You've packed your clothes, your camera, your passport, your credit cards, and your zebra-print speedo. But what are you forgetting?
Lots of things, in fact. Here's a list of necessities I've found absolutely invaluable during my travels to Central America and beyond, and I can guarantee you will, too.
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I don't know how I survived my earlier travels without earplugs. Even if you're not a light sleeper (like me!), there will be a time in Central America when you'll desperately need them. On the plane. To catch a nap on a cross-country bus. When you didn't realize your hotel is next door to a night club. And everywhere you go, from the capital cities to the island getaways, there will be roosters. Loud ones. Bring earplugs-- trust me on this one.
Ah, mosquitoes. Thirsty little vampires of the tropics. As if their bites weren't aggravating enough, they can also be carriers of malaria and other diseases. Your best defense is an insect repellent with 10%-35% DEET (More than 35% is overkill in most situations, and no more than 10% DEET should be used on children), and an application of Permethrin repellent (kills on contact) to your clothing prior to departure. You can purchase repellents in Central America, but bring some just in case.
It isn't difficult to find laundry service in Central America. Usually it's as easy as dropping off a garbage bag (see Item 5) of clothes, and picking them up, folded and fresh-smelling, eight hours later. But often, due to time constraints, far-flung locations, or the fact that you only need one shirt washed, laundry service just doesn't seem practical. That's where these little Woolite packets come in. All you need is a sink and your hands, and the hot Central America sun for drying.
4. Pepto Bismol, Immodium, AntibioticsWhether you call it the Guat Squats, Montezuma's Revenge, or simply an upset stomach, it afflicts every one of us one time or another-- even if you're being careful (drinking only bottled water and purified ice, eating only peeled or cooked fruits and veggies). At its most minor, a few chewable Pepto Bismol tablets will do the trick. If moderate, take Immodium. And if extreme, antibiotics may be necessary. No matter what, pack all three, and be sure to drink plenty of (purified) fluids.
5. Just Call Me Bag LadyEvery time I travel, I find another creative use for garbage bags. Wrapped around my day pack in a rainstorm. To carry my dirty laundry. For swaddling breakable souvenirs. As a makeshift poncho. I recommend bringing several of the large black ones, and several of the smaller white ones. Ziploc Sandwich Bags are invaluable as well. Something always leaks, and once your backpack or suitcase is packed with beloved Mayan blankets and nifty tee-shirts, you won't want them sodden with sunscreen.
When your travel time is limited, sometimes you have no choice but to take that excruciatingly early bus, or plane, or shuttle. If you anticipate that happening, a travel alarm clock is more than necessary-- unless, of course, you're one of those spooky people with a faultless internal clock. There are many models available, from tiny and atomic to sleek and funky. Bring extra batteries.
A flashlight is absolutely essential. When you're staying in an outlying area like the jungle or a private beach, don't expect there to be floodlights lining the paths. Especially if you're a budget traveler and the bathroom isn't attached to your room. Some islands even turn off electricity late at night. You might need one to search for an item without waking your spouse, or to read late in the evening, in a oceanfront hammock, under the stars. . . Sigh.
Please, please, please, bring a money belt. A fanny pack doesn't count! It is well-known among seasoned travelers and locals that fanny packs are bullseyes for robbers. True money belts fit under the clothing-- NEVER wear it outside your clothes-- and have specific pockets for passports, credit cards, and other important documents. Leather belts with hidden zippers work well as a secondary hiding place for emergency money, but they won't hold your passport.
Bring a padlock. It doesn't have to be huge. If you're a backpacker, a large lock will weigh you down. But you'll be glad you have it, either to lock up your luggage (while it won't stop a pickpocket with a knife, but it may stop a more casual crook), or to lock up your room. Many hotels provide an extra lock loop on your door for extra security when you leave.
The closer you get to the equator, the more intense the UV rays. Central America isn't much more than a stone's throw away, comparably, and strong sunscreen is a daily requirement. Even if it's cold out. Even if it's overcast. If you don't, take my word for it: you WILL burn, and a sunburn largely increases your chances of skin cancer. For added protection, bring face lotion with sunscreen added, sunglasses, and a hat-- though you can always purchase an amusingly gaudy sombrero once you arrive.