Those Expats Really Get Around: A Guide to Transportation in the Latin Tropics
When it comes to travel and exploration, they say that getting there is half the fun. And for expats in the Latin tropics who are just learning how to discover and explore their new surroundings, that statement can be entirely true.
However, for those who have unrealistic expectations about how to get around in Latin America, getting there–anywhere!– can also be a nightmare.
So, if you’re a potential expat who’s planning a trip down to scout out possible cities to call home, or even if you’ve already made the move and just want some pointers for navigating the region more efficiently, this guide will give you all the ins and outs on Latin American transportation.
The first step for travel to Latin America involves the international flight from the U.S. The region is serviced by most all of the major airlines (i.e. Delta, United, American Airlines, etc.) via places like Miami, Houston, New York, and several others.
In terms of destination cities, there’s at least one international airport in each country we cover. Most have 3 or 4, like Panama and Nicaragua respectively. Mexico has literally hundreds.
In general, the airports are located in or near the bigger cities and more popular tourist locales. So, hopefully once you’re on the ground you won’t have too far to go to reach your final destination. If that’s not the case, or if you’re already here and just wanting more information on travel throughout the region, read on.
Getting Around Once You Get There
Once you’re on the ground in the Latin tropics, there are a whole bunch of options for how to get from one place to another. Some are safer and/or more economical than others. A few might be best reserved for the more adventurous, but may provide one heck of an unforgettable travel experience. Here’s the scoop on all of them.
Having a number of international airports throughout the region makes flying from one destination to another a viable option. Say for instance you live in San Jose, Costa Rica, and wanted to spend a long weekend in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Flying might be your best option, as there’s an international airport on Isla Colon.
There are several regional airlines that service the area, mostly notably El Salvador-based TACA. Prices vary, but flights are generally quite reasonable when you consider the huge convenience they represent.
You can book online and expect pretty professional and reliable service. You can also expect generally one [often unpaved] runway. And there may or may not be animals grazing next to it.
Latin America is awfully compact so, while flights are a great alternative, ground travel is in many cases the better option. And buses are often a popular choice for expats on the move. While you can’t make reservations online, you can search for nearby terminals and at least plan your route out before you go.
Because buses must often deal with rough terrain, and often even rougher road conditions (more to come on that), travel times can be long. But the cost savings may be worth it. For example you can take an 8 hour bus ride from Panama City to David for $15 vs. an $85 one-way plane ticket between those same cities.
Buses also offer the added benefit of allowing you to take in the countryside plus some local flavor in the form of your fellow passengers. For example, in Guatemala, you can catch a ride on a “chicken bus.” These converted school buses shuttle people and, at times, chickens from place to place.
If poultry isn’t your idea of an ideal seatmate, there are also first-class Greyhound buses for only slightly more moula. It’s also worth noting that when traveling from one country to another by bus, you’ll likely need to change buses at the border and board one operated by the country you’re entering.
The same problem of crossing borders applies to rental cars, as most agencies won’t let you take your rented auto across international borders. So keep that in mind if you want to travel by car and don’t own one yourself.
If you’re only traveling within one country, then they’re a great option. Budget Rent A Car operates in Latin America and is usually based out of the airports. You can book online and often save money (and make sure you get exactly what you want) by reserving a car in advance.
Much of Latin America is well connected with reliable internet service. As a result, you can use sites like Google maps or apps like Waze to find your way around. In fact, Google maps will soon be available for use offline, making it even easier to get around in remote areas. Some countries, like Costa Rica, also offer their own map apps.
Printed maps are harder to find and not always the most accurate. Just be aware that some places, like Panama, now impose fines as high as $300 for drivers caught using an electronic device while operating a vehicle.
Taxi cabs can be a great option for across-town travel, where you can get a lift for only a few bucks. But they can get pricy really quickly if you’re going much further than that.
So if you’re looking at an hour long ride from the airport to your destination, you might want to opt for a bus. Regardless of which you choose, though, make sure you discuss the price before you climb in. And keep in mind that everything’s negotiable.
Once inside the cab, pay attention to where you’re going. Have an idea of what your route should look like, and make sure your driver isn’t taking any unnecessary detours to jack up the price.
Your Own Two Feet
Many of the coastal towns and colonial cities you’ll visit in Latin America are very walkable and, as a result, many expats find they don’t need to own a car. Knowing that you won’t need a vehicle once you get where you’re going can give you added peace of mind when taking buses or vans to get from one place to the next.
Do use care when crossing the street, as the locals don’t always yield to pedestrians. Bikes are another great option and are common in places like the island of Caye Caulker, Belize, where golf carts are the only motorized vehicles allowed.
It’s also worth mentioning that hitchhiking in Latin America can be very dangerous and is not recommended. Travel is extremely reasonable throughout the area, so it’s difficult to justify taking such a risk. That being said, if you do it, use extreme caution.
Getting There in One Piece
When traveling in developing countries, it’s important to remember that things are going to be a lot different than in a first world nation. Safety is key, and there are several issues you should be aware of when traveling throughout the Latin tropics.
The conditions of the roads in Latin America can vary drastically from one city (or rural area) to the next. You can expect to deal with everything from potholes to landslides to dirt roads that turn into giant mudholes during the rainy season.
Potholes are a fact of life, and they rarely get filled. When they do it’s often by a local resident with a bag of sand who’s ticked off that he just busted a tire on the same stretch of road for the fourth time.
Perhaps the biggest hazard to ground travel in the Latin tropics is the large number of maniacs with which you’ll have to share the road. People speed. They ignore stop signs. They weave in and out of traffic and pass on the wrong side of the road. While going around a curve.
They’re also often distracted, hence the need for the aforementioned law concerning electronic devices. There are a lot of accidents, often tragic, involving distracted driving.
Folks in Latin America are also often less than considerate about things like blocking you from getting out of a parking space and dinging your door when they park next to you in the tiny parking spaces that are often seen in the region.
They may also fail to keep their cars in good repair, so a lack of turn signals or working brake lights is a common sight. Not to worry, though. Their horns usually work, and they do not hesitate to put them to good use.
While the rate of violent crime is low throughout much of Latin America, it’s not zero. Not to mention, the incidence of petty theft is high. The best advice when traveling, particularly via public transportation, is to use common sense. Don’t travel with a lot of valuables or flash large quantities of cash.
Buses are unfortunately a common target for robbers, so try to avoid traveling at night or alone. Always use care when walking or driving a rental or your own auto. Stay out of poorly lit areas or places that look sketchy. Busy thoroughfares or more heavily touristed areas are best.
Get There As Soon As Possible
Now that you’re equipped with everything you need to know about getting around in Latin America, you no longer have an excuse to avoid visiting the area for the first time or branching out from your expat comfort zone and seeing all the fantastic things the region has to offer.
What are you waiting for? Start researching where you want to go. Or just throw a dart at a map. The tropics await you.