10 Tips for Cheap Immersion Travel
in Latin America
|Watching a parade as a solo traveler in
“What’s up with the book?” Javier the
taxi driver asked me.
“The green book. All the gringos have
I looked at the three girls in the backseat.
They weren’t technically gringas (Americans) — they
were Canadians — but in many parts of Latin America
all tourists are gringos.
All three held up their Lonely Planet
guidebooks, straining to read in the falling darkness of
early evening. I laughed and explained to Javier what a
In fairness to the girls, they were
just passing the time on a long taxi ride. But we’ve all
met a certain kind of backpacker, the long-term traveler
who does nothing without consulting the book, whether Lonely
Planet, Rough Guides, or something else. These guidebooks
are certainly useful, but there’s a lot more to Latin America
than what someone else has already done and written about.
Fortunately, having a great trip and
a rich cultural experience while still saving money is what
traveling in Latin America is all about.
|A parade in Almolongo, Guatemala.
Here are some rules I follow wherever
1. Be Friendly
Greet people everywhere you go. Say buenos
días (good morning) or buenas tardes (good
afternoon) before you start any communication. Say provecho (have
a nice meal) to other diners in a restaurant, both when
you enter and when you leave. Wave and smile to people
on the street. Strike up conversations with anyone who
Even when you’re in a place where many
people speak English, it’s good to learn at least a few
phrases in the local language. Begin with ¿Habla usted
inglés? (Do you speak English?) and No hablo español (I
don’t speak Spanish). It shows respect.
|Jamming with Locals in Baños,
2. Getting Lost
If you are unsure of where you are going,
don’t hesitate to ask for directions, but do it twice or
more. I believe that asking for directions is one of the
great pleasures of traveling in Latin America – people love
to give them and often in enthusiastic, elaborate fashion.
However, they are frequently wrong.
Pack the smallest backpack possible.
You want it to fit below your feet and under the bus seat.
If not, it will be out of sight above or below the bus,
exposed to rain and/or robbery.
Don’t bring lots of clothes — buy
them on the road. T-shirts are cheap everywhere. And fold
your dirty laundry in your backpack to save space.
4. Choosing a Place to Stay
In certain fancy neighborhoods in big
cities (Condesa in Mexico City, Ipanema in Rio de Janiero),
a dorm bed in a hostel may be your cheapest option, but
in my experience a single room in a small hotel in the city
center is always cheaper. Stay in a hostel if you want to
meet people (locals or other travelers, depending on the
hostel); stay in a small hotel if you want privacy and to
In many cities in Latin America small,
often family-run hotels will be clustered around the parque
central (center square), aka zócalo (used
in Mexico). Give yourself some time to walk around and compare.
Prices are often posted behind the front desk, and if you
want to save money, ask for a discount — especially
if you will stay more than a week.
Always ask to see the hotel room before
you take it. Peek into the bathroom. Try the shower to check
water pressure and temperature. Check the mattress for bedbugs.
Ask about them and other bugs. They will always say that
there aren’t any, but if you see one and want to leave,
you’ll have a better chance of getting your money back.
One more thing — don’t stay in
a hotel above a restaurant. Cockroaches and strong odors
5. Long Bus Trips
Each Latin American country has several
bus companies, and sometimes there is more than one bus
station in the same town. There may be no difference between
first- and second-class buses other than price, or there
may be a huge difference. Give yourself some time
to shop around and ask advice before buying tickets.
For a cheap breakfast, buy bread in
the panadería (bakery) and fruit in the frutería (fruit
shop) or market. In markets, expect to be given a higher
price than the locals, and rather than haggle over a few
dollars or dimes, simply go to a few different people within
sight of each other. If they see you shopping around you
are more likely to be quoted a fair amount.
|Vendor selling mostly very spicy condiments at a market in Mexico.
Some of the best lunches are found in
markets. The food is cheap and regional. On the Mexican
coast you get shrimp soup. In Puebla you get a massive plate
of mole, a secret sauce of many ingredients, including
peppers and chocolate. In Guatemala you get fried chicken.
|A mole dish served for lunch at a market in Mexico.
Choose the busiest restaurant in the
market. Don’t eat in empty places. Yes, you will feel sorry
for the smiling people beckoning from empty food stalls
as you pass in favor of more popular ones, but that’s the
way it has to be.
Give beggars a clear no, a
headshake, and a smile, and they will leave you alone. In
Spanish, a simple gracias is how you say no
thanks. Sometimes they will approach your table at
a restaurant. Don’t ignore them or try to apologize or they
will keep bugging you.
Many people argue that giving beggars
change just hurts them, that it is better to make a donation
at a local school or charity. But if you have change in
your pocket and want to give it to someone who you think
really needs it, then do so. But don’t do it because you
feel scared or guilty, or the person will notice and may
manipulate you into giving more.
Go to music clubs with live bands. Even
if you can’t dance, you’ll have a good time in any place
that plays salsa or cumbia (dance music that at first listen
sounds similar to salsa, but actually has a simpler, deeper
Don’t consult your guidebook to find
them, but ask the hotel reception or a friendly bartender
or waiter. You will meet locals and see some great music.
If you use your guidebook to find places
to go out, you will be surrounded by other travelers — not
necessarily a bad thing, but you might have a better time
in a club frequented by friendly locals.
If you like the music but can’t dance,
then learn the basic steps — they will take you a long way.
You should find lots of locals in the club who are willing
to help out a gringo, or you can seek out a lesson.
10. The Itinerary
And, last but not least, the rule of
thumb for all: Don’t wait to do anything you want to do.
Don’t say next time, or tomorrow. Don’t skip something that
sounds interesting because you want to move onto another
place. Just do what you want, when you want to do it. The
unknown things in the future can wait.
Sometimes when I’m in a renowned part
of Latin America, such as Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, I meet
people on their round-the-world trip. They stay two days;
I stay two months. They see the highlights of countries
all over the world, often look stressed out, and perhaps
never backpack or revisit the site again. I relax, learn
Spanish, make friends, find the best clubs and restaurants,
and save so much money that I can do it again next year
in another part of the world.
Memorize some Spanish phrases, close
the guidebook, and ask advice from locals and other travelers
you meet. I never make a plan when I travel, but ask people
for suggestions and information and try to follow whatever
|The author and Spanish teacher
Alejandra in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
While the round-the-world trip certainly
certainly has its place, I wonder if many people travel
this way because they think it’s their only chance to see
the world. And when you try to squeeze in more, somehow
you end up seeing less. Traveling slowly is often the best
way to experience cultural immersion, which may ultimately
be a more intelligent and memorable use of precious time.