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Chapter 36 - Traveling to Latin America
This topic could easily be expanded to several chapters because there are so many factors that could be considered. If you are especially interested in going for bottom dollar, without concern for schedules, I suggest that you buy one of the many travel books that are available. Some of them have some excellent suggestions for saving money. Usually when I originate my travel in the United States, I am concerned about getting the least expensive ticket available that also has a guaranteed schedule. I am not interested in stand-by, tours, clubs, clearinghouses, consolidators, or bucket shops. You can save some money by looking into them carefully, but at the same time you may sacrifice scheduling reliability.
If your interests are similar to mine, try the yellow pages or pick up the weekly travel section of your nearest big-city newspaper. You will probably find an advertisement from a travel agency specializing in Latin American travel. Most of them buy block tickets which are highly discounted, and which they can sell at a discount to you. Unless you have a fairly competent local travel agent who is willing to spend some time on the computer searching out the lowest available prices, try a specialty travel agent. And, unless you just like to spend unnecessary money, there is no point in going directly to the airline and paying for a full-price ticket.
Travel agents cost no more to use, and they can usually save you money.
Normally, since I live in Panamá as a resident pensionado (and receive a 25% discount), I originate my flights from Panamá. Even with the discount, I pay approximately the same price for round trip Panama/United States tickets that someone in the U.S., who buys his ticket in the United States, would pay. No matter where you are going in Latin America, it is cheaper to buy your tickets in the U.S. for all international flights if your initial flight originates in the United States. Buy tickets for all of your international flights before you leave. Once you get to your destination, and want to travel around within that country, buy your tickets locally for local flights.
Keep in mind that Latin American destinations have high seasons and low seasons, roughly corresponding to rainy and dry seasons, with the dry season having the higher fares since that is when tourism is higher. Also, in tourism oriented countries, hotel rates are higher than in off-season.
By just looking at a map it is hard to appreciate just how large some of the Latin American countries are. It is also hard to realize that the cities in any given country may be separated by high mountain ranges or virtually impenetrable jungles. Add to that the fact that most of the Latin American highways are narrow and poorly maintained, and cities that are separated by only 200 miles might require a long day of bus travel to go from one to the other. For these reasons, air travel is widely utilized within Latin America. Much more so than in the United States. Unless your interest is in sightseeing, which I highly recommend, plan on doing quite a bit of local flying. Passenger airlines connect every major city that I know about, and it is surprisingly inexpensive and safe.
Important telephone numbers for the two main domestic air carriers to Latin America are American Airlines (800) 433-7300 and Continental Airlines (800) 231-0856. You can also call local travel agents found in the yellow pages or Sunday travel section for comparison shopping.
Except for Mexico, the only sensible way to travel to Latin America is by air, unless your reason for going is for the travel experience itself. I have driven to Central America several times, and have met land travelers in Central and South America who have gotten there from the United States by bus, train, hitch-hiking, bicycle, motorcycle, automobile, van, trucks with campers, and trucks pulling house trailers. So, it is possible. But, in my opinion this should be considered as adventure travel. You can, in fact, except for the Darrein Gap in Panama, drive almost all the way to the southern tip of South America by highway (or at least by "road").
Once you get to Latin America, of course, there are a variety of ways to get around. You can use airplanes, trains, buses, automobiles, bicycles, motorcycles, horses, mules, burros, and feet.
If your reason for considering driving to Latin America is for the purpose of living there and having your car with you, there are several important things to consider. First, it usually costs very little more to ship your vehicle to your chosen country than to drive it (frequently it is cheaper), and it is a whole lot safer and easier. You will need to do some shopping around to get the best shipping rates. When I was considering shipping a car to Panamá, I found rates ranging from $675 to $1250 (in 1995 from the Gulf Coast), which is quite a spread. I decided to drive, mostly for the adventure, and my total costs of driving from Texas (not including the week of debauchery in Costa Rica) came to about $1200. Not only do you pay for gasoline, food, lodging, and bribes to policemen and customs officials, but every country charges you for the privilege of crossing their borders.
Second, you'd best check into the expense of import duties in your particular country (some, in fact, do not even permit the importation of used automobiles). The cost can be as high as 300% of the value of the car. The formula is complex, but Panamá charges about 15% of the car's value (based on depreciation from new cost), and Costa Rica charges about 150% (higher if it is a luxury car). Colombia doesn't even permit the importation of used vehicles. Before making your decision, I highly recommend talking with the Embassy or a consulate of the country in question.
I have a friend, and know several other people, who regularly buy and drive vehicles to Central America, where they sell them for a profit. This can be done if you buy a 4-wheel drive Nissan or Toyota vehicle, preferably diesel. They pay the import duty, go through the process of paperwork, then sell the vehicles when they are through using them (six months to a year), and make a profit of $1000 to $2000 dollars each time. But they do buy cheap and sell high. I haven't done it yet, and haven't yet seriously considered it, but if you feel adventurous, it exists as a possibility.
If you decide to drive, take along plenty spare parts, leave with good tires, double the amount of money you think you will need, and be prepared for delays and expense at all of the border crossings. And allow more time than you think will be necessary. Do not ever drive at night. Potholes, vehicles without headlights, and cattle on the highway are just three of the problems. In some countries bandits are the more serious problem. Be aware also that border crossings are not open at night, and after hours or weekend service can cost you more.
I have always driven alone, but I absolutely do not recommend it. If you have a breakdown, you will need someone to remain with the vehicle while you go for help. Otherwise wheels, tires, and other parts, along with the contents, will probably not be there when you get back. I have been lucky, and a tool kit and spare parts have also helped. Perhaps it is because I am getting older and feel less confident than even last year (when I drove for the last time), but I definitely plan to ship my next vehicle.
Proper planning is your best option for guaranteeing that inconveniences are at an acceptable minimum. Again, do some research about your destination or buy one of the Travel Guidebooks that we recommend.
Traveling to Latin America is going to be fun, inexpensive, and pleasurable. Who knows, you might just meet the "woman of your dreams" in the process.
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|Chapter 36||(Travel) - Getting There|
|Chapter 43||Singles Tours|
|Chapter 44||Immigration Options (pages 283 and 284 only)|
|Chapter 45||Marrying Abroad (pages 291 and 292 only)|
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