How To Survive a Central American Road Trip. 12 Steps to a relatively safe road trip you’ll never forget.

When you plan a road trip in the US, typically you just go. I mean, some people might plan every detail, stopping at historical points, booking motels and forecasting weather. But really, you can safely hop behind the wheel with a gas card in your pocket and just go. With endless miles of finely groomed pavement and functioning judicial systems to protect you from monsters, planning can take a back seat.

Unfortunately, its a different story in Central America. According to the Wall Street Journal, Latin America is the world’s most violent region and “Honduras is the world’s most dangerous country outside a war zone”. So, when traveling in Central America, which hosts some of the worlds highest murder rates, most corrupt officials and deepest pot holes, there’s a few life or death scenarios you should consider.

It was the end of our first year teaching in Guatemala and the waves and tropical beaches of El Salvador and Nicaragua were calling us. We bought a fully blacked out 99 Durango in an effort to look mean and drain our savings on gas. We survived a year of driving in Guatemala City without being killed, which we figured was qualification enough for a trip through a few other violent countries.  So, a trip from Guatemala to El Salvador, through Honduras and on to Nicaragua with surfboards and two dogs seemed like a perfect summer road trip.

Obviously, since I’m writing this, we survived. But there were some close calls and lots of planning was necessary to keep us safe. So, if you’re considering this trip, especially with pets, follow theses steps.

1. Paperwork. Get your dogs’ paperwork in order. This means getting a special permit for them to enter each country, all vaccinations documented and about 50 copies of everything having to do with them. Due to the corrupt nature of Central American governments, the border operations tend to make ridiculous requests, like 20 copies of your dog’s health cert. if you don’t have it, they charge about 5 dollars per copy. So, when they ask, just hand them a stack of copies and smile.

The same goes for all of your personal passport documents and car registration papers.

2. Hide your stash. You will want to bring a few hundred bucks cash as you never know when you’ll find a functioning ATM. But, you certainly don’t want to have this stash in your pocket. Find a safe and sneaky place in your car. I pulled up the floorboard just beside the driver door and slid a Ziploc bag full of cash there. Kinda made me feel like Jason Bourne, which really isn’t a bad thing when you’re traveling in dangerous places.

nica money

3. Maps. Bring actual paper maps and plan your route. That being said, get a GPS app or device that isn’t reliant on wifi or a data package. We did both and it really helped. In Nicaragua it turned out that the route on our paper map was blocked. Google maps said to turn down an unmarked dirt road heading towards a volcano. It was scary, but the alternative was to turn back and seek another road. We trusted the GPS and ended up safely back on track with views of volcanoes and rural hills to boot.

4. Electronics. Bring wall chargers, car phone chargers and portable chargers. Because I said so. Duh!

5. Vehicle. I’d say 4WD is a must. Some of these roads get washed out and you’re gonna face potholes bigger than you. It also helps if your car looks mean. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a scardy cat, but knowing that I could plow over most objects if I had to gave me an extra little sense of security. Every bit helps.

image

Also, get your car fully checked by a pro, unless you are one already. Make sure your spare tire is good to go. Bring extra oil, coolant, jumpers and anything else you may need to get your beast back on the road. You’ll be driving through some rural areas that don’t have the most reliable auto mechanics. And let’s be honest, it’s scary to think of being stranded on the side of the road in Honduras. Also, for some strange reason (corruption?) the police in El Salvador require you to have reflective triangles ready as well as a fire extinguisher. Or Else! They are cheap and may come in handy if you have to fend off bandits.

6. Patience. ‘Cause sometimes there are cows on the road.

image

7. Sturdy shoes. Well, other than all the obvious reasons to protect your feet when traveling, some of the border crossings look like war zones. I had to get out of the car in Honduras to get our stack of papers stamped. I’d wish I’d had shoes on because the ground was riddled with broken glass and shards of metal from unfinished construction. Unless you’re cool with rusty nails in the bottom of your feet, put on shoes when crossing the border.

8. Gusto and a sense of humor. This one is tough, but really this trip can test your fortitude and wit more than you’d like it to. After 12 hours of traveling from El Salvador through Honduras we were finally crossing into Nicaragua. We went through all the legal hoops, waited in lines, sat in our sweat and silently prayed that we wouldn’t get jumped or harassed. All went well, we got our stamps and were on our way. Then, the final border guard stopped us and asked to see our receipt for immigration. I showed him the sheet which said two adults paid and done. He clearly hadn’t had enough fun yet that day and demanded that we go back and pay for two separate receipts AND pay him 20 dollars. It was a long day and my patience was short. I knew he was messing with me and I felt confident that my  shitzu and french bulldog would have my back if dude wanted to take me in. So, I just firmly said “no necessito, me pago antes”. A few grumbles later, he let us go and we were on our way to the beach.

9. First aid kit. Because sometimes you kick a rock on your way to surf and your toe nail falls off.

bloody toe

10. A great playlist. This one seems obvious, but it can’t be stressed enough. You’re gonna’ want some good tunes to create a fun vibe while you sit on your butt for 10+ hours.

11. A kick ass travel partner who you trust and laugh with. I am blessed with having married my best friend and most trusted travel buddy. She did a lot of the planning of this trip and we knew what to expect, most of the time. Most importantly,you’re going to spend close to 40 hours in the car with this person. You better like each other. It helps if she’s hot too!

tahnee and bones nica road trip

12. Finally, a good camera. Because this is some of the most beautiful terrain in the world and you’re going to want to remember it. That’s why you’re risking your life in the first place right?

view from el sal beachplaya colorado sunsetsurf sunzalnica volcano 2

Have you made this road trip before? What are your thoughts on theses tips? Let me know what you’re thinking and what your road trip experiences have been in the comments section below.

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3 comments

  1. Teban Hills

    You said it all Pete! I most add that the most important thing to bring is COMMON SENSE, it will save your life.
    Central America is an exciting land. Make it a few weeks trip but don’t move there (unless you enjoy having paranoia 24/7)

    Peace

    Like

    • That’s a good one Este. Common sense is officially #13 now! It’s tough to say not to move there, because we have such great memories from there and met some rad friends! But, I can’t disagree with you there. Better to go as a tourist to all the great spots.

      Like

  2. leinanicarlson

    No, I haven’t made this road trip, but sure enjoyed experiencing it a bit through your post! Got some good chuckles, and am soooo glad you made it home safely!

    Like

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