A Solo Female Traveller’s Guide to Central America
Central America is a sub-continent brimming with culture. It's a place where old set traditions meet a more contemporary Spanish influence, the values and beauty of both fused in an eclectic mix which is reflected in all of the architecture, food, style, nature and people you come across. It is another world, different from our own.
When travelling through Central America it's important to remember that you're a guest in the countries you visit, from Belize to Panama alike, so respect for the rules is a must. This means that you, as an independent woman armed with a backpack, can navigate your way through this land enjoying the experience whilst keeping a level head about the safest way to take on the road before you.
Here is a comprehensive list of the top 10 things to keep in mind if you're a solo female traveller taking on Central America for the first time:
1. Speak the Language
No other tip will be more useful than this one: learn a few key phrases, they will really help you out in sticky situations! You want to know where the bus terminal is? You're in desperate need of pharmacy? You're looking for your hostel after a 16 hour overnight coach trip cross country? Pick up the basics and you'll see how everything will run a lot smoother than if you resist to learn the language. Trust me, I speak from experience.
2. Stick to the Dress Code
Central America is predominantly ruled by strong Catholic morals. So strong that you won't be allowed in most churches (and other ancient heritage sites) if you're sporting the latest skimpy cut off denim shorts with your favourite strappy crop top. Even more so, not only will this style of dress limit your sightseeing opportunities, it's guaranteed to attract leering stares, relentless catcalls and even a following. Aim to keep your shoulders through to your knees covered, which is sometimes easier said than done when trying to deal with sweltering heat, but be imaginative.The amount of skin you show is directly proportional to the attention you will get. If you want to blend in, take example from those you see around you. If you want to truly be part of it all, dress the part, dress like a local.
3. Pack Smart
Knowing how to pack smart will make sure you don't fall victim to the number one spoiler for all backpackers: theft. Undoubtedly at one point or another you'll be riding a chicken bus across Guatemala, or taking the overnight coach from one end of Mexico to the other so knowing how to pack up your valuables falls down under essential knowledge.
The only items which shouldn't be in your immediate vicinity at all times are your clothes, shoes, toiletries and souvenirs. Everything else which is of any value (cash, passport, bank cards, camera, journal, iPod etc) should be with you in your day pack, which you need to look after with a sense of hightened paranoia. If you can, stash money in a few different places. Don't wear expensive jewellery. If you're travelling with more than one bank card, keep each one in a seperate place. You probably think this sounds a bit excessive, but imagine how you'd feel after you lose your passport the day before you're due to cross a border.
When taking on overland travel never stack you valuables and day pack in the hold of any bus, and if possible sleep with your day pack around you. Trust me, and you'll be the one saying I told you so to a fellow traveller whose camera was pickpocketed while she slept on a night bus with her backpack stowed in the overhead locker.
4. Travel Wise
Make sure you know your travel rights and procedures well enough to navigate borders without problems. Keep a handle on all your entry and exit travel forms, even if you've left a country and don't plan on going back to it. You never know when they might come in useful again.
Make sure you have all the correct visas in place, enough cash on you at all times to pay for entry and exit fees if needed (US dollars are the universal currency accepted throughout all borders in Central America) and be insistent with border crossing stamps so you don't fall victim to incorrect immigration fees.
5. Use your common sense
This one is a goodie. All the advice you'd follow when at home, you should definitely apply when in a foreign place. Don't walk home alone. Don't wander alone in the dark. Don't get overly-drunk and don't put yourself in vulnerable situations. Trust your instincts, they're usually the strongest indicator of shit to come - if you feel unsafe then remove yourself from a situation in the most prudent way possible. It all falls under the umbrella of common sense, really.
6. Be Confident
As in life, confidence is key. Look like you know where you're going, get your barings in a safe place, and when you feel like you're being haggled or scammed walk away. Though you may feel small and uninformed, especially when you don't know the language, it's never a bad thing to be assertive.
7. Beware of Scams
Beware of situations when something seems to good to be true - it often is. Beware of 'gabacheros' - Mexican men who make a career of going after foreign women. Beware of 'coyotes' in Guatemala - often very well versed, English-speaking tour operators who happen to have the best deal at hand for the exact tour you're looking for, promising to arrange it for you if you pay right now, cash in hand....only to never show up the next day.
8. Put Your Safety Before Your Budget
I know it goes against every instinct you have, after you've put together a carefully constructed budget, but always pay more for safer travel. If you're stumbing out of a bar late at night and your hostel is three blocks away, don't risk it, always grab a cab. Even when you're using your full wits, book hostels in safe areas even if they are a little more expensive. Pay more for cross-country buses, the most well-trusted companies usually charge more for a reason.
9. Get Local Information
Sometimes it's prudent to ignore your travel guide and opt to trust a local instead. Ask your hostel manager or receptionist for the best way to travel around, best place to book a tour, what to avoid and what to do in the area. Bus terminal attendants are your best source of travel information and that tour guide from your recent day-trip might know the best place to go for dinner, the closest source of medical assistance or the best place to get a camera fixed.
10. Beware Capital Cities
There's a reason most travel guides warn you to exercise caution when visiting the capital cities of Central America. Some of them are notorious hubs of crime and aren't worth the risk. Steer clear of Belize City, Managua, Guatemala City and San Jose. Aim to travel with a group or using private transport when going through or exploring these to avoid running into any trouble. Be conscious of ATMs, quiet streets as well as overcrowded ones and the public transport.
Central America is jungles, beaches, colonial jewels and Mayan ruins all sandwiched between two oceans. Keep your safety in mind when making your way through the beaten track, or even more so when straying off it. Be smart, but don't let these warning sighs hold you back from letting go and really immersing yourself in the wonder that is the cross through Central America. You got it, gurl.
By Dessie Nedyalkova