If you’re visiting Central America, chances are you want to bring something home with you as a souvenir or gift for someone. So what are the best gift ideas in Central America? What should you buy in this part of the world?
One of the first things people say to you when you’re going traveling is “bring me back something from _____!” And you’re like, yeah sure, and then you go traveling and forget to get what you said you’d get. Or is that only me? I mean it’s a hassle carrying around gifts and souvenirs. This is why souvenir stores exist at airports, to sell you all the stuff you forgot at double the price.
But what if you’re not like me? What if you’re a well-adjusted, normal person, who will absolutely buy as many gifts and souvenirs for as many people as you can? And what if you’re going traveling in Central America, either to one country, all seven, or anything in-between? What should you buy? What are the perfect gift ideas from Central America?
The region isn’t known for its fine art, high fashion scene, or culinary delicacies. There’s nothing really you’d see and know without question it’s from Central America, like, say, an Eiffel Tower statue from France (or whatever). We’re just seven small countries here. But each country does have its little specialties, its cool stuff to remind you of the place.
Below, here’s a list of perfect gift ideas for souvenir shopping in Central America. Happy shopping!
Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce is probably Belize’s best known and best-loved product. You’ll find a bottle on just about every restaurant table throughout the country. It’s shipped and sold internationally nowadays and sold online. But there’s still something to be said for visiting the Marie Sharp’s factory/store in Stann Creek and stocking up for you and people back home. Somehow feels more authentic that way.
Did you know Belize is the home of chocolate? They’ve been eating – well, drinking, originally – chocolate in Belize since before the time of Christ. Chocolate is a Mayan thing and Belize is where they produced it. Nowadays there are some great artisan chocolate makers in Belize, including Goss and the Belize Chocolate Company. There’s even an annual chocolate festival in Punta Gorda
Conch products can be controversial in Belize. It’s one of Belize’s biggest products and during the October-July season, you’ll find conch meat all over the country, in soups or as fritters or ceviche. Conch is delicious and one of Belize’s many delicacies. But what about the shells? You’ll find them in markets and artisan stores, hand-carved into jewelry or ornaments. Make sure you don’t try to take entire conch shells out of the country, though. That’s illegal. And don’t eat conch out of season. That’s where the controversy comes in.
Guatemala could be the best shopping destination in Central America if you like your Mayan markets. Market shopping is big in Guatemala and almost everyone comes back with some sort of bright-colored, traditional textile. Tablecloths, scarves, cushion covers, rugs, you name it. Every kind of cloth product is available and half the fun is in the hunting.
Jade was a sacred stone for the Maya, revered by all and believed to bring longevity, wealth and good luck. Nowadays, Guatemala is one of the best places on earth to buy jade artifacts and jewelry. The only problem when buying jade is knowing whether it’s authentic or not. For that reason, we recommend checking out genuine jade dealers like the folks at Jade Maya in Antigua.
You’ll find ceramics sold all over Central America. Indeed the sound of hawkers calling “ceramica ceramica” on beaches all over the isthmus will become burned into your brain. But the pottery and ceramics of the Lenca people, from Honduras and El Salvador, are special and worth picking up.
One charming and cool little gift, unique to El Salvador, is the sorpresa (surprise). You know those chocolate kinder eggs you get with some little toy inside? Well, sorpresas are like that, except made out of clay. You open a clay egg and there’s a miniature scene inside, normally one of general rural life. You can also – if you know where to look and who to ask – get a sorpresa showing something a little racier (we’ll just leave that there – this is a family website).
Art in Nicaragua has its own vibe. It’s a country full of artists and poets, perhaps a testament to its turbulent history. There’s a style here you won’t find elsewhere, based upon the art workshops of the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal on the Solentiname Islands of Lake Nicaragua. They call it the primitivista movement and you’ll find examples and offshoots in galleries and artisan markets all over. Well worth investing in.
You’ll either love or hate Salsa Lizano. I personally love the stuff but know many people who feel the exact opposite. Salsa Lizano is perfect for putting on your gallo pinto, or any other food if you want to remind yourself of your time in Costa Rica.
One must-buy in Costa Rica is the chorreador, a traditional Costa Rican coffee maker, also known to ignorant gringos like me as a “sock”. It’s a wooden frame, often painted with traditional scenes, that supports a cloth bag that looks like, well, a sock. You put your ground coffee beans in the sock and pour hot water over them, allowing fresh coffee to filter through the cloth into your mug below. It’s the best way to make coffee in the world.
The oxcart is the traditional way of getting around Costa Rica, dating back to colonial times. Nowadays, of course, people use cars, but Ticos are still proud of their oxcart heritage. So proud, in fact, that pretty much every souvenir place or artisan market in the country will sell mini oxcarts, painted in bright colors. These make great souvenirs to sit on mantelpieces or desks or wherever you want. You can also buy larger oxcart wheels to hang on your wall, or even whole, full-size, painted carts if you’re prepared to cover the shipping. They’re not coming back in your luggage, that’s for sure. Check out the Central Valley town of Sarchi for everything oxcart-related.
Molas are embroidered cloth panels, made up of different layers sewn together to make patterns and shapes. Originally from the San Blas Islands, made by the women of the Kuna people to sew onto their clothes, nowadays you’ll find molas everywhere in Panama, from artisan markets to roadside stalls and hotel souvenir shops. Molas look great hanging on walls or sewn onto cushions.
Yes, it’s a total cliche. And yes, the Panama hat is actually from Ecuador. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s still always cool to say you went to Panama and bought a Panama hat.
The Embera people are an indigenous tribe of people split between Colombia and Panama. Like the Kuna with their molas, you can pick up Embera handicrafts all over the place. Look out for their woven bowls and masks, or their tagua nut carvings.
You’ll see we haven’t mentioned some of the more general stuff available in Central America as a gift or souvenir. That’s because there’s so much stuff available across all the countries.
For example, every country in Central America produces amazing coffee, even Belize which is more famous for cacao.
Check out the various artisan coffee brands in Costa Rica or go to any supermarket and pick up some Cafe Britt. In Belize, Central America’s smallest coffee producer, try the Gallon Jug stuff. Each country has its own unique coffee brands, and each claims to produce the best coffee in the region. Maybe they’re all right.
Another great Central American souvenir is booze.
The most famous Central American tipple is Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña rum. Flor de Caña could be the best rum in the world. But Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa is easily its equal (many say better). Belize has a bunch of great rums, too, like One Barrel and the imaginatively named Big Titty rum out of Placencia. In Costa Rica, check out the Centenario stuff, or if you want to get down with the people, just get local hooch called guaro – perfect for chiliguaros!
There’s also the beer.
There’s nothing like a hot tropical country to assist in the consumption of ice-cold beer. Now you probably won’t be bringing beer back home with you, but every country in Central America is proud of its local brew. That means plenty of beer merchandise is available. You’ll see Toña t-shirts everywhere in Nicaragua, Imperial ones in Costa Rica, Belikin shirts in Belize, and Gallo shirts in Guatemala. They make a great gift.
And talking of t-shirts, you’ll find cool local shirts to sum up your Central American country in just about every beach boutique.
“Pura Vida” shirts in Costa Rica or “You Better Belize It” shirts in Belize. You get the picture. A little lame and tacky maybe? But still fun. For something a little more classy, find yourself a guayabera shirt. Nicaragua is a great place to buy them.
Central America also produces quality cigars, as good as, if not better, than anything Cuba comes up with. You just don’t hear about them so much. But Nicaragua and Honduras will both have cigar aficionados in rapture. Great prices, too.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention another perfect Central American souvenir.
The humble hammock. You’ll find hammocks sold everywhere, from supermarkets to that guy on the beach. Nicaragua could claim to have the best hammocks in the region, but it’s pretty much a wash between all the countries. Wherever you are, you can pick up a decent hammock at a good price.
So there’s our list of stuff you should buy in Central America.
Is there anything we’ve missed? What are the perfect gift ideas from Central America that you would buy in this part of the world? Please let us know in the comments below.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.