Although the countries of Central America are seeing huge tourism growth, many potential visitors still have concerns about personal safety when visiting the region. This is hardly surprising given the recent history of several countries in Central America but travelers really should not be too concerned with personal safety: it is no more dangerous to visit most of Central America than it is any other tourist destination and, in fact, most areas are certainly safer than home.
It may surprise you to know that Interpol regards Nicaragua as the safest of all the Central American countries. The political unrest and civil war that linger in the memories of older people are now relegated to history. Nicaragua is safe and stable and travelers should not feel overly nervous about their safety in this country. While it would be wrong to say that there is no crime, what crime exists is mainly petty and is a direct result of the grinding poverty endured by many Nicaraguans, and, in spite of the vote of confidence from Interpol, violent crime is not unheard of in Managua in fact its on the rise.
Panama and Costa Rica are largely regarded as safe for tourists: here, again, petty crime does exist, largely in the shape of pick-pocketing in the major cities and resorts. Tourists in the capitals of both countries, but in particular San Jose are advised to take care at night and avoid the bars and nightclubs of the red light areas (zona roja’).
More of a concern in Costa Rica is the number of motor vehicle accidents. This is only partly because of the poor conditions of roads in some areas, but also because many Costa Ricans have a flagrant disregard for traffic regulations.
The picture is less rosy in Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras. Take Belize, for example, where tourists are perfectly safe during daylight hours but are advised to take extreme care at night in the capital, Belize City. Generally Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala cause concern because of the “maras”, street gangs that control areas that have become no go for the often ineffectual police forces which have two key drawbacks, young and inexperienced officers and a lack of laws that back up their attempts to control crime. Contrast this with Mexico where punishments can seem excessive but the corrupt police are more likely to be on the side of wrongdoers than to help tourists in trouble.
On top of the more general problems, Guatemala has an alarmingly high murder rate which tops even that of the United
States. Unlike other countries there are known cases of tourists being targeted at places such as Pacaya Volcano and near Lake Atitlan. As well as being advised to sign up for organized tours to such locations, travelers are strongly advised to keep put of the notorious Zone 1 sector of Guatemala City.
As with traveling anywhere there are easy precautions to take that will not compromise your enjoyment or your freedom to see what you want to.
Take only licensed cabs check what color plates these carry in the country you are traveling in as they do differ.
Don’t show off expensive jewelery or luggage. Don’t carry more money on your personal than you need to. Wear a money belt, hidden on your person and beware of pick pockets or bag thieves.
Do take organized trips to more remote areas; not only will this keep you safer but in countries like Costa Rica it means someone else has to worry about the other drivers.
Avoid drugs at all costs. You might be offered drugs freely on the street but dealers can turn nasty and you should be aware that even if the drugs are offered quite openly, most Central American countries take a dim view of drugs and penalties are usually very severe.
Avoid political demonstrations; they can turn nasty quickly and can be infiltrated by people who want to hijack otherwise peaceful protests.
Of course, the level of safety you can expect does depend on how you intend to travel. Independent travel does expose you to more risks and while, it’s not for everyone, traveling as part of an organized tour or staying on a resort complex may help some people feel more at ease. Overall, though, visitors to any of the countries of Central America will find most people to be friendly, helpful and genuine. Do not let worries over personal safety deter you from visiting this exotic and exciting part of the world.