This is one of the world’s most dangerous regions, or so says the media. Here, you can find the cities with the highest murder rates per capita, the countries with widespread poverty, and the most famous drug cartels. Here, you can find armed robberies in daylight, security guards with shotguns guarding supermarkets and nobody on the streets after 6pm. Here, is Central America.
After 9 months in South America, I thought I was well prepared for any crime. Afterall, I was robbed at knifepoint once and almost robbed twice. However, I still felt a little afraid in Central America and did not feel completely free. Maybe it was because I was overly influenced by the biased media or by the horrible stories from travellers and locals. Yet, I was determined to visit these countries and see the situation with my own eyes. Here is how I hitchhiked 10,000km in Central and North America, all the way to the United States:
I skipped most of Panama and Costa Rica, mainly because these countries were a little too expensive and because of the season. I arrived during the hurricane season and there was just too much rainfall. It rained almost everyday, and I could only watch the scenery from behind a window. Rather than wait months just for the rain to stop, I decided to move on and explore the relatively drier countries.
I hitchhiked across Panama and Costa Rica without seeing much, and ended up in the next country, Nicaragua. 2018 was a horrible year for Nicaragua. Due to the violent protests between the government and the opposition supporters, no tourists dared to visit the country. Hotels closed down, tourist restaurants shut their doors and no tour agencies were opened for months. Locals feared long distance travel because sometimes, masked men would block the highways and rob them. The entire country literally fell into despair.
Thankfully I arrived in Nicaragua just towards the end of the months long “civil war”. Roads were pretty empty, but not as deserted as a few months back. Despite the lingering fear, Nicaraguans were still extremely hospitable. Although I had to wait quite some time each time I hitchhiked, I always got a ride from a happy driver. Once, I rode with a couple of labourers on top of a pile of logs at the back of a truck. In another instance, I was trying to balance myself on top a truck full of wobbly gas tanks. It was also in Nicaragua that someone called the police, thinking that I was a robber because I was trying to hitchhike outside her house.
Although Nicaragua used to be a very safe country, the violent protests changed everything. The streets were eerily empty after 6pm and there would be no public transport on the road at that time. The only paid transportation available were taxis, and even then many locals feared that they might be kidnapped. Many public areas were closed and heavily armed police were patrolling ever corner of the city. Nicaragua felt just like a war zone and it was unfortunate considering how beautiful it was!
Yet the situation in Nicaragua was just a teaser. As I approached Honduras, many Nicaraguans were confused as to why I was going there. Honduras, to them, was more dangerous. To be honest, I was a little afraid as well, especially because I was planning to hitchhike. But hey, sometimes you just need to have some trust in humanity. With that trust, I entered Honduras. Every driver that stopped to pick me up asked if I was crazy. All of them said that Honduras was a dangerous country and that nobody hitchhikes nor pick up hitchhikers. Each time I heard that, I would sneak a giggle. Truth be told, the driver did stop to pick me up!
To my surprise, Honduras was an amazing country to hitchhike. Everyone was really kind and generous. I never went hungry on my hitchhiking adventures around Honduras. Almost every driver would grab food or drinks for me, from bags of rambutan to thick corn tortillas slathered with mayonnaise. I even went on a mini tour with one of the drivers! He took me to the second largest botanic gardens in the world. With a guide, we explored the expansive area and walked through the international gardens. There, you could find many Asian fruit trees and eat what you could pick. I had longans, jackfruit, starfruit and even saw the husk of a durian. There were so many different “Asian” trees in the gardens that sometimes I forgot that I was still in Honduras.
Indeed, exploring Honduras could not be done without witnessing widespread poverty or being reminded of the various dangers. Locals told me how cartels had taken over certain neighbourhoods and every household had to pay a “protection fee”. Even little food carts by the street were extorted by these cartels. Life is not easy in Honduras – a huge portion of the little money that people make goes into protection fees. Under these circumstances, living in Honduras was impossible for many Hondurans. As such, many would rather leave and travel thousands of kilometres to reach the US. It is these problems that forced Hondurans into huge migrant caravans, which is what we are seeing today.
The same situation is happening in El Salvador. The entire country is infested with drug cartels, gangsters and corrupt politicians. Everyone asked why I would risk my life to visit the country. Although I was a little frightened, I could not empathise with the amount of fear that these people lived in. After all, I never lived long enough in these countries and had never seen extreme violence nor been extorted myself. Yet, the Salvadorans were one of the friendliest people I had met in Central America. Like the Hondurans, the Salvadorans would happily pick me up, go the extra mile to drop me somewhere safe and feed me along the way. I had never experienced such hospitality in most of Latin America, and I was surprised to find it in El Salvador and Honduras.
Of course, hitchhiking opens up a world of interesting experiences. In El Salvador, I hitchhiked with a driver who turned out to be the neighbour of the couchsurfing host whom I was staying with. When I arrived with my couchsurfing host to his house, I noticed the driver sitting by the doorway of the adjacent house. We looked at each other in silence for a minute, and then went berserk at how it was even possible! To celebrate this near-impossible coincidence, the driver welcomed us into his house and invited us to a delicious, home-cooked dinner. It is experiences like this that made it hard for me to believe that the country is rife with violence and crime. El Salvador and Honduras are countries with the highest murder rates, yet have one of the friendliest and most hospitable people in Latin America.
Having experienced the constant lingering fear in Honduras and El Salvador, hitchhiking through Guatemala and Belize was a breeze. Until I got to Mexico. In Mexico, the paranoia returned. Locals thought I was crazy and many drivers wanted me to take the buses instead. Indeed, Mexico has the deadliest drug cartels in Latin America, and probably only second to Colombia. Also, I was hitchhiking through Mexico at the same time the Honduran caravan was transiting through. All eyes were on the thousands of Honduran migrants, and these included the eyes of drug dealers and traffickers who wanted to recruit these helpless migrants.
To be honest, I was scared, especially because I was on the same route as the Honduran caravan. Thankfully, my hitchhiking experience could not be better. I met so many caring Mexicans and many were still willing to pick me up even in the extremely dangerous parts of Mexico. Many Mexicans welcomed me to their homes, invited me to stay and made sure I was well-fed before continuing on my “dangerous” journey. Almost two months and 6,500 kilometres later, I arrived at Tijuana, the border city with the US.
The journey through Central America and Mexico was definitely an adventurous one. While many people would say that it was risky, I was not too sure if it was merely just how the media depicted the region to be or it was reality. Indeed, poverty was prevalent in certain countries in the region, but the level of hospitality was also unimaginable. While waiting for a ride, I realised that I stopped thinking about how dangerous it could be. Instead, I was excited to see how much further could the region’s hospitality go. I was eager to meet new people, ask them questions and explore the country with them.
3 months in the region and after hitchhiking more than 10,000km, I finally made it to the US border. The city of Tijuana in Mexico marked the end of my year-long hitchhiking trip in Latin America. Was I crazy to hitchhike all through Central America and Mexico? Maybe. Maybe more because I hitchhiked during an on-going political crisis and migrant exodus. However, I had no regrets. Fear was not going to stop me from meeting new people, learning more about their cultures and experiencing life from the eyes of the local people. All I needed was a little more courage, and I was glad that I had it.
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