Overlanding Central America is not as intimidating as guide books may have you believe. There are many options ranging in comfort, cost, and travel time. In this post we distill down your options to help you make easier decisions and avoid some of the pitfalls we found along the road.
Buses and shuttles
Buses and shuttles are the most common mode of transportation and inexpensive but can take a very long time. Here are the typical options.
1. “Chicken buses” are retired US school buses painted with neat designs, chromed out, and full the brim with people, luggage, and sometimes chickens. These buses stop regularly so progress is slow but they are very cheap like $.50 USD per hour of travel. Fares are sometimes posted but if you get on or off mid route, are negotiable. There’s typically one person on the bus in charge of money who watches for folks getting on and then gives them a price for where they want to go. They may try to take advantage of you and charge much more than is reasonable to see what they can get away with. Watch how much the locals pay to not get taken to the cleaners. Folks may try to charge you extra for large bags or for random reasons like being tall. That’s a bunch of malarkey as long as your bag fits in the overhead rack or in your lap. The language barrier can be a challenge though so keep the overall cost in perspective and pick your battles. Don’t sweat a dollar or two because you’ll be on the bus with everyone for a while!
2. “Tica buses” are traditional tour buses with AC, reclining seats, and multiple stops. These buses range in quality, comfort, and reliability and are rather inexpensive overall but some routes can be oddly expensive. Try to avoid the back of the bus since the bathroom stinks worse after each hour of travel. If those are the only seats left as was always the case for us, there is sometimes a window in the bathroom that you can open up which helps tremendously. Bathroom doors tended to not close well so give it a good slam. Also, if it rains, the back of the bus has the highest chance of leaks in the ceiling. Overall, try to board the bus at its point of origin rather than jumping on halfway through a route for a chance at a better seat.
3. “Shuttles” are large 15 passenger vans that tend to make straight shot trips from one backpacker hub to another. These range in quality as well, some with AC and movies, and tend to be the fastest since they are usually straight-shot transportation with stops only for gas and food breaks. They are more expensive at about $5 USD per hour. They tend to have great movie selections as well!
We used all three types but preferred shuttles since they were more reliable and quicker and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover with a short time to do it.
Booking ground transportation
Booking transportation is easy and can be done at the plethora of travel agencies in towns or through the front desks at hostels. You don’t have to stay at a hostel to book transportation through them. Generally, there are only a few companies with the vehicles while the hostels and travel agencies act as the middle men to consolidate travelers onto the same shuttle, and they get a small kickback for bringing in the traveler. Sometimes you can book directly with the shuttle company for cheaper and some companies offer discounts to repeat travelers (10% discount). Be sure to ask whether you’ll have to switch vehicles or drivers along the route. Switching vehicles can add many hours to your travel time because it means you will get dumped off in a random town probably in the opposite direction from where you want to go where you’ll have to hope the next shuttle comes through to pick you up. One of our hostels did this to us and a 7 hour trip became 15 hours. If you’re going off the beaten path, this maneuver becomes more common unless you are traveling with a big enough group (4+ people) to warrant hiring a dedicated van.
Regardless of vehicle, we learned the hard way that you are at the mercy of the state of roads, fickle traffic, and inefficient borders. We learned to double the estimated travel time that Google Maps gives you. Guatemala was particularly difficult because there are just not many roads so you only have a couple routes between regions. They have trouble with landslides and erosion in the mountains and I heard one route was no longer safe to travel due to highway robberies. Some roads were so bumpy that our fitbit registered the potholes as steps! Land border crossings can take 15 minutes or 4 hours. It helps to have a knowledgeable driver to get you to the right people and tell you what to expect. In Nicaragua for instance, we had to have our temperature taken, the bus sprayed down with a mystery chemical, and money exchanged with some shady guys with fanny packs. Our driver made the process much smoother than it could’ve been. Also, expect long delays for random security checkpoints and expect your driver to be pulled over for miscellaneous “fines” which happened twice on different trips for us.
While on the shuttle, your butt and back will hurt. We found these handy therma-rest style foam pads to sit on which help some. It’s also rather difficult to sleep since the roads are windy and many vehicles have choppy manual transmissions. Regardless of what you try, you’ll likely need some recovery time the next day to get your legs and head back to normal.
Our two best shuttle rides were with a company called Roneey. They were very fast to respond online and through Whatsapp and by far the most efficient transportation service. They wave at all the police, border agents, and friends in the towns they go through which I could tell greased the wheels a bit for how smoothly we were able to travel across countries.
Flights can be quite expensive in Central America. It seems like a few budget airlines dominate certain cities and routes which makes flights reasonable in cost and simplicity whereas other origin or destination points can be three times more expensive with many transfers and long layovers. Flights can save you days of bus travel and come out to a similar cost to a multi-leg vehicle trip with overnight lodging in towns along the road. They’re worth considering but require you to be flexible with origin, destination, and dates. Flights can also be a welcome, well-deserved respite from brutal bus rides.
Ubers are very rare in Central America. The only city we found any was in San Jose, Costa Rica and they were cheap, reliable, and had nice cars. Overall, the cities in Central America are small so there’s not much need for ubers or taxis. Spanish urban planning was consistent in Central America’s colonial towns so you have consistent grid formats from city to city making navigation easier as well. You don’t have the same suburban sprawl as in many US cities so urban areas are dense with places to stay, eat, and be entertained. Taxis are useful when you get caught in a flash thunderstorm but prices can be all over the place. Try to get the price before setting off in the taxi otherwise you’re at the mercy of whatever the driver thinks of you since few taxis seemed to have meters. In general, it’s not as bad as online forums and hotels lead you to believe.
Good ol’ fashioned walking
We felt safe walking around the streets of all the Central American towns we visited. Like in the US, be conscientious of your surroundings and don’t go down dark alleys at night. You can’t text and walk in colonial towns because you will fall in a hole. Sidewalks are a patchwork of driveways, steps, and wooden planks and the mysterious holes leading to the sewer can be ankle or even waist deep. Also, signs for street names are rare. We relied heavily on Google Maps and zen navigation. Asking for directions was only somewhat successful because, particularly in Costa Rica, folks don’t want to seem like they don’t know so they sometimes make up an answer and send you on a wild goose chase. When in doubt, ask a couple of people and compare those directions. Lastly, the plentiful stray dogs seemed quite nice and somebody must watch out for them. They’re good at begging and play the poor puppy dog card well. They were even picky about the treats you snuck them!
Written by: Colin
I spent 3 full days shopping around for travel insurance ruining my recent lasik by pouring through countless pages of fine print. I had at least 50 tabs open to try to compare information but ultimately turned to good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil and cold calling the companies. In this post, I’ll cover how we chose our insurance, what level of coverage we chose, and pitfalls that I’d love for you to avoid. A strong word of advice is to become extremely familiar with the fine print of the plan you end up choosing because if you do not follow their terms and conditions perfectly, you will be left with the fat bill.
We ended up purchasing 2 different plans. For travel medical insurance, we chose IMG’s Patriot International plan with a $500k limit, $0 deductible, and the Adventure Sports package add on. For personal property insurance, we chose USAA’s tailored renter’s insurance.
A brief case for purchasing travel insurance
I’ll be a bit harsh and say you are dumb not to purchase travel insurance. With all the time, effort, and money you’ve poured into orchestrating an extensive trip, an injury, sickness, or the loss of your gear can easily kill everything. For about $125 per month, we’re both fully covered for any big problems on our trip. Bottom line, this should be considered a required cost for extended travel.
Determining the type of coverage you need
There is a sea of companies offering a dizzying number of insurance types. The devil is certainly in the detail and unfortunately, I did not find any comparison site that adequately compared options or offered unbiased critiques. Here are some factors to decide to help narrow down the field.
Duration of coverage is a key factor and can be broken into short term (<1 month), mid length (<6 months), and long term (6+ months). Some plans are geared towards the big spending short term traveler and the plan’s benefits are sweeter and best for a strict schedule traveler with a lot of prepaid, upfront expenses. The mid length traveler plans scale back some benefits and assume the traveler has a bit more flexibility in their schedule. Long term plans assume even greater flexibility in a traveler’s schedule and offer plans that can be purchased to cover 12 months at a time. Many companies target certain segments only so for a long term trip like ours, their plans were either astronomically expensive or only available for 2 to 3 months at a time. I certainly did not want to have to buy new coverage every 2 months.
The second major factor to consider is whether you need trip cancellation coverage. This means that if you have paid for a good chunk of the trip before going and some unforeseen problem arises that causes you to cancel the trip, those prepaid, non-refundable expenses will be reimbursed. This coverage is quite expensive and significantly drives up the overall cost. For Sara and me, we want to be flexible and aren’t in a rush, so we do not book much in advance and if we had to cancel something, we wouldn’t lose much. Top of the line Cadillac insurance plans typically include trip cancellation insurance but your overall cost can double and even triple.
The next factor to consider is the total coverage and deductible. Emergency evacuation, long term hospitalization, or extended illnesses can get extremely costly. I read many articles on the topic and the consensus is that travelers should have a minimum of $100k total coverage out of their travel insurance. In the plan we ultimately chose, the most advantageous price point was to increase our cost by $8 per month to increase our total coverage to $500k each. Deductibles also have a dramatic effect on overall cost and typically range from $0 to $2,500. Plans with $0 deductibles were about twice the total cost of plans with $2,500 deductibles but filing one claim would be almost 4 times the cost of the insurance itself. Unfortunately, few companies give you the ability to choose different coverage levels and deductibles, therefore requiring you to shop around a lot between companies.
Lastly, I wanted insurance that would cover Sara and me in adventure sports like diving, mountain biking, spelunking, parasailing, skiing, etc. These sports come with more risk so many companies do not want to get into this market. This requirement significantly narrowed down our list of options.
Comparing companies and plans
There is no easy way to compare insurance companies and their plans. In addition, the water is muddied by biased reviews and guerrilla marketing. One company in particular, World Nomads, appears to sponsor many travel bloggers to write glowing reviews of their service. Oddly, the only positive reviews were in syrupy sweet posts on travel blogs that also had blatant advertising banners for World Nomads. Outside of these high profile blogs, every other public review source had nightmarish reviews of the company’s poor performance and service.
However, reviews must be taken with a grain of salt because there’s not much impetus to write positive reviews online and the insurance industry operates on the slim chances that the insurance will ever be needed. As a result, most customers pay for the insurance but never use it. The small percentage of folks who do use it have bigger concerns than posting a review of the service online. Generally, the reason you’d post a review is if you had a poor experience and the worse the experience, the more likely you are to post a review. Positive reviews are rare but to me, hold more weight.
World Nomads has a slick website and easy interface, is endorsed by Lonely Planet and National Geographic, and underwritten by Nationwide Insurance. I thought they’d be the easy choice until I started to dig through online reviews. The horror stories in these forums scared me. As a result, I entered this pattern where I’d read terrible reviews about World Nomads then turn to the headache inducing task of trolling other insurance companies’ websites, give up after making no progress, return to World Nomads and find a new forum of even worse reviews, then troll through more confusing websites and fine print to compare other companies. I completed this cycle 5 or 6 times until I finally picked up the phone to go over coverage options line by line. Note that there are plans and great addons that aren’t listed online.
By this time, I’d tossed out World Nomads as a brilliant advertising company but terrible insurance company. After calling a few, IMG came out on top by meeting all our essential criteria and allowing customers to choose coverage limits and deductible amounts. However, the hang up was that their plan didn’t cover any personal property from theft and had far too low of reimbursements for lost luggage. Our life is in our packs so losing these puts a big dent in our travel plans.
At this point, I began researching personal property insurance. Many companies shy away from insuring electronics since they are prime targets for theft and easily damaged. It was easy to find companies willing to insure our stinky clothes and dirty packs but insurance for electronics was rare and expensive. Luckily, we’d already bought accidental damage insurance for our major electronic items so renter’s insurance was a great option since it covers theft but not accidental damage for all items we’re traveling with. My easiest option for renter’s insurance was to stick with USAA which I’ve been happy with for the past 6 years.
As a result, with IMG covering our travel medical needs, and USAA covering our items, I sincerely hope our bases are covered. I also hope to never have to use either plan but if we do, I’ll update everyone on how each company performs and post a review online...
Sara & Colin
We are figuring out our travel as we go along, and we'd love to help you out with yours! If you want to read more of our travel thoughts, check out each of our personal blogs by clicking the images below.