violence and robberies can still be a problem. Vigilance, and having two copies of ID, one with you at all times, are good things.
If you'd like to chat about Central America Overland or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Rosy & team.
01273 823 700

Best time for a Central America overland tour


Central America is hot and humid with coastal and mountain influences. The dry season is generally the best time to visit Central America which is Jan-Mar in most countries. Further south, Nov-April is (fairly) dry in Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras, although these are the tropics, so you can expect a shower or two, especially along the Caribbean. Costa Rica is driest and sunniest late Dec-April, but clouds lift a little later from Belize and Panama, around Feb. Some overland tours don’t operate during the really heavy rainy seasons, but many go for the long haul all year round.
Costa Rica and Belize, in particular, pack out during US/European public and school holidays, in the honeypot areas.

Mexico is mammoth, so the weather is complex. November until April it is dry on the coast, but teeming with tourists. You may even get snow in the mountains between December and February.

February until mid April is peak season for cruise ships which frequent the big ports of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal. Time your day trips to avoid the cruise crowds, who all tend to go back on board for dinner late afternoon.

Tour operators that work through the rainy season will often start off early in the morning, as rain usually comes in the afternoon. So be prepared to do your visiting by morning and night, and enjoy an afternoon siesta, either on the bus or on the beach.

Hurricanes do happen, but they are not the norm. Honduras and Guatemala have been hit in the past, but not seriously since 1998. They are very rare in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua.
Photo Credits: [Bus: Victoria Reay] [Temperature box: Lauri Väin] [Helpdesk: Stefan Krasowski]
Written by Catherine Mack
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