Stretching from Belize’s coral reefs and Guatemala’s towering jungle pyramids down to Panama’s postcard beaches, Central America’s natural and historical wonders make for some of the most exciting and beautiful travels in the world. Tourists of all breeds – sunburned families, honeymooners, fishermen and crusty backpackers, among countless others – wander wide-eyed through the region, drinking in its remarkable experiences and natural beauty.
The isthmus’s charm has always had a magnetic draw, luring explorers and adventurers like Mark Twain, who traveled across Nicaragua in 1867, writing a dispatch for the 19th century San Francisco newspaper Alta California.
A century later, construction on the Inter-American Highway – the Central American portion of the Pan-American Highway that covers the distance from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to Panama City – was complete. This made the formerly isolated region suddenly accessible to North Americans.
When Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was published in 1957, the Inter-American Highway was still just a loosely carved network of jeep trails, but Kerouac’s excitement was genuine.
“Do you know there’s a road that goes down to Mexico and all the way to Panama? – and maybe all the way to the bottom of South America … Yes!” he wrote.
The exciting opportunity to bounce along off-road trails in a four-wheel-drive vehicle is still available to those who seek it, and is sometimes unavoidable for those who do not. Luckily, forms of transportation have progressed significantly over the past few decades, making travel more than a little easier.
Ground travel is still a fairly painstaking process, depending on road conditions and border stops. Most rental car agencies do not allow their cars to be taken across borders. Instead, they require customers to change vehicles before crossing into a new country and to pay a fee to do so.
Alamo Rent a Car (www.alamo.com), which has services available in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, has one exception to the border-crossing rule: It allows cars rented in Costa Rica to be driven across the border to Nicaragua. Drivers must pay to swap cars when driving between any other countries.
For travelers yearning for wind in their hair and a wild-and-free “Easy Rider” experience, motorcycle rentals are readily available throughout Central America. AdMo-Tours (www.admo-tours.com) rents Yamaha motorcycles in Honduras and has more options in Costa Rica. Harleys, Suzukis and Hondas, among other bikes, are available at rates ranging from $65 to $90 a day. According to AdMo-Tours representatives, the agency allows riders to take their rented bikes across borders, but only with the supervision of a hired guide, another service the company offers.
Buses are the most economical travel option, often favored by locals and backpackers. Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com) runs through Central America, connecting Tapachula, Mexico, to Panama City. With reclining seats, panoramic windows, onboard TVs, air conditioning and bathrooms, traveling with Tica Bus is a comfortable experience.
Bus tickets between two major hubs start at about $20 and may be bought “open,” to be redeemed when the traveler is ready to continue his or her voyage.
Although travel time is extended significantly on a bus, this method allows riders to take in more of the Central American scenery than they otherwise would. The trip between Panama City and San José is the longest section of the route, clocking in at 16 hours. According to the company’s website, the average time between other cities is from seven to nine hours.
Tica Bus services every country in Central America except for Belize. In fact, Tica Bus routes hug the Pacific coast of the isthmus, reaching the Caribbean only in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Travelers wishing to reach Belize and the Caribbean coast can easily catch another company’s bus from almost any terminal.
The most efficient, expensive way to cover distance in Central America is by air. TACA Airlines (www.taca.com) offers flights to and from every Central American country as well as Cuba, with connections throughout North and South America. Copa Airlines (www.copaair.com) offers the same at competitive prices.
For those traveling within Costa Rica, Nature Air (www.natureair.com) offers 74 daily flights to 17 different destinations within the country, as well as flights to Bocas del Toro, Panama. The airline’s carbon-neutral operational policies make it an excellent option for the eco-minded. Nature Air often has special promotional offers; at the time of writing, flights were being offered for as low as $39 plus taxes and fees. TACA’s Sansa Airline (www.flysansa.com) also offers domestic air service in Costa Rica.