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After taking several trips to Latin America, it has become one of my favorite places. It is full of beautiful landscapes, great food, and kind people. If you’re considering visiting Latin America for the first, time, here is everything you need to know from visas to safety.
Passport and Visas
For most countries, your passport must be valid for at least six months from your travel dates.
For US citizens, most countries do not require visas for stays shorter than 90 days. The countries that require visas for American citizens, regardless of length of stay, include:
Some countries require a Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate. Although they weren’t required, I scheduled a CVS Minute Clinic appointment (super fast and easy) for:
- Hepatitis A and B
- Tdap booster (tetanus)
We weren’t planning on backpacking or doing anything in the jungles, so I didn’t feel the rabies vaccine was necessary. I played with many stray dogs in Guatemala and Costa Rica – all were docile and sweet.
As a general rule, bring a filtering water bottle and drink lots of bottled water. I bought a Life Straw water bottle and used a mix of my Life Straw water bottle and bottled water throughout Latin America. I brushed my teeth with tap water and didn’t have issues, but have heard of people using bottled water to brush their teeth in Peru. In some countries, it’s best to avoid foods like lettuce (washed with water), the local ice, or even dishes. We didn’t run into any issues. When in doubt, you can always ask the locals or people in your hostel. Most hostels had designated filtered water that was safe to drink.
The primary language in Latin America is Spanish. On several tours, I was surprised our guides did not speak English and many menus were in Spanish-only.
I learned Spanish over quarantine and speak A2/B1 Spanish. I was able to communicate with locals. I highly recommend learning Spanish in Guatemala. The accent is neutral compared to other countries and the locals don’t talk nearly as quickly as in Mexico. My Spanish was the best in Guatemala and I had several 1-2 hour conversations with locals.
Learning basic Spanish will take you a LONG way. I recommend on learning the foods in particular. Learning words like “chicken” “pork” and “smoothie” will make communication significantly easier.
Pro tip: I broke my permanent retainer in Guatemala and got it fixed in Bogota, Colombia for $75. My orthodontist didn’t speak English but she did a FANTASTIC job. On my second trip to Guatemala, I got my teeth cleaned. I learned about this whole world of dental tourism and it’s worth researching if you need any medical procedures done.
I rarely carry cash on me and I stupidly forgot a debit card when I first visited Latin America! (My credit card didn’t allow me to withdraw cash so I was stuck relying on friends or going without the entire month.) Many places (and arguably, the best restaurants) were cash-only. When going to Tijuana, Mexico, you can use an ATM machine in San Diego to withdraw American cash and exchange it for Mexican pesos.
To avoid insane debit card fees, I recommend a Charles Schwab debit card which refunds all of your ATM fees at the end of the month.
We used Uber for the majority of countries we visited. Uber is technically illegal in some countries (Colombia), the app works. Many drivers will just ask you to sit in the front seat. Including a tip, Uber is cheaper than taxis, is generally safe, and tracks your location.
Getting around Costa Rica:
We rented a car in Costa Rica. The driving wasn’t as crazy as other countries (Mexico, Colombia), but the roads were still intense!
Getting around Guatemala:
In Guatemala, we used tuk-tuks to get places in the small cities. These little motor carts are a common way for tourists and locals to travel. We never encountered (or heard) issues about drive-by purse snatchings, but were always cautious to have our things in front of us. Before you agree on a ride, discuss price upfront. All of our drivers were quite friendly (one even let me drive after I persuaded him in my broken Spanish) and we didn’t hear stories of dishonest drivers or people getting scammed, specifically in the touristy areas of Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Both of these areas are small enough that our driver always knew each destination.
Getting from Guatemala City (the capital/airport) to Lake Atitlan or Antigua requires a shuttle. We booked through GuateGo. The shuttle from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan is long and bumpy – I recommend motion sickness medicine if you’re prone to sickness. Shuttles to Lake Atitlan will take you to Panajachel. The main way to get to other parts of Lake Atitlan is by lancha, small water taxis. Lancha times vary depending on season but generally run every 15 minutes from 6:30am to 7pm. If your shuttle gets to Lake Atitlan lake at night, spend the night in Panajachel (the locals call it Pana, pahn-ah).
Pro tip: My Spanish skills came in handy on my second trip. I knew the prices for things and was in a better place to negotiate and barter.
Before visiting Latin America, safety was one of my biggest concerns. We didn’t encounter anything, but here were the safety concerns we were well aware of.
We carried crossbodies that allowed us to keep our things close to us and never left our bags unattended, which I’d recommend for all of Latin America. Body language and general confidence is another key to safety, as thieves often target vulnerable people.
Guatemala: In Guatemala, I visited Antigua, Guatemala City, and Lake Atitlan. Guatemala quickly became one of my favorite countries for the kindness of locals, scenery, and cost-effectiveness. We did not run into any safety issues in Guatemala and didn’t hear of any common scams. I walked around solo several times at night – for short distances in Lake Atitlan and Guatemala City and throughout the city in Antigua. Overall, locals don’t recommend walking solo in Guatemala City. Antigua is such a tiny city, and I wasn’t out solo past 11pm, but it was dark out several times I walked solo. When in doubt, take a tuk tuk.
Costa Rica: Do not leave valuables (or anything that anyone might perceive as valuable) visible in your car. Here is a common list of Costa Rica scams.
Ecuador: I was solo in Ecuador for a few days throughout Quito. I was most cautious in Quito and had the most catcalling incidents here. Avoid walking alone at night, being on your cell phone on the streets, or being publicly drunk/vulnerable. Although nothing bad happened, several locals repeatedly warned me to avoid those three and I was highly aware of the people around me. When in doubt, TRUST YOUR GUT. There were times I popped into a store if I had any bad vibes and I just called an Uber or waited until somebody passed.
Colombia: I love Colombia but it comes with some safety concerns! A common Colombian saying is “no dar papaya” – don’t give papaya. In other words, don’t make yourself vulnerable. These can include:
- Walking with your cell phone out in public
- Looking like a “dumb tourist” (ie looking at directions)
- Using Tinder
- Dancing in clubs with strangers
- Going home with strangers
- Doing drugs/buying cocaine
Almost all of the horror stories we heard involved someone buying drugs, dating, or dancing with strangers. A common drug in Colombia is called scopolamine, or “devil’s breath.” This drug renders an individual completely docile and wipes their memory. It is an incredibly common date rape and robbery drug in Colombia. Devil’s breath could be slipped in a drink and I heard rumors of people putting it on their necks (ie for when victims kissed their neck).
It seemed like most of the safety concerns with Colombia were targeted towards men. We met a few guys that got their cell phones stolen while dancing with women at clubs. (They are fairly certain the women stole them.) Scams include drug dealers selling coke to tourists, only to have them shaked down by dirty cops less than 5 minutes later.
Mexico: Mexico’s a mixed bag and greatly depends on your location. Tijuana has had a long history with the cartel and illegal activities are best avoided. Resorts are generally safe.