50 Central American Facts or Fictions?

Good day folks! If there’s one thing travelling is good for it is to dispel (or confirm) the many lazy stereotypes we pick up about different places and people over the course of our lives. Having completed a three-month backpack through Central America and Mexico, without being sold into a drug cartel, I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the common misconceptions that people hold (mainly Americans) about the region. Admittedly, sweeping generalisations are made throughout but most of what I write is based on experiences that I had on my voyage. Hope this illuminates!

Food & Drink

  1. All they eat is rice and black beans. The infamous gallo pinto! Untrue. 99% of what they eat is rice and black beans, but they occasionally throw in the odd fish or plantain to really jazz it up a bit.
  2. But surely Mexican cuisine is different? True. Tacos, tamales and enchiladas are sold on most street corners – not a chimichanga in sight.
  3. Fast food chains have not yet reached this part of the world. Untrue. From Tegucigalpa to the arse end of El Salvador, McDonalds and Subway have taken over the world.
  4. Hot sauce is put on everything. Untrue. Although you will find it on every table. It is up to you whether you want to spend the next four hours sweating like a camel until it makes a reappearance out the other end.
  5. The lobster in Belize is the best in the world. True. Having had a grand total of two lobsters in my lifetime (the other was in Grimsby) I can confirm the Belizean one was better, and thus the best lobster in the world.

  1. Fish markets are the best places to try the local seafood. True. As long as you don’t mind being aggressively manhandled, borderline assaulted, by street waiters until they’ve dragged you into their restaurant.
  2. Buying food from bus sellers is asking for bowel trouble. Untrue. I bought everything from hamburgers to chicken sandwiches (or so I was told) from those guys – never cost more than a dollar and never resulted in soiled undergarments.
  3. But I should never touch the tap water. Untrue. Most of the cities and larger towns have drinkable tap water – Belize Belly doesn’t exist (partly because I just made it up).
  4. The national beers of each nation are refreshing, crisp and exactly what you need after a sweaty day at the beach. Untrue. Whether it’s Imperial from Costa Rica or Salva Vida from Honduras, they all taste like chilled urine.
  5. The beer is dirt cheap though right? True. Very cheap urine, of this there is no doubt.

Transport & Pimped Out Buses

  1. The only means of public transport are old American school buses. Untrue. More expensive means do exist (sometimes). Although the humble chicken buses are certainly the slowest and most likely to cause physical (and more often than not psychological) harm.
  2. I will be mugged and killed if I get on one. Untrue. Whilst even some of the locals avoid them (the more affluent ones at least), I had all the fun in the world bouncing from town to town with the sketchiest characters this side of Guantanamo. Not killed once.
  3. I’ve heard the local buses sometimes have live entertainment? True. If you consider a talentless geriatric blasting out Bob Marley classics entertaining. After three and a half hours of Redemption Song, you’ll sure as hell need some.
  4. They also use them to transport all manner of goods. True. Once the roof begins to buckle under the weight of miscellaneous cargo, you could end up sitting next to anything from a muddy sack of potatoes to an inconspicuous box of puppies (as happened to me twice).
  5. Some buses are pimped to the MAX. True. Guatemalan bus owners, in particular, take pride in adorning their vehicles in all manner of colourful junk. The only place I’ve ever seen unironic religious signage alongside weed-smoking prostitutes.

  1. I will get the chance to listen to some reggaeton on the local transport. True. Get the chance? GET THE CHANCE?! You’ll hear so much of it you’ll contemplate throwing yourself under the bus the next time you hear that infamously repetitive beat. Especially when it’s blaring out at 3 am on the night bus to San José.
  2. The Pan-American Highway makes driving through Central America a breeze. Untrue. Whilst I’m sure it was a motoring marvel when it first opened, nowadays it is overused, potholed to hell and often takes you right through the centre of some of the busiest cities in the world. Not a breeze.
  3. Uber is illegal. Untrue. Most of the capital cities in the region allow its use and my god did it make life a hell of a lot easier. No need to give directions or attempt to calculate a tip in the local currency, the only downside being the potential battery by traditional taxi drivers as you attempt to get inside.
  4. I should avoid all traditional taxis then? True. If you value money as currency in any way whatsoever, yes.
  5. Mexican public transport must be worse than Americas. Untrue. Not just public transport, pretty much everything was better in Mexico. If I was a migrant searching for the land of milk and honey, don’t waste your time building a ladder to climb over that wall – head south instead. Mexico trumps America (see what I did there).

Culture & The Laziest Stereotypes

  1. Everyone who isn’t Hispanic, is a Gringo. True. Unless you have the tan of Rafael Nadal and the hair of Enrique Iglesias, you will be considered a Gringo by one and all.
  2. Everyone who’s a Gringo, is American. Also true. I am disappointed to say that I gave up correcting the locals after the seventy-third time.
  3. All Hispanic men are gardeners and Hispanic women maids. Untrue. Despite what Hollywood would lead you to believe, they also work in a variety of other positions.
  4. All Hispanic people can dance. True. One of the easiest stereotypes to confirm. A visit to a nightclub in the Costa Rican countryside confirmed as such.
  5. Everyone has a moustache and a guitar. Untrue. Most Central American women have neither.

  1. Everyone believes in voodoo. Untrue. I did not see one pin-prodded doll or skull-centred shrine. Although maybe they keep all that in the basement.
  2. The whole family sits together at mealtimes. True. Step-siblings, second cousins twice removed, dead aunties – every member of the extended family is invited to dinner.
  3. All Ticos (Costa Ricans) are alcoholics. True. I was offered more shots of Chiliguaro than I was cups of tea in Iran, and that is saying something.
  4. All Guatemalans are coffeeholics.  True. They drink it from dawn until dusk – and unironically complain of insomnia.
  5. All Mexicans are criminals. What do you think? Believe it or not, Donald Trump’s facts are not always 100% accurate. In reality, there are far more criminals in the States than in its southern neighbour.

Weather & Hostels

  1. Don’t bother packing a raincoat as the showers are short and tropical. Bollocks. They can last weeks and are more suicidal than tropical.
  2. Don’t visit during the rainy reason or you’ll come back whiter than when you left. Untrue. I was there during some of the wettest months of the year and was still able to burn myself to a crisp.
  3. But all the animals disappear at this time of year? True. Wandering through a national park and expecting to see sloths, but only seeing sodden, fat Americans is one of the most disappointing experiences a human can endure.
  4. Making sure your hostel has air con should be your top priority. True. Even if the owner says the dorm is equipped with four hundred fans, do not take up that offer, you’ll get more relief from being blown on by a local.
  5. Your second priority is a functioning shower. Untrue. Your second priority is a functioning bed, wooden crates on a concrete floor do not constitute as such.

  1. Don’t bother packing jeans as they will never dry. True. Heard many a backpacker bemoan their eternally moist trousers.
  2. Hostel showers only use cold water. Mostly true. I washed with cold water for almost three months straight, the novelty quickly wore off.
  3. The mosquitos are worse than the humidity. Call it a draw. My ankles (the tastiest section of my person) looked as if I had hives throughout the length of my trip. Repellent only attracted the sadistic creatures.
  4. Mexico is always sweltering. Untrue. In fact, in the capital, I needed three blankets at night to stop the onset of frostbite. Not a joke.
  5. Guatemala is always shrouded in volcanic ash. Wait, what? Well if your impression of Guat is something akin to Mordor, you obviously haven’t seen Swansea on a Friday night.

Parks & Recreation

  1. The locals slide down volcanoes for fun. True. As peculiar as it sounds, this is an activity that you can participate in (if you ever happen to be in north-west-north Nicaragua). More of a tourist activity than locals commuting to work.
  2. They also knock flaming footballs to each other with their arses. Also true. The game of pok-ta-pok can be observed on Saturday nights in the Mexican city of Mérida, just don’t sit in the front row.
  3. If it wasn’t for Catholicism, football would be the region’s primary religion. True. Played on every street, I look forward to the day that Messi overtakes Jesus as the most worshipped man in Central America (he certainly has a better beard).
  4. They are too poor to have National Parks. Untrue. Plenty of National Parks exist, although most are guarded by the military and have fewer visitors than a Tommy Robinson rally.
  5. Costa Rica is one giant National Park. Not quite. They are heading this way though, 26% of its land is already protected with far more earmarked for ‘sanctuary’ in the near future. Take note, rest of the world.

  1. If you ever attempt to stroke a shark, you will lose at least one limb. Untrue. Petting and stroking sharks are some of the most popular daily activities in Belize – didn’t see one missing arm.
  2. If you tickle a stingray, you will end up like Steve Irwin. Also untrue. The friendliest of all cartilaginous fish, he was just astonishingly unlucky.
  3. Honduras is the cheapest place in the world to scuba dive. Almost. Egypt claims the top spot with the Honduran island of Utila a close second – not the easiest of places to get to mind.
  4. There are Mayan ruins everywhere. True. Some are worth more time than others, Tikal in Guatemala being the best and least crowded. Chichen Itza in Mexico being the most expensive and congested.
  5. Backpacking has become too easy in this part of the world. Not yet. Every year, nations like Costa Rica are becoming more savvy in maximising income from tourists and backpackers. Public transport, accommodation and security are all on an upward trend across the region and who would want to begrudge them that? Despite losing some of its challenge, the area has not lost any of its charm and now is still as good a time as any to ready your backpack and cross this remarkable part of the world.

Well, I hope you’re satisfied with your new found knowledge of Central America (and Mexico). All facts are useful, if not entirely truthful. But there you have the lot.

J

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