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Central America's population of 40 million people comes from diverse backgrounds: indigenous, European, African, and West Indian. Because of the history of Spanish influence in this region, mestizos (people of both Amerindian and Spanish ancestry) are in the majority. As you head from Panama north, the population of Central America becomes more indigenous. Mestizos are in the majority until you reach Guatemala, which has a predominantly Maya culture. Belize also has a tiny population of 4,000 Mennonites who migrated from Mexico in the 1950s. And along the Atlantic coast, there's a strong African presence that is more West Indian than Latin American in spirit. Most of the communities along this coast are English-speaking.

Though there is much variety, there are some constants in Latin American society. One is an acute wealth gap, with 50% of the population living below the poverty level. The other is a pervasive machista attitude. Women are very much still tied to the home, though this attitude is gradually changing and women (especially those in cities) are becoming more independent. Finally, innate racism is unfortunately prevalent in all countries. The lighter your skin, the more educated, sophisticated, and richer you are thought in everyone's eyes.

Most of Central America is also primarily a Roman Catholic society, and family is an integral part of the culture here. Offspring, especially daughters, often remain with their families until they're married and even then multiple generations frequently continue to live in the same house. Most small towns offer little nightlife, since restaurants and shops shutter at dark. Instead, evenings are spent at home or in the town square -- nearly every major town in the region is built around a central square that serves as a meeting spot for that community. In most Central American countries, fĂștbol, or soccer, competes with baseball as the leading sport. In countries such as Nicaragua, there is a baseball stadium in even the smallest towns.

One thing you'll find about Central Americans is that they are a warm and outgoing people who are eager to help strangers. Though most folks across the region no longer indulge in afternoon siestas, you will notice that things move at a languid pace. Take for granted that any informal meeting will start 30 minutes late. This is not true regarding tourism -- tour buses, for example, are expected to leave on time.

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.