Browsing Posts in Cheap Latin America Travel

Panama blue oceanIf you ask people what they think of Panama, the ones who have never been will generally stumble, shrug, or bring up some negative like the rude taxi drivers in the capital or (generally) boring food. It’s not a country the uninitiated generally have on the bucket list unless they’re the type that geeks out about The Panama Canal or they’re lured by the retirement benefits.

I’ve written about Panama before though since I’ve been there three times, including on the advantages and costs of living there. There are many aspects to this varied country. In the capital the main tourist impressions are glitzy high-rises, hip boutique hotels, and luxury digs. I’ve written about exploring by small ship, doing coffee tours, and checking out the adventure travel options.

This is a bigger country than most people expect. It’s not all that wide, especially where the canal cuts through, but if you wanted to drive from one end to the other on the Pan-American Highway it would take you a few days even if you drove all day and didn’t stop. You probably wouldn’t want to do that though. There are, after all, 477 miles of Caribbean coastline and 767 miles of Pacific coastline to explore. That means lots of hidden beaches like thisPanama hidden beach

And this:

Panama Pacific

The big tourism draw here though is the wildlife. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and one look at a map of the Americas will show you why. This little strip of land is the only connection between two continents, so a good number of the 900-some species of birds in Panama are migrating one way or the other and stopping here to rest a while. birdwatching Panama

Of course there are a lot of tropical birds that don’t go anywhere, whether it’s the Resplendent Quetzals I spotted on Mount Baru or the sea birds I always saw in abundance anywhere near the coasts, like this one just strolling along on Coiba Island.

The diversity extends to the plant life as well. Visit a market and you can see the wide bounty of food that can be grown here—from berries to coffee to pineapples to nuts.

cashew nut on fruitThis photo is a cashew on a tree: you can eat the fruit part, but that one cashew nut that clings to the bottom needs to be individually processed to remove the poisonous skin on the outside. (It can burn your fingers.)

They also grow sugar cane, which means there’s local rum. Ron Abuelo has been around since the 1930s and like most anything you eat and drink that’s domestic, it’s a bargain. (See this earlier post on boozing it up for cheap in Panama.)

If you go hiking in the highlands of the Chiriqui region, you can spot all kinds of wildlife and get a crash course in botany. Lots of orchid varieties you’ve probably never seen grow here, like this:

Central America orchid

And this:

Panama orchid

If you’re near the Pearl Islands or Coiba Islands, you can see hammerhead sharks under the water while scuba diving or go fishing for marlin and sailfish. Near the shore you will certainly see swarms of hermit crabs stripping coconuts clean and maybe a lizard like this cruising by your boat:

wildlife

The souvenir shopping here is much better than in neighboring Costa Rica, where there’s not much handicraft history to speak of. Here you’ve got more indigenous people creating interesting basket and the famous molas like you see here:

molas

The Panama Hats are actually not from Panama. They were just used here by canal workers and the name stuck. They’re really made in Ecuador. The woven hat that’s really from Panama looks like the array in this guy’s shop. He and his family make all of them that they sell.

real Panama hat

Some other countries in Central America get more adventure travel press, but there’s enough to do in Panama to occupy you for weeks. Even if you don’t surf. Around 25% of the land in this country is protected or is a national park, so there’s no shortage of opportunities for hiking. Pick from lowland jungle areas filled with howler monkeys or volcanoes like Baru where you can spot rare birds, butterflies, and maybe a jaguar. (We saw fresh tracks anyway on my hike.) You can also climb that mountain for the sunrise and see both oceans.

hiking Baru

One perception many people have is that the Panama Canal is just a man-made narrow ribbon going across the land. In reality, ships cross Lake Gatun in the middle, in an area that was flooded to make it deeper. There’s actually an incredible amount of wildlife around that lake and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center is on one of its banks. If you book the right tour, you can go kayaking in this area and spot 50 different birds without trying.

kayaking Lake Gatun

There are many tribal people who have mostly shunned the modern urban world. The Kuna people live on the San Blas islands and are known for their colorful embroidery work. The Embera Cocoe groups near the Darien Gap have traditionally tended to not wear much clothing at all. They’d rather cover their body with tats, like these musicians.

musicians

So…if you’re planning an overland trip down through the Americas or a spin through Central America, you might want to kick back for a while in Panama. It’s not the cheapest and it’s not the easiest, but you haven’t already seen 5,000 pictures of it already and it will probably surprise you on a regular basis.

Also, Copa Air has their hub in the capital city and they’re part of the Star Alliance for cashing in points. For guidebooks, my favorites are the Footprint Panama Handbook by Richard Arghiris and the Moon Handbook by William Friar.

Latin America budget travel

I started traveling a lot in Latin America after I had a child and needed to hit the ground running when returning from a trip. With two continents only varying by a few hours for time zones, staying in this hemisphere has obvious advantages if you’re American or Canadian. You also only have to wrestle with one language for most of it except for Brazil, which you should probably avoid anyway. (See tip #2.)

Much of the region is a great value too. If you’re on a low budget and want to maximize what you have to spend, here’s how to do it right.

1) Pick the Right Destination(s)

This is going to have a bigger impact than anything else on this list, so I’m putting it first. Saving $100 by flying to Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua is going to be offset by much higher prices once you get there, for nearly everything. Most countries from Mexico on down fit into one of three tiers: very cheap, not too painful, and Ouch! Read The World’s Cheapest Destinations for details, but that bottom rung includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru, though that last one depends a lot on when you go and where you go. Lately Argentina has dropped into the very cheap category again, but only if you’re bringing in lots of cash. Mexico is borderline cheap too, depending on where you go within the country. Panama is not too bad once you get out of the capital.

2) Avoid Brazil

This is the most expensive country in Latin America by far, the expense compounded by the fact that hotel supply has not nearly kept up with demand. Add long distances, high taxes, and a reciprocal visa fee, and this is one to save for later when you’re loaded.

lunch Nicaragua

This was $3…

3) Make Lunch the Big Meal

If you’re going to eat one restaurant meal a day, make it lunch. A “meal of the day” goes by different names in different places, but it usually means a multi-course sit-down meal for somewhere between $2 and $6, sometimes including a drink. It’ll be filling and reasonably nutritious and can sometimes be downright great. If you want the very cheapest version, then…

4) Head to the Market

I think it’s safe to say that any Latin American town with more than 1,500 people or so in it has some kind of local market that has food stalls. This is where you’ll sit next to local workers and chow down for the equivalent of a few dollars. You’ll probably find a set meal here, but also you can order whatever the local cheap and filling food happens to be: big sandwiches, stuffed tortilla variations, rice & beans, stews, or whatever else is popular locally. While you’re there you can stock up on fresh fruit and other staples that will load you down for a few bucks.

market lunch

5) Drink What’s Local

Look around at what most everyone else is drinking in a bar and that’s probably what you’ll be ordering too if you’re on a budget. That means tequila or mezcal in Mexico, wine in Argentina, rum in hot countries, and whatever the local beer is everywhere. The one place you can throw this aside is Panama, where anything you want will be a bargain because it’s a duty-free zone. Bolivian beer

The opposite is Ecuador, where only rum and local beer are anywhere close to affordable. On the non-alcoholic side it’ll be fruit juice (or fruit juice mixed with water), cold jamaica tea, or coca tea perhaps. Don’t assume that if you’re in a coffee-producing country though that the coffee will automatically be good or cheap. The best beans often get exported, so you have to seek out a real coffee shop to avoid the drek.

6) Don’t Book All Your Hotels in Advance

Yes, I know it’s oh so easy and comforting to just pull up HostelBookers or Trivago and reserve places to stay all along your route, but it’s often a bad idea financially. A huge percentage of hotels in Latin America are not listed through any booking agency (they don’t want to pay the fat commissions) and some low-budget ones still don’t have a web page or working e-mail address. Unless you’re flying through the region in a blur, which is a bad idea (see the next tip), you’re usually better off looking around after you arrive. Or at least for night two onward. You can actually see the room this way and you have the power to negotiate for a better price or a better room.

7) Take Your Time

If you look at how far it is from Lima to Cusco or Buenos Aires to Salta, you should figure out quickly that it’s going to take you quite a while to get from point A to B. Even when distances look short on a map, however, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get there quickly on the roads you have to travel on. If you’re going to spend 36 hours in transit, it’s pretty silly to then turn around and go somewhere else just 48 hours later. Take your dream itinerary and cut it in half: fewer places, but twice as much time in them. Your wallet will thank you and you’ll have a much richer experience.

8) Learn Some Spanish

Now that we’ve skipped Brazil, that means you can get by with Spanish or English everywhere except the Suriname countries and remote villages in the Andes or Amazon. Since Spanish is so useful in such a vast territory though, don’t assume you’ll be able to muddle through in English like you can in Southeast Asia or Europe. Learning the basics will save you money and make your travels less frustrating.

I went from zero to bumbling with the Pimsleur course and still use it now and then—I’m on Level 4 to help my intermediate fluency along. I especially like using it on a solo car trip because it’s audio only, now in app form. Hit play and let it rip. I’ve tried a fair number of podcasts for the same reason. I sometimes us SpanishDict, Spanish Verbs, Hola Flashcards, DuoLingo, and a few others on the apps side. And of course a good old-school phrase book is one of the best learning tools out there—for less than $10.

local airline

9) Check the Transportation Competition

There’s no cut and dry advice on how to get from place to place in Latin America. In Mexico the buses are really comfortable, but they’re not all that cheap now and prices are pretty uniform between companies for specific classes of service. Sometimes it can be less money to fly on a promotional fare on an airline like Interjet or Volaris for long distances and you’ll save a day or two of travel. Same for Avianca within Colombia. In Argentina, however, flight prices are a total rip-off and in Peru you’ll pay two or three times as much as the locals do for most airlines. Both those countries have several competing long-haul bus companies though, so it pays to do some research and shop around.

10) Book Adventure Excursions Locally

This is a no-brainer for most backpackers, but unless you’re trying to book something with limited permits, like the Inca Trail in Peru, you’ll nearly always be better off waiting until arrival before booking an adventure tour. Ask around for who’s good and find out what’s worth doing from people who just went. This is true for rafting, trekking, biking, or just touring outlying villages. I’ve heard of several people getting half-price Galapagos trips by just flying to Baltra and finding an open cabin to fill.

costa rica rafting

11) Hit Big Cities on a Sunday

I did a whole blog post on why Sunday is a great day to be in a capital city. Free museums, closed-off streets, and outdoor music performances are common on Sundays in Latin America.

12) Don’t Skip the Culture

When you’re in Europe, you have to be really picky about which cultural attractions are really worth splurging on. I can’t remember ever paying more than $8 to enter a museum anywhere in Latin America and more often it’s a dollar or two. Live music and dance performances are often 1/5 what they would be for a comparable show in the USA, Canada, or Europe. Take advantage of it!

For more, check out these Transitions Abroad articles I wrote a while back on getting to Guatemala from Mexico and in South America.

Frida Mexican money

Don’t look now, but you just got a little richer. There’s just one catch: you have to go traveling.

Trying to explain why the U.S. dollar is going up or down is something even experienced economists have trouble with, so I won’t bother trying. Just know that it involves the perception of our economy’s health, the relative strength of other economies’ health (especially Europe and China), and what’s going on with the corresponding economy of the currency it’s trading against.

The bottom line is, we’re in a golden period right now where the dollar is relatively strong, which is good news for travelers. It takes a little sting out of the most expensive places and makes the cheaper ones even cheaper.

Here are a few key places where you’re better off now than you were a year or two ago.

Argentina

I discussed this one in detail already recently, so go check out my cheap Argentina post. Today the “blue rate” is 14.7 to the dollar, compared to under 9 for the official rate. Take lots of cash.

living in Salta

Mexico

I arrived at the Guadalajara airport a few nights ago and laughed as I saw the exchange booth giving a rate of 10.9 pesos to the dollar. I walked over to an ATM and got 13.4 to the dollar. This is a great time to be in Mexico, but unlike in Argentina, don’t come with a briefcase full of cash. There are exchange restrictions and in most areas you’ll get a worse rate than just taking money out of your own bank account with a debit card. If you can find a CI Banco machine, they have the lowest fees. BanNorte has the highest.

Thailand

This country has been a political mess for a while and that is (probably temporarily) pushing down the value of their currency. Right now the official rate is 32.4, which is 10% better than where it was in late 2012. Avoid the protest zones in Bangkok and enjoy.

Thailand travel

Hungary

The first time I went to Hungary the exchange rate was around 215 forint to the dollar, the second time it was around 240. That approximate 10% move made a significant difference in how cheap it felt for a beer, a meal, or a locally priced hotel. It’s back up to that point again, so this is a good time to spend a few days in Budapest and then hit the countryside.

Peru

This time two years ago a U.S. dollar got you 2.6 new soles. Now you get 2.9. Peru can be an expensive place if you go during high season and you’re on the tourist trail shared by people with loads of money checking something off a bucket list. Take a side trail though or go between October and April and your soles will go a long way.

Peru travel

Chile

This is not one of The World’s Cheapest Destinations by any means, but when I wrote this post about how expensive Chile was when I was there two years ago, a dollar got you 480 Chilean pesos. Now a dollar gets you 590. That’s a 23% increase in purchasing power. It’s still going to be more expensive than it’s neighbors, but it won’t feel so out of whack as before.

Other Countries

The swings are less than 10% in the following in 2014, but right now the dollar is at or near a two-year high in Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey, and Egypt. I expect you’ll see most of Africa’s currencies plunge in the next few months because of the ebola effect, even if they’re 2,000 miles away from the outbreak.

If you’re a traveler and you want to keep up with exchange rates, there’s an app for that. I use one called Exchange Rates on my Android phone and one called Currency App on my iPod Touch. In either you can set up which currencies to follow and it’ll update when you refresh.

Argentina travel

When I put out the first edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations at the end of 2002, Argentina was one of the best travel values in the world and it stayed that way for quite a while. Reeling for a huge banking collapse and currency crisis, the local peso went from parity to the dollar to a rate of three to the dollar when the dust settled, without any change in prices.

After a while though, even though the exchange rate kept widening, inflation galloped even faster. As tourism picked up and hotels were able to fill their rooms, rates for those went up as well. With an inefficient and pricey airline system, combined with very long distances for buses, eventually Argentina drifted out of budget travel territory and I had to drop it from the book when doing updates.

This is a country that can’t get out of its own way though and you can almost bet money that every 10 years they’re going to be in trouble again. That time is now. They have defaulted on debt, robbed the public pensions, strangled international business, and practically outlawed a whole range of imported goods. It keeps getting messier and nothing is working as intended though.

tango dancers

Another Collapse, but When?

The prevailing wisdom from people who live there is that one of two things will happen before the next election at the end of 2015.

1) The government and economy will collapse, the opposition will come in and make rescue moves, and in a few years they’ll get all the credit for the turnaround. The current government won’t regain power.

2) The current government will somehow keep limping along and will stay in power long enough to hand the whole mess off to the opposition, then the old guard can blame the whole mess on the opposition since it will take a while to turn things around. Then eventually the pendulum will swing and they’ll be back in power.

Either way, few are predicting good news on the horizon anytime soon. There are so many red flags right now that it’s hard to see anything positive to point to.

There’s one big red flag though that’s really a gold one for travelers: a dual exchange rate for those with dollars.

Official Rate vs. Blue Rate

Nobody wants to call the real exchange rate a “black market” rate, so they’re calling it a “blue rate” to make it sound prettier. The official rate is a little more than 8 to the dollar. The real rate you’ll get on the street is more than 15. This rate is so open that it’s printed in the newspaper and you can look it up online each day.

What this means for you the traveler is this: cash is king. Forget the ATM, forget using your credit card. For both of those you’re going to get the lousy official rate. You can almost double your spending power by bringing cash.

Blue rate Buenos Aires

Your Argentina-bound carry-on bag

Yes, I know this goes against everything you’ve learned about safety, theft prevention, debit card back-ups, and the like. But really, you are better off acting like a mobster and coming in with rolls of $50 and $100 bills (clean and recent of course) than you are trying to use plastic. Then you simply exchange these dollars for pesos and use those pesos to pay for your now-much-cheaper hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and bus tickets. Use those pesos to shop for now-cheap leather goods and to buy good wine for cheap.

If you do this, you’ll be copying what the wealthy Argentines are doing now. The country has slapped a 35% international travel tax on anyone leaving the country to try to stem the outward flow of money, but it’s not keeping the rich from traveling. That’s because they can easily justify it as a business expense: they’ve stowed their money in Montevideo, Panama, or Miami. So it’s a banking trip. It’s also the only way they can shop for items not made in Argentina: the import restrictions have gotten so tough that most of the best-known international brands have pulled out of Argentina. The ones who stayed are having to buy buildings to have something to do with their profits since they can’t get them out of the country.

In short, its a big mess. But when there’s upheaval, that’s often the best time to visit. You have a hard currency in a land where that hard currency is extra valuable.

Just be advised there’s one big expense you can’t get around: the hefty reciprocity fee to enter the country. Chile dropped it recently, but not Argentina (or Brazil). You need to apply in advance and pay $160 per person if you’re American, $92 if you’re Canadian, and $100 if you’re Australian. Stay a while to make up for this tax on tourists.

Huaxteca.com

In two days I rafted through a canyon, jumped off six waterfalls, rappelled down a cliff, and intentionally swam right up to a place where several tons of water a second was cascading down. I did all this in a place you’ve probably never heard of, San Luis Potosi.

If you’ve spent any time on Buzzfeed or Upworthy, you will recognize the style of the headline above. It’s called “clickbait” by those of us who publish content and actually care about whether we have a real audience or just eyeballs. But I put that up because I wanted to talk about travel, sharing, adventure, and FOMO. (For those of you, like me, raised before there was texting, that’s “fear of missing out.”)

I run a whole plethora of travel websites and go to a lot of industry conferences to do business and report on travel trends. There’s been a major shift since the advent of the smartphone and wireless data uploading where people are constantly sharing—okay broadcasting—their adventures. There are a lot of unsavory aspects to that, like one-upsmanship, narcicissm, and “I’m here, you’re not” posts just meant to inspire envy. In the luxury world, this sharing has become another on the list of bragging rights. It’s not just enough to stay in the best suite in the fanciest hotel. You also have to show you’re having some special experience nobody else is having.

Rafting Mexico

I’m looking at the silver lining of that though and thinking this can only be a good thing for undiscovered gems like the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosi in Mexico. This inland state that’s one up from where I live in Guanajuato recently hosted a pre-trip for some attendees of the Adventure Travel Mexico conference. I’ve had my eye on this area for ages, thinking it would be a blast, but I was incredibly impressed by how much fun it was it and how authentic it felt in this spot where very few foreigners arrive. And it wasn’t just me. There were a few adventure travel agents on the trip and other writer friends potentially as jaded as me, like Juno Kim, Karen Loftus, and Cathy Brown. “Wow, this totally exceeded my expectations” was the common summary.

The whitewater rafting trip that kicked off Day 1 was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been on, and at this point I’ve been rafting at least 20 times. It wasn’t as bone-pounding and death-defying as the one I went on in Nepal one time that was like a two-day roller coaster ride. It was just fun, exciting, and enhanced by gorgeous scenery. The equipment and guides from Huaxteca.com Adventures were both top-notch.

The next day we went waterfall jumping. That’s a real thing. Waterfall jumping.

Huaxteca waterfall

It sounds crazier than it really is. Sure, you put on a helmet and a life jacket and you need to wear water shoes or at least some old sneakers with some tread. That’s because you have to walk over rocks that can be a little slippery before you make the great leap into the air. The landing part is mellower than you would expect though: the water is churning below so it’s a pretty soft landing. Still, you have to hold hands sometimes to walk in a line to get to the edge and that first jump takes a bit of courage…

waterfall jumping San Luis Potosi

Later we got some lessons in how to rappel down a cliff and…we just did it. I can’t say I’m in any hurry to do it again, but I made it. Again, the Huaxteca guides were really professional and patient.

Then we visited a hotel next to this waterfall below. We had a nice meal and hung out a bit, but just looking at it roaring nearby was not enough. If you’re at this Huasteca Secreta Hotel, you are next to a giant eddy between two waterfalls. So you can jump in the water with a life jacket and you drift toward the waterfall. Just before you get to the point where it would pummel you, there are some places to climb out of the water onto a ledge. After catching your breath and trying not to freak out, you swim across the current quickly and then drift down away from the waterfall back to where you started. Crazy sh*t but loads of fun.

Huasteca Secreta adventure

Did I mention that we went scuba diving in a clear lake the next day? Or that I have zero experience in how to scuba dive?

This is just one adventure area of Mexico nobody you know has heard of. If you get away from the coast there are dozens of others in multiple states. If you’re looking for bragging rights and photos that nobody else you know has posted, you don’t have to go very far. Head south and find some real adventure.