Is it safe to travel to Central America?

In short: yes. Tens of millions of travelers visit this region every year, as backpackers and volunteers, on organised tours and in resorts, and the vast number of these will encounter no problems at all. Central America’s biodiverse national parks, its indigenous villages, its stunning Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, its Mayan and Aztec ruins – all of these wonders can be visited and enjoyed, and are probably as safe as anywhere else in the world.
But there are some caveats. Many of the world’s most dangerous cities are found in Central America. There are no go areas in many countries, from the dense, guerrilla-plagued jungles of Panama’s Darien Gap, to San Pedro Sula in Honduras – the city with the highest murder rate outside a war zone. Even in safer areas, travelers need to ramp up the usual precautions: taking only pre booked taxis, not walking alone at night, and using a concealed money belt. The good news is that Central America has many more ‘safe’ than ‘unsafe’ areas, and travelers will find local people to be warm, welcoming and full of Latino charm, which makes this an excellent destination for families. Most will return home wondering what all the fuss is about; the only scary bits having been flying along a Costa Rican zipline or peering into the caldera of a Guatemalan volcano. Read on to learn more about safety in Central America.

Why does Central America have a reputation for being dangerous?

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, many Central American countries were blighted by civil wars and brutal dictatorships. News stories from across the region told of Sandinistas, Zapatistas, Liberation Fronts, CIA-backed coups. El Salvador’s civil war lasted 12 years, Guatemala’s 36, and hundreds of thousands were killed, mainly from poor, indigenous communities.

Other countries, such as Honduras and Panama, never saw all-out war, but their military dictatorships ensured a constant atmosphere of fear and surveillance, with killings and disappearances commonplace. While the last of the civil wars and dictatorships ended decades ago, another threat has moved in to fill the void: drug trafficking. Colombia, Bolivia and Peru produce all of the world’s cocaine, and Central America is the land route between South America and North America, the biggest market for the drug. Drug smuggling combines with extreme poverty, human trafficking and gang warfare to create a relentless cycle of violence and political instability. This is at its worst in the ‘Northern Triangle’: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which between them contain many of the most crime-ridden cities in the world. Some 80 percent of cocaine destined for North America will pass thorough here.
This crime and poverty are the reason why thousands of Central Americans have joined the so-called ‘migrant caravans’ traveling up the isthmus, from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, all the way through Mexico with the dream of reaching the United States. Some may have also travelled all the way from Venezuela. While certain propaganda paints them as a swarm of criminals trying to gain access to the West, the vast majority are simply poor people – often women and children – desperate to flee the violence and extortion spreading through their communities, and to prevent their children from being forced into joining gangs.
The only problem you may encounter as a result of this widespread migration is busy border crossings, as hundreds of people are bottlenecked along the route; from time to time the crossing may close. Borders between Honduras and Guatemala, and Guatemala and Mexico in particular have been affected. The biggest disruptions are caused along the US border, however, which is rarely crossed on our vacation itineraries.

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General safety advice

While each country has a very different security situation, there are general, common sense guidelines which all visitors should follow, regardless of local issues.

As long as you stay away from the crime hotspots (which you will, on organised tours) the biggest risks to tourists in Central America – as with many major cities around the world – are mugging and pickpocketing. Don’t wear valuable jewellery, watches or obviously expensive clothing, and carry only the cash that you need. If you want to carry more, or a credit card as backup, we recommend a money belt – but don’t use this every time you pay for something otherwise you will be alerting people to its presence. Withdraw cash inside banks and shopping malls, rather than from ATMs on the street.

Consider whether you really need a large, attention grabbing camera, and don’t walk around staring at your phone. Many smaller towns are perfectly safe; in other towns and cities your tour guide may advise you not to walk alone at night. Always use a licensed taxi, booked through your restaurant or hotel, for example.

Thieves sometimes operate on buses, so keep valuables close. Occasionally, buses may be hijacked in dangerous areas. This is very rare though, and organised tours are likely to use tourist class coaches rather than local buses. These are much more secure (passengers may be security checked before boarding), have fewer stops and may stick to the safer toll roads, when available.
All this may sound scary, but these are merely insurance measures to ensure that, on the slight chance that something does go wrong, you and your belongings are kept as safe as possible. Remember that every year, over half a million Brits visit Mexico alone, and just a tiny number will experience any problems at all. In small towns and villages, and if staying with indigenous or more traditional communities, you may even feel safer than you do back home. These are the kinds of places where doors are left unlocked and everyone knows each other – and looks out for each other, too, including guests.
In fact, despite all the terrifying warnings, the biggest dangers for most tourists to Central America are traffic, and rip tides. The former is due to both dangerous roads and dangerous driving. The ‘chicken buses’ (former US school buses that are brightly painted, stuffed with extra seats and used as cheap public buses) were once the thing of backpacker folklore; today they are not recommended due to the high risk of accidents, as well as being a target for hijackers and petty criminals. And rip tides kill local people and tourists every year, though they are easily survivable as long as you know what to do.
Finally, LGBT travelers are advised to act discretely. Although same sex sexual activity is legal here, and all countries in Central America have anti discrimination laws concerning sexual orientation, this is a conservative region and homosexuality is considered socially unacceptable by many people. The exception is Costa Rica, which has legalised same sex marriage and in general has a much more progressive attitude towards the LGBT community. As always, attitudes tend to be more liberal in larger, more cosmopolitan cities.
Across the region, you may encounter political protests and marches. Although tourists won’t be targeted by either the protesters or the police, these can be dangerous if they turn violent, or if there are stampedes or tear gas, for example. Best advice is to stay well away. Protests tend to take place in capital or other major cities, in main plazas and in front of government buildings, so they are easy to avoid.

Other issues

There is a risk of Zika virus throughout Central America. However, this should not pose any real danger to anyone except pregnant women, or women planning to become pregnant. Read more here.

Hurricane season, officially from June to November, can cause widespread destruction, particularly along the Caribbean Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Tropical cyclones bring strong winds, flooding and mudslides, destroying villages and plantations, blocking roads and cutting water and electricity supplies. However, there is plenty of warning given before a major hurricane, giving you sufficient time to move to a safer place. If you are on an organised tour, your vacation company will ensure you are away from the danger. Note that Costa Rica and Panama sit south of the hurricane belt, and while they do experience tropical storms, they are rarely hit by hurricanes.

Safety in Central America,
country by country

Mexico

Despite its cities topping the league tables for homicide rates, Mexico is a huge country and most tourists will never venture anywhere near its most dangerous spots. Parts of Mexico City are unsafe – but again, this is an enormous metropolis, and the key sights downtown can be visited without concern. Tourism is hugely important in Mexico, and for this reason, if there is an outbreak of crime in hotspots such as Cancun, the government responds with increased police presence to ensure the safety of tourists.

The most dangerous states are in northern Mexico, and particularly in cities nudged up against the US border such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. These are a long way from most tour itineraries. In southern Mexico, particularly in Chiapas, there are some issues including illegal roadblocks; for this reason it is recommended to travel only during the daytime. Tourist hotspots on the Yucatan Peninsula and in Baja California Sur, including Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Los Cabos, have seen an increase in armed crime. As a result, police presence has been heavily reinforced in these areas, and there are currently no security warnings in place. In reality, the greatest threats are pickpocketing and mugging. Follow the advice above to minimise your risk.

See the FCO’s Mexico advice.

Guatemala

Guatemala City is dangerous, and it’s not advised to walk around alone here by day or night. Take an organised city tour and stick to taxis booked though your accommodation or tour guide. Hotels and hostels will have security measures, from guards to gated entrances, and if you’re staying in one of the city’s many affluent, gated compounds you will be absolutely fine to walk around those. Most violent crime is between local gangs, but don’t take the security situation lightly. While some districts are definitely no go areas, there are no ‘safe’ zones in Guatemala City.

As Antigua is barely an hour’s drive away, and public and private connections run all day, most visitors whizz straight out of the capital – even directly from the airport – to this beautiful colonial town. Here, and in places such as Lake Atitlan and Flores, you’ll see what a contrasting country this is. Safe, quiet, with streetside cafes and lively nightlife, the tourist hotspots are a world apart from Guatemala City. If visiting Lake Atitlan, the safe way to travel between lakeside villages is by boat rather than road; water taxis are cheap and frequent.

The other thing to watch out for in Guatemala are volcanoes; many are active, including Fuego, and trekking companies offer overnight hikes up to the summit. This won’t be possible if there is volcanic activity, such as the eruption which damaged major roads in June 2018.

See the FCO’s Guatemala advice.

Belize

Belize has a scarily high per capita murder rate, but the vast majority of crime is carried out by organised gangs, and tourists are rarely targeted. Most violent crime occurs in Belize City, where you are unlikely to spend much, if any, time. Tourist destinations such as Caye Caulker, San Pedro and Placencia can attract petty criminals, so follow the usual guidelines regarding valuables, cash and walking alone. The Belize-Guatemala border crossing can also experience problems, but your tour company will know the safest areas to cross.

See the FCO’s Belize advice.

El Salvador

Many travelers avoid El Salvador, put off by all too recent memories of its civil war. The conflict ended in 1992 however, and the county has technically been at peace since then. However, thanks to extensive gang violence, this tiny country has one of Latin America’s highest crime rates. Many Salvadorans fled the 1980s civil war, arriving in the USA. Some began to form criminal gangs, such as the notorious MS-13, but the trouble really began when gang members were deported back to El Salvador, and became involved in the trafficking of drugs and people.

As with elsewhere in Central America, anyone traveling sensibly can avoid violent regions, and take precautions such as avoiding public transport and public demonstrations, and not having valuables on show. In indigenous regions in particular, as well as the sleepy surfer towns along the coast, you’ll find a warm welcome and a generally very safe environment.

See the FCO’s El Salvador advice.

Honduras

Sitting squarely in the notorious Northern Triangle, Honduras also has far more than its fair share of violent crime, most notably in Tegucigalpa, the capital, and San Pedro Sula, frequently described as the murder capital of the world. You’re unlikely to do more than whizz through these cities, if at all (many visitors simply pop over the Guatemala border to visit the Mayan ruins at Copán), and tourists are not generally targeted by the gangs.

However, tourists can be victims of thefts and muggings, as criminals head to popular resort areas such as the Bay Islands. There may also be the occasional incident on the ferries that travel between the islands and the mainland. Traveling as part of a group keeps you safer of course, as does using a money belt and keeping valuables out of sight. The usual safety rules apply here, too. But none of this should stop you enjoying the stunning beaches, snorkelling and dive spots of Roatán, for example, or the incredible archaeological site of Copán.

See the FCO’s Honduras advice.

Nicaragua

Violence flares up sporadically in Nicaragua. The most recent unrest began in April 2018 sparked by protests against tax and social security reforms. As the protests grew, things spiralled out of control; around 30 protesters were killed in the initial demonstrations, and within months, churches were attacked by pro-government mobs, there were general strikes, the government banned protests and kicked human rights organisations out of the country. As of February 2019, over 320 people have been killed, and many more detained and tortured.

If you are planning a trip to Nicaragua, you should speak to your vacation company for up to date information about the situation, and to find out how this will affect your itinerary. While the FCO does not currently warn travelers to avoid Nicaragua, safety is a concern, and of course flights, public transport and some attractions will have been affected by the ongoing crisis. Main roads may be closed periodically due to roadblocks. Crime rates have increased since the protests began, with thefts, muggings and express kidnappings (where someone is abducted and taken to an ATM to provide an instant ‘ransom’, then released) becoming more common.

See the FCO’s Nicaragua advice.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a Central American breath of fresh air. As the region’s most developed and prosperous country (Mexico aside), it is well set up for tourists and is generally safe. Of course, you’ll need to exercise the usual precautious if walking around the capital San José alone or at night, be careful with valuables on beaches and buses, and just generally behave sensibly, but this is no different to in any major European city, for example.

It’s also the only country in Central America that has legalised same sex marriage (some Mexican states have done the same), so LGBT travelers should feel more comfortable here, especially in cities and popular tourist areas.

See the FCO’s Costa Rica advice.

Panama

Panama is also generally very safe for visitors. There is still a risk of opportunistic crime, of course, and some areas of Panama City are targeted by robbers, including restaurants and markets. Generally, if you take the usual precautions, you’ll be fine.

The only exception is the Darien Gap, the thick rainforest that extends down into Colombia. This is a lawless bit of land which is still occupied by armed guerrillas and drug traffickers despite the recent Colombian peace agreement. However, this is far, far from the beaten path, and not somewhere you’ll find yourself by accident.

See the FCO’s Panama advice.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: DeLoyd Huenink] [San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Jezael Melgoza] [Mexico City: Jezael Melgoza] [Mexico City - Palacio de Bellas Artes: david carballar] [El Salvador: Oswaldo Martinez] [Costa Rica: Atanas Malamov]
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