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Independent Travel

Planning for Latin America 2000

For Many Reasons, Now Is a Perfect Time to Go

Latin America has never been as easy to visit as it is today. Security concerns are always on the radar screen, but Latin America is simply more tranquilo than it was a decade or two ago.

While certain regions are more expensive than others, travel bargains can be found throughout the region; there is a way to see any country in the budget range of your choice.

Civil wars have declined dramatically and investments are on the rise. Travelers who visited the region during more turbulent times now have the opportunity to return and assist in peacetime efforts.

Travel connections are more timely and efficient. Information about specialty tours and educational exchanges appears regularly on the Internet as well as in new and improved guidebooks.

In short, if you've been thinking about trekking south of the border, now is a perfect time to go.

Trip Planning

Getting there should be half the fun. Decide whether you want to make up your own itinerary and go as an independent traveler or whether you prefer purchasing a packaged trip.

Crafting your own itinerary means that you can make the most of your individual preferences and allow for fortuitous coincidences. If you find a town enchanting, you can spend more time than you planned; if you meet up with interesting travel mates, you can be flexible.

If you go on your own, get as much information beforehand as you can. Find out what the weather will be like and what special events or seasonal migrations of animals you can plan to take in.

While taking away flexibility, packaged trips do provide some security--if only the knowledge that meals and lodging will be taken care of. And on a pre-planned trip the group is in the charge of a professional guide who may have a specialist's knowledge about the environment, mountain-climbing, archaeology, or gastronomy.

Make sure you get details about visa requirements ahead of time by calling the country's tourism office (call the operator toll-free at 800-555-1212 for the phone number) or check the Embassy World web site [www.embassyworld.com]. If you are flying, the airline will tell you if it provides the necessary tourist card or if you need to contact the country's consulate or embassy.

Guide to Guidebooks

The quality of guidebooks is improving every year and titles for independent travelers On Your Own in El Salvador and Explore Costa Rica for example--abound. I travel with two or three and compare how the authors cover a particular region.

Several guidebook authors have set up their own web site and consulting service. Check [www.guidebookwriters.com] for details. The best information usually comes from those who've recently been there, so ask other travelers.

Personal Budget

The major expense involved in a trip to Latin America is transportation. The cost can be offset by staying at inexpensive hotels or in homestays, easily arranged by local language schools.

As you think about your trip, figure out what you are willing to spend. I've never succeeded with a daily budget, but I've always had a clear idea of my overall limit.

Note that in-country prices may fluctuate when a country experiences drastic inflation or a devaluation of their currency. Be a responsible guest; if a devaluation does occur, don't gloat over your new fortunes.

Keeping Healthy

Any time you travel away from your home environment, your body is in for a shock, so be kind to it. Listen to the far-off voice of your parents and wash your hands before meals or use an anti-bacterial waterless soap.

Diarrhea is commonly known throughout Latin America as turista. While major cities often have modern water treatment plants, the water can be contaminated by leaky pipes, especially in the heart of Mexico City, where I live.

Sealed, bottled water is generally safe; so is water that's been boiled for 20 minutes. Make sure fresh fruits or vegetables have been peeled or washed in purified water. If you're traveling into remote areas, you can take water purification tablets with you. Coffee and tea are generally fine, and you won't get sick from soda (refrescos) or beer (cerveza)--unless you drink too much. Moderation is suggested, but that's advice better preached than practiced Another common problem is air pollution, particularly in Mexico City and Monterrey, Guatemala City, and Santiago, Chile. The most affected are children, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions like asthma. Your the best bet is to take it slow and easy.

If you need medicine, pharmacies are generally well stocked. It's easy to get prescription drugs, sometimes at a lower cost than in the U.S. If you're on special medication, take a copy of your prescription with you. If you're traveling in rural areas, it makes sense to get tetanus, typhoid, and polio shots. Consult the U.S. Center for Disease Control [www.cdcnpin.org] or ask your family doctor.

Transportation

Get a ballpark figure on airfares from newspapers or web sites, then go to a favorite travel agent. (See Kent St. John's column in the January/February issue.) Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I'd rather deal with a human than a web site. Super deals are likely to involve too many restrictions, including when you return or leave.

Once you're here, you'll notice that bus transportation is the most popular form of public transportation, and it's quite good. If you're short on time, you can always rent a taxi by the day, often for less than renting a car. Trains have played historical roles in the development of the region, but the comfort level is declining. Air travel varies greatly in cost: a 20-minute hop across the Sea of Cortez costs nearly $200, while in-country flights in Central America can be found for under $50.

Safety

Travelers here are seen to possess great wealth. A developing country is not the place to display an expensive watch or briefcase. When in public, avoid wearing jewelry or talking loudly.

Beware of crowded situations. The Mexico City metro, for example, moves five million people a day, and many passengers are robbed. If it's too crowded, don't get on. Keep your luggage in sight at all times. Make a copy of your passport and visa and keep it in a separate location. Copies make replacement much easier.

If you are attacked, don't resist. In two separate incidents last year in Mexico, one journalist was paralyzed and another murdered after they attempted to fight against their attackers.

Money

You can exchange foreign currency at banks or at exchange houses (<I>casas de cambio</I>). Exchange rates vary and often are better for currency than for traveler's checks. Find out what the current exchange rate is before you leave for your trip. Make sure you know your access number before you go on your trip. You can easily get cash from an ATM.

Using the Phone

Many public phones in the region now take calling cards instead of coins. Carry change anyway, but buy a phone card.

Lodging

Lodging options range from $300 luxury suites to $3 rooms. Guidebooks tell you what to expect in a given price range. Unless you are going ultra cheap, expect hotels to have clean sheets and towels. I have found that customer service is actually better in the smaller hotels. Note that there are few youth hostels in the region, mostly because other lodging is generally inexpensive.

Dining

When you need to fill your belly start to explore the nuances of Latin American gastronomy. Foods in every country are wonderfully diverse--locals take pride in making a tamale that their neighbors 10 kilometers away have never mastered.

To get a real taste of the region, just go a local market. Alongside the vegetable and fruit stalls, you'll find very inexpensive meals, from Mexican elote (corn on the cob, placed on a stick and then smothered with hot pepper and lime juice) to Honduran baleadas, flour tortillas filled with beans and cream. To drink, you can always ask for a jugo (juice drink), freshly squeezed from the fruits at the market.