The most frustrating and stressful part of traveling in Central America is getting from point A to point B. The roads are awful and, though there are plenty of local buses, they are usually decrepit and packed and take forever. It is often wise to spring for a private shuttle, especially if you are traveling with other people. (The international bus companies that travel between Central America countries have much better standards.). Because car-rental agencies don't allow cars to be taken across international borders, it's very difficult to drive from country to country. And there is zero train service.
Copa (tel. 800/359-2672; www.copaair.com) offers the most comprehensive plane service in Central America. The Panama-based airline travels between all the capital cities and is a strategic partner with Continental Airlines. Grupo Taca (tel. 800/400-8222; www.taca.com), also has several routes between Central American countries.
Many countries offer "puddle jumper" or propeller-airline flights. These flights are not for the fainthearted, as you literally sit right behind the pilots and it can get a little claustrophobic. As you are checking in, the plane's crew will weigh your bags and then weigh you so as not to overload the aircraft -- you'll want to pack light.
No matter what flight you book, always be sure to reconfirm your flight upon arrival.
Though they're a hassle, a bus journey in Central America will likely be one of the lasting memories of your trip. (They're also by far the cheapest way to get around.) Chaotic bus stations, pushy touts, hordes of vendors, and buses packed with people and with livestock will, at the very least, truly allow you to feel that you have left home.
There are different types of buses throughout Central America and each country may use different terms, but they generally fall into the following categories: Local buses, otherwise known as "chicken buses," are the cheapest and slowest; they stop frequently and are generally an old, dilapidated American school bus with colorful clientele that may include small farm animals. Many of these buses are intercity or urban buses that service the satellite towns of a particular city. Expreso buses are like chicken buses, in that they are cheaper and slower, but they do not stop (in theory) between cities. They also run much less frequently than the local buses.
Probably the most inconvenient aspect of local bus travel in Central America is that many towns or cities have no central bus stations. In lieu of that, the "stations" are dirty platforms beside busy markets on the city outskirts, where overly enthusiastic touts literally grab tourists' bags and run them to the next departing bus. Many bus lines therefore do not have ticket offices, so you'll have to buy your ticket on the bus.
International buses run between major cities; these tend to be newer units and more comfortable, although very few are so new or modern as to have bathroom facilities, and they sometimes operate only on weekends and holidays. One advantage is they have their own private terminals so you avoid the chaos of heading to a local market to catch a bus. There are several express bus companies that provide services between Central American countries. Tica Bus (tel. 529/62-626-2880 in Mexico, or 507/314-6385 in Panama; www.ticabus.com) is one of the most reputable and travels from Mexico to Panama. King Quality (tel. 505/228-1454; www.kingqualityca.com) does not go as far north as Mexico but has a reputation for having more comfortable buses. Trans Nica (tel. 505/277-2104 in Nicaragua) and Central Line (tel. 505/254-5431 in Nicaragua) are two other well-known companies.
If traveling with another person, it is often wise to have one person in charge of luggage while the other secures the bus, tickets, and seats. It is also best to hold onto your bags when boarding and store them above your head where you can see them. Another good tip is when arriving at a terminal (if there is one), check out the departing timetable and book your seat (if you can) for when you plan to leave in a few days.
An alternative busing option is microbuses. These are small minivans that depart as soon as they fill up with passengers, which usually means every 20 minutes. Their main advantage is they depart from city-center locations. However, they can get crowded and are not recommended for long journeys, especially when traveling with luggage.
Pickup trucks are a popular form of public transport in rural areas. Bumpy and uncomfortable, they are often covered in canvas to protect the mostly local passengers from the elements.
Shuttle buses are becoming more and more popular, too. These are privately organized tourist transfers between cities, usually operated by a tour agency or hotel. Much more comfortable and faster than local transport, they are also a lot more expensive.
For a sense of distance, to travel south between all capital cities starting at Belize and ending in Panama is approximately 1,400km (868 miles) and would take 4 days of nonstop traveling.
There is no shortage of taxis in all major towns and cities. There are some differences to how they operate, however. For example, in some countries, taxis have no meter. If this is the case, make sure you agree on a price before climbing in and ascertain whether the price is per person or trip. Sharing with strangers is another frequent occurrence, and you may find yourself waiting while the driver stops along the way to pick up more people. This practice should be avoided at night.
In general, taxis are cheap, but keep in mind that the increasing price of gas is making transportation more expensive throughout the region, so prices quoted in this book are subject to change.
Central America's taxis are usually safe to hail from the street without going to special taxi stations. At night you'll need to call a cab from your hotel or restaurant, as many big-city streets are not safe to walk after dark. Never get into an unmarked car claiming to be a taxi.
The Caribbean provides many opportunities to travel by small boat. Small, local water taxis travel to the Bay Islands in Honduras, Caye Caulker in Belize, Bocas del Toro in Panama, and the Corn Islands in Nicaragua. In general, the shorter the ride, the smaller and more uncomfortable the boat will be. Some ferries are rusting hulks, such as the one that carries people, livestock, and cars to Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua. Larger boats, like the ones that cross Lago Nicaragua from Granada to San Carlos, may have first- and second-class seating but that's often on a first-come, first-served basis. First-class passengers generally get a sheltered bench below deck, while second-class passengers get seating on the exposed deck above. A hammock is invaluable on such extended voyages.
Note that boats can be particularly crowded around holiday time, especially Easter week, and common safety precautions should be taken during any trip.
Renting a car in Central America is no idle proposition. The roads are riddled with potholes, most rural intersections are unmarked, and, for some reason, sitting behind the wheel of a car seems to turn peaceful Central Americans into homicidal maniacs. But unless you want to see the country from the window of a bus or pay exorbitant amounts for private transfers, renting a car might be your best option for independent exploring. (If you don't want to put up with any stress on your vacation, it might be worthwhile springing for a driver, though.)
Be forewarned, however: Although rental cars no longer bear special license plates, they are still readily identifiable to thieves and are frequently targeted. (Nothing is ever safe in a car in Central America, although parking in guarded parking lots helps.) Transit police also seem to target tourists; never pay money directly to a police officer who stops you for any traffic violation.
Before driving off with a rental car, be sure that you inspect the exterior and point out to the rental-company representative every tiny scratch, dent, tear, or any other damage. It's a common practice with many Central American car-rental companies to claim that you owe payment for minor dings and dents that the company finds when you return the car. Also, if you get into an accident, be sure that the rental company doesn't try to bill you for a higher amount than the deductible on your rental contract.
These caveats aren't meant to scare you off from driving in Central America. Thousands of tourists rent cars here every year, and the large majority of them encounter no problems. Just keep your wits about you and guard against car theft and you'll do fine. Also keep in mind that four-wheel-drives are particularly useful in the rainy season (May to mid-Nov) and for navigating the bumpy, poorly paved roads year-round.
Among the major international agencies operating in Central America are Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National, Payless, and Thrifty.
Generally speaking, speed limits in the region are about 60 to 80kmph (37-50 mph) on major roadways and slower on secondary roads. You'll want to stick to this limit, as police speed traps are common, and you don't want a speeding ticket to put a damper on your trip.
It's sometimes cheaper to reserve a car in your home country rather than book when you arrive. If you know you'll be renting a car, it's always wise to shop around and reserve it well in advance for the high season because the rental fleet often can't match demand.
Note: Estimated driving times are listed throughout this book, but bear in mind that it might take longer than estimated to reach your destination during the rainy season or if roads have deteriorated.
The Art of Addresses in Central America
Addresses are an inexact science throughout Central America. Larger cities sometimes list building numbers in addresses but not always, and small-town addresses remain a simple set of directions usually mentioning the street, the neighborhood, a nearby landmark, the city, the state (or "departmento"), and the country. A typical small-town address might read, "4 Avenida Norte, Barrio El Centro across from the cathedral, La Paz, El Salvador." But most of the time, all you'll need is the name of the hotel, restaurant, or attractions to get you where you need to go.
Route numbers are very rarely used on road signs in Central America, although there are frequent signs listing the number of kilometers to various towns or cities. Your best bets for on-road directions are billboards and advertisements for hotels. It's always a good idea to know the names of a few hotels at your destination, just in case your specific hotel hasn't put up any billboards or signs. When taking a taxi, always try and have the address of your destination in Spanish so there are no misunderstandings with the driver.
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.