Today I’m going to tell you what you should do when you arrive to a new Latin American city.
Whenever I touch down in a destination that’s new to me, or somewhere I haven’t been for awhile, these are exactly the steps I take.
The following approach will help you get off on the right foot, and set the framework for a smooth and efficient trip.
Let’s get started.
When you land in the airport of your new city, you’ll want to do a few things.
Have the address to your destination (hotel or Airbnb) written down, with a reference to a nearby park/landmark
Have some cash on hand to exchange (just in case)
Keep an eye out for a cell phone kiosk
Number 1 is important to help ensure your taxi driver doesn’t get lost on the way to your hotel or Airbnb (if you don’t have WiFi to get an Uber or order a taxi, that is).
Number 2 is important in case your debit card doesn’t work in the country’s ATMs, and/or your credit card gets blocked (the former happened to me on a recent trip to Guatemala — I wasn’t able to withdraw money from ATMs with my debit or credit card. This happens in some countries).
Having a bit of cash ready to exchange will at least allow you to get from the airport to where you’re staying, in the unlikely event that none of your cards work.
Number 3 is important so you can stay connected with your cell phone while you’re walking the streets (particularly for using maps, Whatsapp and safe taxi apps).
Ideally, the airport you arrive at will have either free WiFi, or a cellphone booth where you can purchase a SIM card, and the city will have Uber or another secure taxi app.
Uber is much cheaper than airport taxis, so it’s the best way to go.
If the airport doesn’t have WiFi or a mobile booth, opt for a licensed taxi from the airport - don’t go with the taxi drivers bumming around outside the airport. Many of these guys aren’t licensed and may try to overcharge you, or worse, rob you (not common, but it’s happened).
From the airport, I go straight to my Airbnb or hotel.
Once you've arrived, you’ll want to make sure everything’s working and that there are no abnormalities. Check the WiFi, make sure all the amenities work, test the locks, make sure you know which keys open what, check for hot water, etc.
In other words, make sure everything is as you expect and/or were promised.
If not, contact your host or the front desk and get it right.
Pretty straightforward stuff.
If you don’t have an Airbnb account, know that it is the best — and most secure — way to rent a short-term apartment in Latin America. Here’s a link.
After doing my Airbnb/hotel check and taking a shower, I’ll typically hit the streets. If I wasn’t able to get a SIM card at the airport, that’ll be my first order of business.
Order a taxi to the nearest mall or plaza (or walk if it’s close enough) and find a cell phone kiosk. Don’t forget your passport, as many Latin American countries will require you to show your passport when buying a SIM card.
Also, have cash. Either what you exchanged at the airport, or hit an ATM in the mall (safest place to do so).
This is because SIM card purchases in Latin America often must be made in cash (I don’t know why).
In fact, it’s a good idea to hit an ATM either way, just to test if your cards work.
After I get this sorted, I’ll take some time to walk around/map out the neighbourhood I’m staying in and/or the neighbourhood(s) I’ve decided I want to spend time in based on prior research.
Now, I don’t like walking around with my passport — makes it easier to lose or get nicked, so sometimes I’ll go back to the hotel or Airbnb after buying my SIM card to drop it off.
Bit paranoid, perhaps. It’s up to you.
It’s important to map out neighbourhoods early so you know more or less where you are at any given point during your trip in the event you don’t feel comfortable taking out your phone to check a map (out alone at night, for instance).
Get a thorough idea of where things are, note important landmarks that taxi drivers would know of, etc.
Also, in case there isn’t Uber or a reliable taxi app in your city, you’ll want to know of a few notable buildings/parks/statues/hospitals etc. that are close to where you’re staying. This is also helpful in the event you can’t rely on your phone for whatever reason and need to direct a taxi driver back to your apartment/hotel.
Here are a few apps I suggest you download to help you get around and get settled.
Uber — not all Latin American cities have it, but many do. It’s safer and often cheaper than local taxis
Local Taxi App — if the city doesn’t have Uber, there will be a local alternative for safe taxis. Easy Taxi is a common one. A quick Google search will tell you what these apps are
Google Maps; Offline Map — if you don’t want to rack up extra data charges, use Google Maps and download an offline map of your city
Google Translate — in case you don’t speak the local language and need to communicate.
XE Currency Converter — or any currency converter. To figure out how much you’re spending
FourSquare — FourSquare is like Yelp. It’s still used in Latin America. This can help you figure out where the good bars and restaurants are at
Airbnb — to communicate with your hosts (if you’re staying in an Airbnb).
Skype — to call friends and family, or your credit card company if they block your card
NordVPN — or any VPN app. To add an extra layer of security when you’re using public WiFi
Dating Apps — Tinder or Latin American Cupid. Even if you don’t want to hook-up, these apps are great for asking locals for recommendations. Maybe you’ll find someone nice enough to take you on a city tour!
Before you hit a new city, you’ll want to make a list of the places you’d like to visit. Tourist attractions, bars, restaurants, museums etc. Best way to do this is to star places on the Google Maps app on your phone. Doing so will give you a good idea of the proximity of these places and help you plan the most efficient route for visiting them.
It’s also a good idea to read about local history and culture, time permitting. Allows for a richer experience.
I’m not the type of person to keep a strict itinerary for when I want to do what — I like to keep an open schedule.
But it’s best to at least have a rough draft of things you want to check out, so you don’t find yourself bored and wondering how to spend your days.
Hopefully you won’t need it, but it’s a good idea to at least know the local equivalent to 9-11.
Registering Your Trip
You can register your trip with your national government (e.g. US State Department).
I don’t like the government getting up in my business, but if you’re going to a particularly dangerous country doing this may enable you to get quicker help from your embassy in the event something goes wrong.
This is optional.
That’s about it.
Simple steps that will make things flow more smoothly.
In my experience, perhaps the most underrated travel tool is….
There’s a stigma, I know. But it doesn’t have to be about sex. I tend to think of it more as a “hack” for getting local intel and bar and restaurant recommendations. Best of all, with Tinder or the Cupid sites, you can chat to locals before your trip, and arrived armed with local recommendations that you won’t find on sites like TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet.
For better or for worse, there’s really no quicker or more efficient way to connect and chat with locals.
Hope this was helpful, guys.
Thanks for listening.
All the best,
How do you get set up in a new city? Post your best tips in the comments below to help out fellow Latin America enthusiasts.