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Getting the Lowdown on Latin American Travel

September 24, 2000|LUCY IZON

Central and South America are a challenge for independent adventurers but offer wonderful rewards nevertheless: exploring Belize's 180-mile barrier reef (the second largest in the world); visiting Machu Picchu's ancient Incan ruins; haggling for brilliantly colored clothing in Ecuador's Indian markets; or trekking through Costa Rican rain forests.

Traveling in Latin America can be intimidating, possibly dangerous, and pre-trip research and planning on travel and safety issues are important. For a lot of helpful information and advice, read Lonely Planet's "Read This First: Central & South America," by Conner Gorry ($14.99).

The book doesn't contain listings of budget hotels or details on a city's public transportation. The author instead covers basic information, such as what to take, hazards, accommodations, festivals, health issues and culture shock.

You'll find suggestions for where to travel and when, and learn about hazards such as the rip currents in Costa Rica, which kill 160 people a year. The author also suggests you hire a guide in remote areas and that women, in particular, be wary of shady men posing as tour guides in Rurrenbaque, Bolivia.

Another good source of updated safety and cautionary information is the U.S. State Department, which offers recorded travel warnings and advisories at (202) 647-5225, by fax at (202) 647-3000, and on the Internet at http://travel.state.gov.

The online travel advisories offer updates on destinations. For example, author Gorry refers to Costa Rica as "safe and peaceful" and says "it's fast becoming one of the world's most popular backpacking destinations." But, by searching the travel advisories, you'll learn that there have been recent problems.

In March, two college-age women from the U.S. were killed near the town of Cahuita on the Caribbean coast. The travel advisory reports: "There have been several attempted sexual assaults, including one rape, by taxi drivers. Travelers should be careful to use taxis that have working door handles, locks and meters, and not ride in the front seat with the driver. There have also been several kidnappings, including those of foreigners, in recent years."

Gorry lists locations for the best diving, trekking, wildlife viewing, surfing and language study opportunities, plus 22 country profiles, each with a map and details on when to go, visa requirements, suggested itineraries, natural attractions, activities, health, how to keep in touch with home, handling money and Internet services.

"The great thing about Latin America," Gorry says, "is that in most countries you can indulge yourself without blowing the bank. . . . An excellent meal can be had in the restaurants of most top-flight hotels for less than $15. An air-conditioned room in a fine hotel can be had for about $30."

Generally, Mexico and the rest of Central America are cheaper than South America, Gorry says. Panama is the priciest.

Gorry advises a budget of $25 to $30 a day for Panama (and tourist areas of Belize and the Yucatan). Budget $15 to $20 a day in the rest of Central America, the writer says. South America falls into two cost categories: $10 and up countries (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia) and minimum $30 countries (Suriname, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay).

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based writer. Internet http://www.izon.com.

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