How to Travel in Central America Long-Term
Article and photos by Jonathon Engels
Resources updated 8/12/2019 by Transitions Abroad
|Local swimming hole in beautiful Costa Rica.
I first visited Guatemala in 2008. Having signed up to teach for eight months, May to December, my plan was to finish my contract and head down to South America. In February of 2014, I finally reached Colombia. In my book, that’s long-term travel in Central America.
Truthfully, since 2008, I’ve lived in Guatemala on three different occasions, the original eight months, another year working for an NGO (Las Manos de Christine) in 2010-11, and then for a year-and-a-half (2012-2013) just sort of existing from project to project. The point is that I loved the country so dearly that it more or less took six years to manage to leave it, with the promise of returning.
It’s important to keep in mind that Guatemala is the most northern of Central American countries.
Some Tips for How to Hang Around in Guatemala
The draw of Guatemala is that it’s so wonderfully diverse: 23 different languages, an incredible array of very stunning landscapes, centuries of culture – from ancient Maya civilizations to the modern Maya still walking around in traditional garb to crumbling colonial architecture to Garifuna. No less enticing is the fantastically engaged and global expat community, the slew of NGOs involved in inspiring projects, and seemingly infinite biodiversity. After nearly four years, I’ve still not seen everything I wish.
Luckily, it’s an easy place to linger, both because of the aforementioned list of highlights as well as the many varied opportunities to work and volunteer. (Note: These suggestions apply to most of Central America.)
- Teaching English in Guatemala: There are several language and international schools operating throughout the country, and from my experience (I was the staff manager of Oxford Language Center in Antigua for eight months), they are usually looking for reliable teachers. If you’re not certified, Maximo Nivel, also in Antigua, aka the most beautiful town in Central America, offers quick certification courses.
- Volunteer with an NGO: Guatemala has an insane number of NGOs, doing everything from eco-construction to fair trade to education. I started by helping part-time with a project called Safe Passage, and that experience grew into a year-long contract to pilot a school program for Las Manos de Christine in a tiny village called Aldea El Hato.
- Work-exchange with a Hostel: Many of the hostels in Guatemala offer work-exchange opportunities for travelers with malleable schedules. The deal is generally a few hours a day, working reception or bartending, in exchange for room and board. Doing this, it’s possible to stay as long as you like in any of the hot tourist spots. I “worked” for a mountain guesthouse called Earth Lodge for nearly two years. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave.
|The author experienced an unexpected form of cultural exchange in Guatemala.
During the various stays in Guatemala, I was able to visit most of the rest of Central America. Visas currently require that you leave the country every six months, so I wisely used this requirement as an invitation to see the rest of Central America. Before setting off on my quest to Colombia, I’d already been to Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama, as well as the Yucatan and Chiapas in Mexico, both of which the likes of Lonely Planet likes to group as part of Central America. That left only Nicaragua.
So, in 2013, when I decided it was time to officially go down south, and Nicaragua was the first schedule stop. That was the easy part. The more difficult issue was my budget. While Guatemala is lovely place to stay, it’s not exactly the place to pad your pocketbook. Money was tight. I‘d been able get by on my wits (or, more likely my contacts) in a country I was familiar with, but now a plan was in order. That plan turned out to be a website called HelpX.
HelpX is a website that lists volunteer opportunities for travelers. These postings are often work-exchanges on organic farms but can also be volunteer spots for NGOs or short-term reception gigs at hostels. There are other sites, such as WWOOF and WorkAway, but HelpX was the cheapest option and has worked a charm.
HelpX Marks the Spot: Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
Of course, I took the chance to visit some Nicaraguan highlights on my trip down, but the bulk of my time in Nicaragua was spent on Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. HelpX had listed posts in other places – Leon, Granada, San Juan del Sur—but Ometepe was the attraction I most wanted to see. So, I signed up for a month volunteering on an island-based farm at an eco-hotel called Totoco.
Martijn, the Dutch owner-operator of Totoco Eco-Lodge, likes to describe it as a three-pronged project. There is the eco-hotel, a pretty swanky place but also “eco” enough to be waste-free, which requires paying guest to use composting toilets, and uses solar power. There is the Totoco Foundation, an NGO (now run by Martijn’s girlfriend) founded to help the surrounding community, including micro-financing, educational support, and medical upgrades. And, there was the farm.
I had minimal experience working the soil, just some quick-run, hobby-like soirees into growing my own herbs and salad. However, it seems initiative and the will to give it a try goes a long way. My arrangement was room and board in exchange for five hours of work five days a week, helping to build a garden plot representative of what most Ometepe locals could have. It was a fun, and also a delicious, project.
It was so fun that I stayed two months instead of one. About a week in, Martijn announced he was going back to Europe for a few weeks, and noting that I had no fixed schedule (and a fine work ethic), he asked if I’d mind staying on to help out while he was gone. So, I was able to housesit his sweet eco-pad and hang around the fancy hotel, with an infinity pool at my disposal, for six weeks. Budget travel in every possible way, with many perks.
There were several funny things I noticed in the cultural transition from Guatemala to Nicaragua:
- Indigenous identity disappeared to some extent, such that certain everyday nuances I was used to seeing—baskets carried on heads, ladies slapping tortillas onto hot skillets, traditional clothing—were noticeable absent.
- On the other hand, horses and carts reappeared as a truly viable mode of transportation, and in general, farm animals seemed much more present on the streets. In rural areas, not just chickens but also pigs were everywhere, so much so that they outnumbered street dogs.
- Soccer gave way to baseball. In my village on Ometepe, there was no soccer field around but two baseball diamonds. In Guatemala, my students had never put on a baseball glove.
Coasting Through Costa Rica
Before leaving Ometepe, I’d set up another farm, Vago’s Place, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. I gave myself a few days to travel and be an obligation-free tourist en route, stopping in La Fortuna near Volcan Arenal, to relax in some hot springs. I stayed in Gringo Pete’s Hostel, the best and only budget place. The staff helped me get by cheaply, including directions to a beautiful local swimming hole with a waterfall and the somewhat hidden locale of free natural hot springs. (Most hotels charge $30 or more for a soak.)
Then, it was on to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
Puerto Veijo is a classic beach town, with a break that draws surfers, a strong Rastafarian presence, and a palm-lined seashore. My days at Vago’s proved to be much more laborious than those at Totoco (a lot of digging up very heavy soil), but in the afternoons, there was the sea. The Caribbean does wonders for washing away a day’s labor. Plus, I spotted two sloths in the trees along the beach, a tree full of howler monkeys on the walk from the farm, and toucans atop the canopy.
One of three sloths, a unique species, spotted in trees while in Costa Rica. Look carefully to see the sloth.
Culturally, I noticed Costa Ricans have a much more developed concern for their environment. Famous for its ecotourism, the country as whole has seemed to get behind the no litter policy (something the rest of Central America is still working on) as well as moving largely into sustainability programs and nature reserves. And, it shows. The place is stunning, clean, and streamlined for tourism. It’s a different experience than the rest of Central America but still one worth having.
Traveling and “volunteering” in Costa Rica comes at a steeper price than the rest of Central America. Most listings for volunteer positions required at least a $10-a-night contribution in addition to toiling the land. While volunteering for a small fee made Costa Rica affordable, which many say it isn’t, I’d grown accustomed to my non-existent Nicaraguan spending habits. For the ultra-budgeted, Costa Rica warrants an asterisk: It’s a must-see but requires a little of your savings.
The Panamanian Provision
Then, I managed to get a fantastic post in Panama: setting up a sustainable, organic garden on a waterfront property on Lake Gatun, formed by the building of the Panama Canal. On my previous visit to Panama, I’d already been to Bocas del Toro and Boquete in the north, which should not normally be skipped, so I gave my budget some relief and headed straight to the new volunteer job.
|Market in Panama.
Here’s was the beautiful thing: After three months of working my way down to Panama, I was already a month behind schedule but had acquired some pretty decent skills and know-how when it came to organic gardening and sustainable practices. The owners of the property, which we’ve deemed Glenaven on the Lake (website coming soon), knew very little. So, they pretty much gave me free reign to explore and create whatever I wished drawn from my new interests. In turn, my stay kept extending: two weeks to one month to six weeks and then…
I should now remind the reader that the whole point of this venture was to finally get to South America. Well, I nearly didn’t. The owners of Glenaven on the Lake were so pleased with their new garden that they asked me to stay for the next six months, developing different permaculture and sustainable systems on their property. So, we struck a deal. I needed two months, enough to dip my toe in the continent below (Link to upcoming Colombia article) before settling for half a year. And, they agreed, so I’m headed back to Central America yet again.
Reaching Panama takes you full circle. Southern Mexico and Guatemala have lots of expats as well as a strong indigenous presence. It wanes a little in the middle and reappears with a vengeance in Panama. U.S. retirees have made a major impact: There are fancy, planned developments up the Pacific coast from Panama City, all the way to overpriced farmers markets in the northern interior at Boquete. But, in the far southern reaches, the Kuna Yala, an indigenous tribe that out-stubborned the US, still lives in their own self-governed province in one of the most beautiful stretches of the Caribbean.
* * *
When traveling long-term, be it meticulously planned or by the seat of the chicken bus, it’s easy to get distracted with logistics: how to get from a to b and what to see here or there. But, slow budget travel is a different experience. Schedules dissipate, and they never really work in Central America ultimately. There is time to procrastinate and one can’t help but learn what they need to know—the quickest route, the cheapest place, the best hike—along the way. Besides, there’ll be plenty of people pleased to sell what there is to see or happy to pack one more into a shuttle bus to that next destination. All of that comes easily and fairly worry-free.
For me, it’s not so much how to travel long-term in Central America. That bus passed by along time ago. I’m still struggling with how to leave.