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When considering general safety for travelers visiting a foreign country, how do the Central American countries compare (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama)? Are some significantly more safe or dangerous than others, or are they all in similar situations?

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All of the capital cities are dodgy, but some only in certain areas.

  • Belize
    Belize City and Belmopan both have bad reputations, but they're the only capital cities in Central America I haven't been to.
  • Costa Rica
    The most developed and safest country in Central America.
    San José feels safe compared to the other capitals and people do go out at night. However, I was constantly pulled aside by older American expats to warn me how dangerous the city is. I mostly assumed they hadn't been to any of the neighbouring capitals to make a comparison.
  • El Salvador
    One of the friendliest border crossings I've ever had and people in rural areas were always friendly and I never felt in danger. However I did go on a tour with other backpackers I met with a guy recommended in one of the travel guides. One of our group had her camera stolen in a high-walled beach compound he took us too. He made a big display of calling the police and having them check locked rooms etc, but I had a bad feeling and was sure he was acting and stole it himself.
    Long distance buses do not run at night.
    San Salvador has more razor wire and armed guards than anywhere I've been. The city centre was destroyed in an earthquake decades ago and now the area is mostly occupied by a slummy market. Street kids are everywhere. People don't go out at night.
    I had found a little place with breakfast a couple of blocks from my hostel and was reading a newspaper I found there one day slowly in Spanish. An article was about a city minibus hijacked in broad daylight a few days earlier just a block or two away. If I recall correctly the driver and conductor of the bus were murdered for refusing to pay. I guess it was a mara related crime.
  • Guatemala
    Guatemala City has a deserved bad reputation. For a couple of years I had never met any person who had visited the city without being robbed. Now I've been there several times myself with no incidents and I quite like the city. The cheap accommodation is in a different zona from many of the amenities you might need so you may have to take taxis or city buses between them. People don't really go out at night. Long distance buses do not operate at night.
    Antigua Guatemala is beloved by tourists and expats who believe it's much safe than the capital. However the two cities are very close and criminals do make the short trip to pray on tourists. Years ago I was told of criminals entering a hostel in Antigua and raping every female in the place. So don't let its beauty lull you into a false sense of security.
    Even rural villages are not without risks. Some years ago villagers in Todos Santos believed a rumour that foreigners were stealing children and turned on a tour group which resulted in the bus driver and a Japanese tourist killed. (BBC report)
  • Honduras
    Didn't suffer the civil wars that most of its neighbours endured but also didn't enjoy the tourism boom of Costa Rica so is still very poor. Long distance buses do not run at night.
    Tegucigalpa (Tegus) is my favourite capital city in Central America. People do go out at night but will warn you that it's not safe. Many of the cheap accommodation options are not in Tegus itself but in its poorer dodgier twin-town, Comayagüela. A friend I met there who had plenty of travel experienced was robbed twice in one day in this area, once in her accommodation where a man came in pretending to be her husband in an emergency as an excuse to take all her stuff. Stay in Tegus instead.
    Hondurans do seem to like to get drunk and fight when in groups though, and the fights are uglier than I'm used to in developed countries. I spent Semana Santa at Omoa, a beach "resort". And witnessed much throwing of bottles, breaking of glass, and loss of blood, even vehicles with drunk drivers speeding through crowds. We always made sure to get back to the hostel before it got too late.
  • Nicaragua
    Gets a special prize for being the first place anybody managed to pick my pocket after about 15 years of travelling to some pretty dodgy places. Long distance buses do not run at night.
    As a tourist you are most likely to be in Grenada, León, and Ometepe. These places are a bit grimy but always felt safe to me. Some of the border cities with neighbouring countries had bad reputations but were no problem for me.
    Managua also lost its city centre to an earthquake but in its case it was never rebuilt. A huge park was made in much of the area, but not many people feel safe enough to go there. Partially surviving buildings with surely no water or electricity are now slums. You do not see tourists walking around. People don't go out at night. Instead of a city centre there are now about five huge shopping malls. These are safe and middle and upper class people congregate in them. The problem is getting to and from them from your accommodation. It's a very easy city to get lost in because most streets do not have names, let alone signs and it has its own system of directions rather than north, south, east, west.
  • Panama
    Panama City was my other favourite city in Central America. Here people go out at night and there are very good tourist police. But watch out because some of the cool parts of the city are not right next to each other, and some dangerous slums are interspersed around the place. One of them is right next to Casco Viejo. I also found the city buses from the main bus station totally unfathomable even with some knowledge of Spanish. It's far out from the city so you shouldn't attempt to walk like I did.

I haven't been to Central America for about five years now so some of this may be out of date. I make it sound a bit scary but in fact I love it and would definitely go back. Since the question is about safety I didn't include too many anecdotes of good experiences (-;

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I was also warned about San José at night (by locals too), but in practice it didn't feel that dangerous even when walking alone in the middle of the night, taking a bus etc. According to LP, the city of Limón, on the Caribbean, is a place where you're more likely to have your stuff stolen than elsewhere in Costa Rica (dunno; I just spent two hours there around noon). –  Jonik May 10 '12 at 9:09
    
In Panama I've been to Bocas del Toro and in/around David (the second city): these places felt safe. In general Panama seemed pretty well off, not so different from Costa Rica (actually its HDI is higher than CR's and GNP/GNI about the same). Apparently it's best to avoid Colón though, described as a big slum. (My impressions from 2011.) –  Jonik May 10 '12 at 9:11
    
Yes I also felt completely safe in David and Bocas del Toro. In the latter almost everything tourism related is now run by expats from North America anyway. Everything I read about Colón was the same. One guidebooks said "in other places it's possible you be robbed, but here it is likely you will be robbed"! The main reason to go there is to get a yacht to Colombia though and my money and time were both too low by the time I got there. But compare Peter Hahndorf's experiences there in his answer. –  hippietrail May 10 '12 at 13:11
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I spent a few hours in Colon during the day, it was fine. People were friendly and it was quite different from the rest of Panama. During that day there were three bank robberies though and the police had blocked all the roads out of town. Most yachts to Columbia leave from the San Blas islands and you don't have to go to Colon for that. –  Peter Hahndorf May 10 '12 at 19:41
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I think Nicaragua is a relative safe country. You can read the information provide by travel.state.gov It is acquire but also consider that like any country there are good places and others are not a good idea. They focus about the bad stuff because they are talking about the crime and safety.

travelig safety Nicaragua

I have traveled to US and met a lot of people who have visited Nicaragua and said it is a wonderful place and they want to go back. I have met foreigners who have even decided to live here because they fall in love with Nicaragua. It would be ideal if you have a friend from the region. I took my roommate to visit Nicaragua and she wants to come back. People in Nicaragua are very nice towards to foreigners.

Being from central america I have not traveled a lot in the other countries. So I am afraid I will not be a reliable source. Before going to any country in central america I will see if there is an embassy from your country. Embassy are doing a very good job in helping their citizens. The US embassy in Nicaragua has very goods services for us citizens and they also have a Facebook page that you can take a look.

Hope it helps to someone

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Thanks for your answer, and welcome to the site! If you haven't yet, you should check out Spanish.StackExchange too, I don't believe we have any native Nicaraguans over there. –  jrdioko May 9 '12 at 17:34
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Professional pickpocketing gangs definitely operate on the city buses in Managua. Possibly also on ferries and intercity buses. They use hand signs to communicate and may even use a friendly female member to persuade travellers to use the over-full buses. This was where and how I was first pickpocketed after 15 years of theft-free travel (-: Don't worry I still love Nicaragua and know what to avoid next time. –  hippietrail May 10 '12 at 6:29
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I spent four and a half months backpacking in the 7 countries you mentioned in 2009. Just based on my own experience I would say the difference in how dangerous a place felt was not between the countries but between places within each country, or even parts of a city.

Some parts of the bigger cities should be avoided, especially at night. However many smaller but more touristy places also have some petty crime.

I did not have any real problems but some sketchy experiences in Belize City at night and Tegucigalpa walking with my backpack through a rough neighborhood.

Judging on that I had to say Belize and Honduras are less safe. Other places with a bad reputation are Guatemala City, Managua and Colon (Panama) but I did not have any problems there.

Costa Rica is usually considered more safe than the others and has a much better tourist infrastructure.

Overall I would say, by just briefly visiting the countries you are not more likely to be a victim of crime in one country than another one. It comes down to where you go, how you behave and how (un)lucky you are.

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