Central America Overland

  • Hi Guest, you may choose a LIGHT or DARK theme that works best for you with the "Style Chooser" button at the bottom left on this page!

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
We did 6-week road trip from Guatemala to Panama a few years ago. One of our favorite spots was Isla Ometepe. It is a volcanic island in Lake Nigaragua. Unique place. Ferry service will transport your vehicle over. My XJ on the ferry below. Thats Isla Ometepe in the background.

Ometepe is a small island, but there are some bad roads to explore. [emoji6]

There are many cool places to visit throughout Central America. Ive lived and traveled (by Jeep and sailboat) all over Central America for over a decade. So if anyone has any questions, let me know.

 
  • Like
Reactions: FJ81 and blackntan

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
I starting writing up our 2013 road trip and its morphed into having much broader coverage...driving/Overlanding in Central America. Here is a first draft of the overview section. More to follow specific to each country.

"
Overview

Since 2005 Ive lived and travelled all over Central America. Ive not driven every possible route, but I have driven extensively in every Central American country, excluding Mexico. This document covers all countries in Central America, except Mexico. Capturing this experience in writing was inspired by our 2013 road trip from Guatemala to Panama. It started out as just an effort to capture that epic excursion, but evolved into broader coverage. As such, this version covers all countries Ive driven. Quotes and images are included from our 2013 trip as appropriate. These quotes are included in chronological order by county so you can get an overview of that journey by just perusing the quotes.

This document is not intended to give you every possible up-to-date detail regarding driving in CA, but rather an overview of the region and my first hand experiences.

Below are some factors common to driving in all Central American countries.

Do Not Drive At Night. In some parts of Central America, like rural Guatemala this borders on suicidal. Security is not the primary elevated risk (though it is a concern), but rather poorly lit roads, unlit or poorly lit vehicles, loose live stock, and obstructions not visible at night.

Security. Several of the countries in the region have high rates of crime, but these crimes typically do not involve tourists or foreign residents. They do involve those in the drug trade, gangs, and socio-political conflicts. Keep your nose out of those domains and you are not likely to have any problems. You can of course find yourself at the wrong time/place, but if you use common sense you can cut way down on the odds of having a problem. I've lived in the region for over a decade, traveled extensively, and never had any issues. The vast majority of Central Americans are honest, friendly, and hard working (the bad guys just get more press coverage). Even the bad guys are not necessarily a threat if you do not pose a potential threat to them. Case in point, a female friend of mine, with extensive travel experience and fluent Spanish, once broke down late in the day near Guatemala City, not good. A group of obvious gang members (facial tatoos, colors displayed, etc) came along...oh, crap. However, she was not part of their game...so, they very courteously helped her out. Even the bad guys aren't always bad.

Guns. I read a forum post once suggesting someone bring guns on a roadtrip thru Central America to enahnce their security. This is a seriously bad idea. Transporting an illegal weapon here can have serious consequences. It is a good way to get yourself shot and/or almost certainly thrown in jail (illegal weapons are a very serious offense in most CA countries...even if the locals have tons of them...remember you are not a local). Most robberies in the region are non-violent...just turn over the goods and go about your business...your cell phone is not worth dying over. Pull a gun, and someone is about to get shot -- probably you. And, if you do shoot a local with an illegal weapon you are in deep doo doo. If the locals don't lynch you first then you are going directly to jail for a long time. And, other than recommending an attorney, your Embassy is not going to get you out...because after all you did break the laws of your host country.
"

...

Enviado desde mi SM-T820 mediante Tapatalk
 
  • Like
Reactions: blackntan

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
...
"

Roads. The major roads are generally good. You can get to most major destinations on good paved roads with just a few rough bits (hardly off-road conditions). Plenty of rough roads if you want them though. The last segment of the road on the Pacific coast in Honduras, just before entering Nicaragua, is full of big pot holes and becomes a bit of an obstacle course, but otherwise the roads on this route are pretty good. Sections of the PanAmerican Highway in Panama were quite bad when we made our road trip in 2013, but now (2017) improvments to the PanAmerican Highway are almost complete and it is quite a good highway.

Off Roading. Be careful where you roam. I have friends in the region who do lots of off road on both bikes and jeeps, and I've driven extensively in the region with zero problems, but...it is very easy in CA to find yourself somewhere you should not be. In remote areas, it is best to a have a local with you who is known in the area (true however you are wandering here...Jeep or otherwise). Some remote villages are quite suspicious of outsiders (with just cause) and some of course are engaging in business activities they don't want you to know about. Having a local introduction can make all the difference between a great experience and a bad one. Make some local friends and get intros/suggestions from them. The typical Central American is friendly, honest and proud of their country so are more than willing to help show it off. The degree that the above is true varies by country. More specifics in each country section.

Repairs. Some of my best experiences in the region have started with a repair problem. Locals, even in remote areas, will suddenly materialize to help (even in remote areas, where you don't see them, but they know you are there). I've had local mechanics go way out of their way on a Sunday to help. Some have even refused payment. Others have charged me so little that I also gave them a tip. I've yet to find a dishonest mechanic here. By contrast, man I've been raped in the USA. And, people actually fix stuff here, the local mechanic may not be factory trained, and may not have exactly the right parts, but he can probably get you up and running again. In the larger cities there are some very good shops. Parts availability, at least in the major cities, is quite good. Carry appropriate spares and fluids of course. Finding parts for my ancient 89 XJ can be a problem so on longer/remote trips I carry extensive spares (Including an ECU and spare senors...the old RENIX control system is no longer made). Aging vehicles are quite common in CA so local mechanics and machine shops are often quite good at adapting or fabricating parts.

CA-4 Countries. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are all party to the CA-4 Treaty. In theory, this treaty was mean to facilitate easier flow of goods and people between these neighboring countries. In practice of course, it does quite work that way. The only advantage of the CA-4 Treaty Ive found for road travel is that if your vehicle is registered in the CA-4 then it is easy to cross, with little or no paperwork, into other CA-4 countries. In my case, my Jeep was registered in Guatemala from 2006 thru 2014, that made border crosings within the CA-4 quite easy.
"
...


Enviado desde mi SM-T820 mediante Tapatalk
 
Last edited:

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
...
"
CA-4 Immigration. Again, in theory, once you clear into any CA-4 country, you recieve a 90 day tourist visa (stamp), which is supposed to be valid throughout the CA-4 for the 90 period. To renew this visa you must leave the CA-4 and return. For example, travel to Belize and back. You may also be granted an extension by Immigration of any CA-4 country, but you must normally travel to a capital city to apply for this extension. In theory, you should be able to travel freely throughout the CA-4 on your CA-4 visa with little or no paperwork. In practice of course, it dont work that way. The degree to which each country abides by CA-4 regulations vary. Practices even vary by individual border crossing in the same country. For example, when crossing from Guatemala to Honduras, you have to do the full immigration process on the Honduran side (its not very involved though), and you get a brand new 90 day stamp! This is very handy if you original CA-4 visa is about to expire, bit its not how it is supposed to work. Many expats living on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala use this anomaly to their advantage. They can do a short and simple border crossing into Honduras and never have to leave the CA-4. I know some who have been doing this for decades! Effectively allowing them to live indefinately in Guatemala on a tourist visa. However, this gets problematic when you try to come and go via other borders. For example, El Salvador, enforces CA-4 regulations more closely to the letter of the law. When crossing from Guatemala to El Salvador, they may review your visa stamps. If you have not in fact left the CA-4 in over 90 days, then they will deny you entry into El Salvador. We learned this inconvenient lesson when attempting to drive to the beautiful Pacific Coast of El Salvador from Guatemala for a long weekend trip to the beach. Conveniently though, Guatemala does not follow the CA-4 treaty to the letter. So, as soon as we crossed back into Guatemala, after being turned away in El Salvador, we were given brand new 90 day visas!

Border Crossings. Generally no big deal if you are patient and have all your papers in order (do not ever try to short-cut the process...it can and likely will cause you more trouble than it is worth later). El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua all intersect at the Gulf of Fonseca (Pacific Coast). So when transiting this area you will have to clear in and out of each country in sequence until you finally clear into Nicaragua. It is time consuming and not very well organized, but you can get through the whole thing (including drive time) in a few hours. You will be approached by guys who offer their services to help you with the process. Many of them are just scammers looking to rip you off, but some are legitimate. Agree on a price up front (about $10 in 2013) and never give them money to pay an expense for you...always pay it directly. In my experience, they don't really do much for you, but they know where to go and the flow through the process and work with the officials every day. This is useful especially on the Honduran side in this area (Bahia de Fonseca) because the office locations and process are not obvious. Of all the CA-4 countries, El Salvador pays the most attention at border crossings, they will likely scrutinize your passport, paperwork, and do at least a cursory search of your vehicle. An effective strategy for working with officials in most CA countries is to request their assistance rather than demand servive. Always be polite and patient, if you start the "Ugly American" or “Rude Frenchman” routine things are likely to get worse not better.

Lodging. Lots of good lodging options along this route. Just check travel sites for info (although those areas less visited by tourists will have little or no info). I suggest sticking with the nicer, and more secure, options unless you know the area. Along the Gulf of Fonseca, where you may get delayed due to multiple border crossings, there are a few good lodging options along this route too, although most of the area is very rural and undeveloped.

Auto Hotels. The rather intimate living conditions common in Central American culture means that privacy is hard for couples to come by. Also, Latin men are notorious for having a “chica segunda” or three on the side. As a result, “Auto” or “Push” hotels are ubiquitous throughout Central America. Their rates are normally by the hour, but you can stay overnight (the clerk may find this a little unusual but most also have a reasonable nightly rate). A big plus of using auto hotels is that your vehicle is parked securely inside...and...for couples traveling togther they can be a lot of fun!

Fuel. Plenty of "gasolineras" along the route. Particularly at major intersections/towns. However, be aware that hours of operation can be irregular in CA, dont assume that little gasolinera down the road will necessarily be open on its posted hours. Unlike in some developed countries.
"
....



Enviado desde mi SM-T820 mediante Tapatalk
 

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
...
"
Greasing the Skids. Officials in the CA are generally friendly and helpful. But, if things are not going your way, NEVER offer any official an outright bribe, they will likely find this offensive, and this could land you in hot water and/or get you extorted for even more money. Do not use the little trick you see in movies of putting some cash in your passport...looks cool in the movies...not so cool in reality. If you encounter problems then just politely asking the official for help is a much better strategy: "Hay otra solucion?" ("Is there another solution?". The Spanish is grammatically a little primitive, but it keeps the phrase simple to use and they will get the idea...use better Spanish if you know it...or maybe not...sometimes playing the stupid gringo works pretty well too). Often this will prompt the official to come up with a way to solve your problem...usually for a very modest fee. In the end you will probably make a friend, who will remember you on your return trip...rather than annoy an official who will also remember you later.

Traffic Tickets. Enforcement of traffic laws in most of Central America is not common. Certainly not in Guatemala (you might get a ticket for a drive by shooting, but insane driving is the norm). However, I've discovered that things are different in Nicaragua and Panama. I actually got a ticket in Nicaragua (for passing on a solid line painted right down the middle of about a 2 mile straight away...classic ticket-trap). This was not due to my being a foreigner...they were busting Nicaraguans too. But, as a foreigner, they retain your liscence until the fine is paid. This of course puts a gimp your travel logistics. The "otra solucion" approach works sometimes, but in this case the guys were not flexible at all. Back to Leon for me in a couple of days to retrieve my license.

Signage and Directions. Signage in CA typically ranges from totally absent, to inadequate, to down right confusing -- altough there are some exeptions. For example, we've found signage in Nicaragua to generally be better than their bretheren countries. It is very common to encounter a sign that points the general direction to somewhere early on and then no signage at that last critical turn (happens to me all the time). Also, most Central Americans cannot afford a car. So, if you pull up at a gas station to ask directions, keep in mind that the guy pumping the gas has probably never actually driven a car and therefore does not really know how to get there (he probably knows the bus route cold though). However, he will not want to disappoint you so he will still make an attempt at giving you directions (not a very good attempt of course...). Hint: ask directions from someone who is actually driving a car, or a bus, or a taxi. Another trick: hire a taxi as a guide. This can save you lots of time and trouble, especially in larger cities.
"
...



Enviado desde mi SM-T820 mediante Tapatalk
 

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
...
"
Getting Gringoed. Despite their warm nature, many Central Americans still recognize an opportunity when they see it...and you are it. Getting “gringoed” is just an annoying fact of life throughout Central America. Here are a few tips on how to reduce these incidences when travelling by road. Tricks used by hustlers at the borders. Trick 1: Get money from you to rush off and pay some fee - the actual fee is of course less than they asked you for or nothing at all. Short circuit this by going with them and paying each fee, or lack thereof, directly. Never give them a dime for anything, always pay directly. Trick 2: Tell you that the inspection of your vehicle is going to be horrendous and may take hours, but for a little bribe, which they will deliver for you, you can avoid it. This is total BS, they just pocket the money and the search of your vehicle is cursory if at all. One schmo tried to tell me that the Costa Rican police might take up to 4 hours to search my Jeep because its had Guatemalan plates. I told him I had plenty of time and in fact there was no search at all.

Road Side Debri Markers. When a vehicle breaks down in the road it is common to mark this potential hazard by chopping some branches and laying them in the road. So, when you see a tree limb laying in the road, pay attention, it may not just be refuse.

Emergency Flashers. Central American drivers use their vehicle's emergency flashers a lot...usually when there is nothing resembling an emergency. It is as if turning on your flashers suspends regulations. Almost any violation of traffic rules is acceptable as long as your flashers are on. Want to stop in the middle of the road to chat with your neighbor, flashers on, no problem. Cant be bothered with pulling off the road to pop into the tienda...flashers on...no problem. There is however a good side to flasher use. Central Americans so tend to use them more often to signal an actual hazard than in many other countries. Accident ahead, obstruction in the road, traffic jam...flasher on.

Stopping In The Road. Central Americans are normally quite courteous, but there are a few anamolies in that behaviour. One is that they think nothing of stopping, or even parking, in the road and obstructing others. Just roll with it, if you make an issue of it they wont understand anyway and will think you are being rude.

Turn Signals....dont always mean they plan to turn. Turn signals are also often used to indicate you should pass. You just have to use context to tell the difference.
"
...

Enviado desde mi SM-T820 mediante Tapatalk
 

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
...
"
Hand Jive. Especially in Guatemala, the “hand jive” is way more effective in many cases than turn signals. Need to merge in heavy traffic, a turn signal will likely be ignored, but roll down your window, make eye contact, motion for someone to let you in...and they will likely open a wide space for you. It also helps to have a copilot who can do hand jive for you on the passenger side.

Travel Delays are common when driving in Central America. They can be due to protests, accidents, construction, parades, road damage (landslides, bridges out). Its just part of life in this region...go with the flow. In many cases, street vendors will magically appear from nowhere and drivers will get out of their cars and socialize. Rather than getting frustrated, relax and take it as a cultural experience opportunity, get a snack and a drink from street vendor and strike up a conversation or two.

Driving Practices. Driving in Central America is much less structured, and often more aggessive than in more developed countries. Stay alert and drive defensively. The degree of craziness varies by country. Guatemala is by far the craziest. In Guate we refer to traffic signs and lines on the road as “recommendations”. Ive seen two lane roads suddenly turn in to 4 lanes of traffic in a heart beat.
...
"

Enviado desde mi SM-T820 mediante Tapatalk
 
  • Like
Reactions: Karl Jacobs

FJ81

Rank VI
Member

Traveler I

2,882
Southern California
Member #

7239

I'm from Nicaragua (born in Esteli, Raised in the USA), I am glad to see you enjoyed the scenery. Lots of good info about travel there! Lots of misconceptions of how things actually are out there. It is nice for someone to chime in and shed some light for those who are willing to explore the region. So much beautiful scenery, and culture to take in!
 

Curtis2010

Rank I

Contributor III

162
Panamá
Ooh, Esteli...my new best friend! [emoji38] I am also into cigars and spent a few days in Esteli last year. Left with a suitcase full if cigars. We continued on down to the rio San Juan for a few days of world class tarpon fishing. We chose a bad travel day...Dia de La Revolucion...roads were packed with long lines of buses converging on Managua, but it was still fun and colorful.

Yes, Central America is awesome. Ive lived in the region since 2005 and am still exploring. Today Im in Guatemala City. Guatemala is sort of my adopted home country...love Guate. Weve been on the Rio Dulce for a month now, back to Panama tomorrow...my wife likes the Chiriqui highlands.

Mucho gusto.
 
Last edited: