Trip Coach: March 11, 2008

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Memphis, Tenn.: My friend just returned from Belize and loved it. Now I want to travel to Central America. Here are my questions: How would you compare Guatemala and Costa Rica? What have your favorite experiences been in both countries? How do those countries differ from Mexico—including costs? I'm fascinated by the Maya culture. What Maya sites would your recommend? Thank you, Lisa T

Tim Leffel: Guatemala is about a third of the price of Costa Rica, yet in many ways has more going for it. You have the jungles, the volcanoes, and the adventure activities, but then you also have what is perhaps the grandest Maya site anywhere (Tikal) and what many would say is the most attractive Spanish Colonial city in the Americas (Antigua). There are also lots of smaller Maya ruins scattered around if you have the time to explore. Here's an article I wrote about a Family vacation in Guatemala.

The advantages of Costa Rica are an even greater diversity of wildlife, a huge supply of naturalists and professional guides, and beaches. You'll pay more, but everything will run smoothly and on time. They are far ahead on the tourism development scale. That can be a negative too of course: some places can feel like tourism factories.

Costa Rica's costs are in general higher than those in Mexico. Not outrageous, but you don't find yourself saying "What a deal!" very often. On the plus side, it's the cleanest country around and the one that takes the environment the most seriously. You can even drink the water (though I got sick in Costa Rica and didn't in Guatemala—go figure.)

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Palm Desert, Calif.: Greetings Tim, My wife (55) and I (65) are transitioning in June and wish to spend Jan, Feb & maybe March exploring perhaps Ecuador and/or Chile and/or Uruguay with the possible intention of spending longer periods of time in one of these locations in the future. Suggestions/considerations are welcome. Respectfully, Eric & Mindy

Tim Leffel: Spend some time nosing around the expatriate sites and articles for those countries and you may want to look for books about what it's like living abroad there. You probably won't find one on Uruguay, but one of the partners at International Living has a home there, which says a lot. Chile and Uruguay are more European and (dare I say) "cultured" than many other parts of the Americas, so it would be less of a shock to move there. Ecuador is more Andean, but is going to present all kinds of opportunities to live well for less and the slow pace attracts a lot of people.

Your gut is probably going to tell you where you want to end up though. You never know how a place really feels until you spend some time there. Be sure to look up expatriates who have already moved there when you visit. Have lunch or a few glasses of wine and get the straight scoop on the downsides. If you can visit when the weather is at its worst, even better. That will give you the best sense of what can and will go wrong with your new utopia.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi there! My boyfriend and I (both 26 and experienced travelers) are headed to Mexico City and the surrounding areas from May 22-27. We're both comfortable Spanish-speakers, and want to eat our way through as many food carts as possible. Our plan as of now is basically as much of the D.F. as we can fit in, the pyramids, and perhaps a day trip to puebla. Any off the beaten track suggestions for us?

Tim Leffel: Many foodies start salivating at the thought of eating in Mexico City, so I'm sure your taste buds will have a great time. My one recommendation, only slightly off the beaten track, is to go five miles past Teotihuacán to the ruins of Tula, the capital of the Toltecs. It not nearly as crowded as its more famous neighbor, even at peak times. Bone up on Talavera pottery before heading to Puebla so you'll know what to look for in terms of judging quality. And you could always go to a wrestling match at Arena Mexico. Gotta love those costumes...

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Albuquerque, N.M.: I want to go to the Monarch Butterfly migratory site in Mexico, where the butterflies winter from November thru March, as a woman alone. I need information on the safest way to get there, what tour operators to trust, any contact websites etc. & where to stay. I will be planning to go for the next migratory season. Looking forward to your reply. Thanks! Cyd

Tim Leffel: Don't worry—butterflies don't bite so you'll be safe! I haven't been there yet though, so I can't speak from experience on tour guides or websites. Try going old school and checking the guidebooks. They usually get plenty of feedback if a recommendation goes sour on someone, unlike a website where you don't always know who is behind it or what their agenda is. Budget Travel did a story on the butterfly migration and this area last March though.

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Atlanta, Ga.: My best friend and I are trying to plan a trip to Central America (girlfriend getaway). We have about three weeks and want a mix of beach, nightlife, and sightseeing. Very open to where but don't want to do a package tour. Have even discussed hoping from one country to another. We have from the end of July begin of Aug. So I guess my question is what the easiest way to get around? Should we look to rent an apartment/villa or stick with hotels? How much should we book ahead of time? Right now we were thinking Belize and Honduras. Any advice would be great. Thanks, Shannon

Tim Leffel: Here's what I would suggest. Do a "surf and turf" vacation in Belize for half of it, diving/snorkeling, island hopping, and then jungle exploring. Then go overland by bus to Tikal in Guatemala, then to Antigua and maybe Lake Atitlan. You could fly back from there (not expensive) to Belize or take an interesting boat trip from Río Dulce town down the river to the Caribbean and on to the Belize islands. From there, complete the loop back to Belize City.

Or, go on to Honduras as you planned, for more diving, Pico Bonito nature reserve near Ceiba, and the Maya ruins of Copan. You can do all this on public transportation—tourist shuttles part of the way—and hotels are not crowded that time of year so you'll have no problem picking and choosing.

I wouldn't rent an apartment or villa unless you intend to stay in one place. Hotels are reasonable in Belize and jaw-dropping cheap in Guatemala. Here's what I got for $60 at Lake Atitlan, breakfast for 3 included.

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Jersey City, N.J.: Tim, I want to wander around Central America, but I don't want to drive or go on a group tour. I've heard there is something called a Tica or Tico bus that goes the length of it. Can you point me in the right direction or tell me how that works? How are the roads down there, and is it easy to take the bus alone on my limited Spanish?

Tim Leffel: I'm not sure about that particular option--I don't think one company serves the whole region, but there are several like Hedman Alas that go from one capital to another and a few popular cities. In Costa Rica itself, Fantasy Gray Line serves 15 destinations, including two in Nicaragua. Quality Transfers, based in Monteverde, provides shuttles to and from various Pacific Coast locations, Arenal, and San José, among others.

In general, you will find nice buses or tourist shuttles between the big cities and popular tourist attractions. If you want to get off the beaten path though, you'll sometimes need to pile onto a "chicken bus" with the locals. These are old U.S. school buses repurposed as cheap ways for the locals to get from point A to point B.

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Lexington Ky.: Is it a good idea for non Spanishing speaking American tourists to drive in Mexico or Central America?

Tim Leffel: Definitely take a phrase book and dictionary, but the language only matters when asking directions, crashing, or getting a ticket. Definitely buy local liability insurance and good maps.

Conditions can vary greatly from place to place though. Much of Mexico is dead easy to drive around and I've done it a lot with no issues. Panama and Belize are pretty easy. I personally wouldn't drive in Costa Rica though unless I had a very clear idea of where I was going, especially without speaking Spanish. The roads are awful and there are almost no signs. People do it all the time though...

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Edison, N.J.: I have heard so much about negative messages regarding driving in Mexico, particularly dealing with police. A group of 6-8 people are considering to rent a van in Mexico City and drive around to visit Mexico antient sites. Our final destinationn will be Cancun. The trip may take 10-12 days sometime in next Feb. Do you have any suggestion regarding driving safety? Thanks. Wayne

Tim Leffel: In my experience, this is one of those overblown fears from two decades ago that continues to thrive. I've driven around the Yucatan more times than I can count (I have a house there) and have never been stopped once. I have friends living in other parts of Mexico that have gone years without ever paying a ticket or a bribe. Most ran into more trouble with state troopers when they lived in the U.S.

Unless you are carting around drugs or are driving way over the speed limit, the worst that can happen is you end up paying an on-the-spot fine that would be far less than for a similar infraction back home. Yes, I'm sure there are still some crooked cops out there looking to make an extra buck, but it's certainly not a widespread or costly issue. Hopefully someone speaks some Spanish for when you need help after getting lost and you really have to watch out for speed bumps, but go have fun!

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Omaha, Nebr.: When I've been on highways in Nicaragua, I've occasionally encountered checkpoints. They are said to be ways the police look for drug smugglers. At the checkpoints, the police ask to see passports. Some people say it's a good idea to carry a copy of your passport (and leave the original document locked when I am staying—so it won't get stolen). Other people say that, especially for showing the police at checkpoints, it's necessary to carry your actual passport (even though this exposes you to the risk of theft if a gunman might confront you). What's your advice? Carry a copy (and leave the original locked up)? Or carry the original? Thanks!

Tim Leffel: You could show them the copy of your passport and tell them your other one is buried in your bag, but in most cases they'll want to see the original. Tales of gunman posing as police and stealing passports is more a matter of legend and action movies than reality, however. Surf the Thorn Tree message board at LonelyPlanet.com and I doubt you'll run across many instances of this really happening. (Though you may read about some people being caught smuggling drugs!)

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Flowery Branch, Ga.: I was considering a Medical Mission trip to Nicarauga until learning the government there requires copies of my college degree, resume, professional license and passport. The word COPY cannot be written across the papers. Red flags went up in my mind about the black market selling such documents. What's your opinion?

Tim Leffel: First of all, good for you for lending your skills to an area that could really use your help! Nicaragua can use all the medical experts it can get. I have never heard about these requirements, though I'm sure most governments want to make sure your medical credentials are legit. Can't you just make photocopies of the docs yourself though, avoiding the need for the word "copy" on them? Then you wouldn't need to send any originals. To see if your document sale fears are unfounded or not, you might want to get in touch with Joshua Berman, who co-wrote the Moon Handbook for Nicaragua and the Living Abroad in Nicaragua book. Here is a link to his blog: the Tranquilo Traveler.

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Auburn Hills, Mich.: My husband and I have about $5,000 and we want to take a radical sabbatical in Central America for a month. Any suggestions? Is this a reasonable amount for two adults? Thanks for any tips. We are just in the beginning stages of planning. We have never been to Central America.

Tim Leffel: I you have $5,000 and are only going for a month, you will be living large pretty much anywhere in Central America. Once you figure out where you want to stay though, you might want to work through someone local in finding a house or apartment to rent. Places that normally rent out as vacation homes are going to cost far more than the going local rate.

Where you go depends a lot on what you want to do during that month, so it would make sense to see a rundown of each country. See my bio above for a link to my new book for that—you are someone who could definitely get your money's worth from it!

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New York, N.Y.: When traveling within the US, I usually sublet an apartment in the neighborhood/city I'm visiting so that I can get more of an authentic experience. However, I've never tried doing this overseas. Is there any advice you could give on ways to find local lodging, specifically for Mexico City and Guadalajara? Thanks! Nico

Tim Leffel: There are a variety of rental sites that have listings in these cities. Many of them are expat-owned apartments that are only used part of the year. Try www.vacationrentals.com, www.homeaway.com, and Craigslist. You won't find the kind of selection you will in a big U.S. or European city, but the listings are out there.

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New York, N.Y.: If you had to chose between spending a week in Puero Vallarta or Cabo San Lucas, which would be the more preferable destination?

Tim Leffel: It depends on whether you are looking for Mexico or are looking for an Americanized resort area. Both are packed with tourists, but in Puerto Vallarta you still get a clear Mexican flavor unless you stay in Nuevo Vallarta or Punta Mita the whole time. Los Cabos is pretty much a golf and resorts area where the foreigners outnumber the locals, without as much history or culture. Plus it's a desert and is more isolated, so prices tend to be higher for food and drinks.

Also, the time of year matters. Cabo San Lucas is blazing hot in the summer, but a great place to go warm up in the dead of winter.

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Reinholds, Pa.: How safe would it be to rent a car in Cancun to drive to Chichen Itza, then over to Merida? Just me and my 20 yr old son, we want to explore the country side.

Tim Leffel: I am doing the same thing starting this coming Saturday! Actually we're staying in Valladolid one night and going to Ek Balaam since I've been to Chichen Itza twice already, but same general idea. We have four people though and are ending up at a beach house near Progreso. If you weren't planning to go exploring I would instead say take the Executive Class bus direct to Chichen Itza, which ends up being cheaper and easier.

A car would let you explore other areas though and you could get to Uxmal near Merida, which is really worth seeing. There's no problem with safety, especially on the rather empty toll road. Just drive during daylight hours so you won't hit unlit bikes or speed bumps off the highways. Be forewarned you'll pay a hefty drop-off charge for the one-way rental. Usually $80 or $100, on top of rental rates that are already higher than in the U.S. For a variety of reasons, cars cost 40 percent more in Mexico and that cost is passed on in the rentals. A cheaper option would be to bus it to Chichen Itza and Merida, then rent a car in Merida for the exploring.

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Flower Mound, Tex.: Traveling from dfw to Costa Rica. Isn't it worth waiting until December break to go because of the weather? Or would it still be great in the summer months? Going with children 9 and 15. Do you love a particular area? Any particular itinerary you recommend? Thank you.

Tim Leffel: If you can wait until December, you will all probably have a better time. They call it "Green Season" in Costa Rica much of the year, but it's really "drenching wet season" in some parts. In the summer you will still have a good time, but you'll need to be more flexible with your plans and build in more time for canceled activities and tours because of heavy rain. Getting around can take longer too because of road conditions. Often it only rains for a few hours and then you can go ziplining or rafting or whatever, but it will definitely be easier to stick to a schedule in December.

Costa Rica is a blast for families, but I see a lot of people making the mistake of overscheduling and getting stressed out. Pick one or two areas and do activities there instead of trying to cram in 5 spots in 7 days. Places that look close on a map take a whole day to get to in some cases. There are a lot of great areas, so I can't recommend one specifically, but definitely go somewhere that has rafting, ziplining, and jungle tours. Often you can arrange all this through your hotel without spending any more than if you set it up on your own.

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Arlington Heights, Ill.: I am traveling to Costa Rica on 4/13/08 for 2 weeks. I plan to drive down the Pacific Coast side to look for possible property purchase. I am a 54 year old woman who will be traveling alone. Is it safe to rent a car and drive alone in that area? Is it better to rent a car at San Jose airport and drive to the coast or should I take a bus to the coast and rent from there? I am not sure how far south I will go, but I am aware that the property is less expensive as you leave the well developed Guanacaste area. Is it possible to buy a prepaid phone locally to get road help if necessary? Thank you for any tips you can provide.

Tim Leffel: I applaud you for having the guts to strike out on your own and find the real story on the ground as you are right that prices in Guanacaste and some other gringo development areas have gone through the roof. (It's not uncommon to see condo ads that say, "Starting at $400,000") You can buy almost anywhere else in the country for far less--unless you are near the Four Seasons of course.

The problem is that the roads are rough once you get off the main highways and there are almost no direction signs or even addresses in Costa Rica. If I were doing this, I would probably base myself in one area and do loops from there with a car and driver, maybe moving on to a second town and doing it again. You won't pay much more than renting a car and driving yourself and the person will know where they are going. If you contact real estate agents ahead of time, they can probably suggest someone.

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Austin, Tex.: RE: Hiking and trecking information for the Cooper Canyon. Original trip date is May, but after reading guide books am now thinking November. I am interested in hiking in & around the canyon but have found very little information except a chapter in Mexico guidebooks covering the entire country. Any additional information would be helpful. I would like to determine how to obtain a guide. Are there persons to hire to carry my luggage (probably a backpack.). Where are some good trecks and is there lodging along the way? What are the most scenic villages or areas to hike/visit?

Tim Leffel: There are some books on Amazon if you search "Copper Canyon," but most are old and/or out of print. Your best bet is to probably do some web surfing and find budget lodges in those areas, places that cater to independent travelers. They will have the best information on trails and finding guides or porters. There are also some tour companies that do organized hiking trips, but of course you'll be restricted to their schedule and itinerary.

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Ventura, Calif.: My fiance and I are planning a honeymoon to Playa Santa Theresa in Costa Rica at the end of July 2008. First we'd like to stay a day or 2 in the Arenal area to view the volcano and do a zipline canopy tour. Then we want to spend the remainder of our time on a Pacific beach - surf for him, sun for me. Can you offer any advice hints & tips, any insider info on adventures, dining, hotels? Do we travel from California to San Jose or to Liberia? Then what is the best way to travel to the Nicoya Peninsula? Once there restaurants, beaches, forests, waterfalls or other local sites not to be missed? Thank you, Gina

Tim Leffel: That's too much for me to effectively answer, but Costa Rica is well set up for tourists and while the roads leave a lot to be desired, it is easy to arrange point-to-point shuttle transportation for a reasonable price. There is also a huge range of hotels in all price ranges, so it really depends on what you can spend and what is important. The beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula are some of the most attractive in the whole country, with white sand instead of black or gray, so good choice there. Flying into San Jose is usually cheaper, but Liberia puts you closer to the northern coastline beaches. Spend some time in advance with a good guidebook though to figure out your options.

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Bel Air, Md.: My husband and I will be traveling to the Riviera Maya area of Mexico in 2009. We are both avid snorkelers and would like to know if one particular area or resort has the best snorkeling beaches. Thanks for your advice. Robbie

Tim Leffel: The hurricanes and rapid development—some would say overdevelopment—on that coast have taken their toll on some of the reefs, plus all the cruise ships docking at Cozumel have had an effect on that island's underwater beauty. Flip through a few guidebooks to get their take, but I've found that the further down you go on the coast, the better it tends to be, with the area around Akumal having some good reefs. Alternately, if you have the time to get to Isla Holbox to the northwest, you can have a good chance of seeing whale sharks.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: My husband and I will be staying in Cozumel for several days in April. While there we'd like to take a day trip to Chichen Itza. We'd prefer to fly over but the only tour operator we can find offering flights from Cozumel to CI is Aerosaab. Can you recommend any other operators offering flights to CI, or should we just plan for a ferry ride over to the mainland and a loooong bus ride to the ruins? Thanks for your help! -- Wendy M.

Tim Leffel: There is just not much demand for flights to there since it's less than a three-hour drive. You might be able to find a helicopter operator if you're up for a splurge, but otherwise bring reading material and take the bus. You can actually get a first class direct bus from Playa del Carmen if you don't want to be on someone else's tour group schedule. The other option would be to go to the ruins at Coba instead. That site is closer and far less crowded. It's more like Tikal than Chichen Itza in the sense that the jungle is still very close to the ruins.

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Boston, Mass.: What would you consider the most unique activity or visit that you can only do in Nicaragua?

Tim Leffel: Take a ferry to Ometepe Island and spend a night or two on this large, twin-coned volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua, with water all around. Take a guided hike or horseback ride to explore the lush vegetation, serene scenery, and varied wildlife. The island of Ometepe has two volcanoes—one active, one not. The larger volcano, Concepción, has been called the most perfectly formed volcanic cone in Central America by some. The small towns here are a great base for hiking through virgin forest and enjoying panoramic vistas.

Also, if you do any kind of adventure activities here, you'll likely be the only one or only group out in the wilderness. It's a wild frontier for now.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: What's your favorite Spanish language school? I'm considering anywhere from Mexico to Bolivia, beginning sometime around Easter. I'm a 49 y.o. experienced traveler who's looking to have fun and to learn. Access to spicy food is a plus, gaggles of American students a negative. Any ideas? Thanks!

Tim Leffel: I did an immersion course with my family in Antigua, Guatemala, but this is not your place if you want to avoid gaggles of students. Neither is Cuernavaca, Mexico. There are a lot of good articles and listings at the Transitions Abroad website (where I am a contributor). Follow this link to their language study portal. Your best bet is probably a less popular town in Mexico where half the people aren't speaking English around you and you are forced to practice. I say Mexico because there's less spice as you head south.

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Madison, Ct., and N. Richland Hills, Tex.: In your opinion, is Mexico City safe for two middle aged ladies who are seasoned travelers? If so, where would you say is a good location to stay? We are interested in the museums, good restaurants and of course, shopping. We are partial to small, historical, centrally located hotels in safe areas. Thank you, Gigi

Tim Leffel: While I think most of the safety worries people have expressed today are unfounded, Mexico City does have a valid reputation as a place where crime is a real issue. Any guidebook on the city will tell you where to stay and go and where not to, plus will give tips on the usual common sense advice: don't wear flashy jewelry, take only official taxis (preferably from your hotel or a restaurant), and don't go walking around bad neighborhoods at night swinging your purse. In general, the areas where the popular hotels are located are going to be the safest ones to be, with the strongest police presence. If you are seasoned travelers, you will likely avoid the mistakes that cause most victims to become victims.

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Sarasota, Fla.: My husband and I would like to spend a couple of days in Mexico City, then take a bus to Oaxaca and Puebla. He's concerned about general safety in Mexico, as well as safety on our transportation routes, including taxis in the cities. Can you please advise? Thanks!

Tim Leffel: See the note above about Mexico City, but really most of the Mexican violent crime you hear about is drug related and has nothing to do with tourists, just as most of the gun homicides you hear about in the U.S. don't occur in the Greyhound station or on Amtrak.

I've taken buses all over Mexico without any issues and am about to do so again two weeks from now in Guanajuato State. I honestly feel as safe doing that as I would driving my car to the grocery store in the U.S. After all, far more people die from car accidents near their home than from some freak crime incident in a foreign country. Do some research and you will find that of the millions of tourists who go to Mexico each year, a miniscule fraction experience anything worse than a pickpocketing and even those are rare outside the capital (even for all the dumb drunk college kids in Cancun and Cabo).

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White Plains, N.Y.: We were told that in June, July and August it is the rainy season in Costa Rica, but it may only rain for a short period each day in the late afternoon. Is this correct? or can it rain for the majority of the day? We would be going to the volcano area and the rainforest. Thanks for your help.

Tim Leffel: If you are in the "rainforest" in the rainy season it will rain a lot. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes all day. When I was there last May, it was already coming down in buckets half the time. The La Paz Waterfall Gardens receive 14.5 FEET of rain per year, compared with 2.5 feet in London and 3 feet in rainy Seattle. It's a roll of the dice to be honest, but I would take lots of rain gear...

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Vacaville, Calif.: We will be visiting Costa Rica this summer and are considering a side trip to Nicaragua. Is it faily simple to drive from Liberia Costa Rica to southwestern Nicaragua? What are the entrance requirements from Costa Rica to Nicaragua for U.S. citizens?

Tim Leffel: It's simple to ride, but not to drive. Take a bus to the border than another bus after you cross. Getting yourself from one country to another only requires a passport. Taking a car across involves a mountain of paperwork and half a day of patience. It can be done, but it's not easy on that particular border.

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Tim Leffel: OK folks, gotta run, but thanks for tuning in today. Sorry I couldn't get to all the questions, but hopefully you found it helpful. Hope to run into you sometime in Mexico or Central America!

- Tim Leffel

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