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Telephones

Central America's phone systems differ in quality. For example, Costa Rica's system is much more efficient than that in Nicaragua. A local call generally costs just a few pennies per minute. Calls to cellphones or between competing phone companies can be much more expensive. Public phones are very rare, although calling cards are sold in most grocery and general stores. Your hotel is usually your best bet for making calls or sending and receiving faxes, although it may charge exorbitant rates for international faxes.

Your best, cheapest bet for making international calls it to head to any Internet cafe with an international calling option. These cafes have connections to Skype, Net2Phone, or some other VoIP service. International calls made this way can range anywhere from 5¢ (3p) to $1 (50p) per minute -- much cheaper than making direct international calls or using a phone card. If you have your own Skype or similar account, you just need to find an Internet cafe that provides a computer with a headset.

Note that a number of establishments like shops and bars in smaller towns throughout this region do not have working land lines -- these have been listed wherever possible.

Using a Cellphone

The three letters that define much of the world's wireless capabilities are GSM (Global System for Mobiles), a big, seamless network that makes for easy cross-border cellphone use throughout Central America and dozens of other regions worldwide. In the U.S., T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless, and Cingular use this quasi-universal system; in Canada, Microcell and some Rogers customers are GSM, and all Europeans and most Australians use GSM. Unfortunately, per-minute charges on roaming phone calls can be high -- usually $1.50 to $3.50 (75p-£1.25) in this region.

For many, renting a phone is a good idea. (Even world phone owners will have to rent new phones if they're traveling to non-GSM regions, such as Japan or Korea.) While you can rent a phone from any number of overseas sites, including kiosks at airports and at car-rental agencies, we suggest renting the phone before you leave home. North Americans can rent one before leaving home from InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626; www.intouchglobal.com) or RoadPost (tel. 888/290-1606 or 905/272-5665; www.roadpost.com). InTouch will also, for free, advise you on whether your existing phone will work overseas; simply call tel. 703/222-7161 between 9am and 4pm EST, or go to http://intouchglobal.com/travel.htm.

Buying a phone can be economically attractive, as many Central American nations have cheap prepaid phone systems. Once you arrive at your destination, stop by a local cellphone shop and get the cheapest package; you'll probably pay less than $100 (£50) for a phone and a starter calling card. Local calls may be as low as 10¢ (5p) per minute, and in many countries incoming calls are free.

Wilderness adventurers, or those heading to less-developed parts of Central America, might consider renting a satellite phone ("satphone"). It's different from a cellphone in that it connects to satellites and works where there's no cellular signal or ground-based tower. You can rent satellite phones from RoadPost . InTouch USA offers a wider range of satphones but at higher rates. Per-minute call charges can be even cheaper than roaming charges with a regular cellphone, but the phone itself is more expensive. As of this writing, satphones were outrageously expensive to buy, so don't even think about it.

Internet Access Away from Home

Without Your Own Computer -- It's hard nowadays to find a major city in Central America that doesn't have a few cybercafes. Although there's no definitive directory for cybercafes -- these are independent businesses, after all -- two places to start looking are at www.cybercaptive.com and www.cybercafe.com.

Aside from formal cybercafes, most youth hostels and hotels nowadays have at least one computer you can get to the Internet on, and many provide at least 15 minutes free.

If you need to access files on your office computer, look into a service called GoToMyPC (www.gotomypc.com). The service provides a Web-based interface for you to access and manipulate a distant PC from anywhere -- even a cybercafe -- provided your "target" PC is on and has an always-on connection to the Internet (such as with Road Runner cable). The service offers top-quality security, but if you're worried about hackers, use your own laptop rather than a cybercafe to access the GoToMyPC system.

Where Are You @? -- The @ symbol is hard to find on a Latin American keyboard. You must keep your finger on the "Alt" key and then press "6" and "4" on the number pad to the right. If you're still unsuccessful and at an Internet cafe, ask the assistant to help you type an arroba.

With Your Own Computer -- More and more hotels, cafes, and retailers in Central American cities are signing on as Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) "hot spots." Mac owners have their own networking technology: Apple AirPort. iPass providers (www.ipass.com) also give you access to a few hundred wireless hotel lobby setups. To locate other hot spots that provide free wireless networks in cities around the world, go to www.personaltelco.net/index.cgi/WirelessCommunities. For dial-up access, most business-class hotels throughout Central America offer dataports for laptop modems.

Wherever you go, bring a connection kit of the right power and phone adapters, a spare phone cord, and a spare Ethernet network cable -- or find out whether your hotel supplies them to guests.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.