Traveler’s Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America
“Rob Sangster and Tim Leffel have written the definitive guide to traveling in Mexico and Central America. It’s a smart roadmap for any south-of-the-border traveler.”
—Christopher Elliott, National Geographic Traveler
Why Mexico and Central America Are Today’s Smart Destinations
Most people follow. Smart people lead.
Many people yearn to travel. Europe would be nice, but — wow! — those prices. And Africa? Too big a leap for the first international trip. Asia and the Middle East? Well, maybe in a few years.
So, they sigh and rent a condo at the same beach where they’ve gone for the past five years.
Then there are the really smart people who say, “Let’s go to Latin America.”
Starting with Mexico and Central America, those are today’s smart destinations.
Forget about Jet Lag
Reaching destinations such as China, Thailand, Australia, and South Africa from the United States requires up to 22 hours in transit. When you finally wobble off the plane, you’re in a time zone so different that the hands on your internal clock are spinning in opposite directions.
Then you walk around like a zombie, trying to overcome the dreaded jet lag. On a month-long trip you’ll get your footing. For a short trip, it’s a heavy price to pay.
While the trip to Europe is easier, it’s still going to cost you seven to eleven hours, depending on your departure point, to cross many punishing time zones.
In contrast, getting to Mexico or Central America from the 48 contiguous states is a snap. Travel times are short. At most, you’ll breeze through two time zones and hit the ground full of energy.
You don’t need even one visa, and crossing borders is almost painless. English is common enough that, with a little preparation, you can get by without being a whiz in Spanish. And the food is… hearty. (Yes, that means not many of the cooks were trained in Paris.)
History, Landscape, and Culture
Long before Columbus dropped in on North America at the end of the 1400s, the Maya had developed a sophisticated society that had ruled its region for a thousand years. The Aztecs were already a powerhouse in what is now Mexico (until the Spanish destroyed them at Tenochttlán in 1521).
Architecture and artifacts from the era of Spanish colonization have mostly disappeared from the United States, but they’re still common in Mexico and Central America. For perspective, most of the church buildings in town squares are far older than their counterparts in Boston.
However, more separates us from those countries than just a few national borders. We have different histories and traditions. The smoldering volcanoes, brightly colored coral reefs, and dense jungles don’t remind us at all of Kansas — any more than a toucan makes us think of a crow.
And the tens of millions of people who live between the Rio Grande and the Panama Canal are certainly not homogenous. Even residents of Belize and Guatemala, next-door neighbors, are very different from one another.
As a bonus, people in Mexico and Central America are friendly and hospitable, and take great joy in living. This region is not like some European cities where some people may feel too busy to talk with you or lend a hand or offer advice.
Not everyone appreciates American foreign policy at the moment, but if the subject is brought up, chances are it will be done politely.
Easy on the Budget
Mexico and Central America are very affordable. While prices are high at some tourist hot spots, those are the exceptions. Elsewhere, count on some of the best values in the world.
When you stay in family-owned inns and eat at nontourist restaurants, you’ll be amazed at how far your money will stretch.
Many travelers who visit Mexico or Central America like the region so much they decide to spend more time there, perhaps in a vacation home or something suitable for retirement. Some of the countries dangle multiple incentives to entice you to put down roots. Real estate is a bargain, the cost of living is low, and life is far less hectic than at home.
Safer than Home
Most conflicts that existed in Mexico and Central America are in the past. In Mexico, political disturbances in Oaxaca and Chiapas were short term and not directed at travelers. Guatemala signed a peace accord between the parties more than a decade ago. Nicaragua is now building beach condos and courting eco-tourists like crazy. El Salvador has drifted back into tropical slumber. And Panama has become a booming economic center and haven for retirees.
Can you believe a 100-story retirement tower has been planned for Panama City?
The terrorist threat discussed endlessly in the United States, and very troubling in certain other parts of the world, is not a matter of consequence in Mexico and Central America. There are few certainties in the world, but travelers have little reason to fear being targets of terrorism or car bombs in any of the countries visited in this book.
What about crime? Americans know they live in a violent country, but just ask them to speculate about crime rates somewhere else. They’ll think America is safer, but are they correct?
Let’s look at some data from the United Nations. The United States is at the top of the world list in terms of adults prosecuted per capita. Canada is 8th. Mexico is 31st, and no country in Central America is even on the list.
As far as physical assault is concerned, the United States is 6th, Canada is 9th, Mexico is 20th, and Costa Rica is 50th. In burglaries, Canada has the 9th-highest rate, and the United States is 17th-highest — both far worse rankings than those of our neighbors to the south.
Not all the statistics are rosy. Mexico, especially because of drug wars along the border, and Guatemala have serious problems with gun homicides. These crimes aren’t about tourists, but they are a signal not to hang out in questionable places.
In some spots around the world, anti-Americanism runs high. But America, despite its sometimes-disliked foreign policies, is not seen as the enemy in most of Latin America (Hugo Chavez’s efforts to stir the pot notwithstanding).
Besides being a major buyer of Latin American exports, the United States also supplies most of the tourists who bolster every economy. And, of course, many in Latin America have cousins in Brooklyn or Denver or LA.
Easy on Your Health
In terms of a traveler’s health, Mexico and Central America are not nearly as risky as central Africa or the Amazon — but they’re not Milwaukee, either. In other words, there are relatively few challenges to good health, but there are some. The main foes are those pesky mosquitoes that carry malaria or dengue fever.
Then there are the occasional assaults on your system from contaminated food or water. It’s all manageable as long as you know what to expect and you prepare yourself.
Traveler’s Tool Kit deals in depth with eating and drinking safely and how to maintain good health (please see Chapter 12, Keeping Healthy, and Chapter 16, Eating and Drinking).
Few international destinations offer a greater variety of outdoor fun than Mexico and Central America (okay, snow sports aren’t so great there). Take your pick: whitewater rafting and kayaking, tough treks and easy walks, mountain biking and pedaling along shady lanes.
Snorkel the afternoon away, or dive down a vertical wall known as “The Devil’s Drop.” Photograph waterfalls and volcanic landscapes, or bask in the sun on a pristine beach. What about days of world-class birding followed by margaritas in a sidewalk cafe?
Maybe you prefer ziplining among orchids, butterflies, and scarlet macaws in the cloud forest. Would you rather search for ocelots, jaguars, giant anteaters, and white-lipped peccaries — or go after tarpon, groupers, and snappers?
You can spend the morning in the botanical heaven of a virgin rain forest, then stroll through a museum and listen to a symphony in the evening.
That should be enough to whet your imagination. Now it’s time to get serious about choosing where to go. Read on.
Rob Sangster has traveled to more than 100 countries on seven continents. His prior book, Traveler’s Tool Kit: How to Travel Absolutely Anywhere! (3rd edition), was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. He writes for websites on travel, culture, and politics and is a regular contributor to various national publications, including frequent feature articles in International Travel News.
Tim Leffel has written several books on traveling well for less including The World’s Cheapest Destinations, Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. He also edits the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel. Visit our Tim Leffel Page with links to all his stories on GoNOMAD.
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