Getting Around in Latin America

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After living in Latin America for a total of three months, I’ve learned that one of the most important factors of traveling and of studying abroad is the coordination of transportation. Whether you’re traveling between major cities or simply trying to get from your host family home’s to the mall, knowledge of public and private transit systems is crucial. With this post, I’d like to provide a few general tips about transportation and navigation in Latin America, and a few more specific scenarios I encountered getting around in Mexico and Costa Rica. Of primary concern, safety, reliability, and cost are features of transportation you must consider and factor into your schedule and budget while abroad.

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So, you want to go abroad?

Most likely, you’re going to need to fly to do so. Your initial flight to and from a country will likely be your greatest transportation expense. Utilizing websites such as Orbitz, Travelocity, and Kayak will help you find the cheapest flights possible and will even permit you to compare other sites’ offers and how cost varies with the dates you intend to fly. I have always been told the best time to purchase the cheapest flight abroad is six weeks from your travel date on a Tuesday afternoon. To me, this sounds more like superstition than fact. In general, I try to book three to four months in advance and look for flights with multiple connections. Though they are often more inconvenient and pose risks of getting delayed, I’ve saved an average of $300 per trip by adding an extra connecting flight.

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I’m here, Mexico. Now what?

Once you’ve landed in a Latin American city, it is crucial to speak with locals, such as your host family, and any support you have access to such as a university to find the best options for city transportation. In both Mexico and Costa Rica, I regularly utilized bus and cab services, which were relatively affordable. Official cabs are usually marked, for example lime green in Mexico and usually red with a triangular symbol inside of a circle in Costa Rica. Your education abroad program may require you to use official cab services only for liability purposes, thus you need to become familiar with how to spot an official cab, how to properly hail one, and the customary tipping habits of the area. In Costa Rica, it was not customary to tip cab drivers, although this was routine in Mexico. Do not be afraid to ask a local what is standard!

If a public bus system is well-established in your destination, make use of it as buses are likely your most economical method of in-city transit. In cities such as Guadalajara and Heredia, bus navigation was simple – routes and stops were posted in the window and the color of the bus usually indicated where it was headed. On average, bus fare ranged from $0.40-$1 depending on the distance traveled. To get to my university each day in Costa Rica, the bus service was incredibly affordable and reliable, which a new bus arriving approximately every ten minutes. Although it was often crowded and even more so on days will poor weather conditions, the bus system was efficient and my preferred method of transportation. Do your research in advance to see if your destination city has a well-organized bus system; this knowledge of public transit could save you $100 in some cities.

Ultimately, your preferred method of transportation should depend on your comfort level in the country and safety. Especially when traveling at night, it is important to consider the safety of private versus public transit, your proficiency in the dominant language in the country if you get lost, and if you are traveling alone or in a group.

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Vacation, all I ever wanted

If you’re studying abroad for a lengthy amount of time (longer than one month), it is very likely you’ll want to do some independent traveling or vacationing on weekends or academic holidays in-country or between neighboring countries. In general, in-country flights are very cheap with smaller airlines. For example, Mexico has a company called VivaAerobus, analogous to Allegiant in the United States, which offers flights for as low as $30. Additionally, there are upscale bus systems (much better than Greyhound) called Luxury Buses that feature fully reclining seats, movies, internet, and food on board. These tickets are around $20 depending on how far you plan to travel. I traveled from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta (roughly 8 hours) for $16 and with all the aforementioned amenities.

Nonetheless, it is relatively inexpensive to travel in Latin America if you do your homework in advance! If you are staying with a host family, never assume they have a personal car that you can use – this is NOT as common as you would expect. Additionally, traffic rules differ greatly from country to country so be aware whether you are using public or private transit or are on foot. Happy travels!


Sarah Caton is a Junior at the University of Kentucky majoring in Gender and Women’s Studies and Spanish. In the Summer of 2014, she participated in a study abroad program in Costa Rica through partner provider Sol Education Abroad