Latin America Trip Planner
There's Never Been a Better Time to Visit
Oaxacan dancers parade down Alcala Street the Saturday before the famed Guelaguetza Dance
— one of Mexico's premier celebrations.
Also known as Lunes del Cerro ("Mondays of the Hill"), it is a spectacle.
While security concerns are always a travel issue, Latin America is simply more tranquilo than it was a decade or two ago, and travel bargains can now be found in every country. Excellent information about specialty tours and educational exchanges appear regularly on the Web as well as in guidebooks. Travel connections are increasingly more efficient. So if you’ve been thinking about trekking south of the border, now is a perfect time to plan such a journey.
Via the Web or guidebooks or by calling government tourism phone lines, it’s easy to find out about the weather, special events, or seasonal migrations of wildlife. Timing can be everything. For example, from late December to early March Mexico is home to the famous grey whales and monarch butterflies.
The high quality of current guidebooks equals their diversity of topics. My favorites include those published by Lonely Planet, Footprint, Avalon, Hunter, and Manatee Press. I always travel with two or three books and compare how the authors cover a particular region. However, in their tips and guidance, guidebooks tend to commercialize the trip.
In his pioneering People's Guide to Mexico, Carl Franz wrote, “Many books have been written about Mexico under the guise of ‘guidebooks’ that, in reality, are nothing more than compilations of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, along with a few tips about where to buy authentic handicrafts that almost look as if they came from Mexico and not Taiwan. These books don't guide you to Mexico—they guide you away from it."
The prime disadvantage of guidebooks is that they take so long to produce that by the time the information is in your hands you'll have to return to the Web for an update. In Latin America phone numbers and addresses change more frequently than the publisher's revisions. The best source of information comes from other travelers you meet on the road.
Passports and Visas
Make sure you get details about visa requirements well ahead of time. Given recent U.S. policy changes, many countries, including Brazil, are adding tasks for incoming travelers. If you are flying, the airline will let you know if they provide the necessary tourist card or visa. You can find a particular country's tourism office by calling the toll-free line 800-555-1212 for the phone number, and check visa requirements around the world at the Embassy World website: www.embassyworld.com.
The major expense involved in a trip to Latin America is transportation. Consider this an investment and make the most of your visit by staying at inexpensive hotels or in homestays, arranged by Spanish language schools.
Figure out what you are willing to spend. Note that in-country prices are always going to fluctuate when a country experiences drastic inflation or a devaluation of their currency. Be a responsible guest and if a devaluation does occur, or has recently occurred, don't gloat in your new fortunes but be sympathetic to the effect of the changes on your hosts.
Any time you travel away from your home environment, your body, like your mind, 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. If you don't trust the water, use an anti-bacteria waterless soap to avoid turista (diarrhea). While major cities often have modern water treatment plants, the water may be contaminated by leaky pipes, especially in the heart of Mexico City where I call home.
Bottled water is generally safe. So is water that's been boiled for 20 minutes. Coffee and tea are generally fine, and you won't get sick from soda pop (refrescos) or beer (cerveza) Make sure that the food you eat has been well cooked.
Air pollution, particularly in Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, affects children and the elderly the most. Take it slow and easy. If you do need medicine, pharmacies are generally well stocked. Immunizations are rarely required for travel to major cities or tourist resorts. If you're traveling in rural areas, it makes sense to get tetanus, typhoid, and polio shots. Consult your family doctor and the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
If you are arriving by air, check on current prices at websites. Get a ballpark figure and then visit your favorite travel agent. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’d rather deal with a human than a mere website. Super deals are quite rare or impose too many restrictions.
Once you're in Latin America, you'll notice that buses are the most popular form of public transportation. First-class buses offer the most comfort to long-legged travelers. Second-class buses are cheaper and traverse rural areas. If you're short on time, you can rent a taxi by the day, often for less than renting a car. Trains have played an historical role in the development of the region, but as a mode of transportation the quality is on the decline. Many countries offer flights, but prices vary. A 20-minute hop across the Sea of Cortez can cost more than $300, while in-country flights in Ecuador cost less than $100.
You can exchange foreign currency at banks or at exchange houses (casas de cambio). Often you’ll get a better rate if you exchange cash instead of traveler's checks. The exchange rate is particularly poor at hotels. Find out the current exchange rate before you leave for your trip.
You can easily get a cash advance from an ATM. While you will be charged a greater fee from your credit card company, this is relatively hassle free. Make sure you know your access number before you go on your trip; most companies have a policy of not giving the number over the phone.
The variety of lodging options boggles the mind—from $300 per night luxury suites to $3 per night rooms. Unless you are really traveling on the cheap, expect hotels to have clean sheets and towels. Hotels in the 2- and 3-star category are usually more authentic than the 5-stars.
Sooner or later travelers begin to explore the nuances of Latin American gastronomy that will take a lifetime to decipher. Foods in every country are wonderfully diverse and locals take pride in making a tamale that their neighbors 10 kilometers away have never mastered.
If you want 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), freshly squeezed from the fruits at the market.
Vegetarian restaurants are on the rise, thanks to the growing number of tourists chanting the familiar mantra, "No como carne." (I don't eat meat!) So are the familiar U.S. chains. There's something for every taste.
Mexico’s Arbol del Tule
Mexico's most famous tree and some say the world's largest single biomass, the Tule Tree (Arbol del Tule), grows near Oaxaca City in the town of Santa Maria del Tule, off the road leading to Teotitlan, Santa Ana de Valle, and the Mitla archaeological site. The tree and its environs comprise a unique natural monument in Mexico. It is easy to reach and worth the time for a leisurely visit.
The town of Santa Maria del Tule boasts seven ancient cypress trees, the largest of which dwarfs the town's church and is more than 2,000 years old. This tree has a circumference of 54 meters (164 feet), the largest girth of any tree on the planet.
The cypress, known in Spanish as ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum), is Mexico's national tree. The area surrounding the Tule trees was formerly a river. Environmental degradation, urbanization, and irrigated farming have diverted water from the aquifers that nourish the trees. According to the local environmental group, Mi Amigo el Arbol, headed by local environmentalist, Jorge Velasco, “The effective solution to ensure survival is to be vigilant on water use so that it is appropriate for local needs and not be wasteful.” This initiative bears watching.
Visiting: The town of Santa Maria del Tule is located in Oaxaca's eastern Central Valley, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Oaxaca City on Highway 190.
From Oaxaca City, yellow and maroon buses depart for El Tule every ten minutes from the second-class bus station. The bus can also be picked up one block west of the baseball stadium on Niños Heroes. Tickets cost three pesos. The tree can also be reached via a 30-minute bike ride.
Near the tree are plenty of highly recommended restaurants and comedores. La Guadalupana Market serves tasty traditional Oaxacan dishes. Another favorite, El Jacalon, is south of the tree on the Andador Turistico.
On the main plaza surrounding the tree is a circular market with regional crafts and an ATM machine. Travelers heading to Teotitlan and Santa Ana del Valle in need of cash, stop here!
Residents celebrate the famous Tule Tree with a fiesta every October 7.
Best Websites for Latin America
There are zillions of great websites, so stop blindly searching and go to the best. Here’s our choice of sites for travelers heading to Latin America:
Aventurarse (adventure travel in Argentina): www.aventurarse.com
Ecuadorial (collective work of journalists and authors whose work features Ecuador): www.ecuadorial.com
Honduras This Week (Central America's finest English language newspaper): www.marrder.com/htw
Internet Resources for Latin America (Molly Molloy puts together this index of academic resources): lib.nmsu.edu/subject/bord/index.html.
Mexico Connect (features for the expat community and travelers): www.mexconnect.com
Mexicanwave (European portal with a passion for Mexico): www.mexicanwave.com
South American Explorers (member organization with offices in the Ecuador, Peru, and the U.S.): www.samexplo.org
Planeta (global journal of practical ecotourism run by this author): www.planeta.com
Lonely Planet Thorntree (Lonely Planet's famous forum contains sections on all parts of the Americas).