Central America is the southern portion of North America. It is also known as southern North America and is a connecting strip between North and South America. This beautiful region, with its eclectic mix of white, sandy beaches, gorgeous sunsets and clear, crystal blue waters includes Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Spread over an area of 201,594 sq mi, most of the population is composed of mixed American Indian and Spanish ancestry, most of whom are Roman Catholics. The principal language in all these countries is Spanish, except for Belize where English is the official language. There are also many American Indian dialects widely spoken across the region.
History and Background
Before Columbus arrived in the 15th century, major areas of Central America were part of the Mesoamerican civilization. Native Americans occupied the land from Central Mexico to Costa Rica. Panama used to trade with both Mesoamerica and South America, and acted as a bridge between two vastly different cultures.
Spain conquered major parts of the region in the 16th century – except Belize, then known as British Honduras. Belize was very sparsely populated, and Spain leased the area to the British for 150 years. Until 1821, Central America was ruled as a Captaincy General of Guatemala, and marked its independence on 15th September 1851. However, this didn’t last long, and it was annexed to the Mexican Empire in 1822.
The following year, Mexico became a republic; and on 1st July 1823, the Congress of Central America declared total independence from Spain and Mexico. A Republican system of government was subsequently established, modeled after the United States of America, and was named The Federal Republic of Central America. However, a civil war broke out in 1838, and the union was dissolved by 1840. Various attempts were subsequently made to unite the region, but all of them failed.
Still, the region strived to maintain close ties with the Central American Court of Justice established in 1907, and the Central American Common Market in 1960. Since 1991, Central American Parliament has operated as an advisory body. However, Costa Rica has no representation in parliament.
Culture, Language and People
During the Mesoamerican civilization, there were many Native American societies that had built cities across the region. Maya was one such society, which was very prosperous, and so were the Aztecs, who had built a very large empire. By the time Columbus arrived and discovered the New World, these societies had lost their charm and power. Being the part of the Spanish empire, there were massive changes. It is believed that Spanish culture was forced upon the region.
Today, most people in Central America are of mixed descent (61.9%), and Spanish and Native American background. There are also many white people in the region, with half of the white population of all the Central American countries living in Costa Rica. The black population mostly descended from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries where they were held as slaves, and escaped to Central America. They are a minority in the region, but can be found in larger numbers in Panama and Belize, where most of the slaves escaped to. There are also considerable numbers of mulattos (mixture of black and white) found in the region. As the result of Spanish conquest, the indigenous native population has dwindled down to a minority, but can be found in huge numbers in Guatemala. These people usually lead a tribal life and stay in rural areas.
As a result of the mixture of so many civilizations, the culture of the people in Central America represents the mixture of many different traditions. However, the Spanish influence is heavy, and many of traits displayed by people here have their roots in Spain. The African slaves were runaways from English colonies, and thus they show the traits of both African as well as English culture. Most of the Blacks speak English with some African words thrown in. The Spanish have influenced the food habits of the people here as well.
While Spanish is the de facto language across Central America, there are many other languages that are spoken around the region. Most of the other languages are spoken by indigenous tribes, and many are just dialects spoken only by a particular tribe. The exception to this is Belize, where English is the principal language. This is due to the fact that Belize was a part of the British Empire, then known as British Honduras. However, Spanish is also widely spoken in this country, among many other languages.
Location and Travel
Boxed in between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Central America has a remarkable bio-diversity. There are tropical forests, beautiful beaches, as well as many volcanoes, active or partially active, in the region. It is often called the bridge that joins the two Americas, and plays a very important part in the geography of the region.
The Panama Canal has proved a boon for ships; previously, they had to take a long detour to reach the Pacific from the Atlantic. Here also lies its strategic importance, as this canal facilitates, quick and easy movement of the world navies.
Once you reach Central America through any of the entry ports, traveling around the region is an experience in itself. While buses are a common mode of public transport, you can also travel by boat. Boats are the principal means of transport between various islands and along the major rivers. While you can enjoy the modern launches for long distance travel by water, you can also see canoes and old tubs that are used as ferries, especially for short distances.
Due to a vast and difficult terrain, traveling by air is the most comfortable way to cover large distances. Each country has at least one national airline and it is not difficult to identify a good, reliable carrier. Fares are usually low, and if you plan to travel extensively, it is a good idea to get an air pass.
Taxis are quite common in the bigger towns, and many important routes, like those between airports and city centers, have fixed prices. For other places, it is recommended to settle on a fixed price before hiring a cab, or else you may end up paying more than usual. Hiring a taxi is a good substitute to hiring a car, and also cheaper. However, if you want to hire a car, prices are different in different countries. The most expensive is Belize, where you can only get a SUV and prices start at around $400 per week.
Honduras and Guatemala are also expensive, with a standard car costing around $260 a week, and an SUV around $320. Other countries are much cheaper, with prices half of what is charged in Honduras and Guatemala.
Though the traffic is bad in major cities, outside the major cities traffic is usually light. Most major roads in the region are paved, and are no problem if the weather is on your side.
Economy and Currency
A large population is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood and is contained to the rural areas. These people do not enjoy the economic benefits that some of the urban elite enjoy. Cash crop plantation is a big industry, with coffee being one of the largest exports. Industrialization has started picking up in a region that, by and large, had faced setbacks due to unstable autocratic governments commonplace in the region until just a few years ago.
Travelers will find the region very cheap, as it has one of the lowest standards of living. Still, prices vary greatly across different countries and regions, and some places and services can be quite expensive. Most of the countries in the region accept the American Dollar, along with the local currency.
Major traveler checks and credit cards are accepted in Central America, but you shouldn’t count on it. It is always a good idea to carry some liquid cash, which can be changed to local currency almost everywhere, though the exchange rate will vary.
While it is a good idea to have some local currency, the greenback is accepted everywhere. Countries like El Salvador and Panama recognize the American Dollar as their official currency, alongside their national currency. You will find money-changing services at airports and major hotels, as well as in small towns. When crossing borders by road, it is common to have many people surrounding you to help you change money, but the exchange rate is often poor.
Though credit cards and debit cards are now widely accepted in the region, you shouldn’t rely on them in Nicaragua and Honduras. Visa is the most widely accepted and many merchants accept both Visa and MasterCard. Traveler’s checks are a safe bet.
There are also many ATM’s around the region that are functional 24×7.
Services and Facilities
Mail and telecommunication services range from extremely good to passable, depending upon the country. While postal services in general are cheap, you can never be sure about the speed. For speedy delivery, it is recommended to use the main post office in a capital city. Post office boxes are not very common, and it is a good idea to take any mail directly to the post office. The best way to send parcels is through registered post, for which you will be given a certificate. Parcels sent through ground mail may take a very long time to be delivered. If you are looking for speed, airmail is a good option.
Although the phone system in Central America is improving, sending a fax can be a lot easier and quicker than making a call. Making a collect call can be a good option if there is such a service in the country you are in, and your home country. However, since this facility may not always be available it is better to check beforehand.
Internet cafés can be easily be found in big cities and near major tourist attractions, along with phone and fax facilities.
The region has only two distinctive seasons in the year, dry season or summer from November to April; and the rainy season, also known as winter, from May to October. The altitude largely governs the climate, and the temperature can vary by as much as 20° between sea level and 10,000 feet. Being a tropical region, there is no vast change in temperatures during the year. The tropical climate can also be seen in the pattern of the rainy season, with the mornings bright and sunny, and then clouds taking over in the afternoon, resulting in rains in the late afternoons and evenings.
Visiting Central America in the rainy season has special benefits – you will find that prices are low, and the rush around tourist attractions much less.
Leisure and Entertainment
Central America offers a host of activity opportunities and places to visit, ranging from virgin beaches to dense forests and hills. The cities have an exciting world of cafes and music and dance. There are many museums in the big cities that any traveler will find interesting.
Central America Real Estate and Lodging
Central America offers a large variety of choices for real estate and lodging. By North American standards, real estate and lodging is quite cheap in major countries in Central America. While countries like Belize and Nicaragua are expensive, all other countries are quite reasonable. One exception is El Salvador, where although most things are inexpensive, accommodation prices are surprisingly high. In all countries, you can find everything from 5 star accommodations to budget hotels and hostels.
Vacation rentals and real estate purchase are also an option in most major cities and tourist destinations in Central America. If you are traveling in summer, make sure your accommodation has an air conditioner that is in working condition. Summers can be very hot in this part of the world, and bad planning, with little ventilation can result in your room or real estate rental being hot even at night, when it is comparatively much cooler outside. In remote places, you can also stay as a guest with any of the local families (though this is not applicable everywhere). This is a nice way to understand their culture, and way of living, but be warned; you may not always find it comfortable, as their way of life can be completely different.
Whether you are a tourist making your way through the region, or seeking to make a more permanent arrangement by purchasing real estate, Central America welcomes anyone seeking to carve out their own slice of heaven.