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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.

Louisiana travel

Are you my mother?

The November ’14 issue of Perceptive Travel is out, with some of the best travel stories on the planet from book authors on the move. This month we’ve got tales from Louisiana, Greece, and Southeast Asia.

Judith Fein goes traveling in order to put aside the recent death of her mother, but keeps finding reminders of not-so-dearly departed mom when she explores the swamps of Louisiana. See Did I Have an Alligator Mother?

James Dorsey ventures to the top of a rocky outpoint in Meteora to find a gifted Greek monk creating religious masterpieces in obscurity. See Painting as Prayer in Greece.

ziplining Laos

Michael Buckley goes zipping through the canopies in Southeast Asia and even zips to and from his treehouse lodging in one spot. He finds that ziplining in Thailand and Laos may not be the worry-free soft adventure pursuit it is in countries that have been doing it a lot longer. See Zipping Into Big Trouble.

William Caverlee checks out two new travel books on long-term journeys and one on the rape of Tibet (by Mr. Buckley above).

Graham Reid spins some new world music albums worth listening to from Mali to Mongolia to Scotland.

Win Some New Luggage!

granite-gear1Each month we give away something cool to our loyal readers at Perceptive Travel and boxes of Kind & Strong bars are on their way to three people who entered last month.

This time we’ve got a brand new, just-came-out, hybrid carry-on bag from Granite Gear. It’s a suitcase, it’s a backpack, it’s a rollaboard duffel/backpack! If your sad suitcase could use an upgrade before your holiday travels, check your inbox if you’re on our newsletter list already. Sign up here for future ones if not. Meanwhile, you can follow us on Facebook and see the entry details there several times in November.

And don’t forget, several times a week our regular writers post something new on the travel blog. It’s full of stories you won’t read elsewhere, whether that’s a Portland Brewcycle tour, the mountains of Nebraska, music-focused North Ireland road trip, or where to eat in Canggu, Bali.

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.

airport-delay

When I returned from a conference a couple weeks ago, it took me ten hours to get from Cancun to Leon/Guanajuato in the middle of Mexico. Mechanical problems got us kicked off the plane as we were ready to take off in Mexico City and we sat around the airport for hours. I got a $12 meal voucher and a stale pastry out of the deal from Aeromexico.

If I had been in Europe, it would have been a different story. I could have hooked up with FlightRight.com and gotten a significant chunk of money back.

In the United States the airlines fight every move the government makes to bring transparency to the industry, whether it’s seeing how much your flight really costs up front, with all the fees, or seeing what your rights really are when your plane gets delayed by factors other than weather. It’s not any better in the rest of North America either.

In Europe, however, passengers have more rights and the rules in one part of the EU apply to the other parts as well. So if you have a problem there, you could be owed compensation. Actually getting that compensation handed over is a different story, however, as no business wants to give out checks for screwing up if they can possibly avoid it. That’s where FlightRight comes, in, fighting on your behalf to get you what you’re owed. They say they have a 96% success rate in cases they accept. You can see some example cases here, with amounts won ranging from $175 to thousands of dollars. Here’s one example of a big one:

Family S. books four return tickets with airline C. from Frankfurt to Toronto (Canada) and back. The return flight is scheduled to depart at 16.20 pm. After check-in family S. is informed that the flight has been cancelled due to a technical fault. Family S. is handed back their luggage and taken to a hotel.

The following day family S. is re-routed to a flight with the same flight number. Family S. lands in Frankfurt 25 hours later than originally planned.

Family S. is entitled to compensation of $3,280 ($820 per passenger).

Whoa, that’s some serious cash!

This was made possible by EU 261, a passengers’ rights law applying to airline cancellations, delays, and overbookings. It was passed ten years ago, but most non-Europeans have no idea what their rights are when flying in or to/from Europe. You can do some digging around online from your uncomfortable seat if you’re lucky enough to be in an airport with good free Wi-Fi, but it’s doubtful you’re going to get a harried airline worker to hand over hundreds of dollars. Assume you’ll have weeks of unanswered calls and e-mails to follow. It’s probably worth the fees to let someone else sort it out. If they win, you get 2/3 to 3/4 of the settlement. If you lose, you pay nothing. There’s an online calculator where you put in flight details to figure it out.

Just remember that this law and others like it don’t apply when a delay is caused by weather problems or other issues beyond the airlines’ control. Here’s the EU’s out clause: “The Airline is not obliged to provide cash compensation in the case of extraordinary circumstances which could not have been foreseen even if the airline took all reasonable precautions.” In general, the courts have ruled against the airlines whey they have tried to apply this “extraordinary circumstances” clause too broadly to deny compensation.

Whether you’re in Europe or elsewhere, it does pay to know your rights. U.S. carriers are required to post passenger rights on their website, though of course you’ll have to hunt for them and slog through a lot of legalese to figure them all out. On Delta Airlines’ site, for example, rights are not posted under “Travel With Us,” but buried in the site map with names under several sections like “Suspended Travel FAQs.” (Their @deltaassist Twitter team is very helpful though.) The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains a much clearer page about compensation regulations. But yes, there’s an app for that too, a 99-cent one called Flyers Rights.

If you’d like to have a hand in shaping passenger rights and laws in the United States, join the Travelers United organization.