By Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher https://internationalliving.com
In North America, the high season for tourism is typically from November to April, and it’s a great time to plan some travel to warmer climes and colorful cultures—especially to a place you’re researching for eventual retirement or relocation.
For thousands of North Americans, that means Latin America. From Mexico to Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and well beyond, expats have discovered safe, comfortable, affordable living situations throughout the region.
There are many communities in Latin America worth a look, and we’ve put together a few tips and tricks to help plan your travel and enhance your visit.
There are many easy-to-use websites where you’ll find bargain airfare prices. Two of the best aggregator websites for finding airfares are Kayak.com and Google.com/flights. Use the “flexible dates” feature to pull up the best fares.
From the U.S., you can book any of the major U.S. airlines to take you just about anywhere in Latin America. Budget carriers that service some (but not nearly all) Latin America destinations include Southwest, Frontier, Spirit, and JetBlue. And don’t overlook locally based international airlines that often offer newer planes and better services, such as complimentary food and drink.
The bigger players in the region include Copa, Avianca, LATAM, and Aeromexico. Lesser-known carriers include Volaris, InterJet, and VivaColombia.
The internet has changed everything about modern life and finding accommodation overseas is no different. These days sites like Airbnb and VRBO can find you a great place to stay, often with a local host to show you the ropes. And with sites like HomeExchange, you can even swap homes with someone in a place you’d like to explore while they do the same from your home.
There are still the traditional hotels and B&Bs, of course, and almost all of them have websites. One way to determine what kind of experience you might have in one of these is to read reviews on TripAdvisor. And you can often find discounted rates on websites such as Kayak and Booking.com.
In our 16 years of living and working throughout Latin America, we have yet to find a place where we couldn’t get a bus or a taxi. If you’re a New Yorker, this won’t strike you as odd. But if you come from a place where everyone owns their own car and the public transportation system is limited, the abundance of buses, taxis, and hired drivers can take you by surprise.
This means that, if you want to get around and explore, you don’t have to rent a car (although that’s perfectly doable—see below).
The biggest piece of advice we have about taking buses and taxis in Latin America is to do it like the locals. If you can, take some rides with local friends and have them show you the ropes. You will quickly learn that if a working meter is not available, you should ask what the fare will be before you get in a taxi and that tipping is not expected when you get out. You’ll also learn how to indicate to a bus driver when to let you out (often by simply yelling “gracias” before your corner) and to travel lightly on crowded buses to make getting on and off easier.
Find more information about bus travel in Latin America here.
Want a little more freedom? Renting a car is fairly easy if you keep a few things in mind.
Driving in Latin America is different…not better, not worse, just different. For example, traffic laws are often seen by Latin American drivers as suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules. Be ready for odd lane changes, turn signals used as “go ahead and pass me” indicators, and stopped cars or trucks almost anywhere, especially near intersections and roundabouts. (It’s easy to navigate roundabouts, but it takes some practice.)
Driving at night is not recommended…not because of banditos, but because in much of rural Latin America, livestock is essentially “free-range” and roams at night. We’ve come upon many a cow and horse ambling across dark highways at night.
And don’t count on signage for navigation…there are not always street signs or highway markers, especially once you get off major highways. Nowadays many major rental companies offer GPS with rentals, and they can come in handy. Just remember that GPS guidance can be wrong, just as in the U.S. and Canada.
You’re on vacation in an exotic location to enjoy the local culture, right? Food is an incredibly important part of local culture, so eat it.
That being said, use common sense. Eat at places that are popular with the locals. If there is a crowd of locals at a restaurant or food cart, it’s because they know the food is tasty and carefully prepared, so follow suit.
As far as water goes, there is really no reason to drink anything but bottled water. It’s everywhere in Latin America, and the locals drink it, too. These days, many communities throughout Latin America have good local water systems that provide potable water from the tap. But with the universal availability of bottle water, there is no reason to even take the chance at ruining your vacation with an upset stomach.
And when all else fails, fast food franchises are pretty much everywhere…but in Latin America, you’ll see franchises you never heard of, so your choices will be that much greater. And we’ll admit it…every now and then only a couple of cheeseburgers and some fries and a shake will do. In 16 years abroad, we’ve never been far from that option. And a tip that can come in handy when you need it: fast food franchises usually have clean bathrooms.
In Latin America—especially in shops, tiendas, smaller restaurants, and mercados—cash is king. Presenting a credit card for your bag of produce at the local farmers’ market or craft village will probably get you exactly nowhere.
Several countries in Latin America actually use the U.S. dollar or accept it at a standard conversion rate as freely as they accept the local currency.
Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador use the U.S. dollar as official currency, and you’ll find it accepted in Costa Rica and Belize with the same aplomb as the local currency.
Most everywhere else, however, you’ll need local currency, and in our experience, the best place to get it is from ATMs. They are everywhere in Latin America now, they provide the most current exchange rate, and U.S. and Canadian debit cards will work in a Latin American ATM that is a member of the same network. (You might have to try more than one to find one that matches your card’s network.) Amounts of cash that can be dispensed will vary as well, but we can’t remember the last time we couldn’t get $200 to $500 worth of local currency from a nearby ATM when we needed it.
And yes, you’ll be charged a fee to use an ATM, but you can’t overlook the convenience. Some banks will reverse your ATM fees. Those include Capital One, Citibank, and smaller banks such as EverBank.
Certainly, major business, car rentals, hotel chains, etc. will accept credit and debit cards, but depending on your financial institution, a charge from outside your home country may raise red flags or cause initial denials. Check in with your bank or financial institution before you leave home and inform them where you’re going and how long you’ll be there. This should limit any problems.
And keep in mind that although cash is king, outside of major businesses you won’t get far with any bill larger than $20…and sometimes even a twenty will send your clerk running down to the next shop or store looking for change. A good stash of $1, $5, and $10 bills will see you through almost any shopping or dining exchange you’re likely to find.
We’ve lived in seven different communities in four Latin American countries over the past 16 years, and every one of them has been statistically safer than many cities in the U.S.
But we live in the real world, and crime of some kind can be found in most of it. So use common sense. Don’t do things you wouldn’t do back home, like walking down strange, dark streets after a night on the town with cameras hanging off of you and lots of cash in your pocket. Leave your fine jewels at home. Carry just as much cash as you need and a copy of your passport and leave your official travel documents and credit cards in a safe place.
In major tourist destinations, English will likely be widely spoken. Even if you’re off the beaten track, it is usually possible to find somebody who speaks enough English to help out.
Still, speaking a little of the local language is always a plus, even if spoken badly. In every community in every country we’ve lived in, just our effort to speak whatever Spanish we could muster was greeted with appreciation and good humor.
(Just a note, because we’ve see this happen so often. If the person you’re trying to talk to doesn’t understand English, repeating your English louder and slower probably won’t help.)
As they say in the military, no long-range plan survives the first battle. Definitely plan your trip, but stay loose and flexible, and be prepared to adapt. As any seasoned expat living abroad will tell you, the two most important attitudes for success are a healthy sense of humor and flexibility.
When things don’t go as planned, your attitude will make all the difference in what happens next. If you view what happens to you as an enjoyable chance to try something new and have an adventure you didn’t anticipate, you will have a great time, guaranteed.
This article comes to us courtesy of InternationalLiving.com, the world’s leading authority on how to live, work, invest, travel, and retire better overseas.
The Cheapest Places in the World to Live
Car-Free Living: 3 Walkable Retirement Towns Overseas
Living Internationally: How to Enjoy a Roving Retirement
Let's Post Your Story on Open Magazine! https://news.artmotion.com/packs/