Meet Fanni Bartanics. Together with her travel buddy Suzy, Fanni is currently on an inspiring trip through Central America. Over the past few months, she has hitchhiked her way across Central America. Her travel blog My Seven Worlds aims to inspire, motivate and educate fellow adventurers about the world of travel and uncover the inner workings of why we travel and how it makes us who we are. Here she shares her tips on hitchhiking through Central America.
Travel doesn’t have to be expensive. With a little patience and flexibility, hitchhiking from place to place is a viable option.
After hitchhiking across Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama over the past few months, I’ve learnt a thing or two about best practice hitchhiking in Central America.
The most surprising aspect for me was just how easy it is to catch a lift in this part of the world. Here’s my tips on hitchhiking in Central America.
How to ask for a ride in Central America
You won’t get far without knowing some Spanish. The Spanish phrases for a free ride (autostop in Spain) differs from country to country and they will not understand you unless you use the following expressions:
- Honduras: Jalon
- Nicaragua: Ride
- Costa Ride: Aventón
- Panama: Lift
Practical hitchhiking tips
Even if you’ve hitchhiked before this section might still be of interest to you. One of my key tips is to choose your spot wisely. Make sure your ride has enough time and space to pull over. Do not stand next to a main road where 80 km/h is allowed hoping someone will risk their lives just to get you from A to B. We did get a ride on one of these main roads, but we had a very long patch of concrete behind us for cars to pull over and we chose a straight road so once people spotted us, they had enough time to make a decision to slow down.
Use the GPS on your phone maps app to see if you’re in a good spot, or if there is a bigger road close by. My travel mate and I made a few mistakes when we didn’t check and after waiting on the side of the road for a long time, we were told by locals that we’d chosen a bad spot as most traffic took a road only a few meters from us.
Talk to the locals. Just because one person tells you one thing, it doesn’t always mean it’s true. We got misdirected a few times, and now I tend to ask several people just to make sure.
Dress clean and tidy. To get a ride fast it’s best to dress clean and tidy, not hippie clothes. Nethertheless, even hippies get picked up, it may just take longer.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a favour. When you’re stuck and just need a short ride, ask the driver to help you out even if it’s inconvenient for them. You may think why would they help you? Because it’s human nature to help someone who is in need, plus you pay with your story, your attention and good mood. You might just get lucky and they’ll help you out.
Be chatty and animated during the ride as thanks to this handy trick, we got free food a couple of times, invitations to driver’s houses and longer rides as they enjoyed the conversation so much, they carried on. It is not only an adventure for you, but for them too.
Try to avoid hitchhiking out of a big city. Take a cab or a bus to the outskirts as danger is a real thing in populated areas, plus it’s incredibly hard to get out by hitchhiking. My personal preference is to find hostels already close to the exit of the city so the next morning I get to the right road hassle-free. If your ride is kind enough, he can drive you to your desired hostel. Don’t be afraid to ask.
In small towns, hitchhiking is the preferred way of transportation, commonly used by the locals as well. The less populated the area, the easier it is to find a ride. Enjoy sitting in the open trunk of 4x4s sometimes accompanied by school children, families, animals or landworkers.
Don’t get offended by personal questions. As a woman I have been asked uncomfortable questions. I’ve had inappropriate proposals mostly about marriage and sex, but put it down to cultural differences. Don’t take it personally when a local wants to know why are you not married yet, if you are looking for a boyfriend from that country and if you would consider staying with him if he pays for everything etc.
After a while it’s just noise. Get used to it. The people asking these questions never once made me feel unsafe, they were just curious, but never crossed the line. This only happened in rural areas where people are less educated. Personally I liked to play with them, to tell them stories about my hypothetical diplomat, olympic champion or army husband to see how they react to made up crazy stories and to distract them from their original topic.
I would have thought the following is common knowledge, but it’s not always the case. Please have enough water and food on you when you are on the road, protect your skin from the sun and don’t hitchhike after sunset.
If you end up somewhere you didn’t intend, just go with the flow. It happens sometimes, but find the positive side to every situation. You may actually be lucky to see something incredible you would have missed if things went according to plan. This has rarely happened to us, but never once had a bad outcome, we just had to be a little more creative.
Be aware, that the roads are often in very poor condition and not highways so it can take a long time to get from A to B. Be patient and allow yourself plenty of time. Set off early to your next destination if you can.
Female vs male hitchhikers
My friend and I found that it’s preferred to pick up female hitchhikers rather than men, and we’ve found it easy and safe travelling in a pair. On average it took us 5-10 minutes to get a lift which is way faster than in Europe. As for solo women, I can only speak from what I’ve heard of other’s experiences, but I haven’t heard a single scary story so far.
Solo men on the other hand said it was more difficult to get picked up with longer wait times.
No matter what gender you are, it’s important to look clean, happy and smile when signaling the thumbs up. People are open to giving lifts across Central America despite the general misconceptions.
I honestly haven’t encountered any unsafe situations. Everybody who picked my travel mate and I up told us about all the crazy people who are out there looking for women like us, but you know what – they haven’t found us. It’s not to say there is no danger here, I just don’t feel qualified to write about it because I haven’t experienced it.
Crossing the borders
In every country I visited, I had to pay either an entry or an exit fee (most often both) that varies between $US3 and $US12. You can usually pay in US dollars or the local currency.
We had a little trouble entering Costa Rica when border control asked for proof of exit such as a bus or plane ticket. We changed queues in the hope one of the other immigration personnel were in a better mood and we got lucky and were allowed to enter without proof of exit. But watch out for Panama. We could not play the system, so we ended up purchasing flights on the Costa Rica – Panama border on a taxi driver’s phone. We found out later that it is possible to book a bus ticket out of Panama so you can show proof of exit but then cancel the ticket later and hitchhike out if you want.
Just make sure you research online prior to entering a country on entry requirements for your passport.
If you still have bills in your wallet in the local currency, best to change them at the border as it will be a lot harder to change elsewhere. There are always people offering to change money over at the border, but do your research to make sure you’re not getting too ripped off with the exchange rate they offer. Barter if necessary.
Why hitchhiking is an unforgettable experience
Hitchhiking allows you to see the true face of the country, driving down roads not even on Google Maps. You get to see nature up close and take photos you could never capture from a bus. You get to hear incredible life stories from the locals – they share their dreams, fears, thoughts, cars, food, and sometimes their home with you.
You can learn a great deal about the country as they are proud citizens who most probably have never left the country before, so their knowledge is expansive on the one thing they do know. When a geologist gave us a ride, I learnt everything about the formation of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I was driven to panoramic viewpoints, I was introduced to uncommon local dishes and was driven from hostel to hostel before I chose the one I liked the most.
Other perks would be practising your Spanish a lot, putting your knowledge to the test by working through all the different accents, expanding your international network, educating people about the world, and teaching you to put faith in people – like your driver – and potentially making new friends.
Hitchhiking is not for everyone. It is exhausting, dirty and time consuming, but I would never do it any other way. I can only encourage and recommend it to all of you.
Want more? If you want to read more about Fanni’s adventures, head to her Instagram @mysevenworlds or follow her blog at http://www.mysevenworlds.com