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The Myths of Central America

central-america

Crossing from Costa Rica into Panama (No Man’s Land)

“I overheard that you lived in Costa Rica,” I said to the hippie-looking server at my favourite cafe in Canada. “I’ll be there in a few months myself, after studying in Guatemala for a few weeks and then travelling through the rest of Central America.”

“Guatemala?” she replied, a half-smirk on her face. “You’re going to get mugged.”

I have encountered these kinds of statements time and time again, blanket warnings that come from people who, in many cases, have never even been to the country in question (for the record: she hadn’t been to Guatemala). Before I went to Central America, I grew so incredibly annoyed of all the warnings that seemed to be rooted in nothing but rumours and stereotypes. “It’s so dangerous!” everyone would cry. “Aren’t you scared?”

Yes, of course I was scared, just as I was scared when I went to Thailand or India or Morocco or Japan or Australia. I’m always a bit trepidatious when heading to a new country or city, just as I think any normal traveller is; the day you don’t feel a few butterflies in your stomach upon arriving in a new place is perhaps the day you should hang up your backpack. We crave those butterflies and that nervousness – it’s part of the excitement and anticipation, part of why we travel at all.

Before coming to Central America, there were a few things I kept hearing from people; I wondered then, how much of these things are based on truth? Here, then, are my personal experiences with the myths of Central America.

Myth #1: You WILL get mugged in Central America.

Well, um, no, I didn’t. Not only did I not get mugged, I didn’t once, not once, feel threatened. Not on a bus, not in a taxi, not in a dorm, not on the streets, nowhere. I definitely heard some horror stories from other travellers (backpack stolen from dorm, laptop taken from bag on bus, mugging by machete on beach, etc), but I did not personally encounter any such woe. I tried to play it smart, though, and always locked up my valuables, never took my bag out of my sight in public, and only travelled by day. I also never went out alone at night and took taxis (only registered ones) often. I think that this part of the world gets a really bad rap, and I am evidence that not every tourist is mugged or attacked (like so many naysayers would like to extol).

Myth #2: You will only eat rice and beans.

Yes, I did eat a lot of rice and beans, but it was always my choice to do so. Central American food is varied and delicious, with different flavours and combinations depending on which country you’re in. I ate huge conch baliadas in Honduras, massive piles of nachos in Costa Rica, and one of the most amazing stuffed chicken dishes I’ve ever had while in Panama. There were fried plantains, perfect avocados, and juicy mangoes. There were lobster tails for $2, fresh shrimp ceviche with salt and lime, and hot coconut bread. And while, yes, there were also a ton of rice and a ton of beans (often called gallo pinto), everywhere I went there was an assortment of choices, Central American food but also Japanese, Italian, Chinese, and more. In short, I definitely did not starve – far from it.

Myth #3: You will hear catcalls, whistles, and come-ons from men.

Yes, this is true, and it sucks, just as it sucks when it happens in Canada or America or anywhere else in the world. However, as I said above, I never felt threatened, just mildly annoyed. In fact, most of my experiences with men in Central America were lovely. Most men would simply say hello or wave, but so did local women. Not one man touched me or said anything that offended me (in English, at least). Sure, all those whistles and “hola”s can get extremely annoying, but, if someone is smiling and friendly about it – i.e., a polite “Hello, how are you?” I have no qualms with saying hello back. I had far worse experiences in different parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa than in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panama. My advice? Just ignore it as best as you can, and walk away.

Myth #4: Everyone is trying to rip you off.

Again, in my personal experience, I found this to be totally untrue; in fact, I often felt that people were much more honest and helpful than in other places I’ve travelled to. Often I didn’t even need to haggle with taxi drivers because the first price given was the one my hostel or guidebook recommended. I paid the same fare as all the locals on every bus and boat I took, and people often helped me with my bag and with directions without expecting a tip (try that in India). I’m sure I am oblivious to some of the ways in which I was let go of a few extra dollars, but, in my opinion, nobody treated me unfairly just because I was a foreigner.

Myth #5: There is nothing to do in Central America.

When I told people I would be spending a few months in Central America, I often got a blank stare. A few people admitted they barely knew anything about the area (much like me three months ago), and a few more even claimed that they heard the area was boring. I totally disagree; Central America is full of things to do, scuba diving and hiking and ancient ruins and volcanoes and jungles and traditional dance and museums and nature walks and swimming and sailing and more. As with so many parts of the world, the more you travel through the area, the more you realise how much there is to see and do. After three months here I feel as though I barely scratched the surface, and that there are so many things I didn’t get to experience. But, of course, as every traveller likes to say…there’s always next time.

Did anything about this list surprise you? Did you ever find yourself in a similar situation, where you or others had preconceived notions about a place only to find out that those notions were totally false?

17 Responses to The Myths of Central America

  1. Jill July 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    Glad you made it through safely!

    I must admit that that is a part of the world that I’m a little leery of… only because two of my friends (on separate occasions) were mugged/attacked there. But I suppose I should remember all of the other people I know who have traveled to Central America without any problems.

  2. Colleen Brynn July 26, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    I love this post because I had a similar response from people when I went to South America… they were so scared for me!
    But I was greeted there with kind faces, helpful new friends and plenty of fun activities to do. You won’t be disappointed in SA either…
    I can’t wait to see Central America and return one day to SA… xo

  3. Katie @ Domestiphobia.net July 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    People told me I would get mugged. People told me I would get raped. People told me there was a very good chance I wouldn’t come back at all.

    People are idiots. And often, overly dramatic. The thing is, of course any of that could happen. They could happen anywhere. I’m in San Diego right now and that could happen here. It’s even more likely to happen where I live, since it has the highest crime rate in my state and I don’t have my guard up as much as I do when I travel.

    While it’s true that Central America has high incidents of crimes involving tourists, it also has some of the friendliest, funniest, warmest people I’ve met. I wouldn’t take it back for a second, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go again.

    By the way, did you try the fried plantains with the smashed black beans on top? I forget that they’re called, but they were delicious. 😉

  4. The Rowdy Chowgirl July 26, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Such a great post, and so true. I always think it’s sad when people let needless fears limit their travels. Yes, we need to be smart and aware of safety issues, but that’s just as true at home in America as it is anywhere. The truth is, there are plenty of places in the world that are likely much safer than here…

  5. Alli Campbell July 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    I have just happily stumbled on your blog – great reading and travel inspiration.

    I was nodding my head in agreement at this post! It is easy to forget that no matter where you are, most people are good and kind, all people love good food, and humans are universally good at creating beauty. It pays to be careful and trust your instincts, but of everywhere I’ve been the only place I have ever been pick-pocketed is at home – in Melbourne Aus.

    The most common reaction we get from people (when we tell them where we are going) is “why?” It is so so tempting to reply “if you have to ask, you’ll never understand my answer.” Russia defied these expectations the most – the people are some of the warmest and most welcoming we have ever met, we always felt safe and there was so so much to explore. We can’t wait to return – and we can’t wait to one day visit South and Central America.

  6. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures July 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    I’m so happy you wrote this post! I hate the misconceptions people have about Central and South America. DRIVES ME CRAAAAAZY!!!

  7. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures July 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    I’m so happy you wrote this post! I hate the misconceptions people have about Central and South America. DRIVES ME CRAAAAAZY!!!

  8. Ekua July 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    I got similar remarks before my solo trip to Peru and Bolivia and again when I was planning for Mexico… especially #1 and #3. It’s true about the catcalling in certain parts of Latin America, but in some places like Bolivia, I felt like locals kept to themselves. In Mexico where I encounter a lot of “Heeey, morena!” I have yet to feel threatened by male attention there like I felt in India or right here in San Francisco. While it’s sexist no matter which way you look at it, it’s often the comment and not much else from my experiences in Latin America. Here in the cities of the US, female harassment is often taken to a whole nother level of persistence.

    The one thing that surprises me is #5. While I think people in the US overall don’t know much about Central America, quite a few are interested in places like Costa Rica and Belize, especially outdoorsy types.

  9. Tasha Dezarae Swinney July 28, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    I’m so thankful for the posts that you write!

  10. Audrey | That Backpacker July 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    It’s sad that Latin America gets such a bad rep because it really is a beautiful place to travel, and the people are incredibly warm hearted! I’m glad your experiences there have only been positive.

  11. This Battered Suitcase July 30, 2012 at 3:08 am #

    Thank you so much for your comments, everyone!

    Jill – Don’t get me wrong, I’m still nervous about it! I think a lot of it has to do with being in the wrong place at the wrong time…

    Colleen – Yes, you definitely should travel through Central America one day! I hope you get back to SA soon 🙂

    Katie – Absolutely; I’ve often felt in more danger in large North American cities than I did in Central America. And yes, I totally ate the plantains with beans on top! Delicious…

    Rowdy Chowgirl – Very, very well said. I totally agree.

    Alli – Thank you so much for reading! I’m glad you are enjoying my blog. I completely agree with your comment, and I’m happy to hear that you had similar experiences in Russia as I did – the people there were amazing! I hope you get to Central and South America soon…

    Andi – Ha ha, me too!

    Ekua – Men and their catcalls…I’ll never understand it. As for #5, I agree, people seemed to know a lot about Belize and Costa Rica; however, not many knew much about Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and especially Honduras (myself included).

    Tasha – Aw, thank you!

    Audrey – Thank you so much! Here’s hoping they stay positive…

  12. Oneika the Traveller July 30, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    I wrote a similar post a few months back! There are SO many misconceptions about travelling in Latin America, it makes me so mad! When I lived in Mexico for a year I got so much negativity, even from my mother- she quickly changed her tune when she came to visit me and saw how awesome a country it was. Same for when I spent 5 weeks in Guatemala last summer learning Spanish. It’s just fear and ignorance. Thankfully, through your travels and your blog, you are showing people what a vibrant and safe place Latin America can be! Kudos!

  13. AmySho July 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    I LOVE that you wrote this post. I spent a week traveling through Guatemala a few years ago and never once felt unsafe. Anyone runs the risk of getting mugged no matter where you go, even in America, especially if you’re not aware of your surroundings. Just research, don’t walk alone down an abandoned street at night, and always be conscious of where you are and who is around you. And talk to locals who can help you navigate the best places to go 🙂 Looking forward to reading more about your travels! XO

  14. expatkerri July 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    great post brenna ^^ now we are in south America and we can start busting myths here too!

  15. This Battered Suitcase August 2, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Oneika – Thank you so much! I feel the same way about your blog; together we can dispel some of the myths about solo female travel. You inspire me daily!!

    AmySho – Totally, and that’s what I tell people all the time! We never know where or when random acts of violence will take place. We can only hope we are never in the wrong place at the wrong time, even in “safe” cities in North America. Thanks a lot for reading and commenting!

    Kerri – Heck yes!

  16. Alexandra November 22, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    Happy to hear that you have such great things to say about Central America, as I’m headed there for the first time next week! …oh, and I’m nearly drooling at the thought of all the foods you listed 😉

    • Brenna Holeman November 22, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

      I love Central America! I’m sure you’re going to have an amazing time…

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