Yeah so I’m no Central American expert. I spent four weeks there, in El Salvador and Guatemala. In fact, I had absolutely no intention of going there anytime soon at all until Adventurous Kate put the idea in my head. But then my buddy Shaun messaged me and was like, “LET’S GO!” and since I know we travel well together and it’d ease the uneasiness I had about going to a destination everyone told me I’d get murdered in, it all seemed like a great idea. So we hopped on a Runaway Guides tour.
I didn’t get murdered! Thing #1 I loved about Central America.
Basically, El Salvador and Guatemala were two of the most surprising destinations I have ever visited. I did not expect such beauty, such good food, and such friendly people. I never ONCE felt unsafe. Okay, once I did. But Shaun and I were lost in La Libertad in El Salvador and people kept asking if we wanted a hotel and it was really weird. So we took an unmarked taxi back to El Tunco, which is also dumb, but it was about 40 degrees and I was dying.
I didn’t get murdered!
What did I love?
1. How easy it was to get around
The backpacker route through Central America is amazingly convenient. It is LEGIT easier to travel around this area than it is to travel around Newfoundland, my home province, in a completely modern and developed country. There are routes to all the Central American countries, and it’s CHEAP. Typically a 6-8 drive will cost about $30USD (or a lot less – we didn’t bargain much).
Central America is about as cheap as Southeast Asia. I guess everyone just goes to SE Asia because it’s apparently safer. In El Tunco, beers were $1 each. Jumbo beers were $2 each. In Guatemala, prices could be a little bit pricier, but generally about $2 a beer.
Yes, the price of alcohol is literally my reference point for determining a place’s cost of living.
Hostel dorms started at $5/night. Private rooms were $15-$20 a night.
3. Anything goes
In El Tunco you could walk everywhere with a beer in hand and nobody gives the slightest shit. Heck, you can even bring outside alcohol into a restaurant establishment. It’s not the most respectful thing to do, but. Well. Okay.
Parties were out of control. You didn’t have to give anyone your credit card to book a room. Shoes and shirts were optional. In Jaibalito, we learned not to bat an eyelash at the children selling us beer at the family-run corner store. Everything was magical.
4. The age range
The last few times I’ve travelled, I felt like the old grandmother delegated to the senior’s table where I could knit happily for hours and chat about life in the 80s. Nearly everyone I met in Central America was in their mid-late 20s or 30s, including my tour group. The youngest person was 27. Hallelujah! Praise the lord!
5. Unbelievable beauty
Guatemala’s Semuc Champey and Lake Atitlan were two of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in my life. Volcanoes, insane rivers and waterfalls, lakes that look like oceans, mountains, lush jungles. And we had SO MUCH of it to ourselves.
I mean sure everyone wants your money, but even then they’re nice about it. When we were lost in La Libertad, one guy kept pursuing us about a hotel. Finally I turned and said in complete frustration, “TAXI?” And the dude gave us directions with hand gestures and broken English. Nobody wants you to die or anything. That’s not good for business. People for the most part are nice.
Beans, cheese, meats, tortillas, salsa, avocados. This basically comprises the food groups of my life (with beer and chocolate thrown in), and they’re available in abundance everywhere. For cheap. Mad cheap. I don’t think I paid more than $10 for a meal, and that includes some pretty high-end shit.
My favourite? Pupsas. Stuffed handmade tortillas filled with cheese, beans, and other goods. Topped with coleslaw and salsa. The best thing. Ever. El Salvador’s dish.
What I didn’t love about Central America
1. How shitty the transportation was
Oh my blessed heart. The worst trip I’ve ever done in my life was the 12-hour drive from San Pedro to Semuc Champey. Our tour operator who told us if we paid extra we’d go direct to Semuc completely swindled us. But the driver INSISTED that we were supposed to stop for two hours in Antigua, despite everyone on the bus heading straight to Semuc. He was seriously pissed. The others paid extra to get there, again.
But then there was a drunk guy on the bus, and there was no air conditioning, and few stops. The driver and his family stopped for food and made us wait an extra 30 minutes although he had told us to be ready at 1. He power washed the bus and got our luggage wet. And that’s pretty typical for travel.
2. Amenities were lacking
At the risk of sounding like a goddamned princess (honestly never knew how high maintenance I was until this trip, and I had packed the lightest out of all the girls), I found myself having MANY sleepless nights in my hostels or hotels because of creepy crawlies and lack of air conditioning and stupid asshole loud birds squawking endlessly outside my window. Sometimes I cried about it. I’m not ashamed. I missed out on half a day touring Semuc Champey because I had popped THREE SLEEPING PILLS the night before, and still laid awake all night in a restless, frustrated, terrified stupor.
3. The bugs
This isn’t really a problem limited to Central America as my sweet gingery wholesome blood seems to attract mosquitoes and bugs of all types, constantly, no matter where I am in the world. My legs were forever covered in nasty bites, sometimes infected and oozing. I had heat blisters all over my ankles. I was pretty convinced a bot fly had landed on me and laid eggs all over my body. I’ll let you know in a few weeks.
4. The constant cat calling
Some Guatemalan men are seriously assholes.
5. The constant pitches to buy things
I don’t know how expats do it. By the end of the trip, anytime a sweet old Maya lady came up to me in the street selling me stuff, I no longer responded with a polite “no gracias.” I stared at her blankly while drool dribbled down my chin until she freaked out and went away. I DON’ WANT A NECKLACE OR A HANDMADE CLOTH OR A STUPID DOLL.
6. Being sick all the time
By day two of our tour, everyone in the group was very open about talking about bodily functions. We were often sharing one bathroom, after all.
Fair warning, though: the winter months are the best time to visit. We were entering into rainy season when we arrived, and days were often hazy or unclear. Sometimes we couldn’t see the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan at all. But there, that’s me being a princess again.
Would you go to Central America? I’ll be talking more in-depth about El Salvador and Guatemala in the coming blog posts!