Discovering Central America 101: Travel Basics
Central America is a breathtaking isthmus, filled with both natural and man-made wonders often hidden in dense forests and blue waters. This small stretch of land connecting Mexico and Colombia is not only a bridge between North and South America, it’s also a place of condensed cultural immersion, with traditions, foods and atmospheres as distinct and diverse as in its more sizeable neighbors to the north and south.
Everything has just been squeezed into a smaller, very narrow package.
For the most part, that makes for a much easier and shorter travel experience than in other parts of the world. Flights aren’t as far or as long and are therefore slightly less expensive.
Roads can be hazardous and tedious as a result of the sometimes mountainous terrain, which can make what would be a 45-minute flight morph into an eight-hour ride by car. Rental car agencies make customers change vehicles before crossing into a new country and, according to representatives from Alamo Rent a Car (www.alamocostarica.com/central.htm), there is a $50 charge for the service.
Buses make for long trips, but because so much of Central America is connected by smaller highlights that dot the path between the really stunning attractions, any trip can be broken up easily.
The most comfortable option is to fly to cover distance and then take a bus or rent a car to get to smaller sites off the beaten path. For this, TACA airlines (www.taca.com) is probably the most comprehensive in its coverage of the region. With flights to 12 cities between Bogotá and Mexico City, and two flights to the Caribbean islands, travelers can easily cover ground in a couple of hours that would otherwise cost them a day or more sitting on a bus.
The airline offers a number of promotions on its Web site, but most are subject to a short time frame for booking. By carefully monitoring the offers, however, a traveler can come across a round-trip flight within Central America for as little as $67 (plus about $27 in taxes).
For service within Costa Rica, Nature Air (www.natureair.com) is known for not only its carbon-neutral system of operation, but also for cutting exhausting travel times down to less than an hour’s trip. While the company operates almost exclusively in Costa Rica – with 74 daily flights to 17 locations in the country – it also offers a flight to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama.
At the time of writing, specials as low as $39 (with restrictions, taxes and fees) from the capital city of San José to north-central Costa Rica’s La Fortuna were being offered on the airline’s Web site.
Sansa (www.flysansa.com), TACA’s domestic airline in Costa Rica, also offers local service in that country.
When it comes to ground travel, Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com) covers Central America in a web of routes connecting Panama City with Tapacula, Mexico, just north of the Guatemalan border on the Pacific coast.
It’s also one of the more comfortable forms of extended travel, offering soft, reclining seats with a varying range of movement. Economy seats recline more than airplane seats, while an extra $10 to $20 will upgrade travelers to the Executive class, which offers enough movement to easily demonstrate the difference between a right and an obtuse angle.
Travel times can be long, with a trip between Panama City and Tapacula spanning about three days. The trip between Panama City and San José takes 15 to 16 hours, but the average time between other major cities is about seven to nine hours, according to the company’s Web site.
One fault of Tica Bus, however, is that it hugs the Pacific coast as it winds its way through Central America. None of the clarity of the Caribbean Sea or the difference in culture and food can be seen along the Tica Bus routes – except for in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. If the Caribbean coast is on a traveler’s list, however, it can easily be reached by bus companies operating within a given country.
Tica Bus fares are reasonable, ranging from about $25 ($35 in Executive class) to travel from major hub to major hub to more than $100 to travel the entire span of Central America, according to the Web site. Tickets can also be bought “open,” to be redeemed whenever the traveler feels it’s time to move on – so long as there’s space on the bus.
As far as rental cars go, they may hinder traveling more than is necessary if a traveler is planning on crossing borders.
Instead, to avoid the hassle at each border and the extra fees demanded by rental companies, it’s probably better to fly or take a bus across the border and rent a car after arriving. A number of airlines and rental car companies have worked out packages to make the combination more financially attractive for travelers.
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