There are far better people to get your Latin America travel tips from.
But since we’re all here…
This was made as an addition to Episode 48 of the 10-Minute Contrarian Podcast:
I have been to most places in Central America, and about half of South America. We’ll exclude the Caribbean for now (PR, DR), because it can be its own style of travel altogether at times.
I’m also a different bird from most people. I’m single, business-focused, eat a low-carb diet when I can, and have little to no desire to see or do anything touristy.
So just know whose perspective you’re viewing things from ahead of time.
1 – Have Cash
Also know that these tips can apply to a lot of places, but especially in LatAm, always have cash on you.
Not just for emergency situations we described in a previous blog post either. For everyday stuff.
Every once in a blue moon, cabs will be more convenient than Ubers will. They don’t take credit cards.
A lot of smaller restaurants and everyday services (dry cleaners) don’t take cards. And they don’t warn you ahead of time.
Sometimes your cards won’t work. My bank cards work about 3/4 of the time, and thankfully my Crypto.com card works almost all the time, but if I didn’t have that card, there could be issues if I didn’t also have cash on had at times.
Sometimes in larger restaurants or even supermarkets, the credit card machines will be down or have a weak signal, and cash will prevent you from being stalled out somewhere.
Plus, most places just prefer it. The 7-11 clerk almost always rolls her eyes when I take my card out.
And when you get it, just get a lot of it so you don’t have to go back to the ATM. The most reliable multinational I use (BBVA) charges me around $8 USD per withdrawal. No huge deal, but not something you want to be doing every day if you don’t have to.
Not every ATM will accept your cards either. I had real issues in some countries. So handle this part as early as you can, and get more than you think you will need.
If you have extra cash as you’re leaving, there are almost always exchanges available, unlike a place like the US for example, so you can just switch it back. If you get agitated about fees and such for one-off transactions, then travel may not be for you.
General travel tip 1A – Get used to throwing good money after bad. Overpaying, leaving things behind, buying the wrong thing, etc. I always say, my first time going somewhere is a “scouting trip”, where I get a feel for things and make all of my mistakes now, so next time I can hit the ground running.
2 – Learn Some Spanish
You’re very lazy if you can’t be bothered to learn some Spanish. The best part of LatAm is its people. How far would you go out of your way to hang out with somebody in your own country who had no interest in learning your language one bit?
If your primary language is English, you will have an easier time here, because a lot of people know anywhere from some to lots. As I mentioned before, a lot of people have been to the US, and sometimes for years at a time to study or work.
But if your Spanish is shaky, how you open the conversation is important. People say I have a very nice Mexican accent. I have no idea where this came from, but it’s bad, because if I open the conversation in Spanish, people just assume I am fluent.
I am not. At all. And Spanish is the second fastest spoken language in the world (behind Japanese), AND people often speak behind masks, so I can’t read their lips. I may speak it on a third grade level, but I understand it on a pre-school level.
I don’t like opening the conversation in English either, because then they assume I’m the guy I described above, who knows nothing.
If it’s something more complicated than ordering food, which I can do easily, (so something like talking to a pharmacist for example), I will open the conversation with “Como es su ingles?” (“How is your English?”).
I will either get a “good”, “bad”, or that “so-so” hand gesture where you stick your hand out and rotate it left and right.
This is good. I can work with either of those answers. And now both of us know where we stand. This is so much better than having somebody assume I’m fluent.
Plus, if you are going to approach somebody you find attractive, and you speak no Spanish, get ready for some awkwardness.
I thought approaching girls in LatAm would be easier than the US/UK, but it’s not. When you don’t speak the language well, it’s almost impossible to understand nuance, sarcasm, lots of things that differentiate you from an NPC.
But sometimes you can open with a little bit of Spanish (don’t forget to tell them your Spanish sucks along the way), and then get a little bit of English back in return. This is the ideal scenario. I’ve had girls I’ve dated who speak English to me, then I speak Spanish back, and this has worked out way better than expected.
Either way, don’t be a putz. Learn some Spanish. You can get by in dozens of different countries with just a little bit, and once you know some, it will naturally get better by you being over there.
Plus, lots of people will love practicing their English on you.
3 – Don’t Rent a Car
I mentioned this in the past. There’s little reason to do this.
If you want to explore the countryside in a very safe and developed place like Panama, go right ahead and rent a car.
Just be ready for some white-knuckling once you get to the city. Make sure you have insurance.
Inside of cities, Ubers are usually very cheap and plentiful, and if you trust it, DiDi is a good backup.
People think it’s funny when I say Americans don’t trust Chinese apps, when a lot of them have Huawei phones sitting in their pockets.
I mentioned in a previous podcast how I spent $67 on transportation for one month. This did not include a ride to the airport because I didn’t need one that month, but you can certainly get by with paying this amount or even less depending on where you choose to stay.
Cabs are usually fine too, but many of them don’t have seat belts, so you have to decide if this is okay with you.
It really doesn’t matter, because there are very few car accidents in most Latin American cities.
Driving is often chaotic by US/CAN/UK standards (we are soooo proper when it comes to the road), but because there’s less room to drive fast, if there ever are accidents, they’re usually very minor.
Compare this to 10-car pileups and wrecks which kill all 4 people in the car back in the US.
Outside of cities can be too much of an adventure. Roads that don’t do what you think they should do. Routes that take you way off course. And if you’re not careful, man-made “roadblocks” where dirty cops and low-level banditos might be there to shake you down for money.
Not. Worth it.
Take buses if you want to go to nearby cities. Fly otherwise. Very little need to rent a car in these countries IMO.
4 – Do Not Rely On Google Maps
You pretty much need it to see where you’re going, but just know it can and will fail you at least once a week.
ESPECIALLY if you are looking for a particular place to go. Google Maps is great if you want to find restaurants for example, and see what they have on the menu.
Do more research though. Call the number and see if somebody answers. And if you can, verify that this is the place you saw on Google Maps.
Because it may not be.
Plus, for lunch, a lot of places won’t open until around 1pm or 2pm. This is later than most Westerners are used to in many cases.
And always have a backup place to go. I’ve had Ubers drop me off at a lavanderia, only to find out it was closed for some odd reason, and there was no other one nearby, and my Uber had driven off as I stood there like an idiot with my bag of laundry.
Latin America also has holidays Westerners aren’t familiar with, and just about everything may be closed that day. If you need to get something done, do it the day before.
A lot of places are closed on Mondays. Be mindful of this too.
5 – No Need For Flash
I like to dress well, but there is no need to go above and beyond here.
People in Latin America, as hot as it gets, already dress nicely for the most part. Even in poorer areas. Men will usually have a nice collared shirt, good fitting pants, clean shoes, etc.
Cut-off sleeves and gym shorts out in public are not a good look here (or anywhere). Flip-flops are seldom worn unless you’re on the coast, and even then, it’s not as common as the US.
I had said before too, I feel very safe almost all the time in LatAm, but I also use common sense.
If you wear high-end clothes with big labels, or flashy jewelry, you will probably be the only one. You better be able to back it up. Do you really want all this extra pressure?
Just leave all that stuff at home. And don’t look like a bummy American who doesn’t know where they are either. Good fitting Ts and nice jeans will get you fitting right in, even at night.
I can spot an American a mile away here with their ugly shorts and old flip flops.
I can spot a Brit a mile away here with their ugly shorts and their obnoxiously bright colored trainers.
I can spot somebody from the EU here because of their goofy man-bag (which they’ll even bring into the nightclubs, lol).
Just don’t. Blending in is more important than standing out here. Trust me on this.
6 – Most Water is Fine
People freak out over the tap water. The thing is, most locals don’t want to drink it either. So in every restaurant you go to in larger cities, you won’t need to ask for filtered water, it will already be filtered, along with the ice.
Or in some cities like Panama City and Buenos Aires, the tap water is very drinkable.
Do make sure you have an abundant amount of bottled water in your hotel room however if necessary. It can run out faster than you expect.
7 – Eat All of the Food
With the way I like to eat (low carb), it can be difficult in some places. I recommend you just run around and eat everything you can find, then decide later what you want to have again.
In Mexico for example, I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked things like goat, gizzards, and tacos with tongue and head in them.
I was also surprised at just how often that country can fuck up a steak.
You won’t know unless you try. If you end up hating something, well at least now you know.
And ask other people what’s good. They may have things your country does not, and they’re not all obvious. Also, gizzards for example from a great place will differ from an average place, and the good place may be much cheaper. Won’t know unless you bother to find out. And food in LatAm is definitely worth finding out about.
“But I don’t want to get sick”
Why would you get sick? Unless everyone else around you is getting sick too, which isn’t realistic, you have nothing to worry about.
8 – Health Care
Speaking of getting sick, Latin America is a good place to get sick, if you’re ever going to of course.
There will be people who don’t want to leave the West because of health care. I can’t understand it. Most of these people are also too scared to travel in general.
Look at this. Mexico is actually above the US, and places like Colombia, Panama and even Guatemala are not far behind.
I needed to go to the doctor in Mexico City. I had cash, of course. I looked up English speaking doctors and found a place that caters to expats.
When the place I went to found out I had cash, I got admitted immediately. Bring your passport. They’ll take a few minutes putting you in their system, and you’re ready to go.
I waited in the doctor’s office for 10 minutes, he came in and sat down with me for 20 minutes, took care of the problem, gave me some prescriptions, and off I went. He said for me to come in next week and check in with him.
He studied in the States, as do most of them. English was near perfect.
Hell, US doctors often set up shop in Latin America to avoid insurance and overhead issues. I have yet to use one, they may cost more, but I don’t know.
But my total, with prescriptions, was under $200. For immediate care!
Could have been thousands back home for what I got done. And don’t mention Urgent Care, this was far better than going to one of those.
I’ve had great physical therapy done for my shoulder by a guy who takes care of a lot of the UFC fighters in Mexico. $25 a session. When I had physical therapy done for my elbow in Vegas, it was $110 a session.
Don’t get me wrong, if I have to have some kind of major surgery, I’m coming back home to the States.
For everything else, I’m doing it in Mexico. And if I can’t get there, I have no issues doing it in the current country I’m in.
Those health care fears are vastly overrated.
“But what if I’m in a major accident, and I…..”
If you’re going to live your life by those odds, you should just stay where you are and never go anywhere. I don’t try and reason with people like this.
Oh, and as far as Over the Counter meds go, it doesn’t get cheaper than this. I just bought a 24 pack of generic Zyrtec for under $2 usd the other day.
9 – Dating
Ladies, if you don’t like the way I talk about women, understand that I don’t play by these new rules of Western society. They’re dumb. If you would rather hear comforting lies as opposed to harsh truths, you have been on the wrong website for a long time now.
Dating is harder in LatAm than it is in the West. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier.
For starters, I’m not in one place for very long, and this makes establishing relationships more difficult. Once I find a good place to base out of, this should change.
Women in LatAm have not all completely lost their religion like Western girls have. It will take you longer to seal the deal. Do not approach them the same way as you do a girl you just want to take home that night.
You don’t have to go all 1950’s with it, but don’t go full speed ahead either.
In fact, depending on where you are, looking for a hookup can be very dangerous, because they know that’s often why you’re there.
I’ll address this in a moment.
I will say it now however, dating apps are the way to go for most people, but I currently don’t use them. I am comfortable approaching women, as difficult as it can be out here.
I would go as far to say unless you’re Mr. International Playboy, don’t even bother trying to meet women the old school way if you’re going to be there for less than two weeks. You’ll just waste your time.
They typically do not want long-distance relationships either, so thinking you’re going to set yourself up for the next time you come back is probably going to fail too.
You will usually have to take them out a few times and deal with their flightiness.
You can set boundries right away and let them know if they’re late all the time, or playing games, you’re out, because they do like doing that shit more than most women do. This is normally the way to go IMO, but be prepared to lose some of them.
On the other hand, if they DO take to you right away, this should be an immediate red flag. Sure, there’s a chance it might be love at first sight, but 99% of the time it isn’t.
Once you start getting down to places like Panama and Colombia, a lot of girls there will be interested in you for money if you are a Westerner or Asian.
By this, I don’t mean a man who will take them out and pay for them. I mean, give them actual money.
And they’re super hot down there, you’re going to want to.
But don’t. It can lead to something far more sinister. Western dudes get rolled all the time there.
Just go to YouTube and look up scopolamine. If you don’t already know, it’s about time you learned.
This is not a common thing, but the way the women lure you into giving them money is the same way they lure you into getting drugged and robbed.
And some guys never make it home.
This is not super common, most women there are not criminals, but it does happen, and all it takes is one, so basic precautions are necessary.
Here is how you avoid it.
If a Colombian girl for example does take to you right away, starts calling you “bebe”, and “amor”, abort immediately.
Again, you will not want to abort, but a good Colombian girl will never behave that way. They will take longer to get to that point, just like any other proper girl in LatAm will.
I met a lot of hot Colombian girls in Panama, and there they did not have access to those drugs or the male crew they run with to rob people (assuming they do).
I did have a good time with many of them (I ran with a group of smooth Venezuelans, so it was easy), and sometimes I would get their number and they told me to look them up when I got to Colombia.
After I sobered up, I had no intention of meeting them later. They liked me too much that night. But it didn’t hurt to throw a text or two out there anyway just to see if I was right or not.
Out of the two I called, both said they would see me again if I took them out and gave them money. One asked for $300!
I blocked both of them. Who knows what would have happened had I simped out and got together with them later.
My Venezualan friends yelled at me when I told them I texted two of them back, LOL.
The problem in Colombia too, especially in a city like Medellin, sex tourism is rampant there.
If you are a foreigner walking around at night alone, many people will assume you are there for the same reason. So the initial difficulty goes up even more.
If hooking up is high on your list when you come to these places for a short time, my advice is to seek out other travelers. Seriously, the good ones here take time, and the dangerous ones don’t. Not a friendly combo if you are only there for a week or two or less.
Then again, if you’re looking for a long term partner, so are they in many cases. Just make sure you are as committed as they are.
If you are gay, stick to larger cities. Latin Americans by in large are not as tolerant as the West, which doesn’t mean you’re in any danger, it just means you’re not going to meet a lot of like-minded people unless you’re in the larger metros.
10 – Graffiti and Razor Wire
Even in some of the nicest areas in Latin America, you will often see graffiti (not the pretty kind), and razor wire/electric shock wire over the walls that surround people’s homes and businesses.
In the West, you would immediately think, “What a run-down area this is”. But it’s not the case here.
Most cities here don’t have copious amounts of excess money to simply paint over a wall when it gets tagged.
Tagging doesn’t mean a particular gang owns this particular area either. I walk around at night all the time. Gangs don’t run shit. The cops handle them with very little kindness.
And razor wire, if you think about it, is a very effective home security device that costs a small fraction of an alarm system or cameras.
It just makes sense here. Don’t let it spook you.
Bars on windows, in some countries, are more of a status symbol than anything. It’s weird if you don’t have them.
11 – Tipping
You will be spending less money here, so tip well and tip freely.
As a hospitality person for as long as I was, I do it anyway, but you can become known in certain bars and restaurants pretty fast by being a 20% tipper, since it’s not common here.
I tip uber drivers fat, because I’m like “we need to keep these sumbitches on the road”. I don’t what anyone there to lose interest in being a driver like they have in the States. And the amount they make per trip compared to the gasoline they’re expending is ridiculous, hook them up please.
If you tip cabbies well, they will often give you their business cards, and now you have a driver on-demand. This is handy when you need a ride to the airport early in the morning for example, and don’t want to chance it with an uber.
Safety tip — Cabbies also get kickbacks by taking you to strip clubs and brothels. Avoid. Any legit place sill sell itself. Hitting those places up in foreign countries is already a bad idea usually, but going because a cabbie recommended it makes no sense at all.
Tipping in restaurants is also different every country you go to. In Mexico, you tell the waiter how much percentage-wise you want to give them when they bring the credit card machine to you. It’s a bit awkward, but I tip 20%, so it doesn’t bother me much.
In El Salvador, it’s almost always already included.
In Colombia, you can’t go over a 10% tip on your credit card (I throw them some extra cash).
In Nicaragua, they really really want you to tip in cash.
It’s different everywhere you go. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Then there’s the other kind of tipping, the one you may voluntarily give a bouncer at a club for example.
I won’t go too into this one, but let’s just say I’ve never gotten so much instant access for $10USD. I wish every country had a culture like this!
You may disagree with some of what I wrote, but I can only speak for my own experiences, and I’ve lived out this way long enough to where I feel like I can offer some helpful observations.
Do with them as you will. The only way to know for sure is to get in there and discover things on your own.
But I think not making a lot of dumb mistakes along the way can lead to a better experience. So I hope you found some entertainment here if anything.