Why Getting Robbed Made Me Reconsider Safety in Central America

safety in central america

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Central America is a beautiful region filled with friendly people and amazing adventure… but is Central America safe to visit for travellers?

Sensationalised stories about drug wars and homicides flood the media and paint a dark picture of this region. While drug trade and gang violence are prominent, and governments are known to be engulfed in corruption, it’s unfair to assume the entire region is dangerous.

Most of Central America’s crime and corruption happen far away from the worn-out backpacker routes. I can genuinely say, in my experience, I never felt unsafe while backpacking Central America, even when I trailed off the beaten path.

The civil wars have ended, and the governments are stable. Nevertheless, it’s always important to be a well-prepared and responsible traveler, especially when visiting regions, like Central America, with higher crime rates and safety concerns.

I’m going to share with you some of my experiences with crime in Central America and how I dealt with them. My goal is to show that, whilst it can be hectic, Central America is still a safe place to visit so long as you make the right decisions.

 

Keep Informed on Current Events in Central America

Talk to local people and keep up with the news to stay in the know. Each Central American country has fluctuating crime rates that vary from region to region.

Furthermore, don’t judge a country solely based on its past. For example, Guatemala was once the center stage of a civil war. Now the World Peace Index deems Guatemala far safer than the USA. It’d be a shame to miss out on backpacking in this country because of out of date information.

Although Guatemala still deals with political corruption (which country doesn’t), things have gotten exponentially better in the last few years. For example, in September 2015, their president was forced to resign after he was found guilty of a corruption scandal. Presidents and government officials have been known to get away with murder (literally), and use military force against peaceful protesters, so this was a huge step for democracy in Guatemala.

Is Central America Safe

Two Honduran cowboys playing it safe

Nicaragua is another country that recently experienced a destructive civil war, but the country is recovering and rebuilding, and its locals welcome tourists with open arms. As of 2019, Nicaragua is not 100% safe, but it’s not nearly as bad as some people make it out to be.

Ultimately, each country in Central America experiences different waves of crime and security issues for its own reasons. For better or worse, things are always changing and so is the answer to the question “Is Central America safe?” Every country is safe to visit, as long as travellers use common sense, and keep up to date with the latest news in each region.

 

Be Aware that Safety in Central America Can Change Anytime

In January 2017, a mini drug war broke out between two cartels in the Cancun and Playa del Carmen region, resulting in a few shootings outside public places and at a nightclub during BPM (music festival). A couple friends of mine worked in Playa del Carmen during the BPM shooting and had to leave with 24-hour notice because of cartel extortion threats at their hostel.

This isolated safety concern in Mexico* is an example of how things can change in suddenly in the region. One moment, a beach town is thriving and there’s not a care in the world; the next, it’s a warzone. Of course, shootings can happen anywhere, but it’s especially important to be prepared for sudden changes in security when traveling in regions linked to drug and gang violence.

Mexico City Mezcal

Much like the effects of Mezcal, safety in Central America is unpredictable. | Photo: Sasha Savinov

Another prime example is the escalating domestic violence in Costa Rica. Once thought to be one of the safest countries in Central America, Costa Rica is now suffering from levels of crime and murder rates that rival its neighbors. Just goes to show you that nothing is really forsure when you travel around Central America, so it’s important to stay up to date and alert.

*I realise Mexico is not technically part of Central America, but it is usually part of the common backpacker route. Plus drug/gang violence is an issue in Central America as well.

 

Use Caution in Capital Cities, especially in “The Northern Triangle”

When most people picture the dangers of Central America, they’re thinking of the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These countries statistically hold the highest homicidal and kidnapping rates. The security in Honduras gets a particuarly bad rap, which is a shame considering the country also has some of the best diving in the world.

Most violent crimes are concentrated in the capital cities, and to be frank, these leave little to be desired for the common backpacker. Generally, you travel to these countries for the nature, not the capital cities. So if you find asking yourself the question “Is Central America safe?” A LOT – maybe head to nature and avoid cities except for transit purposes.

Gang violence and muggings concentrate in specific city zones depending on gang territories. Avoid these areas, and talk to locals and hostel managers for up-to-date info.

Is Central America Safe

Local markets can a bit dicey!

As awful as the gang violence is, it’s happening in big city neighbourhoods, not tourist towns. When it does affect tourists, it’s usually a “wrong place, at the wrong time” incident; however, for extra precaution, it’s best to avoid excess drinking/clubbing and late nights in the cities.

I’ve met many expats who live in these countries, and none of them have had any safety concerns. In my opinion, they’re all safe to travel if you keep your street smarts, and avoid specific zones in the big cities.

(Also, don’t miss out on backpacking in Guatemala – it’s my favourite Central American country, regardless of what’s on the news!)

 

How to Avoid Being a Victim of Crime in Central America

Everyone freaks out about homicides and extortion rates in Central America, but the truth is that most reported crimes in Central America are petty and opportunistic (i.e. muggings and car break-ins).

Unfortunately, travellers will always be a target because thieves assume travellers have more money. If it’s not obvious, don’t wear designer brands, flashy watches, and jewellery, or carry expensive cameras/electronics in plain sight. And keep an eye on your belongings in crowded areas.

I’ve noticed most robberies occur away from public places when no one is around and valuables are left unattended. This includes quiet beaches, national parks, and hiking trails!

Is Central America Safe

Colourful Streets of Antigua, Guatemala

Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from that situation/area.

Don’t walk alone at night, and keep your valuables locked up or in sight.

Most importantly, be aware of your surroundings, but try not to be overly paranoid. Yes, robberies happen, but most locals and travellers in Central America are warm, helpful people.

Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for more tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.

 

 Learn from my Experience… Never Leave Valuables Unattended

Pura vida,” the Ticas (Costa Ricans) say.

It means pure life in Spanish, and it’s the mantra every Tica lives by.

After 3 blissful months in Central America, I, admittedly, started backpacking Costa Rica with my guard down, expecting it to be the safest country in Central America. To my naivety, I was robbed on my second day in Costa Rica. Yes, second!

Here’s the story…

Is Central America Safe

One of Costa Rica’s many beaches

My boyfriend, best friends, and I rented a car to explore Costa Rica’s lesser known beaches.

We decided to check out a beach called “Playa Barrigona” based on locals’ recommendations. When we arrived, there weren’t many beach goers around, just a few locals, hula hoop dancers, and surfers. It seemed calm and safe enough, so we didn’t think twice about leaving our bags unattended.

An hour later we came back to a locked car and three missing bags, all of which contained our passports, wallets, and computers…

I’d be lying if I said, we were still rolling with the “Pura vida” mentality.

That entire week we dealt with insurance claims, police reports, and multiple detours to the US embassy for new passports. It was, to put it nicely, a stressful experience.

 

Some Crucial Safety Lessons for Central America

Silver lining? I learned a few valuable travel lessons when my stuff was jacked.

For one, never ever leave valuables unattended, even if the area seems secluded and safe, hell, even if the country seems safe.

Secondly, a locked car and hidden items are not going to stop a determined team of robbers. They had special tools to open our car within minutes and swiped everything in the glove box, under the seats, etc.

Thirdly, if you have to leave your bags in the car, park in a patrolled parking lot, or at the very least, pay someone a few bucks to watch it.

Finally, take my advice on staying up to date on the news and talking to locals. Just talking to people often the best way to find out about safety in Central America and where is safe and where is not.

Lake Atitlan: Best Places to visit in Guatemala

If someone only focuses on crime in Central America, they’ll overlook scenery like this. | source: Ana Pereira

It was only after the incident that we learned that as Costa Rica’s cost of living rises, so do the number of robberies. Ironically, you can partly blame tourism for that. We also learned that Guanacaste, the specific region where this all went down, is dealing with a serious drug problem, and drug usage usually correlates with theft… to buy more drugs. (Apparently, the U.S embassy in Costa Rica files more stolen passport reports than any other embassy in any other country in the entire world! Who knew?)

I think the most important lesson we learned is to not let incidents like this ruin a trip. Theft can happen anywhere in the world, but stuff is replaceable; memories aren’t. Looking back at my trip, I have a ton of unforgettable memories I’ll carry with me to my grave, and this one negative incident can’t take those away.

 

Using a Money Belt that Doesn’t Scream Rob Me

If, at the end of the day, you’re stilll very concerned about being robbed in Central America, there is a safe way to hide your cash. When designed and used properly, money belts can be a very effective means of fooling robbers.

I reccommend getting money belt that is both useful and inscopicuous. Avoid investing in one of those blatantly obvious ones that go around your abdomen and instead buy one that actually looks like a belt.

active roots money belt

The Active Roots Security Belt is one such piece that does a very nice job. It behaves and looks just like a real belt and is designed to sneakily conceal money inside the loop. It should be able to keep your money safe even in the most dangerous countries of Central America.

If you don’t like wearing belts, consider investing in this super cool infinity scarf, complete with a hidden zipper pocket, instead.

 

Is Central America Safe for Women?

I was traveling Central America with my boyfriend, but I met tons of solo female travellers on the road. All of them said they felt completely safe traveling through Central America.

Overall, this region is much less aggressive than say, India, and you shouldn’t experience any touching or groping (without consent at least).

On the other hand, catcalls, whistles, and lewd comments are common. They’re more an annoyance than a safety issue, and the best response is to ignore the remarks.

Is Central America Safe

Is Central America Safe for Women Travellers?

There is no specific dress code to adhere to, but in general dressing more conservatively will help evade unwanted attention. Locals almost never wear shorts, even in the humid heat, but it’s not culturally insensitive for travellers to.

Women, never walk alone at night. This is when most assaults happen and drunk harassers can be more aggressive.

 

Is Central America Safe for Photographers?

Travelling with a camera in Central America is completely safe. (Just don’t leave it unattended in a car!)

I don’t recommend carrying a brand named camera bag, or anything that clearly demonstrates you own a camera. I wrap my camera in a scarf for protection, and keep it in my travel daypack.

Is Central America Safe

Photo taken while wandering the safe streets of Granada, Nicaragua

Consider a mirrorless camera vs a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras are small, discrete cameras with fantastic picture quality, and a growing lens selection. Plus, they look more like point-and-shoots than expensive DSLRs.

Look into personal liability insurance for all your electronics. As least in the USA, it’s cheap and easy to sign up for. It costs me about $5 a month to insure my camera, lenses, and mac book with StateFarm, and gives me peace of mind while travelling with expensive items.

 

Is Public Transport Safe in Central America?

I’m all for taking the cheapest form of transportation, but inner-city buses in Guatemalan City, Tegucigalpa, Pedro San Sula, and San Salvador are not the safest places in Central America right now. These cities have a huge problem with gang extortion. Gangs demand fees from bus owners for passing through their territories. To assert control, they regularly kill bus drivers (even with people aboard).

If you can manage it, avoid taking the local buses in the cities. In fact, you should probably be avoiding the cities all together.

Getting outside of Central America’s cities can be a little hectic as well. Those colourful local buses, locally referred to as chicken buses, that you see you zooming around do get in accidents sometimes and if you’ve ever been on one you know that safety standards are not aways up to par.

traveling in central america

When it comes to riding buses in Central America safely, try to use the larger mainliner buses as they are by far the safest mode of transportation. Bear in mind that these will not always be available though; if you have no other choice than to take a chicken bus, just try and not get on the shabbiest-looking one you can find.

Also, ALWAYS keep your bags near you. Better yet, have them on your actualy body. I often will slide a leg through a backpack strap, just to make sure no one can steal without alterting me.

 

What are the Safest Central American Countries to Visit Right Now?

If you were an expecting an assured answer here guys, I’m sorry to say, there is none. That is because every country in Central America is safe to visit, at least for those who have been paying attention to this guide.

If there’s one big thing that readers should take from this guide is that each Central American country suffers from its set of unique problems and that these problems are constantly changing. This month country x maybe the safest place to visit in Central America and then 6 months later it could be the opposite. For this reason, it’s probably best not to sweat the details.

panama city skyline

Also, every traveller has their own unique syle of travelling and each style comes with its own set of problems. The guy who insists on going ful Indiana Jones in the jungles of Costa Rica (listen to Will’s story) will probably face different problems than the guy who likes hanging out in the pueblos.

In the end, each country will have its own merits based upon what you want to do. If someone insists upon staying in the cities, they’d probably be better off going backpacking in Panama, where the urban areas are generally safer. If you like nature, Nicaragua might be the safest Central American country to visit right now, since the cities might still be recovering from the 2019 protests. But these are just a couple of examples.

 

The Importance of Travel Insurance

Even if you’re cautious, there is always a risk of getting robbed, or needing medical attention, especially when you are travelling in areas with higher crime rates and adventurous activities. Always prepare for the worst situations… and get backpacker insurance!

I use World Nomads because they have the most comprehensive insurance for backpackers. In my personal experience, they were responsive, helpful, and reimbursed me in a timely manner.

 

 

Final Thoughts on Safety in Central America

Central America has a complicated history and a set of safety concerns to adhere to. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings, and keep valuables locked up and out of sight.

Still, don’t let stories and the media scare you from experiencing a region full of culture and adventure! I had so many wonderful experiences in Central America, despite one robbery, and I can’t wait to go back!

 

Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker’s Bible…

Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book, or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.

 

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11 Comments

  • Avatar Marc says:

    Not worth reading. Author clearly does not know the definition of robbery (please google it) hence is absolut ignorant to the fact that she was not robbed and seems to have never met the word theft (the word she should use).

    The rest of the article is not much better…

  • Avatar nick says:

    This article is so informative and accurate. I wish I had read this before my backpacking trip in Costa Rica. People had attempted to rob us several times and I would have been much more prepared if I had known this information! My blog, https://wildernessbackpackingblog.wordpress.com/, also gives valuable advice that I have learned the hard way during my backpacking trips. Great work!

    • Ana Pereira Ana Pereira says:

      Thanks Nick! Yeah it was ironically the last country we expected to run into trouble, but this kind of stuff can happen anywhere. Cheers!

      • Avatar Brian says:

        I backpacked Honduras, even wandered around Tegus foolishly, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama City. Only place i had a close call at was San Jose, Costa Rica. Luckily 2 other happened by and I hustled over and joined walking with them and the accosted went his own way. That was the only place i had a issue, except another time in Bogota.
        In Honduras I only stay at decent hotels and ride larger buses.

        You mentioned in the article the governments are stable. I wouldn’t go that far. Both Honduras and Nicaragua have some serious issues going on in their federal governments currently.

  • Avatar Ray says:

    Sorry to hear you got robbed in Costa Rica! I wouldn’t have expected something like that to happen here, either. Also, for those who are unsure about travelling around Central America, Belize is another country worth checking out. Not only does it have some incredible Mayan ruins and dive sites, but the official language here is English. Think of it as “Central America Lite” if you want to sample the Region, but are not quite yet ready to test your Spanish-speaking skills.

  • You can get cash sent very quickly via Western Union or Money Gram. Get a police report from the station in Jaco to prove that your things were stolen.

    http://costarica.usembassy.gov/emergency.html you’ll find telephone numbers and emergency info. Jaco to San Jose isn’t a long journey. So sorry to read of your experience.

  • Avatar Miguel says:

    Hi! I traveled around Central America for six months and I always felt pretty safe. It’s not as bad as some people think. If you avoid the biggest cities you should be OK. Rural places in Guatemala and Nicaragua like San Pedro de Atitlan, Ometepe, etc looked really quiet and “tranquilo”.
    Nice post!

  • Avatar Geoff Harrow says:

    It’s a shame that you only tend to hear about the negativity in these places. Like you say, sure there are bad things in the area, but people should use common sense (as you should anywhere really) and be vigilant. It’s a great place to explore for sure 🙂

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