This is our first trip to this part of the world and we are finding family travel in Central America is vastly different to family travel elsewhere. Primarily we have traveled across South East Asia with trips to both Europe and the USA. The way in which we approach and conduct our travel across Asia doesn’t work here in Central America.
Family Travel in Central America Isn’t Easy
As a family traveling across Asia it was easy. Everything is set up for the tourist. Regardless of your budget there are great hotels at all price points. If you prefer to book online before you arrive, as apposed to walking around on arrival, there are lots of choices. Hotels also tend to be grouped together in the same area which makes comparing and finding accommodation simple.
Here in Central America the hotels are much more expensive if you compare like with like. They are also more set up for individual or couple travelers and have dorms galore or double rooms. We normally take either a room with a double and a single or two doubles. $20 a night in Asia would have been expensive. $30 here is the cheapest we can find. We took a place for a month to get this rate. In San Salvador we paid $45 a night including breakfast, it was the best value we could find.
Looking on the internet there are limited accommodation choices but for families rooms are scarce. In fact it is easier to book an entire dorm which means I’m paying the same for the kids as adults. Leaving it late, rooms can disappear quickly which also points to an under supply of rooms, keeping prices high.
Family Safety in Central America
I don’t feel as safe with family travel in Central America as I do in other places. Latin America has a problem with violent crime and gangs in general. The big cities are riddled with danger that surpasses anything Asia throws at you. We don’t walk around after dark here and in places such as San Salvador and Guatemala City we exercise extreme caution. We try not to leave the house with anything we couldn’t hand over without a second thought. No phones, credit cards, jewelry and no more than $20 in money. Common sense is needed whenever you travel but here everyone warns you to be careful and most places insist on guides or even police escorts if you are away from an immediate tourist area.
This makes family travel much harder in terms of looking for hotels on foot when you arrive. That is our preferred method of finding hotels both for cost and suitability. There is no way you would walk around San Salvador or Guatemala City with your backpacks and your kids looking for hotels. Not least because hotels are so scarce and spread out.
The Best and Worst Buses in the World
We caught a bus from San Salvador, El Salvador to Guatemala City, Guatemala, our first international bus journey together. It was the best bus we have ever been on. Luxury leather seats and only 3 to an aisle. There was complimentary food and drinks service during the journey, movies and music and if that wasn’t enough, a great view from the top deck of the luxury coach. Cost wise it was only about 20% more than in Laos but I would gladly pay that difference any day of the week. Kids even went half price. Bonus.
On the flip side they have the famous ‘chicken’ buses. These have a reputation the world over for being unreliable, dangerous death traps. Our host in Antigua has lived here 27 years and never taken one. That speaks volumes. They are in fact old American school buses that were sold at auction after 10 years service or 150,000 miles. They are then driven south to start their new life in Latin America.
Personally I don’t think they are as bad as people make out but like anything in Central America you need to be extra careful. When you are warned about things here you need to take notice and precautions. With the deluxe buses here I wouldn’t travel on the chicken buses with our bags and the kids but for short trips around Antigua would have no worries.
Food in Central America
Food is vastly different here. Maize is a staple food and has been since long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Potatoes are another local grown staple indigenous to the Americas. Tortilla and burittos are found almost anywhere as are papusa, a filled dough mixture and a personal favourite of mine. All this food is great for kids and adults alike. Nothing is particularly spicy or loaded with chili so the boys can eat most things without worry. For adults they have a great selection of chili sauces that, if you want, you can douse your food with to make it more interesting. Refried beans (frijoles refritos in Spanish) are available everywhere from restaurants to supermarkets. Popular flavours include plain, cheese and chorizo.
The local markets are stacked with all sorts of fresh vegetables and fruit. Cashew apple were a new thing for me. There was a heavy presence of other staples such as avocados, plantains, tomatoes and a variety of potatoes. Central American markets, like their Asian couterparts, are a joy to walk around. A great way to watch the local people going about their daily lives.
Family travel in Central America has certainly pushed us out of our comfort zone. We are enjoying the new challenges and experiences, after all that is why we travel. The big question is, on our limited budget, can we survive on refried beans for two months?
Update: We found our feet up on Lake Atitlan, it’s a whole different ball game up there, better prices, more relaxed, more of a backpacker feel. We’d love to have spent much longer there and should probably have flown through Antigua in a day or two. Flores for Tikal was also a nice place to spend a few days, again, more of a backpacker experience. But I still stand by my first impressions, travel in Central America is nothing like Asia. Not a bad thing, but an interesting one. We had a great time in Central America and would love to go back for more.