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Central America

by Yvonne Moran

Central America though small, has seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. As the area comprises about one quarter the size of Mexico, this traveller naively thought she could easily wander from northern Belize and end up in Ecuador, in South America six months later.

I got as far as Costa Rica.

The region offers, in travel brochure-speak, a diversity of things to see and do. Costa Rica harbors some of the richest flora and fauna in the world, is home to over 850 species of birds (more than in either Europe, North America, or Australia), and 200 mammal species, living in and outside almost 40 national parks with eco-systems as diverse as swamps, rain and dry forests. Guatemala has spectacular mountain scenery, and Mayan Tikal, located deep in Tikal National Park. Neighbouring Honduras is home to Copan, another famous Mayan site. Wonderful colonial towns dot Nicaragua, and everywhere urban plazas, parks and Roman Catholic churches remind one of Spain, the regions former coloniser. White, sandy, deserted beaches abound and inexpensive scuba diving is very popular on one of the worlds largest reefs off islands governed by Belize and Honduras.

Spanish is universally spoken, except in the former British colony of Belize, so its advisable to have at least a smattering of the language as most people cannot converse in English.

Bring American dollars. Travellers cheques are safest, but cash is necessary when voyaging off the beaten track, changing money during out-of-hours banking, or when crossing borders at less-than-usual hours. Living costs are higher in Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica than elsewhere in the area, but $400 a week should easily suffice a traveller who eats the local foods, sleeps in budget accommodation, uses public transportation and purchases the occasional souvenir.

This solo female explorer experienced no problems in the hospedajes, or guest houses found throughout the region. Theyre good places to meet like-spirited people and average about $20 a night. Bring your own towel, soap and toilet paper as the rooms are clean, but basic. Hostels are almost non-existent.

Family-owned comedors, or small restaurants, are the recommended places to eat with a new-found friend. A set midday meal costs the knock-down price of approximately $5.00, and includes a fresh fruit drink, a pasta-based soup, and rice, beans, chicken or high cholesterol fatty meat and maize tortillas for the main course. These thin, flat, circular breads, made with the regions staple grain, are eaten at every meal. As most locals consume their main meal at midday, its often a repeat menu in the evening.

The diet can become incredibly monotonous and basic, but bean-loving tourists disagreed with me. It seemed the cooks in the restaurants were blissfully unaware of the abundant availability of fresh fruit and vegetables found in the local markets, as few of them ever made their colourful appearance on my plate. This backpacker greatly pitied the few vegetarian tourists she encountered along the way, and as the half years travel began drawing to a close, I could no longer stomach (metaphorically speaking), the sight of another red kidney bean.

Buses are the way to go, as train transportation is almost non-existent and car hire costs are exorbitant. The bus comfort-gauge ranges from zero (when, for example, if youre keeping company with live chickens sitting on your Guatemalan neighbours lap), to ten (if youre occupying a seat designed for average-size posteriers in Costa Rica). The latter is rare, and a welcome luxurious change from the usual way of sitting half-cheeked into the narrow, crowded aisles for what seems like an eternity over long, hard, often bumpy roads. Hitch hiking is possible and generally safe, even for single females, but nobody was interested in giving me a lift in Nicaragua, so I hitched a passing bus. However, after a Costa Rican bus departed an hour before schedule, I again tried sticking my thumb out. This time I was more successful.

The majority of the areas inhabitants are Latinos, a people of Spanish and Indigenous mix. Guatemala, with almost three quarters of its population pure Mayan, is the exception. The Christian-bearing colonisers passed through this small country and left it and its people more or less untouched because gold, the raison detre for their presence, wasnt something that this very poor country had in large quantities.

What they left behind survives to this day. Guatemala has the regions highest ratio of indigenous peoples to Latinos, making this a land of incredible cultural diversity. The visitor will probably first notice the huge variety of unique rainbow-hued woven fabrics worn by the local womenfolk and some of their men that visually testify to the village or region they originate from. Its one of the most wonderful, colourful destinations this world traveller has ever visited.

The Mayans are creators of beautiful handicrafts, and mountainous Guatemala surpasses its central American neighbours in the variety and quality of hand-made products available. Fabulous hand woven materials and wool blankets top the list, but silver jewellery, woodcarvings, pottery, tourist and local clothing (particularly huiples, the womens embroidered blouses), can be found in the lively regional markets. Even if you dont want to purchase anything, these regular once or twice weekly markets are worth visiting to observe and be part of the hustle and bustle of lives lived differently.

The regions people are friendly and open, none more so than in El Salvador, where so many of its citizens died during its ferocious civil war. In the standing-room only buses, the sitting locals will gently tap your arm, relieve you of your parcels, and place them in their already full laps until you arrive at your destination. As friendly as the people are, be a little wary of asking the local inhabitants for directions, as Hispanics seem to prefer that visitors go on walkabouts, rather than lose face by telling them that they just dont know.

The most common physical aliments a visitor may experience are intestinal upsets caused by unsanitary food preparation or unpurified water. My theory is that its the consumption of too many beans! You may suffer cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting or more seriously, dysentery, which may require hospitalisation. Insect bites are at best a nuisance, at worst dangerous, as in the case of the malaria-carrying mosquito found everywhere except in the colder, higher altitudes of Guatemalas central highlands and Costa Ricas mountains.

Travel Information: How to get there: If youre the owner of time rather than its' servant, the cheapest way to access the region is to take a quick flight from Miami, Florida, to Cancun in Mexico. From there, its a days bus ride to reach the Belizian border where your adventure begins.

Travel Information:

The Footprint Mexico and Central American Handbook is the travel bible for the region, whether you have pounds to burn or pennies to watch in your budget.

Let's Go Series

Lonely Planet Series: Central America on a Shoestring

Sierra Club Travel Series

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