When I first quit my job and began my travels, it was hard to decide where to go. The world was completely accessible to me, and I wasn’t sure where to begin. I wanted to go somewhere I had never been, but also someplace not too far away, since I had to be back in New York six weeks later for jury duty!
I ended up choosing Costa Rica as my first destination. While there, I crossed over into Panama and Nicaragua. Now that I’ve been to six continents in the past few years, I can say that those border crossings were some of the most interesting I’ve made so far.
Here are a few things you should know before crossing borders in Central America, especially if you’re going solo or by land.
1. You Might Have To Wait
Depending on the time of day and day of the week, you might need to wait hours to have your passport and paperwork validated. If you go with a local company, your guide will know the traffic patterns and will likely be able to get you through faster, at least to Panama. Our guide told us that there are days when visitors wait up to 4 hours. Fortunately, we made it through in about 15 minutes.
2. You’ll Probably Feel Confused
There are multiple offices or checkpoints along every crossing, and they’re not always grouped together. At one location, you’ll pay a border crossing fee; at another one, you’ll fill out a form and get your passport stamped — and that’s just the first border. If you don’t speak Spanish well, you might not understand what you’re paying for or know what line to stand in. It’s worth speaking to your fellow travelers — or doing some research, if you’re going on your own — so that you’ll know what to expect.
When I crossed the border from Costa Rica into Panama, we were dropped off at the bottom of a hill and told to walk up to what looked like a hut and pay our exit tax. We had the option to carry our own bags up the hill, or pay a little extra to get help, and then we had to head to a more official office to get our passports stamped, which could only happen if we had the receipt from paying our exit fee.
It’s a lot to take in, so take a breath and take your time to figure it all out.
3. Expect Drug Checks
Near each border there is usually a drug checkpoint. It’s all fine (provided you don’t have any drugs), but it’s a bit strange to have an armed guard asking questions and potentially wanting to see the contents of your vehicle. Going with a tourist service can spare you a lengthier checkpoint stop.
If you subscribe to alerts from the U.S. Department of State’s website, you’re likely to notice that there are regions you shouldn’t travel to due to nefarious activity. I’d suggest you heed the warnings, but don’t let them get in the way of loving your time in other places in Central America.
4. Expect Long Walks
The Panama and Nicaragua border crossings were two of the oddest experiences of my life.
To get to Panama from Costa Rica, I had to cross a bridge, walk down some steps, and figure out where the passport office was. I remember walking through rubble and dilapidated stores, trying to find the right place. Even though I crossed with a bus company, the guides didn’t cross the border with us. They tried to explain to us what to do, and they said that another bus from the same company would be on the other side of the border.
Nicaragua was worse — I felt like we walked for close to a mile. Along the way, guards with machine guns were everywhere, and random men with wads of cash kept asking if we wanted to exchange money. It was easily the most uncomfortable crossing I’ve ever made. I was unsure what to do next, and I didn’t feel entirely safe. The feeling of being watched at every step was unnerving.
All of this walking, by the way, was done while carrying my own luggage. If your luggage is heavy, you’re going to be really unhappy. It’s hot, and it’s a long, long walk.
5. Your Feminine Charm Might Come In Handy
I had another strange experience in Panama. I was one of a few women in my group traveling solo. The passport control officers were all men and didn’t look exceptionally friendly. When it was my turn to present my passport, I was quite nervous. I was in what seemed like an alley with a man behind the window in front of me. I expected to be grilled and to pay money to get my passport stamped. Instead, he looked over my papers and told me that my smile would be all the compensation necessary for the stamp!
6. You Might Not Understand The Process
In Nicaragua, when we were left in between borders, a man gathered us together, saying that he was with our bus company. But he wore no shirt or name badge that identified him as such. The few members of our group blindly followed him to the passport control area. Instead of having us go through one by one, he decided to collect cash from us (the fee was some odd amount that nobody would have exact change for), along with our passports. He told us he’d be back with our change and our passports.
It seemed foolish to give a complete stranger our passports, along with cash, and actually expect that we might get them back. I remember sitting with my new group of friends in a cluster on the floor in some degree of shock. We debated whether we’d actually get our passports back, whether we were all complete morons, and what to do if we didn’t get them back. It all worked out, but it was by far the strangest border experience I ever had.
7. Help Is Available
I crossed both borders with a shuttle-bus service that took care of a lot of the confusion for us. The crossing into Nicaragua, as I mentioned before, was still really confusing, despite the help. However, as a solo traveler I was relieved to have confirmed transportation to and from each checkpoint, as well as a small group of fellow travelers, so I didn’t feel entirely alone.
If you’re a solo traveler planning a multi-country trip to Central America, and you intend to do any of it by land, I highly recommend you do it with a known and trusted service. I went with Caribe Shuttle and found the drivers reliable, nice, and helpful. They also ensured my door-to-door delivery to either my accommodation in Nicaragua, or to a central hub where I could get a taxi in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
8. The Other Side Will Be Entirely Different
I presumed that driving a few miles over a border wouldn’t make me feel like I was in another country. I was wrong. From the state of the roads to the state of the houses, it was immediately apparent that we had left one country and entered another.
I remember an odd feeling when, upon arriving in Nicaragua, I saw an old yellow American school bus drive by, full of adults. I learned that the government takes those old buses and turns them into public transportation.
9. You’ll Want To Check On The Weather Conditions
Central America is vast enough that different countries can have their rainy seasons at different times of the year. In some countries, the rain can make driving hazardous. If you’re heading to a country for the sunshine, be sure to pick the right season to enjoy the beaches! Depending on how long you’ll be spending in the region, and how many countries from north to south you plan to visit, the weather will be an important consideration in your travels. It’s a good idea to research annual weather variations when planning your trip.
10. You’ll Need To Research Visa And Exit Requirements
As a full-time traveler who has the luxury of spending a long period of time in a country, I was surprised to learn that some countries, like Costa Rica, require proof of exit when you arrive. For the average tourist, that’s just showing your return ticket to your home country. In my case, I didn’t have a return flight, so I purchased a bus ticket to Panama for several weeks after I arrived. That sufficed for immigration. If I hadn’t known this in advance, I might have had a very different experience. This is another important area to research if you happen to be entering one country in Central America and returning home from another.
11. Many Locals Don’t Speak English
Just like in South America, there are many places in Central America where you’ll be happy to know some Spanish. Heavily touristed countries like Costa Rica have a lot of English speakers. However, even there, on local transportation between smaller cities, you’re likely to find that bus drivers don’t speak much English, and some of the locals in smaller restaurants might not, either. I was happy to have even a little Spanish to rely on in those situations.
I remember getting on a local bus in the small town of Uvita, Costa Rica, trying to find an even smaller town. Somehow the woman in the front understood me and told me where to get off the bus. The locals are extremely friendly and helpful, and your Spanish will allow them to help you more.
12. You’ll Be Tempted To Move There
I encountered a lot of retirement communities while traveling through Central America. The residents were mainly Americans and Europeans over 40 who decided to settle down in this area. The beaches are beautiful, and it’s a laid-back lifestyle. When you meet others from your country who’ve retired there, you’ll find yourself asking them a lot of questions and imagining doing it yourself.
Central America is a wonderful world of warm weather, lush tropical landscapes, and beautiful beaches. It blends influences from North America, the Caribbean, and South America. Whether you want to practice your Spanish or just see something different, you’ll find everything you want.