Latin America on a budget: How to plan a budget-friendly adventure

latin america budget

Latin America is one of the world’s most budget-friendly regions for visitors. There are very cheap places to stay across the region–most notably across Central America–where a few dollars will get you a bed for the night and dinner.

But in a budget-friendly region like Latin America there are also huge divides in terms of quality. How do you do your research to make sure that you come up with decent accommodations and an itinerary that delivers the best value for your money?

There’s a big difference between a guesthouse that’s cheap, clean, and cheerful and one that’s filthy and barely fit for a hedgehog. There’s a big difference between good cheap restaurants and bad cheap grub, too. How do you make the right planning decisions to make sure that you end up pinching pennies in a manner that’s both high-value and high-quality?

In the video below I discuss how I planned my budget-friendly adventure to Antigua, Guatemala.


Check back tomorrow for my story and video on Antigua, Guatemala. On April 12 I’ll extend the same treatment to Suchitoto, El Salvador. All my videos were shot by Gadling’s own Stephen Greenwood. On April 19 Jeremy Kressmann will apply the Latin American budget magic to Bogotá, Colombia.

Latin America on a Budget is proudly sponsored by Delta Air Lines.

El Salvador: No visa required

el salvador no visa requiredLast week, on assignment in Guatemala and El Salvador, I took a luxury bus between Guatemala City and San Salvador. The bus company in question, Pullmantur, operates a fantastic service.

$35 got me transportation in a comfortable seat, along with breakfast (eggs, refried beans, and delicious, sweet fried plantains, as well as juice) and coffee later in the morning. There is a wi-fi connection on board as well, although during my trip this particular feature was not functioning. (Pullmantur also operates a more luxurious class of travel between Guatemala City and San Salvador for $52 per person, with a more extensive meal service.)

Yet one question remained unanswered as the bus lumbered toward the border. What precisely were the entrance requirements for US citizens entering El Salvador?

On the subject of entry and exit requirements, the US Department of State’s Travel.State.Gov site has the following to say:

To enter the country, U.S. citizens must present a current U.S. passport and either a Salvadoran visa or a one-entry tourist card. The tourist card may be obtained from immigration officials for a ten-dollar fee upon arrival in country.

Later in the description, we learn about the existence, since 2006, of the Central America Border Control Agreement, which covers El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This agreement allows citizens of these four countries to cross borders within the region without having to complete “entry and exit formalities at immigration checkpoints” and goes on to state:

In isolated cases, the lack of clarity in the implementing details of the CA-4 Border Control Agreement has caused temporary inconvenience to some travelers and has resulted in others being fined more than one hundred dollars or detained in custody for 72 hours or longer.

Reading through the State Department’s materials, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that I’d have to purchase a $10 tourist card to enter El Salvador. As the bus waited on the Guatemalan side of the Valle Nuevo border crossing, I asked a bus attendant where I should purchase my tarjeta de turista. Her perplexed response: There is no such thing as a tourist card. I at first wondered if my question confused the attendant because Americans were infrequent passengers on Pullmantur buses. This theory was dashed a few minutes later, when I saw a number of US passports among the stack being collected for exit processing from Guatemala.

A half-hour later our passports were returned to us with an exit stamp and we were on to the Salvadorean side. A young Salvadorean border guard boarded the bus, greeted each passenger individually, glanced at our passports, and logged each of us by citizenship on a clipboard-attached document. He didn’t demand that we purchase a tourist card, and the bus left in short order. It appeared that there were no tourist cards to be purchased at all.

The upshot: in El Salvador, no visa is required for American citizens, and, in fact, no tourist card is needed either–for land entry from a neighboring country, at least. Unless my experience was an isolated incident, the State Department’s information is misleading. Travel.State.Gov is an undeniably key resource for travelers offering all sorts of important information for tourists. In this instance, however, its information needs to be revised.

El Salvador has gotten a little attention in the travel media over the last few decades. Be on the lookout this spring for some new El Salvador coverage here at Gadling.

[Photo: Flickr | bryansblog]

Photo of the Day: Three friends in El Salvador

El Salvador boys dog puppy

No matter where you go in the world, some things are universal. It’s those things that help keep us grounded and comfortable no matter how far from home we may be. For me, I always cherish the smiles on kids’ faces. Kids are almost the same everywhere in the world. Boys are rambunctious and girls like to whisper and giggle. That’s why, even on the streets of El Salvador, you can find comfort in the smiles of two kids just walking by.

What I love even more about this photo from Gadling’s own Stephen Greenwood is that it adds yet another constant to the mix: a puppy. Puppies are cute no matter where you go.

For more of Stephen’s excellent photography, check out his Flickr page here.

Taken any photos kids with dogs? Or maybe just some fantastic pictures of the people, places and things you’ve encountered on your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.
country logos
Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.

Photo of the Day (2.5.2010)

Flickr user Adal-Honduras took this shot of El Salvador’s Lake Suchitlan, a popular weekend getaway for many Salvadorans. Located near the beautiful, colonial town of Suchitoto, Lake Suchitlan is one of the most gorgeous spots in perhaps the Western Hemisphere’s most underrated country.

Got some photos you want us to consider for Gadling’s Photo of the Day? Submit your best shots here.