On our Central American adventure, we crossed every border from Guatemala to Panama on our own and with public transport.
For us, there's still something special about entering a new country on foot and getting a new stamp in your passport. For those heading to the region, we definitely recommend crossing borders independently - it's a proper backpacking experience!
Along the way, we picked up some insights and had some experiences which we hope will be useful for any traveller following a similar route.
you can do it with public transport
For each and every single crossing, we travelled exclusively by public transport to and from the border. In certain countries, hostels and tour companies will offer a 'border crossing shuttle service', but you can always shun these and do it on your own with chicken buses for a fraction of the cost.
Although some travellers may prefer the comfort, convenience and speed of the shuttle services or more expensive public transport companies taking you from country to country (for example Ticabus), we definitely prefer the adventure and experience of doing it this way!
do your research the night before
If crossing over on your own, you should always be armed with a rough idea of the route, onward travel connections, exit/entry costs and possible scams at the border. In particular, you need to be aware if it's realistic to reach your desired destination after the border in one day.
Doing an hour or so of googling the day before will always bring up a few blogs where travellers detail their experiences and give advice on transport options. It also makes sense to check the visa/entry requirements for your nationality. Knowledge is power!
always keep the receipt
After paying any exit or entry fee, make sure to keep the receipt with you until you have officially left the country. There may be some check-points further along the border crossing where they ask for proof of payment.
For an overview of entry and exit fees at all these borders (and where they'll try to charge for non-existent ones), check out our article.
don't trust anyone
We know this may sound a little harsh, but it's a mantra we've come to agree with. Border towns are notoriously dodgy and a number we encountered had more than a few characters that are best avoided and an overall shit atmosphere. The vast majority of people aren't spending their days here to help you or get to know you.
There will be plenty of opportunities on your trip to get to know people and make friends with locals, but at the border is not one of these. So, just try to get in and out in as little time as possible.
leave early in the morning
The last thing you want is to be stranded in a dodgy border town with everything you own after the border has shut, trying to search for a bus or bed for the night. We always left quite early in the morning to avoid the possibility of being stranded at night or missing the last bus out.
check your pockets
The night before you leave, check all your pockets, bags and hiding places to find all the currency of the place you're leaving. There's nothing more frustrating than arriving to the next country and realising you have a small fortune in money you can't spend or easily exchange!
you can get a good exchange rate
We always recommend that you enter the new country with enough local currency to last you the day.
With the exception of the crossing between Panama and Costa Rica, you will find armies of money exchangers at every border in Central America. We actually found that these people often offered a better exchange rate than the bank (laundering perhaps?)! It's also a convenient way to get rid of your coins and the odd note or two as you leave one country. Most of the money exchangers will also gladly change US dollars whether there country uses them or not.
However, they can also sometimes try to take advantage of you.
They're all armed with calculators which they'll type your numbers into very very quickly, sometimes inaccurately. Some of these calculators also have a trick button which automatically deducts some money from your total, which you might not spot.
So, our advice is to always head to the border with an awareness of what the exchange rate is that day and ask around a few exchangers to get an idea of what their true rate is. Also, when they are doing their sums on the calculator, do your own sums on your phone or a piece of paper to verify.
Don't make yourself a gringo target by changing obscene amounts of money and only hand over your money to them AFTER they've given you theirs!
Lastly, check a few of the notes they give you whilst you're doing the transaction to make sure they're genuine.
local transport and shops accept both currencies
Although we would recommend that you always exchange some money so you have enough local currency, it is worth knowing that shops directly next to the border crossing will often accept both currencies. The first onward transport connection at the border will usually also accept either.
one visa, four countries
Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua all share a visa call the CA-4. This entitles certain visitors to a 90 day stay across all four countries, NOT 90 days in each.
When we were in the south of Nicaragua and knew we were going to end up staying a few weeks beyond our 90 days, we popped across the border to Costa Rica for an hour and then returned to Nicaragua with a shiny new CA-4!
never travel with drugs
We're really surprised that we have to write this, but we met a shockingly high number of travellers who found it amusing that they'd had a few close scrapes at the border when people we searching their bags. We also heard a number of stories of travellers who had been less lucky and suffered severe consequences from travelling with drugs.
Don't do it, it's bloody stupid.
costa rica and panama require proof of onward travel
Essentially, this means that you have to present proof that you will be leaving their countries before your tourist visa has expired. Although it's not 100% guaranteed that they will ask you for this (we were asked five out of six crossings), you'd be silly not to expect them to ask.
It's a real pain for long-term travellers who may only have a one-way plane ticket and don't always know what their travel plans are when they enter a country. However, we managed to find a way around this which you can use too - read about it here.
there are some scams
Surprisingly for us, it was the border between Panama - Costa Rica, the two most developed countries in the region, which posed most problems. If crossing the bridge to/from Puerto Viejo, there are some people on the Panama side who ask for payment of a $3 USD to leave or enter the country in exchange for a sticker in your passport. Although they have official looking uniforms and ID, we are 100% certain they are not official and that this is a scam. If you refuse however, they get quite threatening.
Apart from this, we really didn't have any negative experiences on the border. Yes, there were some unsavoury looking characters and people trying to get some money from you, but nothing too serious or worrying. Keep your head down, do your research and, if you think anyone official or unofficial is trying to rip you off, stand your ground and ask for official documentation of any charges/fees.
An overview of scams we encountered in Central America is here.