Border fees, transport options, nature, prices, ATM charges, safety as well as general diversity and vibes compared
If you travel anywhere in the world, you will most likely spot plenty of things that are distinct from country to country or region to region. For instance, Italy is rather different from Spain but if you match those two against for example Norway, you might find out that they might have quite a few things in common. On the other hand, if you look closer, you’ll notice that southern Italy is very different from its northern counterpart and so on. And so it is with South and Central Americas. Many times I’ve heard people asking about the differences between these two Latin American subregions. Let’s be honest, that would be a super-broad subject to tackle. However, if we narrow it down to travel options, conditions and so on, we could produce some sort of satisfying answer. So what do you think? Which is better to travel and why? South America vs Central America.
South vs Central America comparison for a traveller: Criteria
There are, of course, numerous variables to answer this South America vs Central America question, such as what kind of travelling are you into; what are your main interests; just as well as how much time do you have available for your explorations so on. Furthermore, except for all of those individual preferences, we’re also talking about a huge territory. Only South America is nearly twice as big as the USA. Regardless of all that, this article will aim to provide certain answers you might find useful to make a decision about your next trip, depending on your “settings” and preferences.
In practical terms, this article will attempt to describe some of the differences between Central and South Americas, mainly from the practical point of view of a traveller. From the more “measurable” point of view, we’ll be comparing the transport options, border fees, prices and so on. It will be however impossible to complete this piece without slipping into some subjective opinions, such as general vibes, nor it will be entirely possible to avoid using a certain degree of stereotyping which is, I admit, I’m not a big fan of but within the context of this piece, I might have to result to deploying one or two of them.
Disclaimer: This post doesn’t involve information from countries I haven’t visited for various reasons. Those are Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana and Venezuela.
South America vs Central America
Border fees and border crossings
Let’s start with an easy one. In South America, there are no border fees if you are an EU passport holder. US passport holders have it all a bit more costly because except entering Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Uruguay, US citizens are subject to reciprocity visa fees ranging from $65 up to $160. For more information about US passport holders visa requirements please click here. If you’re an Aussie, click here.
When it comes to the actual border-crossing process, you might be asked to open your bags for an inspection between some countries but other than that, it’s just getting stamped out and in. Unless you’re smuggling drugs, weapons and all that stuff that’s illegal everywhere, there are only a few extra restrictions you will have to follow, such as bringing seeds or fruits into Chile.
The Central Americas are on the other hand rather annoying and silly in this regard. Except for El Salvador and Guatemala, you need to pay various fees and taxes everywhere. Given the rather corrupted nature of some border officers, those fees might sometimes vary even within the same country. The actual process is mostly rather smooth but it often involves various bureaucratic forms and long queues. The border fees are as follow:
- Panama: The fees vary, depending on the corruption levels of the day. Officially, the entrance fee is $3,- and exit is $3,-USD, unless you fly, which would bring it up to $40,-USD;
- Costa Rica: No entry fee. The exit was $7,-USD. The onward ticket is supposedly a must but I’ve talked my way out of it;
- Nicaragua: The fees are reported to vary a lot as there are various taxes and so on. I’ve paid $12,-USD entry fee + $1,-USD tax to enter the town of Rivas. The exit fee was $3,-USD;
- Honduras: Entry fee is $3,-US, no exit fee;
- El Salvador: No entry, nor exit fee;
- Guatemala: No entry, nor exit fee;
- Belize: No entry fee. An exit fee is $20,-USD if you’ve stayed in the country for more than 24hrs. If you stay no longer than 24hrs, it’s $17,-USD;
- Mexico: $558,-MXN ($26.50,-USD). The fee is rather high but it would last you 180 days upon re-entering the country. If you stay under 7 days, you won’t need to pay for it. If you fly, the fee might be included in your flight…
Winner: The South Americas with no doubt whatsoever.
South America vs Central America: Transport
Well, it would be unfair to paint every country as well as every bus company with the same brush. The comfort, as well as road quality, vary from company to company, respectively country/region to country/region. For instance, the bus rides in Chile, Argentina as well as Uruguay were generally on the Western European level, if not even better sometimes.
While the quality of buses remained relatively high heading further north. In Central Americas, you can also opt for the luxurious VIP buses in most places but sooner or later you’ll need to take the local route with the iconic Chicken bus. While it first feels like a cool ride for a while, I would personally not be up for repeating my nearly packed 10hrs night journey anymore because it’s still a school bust and if you’re a taller person, your knees will thank you (:0 I’ve written a separate piece about travelling cost, quality and onboard safety (country by country) for you here in case you were interested.
The road quality could however worsen in some places north of Chile, except some stretches of the road in Colombia or between major cities or the Pan-American Highway in Panama. If I allow myself to generalise, the trend would be that the road quality is getting worse when heading north (i.e. Guatemala being particularly bad) and that could apply all the way up to the Mexican border. But that’s not always true, there are improvements being done as we speak in numerous countries.
Winner: The South Americas, although this one is much tighter than the border fees comparison above.
South America vs Central America: Prices
Well, this one is hard. Again, the prices vary from country to country and from region to region. As in 2018-2021, the most expensive countries are Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Panama and at some locations also Colombia. The cheapest would be IMHO Nicaragua and Bolivia.
I would say that overall, I found Central America a wee bit cheaper on average than South America. It however really depends on what are you into. I’ve prepared a detailed article that lists the basic expenses for accommodation, transport and food here, in case you were interested.
Winner: I’d say it’s Central Americas won by a tiny margin. Penalty shoot-out, after a thrilling extra time, kinda win.
South America vs Central America: ATM charges
ATM charges suck. Over an extended period of time, they can add up to a sum of money that can not be exactly called insignificant. It is, therefore, a good idea to find out if you can prevent or minimise this stupid expense. The banks in Latin America have added charges in pretty much every country in recent years. Some of them are stupidly high (Argentina, Panama, etc…), some are lower or none (Bolivia, Mexico, etc…) and somewhere it is even free if you make an effort to find the right ATM.
The fees depend on many factors but in general, it is about your card issuer’s deal with the owner of the ATM. You have 3 basic options for how to approach this issue. The first option is to carry cash and exchange it in the official cambios, which could be risky to carry the extended amount of cash around. Your second option is to find the ATM that charges you less or nothing. The third option is to get the most suitable card for the region or country you go to.
Most banks know that you’ll need cash and they do take full advantage by charging you as often as they can. Some financial institutions push it even further and try to trick you, such as offering you the option of currency conversion upon your cash withdrawal. Whatever you do – do not ever pick the option to be charged in your currency because it’s pretty much a scam. In case you were interested in a more detailed (country-to-country) article about ATM charges, it’s here.
Winner: A draw. After a very boring extra time.
South America vs Central America: Safety
Safety is among the first questions many people ask when it comes to the Latin World. The fact is that several countries from this part of the world do come with a bad reputation when it comes to safety. But how exactly does a reputation match the reality is a whole different question.
Yes, there are parts of the Latin World that compete for the highest per capita homicide rates in the world, mainly because of various illegal industries, such as human or drug trafficking that fuel the crime rates rapidly. However, in spite of all the tragedy and sadness they produce, they are mostly contained within certain areas operated by gangs or people involved in such activities, rather than in places popular with tourists that are often heavily guarded by police.
I would personally say that unless you are in a war zone, safety is a relative term globally. I mean that shit can happen to you in the safest city in the world if you are unlucky or if you are lacking common sense or if you are just plain stupid. The fact is that statistically, you are more likely to get robbed in for example Quito than in Vienna but if you keep the normal precautions, when it comes down to the so-called “Gringo Trail” in Latin America, you should be most likely fine.
What normal precautions am I talking about? Generally speaking, those that you’d follow in your own country, like not tempting the potential thieves by advertising your valuables or not wandering into the dodgy areas of towns at night by yourself and so on. Even if you’re lacking common sense regarding security, you can always ask at the reception of your hotel. Plus, the locals will often tell you not to wander into certain areas of towns, if they see you heading in “the wrong” direction.
The safety standards could change street-to-street, region-to-region and so on. Your safety measures, therefore, depend on where you are and when you are there. For instance, Patagonia is as safe as it can get. The opposite extreme is obviously big cities. If you however stick to the tourist areas, you should be fine all the way up to Caribbean Colombia.
From there northwards, I have noticed an increased number of different kinds of tourism, AKA tourism that isn’t there to admire nature or architecture, if you know what I mean. This kind of tourism altered the general safety standards because it invites certain crime elements inside some of the otherwise safe tourist areas. I’m talking about sex (and drugs) tourism, in case you haven’t worked it out yet. The closer to the USA, the dodgier some places (incl. some tourists) appeared.
Such a phenomenon requires increasing one’s security awareness as it affected the tourist areas that otherwise appeared safer and more nature-orientated south of here. More details and tips about safety during your travels in Latin America could be found here, in case you were interested.
Winner: South Americas, if we’re talking about safety from the Gringo Trail traveller point of view.
Well, this comparison is not exactly fair, if we take the size into the occasion, is it? I mean the seven Central American countries cover an area of 523 780 km2 as opposed to South American 17 840 000 km2, which makes the latter 34 times larger. But even with Mexico included, Central Americas would be more than 7 times smaller in comparison to South Americas. On the other hand, it should be noted that a smaller area also means shorter distances between destinations to cover.
There are many many beautiful spots to admire in Central Americas. From the diversity point of view, just having the option of swinging between the staggeringly different Caribbean and Pacific coasts relatively fast is amazing. But if you look at your general options, you’re pretty much left with volcanoes and colonial towns with some national parks in between. Don’t get me wrong, these places could be pretty and offer a lot of unforgettable moments, it’s just that in South America, due to a much larger landmass, there’s much more diversity.
For instance, only Colombia itself is twice as large as the seven Central American countries together, hence IMHO comes with more possible things to see. And that is “just” Colombia. One can then drop a bit further south to explore parts of the Amazon jungle, head to the high altitudes of Bolivian Altiplano plateau to check out the surreal Uyuni Salt Flats, hike some crazy 6000m (19.7 thousand feet) tall mountain in the Andes or visit the Atacama, the driest non-polar desert in the world. Then there are, of course, the lowlands where you can get mesmerised by the magic and beauty of Iguazú Falls, not to mention amazing Patagonia and so on…
Winner: Technically, it should be South America but due to the reasons listed above, I consider this part of the competition as non-comparative, even if we picked the intensity per square kilometre, rather than actual sizes of the regions as they are…
People and vibes
Well, due to the purely subjective nature of such comparison, this is also an inappropriate subject for a competition. Each country and region comes with its own rich history and various influences. Whether it is the ever happy Mayans in Guatemala and Mexico, the inventive Incas in Bolivia and Peru or Mapuches in Chile and Argentina and many more each of the indigenous population left a significant mark in their regions.
If we talk the modern influences and vibes into an occasion, we enter even more subjective territory. Because we all like different things. For instance, for me personally, the coolest city I’ve visited in Latin America was Buenos Aires. But I understand that such a megacity of over 15 million people could be overwhelming and a little claustrophobic for someone. The same could apply to Argentinians. To some people, their often very “lust for life” extrovert nature can be lovable but for – let’s say – more introverted or shy people, such attitude could be a little too much to deal with. So it really depends what you’re into, doesn’t it?
As I’ve mentioned above, I’m personally not really a massive fan of generalisations and stereotypes, because it is not the most scientific method to work with, plus they often produce and fuel prejudice. And even if I stick to the positive elements to eliminate the negative stereotyping, it still feels stupid to paint everyone with the same brush so let me get through this quickly.
I also loved the friendly as they appeared to be more curious about me as a person and I was also very keen on the friendly mate-offering Uruguayans. Furthermore, in spite of all the negative stereotypes imposed on Mexicans by the Hollywood film industry, I really enjoyed the interaction with them either. Nicaraguans were also rather friendly and the whole Caribbean part is as cool as the biggest reggae stereotype portrayals of the area.
Architecture-wise, given its size, South America was naturally also much “richer”. Except for the incredible Buenos Aires, there are also other stunning cities, such as Quito or Cusco. In Central Americas, their smaller counter is smaller Granada, Antigua or perhaps even the old town of Panama City. I also loved the retro 60’s cafés and bars in León and other Central American cities.
This whole South America vs Central America comparison is too much of a broad subject to tackle. I personally believe that you’ll pick your vacation based on your own options and preferences, regardless of the location. I’d say that most of the practical elements I’ve listed above appear to be favouring South America over its Central ‘counterpart’.
Speaking for myself, if I was ever to visit the region for an extended trip again and I had to pick between the two, I wouldn’t hesitate much to pick South America. However, if I only had few weeks, I’d definitely consider Costa Rica or Nicaragua to climb few volcanoes and visit some of their national parks or Caribbean islands, especially the special Little Corn Island. The appeal of Central America to me is, therefore, more suitable for shorter-term visits unless you count in huge Mexico into the occasion.
South America on the other hand is more diverse so there are definitely more options for a traveller in that regard. Furthermore, for Europeans, in South America, there’s no border fees and less hustle with officials when crossing borders. In spite of the huge distances to cover, it’s generally comfier to move around, especially if you pick some of the low-cost internal flights.
In case you were in the process of deciding the location of your next trip in the Latin World, I’m sure that you will have a great time, regardless of whether you pick South American or Central American location because, OMG, there are so many things to love about Latin America 🙂 Please note that Quaint Planet also provides Customer Itinerary Service so let me know if you were seeking travel advice 😉
Practical info links summary
- Budget: in case you were interested, here‘s an article listing the country-by-country basic expenses for a traveller in Latin America;
- Safety: Few safety tips on how to secure your valuables, what to watch out for and more could be found here
- Transport: Information, safety and some other practical advice regarding public transport in Latin America can be found here;
- ATM withdrawal charges: Some practical info, including the list of free-of-charge ATMs in Latin America, can be found here;
- Border fees: To find out how much will you have to pay to enter or exit certain countries in Latin America, please click here.
Other practical information
- How to get a cheaper Flight: here‘s a little guide to increasing your chances of spending less on your airfare as well as tips about how to pick your seat, where to have a nap at the airport and so on…
- Packing list: What to take with you for an extended trip as well as some security tips could be found here;
- Pre-trip preparations: Few things you can do ahead of time before you’ll become frantically busy prior to your departure are listed here.
South and Central American locations covered on Quaint Planet
Santiago de Chile ► Valparaíso ► Santiago de Chile ►Punta Arenas – Ushuaia – Punta Arenas ► Puerto Natales – Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales ► El Calafate (Perito Moreno Glacier, Arg) ► El Chaltén (Los Glaciares National Park) ► Chile Chico (Ch) – Puerto Rio Tranquillo (Marble Caves) ► Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi – (Carretera Austral) ► Puerto Chacabuco – Quellón/Castro ► Puerto Varas – San Carlos de Bariloche (Arg) ► Buenos Aires ► Colonia (Ur) ► Montevideo ► Punta del Diablo – Cabo Polonio ► Montevideo ► Salto ► Concordia (Arg) ► Puerto Iguazú (Iguazú Falls) ► Salta ► San Salvador de Jujuy ► Tilcara ► San Pedro de Atacama (Ch) ► Uyuni Salt Flats Tour (Bol) ► Uyuni ► Sucre – La Paz (Death Road Tour) ► Copacabana (Lake Titicaca) – Isla del Sol – Copacabana ► Cusco (Per) ► Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) ► Cusco ► Lima ► Máncora – Montañita (Ecu) ► Puerto López ► Quito ► Ipiales (Col) – Pasto ► Tatacoa Desert ► Bogotá ► Medellín ► Villa de Lleyva ► Santa Marta – Cartagena – Rincón del Mar Necoclí ► Capurganá ► Puerto Obaldía (Pan) ► Panama City ► Las Lajas ► Cerro Punta ► David ► Bocas del Torro ► San José (Costa Rica) ► San Juan del Sur (Nic) – Ometepe ► Granada ► Managua – El Rama – Bluefields – Corn Islans ► Léon ► El Tunco (El Salvador) ► La Antigua Guatemala – Lake Atitlán ► Lanquín (Semuc Champey) – Flores (Tikal) ► Belize City ► Bacalar – Tulum – Playa del Carmen – Mérida – Valladolid – Cancún ✈️ .
Credit for featured image: Public Domain Pictures from Pixabay