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Escaping to Central America

Pickles66

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  • Added on: November 4th, 2013
Ok, so I am new to the forum and after weeks of reading through and searching I have decided to post this in the hope of some friendly and helpful advice.

Firstly, I have never been travelling/backpacking before! I have always wanted to, just never got round to doing it. I am 29 years old and have recently quit my job after reaching breaking point, I finish at the end of the year. I have 5k currently saved at the moment and want to use this money to fund a trip through Central America. The 5k will have to cover everything, flights, accommodation, food, sightseeing, etc, etc. I am budgeting roughly around 1k for flights based on what I have seen so far for Jan/Feb on way and then save some for a return ticket when I need to come back. At the moment Panama is the cheapest to fly to from MAN. Ideally I want to go for as long a possible and am looking at volunteering for some of my time over there.

The questions I have and would like advice/answers on are the following:

How long with 4k do you reckon I can stay, with volunteering being a possibility?
I can speak and read basic Spanish, will I struggle getting around just on the basics?
Is there any chance of finding work out there? ( considering the above )
Is it wise to travel on my own?
and lastly........ am I crazy for thinking this could be possible?

Thanks for reading this and replying, I hope I've explained myself.

EMH

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  • Added on: November 4th, 2013
Panama may be the cheapest to fly into but it (and Costa Rica) are more expensive than the other countries in Central America. Personally, with your budget I'd recommend concentrating on Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras (I haven't been to Belize so no idea how expensive it is).

With $4K you could go 4-6 months easily in those countries as long as you stay in dorms, don't spend too much on on alcohol, and are a bit conservative in terms of your activities.

I wouldn't stress the language too much. There are plenty of travelers in those countries so as long as you're a halfway friendly person, you'll meet other travelers and someone's bound to speak decent spanish. Of course, the locals will appreciate any attempt you make with Spanish.

Paid work would mostly be teaching english with Costa Rica being your best option for that. Check out Dave's ESL cafe for up-to-date info.

Lots of volunteering that can be done. One organization I highly recommend is Quetzeltrekkers which has locations in Nicaragua and Guatemala. There are plenty of other places to volunteer - just don't fall for the "scam" of paying to volunteer. Here are a couple of sites that have links to free/low-cost volunteer opps:

http://www.volunteerlatinamerica.com/

http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/

Or you could do what a friend of mine did and find a local school that's willing to take on an english teacher in exchange for room and board.

You'll be fine traveling on your own. In fact, it's doubtful you'll be on your own. I'm an introvert and I had no problem meeting people in Central America.

As for whether or not you're crazy for thinking of this....of course you are!!! But what's life without a little bit of craziness???? And plenty of people have done things far, far, crazier....

Pickles66

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  • Added on: November 5th, 2013
Thanks for the quick reply, much appreciated. Yeah from reading other posts and blogs they all say pretty much the same thing about Panama and Costa Rica being the most expensive. In my head I am think 7-10 days to travel from Panama to Nicaragua, would you say this is a reasonable time frame??

There are 2 volunteering projects in Nicaragua that I am really interested in, which require a minimum of 3 weeks commitment. So again, in my head I am thinking 1 month minimum there so that I have a weeks or so to do activities. Then move on to Honduras.

Thanks for the recommendation of Quetzeltrekkers, Just had a quick look at it a seems really interesting and something I would been keen on doing as I do a lot of walking, hiking and camping in Britain. I'm glad to say that I'm not daft enough to sign up to any of these pay to volunteer services. I spent a fews days going through the volunteerlatinamerica site, where I have found quite a few I am interested in. This is where the language question came in, because quite a lot of the programmes require a decent level of Spanish. But as you say there will be plenty of other travelers that will hopefully be willing to help me along the way.

One other question I thought of is any recommendations gear wise that any would say are essential? I've done the typical Google search and already have or can obtain, i.e 60l rucksack, clothes, medical kit, copies of passports, money belt.

Thanks again.

EMH

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  • Added on: November 5th, 2013
Anything's possible. I traveled through Central America the opposite way, starting in Guatemala and heading south. By the time I got to Panama, I was exhausted and breezed through the country in two or three days.

BTW, Panama and Costa Rica aren't too bad in terms of food and accommodation prices. But for activities, you'll pay US/European prices.

Quetzeltrekkers is definitely a great organization! Even if you can't volunteer with them (they may require a 2-3 month minimum), it's worth doing one of their activities. They charge less than for-profit agencies that do the same activity and your money will be going towards a good cause.

Re: gear. The one thing to look into is malaria pills. Probably worth talking with a travel doc before you leave. You don't necessarily have to buy them before hand - I bought mine in a pharmacy in Guatemala (much cheaper!) but it's good to now ahead of time what's recommended.

Best wishes and let me know if you have any other questions!

Ddrezner

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  • Added on: November 6th, 2013
Ok:

1. In Nicaraqua, I highly recommend La Esperanza Grenada. They have low fees, low cost for housing, and they structure your experience for maximum benefit. I did it, and I didn't regret it.

2. If you have the cash, fly from Nicaragua to Panama unless you're staying in Costa rica for a bit. There is little you can't do in Panama that you can do in Costa Rica, and the tours will cost you at least half as much! Panama city is far more interesting than San Jose, as far as I can tell, and I spent 4 days in San Jose. Why fly, you ask?

Because the haul from Panama to Nicaragua and visa versa by bus is at least 16 hours, if you count wating to catch the connections in San Jose. Customs stops seem interminable and often happen at 6 am, making you wait outside for hours before they let you through. Safety isn't a problem, but being tired out definitely is. Don't think about transporting ANYTHING illegal through these borders. Panama does an intense search of baggage, and Costa rica can do an intense search of baggage if they feel like it.

Necesarries? A sense of adventure and a valid passport, with money in your money belt. Everything else can be acquired somehow. Things you WANT to bring with you?

Light, hot weather clothes that dry easily, maybe a fleece for the cold nights, and this is essential, a comfortable waterproof jacket with a hood that doubles as a spring jacket or waterproof layer over your warmer clothes. I bought my pacific trails packlight waterproof jacket, and years later, its still waterproof and still being used, and has been used all ove the world. Lots of good socks, its hard to get GOOD wool socks that wear well outside of the USA.
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GarryJP

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  • Added on: November 7th, 2013
Firstly, welcome to the forum. Answering the questions you have, if briefly and laconically, it is better to take all things you need for living. No matter how long you are going to be there. The aspects you should care about are health issues, cash for all your needs (eating, clothing, daily wastes, etc.), documents you will require there and your surrounding.

Pickles66

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  • Added on: November 11th, 2013
Hi thanks for the replies guys, firstly I have just been looking at flying into Cancun instead of Panama. This is for 2 reasons, 1 being cheap flights. The second being I have just started a temp job until mid Jan which will give me extra money and I want to use this to go to South, starting Columbia and then South. So now I am thinking Cancun straight to Guatemala via bus.

Ddrezner, thanks for the recommendation of La Esperanza Grenada. I have just been looking at their website and it looks really good. . My only concern is my level of Spanish is basic and most of their positions require an intermediate level of Spanish. Although there is a handyman position, so this may be an option. Cheers for the info on the journey from Panama to Nicaragua, I will definitely take that advise on board. Also I will add a rain jacket to my list.

Lastly this may sound like a daft question, will I need a good pair of hiking boots? Only thought about this when I decided to venture into South America.

EMH

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  • Added on: November 12th, 2013
Whether you need good hiking boots really depends on what you plan on doing during your travels. The only recommendation I would make is NEVER hike alone in that part of the world. Just not safe. Make sure to go as part of an organized tour.

BTW, it's ColOmbia with an "O'. Colombians hate it when you misspell their country's name. Just a bit of friendly advice. :)

Ddrezner

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  • Added on: November 12th, 2013
Ok- you can always work in the Pre-k area of a school. Little children just need to be loved more or less.

You can also join an english team to teach english as a foriegn language. That doesn't require too much Spanish.
In fact, you can take spanish lessons there and bring up your spanish in your spare time. Casa Xelu, I think, has reasonably priced lessons.
By the way, if you want to read about my experience there, I'm on one of the Blogs as a commentary. I think its pretty accurate, so you can see the environment you will teach in.

Don't scoff at the position of handyman. There is always something that needs to be fixed. One of my best friends there was a handyman.

Now, shoes- Unless you intend on scaling cliffs, a pair of good walking shoes will do the job, but make sure they are comfortable and have enough ankle support and grip if you have weak ankles and slip easily. That's up to you. Everytime I brought hiking boots separately, I rarely used them because I'm not a regular adventure hiker.

If you want to carry a heavy backpack for long distances over rough terrain, sure, then they can save your ankles and your feet.

So now I am thinking Cancun straight to Guatemala via bus.

Sure, you can do that. You can probably take a bus right to the border from there. If I remember my map right, you can get a bus to San Cristobal, though you will miss Palenque, a real shame. From Sand Cristoabal, well worth a stop for a few days, you can take a bus to comitan, then to the border, or straight to the border , where you catch a bus to Guatemala city. Get out of there fast and take the safest means to Antiqua. The public bus does run there if the taxi driver you get at the bus station takes you there. Don't walk anywhere in zone 1, it can be dangerous, you could lose your backpack or worse. Cops will tell you the same thing.

See about details on that section. I'll check it out when I have more time.

Antiqua, find a nice place to stay, unwind.

Now... Option 2

A bus from Cancun to Tikal, probably over bad roads and destructive of sleep, see Tikal for a few days, at least two, then a bus from Flores to Guatemala city. That bus is pretty horrible from what I hear, but much safer than years ago. Flights will run you at least 150 dollars last time I checked, maybe 100. The last blog says that bus to Guat city has risen to 45$ so I'd say at least 150 to Guat city... wait.

Tikal is a must-see for any visit to Guatemala, as far as I can tell. Otherwise you to Guat city, by flight or otherwise, and then you have to do a two way trip twice as exausting as a one way from Flores.

Price for a one way ticket is US$ 131.26 per person

Price for a return flight is US$ 227.24 per person

http://www.tikalpark.com/tagairlines.htm

If I had the money, I'd fly. If not, suffer. Being over 35, I don't recover well from bad, long, bus rides.

Getting flights usually isn't a problem, but you want to reserve it at least a few days in advance. Otherwise, you're stuck in Flores, which is a dusty dirty city full of tourist trap shops and restaurants. It does have paving stone streets, which is kind of romantic, right?
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GarryJP

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  • Added on: November 13th, 2013
Pickles66 wrote:Hi thanks for the replies guys, firstly I have just been looking at flying into Cancun instead of Panama. This is for 2 reasons, 1 being cheap flights. The second being I have just started a temp job until mid Jan which will give me extra money and I want to use this to go to South, starting Columbia and then South. So now I am thinking Cancun straight to Guatemala via bus.

Ddrezner, thanks for the recommendation of La Esperanza Grenada. I have just been looking at their website and it looks really good. . My only concern is my level of Spanish is basic and most of their positions require an intermediate level of Spanish. Although there is a handyman position, so this may be an option. Cheers for the info on the journey from Panama to Nicaragua, I will definitely take that advise on board. Also I will add a rain jacket to my list.

Lastly this may sound like a daft question, will I need a good pair of hiking boots? Only thought about this when I decided to venture into South America.


Ok, you know, I suppose they will not take much space in your luggage. So, why not to take them? But as guys advised, do not hike alone. Save your life and go hiking with the professional people or with the previously organized hiking tour.

Pickles66

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  • Added on: November 14th, 2013
ColOmbia, ok got that. The laugh of it is, I spell check before posting and it's not even highlighted when spelt with a U. Anyway....

In regards to boots, hiking walking or otherwise. I don't plan on doing a scaling of cliffs, but seeing the odd volcano interests me and depending how far south I get so does the Amazon. So I'm probably going to take some and wear them on the plane out, although then I will have to lug them around with me in my rucksack.

Ddrezner - I apologise if it came across as if I was scoffing at the the position of handyman, I honestly didn't mean it that way. So long as I can do something that will have an impact that is the main thing and to be honest being a handyman would suit me as I am good with my hands and have just decorated my house. I am really interested in the school and will be applying once I have know some rough dates.

Thanks for the info/options for travel to Guat city, with the prices of the flights being what they are I will probably take your advice and fly from Flores. Yep already read a few posts and blogs advising of areas to avoid in certain places and I'm all about staying safe and looking after myself.

So the plan I have got so far is the following - Land in Cancun ( current arrival time is around 2pm local ) try and get a bus direct to Talum and spends 2/3 days to chill out. Get a bus from Talum to Tikal, a few days there at least. Tikal to Flores - Flores to Guat city, straight to Antigua. There are a couple of volunteer organizations in Quezaltenango that I am interested in, so will probably head there for a while. After that I will want to make my way to Honduras. Again I was thinking bus, but seeing the price for Flores to Guat city I am thinking maybe flights to Honduras if possible. My plan is pretty much open from there, I don't want to plan my whole trip I want to be open to chop and change stuff. Just think if I plan the first couple of weeks I know what I'm doing and won't feel lost. So do you think that is a viable plan, would you guys add or change anything?? I'm probably taking the fun out of it all I suppose by flying everywhere.

Thanks again for all your help and suggestions, it's making it seem possible now and getting me hyped about going.

Ddrezner

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  • Added on: November 14th, 2013
Ok- you;ve got two good places- but don't forget Lago Atitlan, one of the most beautiful places in all of Guatemala, or the world for that matter. You can get a shuttle from Antiqua directly there, which i recommend over being crushed by a series of public buses. It takes about 4-6 hours, and is well worth it.

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=htt ... CDcQ9QEwAw

Look at picture and tell me you CANT make the time to see this!!!
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Travel bug78

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Location: El Salvador

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  • Added on: November 27th, 2013
If you're truly backpacking and want to follow the "trail" from Tikal, you can easily take a shuttle to Lanquin and visit Semuc Champay and these really cool caves they do tours through by candelight where you wade thru a river, climb and rapel underground waterfalls and meander underground. From there, there are shuttles to Lago Atitlan and then there are shuttles to Antigua. It's a pretty easy and well-timed route that gets backpackers from Tikal to Antigua and lets you see some really cool stuff along the way. yes, it costs more than a flight though so it depends on your priorities.

In El Salvador the Urban Dog Sanctuary is always looking for volunteers, short and long term: https://www.facebook.com/urbandogsanctuary

Safe travels!
http://www.wtf-elsalvador.com ---- Explore El Salvador

Pickles66

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  • Added on: December 12th, 2013
One thing I have been wondering about is money. From what I've read is a lot of people say use plastic and get money out when needed at cash machines, which is obviously the safest option. What I am wondering is, credit or debit card or both? Is it worth taking some US dollars with me, if so how much and where to spend them?? And its just dawned on me how much more planning I'm going to have to do in regards to what excursions and activities I want to do and when. Any advice or previous experience would be appreciated.

Thanks for the info Travel Bug78, will look into Semuc Champay, sounds really interesting.

Ddrezner

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  • Added on: December 14th, 2013
Money: Plastic is the safest. Two cards are better than one, one never used except in an emergency.

I also believe in cash, a lot of it. I also believe in Travellers Cheques, and they have saved me a few times. TC don't spend so easily, they're a pain to cash, but when you need them, they are very handy.

US dollars have always served me well wherever I've went, though in Europe obviously euros are better.

I keep small money in a wallet, but never any ID or credit cards. Strictly small time cash. The rest goes into my belly pouch along with my passport and other things.
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