In my years of Central America travel and travel writing, I've heard many stereotypes and misconceptions about the region. Some Central America misconceptions are entirely false. Others have some truths, or were once true, but not any more. I've decided to clear up (or verify, in a couple cases) some common Central America myths and misconceptions. Feel free to email me at goentralamerica(at)about(dot)com if you can think up any more!
Central America is at war:
As of the writing of this article, no Central American country is at war, civil or otherwise. In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala were engaged in civil wars. The United States invaded Panama in 1989, in an action called Operation Just Cause
. This is usually what people are thinking of when they talk about Central America's wars, though they are long over. Nowadays, Central America is generally peaceful. In fact, both Costa Rica and Panama have abolished their militarie altogether.
Central America is dangerous:
Parts of Central America are dangerous. Most of Central America is not. Crime varies not only on a country by country and city by city basis, but on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis – just like cities in the United States. With the exception of pickpocketing and petty crime, mostly in urban areas, crime in Central America is not typically directed toward foreigners. According to the U.S. Department of State
, "Most travelers to Central America experience no safety or security problems."
Central Americans dislike Americans:
Americans meaning United States citizens, in this case. It's true that the United States was on the "wrong side" in several Central American wars, some of them devastating. But your typical Central American doesn't hold it over the U.S. -- at least in my experience, and the experiences of my fellow American travelers. As a whole, Central Americans are kind and friendly. They're more likely to show interest in your homeland, and ask questions about your state or town. U.S. Department of State also has an opinion on this one: in Central America, "U.S. citizens have not been singled out by reason of their nationality.”
All Central Americans are Hispanic:
Many Central Americans are Hispanic; usually, they're known as mestizos, blends of Spanish and Amerindian. But visitors to Central America are often surprised at what a melting pot the isthmus is, especially in the coastal regions. There are Mayans and other indigenous peoples, Garifuna, Chinese, Taiwanese, ex-pat Europeans and Americans, even Germanic Mennonites.
The vast majority of Central Americans speak Spanish; however, English is the official language in Belize, and it's widely spoken throughout the isthmus. Dozens of indigenous languages are also spoken in Central America, along with Chinese, German, Kriol and Garifuna. Central American Spanish also varies somewhat between countries, most notable in regional slang.
Central America is part of South America:
That's an easy one. Central America isn't part of South America
– it's actually part of North America, along with Mexico, the United States, Canada and most of the Caribbean Islands
. It's part of Latin America as well, which encompasses all the Spanish-speaking countries in North and South America. Belize is also a Commonwealth realm: a sovereign state within the British Commonwealth of Nations.
All Central Americans suffer from poverty:
True, poverty is a problem in every Central American country. However, some countries suffer from more poverty than others. For example, the 2010 per capita income for Nicaragua, Central America's poorest country, was $3,037. For Costa Rica, it's $11, 351. There are plenty of wealthy Central Americans as well.
All Central American food is spicy (and just like Mexican food):
Central American cuisine
is extremely diverse, and varies between destinations. Some of it's spicy – but most of it isn't. In some places, it resembles Mexican cuisine
– parts of it. Some Central American cuisine is familiar, and some is entirely unique. It simply can't be stereotyped (though it can be devoured!).
Drug lords run Central America:
No, drug lords don't run Central America. (…Anymore.) It's true that in the 1970 and 1980s, some governments (Honduras and Panama in particular) were actively involved in the drug trade – in Panama's case, with U.S. support. It's also true that the primary smuggling route of South American illegal drugs is through Central America, then Mexico, then into the United States. Wikipedia has a great overview of the illegal drug trade in Latin America
. As for actual drug use, it's minimal in Central America.
Um, well, that one's sort of true. But they tend to mind their own business!