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How to Maximize Travel Safety in Central America

Tips for Independent Travelers

It is generally best to avoid swimming among sharks in Belize or anywhere...

To prepare for my 3-month Central America trip I did my homework and read travel warnings and country background information. Since I was traveling on my own and carried a laptop, two digital cameras and all kinds of other gear, I wanted to be prepared for potential travel safety concerns. Unfortunately, the information I found was not encouraging for a long-term solo traveler. Most of the countries in Central America have a high crime rate and the reports included incidents of highway robberies by criminal gangs and muggings of tourists. Faced with these facts, I realized that I couldn’t possibly prepare for all potential safety. But I knew from my previous experiences in over 30 countries that travel warnings often exaggerate the reality on the ground and that I had to make my own assessment of safety in Central America. I decided that I would be as careful as possible but that I would not let such concerns spoil my trip. During my trip I was able to assess the safety situation first-hand. Although I did have a few run-ins with drunks and drug dealers, I had a safe and enjoyable trip all across Central America. By following common travel safety precautions most foreign visitors should share my experience.

Daily Realities in Central America

Although there are currently no armed conflicts in Central America, the legacy of decades of civil unrest, civil war, and paramilitary death squads can still be felt to this day. Most Central American countries, with the exception of Belize and Costa Rica, have had a violent history throughout most of the twentieth century. One factor that contributes to the high rate of violent crime is the fact that there remain many weapons left over from decades of war which found their way into the hands of criminal gangs. The high incidence of gang violence in urban areas is in part related to young Central American refugees returning home from the U.S., where they had become involved in youth gangs.

Another factor that contributes to high crime and violence in Central America is drug trafficking. Much of Central America is divided by drug trafficking routes controlled by powerful cartels who work with corrupt politicians and police. But the high incidence of crime related to drug trafficking and gang wars rarely affects foreign visitors. It is predominantly the local population that is tragically affected by violent crime in Central America. What most directly affects foreign travelers is a result of widespread poverty and social inequalities, leading to higher incidents of petty theft and muggings, especially at popular tourist destinations. In response to the bad publicity created by high crime rates, several countries in Central America have created a tourist police force at popular travel destinations to keep popular sites and attractions safe. Security guards are also increasingly common at mid and upper range hotels, shops, banks, and ATMs. They are usually equipped with very large and ominous shotguns.

Taking Common Precautions

Just as in any poor and underdeveloped region around the world, travelers should take special care with their belongings all across Central America. Pick-pocketing is common, and muggings are also regular occurrences, especially in urban areas. Travelers should avoid dark streets at night and travel by taxi, at least in urban areas. Don’t take anything with you that you can’t afford to lose. Avoid flashy items and large cameras dangling from your shoulder. These items will only attract undue attention. When going out at night I usually brought my small digital camera instead of my expensive digital SLR. By so doing I could still take pictures but I didn’t run the risk of losing an expensive item in case of a robbery. Although it is enjoyable to explore bars and restaurants frequented by locals, travelers should be careful where they go, especially at night. After visiting a club in a Caribbean city in Honduras, I took a cab to another area of full of bars, only to find myself in a rather seedy establishment frequented by drug dealers and hookers. I quickly finished my drink and took a cab back to my hotel.

If you are staying at a mid-level hotel or above, you might be able to deposit your valuables in the hotel safe, though most small and cheap hotels don’t have this option. Theft of items from your hotel room is probably less likely than being mugged, but it does happen. Most travelers have their own tried and true ways of dealing with travel safety issues, but not all of them are particularly useful. In Guatemala I ran into a British traveler, who had just sent his entire backpack and all its content home. He told me that he didn’t want to deal with a large backpack on crowded chicken bus rides. But he soon ran into difficulties when he wanted to join a group hike to a volcano, and could not go unless the tour company had boots, clothes and hiking gear for him. I also heard about a photographer who chained his expensive gear to the bathroom sink every time he left his hotel room. But even such a drastic safety measure is no guarantee for a safe trip unaffected by crime. Instead of resorting to extreme measures, it is best to use a common-sense approach. Bring as few valuables as possible, and if you have to carry expensive items, get travel insurance. Carry as little cash with you as possible and keep important credit card and passport information hidden and encrypted somewhere in your baggage. Some countries allow you to carry a passport copy instead of the original. In this case it is wise to add a copy of the passport page with your entry stamp, to show that you entered the country legally in case you are asked to identify yourself.

When exploring the outdoors in Central America get local information about the current safety situation, preferably from the local tourist information. Robberies on hiking trails popular with foreigners continue to occur. Some tour operators now hire security guards, and there is an increased police presence at some national parks popular with tourists, but muggings of hikers all across Central America still happen. Being accompanied by a local guide is probably your best protection, although they cannot guarantee your safety.

Changing Money in Central American Countries

Changing money on the street is another dangerous activity that is best avoided. Travelers are most vulnerable when changing money, both on the street and inside banks. Foreigners always stand out when waiting in line at a bank or at an ATM. While I was in southern Belize two travelers I knew—a Frenchman and young American student—were robbed after leaving an ATM at night in a small town. The thieves were apprehended and the money was returned, but it was a frightening experience for both of them. I have had no problems changing small amounts of cash at border crossings where there is usually a large police presence, and where a crowd of moneychangers competes for your business. Still, care should be taken when accepting foreign bank notes with which you unfamiliar so you don’t end up with invalid or fake currency.

Public Transportation

Although I am usually quite careful, and keep my valuables hidden, I had my watch stolen out of my pocket on one of my first chicken bus rides in Guatemala. When changing buses I checked the time and put my watch in a pocket without a zipper. A passenger who pushed his way down the aisle to squeeze in next to me on a small bench in a crowded bus obviously had other intentions than just to sit down. Shortly after the man got off the bus I noticed that my watch was missing. After this I was better prepared  for such incidents, and I no longer kept anything of value in my pockets while traveling by bus.

Traveling in tour buses or tourist shuttles can also be risky in some areas, and over the past few years there have been several reports of armed attacks on large tour buses full of foreign tourists as well as first-class long-distance buses. Small passenger vans that transport travelers look the same as those transporting locals, and they are rarely targeted for robberies. But considering the number of buses on Central American roads such incidents are rare. Most first-class buses have security checks before boarding passengers to avoid on-board robberies, and security guards are present at gas stations and bus terminals as well. Some luxury bus services across Central America even have secure doors that are locked from the outside before departure.

As a single traveler I had to take some extra safety precautions, especially on public transportation, but if you stay abreast of travel news and take common precautions, you will most likely have a safe and enjoyable trip to Central America.

Related Topics
Living in Central America: Essential Resources
More by Volker Poelzl
Overland Travel in Central America
Travel Safety Tips in South America

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