Central America is a beautiful region filled with friendly people and amazing adventure… but is Central America safe 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 is 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.
Keep Informed on the Latest News
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 region to region.
Furthermore, don’t judge a country solely based on its past. For example, Nicaragua was once the centre stage of a civil war. Now the World Economic Forum deems Nicaragua far safer than the USA and UK. It’d be a shame to miss out on backpacking Nicaragua because of out of date information.
Guatemala 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.
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.
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.
But… security levels can change at a moment’s notice
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. 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.
(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.
Most violent crimes are concentrated in the capital cities, and to be frank, they 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?” – 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.
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 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).
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 my favourite Central American country, Guatemala, because of what you hear on the news!)
How to Avoid Petty Crime
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!
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 spent backpacking Central America, I, admittedly, entered Costa Rica with my guard down, expecting Costa Rica to be the safest country in Central America. To my naivety, I was robbed on my second day in Costa Rica. Yes, second!
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.
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. So you need to ask people there “is Central America safe or is that particular region safe” at the time you’re visiting, before you leave. After the incident 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.
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.
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 normal daypack.
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.
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.
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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!
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