25 Things I Learned Traveling Central America

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Day 113: San Blas Islands, Panama

I’m sailing to Colombia and I’ve had a lot of time to the boat to reflect about everything I’ve learned in the last 4 months with travel in Central America (and Mexico).

Not every post can be a great piece of literary work but I have learned a few things through Central America travel in the last 4 months that I’d like to share, in no particular order:

1. Pigs and dog can be best friends.

2. Chacos are worth it; $5 flip flops on cobblestone streets are crippling.

3. I could eat beans every day.

4. Do not go to Belize City.

5. Getting out of your comfort zone to be friendly to another traveler always pays off (exception to the rule is Whatsherface).

6. I like pickled pigs feet.

7. Orange Crush/Fanta/Mirinda makes me feel like a kid again, in a good way, not in the devastated way like when I spilled it on my mother’s new couch when I was 8 and thought I was the worst daughter in the world.

8. Smiling at immigration officials makes border crossings much smoother.

9. Traveling has its extreme highs and lows. Traveling alone means sometimes you are lonely.

10. Traveling alone is liberating. You’re more approachable to both locals and other travelers.

11. There are so many ways to cook a pig. I do not like all of them, particularly chicharron.

12. The number of women traveling solo in Central America is outstanding.

13. Selling water in small baggies makes a lot of sense and rids the world of a little less plastic.

14. Parks are the hub of any city. Although these are developing nations, there is free wifi. Strange juxtaposition.

15. People have poor cell phone manners everywhere, is there a culture that understands you don’t need to shout into the phone?

16. Even with the gringo tax Central America is cheap.

17. There are lots of traveling vegetarians in Central America and even a few vegans. They sadly miss out on delicious pork.

18. Americans get a bad rep. I’ve met a lot of nice ones, mostly Californians,  that could change people’s ugly perception if they were less intimidated about saying they were American.

19. Israelis seem to be overtaking the prize for the worst reputation. I’ve heard many negative comments about them being selfish, juvenile partiers. Seems to be only as a group as I’ve traveled with a couple and had no issues.

20. I did not need to buy expensive traveler clothes. Although I do love my zip off pants, which are so convenient for the cold buses.

21. I wish I had taken a smaller backpack; instead of 65L I could have easily managed with 45L.

22. Drinking water from a tap is a luxury.

23. Shorts are a western phenomenon. Local women dress “conservatively” to avoid catcalling. This means wearing jeans in hot weather paired with a tight-fitting, cleavage revealing tank top. Boobs are okay;  knees are not.

24. You need to know Spanish to travel in Central America.

25. I’m looking forward to what South America will teach me.

What I learned traveling Central America may surprise you.

Join the Conversation

  1. I figured out the Israeli thing. Most of them are really young (20-21) and have just finished their army service. So it’s not so much Israeli rudeness as it is the folly and arrogance of youth. They’re like teens sitting at the back of the bus – talking too loud and full of themselves when they’re in big groups but insecure and nice when they’re all alone. BTW I found out that Canadians are perceived as cheap (guilty as charged).

    Oh and even after three months back home, I’m still getting used to drinking water straight from the tap.

  2. I had forgotten about Whatsherface. That name is classic.

  3. ann wellwood says:

    Hi Ayngelina
    I loved your 25 pts. I may not ever use them but they could be helpfull to other travellers!Now you need to make a list of Life Lessons you have learned in your first four months. I bet that would also be an interesting list!!!

  4. I love the 25 things you learned. It was fun to read. I am going to take note about the 45L bag for when its time for me to buy mine.

    Hope South America teaches you more & treats you well!!!

  5. We were also shocked by all the solo women travelers. Your comments bring back memories. We loved Central America and it seems you did too. Enjoy South America.

  6. Ayngelina Author says:

    @Jaime D
    It’s so tempting to get lots of gadgets and stuff them into a big bag, but believe me you will see people will small bags and be so envious.

  7. Camels & Chocolate says:

    I’ve never tried pickled pig feet, but I don’t think I can…out of principle. I was in a high school (and later college) sorority, and that age, it’s all about the hazing. (My mom forced me to do it, no lie!) On one of the more notorious nights of rush week, all the pledges are made to lay down in a parking lot in old clothes, as the members dump buckets and buckets of pickled pigs feet, pigs snouts, sauerkraut, ketchup, syrup, everything you can imagine. Then, when they got tired of it, they took us all to the car wash and hosed us off. Even after showering five times, my hair was still a sesspool of grease and didn’t go back to normal–or stop smelling of sauerkraut–for nearly two weeks! So I associate pigs feet with that experience =)

  8. what a great list! one point that struck me the most is the note about the bag size. in just under 3 months i’ll be moving to india for one year –and i’ve been wondering what size backpack to get to use as my carry on but that i can also use for long weekend trips that i plan on taking. if you’re traveling for a year and could have used a 45L…then that should surely work for me for 4 days here and there. Awesome list!

  9. One, your note about cool Californians made me smile! I always identify more with being Californian than being American, and I’m always proud to say where I’m from 🙂
    It’s also great to know about the free Wifi (in parks–I’m SO impressed!) and the number of solo females in Central America. You’re definitely moving Central America up on my list of places I want to visit…

  10. What a fun post! Love these (minus #17, I’m a veggie and am MORE than happy to skip out on the pork and eat more plantains haha).

  11. i LOVE fanta!! and it is such a treat on hot days down there. agree with the water/beverage from the plastic bag, and definitely agree with smiling at border guards! good observations. i see nothing much has changed down there 😉

  12. Love your list there! haha especially number one, and what an adorable picture to it! SO true about the backpack, I too bought a 65 L one at first only to realize that I really didn’t need it. Like you say 45 L is enough!

  13. Hey. Great list. The thing I love most about central and south America (also true for the Carribbean) is how they all manage to make amazing meals out of pork. Man, is pork awesome! Oh and also how there’s one name for seventeen things; ie: the words chicarron and bunuelo will be different depending on where you go (I’m sure there’s a better way to say that…)

  14. Nice round-up of lessons learned after 100+ days on the road. Sounds like you’re doing well.

  15. Don’t you want a Fanta Fanta?

  16. I love your picture of the dog and the pig! I’m hoping to make my way to Central & South America soon to learn Spanish, so it’s good to know that there are plenty of other solo travelers! Great post.

  17. Globetrottergirls says:

    Hilarious post! Love that you included the ‘gringo tax’. And we’ll take your advice and skip Belize City.

  18. Overall, I’ve found that there seem to be a lot more women traveling solo than men (or at least that’s what I’ve observed in SE Asia). I’ve tried to find some statistics on this, but to no avail. Go Solo Lady Travelers!

  19. Migrationology says:

    Entertaining list you have here. I like all the points about pork, most is good, but I’m also not too fond of chicharron or any kind of deep fried pure fat. It is too bad that vegetarians miss out of porky goodness.

  20. As I have not-so-cleverly avoided commenting on your blog as I promised I would if I read it; I am finally commenting. Right, did that make sense? This is the greatest list ever. I looooooooveeeee that picture, I so wish I could have joined you in S. America 🙂

  21. Cornelius Aesop says:

    eating pork, OK. Eating monkey, NOT. Just remember that when traveling throughout South America, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

  22. I could eat beans and pork every day… I almost do but hubby makes me cook other things than tacos. :X

  23. Great post, enjoyed the read and felt relived on couple points – solo women travellers and 45l backpack.

    Leaving soon for my RTW trip, also taking a 45l bag. 🙂 Any packing tips?

  24. Boobs are okay; Knees are not. Classic!!

  25. DTravelsRound says:

    Great post! Pigs and dogs as best friends … boobs are ok, knees are not … Love it. 🙂

  26. Now THAT is a great piece of literary work.

    Question: Can I bring my hair straightener when I travel? HEHE

  27. Also – would you consider carrying a weapon… like a small knife or a brass knuckle? lol!

  28. It is cool to see women traveling alone. In Oaxaca I met a 19 year old girl from Korea. I thought she was so brave!

    Good luck with South America.

  29. I agree on most of the points: zip off pants are great, not all Israel travelers are bad( I still have to meet 1) and many females travel accross Central Alone.

    South America next, what a great trip!

  30. Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ says:

    haha I heart the stray dogs… although often fear to pet them from all their flea bites. And really, picked pigs feet??

  31. Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World says:

    I’ve gotta show jack #24. He’s convinced that he’ll do just fine with his hacked, cowboy Spanish and I’m like… ‘Ugh, I don’t think so…’
    And loving #18 :p

  32. You can take lots of that and apply it to South America too. Chicharron is still gross. Shorts are still not ok. I could go on but I won’t. Looking forward to your travels a little further down!

  33. Lorna - the roamantics says:

    great lessons! #7 when we meet we’ll have to have one- me too! #18 can’t tell you how many times i’ve had to defend the states while traveling. NO we don’t all think the same way and support the BS! 🙂 #19 the scales may be tipped on this based on the shear # of israelis that travel, coupled with the fact that they usually do it just after leaving their required military service (from 18-21). if i’d been in the military at that age, i may want to party like a rock star world-wide afterward too- ha ha. can’t wait to read about south america- yahoo!

  34. DenizMontreal says:

    It’s a great post; still think you must be very brave person to do that… Traveling solo in any country except European countries is still out of question for me and yet I know how much I’m missing… Anyway, good luck with the new challange in South America.
    In two weeks, I will head to Northern Spain, San Sebastian and others, in my safe zone:))
    On 13,January 2011, Deniz from İstanbul

  35. I agree with so many of these! I completely relate to the thoughts on Americas- everyone hates us and I can see why but honestly we aren’t all bad. I’m in South America now, living in Buenos Aires. Are you headed down? I’d love to meet up and help speed up the process of learning how to blend with the Porteños!

  36. Such lovely photos!

  37. Love all that you have shared on your journeys in Central America. The photos and stories from your stops have been so fun to read!

  38. Love the point about selling water in plastic baggies! But, have you really bought it and drank it?

  39. Spencer Spellman says:

    This is great Ayngelina! Spending the last couple months I could relate to so much of this, minus the pickled pig’s feet part :).

  40. Grace Lewis says:

    2. My Keen’s were worth it. I’d even pay full price for them if I had to (I got them on sale.)

    8. Agree. Regardless of language barriers, smiles almost always help in any situation.

    9 & 10. I am newly married and sometimes miss the approachability of being a solo traveler. I do not miss the loneliness.

    12. There are also a lot of solo female travelers here in Vietnam. Stop by sometime 🙂

    18. I agree. Surprisingly, here in Vietnam, we are well accepted. There are still plenty of people who ruin it for the rest of us who are decent earthlings.

    22. I miss tap water!

    23. It’s similar here except it’s a daylight v. nighttime thing. During the day you can’t see a cm of skin, and an night everyone dresses like they are going to a cocktail party…

    Hope my comment isn’t too long. Your list is spot on and really insightful. Looking forward to catching up on your blog (I just found it.)

  41. Agree with Liz on the Israelis…it’s all about age.

  42. Nancy D. Brown says:

    Great list, Ayngelina. However, it was the pig and dog photo that drew me in. Love it.

    Love my Orange Fanta memories. Biting the end of red vine licorice and using it as a straw to drink my Fanta soda. I thought I was quite clever.

  43. As a Costa Rican I laughed a lot with this list….especially the part about boobs and knees!!! i moved to the US about 9 months ago and that was one of the first things i realized….girls wear booty shorts and there’s no big deal…my 1st slight cleavege shirt and i got a lot of weird looks for it….gotta love cultural differences!

  44. Pork and beans will do you well in Cuba too – hope you get there, it was a great place to see before all the inevitable changes start to occur (which will be both for the good and bad).

  45. I agree with nancy; the dog and pig photo are so cute. We watch after about 4 soi ( street) dogs here in Phuket. No pigs yet though.

  46. Sam Williams says:

    Boy, you aren’t kidding about the spanish. I went down about 2 years ago with my GF to see her relatives. Thank god she knew some. I mean, you are such an outsider down there without knowing it!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I think there is always a bit of a barrier when you don’t speak a language, people are still pleasant and kind but knowing the language puts you on a different level.

  47. Jimbo Baggins says:

    Thats funny you mentioned the Israelis. I heard the same thing from numerous people, and, there are a bunch of Israelis traveling down there. I met a bunch that were super nice even fell in love with one. There aren’t too many places they can go because not too many countries like Israel…

    Agree on the rice and beans, spanish, fanta and tap water.

    My favorite word down there was gringolandia. Always a good joke with the locals…

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I miss it a lot. I’d love to go back to Nicaragua in 2012, if only for a couple weeks.

  48. Yeah we learned the hard way that if you don’t want to get ripped off, it helps to be fluent in Spanish

  49. Very Important tips for every traveler!
    A very practical checklist, it is very important to immerse yourself in the culture of the place of travel and try new experiences. “pickled pigs feet” heard first time its very interesting.

  50. Joshua Selva says:

    It is a pity that after so many years that the European Union’s good will for trying to accomplish the Central American integration in order to aid the region it has been a failure. It started in the 90’s when first Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua came out with the idea of these 4 countries to be a save path for traveling without the hassles of having to be checked in with immigration and customs in every one of these tiny developing poor countries. All this was the result out of the selfishness of every country politician for protecting them self from criminal persecution for their wrong doings that this dream for the Central American people is becoming again apart. No wonder Costa Rica never wanted to be part of the integration deal because they knew corruption and regimens has been a persistent problem in those countries. Therefore, been Costa Rica the only through democratic country in Central America. The original idea that the European Union was supporting was to have a Central America united as one sort of federation that would make it easier to help in order to get them out of poverty. Now a days, all the good work that politicians did in the 90’s is already gone. Currently, when you travel between these countries, El Salvador has build a station which was supposed to work for controlling merchandise passing by their country, but instead it is harassing tourist and local traveler examining them as if they are delinquents or drug traffickers. My recommendation to every traveler who enquires me for a good destination in Central America is no longer to visit the countries member of the SICA (Central American Integration System), but to go instead to Costa Rica for tourism.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I actually love Nicaragua and while Managua is also a city I warn people to just travel through as quickly as possible I don’t know if you can penalize small businesses in tourism because their government may be corrupt.

  51. Great list! it’s one of my dreams to travel south or central america. But alas, I don’t know spanish. Do you really *need* to know Spanish? For example, I live in Shanghai, and while I *need* to know Chinese, I don’t. And I get by just fine. for now. I don’t want that to deter me from going.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Not at all, I only knew a few words and it wasn’t an issue at all. Many people speak English or can sign language their way through helping you. You don’t need to know Spanish at all to enjoy Central America.

  52. Central America Vacation Packages says:

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  53. Amerigoschools says:

    Hi……………..
    Thanks for sharing nice blog post Spanish courses in Latin America.

  54. These are some really useful tips. Thanks for sharing this informative blog.

  55. Do you know spanish fluently? I don’t know any and I am afraid I will have a big communication barrier there.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Not at all, when I arrived in Central America I had only been traveling in Latin America maybe 5 weeks so it was very rudimentary.

  56. Loved your blog, thank you. I am considering heading to Leon for 2-3 weeks of Spanish immersion. Any tips on schools there? Any great places for live music or/and dancing? Gracias!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      It’s a small but very accessible town. If you’re looking for classes I’d stop by one of the hostels and ask them for advice. Unfortunately my school closed but I think Leon is a better spot than Granada because fewer people speak English therefore you’ll always have to speak Spanish.

  57. Central America Vacation says:

    Best vacation spots in the planet are most in Central America.

  58. Bryony Clapperton (travelsandmore) says:

    Love this! Can relate to this so much, I’m totally laughing at ‘gringo tax’. I have a lot of content on Central America check it out if you can!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Absolutely thanks for dropping in!

  59. Cez of eTramping says:

    Loved your list, #8 made me laugh but I suppose a smile can go a long way!

  60. I loved: pigs and dogs can be best friends haha… and yes, there are a lot of solo female travelers.. I think there are even more girls traveling by their own in South America..

    Miguel.

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