Thursday, May 7, 2009

Planning A Trip in Central and South America?

I recently received a letter asking me for advice and suggestions from someone who is planning their own big adventure, and was faced with a worried family and friends.  So, I put this little ditty together, and hope that it is useful or at least interesting.
As you have probably noticed, I am blonde, petite, white and female, and my mother just about lost it when Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia were mentioned in the beginning stages of this trip.  It is mind-boggling how many awful stories people will tell you and your family when hearing mention about traveling through Central and South American countries, when in reality those stories are few and far between.  However, they do make the news more often than the happy, lovely stories.
We researched for about 7 months beforehand, planning our packing lists, trying to find out about border crossings (not much information out there!) and areas to visit/avoid.  I also checked on the US Governement Travel Alert website, and forwarded that to my parents.  Certain areas of Mexico are on the alert network, but not even Colombia is on there!  If your family is worried, get them some more info, give them our website.  :)  Photos and positive stories work wonders and dispell the great mystery of travel to foreign places.
Now get ready for a list of things we´ve learned along the way:

Our trip has been amazing.  We´ve met so many other travelers from all over the world, and though we´ve heard a very few bad stories, on the whole they have been positive and opened my eyes (it´s hard coming from the US after being bombarded with negative impressions of nearly everywhere else in the Americas).  Country after country we are impressed with how kind and helpful people are, willling to literally drive miles out of their way to help us find the right road.  Borders take time, especially with a vehicle, but have patience, practice your Spanish, and they shouldn´t be a problem.  I´ll give more tips on borders in a bit.
Don´t take a gun.  If you do get into a situation that would require one, a gun would probably just make things worse.  We decided instead on a big bottle of Bear Spray (basically a giant bottle of mace but can spray up to 30 feet).  It looks innocuous enough, but could be helpful without killing anybody.  Available at Adventure stores like Adventure 16, REI, etc.  On the other hand, it takes up valuable space in our small luggage and we haven´t come close to using it in over three months.  We do keep it within reach of Adam´s arm in a tank bag, though.
Have a way to lock things/cover them/hide them so that wandering eyes won´t peek in and see temptation.  You can add Masterlocks/padlocks to nearly anything with a little welding and it´s totally worth it.  Try to think like a thief, and then change things around to make it difficult to steal.  With wire cutters/lock busters someone could take our stuff, but not quickly, and most theft is petty, someone walking by and grabbing something easy to take.
As for a knife, having a Leatherman and/or a Swiss Army knife are musts, for a million little things (like peeling apples, fixing zippers, etc).  I think Adam generally carries it in his pocket.
Even though many people will come up to you just to chat, they often do want something, so be aware.  It is a common thing for some people to look at tourists/travelers and just see a dollar sign, sadly.  One thing I´ve definitely learned is to go with my gut in reaction to people and places.  If you feel uncomfortable, acknowledge that there is probably a good reason for it, and do what you need to do to fix it.  We left one hotel without a refund because it was that creepy.  Totally worth the loss of money to sleep somewhere we felt safe.
Put something heavy against the hotel room door, or an empty bottle/can.  That way if the door gets opened while you are sleeping you'll wake up.   It has happened to only one person we've met, and they were staying in a super secluded, rather sketchy hotel.
There are some fairly simple and straightforward ways of avoiding bad things.  I read the "dangers and annoyances" sections of my Lonely Planet book.  We take advice from fellow travelers and locals on where to go and where to avoid.  Before leaving, we paid attention to the news, and we also check online news for updates on each country as we head across the border.  Of course, we also have friends and family who forward news stories like earthquakes and Piggie Flu.  Thanks, guys!
As for Mom, what really bothered mine was the big mystery of her daughter heading out into who knows where and for who knows how long.  It might help to sit down with a map and give a general idea of where you´ll be going and if possible a general timeline.  It doesn´t have to be crazy specific, but a general idea is so helpful.  Promise to check in every week (at least by email which is easy to find) and set up Skype for free phone calls!  It really helps to lessen the mystery, giving some solidity to places you plan on visiting, beaches where you´ll be swimming, ruins you´ll be exploring, etc. 
Consider purchasing a Spot satellite tracking device ($150 to buy, and $150 for a full year membership).  You may have noticed ours on the top left of the website, it tracks us to within 3 meters, and you can even zoom in on Google Earth and see the city/road we´re on!  We typically turn it off when we reach a town where we´re going to stay (to save batteries).  There is a "we´re okay" button, a "help" button that sends a pre-set message (we met a guy who´s message is: "I´m heading into a sketchy situation, if you haven´t heard from me in six hours, send help."), and also a 911 button.  The 911 button is received by the company, and they send your location and information to the nearest embassy and emergency services in whatever country you're in.  It is a really nice thing to have.  I like knowing that if we go off the road in the middle of nowhere, just have engine problems but there´s no one around for miles, or if we can´t get to a phone after an earthquake but we´re fine, we can get help, and send a "we´re okay" message straight to our families' emails.
Consider taking a GPS.  We use ours like crazy, not only for roads (sometimes the map is better) but for direction and backtracking.  You can download countries before you leave and later have a detailed route map of where you went on your adventure!
I have a feeling this is far more information than necessary, but there are so many details that once discovered seem so useful!

Keep copies of your paperwork somewhere.  Keep your passports and credit cards separate, that way if one of you loses yours (as happened to us) you have a backup with the others' stuff.  Access to money, identification, etc.  It helped to have a color photo copy of the passports and extra copies of the vehicle title.  Also, take the original vehicle title, and copies.  Adam made laminated copies of everything and will use those (except for passport) when crossing borders.  Extra passport-size photos are also a good idea.

Have a dummy wallet for getting pulled over by the police.  Though rare, it happens on occasion that they will try and get a bribe for giving you your stuff back.  If they have only copies, then you can just leave it and go on your way.

Be nice and friendly with officials.
And (especially with police) Play Dumb.  This was suggested by a border "helper" and has helped us on more than one occasion.  Military checkpoints are many, but the soldiers in our experience are always kind and often curious.  It is their job to look for drugs and weapons, so smile and be helpful (they may ask to open some of your luggage/bags).  Usually as soon as you start to open anything they say "okay" and send you on your way.  As for the police, they are often best at giving directions.  Or, they will pull you over and want money for a bogus charge like speeding.  Like I said, play dumb.

This one is pretty obvious, but try not to travel with anything you can´t lose.  I often wish I had my cute boots or pretty earrings, but realize it would be terrible if they were lost or stolen.  So I make do with slightly less stylish clothing, but don´t have to worry as much.

Take lots of music from mellow to fun "roadtrip" music.  There are many many miles between here and there, and although I love the silence sometimes, I love love love my music.  We have an iPod Touch which is great for not only music, but movies (we have seven of them and a duel-plug for two sets of headphones), and we can check email and use Skype when wi-fi is available!  For us, a better option than taking a laptop.

Okay, places to avoid:
The border town of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.  Actually, all Northern border towns of Mexico.  Certain parts of the state of Sinaloa, as that is where the head of one of the drug cartels is located.  People will let you know, but check out a map before you go.
We had no problems in Mexico, nor did anyone we met who had traveled there. 
Places like Mexico City, Guatemala City, are just huge dirty cities and if you go: drive only during the day and stay where there is guarded parking.  We didn´t visit either one.

Keep notes handy for what you´ll expect to pay at each border crossing.  Knowing what others have paid is helpful amidst the confusion.  Also, have your notes handy on which buildings to stop at, what paperwork you need, etc.  Avoid the Guatemala to Honduras crossing at the Eastern border of Corinto.  Corruption there is soooo irritating.  Cross at Cop├ín.
All of Guatemala was wonderful.  Colder than you expect, because of the high altitudes so have thermals and wool socks.  This is one of the countries that we were warned about because there is still a very large poor population, and many indigenous people who are wary of travelers (and freaked out that they´ll steal their babies)  but keep your money in a zipper pocket, and don´t pick up other peoples' babies without their approval.  Seems pretty basic.  At lunch one day a woman handed me her baby boy and I held the little cutie for quite a while.

Leave a folder of important phone numbers, account information, loan details, etc with your parents or a trusted friend.  In the event of a credit card getting canceled, don´t forget to reroute auto-matic payments to another card!!  Just one of those details. 

Get international traveler´s insurance because you need to have it, although you´ll probably never use it.

Use ziploc freezer bags.  Lots of them.  The air down South is crazy humid, so books, paperwork, shoes, pants, journals, get wet. 

Put together a great First Aid Survival kit.  Although ours has only been used to help someone else, we can rest assured that we are prepared.

Take a sarong, or two.  I suggest them instead of towels which take too long to dry, and get stinky.  Plus, a sarong is multi-functional as towel, changing gown, curtain, sheet, beach blanket, sunblock, and windbreaker.  Oh, and bag, bathing suit, skirt or dress.

I would like to give some information on border crossings and suggestions on places we really enjoyed, but I think I´ll save  that for another time.  This note has gotten ridiculous, really.
Good luck with all of your plans!  I can´t recommend it highly enough.  I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to see places I´ve only imagined, to meet these amazing people and peek into lives so different from my own.  I have more compassion and empathy because of it, and have had unrealized stereotypes fall to pieces.  This adventure is made all the more great because I get to share it with someone I love.  We have spent nearly 24 hours a day together for over 3 months, and simply put, it has been super.
I hope at least some of this has been helpful, and that you haven´t had to wade through too much extra goo to get to the good stuff.  Please let me know if there is anything else I can help with, like giving your Mom my mom´s phone number so she can ask questions of someone who´s now enjoying the ride and wishing she were along on it! 
Last thing: before buying anything from a child remember that you are saying, "It´s not important for you to be in school, it´s okay for your parents to use you to make money."
Just a thought.


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  2. So every time you guys post an update I tell myself that I'm going to post some witty little ditty with odd facts about your current location or some such nonsense. But all I can ever come up with is...

    YOU BASTARD!!I’ve got my dad following you two as well and we’ll chat about where you are and what we’d be doing if we were there and what not but all he can generally come up with is…

    YOU BASTARD!!Have fun, be safe…you bastards.

  3. So apparently it's not doing a return after I close my HTML tags...