Traveling to and Through Latin America and Spain

By OptiLingo

How Challenging Is It to Travel in Spanish Nations?

Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Spain is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Spanish language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, it’s helpful to know how to get around in Latin America and Spain if you’re ever planning on visiting any Spanish speaking nation.

Booking a Bargain Flight

Among the busiest passenger airports in Latin America are Benito Juarez International, São Paulo–Guarulhos International, El Dorado International, Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas, and Barcelona–El Prat.

LATAM Airlines Group is the parent company to some of the top airlines serving Latin America. They include LAN and TAM Airlines, as well as affiliate carriers in Peru, Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador. The combination of all the different carriers fly to 140 destinations in 24 countries and provide cargo services to about 144 destinations in 26 countries, with about 328 aircraft and roughly 53,000 employees. Some of the main airlines serving Spain are Iberia, Air Europa, and Copa Airlines. Another main carrier serving both Latin America and Spain is Aeromexico. Once state-owned, this carrier is now a part of the Sky Team alliance with Delta, Air France, and Korean Air.

Many US and European carriers are in competition for passengers to Latin America and Spain, so take your time and shop around to find the best deal. Book in advance for the biggest savings and keep in mind that holiday travel around Christmas and Easter are usually very busy, with higher fares and less availability. The summer months may also be relatively booked because many people use their vacation time to visit countries in Latin America.

Getting Around

Latin America and Spain have excellent transport in most of the major cities and towns. This includes extensive bus and metro systems and cheap, efficient public transport. There are many ways to travel throughout the regions; there’s local buses, known as “camiones,” and minivans and small buses known as “combis,”“micros,” and “colectivos.” Some of these vehicles may be very crowded and uncomfortable, but the cheap price may be worth the inconvenience for some travelers. The most efficient means of transport is the Metro system, except for the peak hours when a large number of locals use it. The subway system in Mexico City is the second-largest in North America (New York City being first) boasting twelve lines and 195 stations. A prepaid smartcard is used for the fare; this card can also be used for the Metrobus.

A relatively inexpensive way to get around is via taxis, with the new services provided by Uber and Cabify offering even lower fares. There are other car services provided that may be cheaper and more convenient, but you should stick to reputable companies, preferably from a taxi rank, known as a sitio. You can also get names of a couple of good companies from your hotel and use them whenever you need to get around the area. The cheapest way to get around is by bus, including “combis,”“micros,” and “colectivos,”(also known as “peseros” because the fare used to be one peso). The fare is paid in cash upfront or when you get off. These modes of transport are known to be noisy, crowded, and dangerous to ride, due to their loud music, poor maintenance of vehicles, and the risk of being robbed.

Taking the Bus

Getting around on buses in Latin America and Spain can be an interesting adventure and an opportunity to experience rural life. You may have seen a stereotypical characterization of the “chicken bus,” full of people and livestock, chugging down dusty, winding roads; you may actually see one in very remote areas. The bus is the most inexpensive way of local travel, for short and long distances, but some trips are very time consuming; the bus ride from Tijuana to Cancun takes almost three days.

In actuality, the majority of major cities in Latin America and Spain have up to date, air conditioned buses that provide service to most areas of the countries, with onboard entertainment and very little wait time. The bus stations are modern with free WiFi and food vendors. You can book your trips ahead of time at some of the bigger companies, such as ADO and TAP. If you’re buying a ticket at the station, you should make the purchase at least a day in advance.

In most cities and towns, the main bus station, called the “Central Camionera,” or “Terminal de Autobuses,” will be located at the outer part of the town. There are three categories of long-distance bus, referred to as a camion in Latin America and Spain, instead of an autobus. The best of these buses and the costliest, are the executive services, advertised as “Primera Plus,” “De Lujo,” “Pullman,” or “Ejecutivo.” Some of the extra perks include hot drinks, toilets, and more cushy seats than buses in the Primera category, which also offer reserved seats, videos, and air-con. Finally, Segunda can differ in quality, may not have AC, and will usually make more stops during the trip. Direct buses will be distinguished as “directo” or “expreso.”

Driving – An Avoidable Annoyance

Driving in most cities in Latin America can be chaotic and probably should be avoided if possible. The areas are sprawling and many drivers are aggressive and don’t follow the rules of the road. This can also be said for areas in America and the UK, but being unfamiliar with the area will increase your risk of danger. Latin America has a good metro system, as well as inexpensive taxis and buses, so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.

Other more rural areas such as the archaeological ruins of the Yucatan, or Argentinian/Chilean Patagonia is relatively safe for driving if you’ve mapped out the area, know more or less where you are going, and have a good map or reliable GPS system. It’s always safer to drive during daylight hours though.

In general, driving in Latin America and Spain is pretty much the same as any other place. Some things you may notice are the signposting is less than adequate, toll roads are more costly but really worth it, and drivers may need a lot more leeway. Try to avoid roundabouts if possible as they’re fairly new and local drivers may not use them correctly. Passing is done on the left when driving on expressways. Seatbelts are a must, and cell phone use while driving is not allowed. Follow the rules of the road as there are harsh penalties and hefty fines for infractions. Also, be careful when walking, as drivers in some areas of Latin America believe they have the right of way over pedestrians. It’s always good to get and follow the advice of locals; always err on the side of caution.

Rules of the Road

Driving in Latin America and Spain is done on the right side of the road and passing is done on the left. The driving rules are relatively lax compared to rules in the US and Canada, and driving is done a bit haphazardly. Pedestrians beware as the infrastructure is not very accommodating for those on foot; most roads are narrow and winding with no sidewalks. Drivers are either not cognizant or not too concerned about a pedestrian’s right of way. Seatbelts are mandatory and it’s illegal to drink and drive.

If you will be doing any driving at all, you should get acquainted with the basic rules of the road and what all the road signs mean. Watch out for speed bumps, called “topes,” as they are numerous in many areas. You need to be wary of potholes and livestock as well, as either one could pop up unexpectedly at any moment.

The “Policía Federal de Caminos,” or Federal Traffic Police, is available to assist you with any issues you may have while driving through the region’s highways, like any car trouble or getting lost. The police in Mexico are called the “Policia de Transito,” and they will help with any problems while there. In general, Latin Americans and Spaniards are cautious when dealing with traffic police, as they have a reputation of stopping drivers to create nonexistent infractions that will require payment of a fine, referred to as “una multa.” If you find yourself in this situation, be respectful throughout the process and emphasize you’re a foreigner just visiting. If something occurs during the incident and you want to file a complaint, “una denuncia” in Spanish, wait until you get to your destination to do so.