San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
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Lonely Planet guide documents a changing Central America

A couple of weeks ago, I was riding in the back of a van through rural Guatemala, and I noticed the German guy next to me flipping through a heavy guidebook, “Zentralamerika für Wenig Geld.” I had the exact same book, albeit in English: Lonely Planet’s “Central America on a Shoestring.”

“What do you think of it?” I asked.

Can the legendary travel guides keep pace with Costa Rican development?

(Courtesy Lonely Planet)

His face soured, as if he had swallowed a tree frog. “I don’t like it,” he huffed. “You see this? Für wenig Geld. For less money. But it has listings for $300 hotel rooms. It has luxury resorts. How is this for less money? And I am sure it is wonderful to take a $1,000 tour, with horseback rides and whitewater rafting and perhaps a helicopter, but this is not for backpackers.”

His reaction was sobering, for I had seen the same outrageous recommendations, far too expensive for a budget traveler crashing in hostels. But it led me to wonder: Is the problem Lonely Planet’s editorial direction, or is it the nature of Central American travel that’s changing?

I should preface this by saying that I am a diehard Lonely Planet fan, and I have carried its guidebooks through dozens of countries around the world. There are scads of excellent travel publishers, from Frommer’s to Not For Tourists, but I have always felt most comfortable with Lonely Planet.

To explain why I love Lonely Planet, I will quote from the book in question. In the chapter about Honduras, the authors describe San Pedro Sula, a place universally feared as “the most violent city in the world.” I’ve met travelers who have avoided Honduras altogether because they might accidentally end up in San Pedro Sula and get murdered by thugs in bandanas. Here is how the guidebook describes the planet’s homicide capital:

Let’s be clear – few travelers will want to linger here: there are no sights, there’s little cultural life, and the sultry climate can be oppressive. … Some zones within the city obviously are violent, but you probably won’t see them: the city remains doable for travelers for a day or two. … Its restaurants and nightlife arguably outstrip those in the capital.

This aptly summarizes the Lonely Planet mindset: Some places are safer, cleaner, and happier than others, but don’t write off an entire community because of a few lousy statistics. Only Lonely Planet would visit such a troubled place and start by remarking about the weather. The writing appeals to improvisational travelers, the “yes, and” type of backpacker. When I think of rambling friends I admire, like my friend Lindsey who has hitchhiked across North America alone, or my friend Jordan who spent a year in Antarctica, I associate them with the Lonely Planet attitude.

The company has garnered some valid criticism. Lonely Planet’s guidebooks have thoroughly mapped every corner of the globe (if you want to find the hottest clubs in Greenland, they’ve got a book for you), so old-school adventurers often grumble that Lonely Planet has singlehandedly destroyed true exploration. The books provide a security blanket that Baby Boomers in VW buses simply didn’t have. The rucksack generation of the 1960s and ’70s allowed itself to get lost in ways that Millennials could not imagine. With a little help from Lonely Planet, Google, and an iPhone, a 20-year-old can book a hostel on a completely separate continent. Where’s the fun in that?

In general, I find this attitude arrogant and pointless. The world of VW buses no longer exists, and postcolonial peoples don’t cower and bow to every Harvard dropout they meet. Developing nations are no longer the devil-may-care playgrounds of yesteryear, and visitors should come prepared. Our lonely planet has three billion more people than in 1970, and sleepy capitals like Kathmandu have transformed into tour bus Shangri-las. Love it or hate it, the world is busier and more crowded than ever, and the guidebook publishers have been scrambling to keep up.

The last edition of “Central America on a Shoestring” was published in 2010, and the edition before that was 2007. When this latest edition hit bookshelves in 2013, I was rabidly awaiting my copy, but I waited until recently to shell out ₡14,000 ($28) at Juan Santamaría International Airport. The cover is beautiful, depicting a waterfall in the rain forest. The book is hefty, at 768 pages, but it still slips comfortably into a duffel’s pocket. Besides, this volume needs all that space: It covers eight different countries, including regions often ignored by Spanish-speaking Central America, like southern Mexico and Belize. Whether you dock in Cancún or ride a chicken bus into Antigua, this book should anticipate your every need.

Or will it? Such fastidious guidebooks require an army of writers and months of research. In a sleepy nook like Laos, life doesn’t change that quickly. But “Central America on a Shoestring” is already critically out of date. Take Panama City: “Construction is underway to add a subway, complete the massive canal expansion and open the biodiversity museum.” Two of those items opened in the past few months, and this book has no information about them – no hours, no maps, no admission prices, nada.

Closer to home, there’s San José: Establishments like El Gaff, Stiefel Pub, La Villa, Steinvorth, and Public House should be magnets for hip travelers looking for some nightlife, but none of them really existed when the Lonely Planet team was in town. The same goes for ever-evolving towns like Puerto Viejo and Jacó; the experience that this book describes is practically archival.

That isn’t Lonely Planet’s fault, only an ill-timed editorial schedule. Every major guidebook will miss the latest additions.

What’s more significant is the changing climate throughout the region. The book may include some pricey getaways (such as a Tamarindo hotel costing $85 per night), but that is now the reality of Central American tourism, particularly in Costa Rica. Millions of tourists pour through the isthmus, and many of them want all-inclusive resorts or the “rustic luxury” of “eco-lodges.” Smoother highways and streamlined shuttle services come at a price. Once a nation has transformed a fishing village into waterfront condos, you can’t expect the same $5 guesthouse. For budget travelers, there is no longer anything “shoestring” about Costa Rica, and its neighbors are rapidly catching up. This book is attempting to document a rapid transformation in Central American tourism, but a three-year schedule isn’t regular enough to tell the whole story.

Is this a good or bad thing? It depends on your perspective. It’s bad for my German friend, who was shocked by Costa Rican prices and was already glum when he arrived in Guatemala, which was also pricier than he expected. It might not even be good for Central America, whose general population benefits little from inflated travel prices. But it does reduce the number of foreigners who call Central America “cheap.” Deliberate or not, it is demeaning to call an entire nation “cheap,” as if its value as a destination can be summarized in the price of a lunch. Central America is on the move, and backpackers can no longer take careless advantage of others’ poverty. If you can’t get by on a shoestring, it may be time to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Contact Robert Isenberg at risenberg@ticotimes.net

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