The ribbon of land joining Mexico to South America is unknown territory to most Australians. Yet it contains some wonderful travel spots. David McGonigal unravels the thread.
"Even experienced travellers seem to know little about Central America," a friend stated over coffee in Panama City. "Before I moved here I thought Nicaragua was somewhere in Africa." In the face of such candor, our breakfast companion confessed that "until a few weeks ago I thought Honduras was an island."
The first part of understanding Central America is working out what that term encompasses. Everywhere south of the US border can be lumped under the general heading of Latin America because Spanish (or in Brazil Portugese) is the principal language (except for Belize where English is used). However, Mexico is part of North America and that part of Panama south of the Panama Canal is regarded as South American. In between these limits you have Central America: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
The thread linking them all is the Pan American Highway, a ribbon of tar stretching from Alaska to Chile. Until recently, the stretch through Central America was seen as the most dangerous of all: a track leading through revolution and insurrection in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The civil war in Guatemala effectively ended in 1996 when an agreement between the government and the indigenous population halted hostilities. That opened the final border to tourist travel: El Salvador's civil war concluded in 1992 and the Sandinista-Contra conflict in Nicaragua fell into uneasy peace in 1994. These days you can travel through Central America and visit all the tourist sights with little worry that you'll stroll into armed conflict.
On the other hand, you will encounter an astonishing array of natural wonders and cultural highlights packed into a very small area. From my journey through the region in May this year, here's a guide to what stands out in each country, travelling from south to north.
By far the most Americanised nation along the strip, Panama doesn't even print its own currency - rather it simply uses the US dollar. Panama City is a large, modern city of little interest while, on the other side of the country 55 kilometres away, is Colon and its duty free zone all of which looks like the sleazy set for a modern "Pirates of the Caribbean" film.
Between the two lies the Panama Canal, reason enough to visit this part of the world. It was first contemplated in 1514 and finally opened in 1914. The decoartive touches on the buildings at the three sets of locks which transport ships over the mountains all reflect that era.
The canal is not at sea level - tidal variations of over six metres between the Atlantic and Pacific would make such an operation difficult. Instead ships are raised and lowered almost 30 metres as they cross the continental divide. At 13 km, Gaillard Cut is the longest excavation of the eight hour passage from one sea to the other.
Both the canal's construction and the operations required for each ship to pass through are awe inspiring feats of engineering. Fortunately for tourists, there are public viewing areas at Gatun and Miraflores locks (where there's a scale model of the whole canal). Attention on the canal is such that one tends to overlook the rich rainforest through which it passes, a world of brightly coloured toucans and macaws in jungle glades.
For a wilder jungle experience one need only venture south to the end of the road. The Darien Gap is the only section of jungle too wild to put the Pan American Highway through. Vehicles and passengers must be shipped around (or flown over) this rugged area between Panama and Colombia. Like Papua New Guinea and the Amazon it's not for the inexperienced.
For information on Panama fax the Instituto Panameno de Turismo (IPAT) in Panama City on 226-2544.
If you are looking for a tropical paradise of verdant national parks and rich wildlife, Costa Rica is it. This tiny country has the highest standard of living in Central America and 25 per cent of the land is protected area. There are nine active volcanoes in a country considerably smaller than Tasmania.
San Jose is an uninteresting low-rise city that gives no indication of the wonders beyond. In the northwest there are some dull areas of low scrub and flat plains but most of Costa Rica is a riot of tropical jungle spilling down to the azure waters of the coast and of rich cloud forest rising into the mists. It has the greatest biodiversity of any country in the world: with only 0.03 per cent of the planet's land surface it is home to five per cent of its lifeforms.
Costa Rica was a peaceful little democracy just getting on with life until the ecotourism boom of the 1980s. Now you can't move for American tourists and American scientists on study programs. But in a part of the world where nature always loses out to human encroachment Costa Rica and its respect for the environment is a welcome change. There's such a rich abundance of wildlife here that you can expect to have large macaws (like rosellas on steroids) by the path as you breakfast at a beachside hotel. And chattering monkeys are likely to accompany you on forest walks.
The terrain ensures that it's not easy to get around so a small organised tour is the best way to explore. The mist-enshrouded orchid-rich cloud forest of Monteverde and the clean beaches and good fishing of the Nicoya Peninsula to the west and the Caribbean culture of the port city of Limon define the limits. To see the wild side of Costa Rica I suggest a visit to the very undeveloped Osa Peninsula down near the southern border. Wherever you visit, Costa Rica is the Central American country you won't want to miss.
For more information contact the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo on San Jose, tel (506) 2230-1733 (ext. 227), fax (506) 223-5452.
Like Honduras to its north, poverty-stricken Nicaragua is often seen as a country to pass through on the way to somewhere else. It's the largest country in Central America but that's still not big: it's just over half the size of Victoria.
Managua the capital is so undistiguished that it's hard to know when you have reach it. But that's not surprising: it was destroyed by earthquake in 1931, by fire in 1936, earthquake again in 1972 then ravaged by a 1978-9 revolution.
For travellers between Honduras and Costa Rica, Lake Nicaragua is a good place for a break. The lake is so vast (100 km by 200 km) that you may first think you've landed on the shores of the Caribbean. In the middle of the lake is an island with two volcanoes. The largest is Concepcion, a perfect cone 1610 metres high and home to many howler monkeys.
More information can be obtained from Inturismo in Managua, tel 22 4362, fax 22-6618.
Honduras was the original "Banana Republic". It was, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world and early this century bananas became its main export crop. With mountains in the centre and swamps along the Atlantic coast, much of the country is only accessible by light plane. Surprisingly, for a nation where many travel by mule or on foot, the major roads are in much better condition than those of neighbouring countries.
Scuba diving Honduras' Caribbean islands is becoming increasingly popular. However, the country's main attraction continues to be Copan, magnificent Mayan ruins in the north west. It's 400 km from the capital, Tegucigalpa and the drive takes you through beautiful mountain scenery. Alternatively there are day or multi-day air tours from Guatemala City.
The Instituto Hondureno de Turismo in Tegucigalpa can be contacted by telephone 22-4002, or fax 38-2102.
The smallest and most crowded country in Central America is El Salvador. For the whole of the 1980s it was off the tourist route as it fought out a very uncivil war. The war also left the resorts of the Pacific Coast in ruins.
El Salvador is a very pretty, well organised country with some impressive mountain nature reserves. However, the hassles of obtaining a visa ensure many people detour around it. Information is available from the Instituto Salvadoreno de Turismo (ISTU), tel 222-8000, fax 222-1208.
There are two reasons to visit Belize. The first is if you are overlanding and wish to get away from it all on the worst through road in Central America. The second is to visit and dive the very impressive coral reefs and offshore islands of this tiny Caribbean country. Recently, conservation tourism has become a drawcard too, enticing visitors to sites such as the world's only jaguar reserve at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
While Belize, formerly the colony of British Honduras, has English as its official language you'll find Spanish is widely spoken. There are Mayan ruins throughout the country and about 10 per cent of the population are Mayas.
The Belize Tourist Board (tel.02-77213, fax 02-77490, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) also has an office in New York, tel. (212) 268-8798, fax (212) 695-3018.
Colourful Indian dress, beautiful volcano-rimmed lakes and impressive Mayan ruins draw the visitor to Guatemala. While the capital is Guatemala City, the ancient capital of Antigua still shows why it was long considered the finest city in Central America.
Even if you will visit Mexican Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza it's worth making the effort to travel deep into the Guatemalan jungle to Tikal. This was the first great Mayan city and two very steep pyramids still face each other across a plaza surrounded by scores of lesser temples, many still lost in the forest. The complex is impressive, the setting incomparable. Only a few metres in any direction stands a tangle of mahogany and cedar, ferns and vines crowded with spider monkeys and toucans. There are one- and multi-day air tours from Guatemala City, or you travel by bus over the long and rather rugged road.
For tourist information contact Inguat, tel 31-1333, fax 31-8893.
In Australia we tend to think of the whole of Latin America as a dangerous den of thieves. However, most visitors travelling through Central America rarely, if ever feel threatened or at risk. By taking simple precautions you can reduce the danger of pilfering or theft to a minimum. Robbery with voilence is rare indeed.
The cities are the problem areas. It's best to leave valuables locked in the security of a good hotel and just take enough cash to get by. Take your camera out on planned sightseeing excursions rather than every time you leave the hotel. Avoid going out at night and listen to local advice about "no go" areas. Without being paranoid be especially vigilant when approached by anyone, particularly children.
Determining what visas are required for Central America can be a major headache. I met one Australian woman who travelled through without pre-obtaining a single visa. Others endeavour to arrange everything in advance. Here's what I found in May 1997 - but it is essential to check with each country before setting off. Guatemala like Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize doesn't require Australians to obtain visas prior to arrival. Panama insists that we buy a tourist card but they can be purchased at borders or on the flight. Australians do need a visa for El Salvador. Nicaragua changes its rules frequently: right now you do need a visa but may be able to get it at the border or airport. Honduras on the other hand doesn't require Australians to have a visa but they change their minds frequently, too. Throughout, you will need to show an onward ticket and that you have enough money to support yourself.
Central America is a 3000 km long strip of land encompassing the shores of two oceans and terrain that ranges from hot coastal plains to very high mountains. Any generalisations are very general indeed. The driest and coolest months are November to April and most of the rain falls between June and September. The Caribbean coast is generally much wetter than elsewhere. The nicest months for travelling are January to April. Bear in mind that it is all tropical so the terms "cool" and "dry" are relative.
For specialist information on travel in Latin America call the South American Travel Centre on (03) 9642-5353 or fax (03) 9642-5454.
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd