Caribbean, Latin America Vacation Advice


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Grand Lodge

I'm wondering where to book my next vacation.

I'm looking more for "the local experience" than "the tourist experience." I love looking at architecture and atmospherically awesome small towns. I love hiking through a rainforest with others or maybe taking a train through one. I wouldn't mind a beach nearby though it's not the biggest priority.

I'm looking for somewhere where my US dollar will go far.

A typical US citizen, I only speak English. Sorry.

I want somewhere relatively safe but not so Americanized that I may as well be in Miami. (I lived in Miami for two years already -- not what I'm looking for.)

I can schedule pretty much any time so I'm thinking early November: starting to get cooler sorta, and before the big rush of tourists in late Nov through late January.

So,....
San Juan, Puerto Rico ....may as well be in the US
Kingston, Jamaica ....sounds fun
Belize City or the Capital of, Belize ....British Hondurus could be great
San Jose or Tortuguero or Playa Azul, Costa Rica ....best federal Constitution in the world today and a few friends from there convince me
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic ....my early first choice
Tampico or La Paz or Acapulco, Mexico ....picking names off the map
Guatemala City, Guatemala ....a country that is a big volcano & a million sinkholes -- but two friends in the past are from there, great city
Tegu City, Honduras ....hmmm
Port au Prince, Haiti ....don't laugh, half the price and after the earthquake of 2010, more westernized and tourist friendly, right?
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago ....ahh calypso music
Carracas, Venezuela ....maybe not right NOW but in 6 months?
Bogota, Columbia .... possible
Lima, Peru .... also possible -- I do love food
Rio de Janiero, Brasil ....maybe too expensive and I don't want to get sick

So, where are you from and what can you tell me about your suggestion?

Thanks!


I hate you. :(

Yes, it is envy.

:)


Have fun! Enjoy yourself.


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As a Chilean I'd say come here, but it seems the idea is to enjoy warmer climates and we're driving straight into a cold winter over here. So Chile and most of Argentina might not be a good idea!

But I've had the blessing of visiting most of the continent, so maybe I can be of help. Going by some of the places you mention (if you need input on others, I'd be happy to help!):

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: It's a good choice; been to Dominican Republic thrice, two for straight beach and one for more in-depth tourism. Close enough to you that the flight will be fast, and it has a lot of really cool historical sights to visit, like the Necropolis, the Tomb of Columbus (that thing's huge), etc. Depending on how fast you want to move, you should be able to check the main areas in 2 days, 3 if you take your time. Rest of the time could be spent at the beach in places like Punta de Canas.

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil: has a lot of options for all ranges of budget. Been there for work and vacation several times and it's a city you can never completely experience; there's just so much stuff to do and see. And the food is fantastic. It also has some spectacular beaches both right next to it and within close proximity (the archipelago of Angra Dos Reis is just a few hours southward and is a very nice place to see and rest at). Sao Paulo I would avoid; it's a stunning city in its own and has great places to visit and eat at (plus it's home to the most diverse set of cultures I've seen in a single place), but it's a nightmare to navigate.

Lima, Peru: Probably the best place to eat in America. Peruvian cuisine has this fantastical amalgamation of cultures, from the Spanish to the Japanese, that resulted in one of the most unique food selections anywhere. Lima itself also has a lot of really cool historical stuff accumulated during the centuries it stood as the head of the Viceroyalty of Peru, so you won't get bored. The weather is a bit boring, though, due to a particular micro-climate that keeps the city perpetually cloudy.

Mancora and Cuzco, Peru: If you're visiting Lima, you can complement the trip with the tropical beaches of Mancora to the north and the amazing historical sites of Cuzco. The latter has both fantastic sites (the Jesuit temple there has one of the biggest, if not the biggest, golden altarpiece in the continent. It's huge and so shiny) and great food (though I'd advice skipping the place called "Calle de los Chicharrones", where they fry so much stuff that the cobblestone itself is coated in oil). Plus you can take a 4-hour train to Aguascalientes and visit Machu Picchu.

Quito, Ecuador: Though smaller than other cities, Quito has one of the best preserved colonial heritage sites in America, and Ecuatorians really take pride in keeping it that way. You can really immerse yourself in historical landmarks.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia: Another excellent city for historical sight-seeing. It's right on the Caribbean shores, so it's as tropical as it gets, with fantastic beaches. But the really cool stuff here are the remains of the once mighty forts that centuries ago saw the fiercest battle among colonial powers in this hemisphere, the Battle of Cartagena. You'll see references to it all over the city and the man who won it, "El Mediohombre" (The Halfman, as during his years as a Spanish navy officer he lost an eye, a leg, and an arm), which is almost a patron of the city. Bogota is nice, but if you're going to Colombia, I'd go to Cartagenas and then to the nearby Barranquilla.

Caracas, Venezuela: I'd avoid it. Situation there is spiralling out of control and it's going to get worse before it gets better. Last time I was there was 2013 and, though Venezuela is a beautiful country, Caracas is rather depressing due to how tense the situation is. It feels devoid of life at times (plus it is extremely, extremely dangerous right now). I do admit seeing that you can fill a car with less money than it costs to buy a bottle of water was amazing.

Haiti: This is one I haven't visited, but a friend of mine has gone there several times as volunteer medic. Though the situation is better than it was right after the earthquake, it is by no means positive. It's the kind of tourism you do to immerse in the social hardships of the people, but not really to enjoy a pleasant vacation; you'll either feel too sad or too guilty half the time.

Guatemala City, Guatemala: Great place to visit, and much closer to Mayan ruins than places like Cancun! One thing of note that many people don't know is that the city is kind of new (founded in the last few decades of the 1700's), as the previous capitals kept crumbling down due to earthquakes. So while there is some historical stuff to see, it's less than in places like Santo Domingo, Havana or Cuzco, where you can still see stuff from the 1500's and 1600's (and older in the case of Cuzco).

Havana, Cuba: I'm not sure what's the current standing for US people visiting Cuba, but Havana is actually a very nice place to visit, particularly the Old City. This place was once the richest city in the Western Hemisphere, and though decades of Castros have taken their toll, you can still see some spectacular sites. You have to check carefully what you're photographing, though; I almost got my camera confiscated in 2007 because what I thought was a fancy colonial fort was in fact a political prison. But other than that (and the amazingly well-preserved cars), it's a very nice place to visit, plus only 2-3 hours from the great beaches of Varadero.

Rivera Maya, Mexico: This is mostly for straight-up beach time, though you can take trips to places like Chichen Itza if you are willing to sit on a bus for 3-4 hours (closer sites like Xcaret are mostly tourist traps I'd would advise against). The Rivera considers the whole north-eastern coast of Yucatan, and the main options are Cancun (bigger city, very tourist-oriented with a broad range of budget options), Playa del Carmen (small town that entirely survives on tourism and resorts. Though there are cheap options, it's not worth it unless you want to stay in a resort), and Cosumel (a small island off the coast of Yucatan. Has a more natural feel to it and is great to relax, but there's very little to see).

Grand Lodge

If I go to Chile maybe I can learn if it feels different driving over grapes and avocados.
;)

....I have always wanted to visit Concepcion.

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32

Puerto Rico is in the US, but I disagree that it 'might as well'. You won't have to go through customs, but it definitely keeps that 'small, poor, Caribbean island' feel - because it is all of those things. They'll take dollars, your cell phone will work (if you have a signal), your health insurance will be accepted, if it comes to that, and there are certain minimal environmental standards (i.e. you can drink the water). Plus your visa can't run out - when we visited (took the ferry out to Vieques) we met a cab driver from New Jersey who came with his family for vacation, and simply never went back.

Also, Puerto Rico has mofongo, which is delicious.

You should also consider the Bahamas, Jamaica, or the Turks & Caicos. Definitely not Americanized, but they speak English as a primary language.

Grand Lodge

You ARE the one who started that 'driving on avocados, driving on grapes' Thread a couple years back, right?....

.

Thanks for the reply, Klaus van der Kroft, it's a tremendous help.

More and more, Lima is becoming one of my top choices. Like I said in my OP, I really love nice cuisine and as you know, that's Peru.

I hadn't even thought of Ecuador but now, well, I really am intrigued from your couple of sentences.

Hey, maybe I'll pick Chile and we can go out for an evening of dinner at a nice restaurant!

. . . .

If I can impose a few more questions....

Could say say, on the average, how well US citizens are treated or looked upon in a few places?
Part of me wants a big billboard on my back that says, Hey, I'm an American; part of me doesn't want anything resembling a big bulls-eye on my back saying, Hey, I'm an American.

What are a few good choices where I can get around on foot or easily take cabs or buses (without speaking Spanish -- though I'll be learning some words and phrases in preparation)?


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What do you mean by caribbean?, I ask because is cold and rainy most of the year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oIIsLrpqHY ( You can hear the opinion of a US tourist)

If you go to peru and like archaeology and related stuff then machu pichi, puma punku and caral are breathtaking places.

Paizo Employee Developer

I've only spent a week there, but I'd strongly recommend Costa Rica. I spent most of my time near Tamarindo on the Pacific coast and a few days up near Lake/Volcano Arenal. It's a beautiful place, very affordable, and everyone I met was wonderful.

Grand Lodge

Well then, I guess Puerto Rico can go back to the top of the list.

It's funny, Ross Byers, when I drove Scott Keim up to Paizo a couple years ago about 4 out of 5 of my friends asked me if, after making the drive up there, I would never leave. They all know how much I hate where I live right now. And I'm not going to hide it: If while on vacation a career opportunity raises its possibilities, I may move there permanently in a year or so. But that's not the plan. Of course, that Jersey cab driver you reference was from Jersey, so,....
(But then, I lived in Philly for 9 years and went into south Jersey OFTEN -- worked at a school there even -- and I loved it far more than living in FL!)

Grand Lodge

Adam Daigle wrote:
I've only spent a week there, but I'd strongly recommend Costa Rica.

.

Costa Rica has always been near the top of my list. In fact, for the last 10 years I've thought of moving there permanently, vacation aside. Like I said in the OP, they have the best government structure in the world today and by far the most respectable Constitution. One of my best friends used to live there (coincidentally, one of Scott Keim's best friends, too) and it could be, at the very least, a great vacation.

.

I just don't know what to choose.

Part of the reason I'm thinking of going really cheap is so I can do this once a year, maybe twice some years. (Why spend 8 or 9 grand going to Europe when I can spend 2 grand going to Peru or $800 going to Haiti?!)


Nicos wrote:

What do you mean by caribbean?, I ask because is cold and rainy most of the year.

Derp, I meant Bogota is cold and rainy (through this year have been unusually hot and dry).

For tropical places with beach there are cartagena, santa marta and San andres (an Island).

Grand Lodge

I picked Bogota because it's the capital and thus, I figured, would have more historic sites in the city, more restaurants and be more open to travelers. But I think that Cartagena is the better choice of the two. (And Romancing the Stone was nice.) Even still, Columbia is falling on my list of choices, behind Peru, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Belize and DR.


W E Ray wrote:
You ARE the one who started that 'driving on avocados, driving on grapes' Thread a couple years back, right?....

Hah! That's some good memory!

W E Ray wrote:

Hey, maybe I'll pick Chile and we can go out for an evening of dinner at a nice restaurant!

Absolutely! Should you somehow end up in Santiago, just say the word!

W E Ray wrote:

Could say say, on the average, how well US citizens are treated or looked upon in a few places?

Part of me wants a big billboard on my back that says, Hey, I'm an American; part of me doesn't want anything resembling a big bulls-eye on my back saying, Hey, I'm an American.

Well, keeping in mind this is an entire continent we're talking about and thus it is impossible to make a single statement that covers the whole gamut, Latin American culture in general shares a common trait of hospitality toward visitors. In all my travels across the region, it's been pretty consistent that locals tend to enjoy people showing interest in their history and customs and tend to be friendly.

Regarding the particular case of US tourists, treatment in general is good. While the so-called Bolivarian Countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador) tend to be more politically hostile toward the US as a country, the sentiment doesn't really transfer to the population as a whole. In general, I'd say just act normal; people will be able to tell in an instant where you're from anyway.

W E Ray wrote:
What are a few good choices where I can get around on foot or easily take cabs or busses (without speaking Spanish -- though I'll be learning some words and phrases in preparation)?

Every single Latin American capital, with the particular exception of Brasilia, was designed with the same checkboard layout, which means historical downtowns (where most of the old stuff to see tends to be) tend to be easy to navigate regardless of the country. The most practical way to visit any of these cities is to head toward the main square -easy to identify because there's always a cathedral next to it- and walk around the blocks.

Things can get crazy the further you head from the centre, given how most cities in the continent had a rather chaotic period of growth during the first half of the XX century, so in some cases you'll need to grab busses to get to other interesting parts of towns.

Cabs tend to be ubiquitous like in every other part of the world, but here it's important to consider some cities can be dangerous if you are not careful. In my experience, Caracas and Mexico City are the most sketchy when it comes to cabs, so it's best to ask in the local tourism offices for details on which lines to use (as a general rule, if the city doesn't have a standarized cab system, you need to be on the lookout).

Uber and, to a lesser degree Cabify, has become rather commonplace in places like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, and it's available in most other countries in the region as well. Though usually more expensive than regular cabs, they are usually very safe and you at least get certainty you won't get swindled (which, sadly, happens a lot to tourists). Stuff like SaferTaxi also works (at least here in Santiago. Not sure if it's available in other cities, but it should be).

Trains are very rarely an option; some scenic routes exist, but Latin America has never been too keen on extensive railway systems. Most big cities have metro systems, though, and in general they are reliable, though not necessarily extensive.

Language-wise, you should be able to get around without necessarily knowing Castilian, as most cab drivers can at least understand some basic words. Since the region is used to tourism, you'll always be able to find some kind of assistance for more sophisticated requests in every major city (towns and rural areas are another thing entirely, though).

Instead, the main barrier might be slang. From the outside, Latin America appears to be very homogeneous, but it really is a melting pot of closely-related by different cultures, and this reflects in the slang. For instance, a running joke is that no one can understand Chilean slang; another is that the exact same words can mean vastly different things depending on the country you are visiting (such as words like "Guagua" meaning "Baby" in one place and "Bus" in another). In Argentina they use a lot of Italian loanwords; in Peru they employ a wide range of Quechua and Aymara-based terms. So while basic Castilian works everywhere ("¿Donde esta el baño?" will get you the closest bathroom whether you are in Honduras or Paraguay), understanding what the locals are saying might be challenging. That's the case even in places where countries sound like they speak similarly if one isn't used to hearing them (like Colombia/Venezuela, Peru/Bolivia, Argentina/Uruguay, etc), which makes it all even more complicated.

It's common for libraries to have tiny handbooks with the local slang, though, so that's always an option if there's no one to translate to you.

Hope it helps!


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I've lived overseas for 2 dozen years. Always did enjoy getting off a cross-country bus or train at the wrong stop, and then figuring out how to get home. It takes a few days. You end up meeting lots of nice people, eventually, trying interesting new food, and learning a bit of whatever the local language/dialect is out of necessity. You also get really good at sign language (need a bathroom, where is the train station, etc.)

Have fun. The local experience is well worth doing, however you end up doing it.

Paizo Employee Developer

W E Ray wrote:

Costa Rica has always been near the top of my list. In fact, for the last 10 years I've thought of moving there permanently, vacation aside. Like I said in the OP, they have the best government structure in the world today and by far the most respectable Constitution. One of my best friends used to live there (coincidentally, one of Scott Keim's best friends, too) and it could be, at the very least, a great vacation.

After rereading your original post and noticing that you don't speak Spanish, I'll also give another recommendation for Costa Rica. While there aren't as many people that speak English as in Belize, there are plenty of people who speak English and in the recent decades there has been a big push to get more Ticos to learn English. (I speak enough Spanish to get by in most places, but I'm rusty enough that if I initiated conversation in Spanish, whoever I was talking to most of the time would just switch to English... guess I was rustier than I thought. :) Of course after moving up here from Texas four years ago and not having anyone to practice with, I'm even rustier.)

Honestly, if I could afford it, I'd move out of this cloudy rain fest and move to Costa Rica in a hot minute. Hell, freelancing from the beach or jungle doesn't sound half bad.


My two cents from a gringo's viewpoint: Here are the places I've traveled, in my order of preference. I'm not completely fluent in Spanish, but I speak it fairly well, which is obviously very advantageous in the less touristy areas. I have never felt the least bit threatened in anywhere I've traveled, even when lost by myself in the dark in the middle of nowhere. That's not to say that you shouldn't take some precautions and be wary, but in my opinion I would be far more worried about a traffic accident than being the victim of violent crime. A few people come to harm every year, but out of the millions travelling, the risk is pretty low. In Latin America, nearly all of the culturally and historically interesting sites are tainted in some way by the rampant slaughter and subjugation of the native people by European colonists, which always makes me feel sad and guilty. That doesn't make them less interesting, though.

1) Medellin Colombia - Medellin has made a complete turnaround from the dark days when it was the murder capital of the world. I'm particularly impressed by the pervasive and spotlessly clean metro system, complete with aerial gondolas up the hillsides. The Flower Festival in August is a unique cultural experience, and in December they light up the entire riverfront with glowing sculptures. The people are very ambitious, friendly, and generous. Even wandering through the slummier sections, I noticed kids playing soccer and chess (there are sections where you should definitely not go, however). You are a short jaunt away from a tour through the coffee country. Only a 3.5 hour flight from Miami.
2) Costa Rica (Pacific Coast) - If you want a vacation on the beach and/or in the rain forest, then this is the easiest destination. Most places are pretty touristy, and it's not as cheap as other Latin American destinations. Pretty much any location outside of San Jose can be recommended.
3) Bolivia (La Paz and altiplano) - The least touristy, and therefore most authentic (some would say), experience. One of the few train rides you can take in South America, from Oruro south into Argentina, it crosses part of the salt flats full of alpacas and flocks of flamingos. Stop at Uyuni to venture into the largest salt flats in the world on one side, or the Andes on the other. Climb the easiest 6000m peak in the world (not that easy, but definitely possible if you're in reasonable physical condition). Take a tour of the hellish conditions in the Potosi mines, the source of much of Spain's wealth (first, make sure to buy some coca and dynamite, easily available on the streetcorner, to offer as gifts to the current miners). Not many people speak any English outside of the few tourist zones, and some don't speak Spanish either! Aymara is commonly spoken (I didn't learn any). I believe a visa is still required for U.S. citizens.
4) Cartagena/Santa Marta Colombia - The beaches are okay, but full of people and pushy vendors. Instead, take a snorkeling tour, which I thought was much better. Definitely some good history to be seen here.
5) Mexico City - Tons of history and cultural interest here. It has a very European vibe, lots of diverse restaurants and people walking everywhere. Think of the stereotype of the sombrero-wearing Mexican, taking a siesta in the shade of a cactus, and that's the exact opposite of what you'll find here.
6) Mexico (Gulf of California coast) - Much closer to that Mexican stereotype. I've been working for the last six months in a sleepy little town on the mainland side of the Gulf of California. It's a good place to relax, sip a margarita on the beach, do some kayaking, mountain biking, what have you. The Baja peninsula shields the ocean on this side from strong tides and waves. I haven't got around yet to taking the ferry across to Baja and doing a road trip. Warning: Summer temperatures routinely climb above 120°F. October through May is a better time to visit.
7) Bogota Colombia - Some very interesting sites within half a day's drive. I recommend visiting Andres Carne de Res for a steak. Even though it's not as big as Mexico City, from the top of Montserrat it seems to stretch out forever, just unimaginably huge.
8) Asuncion Paraguay - Not much of cultural or historical interest here. Flat, ugly, and boring. That sounds harsh, I'm sure it's not a bad place to live, but if you're going on vacation, you can pick someplace more worthwhile.

Liberty's Edge

Check out Negril in Jamaica. Beautiful beaches, reggae, lots of fun and they speak english. Completely discard Kingston, nothing to do there, and it's a dangerous city.


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

I'd echo one of Klaus' recommendations above. Just got back from Cartagena about a month ago, and it was amazing for it's cultural and historical significance.

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