Given its relatively small size, most of Central America is often overlooked by many backpackers who head straight for Mexico and dismiss the Caribbean as over touristy and expensive, but this is a huge mistake.
There are still parts of Central America that are well off the beaten track, even now, which is even more surprising given that it is sandwiched between North America, the ever popular Gringo trail further south and two of the world’s major package tourist destinations. Many of the countries in Central America, Panama and Nicaragua for example are only just starting to open themselves up as increasing numbers of intrepid backpackers explore the hidden depths of Central America and wonder why they hadn’t made it there sooner.
With its white sand tropical beaches, palm trees swaying gently in the wind and crystal clear azure waters, nothing evokes the image of swashbuckling pirates, cannons blazing from huge galleons and sipping rum on a deserted island more than the Caribbean, but the thousands of islands that form a huge swath around the eponymous ocean are far more than that. From the luxury hotel complexes in the heavily package tour orientated Dominican Republic to the decidedly African rhythm of Jamaica and the faded time capsule charm of Communist driven Havana, the Caribbean is about as diverse a place as you can get.
Many backpackers often veer away from most of the Caribbean, viewing it as dominated with package tour holidaymakers and all inclusive resorts, but that is a mistake. Yes there are parts like that, but dig a little deeper and you will find a region that pulses and sways with the music and life of the local inhabitants and has barely been touched with tourism. A recent surge in interest in ecotourism has seen parts of the Caribbean open up to travellers like never before, allowing visitors to notice that the Caribbean also boasts tropical jungles, grassland savannahs, mangrove swamps and vast deserts. Visiting coffee plantations in the blue mountains, jungle trekking to picturesque waterfalls and spotting humpback whales off the bay of Samana are all options for the intrepid independent traveller, or you can always just lay back in a hammock and sip dark rum on a tropical beach.
When to go.
Anytime is a good time to visit Central America. It has a subtropical climate with warm temperatures throughout the year. It does have a wet season, very generally (although this is increasingly uncertain) from June to December, but the weather is still hot and sunny – if more humid – most of the time. The occasional short downpour is not such a big thing when you consider the benefits of travelling in the ‘off peak’ season, cheaper rates, less tourists and lusher, greener scenery!
Being a generally package touristy region, the Caribbean’s peak seasons are dominated by the artificial high and low seasons imposed on the industry by travel agents and Western school holidays, but weather wise you really can go at any time.
The weather is often best around December to mid April, and tourism peaks around this time, with extra peaks during the Christmas, Easter and summer holidays. With the glut of package hotels, it can be more difficult to find accommodation during this time and prices shoot up accordingly. If you go in the ‘off season’ prices can half, it is much less crowded and the weather is still good all year round but especially in the shoulder months of May, June and November. Occasionally hurricanes do sweep the region in the summer but this is never guaranteed. On the downside some of the services and infrastructure set up for tourists also close down during this period, making it a little more difficult – but still far from impossible – for independent travellers.
With the exception of parts of Belize, most of Central America is still a fantastically cheap budget destination, thanks in part to the fact that mass tourism has not really hit places like Panama or Nicaragua – yet. Where you do get pockets of tourist destinations, prices are still fairly reasonable by Western standards.
The package tour industry has ensured that prices in the Caribbean are generally expensive, especially on the more heavily touristy islands. It is possible to travel on a relative budget however if you spend more time on the less package tour orientated islands such as Trinidad, St. Vincent and Cuba, and choose local guesthouses rather than exclusive resorts. Eating local street food or heading for restaurants away from the resorts will also net you some hefty savings.
Although travel around and within the region is easy and relatively cheap thanks to frequent flights and regular boats and ferries between the islands, visa requirements are not uniform across the region and travellers to the Caribbean should research individual requirements as they need it.
Puerto Rico is US territory and has different entry requirements from most of the Caribbean. Visitors to Puerto Rico must face the same Visa restrictions as if they were entering America.
Visa’s are necessary for a lot of islands within the region, but many countries in Europe, North America and Canada have signed agreements with these islands that allow tourist visitation for certain lengths of time with the purchase of tourist visa cards on arrival. Countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic have this agreement, whilst others such as Dominica grant an automatic visa on arrival with many countries.
The Bahamas, Jamaica and Haiti amongst others do not require a visa from travellers from a wide list of countries provided that a passport and a return ticket is held. If you are travelling to any of these countries research the specific requirements for each one beforehand as the country list as well as the amount of time you are allowed to stay varies from country to country.