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
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.
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.
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.
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?