Money saving tips to Central America

Rooftops over Granada, Nicaragua
Rooftops over Granada, Nicaragua

So you’ve travelled perhaps in Europe and North America and feel like now it’s the time to take on Central America? Great! It’s a fantastic, beautiful and versatile area to explore. Travel in Central America is, however, quite different from travelling in Europe, North America or Australia but in the best possible way. And that’s why we travel, to experience something different, right?

There are certain things that are definitely good to know before you travel to see the colourful Colonial cities, tropical rainforests and picture perfect volcanoes. I certainly wish I had known about these before my first trip to Central America – it would have saved me money, too!

My money saving tips to Central America

Image of a beach of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Sunset in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Plan…to be late

If you are used to your public transportation running with German efficiency you can forget that as soon as you land at the airport. The buses do of course have a schedule but it’s more of a suggested timeline or something to aim for. Much like the suggested serving for chocolate is two pieces, we all know that’s not going to happen!

Related to the above, do not make plans that require flawless transfer connections. For example if your bus is scheduled to be in place X at 1pm and there is only one ferry a day at 2pm from X to Y, don’t do it. Just don’t, you are going to miss it. Or at least have an excellent plan B and be ready to execute it. The less you have to stress about missing connections the more you’ll enjoy your trip. If you’re not travelling during the high season, it’s probably safer not to pre-book accommodations, in case you won’t reach your destination because of transportation mishaps.

Image of Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua featured in the money saving tips to Central America blog post
Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

Dollars, colons, cordobas, quetzals…Be smart about your money

You can start your trip with just USD and exchange local currency at the destination, however, I like to get some of the local currency before I arrive at the destination so that my first order of business after long flights is not to figure out where to get money. It is possible though, that your bank at home may not have all the currencies you want or that they have to order them from a bigger branch, which can take several days.

While travelling, always have small change with you, preferably in local currency or at least USD. It happened to me, a couple of times actually, that when a taxi ride was agreed to be $3.50 and I paid with a $5 bill, the driver didn’t have any change in any currency (how convenient…) so it ended up being a $5 taxi ride after all.

Also, when you pay in local currency you will be likely be paying less than you would if you were to pay in USD as the dollar prices tend to be always rounded up. Makes sense of course, since it’s not their currency and there are costs involved for them to exchange it to their own currency, but if you are on a budget keep your USD usage to a minimum.

Granada
Colourful Granada, Nicaragua

If you’re like me and not at all good with numbers and conversions, you’ll probably struggle with this one too. If you pay in USD, more often than not, you get the change back in colons, cordobas or whatever the local currency is. So if you pay your 4300 Costa Rican Colon meal with a $20 bill, how much are you supposed to get back? 500 colons? 5000? 6500? I definitely lost some money on this kind of situations (honestly, they could have given me back anything and I would have had no idea if that was correct) so I stopped paying in USD to avoid losing money.

Si, hablo español!

This is the simplest rule of them all and works in any country in Central America (well, except in Belize!); speaking Spanish will save you money. This is probably the best money saving tip to Central America there is. You don’t have to have the fluency to discuss the impacts of the Nicaraguan Canal development or women’s rights in Guatemala but if you can do simple negotiating that will be enough. For example I witnessed this several times at popular taxi stands where drivers would offer a $10 ride to backpackers and when they came to offer the same trip to me I answered in Spanish and asked for the price in cordobas (this was in Nicaragua) it ended up being, after some negotiating, half the price.

breakfast
Breakfast in Costa Rica

Let’s keep this one short and sweet, although I feel there might be a part 2 coming later! What do you think, would these tips be useful? If you’ve been to Central America what other tips would you suggest for first time travellers? And of course, I always have to ask, if you were to go to Central America, which country would you pick?

CENTRAL AMERICA

12 Comments

  • Glad I stumbled onto this a few weeks before heading south out of Mexico City! I guess Mexico isn’t *technically* Central America, but a lot of the same principles seem to apply here, especially about speaking Spanish to avoid the ‘tourist tax’.

    One thing I’ve learned in Mexico is that in some specific situations, it seems like haggling is appropriate. If you buy a bunch of different things from the market, for example — a pineapple, half a kilo of tomatoes, three avocados, and some cilantro — once they offer the final price, you can usually just offer something rounded down about 10 or 15 pesos (about .65 to 1 USD). This also applied when I went to a big electronics market looking for a charger for my computer: they asked for $650 pesos (about $42 USD), and I offered $500 (about $32 USD), which they seemed pretty happy with.

    Happy travels and good luck bargain hunting!
    Jakob Gibbons recently posted…Lengua Española: The Latin American Lingua FrancaMy Profile

    • Don’t be nervous about travelling to Central America, it’s going to be fine! 🙂 Just start somewhere easy and save the more ‘exciting’ countries such as Guatemala or Honduras for later! I can whole heartedly recommend Costa Rica and Nicaragua as your 1st Central American destinations.
      Thank you for your comment, happy to read you like this design! 🙂
      Annika recently posted…Money saving tips to Central AmericaMy Profile

  • Notice that a lot of these homes are low to the ground, and are built with thick walls – this is very much appropriate for the hurricane-prone neighbourhood. How they recover, and manage to maintain those bright colours baffles me!
    Milosz Zak recently posted…Egyptian Sidekick & DenderaMy Profile

  • Hahahaha there are really no bus schedules in most of Central America. The ones that have a real schedule are the long distance tourist buses, such as Tica or Transnica. But the local ones leave “when full” – by which they mean “exploding” and nothing else could be fitted on board. Yet, I love it, especially Nicaragua. But I prefer Leon 🙂

  • We absolutely need a part 2! 😉 Very helpful. My husband and I are developing property in Boquete, Panama, and anything I can learn about Central America is super helpful! Thanks.

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So you’ve travelled perhaps in Europe and North America and feel like now it’s the time to take on Central America? Great! It’s a...
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