Responsible tourism on a Central America overland vacation


You may be traveling overland through Central America on a bus, but sometimes it is also important to mount that high horse from time to time. Be aware of the issues going on around you, ensure that you are respecting local culture, protecting its precious landscapes and also taking the time to read up on historical and contemporary social and political issues. Google human rights or conflict in Central America and you won’t be short of reading material. The most important thing these days, however, is that although many of these countries have seen conflict and revolution, they are now at peace. One of the most responsible things you can do while traveling through Central America is to meet and thank the people for being your hosts. And show them how much you value the tourism opportunities they are providing.


People & culture


People live here too

“Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation work based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in her native Guatemala. She is the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.” Nobel Women’s Initiative

Read this quote above and wonder about the fact that this is the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Rigoberta Menchú Tum fought to protect not just a handful of small communities, but millions of people, given that indigenous groups make up 60 percent of the population in Guatemala. Yet it is often cultural heritage, and the Mayan Trail that attracts people to Central America. Or the wildlife wonders of Costa Rica. When in fact, the people, their superb food, music and lifestyles, be it fishing villagers in the Caribbean or Mayan communities in the mountains, are where the heart of responsible tourism truly lies.


Few people realise that in Mexico, for example, there are 60 different indigenous groups alone, the most prolific being Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and MIxtec. And in Belize, 4 percent of the population is Garifuna, descendents of West African, Central African, Island Carib and Arawak people and said to be direct descendants of a group of slaves who escaped two wrecked Spanish slave ships in 1635.

Many of the indigenous groups in Central America still strive to fight for human rights, land access and cultural recognition. And for some they do so as a matter of life and death. In March 2016, for example, Berta Cáceres, environmental campaigner and head of the indigenous rights group Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous organisations of Honduras (COPINH), was murdered. While campaigning against the country’s Zarca Dam project, which affected indigenous land, she had received countless death threats and come through several kidnappings and was meant to have state protection at the time. Tragically, her opponents finally got to her. Clearly rocking the boat in Honduras can still be fatal.*

There are many more stories to tell. In Costa Rica, where the tourism focus is typically on flora, fauna and fun in the sun, there are 60,000 indigenous people living in largely traditional communities in isolated, rural areas. They depend on the forests and rivers for their survival – gathering fruit, fishing and using forest materials for traditional medicines or the construction of their homes. And yet they were only given the right to vote in 1994, which has meant that until recently, they have had virtually no voice when it came to protecting their lands, close to 40 percent of which were handed over to mining or petroleum companies, farmers or ranchers. Places where indigenous people are now offered employment, but often of a low paid nature.

As travelers, we value the importance of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which there are many in Central America. But we must also play our part in upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A declaration given as recently as 2007, after more than two decades of negotiations between governments and indigenous peoples’ representatives.

*Source: The Guardian newspaper

What you can do
Read up about the local communities and cultures of the countries you are choosing to visit, and check out the tour to see if it has plenty of contact with indigenous communities along the way. Some good starting points for reading include Minority Rights and Planeta, which has a lot of information on indigenous groups in Mexico. And of course human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It is also important to remember that some indigenous groups don’t want to become involved in tourism, and so let’s leave them in peace. It is a growing area of tourism in Costa Rica, however. See ATEC (the Talamanca Association of Ecotorism and Conservation). Very importantly, if you do get to visit, please don’t just jump in with cameras and insensitive behaviour.

The fear culture

Is it safe to travel in Central America? First of all, it is worth remembering that millions of people travel through Central America without any issues. Much of the fear culture emanates from those old enough to remember the revolutions and conflicts of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when guerilla warfare was Central America’s middle name. But, again to clarify, these all ended in the last century.

Violence today, however, is mostly among rival gangs and often drug related as it is the smuggling corridor between drugs suppliers in North and South America. However, tourist safety is taken very seriously in Central America. In countries like Honduras and El Salvador, traveling with a group and an expert local guide is always recommended, as it is easier to go ‘off piste’ as a tourist and find yourself in riskier scenarios.

What you can do
Don’t give in to the culture of fear, and enjoy the tourism opportunities in Central America. But also keep your wits about you, especially in the cities. Generally, don’t walk about late at night, lock up your valuables and be careful around ATMs. Do also check with the FCO travel advice for specific updates and always check with your tour operator if you still have concerns.

Responsible tourism in Central America


  • Nicaragua is fast becoming known as the ‘cheap Costa Rica’ - a term we don’t really support. First of all, it’s Nicaragua, and has its very own identity. And secondly, some tourists now go there expecting something for nothing, while the country is working hard to build a sustainable tourism industry – which costs money. It is a wonderful and vast country, and it is worth digging deeper into your pocket to enjoy all it has to offer.
  • Please don’t arrive into a tiny village armed with cameras but no sense of subtlety or empathy for local people’s feelings. Treating people as objects for your entertainment is wrong. Or at least ask first, after you have spent a bit of time there. ‘Puedo tomar una foto?’ is the phrase you need for that one.
  • There is a lot of bottled water around, which means a lot of plastic. Buy the giant bottles and refill your own reusable if possible or, even better, use filter tablets. Or the fantastic LifeStraw self-filtering water bottle.
  • Buying coral is generally illegal although black coral harvesting is still legal in some countries such as Belize and Mexico. It should display the government label saying that it comes from a licensed source.
  • Be very wary of jade, or specifically jadeite, which was the sacred stone of the Mayan people. You can find it on sale in Guatemala and Belize, but it is possible that they have come from the looting of ancient burial sites, many of which are still not properly protected. Again, if it is called ‘ancient’ it must have a certificate of authenticity.
  • Tortoiseshell jewellery or decorative goods are illegal, as they are made from the shells of sea turtles. Go see them alive instead, but do so with an operator that is affiliated to a marine conservation organisation. You can also consider adopting a sea turtle when you return too through this well established charity, Latin American Sea Turtles.
  • One of the best craft shops in Belize is attached to its prison, in Hattieville. However, ironically, the prison is under scrutiny for severe abuses of human rights. Things are never straightforward in Central America.
  • Tips are greatly appreciated – 10 percent is standard in good restaurants; otherwise, just round up your bill and leave the change.
Photo credits: [Intro: AFS-USA Intercultural Programs] [People live here to: Reinhard Jahn] [The fear culture: Frontierofficial]
Central America tours

Central America tours

Travel through 6 Central American countries

From £3807 22 days ex flights
Central America highlights tour

Central America highlights tour

Experience five Central American countries in just two weeks

From US $3320 16 Days ex flights
4 week Central America tour

4 week Central America tour

Fast-paced adventure through the best of Central America

From US $2907 29 Days ex flights
Mexico, Belize and Guatemala adventure vacation

Mexico, Belize and Guatemala adventure vacation

3 beautiful countries in 2 weeks

From US $1617 14 Days ex flights
Central America small group tour

Central America small group tour

Epic Central American journey from Mexico to Costa Rica.

From US $3377 33 Days ex flights
Central America highlights holiday, culture & nature

Central America highlights vacation, culture & nature

Discover the cultural and natural highlights of Central America

From £4476 19 days ex flights
Mexico & Guatemala overland tours

Mexico & Guatemala overland tours

Mexico City to Antigua

From US $3685 31 Days ex flights
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tati Nova photo Mexico]