Is Central America the Most Dangerous Travel Hub in the World?

Is Central America the Most Dangerous Travel Hub in the World?

The stats for Central America aren’t good, you know this before you arrive. Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are synonymous with drug related violence, they hold permanent positions on the ‘most homicides per 100,000 people’ list each year and our governments warn travellers to exercise a high degree of caution.

 

As a visitor I assumed that these problems were regional and not something that affects tourists.

 

There are, after all, hoards of travellers flocking to the area every year and so I assumed that if I took my usual precautions then I could keep out of harms way and enjoy life the same as any other place I’d visited.

 

I didn’t expect my travels to change as much as they did, I didn’t expect to be writing this blog post and I never thought I would be calling Central America the most dangerous travel hub in the world… but I am and if you are not, then you’re kidding yourself. It seems to me that travellers have become adept at creating a false sense of security in this dangerous place, which in itself makes the place all the more dangerous. Awareness is safety and with every traveller in denial about the risks of traveling in Central America, we want to be the first voice to open up and express our concerns.

 

 

Let’s start with a little bit of honesty…

 

I know that travel brings extra risk and you have to compensate for those risks but after a decade of travelling all over the World, the extent to which my travels have adapted for my own safety has never been so prominent as in Central America. I have left Central America slightly ashamed of myself: I didn’t make a single detour from the Gringo Trail, didn’t take a single nighttime stroll and felt unsettled at the isolation of simple sunset beach runs. These behaviours tell me one thing, that I did not feel safe. It was only when I opened up and laid my feelings on the table that other travellers, sort-of admitted that they had felt the same. Fearful of looking less culturally sensitive and travel savvy, these honest expressions were cloaked behind a barrier of embarrassment. But once the gates were opened, a flood of stories both first and second hand were shared. In no other country have I known of as many armed robberies, assaults and murders as I did here. So what really shocked me, was even after all of this storytelling and incredibly scary amount of stories, each storyteller would finish with the familiar shrug, sigh and words:

 

“but that could happen anywhere, the world is not a safe place”

 

That is correct, but I beg you to find me a place where this statement is said so often as it is in Central America. When the lady dies on a beach barely 20metres from our hotel… “that can happen anywhere.” When a person is held at knifepoint for the cash in their pocket…”that can happen anywhere.” When you take public transport you have a chance that the ‘bus’ mafia will rob you at gunpoint… “well that can hap…. wait what?!”

 

The repetition of this attempt at ‘reasoning’ is not only tiring but downright absurd. Of course this is not happening everywhere, it is really only happening in Central America, right now and everyday. What travel hub on Earth has unsafe public transport, it was only on my third tourist shuttle in Guatemala that I realised I hadn’t even visited a bus station and that is unheard of in my previous travels.

 

It’s not just public transport that we are warned about, hostel owners urge us not to walk around at night, not to stray away from the bustling parts of the beach, to only get in a taxi they have called, and even not to visit certain national parks without a police escort because of numerous violent attacks on tourists in recent years….. and we don’t. In all the countries I have been to, this is the first time I have treated these warnings like gospel.

 

“well I’ve spent ten months in Central America and I’ve never had a problem.”

 

Why are you even making this statement, do you consider yourself lucky? I’ve never left a country and felt relieved that nothing has happened to me, I just assume it is not going to happen and am disappointed if it does. More than once I have heard this statement from travellers and travel bloggers.

 

Please know, I’m not trying to sway you from visiting Central America, there are incredible highlights, wonderful people and some world class monuments, but I am trying to illuminate what most travellers try and hide, your travels will change, there are added rules and if you don’t follow them you could find yourself in real danger. In Central America everything is certainly not hunky dory, so lets not allow our bravo to get in the way of what we are really feeling. After all being aware of our surroundings and limitations as a tourist rather then disguising them is the way to keep safe.

 

 

 

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Written by

Prue Sinclair is a twenty-eight year old Aussie who for the past seven years has been exploring the furthermost reaches of the World. Living anywhere but her homeland, she now resides somewhere in the UK where she writes about the adventures of her Ultimate British Road Trip. Her message is simple: You can get anywhere on any budget, you just need to think outside the box. You can trust she's finding her way to somewhere lesser-known and writing a 'How To' guide.

21 Comments
  • Peck says:

    I am a globe trotter lawyer and I travelled to so many countries and I never felt insecure until now when I was visiting in Panama to see Panama canal.
    I used public transportation, but I felt extremely insecure there..so I cut short my visit…..
    I seen Panama canal, Colon, Portobelo….and I hoped the God was with me and help me to get home
    to San Francisco…..as soon as possible….

    Nothing wrong happened thanks Dios, but Panama is really a risky place…..
    Only nice think was the Copa Airline, which was world class pro airline and thanks everybodies we got home..

    True..the bad think could be happening in any countries and any place….we know in America so much crime
    even in San Francisco, but I never felt unsafe there….I perfectly understand the the rich and poor
    problems and the corruptions and also why Che Guevara was challenging the status quo and want
    world socialist revolution…it was a nice dream..and we all know whats happened…..

    • Hey Peck,

      I completely understand how you felt in Panama. I haven’t been to Panama but I felt unsafe in other parts of Central America regularly. It’s great that travellers like yourself talk openly about their feels and experiences in these countries because so often travellers don’t say anything to keep their pride and label ‘I’m an awesome traveller’ which can give new travellers to the area a false sense of security. Thank you for sharing, we really appreciate it.

      happy travels,

      Prue

  • stephanie says:

    Where else have you traveled that has been similar in terms of security? Do you travel in areas with active conflict regularly? ….I am okay with being security conscious and not going out at night if it means I get to see places I haven’t seen….how much security money did you carry with you in the event that you were robbed? Were you ever robbed? …ps having a gun in your face is very unpleasant and I am not suggesting that feeling unsafe was in anyway a bad thing where the probability existed btw…Just gathering info based on the experience of others, whose opinions will be very much based on their breadth of experience, which will surely differ from my own…I found this article helpful because I don’t know much about traveling through central america, i didn’t even know their was a route that would be significantly less dangerous for tourists (Is it protected by non-corrupt military/police?) I am used to living and traveling in countries experiencing active violence and insurgents, but somehow trust drug lords less ….any insight you could provide would be extremely helpful. I am just considering a solo driving trip from north to south america. Does the gringo trail go North to South at all? How far off of it would I be?….. . Have fun on your adventures! -Stephanie in C.A.R.

  • Shammoi says:

    nang i hated it

  • Shammoi says:

    Hi I liked this blog very much. Extremely informative :)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

  • Maciej Dudek says:

    Hey Prue,

    could you tell us about some places you felt the most threatened at? In comments I can find different views but maybe there is a list of spots everyone agrees we should stay away from when visiting Central America. I think it would be really worth to know such places.

    You wrote the super important article.

    Cheers,
    Maciek

    • Hey Maciej, thanks for getting in touch. I would not recommend staying away from central America at all! – the tourist trail between Mexico and Panama is well trodden with incredible sights, activities and adventures to see along the way and with caution, background knowledge, awareness and a few wits about you, it’s generally safe. I do however know that it would be naive to say every place is as safe/dangerous as the other. For instance that countries like Costa Rica and Panama are generally safer and Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador have higher crime rates but as I said, the Gringo trail is well trodden and if you understand and are aware of the dangers you should be ok.

      I know I haven’t given you a list as you asked but there isn’t a place in Central America that I have been to that I wouldn’t warn people away from.

      Kind regards,

      Prue

      his article isn’t about the places I felt most threatened in Central America, it depicts the overall feeling of the travel hub.

  • Interesting piece. I appreciate your honesty. I just spent 2 months in Central America as a solo 20 year old female and I have to say that I never felt unsafe. Sure, I took precautions, obviously – I did not wander around at night by myself and rarely took a purse anywhere – but I still went out and had some of the best experiences of my life. However, I was also in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I think Costa Rica (and Panama) are different from the rest of Central America as they are much more set up for tourists and the crime rate is lower and Nicaragua is not on the same level as Honduras and El Salvador, though many did warn me of traveling there as well. I visited Guatemala in 2011 and 2012 and there were days I felt safer there than I do in Pittsburgh now. Honduras was the one country that made me hesitate, as I have heard one too many stories about robberies on tourist buses, so when I go it will be to volunteer and not to travel solo. Central America is the only part of the world I’ve visited yet so I can’t compare to other places but judging from the experiences I’ve had, I can’t say it’s the most dangerous travel hub. Everyone’s experiences are different, of course, and it’s ignorant to say that there are no dangers at all and more so to go traipsing around at night in places that aren’t considered safe. But there are so many good parts to the continent that, for me, it was still the perfect place to travel solo for the first time.

    • Hey Sky,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond, I really appreciate your point of view.

      There is no doubt central America is an ideal place to travel solo for the first time. It is an amazing place, with so much to see and do! The point I really wanted to make was after 10 years of full-time travel, the only time my travel style changed was in central America. Reading trip advisor reviews in other travel hubs like Tanzania, West timor or Indonesia you would not see comments like ‘held at gunpoint’ or ‘intercepted by bandits’… these comments do exist in many attraction reviews here in Central America. I wrote this article for people like me, who were in the dark about the danger in Central America and who were going to waltz in and attempt to travel like anywhere else they had previously.

      Keep travelling and enjoying the adventures.

      Kind regards,
      Prue

  • Hi Prue,
    I only know parts of Panama in Central America, and what you write really resonates to my experience. After a few talks with fellow travelers and the hostel owners, I did not dare to venture out at night… Quite boring to stay in your hostel when there is a large city to discover!
    I actually had a very similar experience in Venezuela, actually the only country I was relieved to leave so far, as unsafety (nothing happened to us) was omnipresent… There is nothing like deserted streets at night to make you feel really, really insecure!
    Central America is high on my list, but somehow I have made it there yet, and hope I will. This is very useful insight.
    Moreover, I think you are absolutely right, there is currently some kind of insane race amongst some travelers and travel bloggers saying that traveling is safe anyway. You have to be cautious when you travel. Not paranoid, of course! But cautious… Especially in some parts of this planet. Central America I guess, and parts of South America belong to those areas…
    I didn’t know that public transport were also a chalenge. Will look into this when I start planing a trip there.
    Thanks for sharing
    Cheers, Gilles

    • Hey Gilles,

      Firstly kudos for visiting Venezuela, when we were researching Central/south America that was the country I resonated toward – anacondas, giant anteater, pristine jungle but the warnings were immense… I thought I might need to experience some other parts of the region before I went straight for the big guns, but I was sorry to do so. Seems it was as tough as it sounds.

      Since I posted this blog I have had some very strong, opposing opinions – people have assured me it is safe and that their adventurous travel style hasn’t changed.. . all I can say is ours did. We didn’t stray from the Gringo trail and we didn’t explore some of the remote national parks like we expected to and i’m not ashamed to admit that.

      mmm public transport in Guatemala is pretty rough. We sat up late one night listening to our local guide as he spoke about the troubles in his country. He spoke about the corruption and extortion that occurs on the local ‘chicken’ buses in regards to tourists, money and drugs. We also met a few couples whose bus was held up by armed bandits minutes after they had got on – the bandits walked on only targeting them. Our local guide explained the drivers get a cut of the stolen backpacks for the tipoff.

      We are looking forward to exploring more of the region, never know, we might see you there 🙂

      Kind regards,

      Prue

      • Hey Prue,
        Visiting Venezuela actually just “happened”: it was back in 2007, the first country on our RTW. Cheap flights (one way) from Europe were to Bogota or Caracas. Out of prejudices, I decided Caracas, only to discover once in South America that Colombia is really safe, and Venezuela… Is the most dangerous country on the continent. National Parks in Venezuela are great, but cities are simply awful. Never saw that many guns, and completely deserted streets at night, with restaurants locked like prisons. I am not sure I will go back there, and definitely not as long as this government is still in power and things deteriorate that fast.
        It is really unsettling what you write about public transports in Guatemala (and Central America). Are there other kind of buses (like more comfortable, private owned ones, as you find in many countries in South America)?
        Anyway, South & Central America are high on the list, and I hope to be there by the end of the year, maybe even earlier. Indeed maybe a great place to see both of you
        Cheers, Gilles

      • Gilles, thanks for sharing an insight into Venezuela. I thought it might be similar to what you described but it’s still shocking to hear it first hand. There are tourist shuttle buses running throughout Central America. They are largely unmarked mini vans with tinted windows and do not travel in the evenings. Very safe, very convenient and is the main form of transport for tourists on the gringo trail. Looking forward to watching the adventures unfold 🙂

        Prue

  • trevchris says:

    wow, some honest and powerful insights there, thanks
    Trev and Christine Barre
    http://www.liveeachadventure.com/

  • Andrea says:

    I think it is great that you shared this! Although I have never been to Central America I have heard many people brush off how unsafe it is and the claim that is just as unsafe as it is anywhere else. A friend who is from Northern Mexico, where a lot of druglords do their thing, told me if I go to Mexico to not to go to that region as she had seen people hung to death from the side of a bridge and left there to rot by the druglords. She also said to stay close to the tourist towns like Cancun to have a stress free vacation. Considering she is Mexican I take her advice seriously!

    • Hey Andrea,

      Cheers for reading and sharing your thoughts- it’s great to get a locals perspective. What your friend walked into was awful and I only hope no one else stumbles across that. It was a tough blog to write as I know so many people with strong opinions of central America but unlike you, we had no warnings and walked in blind. I hope to not put people off Central America, we loved it, I only hope to give a little dose of reality.

  • Claire says:

    Hey,

    Great and very well needed article.

    I’ve been on the road for 5 months and have been alarmed at the disparities between what I read on travel blogs and reality.

    I know people don’t like to write about the bad things but if you don’t, you put your readers in danger because they arrive thoroughly unprepared and are surprised when danger does come their way.

    I was in Guatemala back in 2013 and my Argentinian friends begged me not to go – it’s too dangerous, even THEY wouldn’t go there – but I went anyway. Alone.

    And every time I heard a gun shot or had to leave my hotel, I was terrified.

    I’m not ashamed about that. This is the reality of travelling in Central America and if you’re not scared, you’re probably stupid.

    Kudos for saying it how it is. I hope the next traveller has the good sense to read your blog before they set off on their trip.

    • Hey Claire,

      I felt exactly the same. We wandered into Guatemala with only good reviews and was shocked. It was only from talking to a few travellers who had been the country for a while that we learnt about some of the dangers that can occur from doing things I would consider ‘normal’ – i.e.. catch a cab, travel at night or visit remote national parks. There is nothing to be ashamed of, the risks and dangers are serious and if you fail to identify that I think you will put yourself in harms way. It’s good to receive some support on this article because it is quite outspoken so thanks for that 🙂

      Enjoy Malaysia, say hi to the orangutans for us 🙂

      Prue

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply.

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Hi we're Prue and Becks, travel writers and photographers who have been travelling the world together since 2012. Without taking ourselves too seriously, we divulge the lesser known, out of the way places and give you the tools to replicate it. Want to know more? Click on our pic.