“Must know”


A friend of mine emailed asking if there’s any information about Central America that I consider must know.  For the purposes of this post we’ll call her “Steph” and this is mostly directed to her, though other people might find it useful (or anger inducing).  She’s already lived in Belize, so I’m leaving out comments about how idyllic Placencia is.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are too violent to be of much use right now.

The situation in Honduras has been deteriorating for years, which is a shame because it’s otherwise an incredible place.  The islands are still livable, but even Utila was seeing a serious rise in violent crime (I include muggings as violent crimes, many stats don’t).  When we were there we regularly read stories like “15 factory workers executed in midday”, mostly gang turf disputes in San Pedro Sula.  Are there more peaceful areas?  These days I don’t know.  I do know that routine law enforcement is basically non-existent.  I spent a few months in mainland Honduras in 2007 and even then private security was the only security (and was very, very common).  Things have only gone downhill since (a coup, a devastating series of floods, riots, increased gang activity).

For some reason everyone seems to have agreed to pretend Guatemala is a reasonable place to hang out.  The murder rate was already atrocious (and likely lowballed) before the Mexican gangs got involved.  I swear to god every 3rd backpacker I talked to mentioned either being personally mugged at knife point or knowing someone who had.  Yet they’d still always go “It’s not that bad.”  I spent a few weeks renting a room in a nice house in a gated community a short walk from upscale downtown Antigua.  The owners warned us repeatedly that guys with machetes liked to hide in the bushes and mug people outside the gate.  This was NOT a desolate area and this was a known MO, but nothing was done about it.

I haven’t been to El Salvador.  I’ve heard great things about it, including San Salvador and the beaches, but it’s still a little to dicey for me to take The Girlfriend.  If I were traveling with a few guys I’d risk it.  And while Guatemala and Honduras are on the decline (Guatemala perpetually), El Salvador has shown some signs of significant improvement lately.  Best of luck to them, I can’t wait to see it.

Nicaragua is incredibly cheap and it’s beautiful, though a lot of people are waiting to see how this election goes (how the people react to Ortega’s unconstitutional 3rd term re-election) before putting down roots.

Costa Rica is overpriced and increasingly unwelcoming to gringos.  We didn’t spend much time (just the bus stop layover), many expats we talked to were moving out of there.

Panama is head and shoulders above the rest of the region with regard to standard of living.  Great deals can be found outside of Panama City and Bocas del Toro (too far out for cheap goods to be available), though both of those places are worth seeing too.

Much of the Central American Caribbean is uninviting; it’s often the more impoverished and less secure area.  In Nicaragua you can’t even get there by road, except for one isolated town.  Development sprawls along the Inter-American Highway which runs the Pacific Coast.  That said, there are some real jewels out there, though prices tend to climb since supplies need to be transported so far.  This is doubly true on small islands.

Don’t miss:

Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and surrounding beach sprawl is right up your alley, though the diving is lame, Leon if you can stand the heat, both Corn Islands (quick flight from Manangua, arduous journey otherwise, either might be your thing, you’ll be glad you went), Isla Ometempe (the two-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua) and Esteli if you can handle the slow life (and it gets slower from there).

Panama: Party in Panama City (if you have the funds), hideout in Boquete to restore your budget and take respite from the heat, see San Blas at least once and check out Bocas del Toro.

If I were going to buy property right now, it would probably be around Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua (if possible) or on Bastimentos Island, Panama.


19 Responses to ““Must know””

  1. Patrick Says:

    Hola! I’m thinking of heading down to SJds or Playa del Carmen this winter as I’m a 51yo man with bad knees and back who needs to start “snowbirding” south. I live off SSDI and take home about $1600 USD per month and I’m wondering how I would fare there for about 4-5 months as far as affordability. Any suggestions on whether to stay at a hostel, rent an apartment within a mile of the beach, or try living with a local family (what is the favorable cost to the family) and sharing the culture of Nicaragua or Mexico and its people.
    Any information would be very helpful including the best way (also inexpensive) travel from Managua airport to SJds or from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen.
    Oh by the way, Mi espanol es pesimo.
    Thank you!

    • cgearhart Says:

      Hey Patrick,

      I’ll have to get back to this in a few days; heading out for some travel. I have some friends who hang out in Playa, I’ll see if they can lend some input too. US$1,600/month is plenty in SJDS.

    • cgearhart Says:

      Take a look at my SJDS summary for some housing info, you can find a link near the upper right corner of this page. For immediate term (arrival, the first few days while looking at longer term options) I like Rebecca’s (near the park). You’ll pay somewhere around US$15/night without AC. I don’t remember any obvious oppurtunities to live with a local family, but I’m sure something could be arranged. Talk to Dona Martha at Rebecca’s for starters. Will your knees and back make a second floor walk up apartment an issue?

      I asked some friends to come weigh in about Playa del Carmen, but I know many of them are on the road these days. Let’s see what we get.

  2. Steve Drago Says:

    wife & i spent 3 mos in Playa this past summer. Would recommend Puerto Morelos (1/2 way between Cancun & Playa). Small fishing village that has not been invaded by large resorts. Reasonalbe rates for long stays probably in 300-400 US per month. Nice beach/local flavor/excellent snorkeling. Public transport by bus/collectivo’s cheap up & down Maya Riviera from Cancun to Tulum. Food/libations reasonable and vendor food excellent! Plenty of se rentas available! High season starting November – rates will rise everywhere! We would return to area as very friendly & safe. Safe travels & enjoy!

  3. tim Says:

    Is Guatemala too violent? I am living in Xela (Quetzaltenango) at the moment and we have no problems here. It is a really nice place to live and you should have a look.

    Guatemala City is a basket case and it really is not interesting.

  4. Wade Says:

    You should check out the Yahoo Group Honduras Living. Quite a few members living in Honduras. Outside of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa the crime is much lower. And generally you can safely shop in those towns in the daytime. Both Honduras and Guatemala have many thousands of expats. In Guatemala the big 3 are Antigua, Quetzaltenango(Xela), and Panajachel/Lake Atitlan. I think your coverage of various places is excellent. Have you considered adding southern Mexico? Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Puerto Escondido, and Comitan are all places with excellent infrastructure and reasonable prices. The first 3 have expat communities. Most likely you know about them already but it just seems to me they are close enough to Central America in costs and culture to be included. Thanks for the great reading!

    • cgearhart Says:

      Though those Mexican town are not in the cards for us right now, we’ve certainly met a number of people who speak well of them. Playa del Carmen also has a passionate following.

      I’ve visited Antigua and San Pedro la Laguna (Lake Atitlan) in Guatemala and they are both beautiful towns. I’ve not been to Xela though and don’t know much about it.

      I’d like to have pushed in to South America on this trip; particularly Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. But time and budget did not allow. The Dominican Republic was also on our list, but the travel costs would have probably cost us two other cities along the way so we nixed it.

      • Wade Says:

        Hope to see more reviews soon! I’ve been researching places to retire to, and have settled on only going to places that have access to cheap airline flights to the States, namely Spirit Airlines.

        I’ve looked at various cities and towns in South America but due to the cost of getting there I’ve ruled them out. The exception would be Colombia and Peru due to Spirit flights there. In Peru I really like Huanchaco and Arequipa. But San Gil in Colombia is especially attractive, and Popayan. Colombia has quite a few places worth investigating, but I’ve ruled out the coast due to year-round serious heat.

        Most likely will end up in Oaxaca, Mexico. But it seems Latin America has something for everyone. Good to see real world info on living there.

  5. Dean Says:

    Your comments about the danger in these places is almost hysterical, get a grip on reality…

    • cgearhart Says:


      Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are all in the top 5 and all have murder rates higher than Detroit’s 2010 rates. Honduras’s rate is over 16X that of the US as a whole.

      This has a limited effect on whether I’ll travel some where, but it has a big effect on whether I’ll recommend it to other people.

      • Dean Says:

        I am in Honduras at this moment. I see nightly on the TV dead bodies lying around in pools of blood, very graphic I was shocked. But this is concentrated in just a few areas, I would avoid San Pedro Sula especially their city bus system. And Tegulcigalpa is not much better. During the day there are plenty of police at night they must hide somewhere. But there are some very nice places to live in the smaller towns where there is not much money there is not much crime. See for yourself in my youtube presentations:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wITOrHm-BLU Santa Lucia, Honduras

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmBnYUPb_pg Valle de Angeles, Honduras

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D222dIPvVAM Trinidad, Honduras

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gSgY9oqKGk Comayagua, Honduras

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0jIUft18kk San Marcos de Ocotepeque, Honduras

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omq7hAfL4g4 Gracias, Honduras

      • cgearhart Says:

        Any idea how things are out around Trujillo? The larger cities are, unsurprisingly, the hotspots for crime and turf battles, but often the carribean coasts suffer from crime that is disproportionate to their populations. I was last in Trujillo about 5 years ago and loved the area, though I can’t say I explored it thouroughly.

        Comparing 2007 to 2010, La Ceiba seemed to be gotten a lot more dangerous. I don’t know if that falls into your “smaller town” category or not.

        Sula being what it is has a real serious negative impact to me; it’s hard to travel much in Honduras without ending up there, often overnight.

      • Dean Says:

        I believe what you say is true about La Cieba, I have heard from local contacts that it is one of the more dangerous places in the country, when I was there 9 years ago I didn’t think much of it. I will be going to Trujillo in the later part of April. I have heard there is on going development there and things have improved I’ll let you know. A few years ago I heard that because of it’s isolation that a person needed to be careful there. The local people I have met here seem to think it is a beautiful place though.

      • cgearhart Says:

        Here’s a little background on the developement in Trujillo:


        I listen to the audio edition and they can butcher some pronunciations, so until now I wasn’t certain they were talking about Trujillo but it looks right. Ambitious and, frankly, kind of bizarre project. I would really appreciate any reports.

        It’s a shame about Ceiba; in 2007 I could walk around the central part of the city alone after dark with no worries. I always look for single local women walking around alone as a sign of how safe the area is and downtown Ceiba had plenty.

  6. Gordon Says:

    You are entitled to your own opinion but get your facts straight. Murder rates of an entire country tell you nothing. What matters are 2 things. Violent crime in a particular town and who were the victims and what were the circumstances. You will find that most violence is concentrated in the bad neighborhoods and are usually drug/gang related. If you stay in the good areas you will be fine.

    Living in fear is no way to live. Free yourself and your mind. The boogie man is not out to get you.

    • cgearhart Says:

      I don’t totally disagree with this, but it’s kind of a weird comment. The “entitled to your own opinion but get your facts straight” is then followed by a pretty subjective opinion about “what really matters” and a promise that “you will be fine”. Hardly facts. I would argue that murder rates are considerably more factual.

      That said, there’s truth to the overall point. I’ve lived in cities where a safe “neighborhood” was literally 2 blocks from a dangerous one and seen this demonstrated pretty clearly. There’s no question gang on gang violence skews all of these crime rates greatly. I’ll try to revisit this once I’ve had some coffee.

    • Dean Says:

      Well stated Gordon!

    • cgearhart Says:

      Using crime stats to quantify something like safety is obviously an imperfect measure, but you could do a lot worse. My impressions are drawn from outside info like these rates, my own expereinces, first person recounts of victimhood and plain old opinion. I think I’ve mentioned before, the level of safety that I require for myself is lower than what I would subject The Girlfriend to. The level of safety I look for before making a recommendation is slightly higher than either. I don’t assume that my friends will arrive in a new country with some omniscient understanding of what areas are safe in what ways at what times; I look for an overall peacefullness. I grew up a couple of hours outside some of the US murder capitals during their heydays and my friends, who knew where to avoid, still ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time due to circumstances that were somewhat beyond their control. I can’t whole heartedly recommend my friend visit Honduras when that will almost certainly involve traveling though San Pedro Sula, where hailing a cab is widely considered ill advised.

      Can you find a town small enough or a community with a fence high enough to isolate yourself from these problems? Sure. But that’s not really the thinking that guides my comments. I hear the green zone was a great neighborhood, but oddly few people have been vacationing in Iraq lately. When the homocide rates, which are expressed as a percentage of the total population (not just a percentage of poor gang members), rise to the level of “world’s highest”, it indicates that murder is likely widespread even if it’s not evenly distributed.

  7. Dean Says:

    Well I have returned from Honduras and after my coastal visit I can say that Trujillo looks like a good place now with a highway in good condition from La Ceiba. They still have infastructure issues like most places in Honduras, blackouts, internet service down etc. but I was impressed on what I saw it appeared to be peaceful but who knows what changes will brew with the new cruise ship development and all the lots that were bought there by forienors. La Ceiba is just about as crummy as ever although now there is a small gringo-style shopping center but this does not make up for the size of the place. Tela is a better choice than La Ceiba for sure, but basically is a party town. For a good insite check my new presentations on youtube, because in reality there were no good ones on youtube that reflected the real situation in these places only promos by real estate companys.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NHO5P18Lyw Trujillo, Honduras

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-g6wujr_zI8 La Ceiba – Tela, Honduras

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