Trip Coach: March 11, 2008
Tim Leffel, co-author of "Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America," answered your questions on Mexico and Central America.
Tim Leffel: Welcome everyone. I'm Tim Leffel, author of several books on traveling well for less, including this new one coming out at the end of the month, Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America (co-written with Rob Sangster). I also edit the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel, run a few blogs, and write for several magazines, including Budget Travel. Let's head south!
Chicago, Ill.: I'm planning a trip to Mexico, but I'd like to fly as little as possible. How extensive/reliable are the trains?
Tim Leffel: Unfortunately, trains have become almost extinct in Mexico. It's a real shame, because there are lots of routes where idle tracks could be put to good use. For now though, the only trip of any length you can take is around the Copper Canyons. There used to be one that did a route around the Yucatan, but the operator has shut it down, maybe for good. So I'm afraid you're stuck with the buses. The good news is, the bus system in Mexico is very good, with the upper class options being new vehicles with 3 seats across and lots of legroom.
Madison, Wis.: I plan to visit Puerto Escondido December 14-21,2008, flexible dates, for their patron saint festival. I have found airfare $900 US and up from MSN to PXM. Is this a reasonable price? Most seem to be 4 leg routes. I also have a friend in Seattle, Washington who would like to join me. Any tips on cheap fares and times to book for Mexico? Thank you, Barb
Tim Leffel: No, this is not a reasonable price and if you hold off a while it will almost certainly come down from that. If you were going over Christmas break, that would be one thing, but the week you are going is usually quite slow all over Mexico. You could also fly into Oaxaca City and go by bus or car from there too, so you've got a backup option that is at least one less leg. Hold out before booking and watch for sales. Also check the route maps for the Mexican airlines as it might be easier or cheaper to buy a domestic ticket to one of their gateways and then get the rest from them.
Silver City, N.M.: My husband and I are planning a trip to Oaxaca to celebrate my birthday and retirement in October. I've read about the tourist Yu'u's in the small communities around the city, and am interested in trying that. I could use some advice with my itinerary. Are reservations needed? should I rent a car? what do I need to bring, etc. I am also interested in traveling down to the coast while there, and would appreciate advice about that as well. Thanks very much! Marcia
Tim Leffel: If you follow this link to a tour company page on Planeta.com, you will find three companies there that specialize in responsible, hands-on tours in the area. I would get in touch with one of them and give them a sense of what you are looking to do. In most cases like this, it won't cost you a whole lot more than if you traveled on your own, but they'll have contacts and access.
Pasco, Wash.: What are the costs involved with retiring to Central America--esp. with the dollar at all time low now! Is it still a great bargain to retire to Panama, Costa Rica or Belize? Are Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua still too dangerous to live in? I am on Social Security and am considering retiring out of the USA.
Tim Leffel: The picture is definitely changing and as other nationalities are discovering the great real estate bargains in some parts, prices are rising. Costa Rica hasn't been a deal for a long time: the coastal areas there only look cheap now if you're comparing them to California or Florida. The interior is not so bad though. Panama's prices are rising rapidly because of a huge influx of business-oriented Venezuelans getting away from Chavez, especially in the capital. Belize is not as far along on the development curve and there are still plenty of bargains, especially once you get off of Ambergris Caye.
Most expatriates living in Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua will tell you that they feel as safe or safer there than they do in the U.S. and it's not like there's still a civil war going on anywhere. Most of the crime is in urban areas, where you aren't likely to live as an expat anyway. I have a house in Mexico and people ask me all the time, "Is it safe?" Well compared to the crime stats in my average U.S. city, it's VERY safe. The best bet for getting the real story is to subscribe to International Living or at least keep an eye on the articles in EscapeArtist.com. If you see a book or e-book written by someone who has moved there and is sharing what they know, it is often worth buying it to save yourself some time in the research process. Most of these countries offer different incentives for retiring there if you can document a steady monthly income, which you will be able to do. Plus the economies are tied to the dollar, so everyday costs will still be the same or far less than you pay at home overall and you can afford domestic help and entertainment that you wouldn't be able to afford at home.