Why road-tripping is the best way to see Central America

written by Liz Carr December 1, 2023

I know you’re probably not supposed to hang your head out the window of a moving vehicle if you’re over the age of 30 (or not a dog)…

…But when you’re weaving through the cobblestoned streets of a pastel-painted town or cruising through a patchwork of farmland with a handful of volcanoes on the horizon, it’s hard to remember your manners.

As we brake for what seems like the thousandth motorbike of the day, the sweet smell of tamarind from the roadside shack selling “dulces tipicos” slips in through the van’s open windows, and I catch a wave from a smiling teen touting an American baseball hat. Countless cows, horses, dogs and people are just living their daily lives. This is so much more than just driving from point A to point B.

My love of shooting photos from a moving car, junk food and curated playlists makes me a sucker for a good road trip. A couple of years ago, I made the cross-country move from Boston to Seattle, spending 7 days in the car searching for the corniest roadside attractions, eating regional fast food delicacies and listening to the same songs on repeat. It was my version of heaven. So, when I had the chance to join Intrepid’s 9-day Guatemala and Beyond trip, I packed up my backpack, downloaded my favorite albums and hit the road.

Although Central America spans seven countries, it’s relatively condensed. Traversing the Pan-American highway over 9 days, we drove from Guatemala to Honduras, through El Salvador and into Nicaragua. Our group of 8 travelers saw epic sunsets, feasted on pupusas, rode sandboards down the side of an active volcano and bonded over probably one too many cheap beers. But the pinnacle of the trip for me was sitting back and watching the world go by from the window of our bus.

Here are 4 reasons I think road-tripping is the best way to see Central America.

1. You experience more than just a highlight reel

The main difference between visiting as a traveler and visiting as a tourist? You’re not just seeing the main attractions; you’re experiencing how the locals live. And when hitting the open road and crossing 10 borders across 4 countries, we got to see these destinations in a pretty authentic way.

Real life isn’t always picture-perfect; sometimes, it’s traffic jams and loooong queues and trading toilet paper in the gas station parking lot. But other times, it’s watching motorbikes artfully navigate muddy roads after a late afternoon downpour or cutting into a fresh rambutan purchased from the back of a pick-up truck. It’s the uniformed school kids tumbling over one another to wave at you as you pass by or a nice lady sharing her cake when you endeavor to sing ‘happy birthday’ in Spanish.

Our group played word games on the Nicaraguan passport control building floor, sharing our space with a pointy-eared pup keeping cool in the AC. On a roadside stop for ATMs in El Salvador, we decided to lunch like the locals and try some local fast food, tucking into fried chicken alongside a handful of families. Sometimes, the roads were so bumpy, or we’d have to swerve for a cow so fast that we’d end up in our seatmate’s lap. But that’s the beauty of small group travel; the things that seem mundane or unremarkable in the moment always turn into the highlights in hindsight.

2. It takes the stress out of getting from Point A to Point B

The trip was smooth sailing with Aura at the helm

If you’re like me and your trips never have you picking a spot and staying there, you’ve probably experienced some level of “how do I get from here to here” stress. I can’t count how many times I’ve Google Mapped or Rome-to-Rio’d my destinations, worrying about whether I’ve chosen the correct route or if I’ll miss anything along the way. And while that’s certainly all part of the fun, sometimes it’s nice to hand over the reins for a minute. It’s so refreshing to sit back and have someone else facilitate border crossings for you, bridge language barriers and provide tips on cultural do’s and don’ts.

Nicaragua has always been on my travel bucket list, but when booking my trip, I figured, why stop at one country when I could visit 4? If I had booked a direct flight and skipped the road trip, I would’ve missed out on hundreds of photos, 10 stamps in my passport and 7 new friends.

3. You can curate your perfect passenger playlist

Fellow traveler, Haley, having her own main character moment in Honduras

Ever have those moments where you stare out the window of the car, feeling like you’re the main character of a movie? Just me?

I love driving, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s losing its magic a little bit. I drive because I have somewhere to be, I’m usually late, and I’m always thinking about 100 other things I need to do. But when you’re a passenger, your guide is handling the logistics, and your driver is, well… driving, all that’s left is the critical job of selecting what kind of vibes will be coming through your headphones.

I won’t sugarcoat it… we spent a lot of time in the van. We had some long driving days and two 4 a.m. starts, but when you’re watching the sun rise behind the silhouettes of volcanoes, listening to the song you’ve chosen just for this moment… it’s kinda hard to complain. And next time I’m driving to the dreaded gym on a cold and dreary Tuesday, I’ll just pop on my Central America playlist for an instant pick-me-up.

4. Two words: snack stops

If there’s one thing I love when I travel, it’s hitting the local market for snacks. And while the backpacker in me will probably always want to reach for the Pringles and the Coke at the bathroom stop, I’ve had some incredible (and unique) finds at service stations and neighborhood tiendas across Central America.

With snacks that span from spicy and salty to sour and sweet, and long driving days from border to border, what better way to pass the time than to chow down on a few local favorites? I like to turn it into a game: How many types of jalapeño chips can I try today? Is a plantain or a potato the king of the crunchy snack? If the pie has pineapple filling, can it count as breakfast? Why are these peanuts under pressure, and why do they taste so good? When temps are in the 90s°F and you eat an ice cream bar standing up in a parking lot, do the calories count? Plus, with such low prices and an abundance of choices, buying extras for your bus buddies is a no-brainer.

So if you’re looking to step outside of your comfort zone, slow (way, way) down and experience a destination through the eyes of a local, it sounds like a road trip might be up your alley, too. Don’t forget your headphones!

Intrepid’s 9-day Guatemala & Beyond tour has been rebranded for 2024 as an epic 10-day Nicaragua & Beyond road trip.

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