The tiny country of Costa Rica is truly a place where you find yourself constantly double-taking at its beauty. It is resplendent with natural attractions, from cloud forests and snow-capped mountains to idyllic beaches, and an active volcano. These awesome surroundings are unusually prized by the government who have decreed over 27 per cent of the landmass as protected. As a result, ecotourism is flourishing and activities like wildlife watching, hiking, rafting and fishing are all offered in an environmentally considerate manner. It is no wonder that Costa Rica’s popularity is growing every year.
Because of Costa Rica’s natural allure, it’s tempting to head off into the isolation of the countryside, but to do so you’ll miss out on the vibrancy of its people and culture. Costa Rica has a proud record of democracy and tolerance especially for this part of the world. The government has been democratically elected since the 1800s, the army was abolished in 1948 and its national budget is geared towards spending on social infrastructure – 23% goes on education compared with 3% on the police force! In between marvelling at nature’s gifts, set aside some time to enjoy the easy-going nature of the tico (Costa Rican) people and come to understand the meaning of their saying ‘pura vida!’ (natural living).
The national currency is the Costa Rican Colón.
$1 US= 500CR Colón
£1=650 CR Colón
€1=400 CR Colón
Costa Rica is the go-getting yuppie of Central America and certainly the most expensive country to travel in. Realistically you need a budget of $30 to $60 per day if you want basic comforts like your own bathroom and restaurant meals. The best tours including flights and first class accommodation will set you back at least $200 per day.
As with all Central America, the currency to deal in is US Dollars. Take US Dollar travellers’ cheques and good condition dollar notes (but avoid $100 bills – after a recent counterfeit scam Costa Ricans won’t accept them). ATM machines are found in cities and towns only and Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted credit cards.
The national currency is the Gold Córdoba.
$1US = 15 Gold Córdoba
£1= 25 Gold Córdoba
€1=18 Gold Córdoba
Nicaragua is a mid priced destination; on a tight budget you can get by on $10 to $20 US per day if you stick to local transport while more comfortable travel will set you back $30 to $50 US. Balance your financial resources between cash, travellers’ cheques and credit cards. Travellers’ cheques can be difficult to change so confine your dealings to the border crossings or the capitalManagua. Mid-range hotels and restaurants across Nicaragua accept major credit cards – in some parts even the cheapest places will too but it varies. Do your research in advance or you may be caught short.
The national currency is the Lempira.
$1 US = 17 Lempira
£1= 28 Lempira
€1= 20 Lempira
Even the biggest spenders have trouble parting with their money in Honduras. In the capital Tegucigalpa you can live very well indeed for around $50 US per day while budget travellers can get three square meals and a passably clean room for under $15 US. Like the rest of the region, the US Dollar is the only readily acceptable currency although Lloyd’s Bank in Tegucigalpa will exchange Euros and Sterling for Lempira.
El Salvador operates a dual currency system with the US Dollar and the Salvadoran Colón both in use.
$1= 9 Salvadoran Colón
£1= 14 Salvadoran Colón
€1= 10 Salvadoran Colón
El Salvador is another inexpensive destination. The extra money you have to spend on accommodation and food compared with neighbouring countries is balanced by the cheap local transportation. On a budget you can squeeze by on $10 US per day with some inventive accounting while people seeking better accommodation and restaurant meals will part with around $20 to $25 per day.
From January 2001 the Colón began to be phased out in favour of the US Dollar; by now it may have disappeared altogether. It’s imperative therefore to deal in the Dollar. It’s hard to find banks that change travellers’ cheques so keep these to minimum and use cash and credit cards.
With the exception of Costa Rica, the peoples of Central America have weathered turbulence, violence and uncertainty in recent decades. There’s no denying their resilience in the face of political, economic and social traumas evidenced by the comradeship and warmth pervading most towns and villages across the region. You’ll find yourself welcome pretty much everywhere, especially if you can drop a few Spanish phrases. Despite this there are unsavoury characters amidst the mix of people you’ll encounter – as in every country in the world. The hangovers of war, endemic poverty in some regions and the increase in tourism mean that visitors may be prey to robbery and assault by armed gangs. This is rare, especially on the beaten track, however you should never drop your guard altogether. If in doubt, the best source of information about the safety of a place is the inhabitants themselves, especially hotel and restaurant owners.
Your transport choices depend on the country you’re traversing and what budget you’re on. There’s no hard and fast rule for choosing one mode of transport over another; being on a tight budget doesn’t mean you should take the less costly boat instead of the plane if there are safety issues to consider; while a plane journey may be quicker and more comfortable than a bus but you won’t experience the true-life chaos involved in Central American travelling.
Bus and plane are the best options in Costa Rica. The domestic airlines SANSA and Travelairare popular so book as early as possible. The bus network is well developed although connections between towns are limited. Getting from A to B will often entail returning to the capital and taking another bus out. Luckily fares are cheap with no destination over $7 US.
Nicaraguan travel is based on buses and boats. Buses are frequent and cheap although uncomfortable and rife with pickpockets – keep a close eye on your possessions. Some places are only accessible by boat including the Caribbean coast and destinations on the Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua). Another option is air travel; recommended for trips fromManagua to the Corn Islands and Bluefields.
Honduras is covered by a good network of buses to most towns and augmented by boatservices on the Caribbean coast, between the Bay Islands and in La Mosquitia (Mosquito Coast) where there’s only one road. Air travel is developing to support increased tourist numbers; there are flights from Tegucigalpa to the cities of La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula as well as the Bay Islands.
El Salvador is so small it doesn’t take long to get anywhere in the country. Buses are very crowded but run frequently and cheaply to most places of interest. Car rental is available from the airport and San Salvador, although remember that many of the roads are unpaved and locals are given to erratic driving before you hire a vehicle.
A popular misconception holds that the culinary aspect of a trip to Central America is one of its low points. While it’s true that your diet will contain an unusually large proportion of rice and beans, there’s a lot more to Central American food than just staples. Traditional meals includebajo (a mix of beef, green plantains and cassava) and vigorón (yucca served with fried pork skins and coleslaw) in Nicaragua and papusas (cornmeal stuffed with cheese, refried beans or chicharrón – fried pork fat) in El Salvador. With the added regional penchant for hot sauces and chillis, food here is actually a lot tastier than it’s often given credit for.
Local dishes are cheap and a great way to introduce yourself to a new culture. Comida corrida or plato del día is a hefty meal served at lunchtime for a couple of dollars. The main course consists of a starch (yucca, plantain or rice), beans and a fish or meat dish, sometimes augmented by a soup or dessert. Find an eatery full of local office workers at lunchtime and you’ll have found a good place for a set meal. Street vendors are also a source of good cheap food and an authentic experience. Again, because illnesses are often caused by unhygienic preparation, seek out one that’s busy – an indication that it’s not considered a health hazard by the locals.
Spanish is the official language across Central America, although there are regional differences in dialect and some places where indigenous languages are still spoken. In Costa Rica and Honduras you’ll also come across Creole English and Indian dialects, in Nicaragua you’ll find these languages and Miskito, while in El Salvador Nahua is also spoken.
You can’t rely solely on speaking English to get around. Outside the urban areas, better hotels and travel agencies you will need to have a basic grasp of Spanish. This will also make your trip a more memorable and enriching experience. It’s amazing what unexpected opportunities arise from a chat with a local – perhaps an offer of a room for the night, a trip to a waterfall that’s not listed in your guidebook or an invitation to join them for a drink or three of the local tipple!
Either you can learn Spanish before you leave or wait until you get to Central America and take a language course there. At home, buy a textbook and tapes a couple of months in advance. It takes commitment to learn by on your own so make sure you draw up a schedule and stick to it. Practise with friends who speak the language or on the staff at a Latino restaurant. To train your ear to the rhythms listen to Spanish radio stations and music. An easier way for many people (who have the time) is to attend a language school at the beginning of the trip. Costa Rica is the best place to do this. There are lots of schools in San José where tuition costs an average of $300 US per week including home stay with a local family (this is the way to do it since it increases your immersion in the language and culture). You can also study on the beach at La Dominical near Monteverde, Heredia and Manuel Antonio.
Costa Rica and El Salvador both have two distinct seasons: the wet (winter) and the dry (summer). Costa Rica’s winter runs from the end of April to mid-December while El Salvador experiences a shorter, sharper wet season from May to October. It’s best to travel in the transition period between seasons to side step the crowds in Costa Rica and the dusty heat in El Salvador.
Because of their mountainous regions, Honduras and Nicaragua have less defined seasons. Altitude greatly affects weather; the higher it is, the colder it gets. In Honduras the interior highland region is cool throughout the year. The rainy season runs from May to October but it can rain at any time on the Caribbean coast and the Bay Islands.
Nicaragua has an even stauncher alpine climate. The wet season in the Pacific lowlands, Mangua and the highland regions fall from May to November but the latter area is much cooler than the coasts. The Caribbean coast sees an even shorter period of dry weather from March to May but it remains pretty hot and susceptible to rain. The best overall time to visit is December to April.
Central Americans are pretty conservative, so it pays to observe what the locals are wearing before stepping out in your usual attire. They also strive to be as well dressed as possible so you should too; wearing ripped or dirty clothing may be considered offensive.
Women should forget about the adage ‘less is more’ when it comes to clothing. The more flesh you show the more attention you’ll get and the more open to men’s advances you’ll appear. Keep your legs and chest well covered and only wear shorts, tank tops and bikinis on the beach. Shorts are also out for men. Only little boys wear them in this part of the world and you risk being derided. Another fashion faux pas is donning indigenous clothing while you’re in its country of origin.
By reading up on the basic health concerns – from hygiene to immunisations – before you depart, you’re unlikely to suffer anything more than a touch of diarrhoea on your travels.
The key areas to consider are immunisations, malaria prevention and everyday health and hygiene. Immunisations you should have for all destinations are tetanus and diphtheria,polio, hepatitis A and B and typhoid. Malaria, carried by mosquitoes, is a definite risk in several regions of Central America and there are several anti-malarial drugs available although the debate rages as to whether they are necessary if you take enough precautions. Seek advice from your doctor and the above web sites.
Most illnesses that afflict travellers result from consuming contaminated food or drinks. Don’t drink the tap water or have ice in drinks instead buy mineral or treated water in sealed bottles. Eat food that’s served piping hot from busy outlets (if possible), only eat fruit and vegetables if they’re peeled or cooked and steer clear of undercooked or raw meat and seafood.
As long as you’re careful you don’t have to worry. Too many people read the list of potential diseases they can contract in tropical countries and allow that to put them off, forgetting that there’s a whole range of health nasties that can affect them in their native country too.
For more information on international travel and health, check out the World Health Organization website.
Most visitors don’t need a visa to enter Costa Rica, however the length of stay is determined by nationality. Citizens of the USA, Canada, the UK and most Western European countries are allowed a 90-day stay. Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, France, Sweden and most Eastern European and Latin American countries are granted 30 days.
Citizens of most western countries require visas with the exception of people from the USA and UK who are issued a tourist card (costing $5 US) valid for 90 days upon arrival. Visas are valid for 30 days from the date of issue and can be extended twice for a total of three months at immigration offices in Managua.
Visa requirements are subject to frequent change, so make sure you check with the embassy before departure. Currently, citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and UK, as well as most Western European countries, don’t need a visa but are issued a tourist card upon entry. You can get an extension every 30 days for up to six months from any immigration office.
Citizens of most western countries don’t need visas but get a tourist card (costing $10) valid for 90 days upon arrival. Citizens of other countries require visas. The single entry visa stamp runs for 90 days from the date of issue, not the date of arrival.
By Kate Griffiths
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