I am a chronic planner when I travel. I spend hours and hours researching destinations, things to do, cultural etiquette, and more before setting off on my adventures. Before visiting Central America, I could be found glued to my computer soaking up every bit of information I could find. And a lot of that information had to do with safety- or lack of safety- in Central America.
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Is it Safe to Travel to Central America?
Central America does not have a great reputation when it comes to safety. In fact, just tell a family member or two that you’re planning a trip to Central America and you’re sure to be met with concern for your safety.
Here’s the thing though. Safety is perceived differently by different people. What feels completely safe to some people feels unnerving and uncomfortable
Tales of travelers who have met unfortunate circumstances in Central America often have a theme of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s really nothing you can do about that. But the interesting
Tips for Staying Safe in Central America
As a traveler, there are several things you can do to try and prevent yourself from getting into trouble in Central America. I was so nervous about my safety while in Central America that I actually carried a small knife with me. Not that I would actually have been ballsy enough to try and use it, but it gave me (and my husband at home) some peace of mind.
But aside from that, I applied the same safety rules in Central America that I apply when I travel anywhere. My safety rules for myself are probably considered a bit strict by other travelers, but I like to think that they have kept me out of a few dodgy situations. I’m not here to scare, but a little healthy paranoia goes a long way! Here are some of the things I did and didn’t do in order to help my safety in Central America.
Learn some Spanish
Being able to communicate in Spanish can help a ton when traveling in Central America. Not only does it make basic travel communication easier, but it can also help you stay safe. Asserting yourself in Spanish is more likely to get you out of trouble. And being able to ask for help in Spanish will be of use to you if you do find yourself in a bad situation.
Don’t stay out at night
Yes, this means missing out on some night life, but I’m pretty sure your safety is worth it. This can also be based on location. If you’re in a more touristy area like Antigua, Guatemala, it’s probably safer to stay out a little later. But if you’re traveling in the capital cities, or smaller villages, it’s best to head home once it starts getting dark.
Keep your alcohol consumption under control
Obviously, alcohol impairs your judgment and can cause you to let your guard down while traveling. It can make you less aware of your surroundings and can land you in some pretty sticky situations. I’m not saying you have to avoid alcohol
Avoid traveling at night
The cheap price of an overnight bus can be tempting, but it’s hard not to let your guard down while sleeping on a bus. This can open you up to theft, and your risk of having your bus stopped by muggers can increase at nighttime. It’s better to take those super early morning buses than risk traveling by bus overnight.
Always keep your bag with you
When you do decide to move from place to place, it’s smart to keep your bag with you, rather than putting it below the bus or in the luggage rack above you. Keeping your belongings always in your possession will help minimize the risk of theft. Do note that if you bring a large bag, you may have no choice but to put it in a luggage hold. This is one of the reasons I always recommend traveling carry-on only, with a small bag.
Choose accommodation with lockers or a safe
When you’re away from your hotel or hostel room, you want to make sure that your belongings are safe from theft. When choosing a hostel, make sure there are lockers provided and bring your own lock for it. If the lockers are too small to fit your entire bag, just place your most valuable items in the locker, and consider buying a bag protector for whatever else doesn’t fit. If you’re splurging a bit for a hotel or Airbnb, try to book one with a safe, where you can set a code and keep your valuables locked away.
Keep an eye on your valuables
This should kind of go without saying, but you want to make sure you always have your eye on your pricier items. It can be pretty upsetting when things like phones, cameras, laptops, or really any piece of technology gets stolen. If they’re not safely locked away in your accommodations, they should be on your person. Don’t do the whole “I just set my phone down for a minute to tie my shoe” thing. Keep it tucked away somewhere safe.
Don’t bring anything valuable to the beach if you are swimming
Going along with keeping your eye on your valuables, be really careful bringing valuables to the beach. If you plan on going into the water, or even just taking a nap in the sand, you’ll want to leave your valuables safely locked away in your hotel room. If you really need some good beach selfies, go ahead and take them, then walk your phone/camera back to your room and lock it up. Or, you can always consider investing in a dry bag so you can bring your valuables swimming with you!
Wear backpacks on the front
Yes, it does look a bit silly. But when you are adventuring throuh a more crowded place, like a tourist attraction or a market, you will want to wear your backpack on the front of your body. This way it remains in your sight and thieves are less tempted to try and unzip your bag and see what they can snatch. Wearing your bag on the front is also smart when traveling from place to place. Basically anywhere where you’re going to have your backpack and be around a lot of people…wear it on the front.
Buy Travel Insurance
If you’re really worried about theft in Central America, consider purchasing a travel insurance plan that covers theft. You can find lots of policies that will help cover the costs of stolen baggage and personal items. Some will even help with the costs involved in having your passport or credit cards stolen. World Nomads is a travel insurance company that lots of people use. I used them when I visited Central America, and luckily I never actually had to use my policy. But I had it just in case!
Invest in Anti-Theft gear
Using anti-theft gear doesn’t guarantee that you won’t experience theft while traveling in Central America, but it will take a bit of worry away. I used an Anti-Theft cross body purse while out and about in Central America and it was great! You can also purchase an anti-theft backpack if you need more space.
Consider using a money belt
I personally have mixed feelings about money belts. At this point, people know that tourists wear money belts so if you’re in a serious situation, the thieves are probably going to check for a money belt. But it does help in more petty crime situations like pickpocketing. They can’t take anything of value from your pocket if it’s all stashed against your body, underneath your clothes! I used a money belt when traveling from one city to another, but I left it at my hostel when exploring around town.
Be cautious of ATMs
You’ll want to be a bit cautious of ATMs and their locations in Central America. Unfortunately, in some
If you’re in a smaller town and outdoor ATMs your only option, take a moment to observe your surroundings and the ATM itself before whipping out your cards. Look for small cameras pointing towards the keypad. Fiddle with the keypad and the card slot a little to see if anything comes loose. It may be a little paranoid, but it’s worth it to avoid the hassle of having credit card information stolen.
Stash money in different places
Don’t keep all your cash in one spot. You can keep a bit in your wallet, some in your shoe, some in a packing cube, and some in a safe pocket in your backpack. You can even invest in a small pocket that attaches to your bra where you can stash a little cash. Doing this, you make it less likely that a thief can make away will all your cash.
Only bring small amounts of cash with you
Don’t bring all of your cash with you when you go out adventuring. It’s smarter to bring just enough for your
Make copies of your passport and bank cards
Before leaving for your trip to Central America, take time to make a copy or two of your passport and bank cards. With your passport, you just need to copy the page with your photo and information on it, and for your bank cards, get copies of both the front and back side. This way, if any of these items get lost or stolen, you still have a record of your information, and some proof of citizenship. Make sure to store these copies somewhere other than where you store your actual passport and bank cards!
Venture outside the big cities
The bigger cities and capital cities in Central America are where you hear a lot of the negative headlines concerning safety for travelers. Places like Guatemala City, San Salvador, and San Pedro Sula have pretty bad reputations when it comes to safety. And while you don’t necessarily need to avoid these places altogether, I would recommend staying only a day or two and then moving on to the more scenic small towns.
Do your research and know where you’re going
Being as armed with knowledge as possible is a great way to help with your safety in Central America. If you already know what neighborhoods and districts of a city are more dangerous, then you will be more likely to avoid them. In addition, the more information you have prior to your Central America visit, the more you can be prepared. Know where your accommodations are located and make sure they’re in a safer part of town. Have some restaurant options and attractions already on your itinerary and map out their locations. This will help you know where you’re going, rather than just wandering and ending up somewhere you shouldn’t be.
Communicate your plans
Once you have done your research and have created an itinerary for your travels, communicate these plans with friends and family at home. If something were to happen, having friends and family who know where you are supposed to be can be very helpful in rescuing you from trouble. In addition, these people are probably going to worry about you while you’re away so having this itinerary will help them accept your travels a bit better.
Have a way to communicate
Sometimes it’s not possible to map out an entire trip and communicate the itinerary to friends and family back home. If you’re leaving for several months, or if you prefer a more open style of travel you may not know exactly what your plans are before leaving. It’s helpful to ensure that you have a way of communicating with people while you’re in Central America.
Whether you pay for an international phone plan, purchase local SIM cards, or have a device where you can access wifi, having some way to communicate to people back home is a good way to let them know you’re safe and to keep people updated on your trip. Plus, if you do run into trouble, you can use these devices to contact local authorities for help.
Consider traveling in a group
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of traveling solo, and I’m definitely not saying that you can’t travel alone in Central America. But you can’t argue with the whole “safety in numbers” concept. Traveling in a group or even with just another person can both help you to feel safer and make you a little less of a target. Even if you do choose to travel to Central America alone, try staying in hostels where you can meet other travelers to go and explore with.
Be informed of the current political situation and avoid political demonstrations
Sometimes in the bigger cities, violence can break out due to unstable political climates and political demonstrations taking place. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but if you’re knowledgable about current politics in the places you’re visiting, you may be more aware of what’s happening around you. Also, sometimes roads will close or public transportation won’t be running and it can throw a wrench into your travel plans. Being aware of political happenings will help you not only avoid potentially dangerous situations but can also help you avoid some travel headaches!
Dress more conservatively
I mean, you don’t need to pack turtle necks and ankle skirts- it’s too dang hot for that! But be a little bit more concious of what you wear in Central America. Leave the booty shorts and low cut tops at home. If you’re staying in a beach town, don’t walk around in your skimpy bikini. In bigger cities, try to cover your shoulders and knees, but in more touristy areas it’s okay to whip out a tank and shorts.
Don’t wear flashy jewelry
Wearing a lot of jewelry – real stuff or not- can be seen as a sign of richness. And for most people traveling in Central America, you really don’t need any more of an advertisement that you have money. Wearing lots of jewelry can make you more of a target for theft. Plus it’s just one more thing that sticks to you when you get all sweaty in the Central American heat. It’s better to just leave the jewelry at home. You don’t need it.
Watch the locals and do as they do
When in doubt, you can really get a good clue from watching the locals in Central America. Eat where locals eat. Hang out where locals hang out. If you find yourself walking along and there’s nobody else on the streets…maybe there’s a reason why. Locals know the area best and know how they conduct their lives to stay safe, so one of the best ways to navigate your safety in Central America is to just watch the locals and do what they do.
Trust your gut
This is probably one of the biggest and most important ways that any traveler can help their safety when traveling. If you get that uneasy “gut feeling” as you’re walking along or in the back of a taxi or stopped at a bus station, trust that feeling. It’s your mind’s way of telling you to stay a little extra alert, or maybe even to remove yourself from whatever situation you’re in. Your intuition can save you from some potentially bad situations.
Just because I didn’t face any problems during my time in Central America doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I remained cautious at all times, stayed aware of my surroundings and was well-informed about where I was going. Following my tips for safety in Central America won’t guarantee you a problem-free trip, but it will help minimize your chances of having a negative encounter.
Don’t skip out on traveling Central America just because it has a bad reputation. Underneath those intimidating news stories is an area with beautiful mountains and volcanoes and gorgeous ocean coastline. There’s amazing food, fascinating history, and friendly people who want to share their country with you.
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