Central America—home to a wild expanse of rainforest, coastline, and volcanoes, altogether making up an impressive 7 percent of the world's biodiversity—attracts upwards of 10 million tourists per year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). People flock to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama for their wondrous landscapes and UNESCO World Heritage Sites galore, but safety is sometimes a concern.
For one, the subregion is prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and the odd volcanic eruption. What's more, gang activity and drug trafficking make some (not all) areas of Central America less than ideal for tourism. Still, though, visitors are not the usual victims of violent crime. So long as they travel with caution, tourists are likely to have a hassle-free trip in any of the seven countries.
- Due to COVID-19, the U.S. Department of State has issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory ("reconsider travel") and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 3 Travel Health Notice for all seven Central American countries.
- Prior to COVID-19, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Belize, and Guatemala were under a Level 2 Travel Advisory ("exercise increased caution") due to crime. Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama were under a Level 3 due to crime, civil unrest, limited healthcare availability, and/or arbitrary enforcement of laws. Some areas within those countries are under a Level 4 ("do not travel").
Is Central America Dangerous?
In general, Central America is not dangerous. There are a few reasons why the region has a subpar safety rating, though. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the region is a transit zone for "cocaine bound for the main consumer markets in North America and Europe". Parts of Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala see high crime rates and gang activity, but most violent crimes take place in what's called the "northern triangle," consisting of the latter three countries. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, this area has the highest rate of femicide (murder of women and children) in Central America.
The risk of natural disasters doesn't help the region's reputation, either. There are more than 70 volcanoes across the seven countries, and its abundance of coastline also puts it at risk for hurricanes and flooding. To avoid getting caught in a storm, travel outside the Atlantic hurricane season, June 1 to November 30. It serves tourists well to limit their time in the capital cities—which have the highest crime rates of the region—too.
Is Central America Safe for Solo Travelers?
This lush sliver of the Americas is a magnet for solo travelers. Intrepid Travel says the top countries to visit solo are Belize, whose people are exceedingly friendly and—better yet—speak English; Guatemala, home to a particularly large concentration of backpackers; and El Salvador, a mecca for surfing. The latter two, even though they're included in the "northern triangle," are outright tourist magnets, so you'll never be too far from a fellow foreigner. Stick to groups and licensed tours when exploring and you should get by just fine, even on your own.
Is Central America Safe for Female Travelers?
According to a 2018 Wall Street Journal report, women are being murdered at record rates in Latin America. Femicide is increasingly common in the region, and tourists have been the victims of grab-and-run theft, assault, rape, carjacking, and murder before, but not at all often. Central America has a bustling backpacker scene that makes it generally safe for travelers of every kind. Women should travel with caution, avoid walking alone at night, only take taxis in groups, lock up their valuables or anything that may indicate wealth in a secure place at the hotel or hostel, and be extra vigilant at isolated beaches, where sexual assaults are more likely to happen.
Safety Tips for LGBTQ+ Travelers
Homosexuality is legal in all seven Central American countries, but same-sex marriage is only legal in one, Costa Rica—home to the exceedingly gay-friendly city of San Jose. Each country has laws against anti-gay discrimination, but some (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras) are stricter than others. It's important to note that Central America is a largely Catholic region and some countries are more accepting than others. In Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, homophobia is widespread. LGBTQ+ travelers should stick to the cities where homosexuality is more common and be cautious of exhibiting public displays of affection. Sadly, violence against the LGBTQ+ community does still occur.
Safety Tips for BIPOC Travelers
The population of this subregion is primarily Amerindian–European (aka mestizo), with Black, Asian, and Afro-Amerindian groups occupying the minority. Afro-Caribbeans seem to consistently fall victim to systemic racism in Latin America, with 92 percent living below the poverty line. That being said, racism here is only about as bad as it is within the U.S. BIPOC travelers are in no greater danger in Central America than they normally would be at home. In any case, sticking to diverse and populous cities where people from all backgrounds co-exist is the safest way to travel.
Safety Tips for Travelers
- If you must travel at night, opt for a taxi instead of walking—but never get into a cab alone. Avoid taking night buses as highway robberies typically take place at night.
- Don't do drugs of any kind. The penalties are especially harsh here.
- Don't drink the tap water in Central America, especially in the more rural and undeveloped parts.
- Keep your guard up in the capital cities, where crime rates are the highest.
- Learn some simple Spanish phrases or download a translation app on your phone in case of an emergency. Having even a basic understanding of the local language will help raise your situational awareness, besides.
- It's always a good idea to register with your embassy or consulate before traveling abroad.
U.S. Department of State. "El Salvador Travel Advisory." September 14, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Costa Rica Travel Advisory." October 13, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Belize Travel Advisory." October 5, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Guatemala Travel Advisory." September 28, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Honduras Travel Advisory." November 23, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Nicaragua Travel Advisory." September 28, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. "Panama Travel Advisory." October 26, 2020.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean."
Council on Foreign Relations. "Central America's Turbulent Northern Triangle." October 1, 2019.
Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The Persisting Impact of Racial Construction in Latin America." May 4, 2018.