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Planning for Latin American Travel

The Beach in Belize
The beach in San Pedro, Belize.
(Beth Dixson photo)

North Americans travel to Latin America for both a trip abroad and a visit to a neighbor. Yet despite the geographical proximity, the “developing” region appears more foreign than the more traditional European destinations. For responsible travelers, visiting Latin America is also a pursuit of understanding why the region should be so poor and the means needed to make a change.

To make the most of your trip take as much time before you go to figure out what you’d like to do as where to go. During this planning phase you’ll find more resources (books, groups, online forums) than have ever existed before.

Prepare to embrace not only a new language but a different culture, or cultures, since Latin American countries are a mix of peoples: European, Asian, African, and Indigenous peoples.

I recall my first cross-border trek in the late 1980s. From Texas I wanted to go to Guatemala. The country fascinated me and I knew it would be a perfect place to learn Spanish and to immerse myself in the culture.

I took the train from the Texas border to Mexico City and a bus to the Guatemalan border. Each step of the way I found myself asking a hundred questions. Carrying and reading Carl Franz and Lorena Haven’s People’s Guide to Mexico, I started to correlate all the information I had read or heard with what I was experiencing.During that summer I “discovered” Latin America for myself. And as luck would have it, I also found my life’s calling. Mexico has been my home for the past five years, and, for the moment at least, I wouldn’t want to travel anywhere else in the world because there’s so much to learn and do here.

Practicalities

Taking care of your health. Any time you travel away from your home environment, your body gets a shock, so be kind to it. Germs are easy to catch, so listen to the far-off voice of your parents and wash your hands before meals. If you don’t trust the water, then use an anti-bacteria waterless soap.

Diarrhea is known throughout Latin America as turista. While major cities often have modern water treatment plants, the water is frequently contaminated by leaky pipes, especially in the heart of Mexico City, my home.

Bottled water is generally safe; so is water that’s been boiled for 20 minutes. Make sure that the food you eat has been well cooked. If you want to eat salad, make sure its been washed in purified water. In remote areas, 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.

Another common traveler’s ailment is caused by air pollution—particularly in Mexico City but also in Guadalajara and Monterrey, Mexico, Guatemala City, and Santiago, Chile. Until the standards improve, travelers may find that staying healthy means avoiding the larger cities.

If you’re traveling in rural areas, it makes sense to get tetanus, typhoid, and polio shots. Consult the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov, or ask your family doctor.


Dressed up for wedding in Mexico.
(Lionel Delevingne photo)

Visas

Make sure you get details about visa requirements ahead of time. Make copies of any official papers (such as your passport). To reach a particular country’s tourism office from the U.S., call the toll-free operator at 800-555-1212 for the phone number or check Embassy World, www.embassyworld.com.

If you are flying, ask the airline or your tour agent about the necessary tourist card or visa.

Money

Find out about the current exchange rate before you leave. Oanda Currency Converter provides the latest rates.


Enjoying corn on the cob in the state of Chiapas, Mexico
(Jennifer B. Hull photo)

Often you’ll get a better rate if you exchange currency instead of traveler’s checks. The exchange rate is generally poor at hotels.

You can easily get a cash advance from an ATM. Make sure you know your access number before you go on your trip.

Finally, a personal note: In-country prices are always going to fluctuate when a country experiences drastic inflation or a devaluation of its currency. Be a responsible guest and, if a devaluation should occur, be sympathetic and don’t gloat over your new fortunes.

Time

The concepts of time and punctuality takes on different meanings in Latin America. Manana does not always mean “tomorrow.” Sometimes it simply means “not today.” Personal dates are often delayed a half hour or more without any ill intention, but business appointments and movie showings are generally on time.

Street Scene in Merida, Yacatan, Mexico
Street scene in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
(Lionel Delevingne photo)

Transportation

Most travelers to Latin America arrive by airplane. Many newspapers give a best price list. Get a ballpark figure from websites, then go to a favorite travel agent.

Once you’re in Latin America, you’ll notice that buses are the most popular form of public transportation, and they’re quite good. First class buses provide comfort to long-legged travelers. Second class buses are cheaper and traverse rural areas. If you’re short on time, you can always rent a taxi by the day. It often costs less than renting a car.

If you are attacked or threatened, don’t resist.

 
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