Latin American Travel Planner
Article and Photos by Ron Mader
Latin America Correspondent and the Responsible Travel
| Teotitlan del Valle — Dancers perform the Danza de la Pluma, a 10-hour marathon
re-enactment of the meetings and battles between the Spanish and the Aztecs.
Visitors are cordially invited to watch the performance held in front of the
town's church every July during the town's festival.
Latin America has never been as easy to visit.
Want to maximize your expenditures? Slow down! The chief expense is transportation, so if you slow down, you can go further. One of our mottos on Planeta.com is think smart, travel slow. Instead of trying to cover vast territorial expanses in a limited period of time, we suggest being a slow immersion traveler who takes the time to experience more fully the places you visit.
Latin America is enjoying renewed interest due to its cultural and environmental diversity. Environmentalists talk of biodiversity—the species rich forests of Mexico and Brazil, the abundant birdlife in Costa Rica and Honduras, and the megadiversity found in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Whether your idea of a good time is hiking the Andes, buying crafts in Oaxaca, snorkeling along the Maya Reef, volunteering in rural communities, or learning how to cook a tasty tamale, travel options abound and most are a bargain if you know where to look.
|Oaxaca City, Mexico — The Guelaguetza is one of Mexico's premiere celebrations
of dance and music. It was practiced before the arrival of the Spanish and
continues to grow. Celebrations are held in Oaxaca City and nearby towns.
This is the largest folklore festival in the Americas.
The Fundamentals of Trip Planning
Planning your trip often begins with the magic words you utter to yourself: "I could take a trip," and continues until the moment you arrive at your destination. Planning your journey should be half the fun.
First, you must 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 does not mean that you have to stick to a day-to-day agenda, but rather that you can make the most of your individual preferences as well as fortuitous coincidences. Often, this works out best if you allow for an extended period to enjoy your trip, so that if you find a town enchanting, you can spend more time than you had originally planned. Likewise, if you meet up with interesting travel mates, you are able to be flexible when you allow for spontaneity.
By taking away flexibility, packaged trips do provide more comfort—if only for the knowledge that meals and lodging will be taken care of for you. Other reasons to opt for a pre-planned trip include the reassurance that group tours put travelers in the charge of a professional guide. Many specialty travel organizations with tours in Latin America take pride in their knowledge of niche categories—whether rafting, mountain-climbing, archeology, gastronomy, etc.
Where to Find Information
Find out about as much as you can before taking off for your trip to any country in Latin America. Getting detailed information about countries in the region is no trouble these days—whether via the Web, guidebooks, or by calling government tourist offices. Research your destination’s weather patterns. Find out if there are there special events which you can attend. Investigate the seasonal migrations of animals.Timing is often everything. For example, from late December to early March Mexico is home to the famous Grey Whales and Monarch butterflies. Just don't come a month too early or too late!
The quality of guidebooks varies as many publishers are choosing not to renew contracts with veteran writers. The result, in my opinion, is a decline in quality; many newbie writers simply do not have the same connection to the place they cover. Nevertheless, I still am not a guidebook snob. I have yet to pick up a book from which I didn't learn something—which is a good way to measure the value of information. I always travel with two or three books and compare how the different authors cover a particular region.
The prime disadvantage of guidebooks is the time required to produce them; by the time the information is in your hands, you'll have to return to the Web for an update! In Latin America this is a painful truth, since phone numbers and addresses change more frequently than the publisher's revision schedule.
Truthfully, the best source of travel information in Latin America comes from other travelers you meet on the road. Ask others what they have seen and enjoyed. Word of the mouth is almost always the best form of information in the region.
Passports and Visas
Make sure you get all the details about visa requirements ahead of time. Given recent U.S. policy changes, many countries, including Brazil, are adding many bureaucratic hurdles for those coming into the country.
If you are flying, the airline will let you
know if they provide the necessary tourist card or visa or whether
you need to contact the country's consulate or embassy. Check
visa requirements around the world our section on Embassies
Your Personal Budget
The primary expense involved in a trip to Latin America is transportation, particularly if you are not crossing overland. If you have the time, consider the transportation an investment and make the most of your visit by staying at inexpensive hotels or in home stays, which are frequently arranged by Spanish language schools.
As you plan your trip, figure out what you are willing to spend. I have never stuck to a daily budget, but I have always had a clear idea of what I could and couldn't spend.
In-country prices are always going to fluctuate when a country experiences drastic inflation or a devaluation of their currency. This has happened frequently historically in Latin American countries, usually to the detriment of the local population. Whenever possible, be a responsible guest. If currency devaluation does occur, try not to gloat at your new-found fortune and be sympathetic to the natives who often do not share in it.
(Editor's note: See Tim Leffel's articles on Budget Travel in Mexico in Central America amd Budget Travel in South America for more tips.)
Any time you travel away from home, your body is in for a shock, so be kind to it. Germs are easy to catch, so listen to the distant 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 commonly known throughout Latin America as turista. While major cities often have modern water treatment plants, often the water is contaminated by leaky pipes.
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, lettuce or tomato, make sure they have been washed in purified water. If you're traveling into remote areas, you can take water purification tablets with you. Avoid water unless it is bottled or purified. Coffee and tea are generally fine, and you won't get sick from pop (refrescos) or beer (cerveza)—unless you drink too much. Moderation is suggested, but that's advice better preached than practiced.
Another common complaint concerns air pollution, particularly in Mexico City, but also common in Guadalajara and Monterrey, Mexico, not to mention Guatemala City and Santiago, Chile. The most affected are children and the elderly. I wish there were a pill to take. Meanwhile, your best bet is to take it slow and easy.
If you do need medicine, pharmacies are generally well stocked. It is also easy to get prescription drugs. If you are on special medication, take a copy of your prescription with you as a safety precaution.
Specific immunizations are rarely required for travel to major cities or tourist resorts. However, 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.
Safety concerns are familiar to anyone who has traveled in a developing country. Travelers are seen to possess great wealth, regardless of whether that is truly the case.
Do not be ostentatious. A developing country is not the locale in which 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 it is also the location for numerous robberies. If it's too crowded, don't get on.
Keep your luggage in sight at all times.
Make a copy of your passport and/or visa and keep it in a separate location. If you are robbed of your documentation, copies make replacement much easier.
If you are attacked, don't resist. In two taxi cab incidents that took place last year in Mexico, one journalist was paralyzed and another murdered after they attempted to fight against their attackers.
(Editor's note: See Volker Poelzl's articles on Travel Safety in Central America and Travel Safety in South America for more tips.)
Unless you are planning on going the ground route, most travelers to Latin America arrive via airplane. Check on current prices without committing yourself or taking up too much time with a travel agent. Many newspapers offer a list with the best prices. It is also easy to check on fares from the plethora of airfare websites. Get an approximate figure and then visit your favorite travel agent. I am old-fashioned in this regard, but I would rather deal with a human being than a mere website. Super deals are quite rare or impose too many obligations, including when you leave and/or return.
Once you have arrived in Latin America, you'll notice that bus transportation is the most popular form of public transportation, and it's generally quite good. First-class buses provide comfort to long-legged travelers. Second-class buses are cheaper and traverse rural areas. If you are short on time, you can always rent a taxi by the day; it often costs less than renting a car. Trains have played historical roles in the development of the region, but as a mode of transportation, the quality is on the decline. Many countries offer flights, but at varying prices. A twenty-minute hop across the Sea of Cortez can cost more than $300, while in-country flights in Ecuador cost less than $100.
(Editor's note: See Tim Leffel's article on Getting Around in Mexico for more tips. See also Volker Poelzl's series of articles on Air, Boat, Land transportation in South America.)
You can exchange foreign currency at banks or at exchange houses (casas de cambio). Exchange rates will vary, and often you'll get a better rate if you exchange currency instead of traveler's checks. The exchange rate is particularly poor at hotels. Find out what the current exchange rate is before you leave for your trip. This helps you begin the task of converting and will prevent you from being ripped off.
You can easily get a cash advance from an ATM. Machine are almost always bilingual—they offer instructions in Spanish or Portuguese and English. While you will be charged a greater fee from your credit card company, it is relatively hassle-free. Make sure you know your access number before you go on your trip, because most companies have a policy of not reporting the number over the phone.
Many public phones in the region now take calling cards (which some travelers collect) instead of coins, but just when you're prepared to find one, you will come across the other kind. Cybercafes offer inexpensive phone service and are often equipped with skype capabilities.
The variety of lodging options boggles the mind—from $300/night luxury suites to $3/night rooms. Again, guidebooks provide candid observations on just what is and is not included in a given price range. Unless you are taking the very cheap route, expect hotels to have clean sheets and towels. Lodging in the 2- or 3-star budget category is usually more...eclectic than in the 5-star hotels.
TIP: Vary where you stay. It's good to have a variety of experiences, so don't limit yourself to a particular class of a hotel. Experiment a bit!
| Oaxaca City - Classic hotels offer clean accommodation,
centralized location and a bit of culture. The Hotel Monte Alban hosts the
oldest "mini Guelaguetza" which features dances from the Guelaguetza Festival.
When are hungry, check out the local cuisine. Sooner or later most travelers will begin to explore the nuances of Latin American gastronomy that can take a lifetime to appreciate. The local produce and cuisine in every country is wonderfully diverse, and locals take great pride in making a tamale that their neighbors ten 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 will 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.
Vegetarian restaurants are on the rise, abetted by the growing number of tourists chanting the familiar mantra "No como carne." (I don't eat meat!) 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.
For More Information
The Best Websites
There are zillions of websites, blogs, wikis, and social media sites, so do you start? No need to wade through search engine results; go to the best of the best. Here's our list of choice sites:
Planeta: Global Journal of Practical Ecotourism.
Mexico Connect: Features for the expat community and travelers.
Ron Mader is the Latin America correspondent and the Responsible Travel
contributing editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He hosts the award-winning Planeta.com website.