May 18, 2020
Post-pandemic travel in Latin America has its own set of unique new realities to consider as you plan a trip in the coming months. Like many of you, I keep a fare tracker to monitor price fluctuation on ticket prices to wherever I plan to go in Latin America. Recently, I’ve been tracking flights to Montevideo, Uruguay.
Before the coronavirus spread so widely, prices for the trip hovered around USD $1,600 with a couple of relatively short layovers. As of this writing, the average price has climbed over 500% to an average of $7,000.
That is just an introduction into several “rude awakenings” we face as we set our sights on post-pandemic travel in Latin America.
We already know that close-quarter travel has “officially” seen its last day. Both carriers and travelers alike are justifiably afraid of being cramped in a plane or bus with poor air circulation and hands touching everything everywhere. Only those with a death wish would put up with that now.
Just the same as airlines, bus companies now must figure out how to survive economically by no longer following the recipe they had relied on to do just that: to fill seats.
Their choices are slim.
1) to break public health laws and cram people onto a bus;
2) to combine a slashing of their scheduled services with an increase of a price per seat on the scheduled services remaining;
3) to add a number of fees for previously complimentary services; or
4) to just cut their losses now and go out of business, leaving travelers fewer options to get on the road.
Absolutely none of those options are easy or desirable, but the only one that is the most probable for post-pandemic travel in Latin America, is the second, to increase prices.
Beyond that obvious overarching issue, I want to use this article to focus on issues that will be peculiarly pronounced or particular in Latin America, where cultural influences will also play into health and economic concerns.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. Not in any shape or form. By post-pandemic travel, we in the travel industry are referring to infrastructure and protocols that are starting to be rolled out now, but more likely to be part of what you will experience in the not-so-distant future.
While many are in lockdown, various sectors of travel and hospitality in Latin America are reconfiguring their services and standards to welcome post-pandemic travelers, and they will come in phases. The first phase is already quite mature, and happens even before you start your trip: Planning!
Planning looks a lot different in post-pandemic travel. Things you may have not taken seriously in the past, now take on more significance.
One is to make sure you get travel insurance to protect you from changing conditions. Another is to read three times as much as you would normally about destinations and contextual news around that destination.
Planning a vacation is also turning out to be a good therapeutic practice for dealing with stress.
And when your self-help planning efforts leave you short of answers or clear strategies, experts recommend getting a travel advisor to help you do the in-depth research, investigate the risky bargains, and get you a reservation without wasting any more of your time.
One way to make the planning process less dense is to zoom out and think not so much about what is happening in a specific country, but in the aggregated or cultural regions to which countries belong.
Borders that separate one Latin country from another, are purely political. The cultural bonds on both sides of a border have been around much longer than the countries have, and because of this, there are certain alliances that would be advantageous for the traveler to be aware of in terms of planning a multi-country expedition.
For example, the Pacto Andino (or Andean pact) is a Pan-American institution that recognizes the commonality formed by a mostly indigenous legacy from Colombia down through the Andes mountains to Bolivia. Member states of the pact have long had easier access and trading and immigration waivers to each other’s countries, and usually, when one member country of the pact makes a social or economic policy, the other member states are not far behind in recognizing and adopting it in kind.
Argentina and Uruguay are another example of two countries that share a history of trade and cultural ties long before politics put a border between them. Their main connection road is not on ground, but on the Uruguay River, which due to being such a high traffic corridor, is set to reopen in the coming days.
You’ve probably heard the term “immunity passports” being floated around. If not, it’s the notion of a document that is widely recognized around the world and which certifies your immunity from the coronavirus.
That may be ONE document you need, but Latin America tends to like paper records for everything, and you should probably expect overkill of forms and letters and certifications before and during your travel.
There will be forms as you get to the airport, certifications to sign when you check into the hotel, signatures required when you exit a city and go into another city, and more. These are the kinds of things you can’t bring with you to speed up the process, and they will probably be updated every week, so stockpiling them so that you can fill them out in advance risks you having the wrong version.
Dealing with more documentation won’t delay your travel by too much; it will just be another well-meaning annoyance.
Once you’re done with the planning, it’s time to deal with the packing. This next part of post-pandemic travel in Latin America considerations is all about what you carry with you, either before you go or during the trip.
In the past, your biggest worry of forgetting to bring something with you would have been your good hiking shoes. Now, you will need to be prepared for being denied entry to an airplane, bus, train, or even a shuttle if you don’t have your own PPE (“personal protection equipment”, e.g., masks, gloves, and sanitizer).
You might find that the conductor or driver will allow you to board if you buy a mask from them for an elevated price, so avoid the shock and bring some with you. Homemade cloth masks are fine, as long as they adequately cover your nose and mouth.
When it comes to hand sanitizers and glovers, these are more voluntary. You won’t be turned away or blocked for not having or using them. However, it’s more to protect you during your travel than it is about complying with any laws.
Carriers are more likely to be providing hand-cleaning stations on board, but who wants to touch the spigot if 47 other people have probably gotten to it first? Bottles of hand sanitizer are much easier to keep in your carry-on pack.
The interesting anomaly is that hand-crafted hand sanitizer is easier to make in Latin America because of the availability and widespread cultivation of aloe vera, which combined with sanitary alcohol is all that’s necessary. This means that finding sanitizer for sale will not be as expensive as you might think. You’ll also find anything that’s in demand, like PPE, is not something you need to order online while in Latin America. Informal vendors will walk the streets and traffic medians in every corner of cities and small towns with stocks of PPE available at their side.
One thing that might seem surreal to you is that when visiting even a small town, you will see public servants like park service or janitors wearing hazmat suits. Why? Remember that where you and I come from, we probably have a variety of health safety nets that give us more of a sense of having something or someone to resort to if things go bad. That’s largely not present in Latin America, and citizens are much more acquainted with the thin veil between their own life and death. Hence, a hazmat suit makes the veil thicker.
If you’re from a variety of developed countries in the northern hemisphere, you’re probably accustomed to being given a certain amount of physical space between you and a stranger, and so social distancing as a health practice was not that much a break from your normal routine.
However, in Latin America, the norm is the opposite. Whether it’s greeting and introductions being accompanied by an obligatory kiss on the cheek, doing a transaction at a cash register with others pressed up against you asking the cashier questions, or friends or colleagues walking down the sidewalk with arms linked instead of a single file; these social traditions are enormously difficult to set aside, and you as a traveler will probably find them continuing to be practiced to a degree that frightens you for your health.
Do not panic. They all have been guided to social-distance too, and compared to how they practiced before the pandemic, the level of closeness is a cutback as a good many Latinos have the same concerns as you.
Efforts to reactivate activities have moved authorities to establish guidelines across Latin American cities. Cities such as Cuenca, Ecuador, a well-known destination for US, Canadian and European ex-pats, is aiming to create a new sense of normality by urging people to respect the new measures of keeping social distancing at local open-air markets.
However, a highly social culture is simply harder, if not impossible, to undo. You may find it frustrating to maintain social distance personally, while others simply take advantage of it and cut in line, thinking you are availing the space for them to fill. Don’t get irate; simply and politely find ways to give others the benefit of their physical space so they can return the favor.
It’s now I turn to the most complicated aspect of post-pandemic travel in Latin America, which are the travel changes you will experience once you’ve landed.
Granted, getting to most parts of Latin America will require you to travel by air, but once you’re there, you will no doubt find that getting around domestically within the country is a ghost of what it was in the past and prohibitively expensive.
Many domestic airlines, both private and state-owned, got no bailout like the US airline industry. They laid off most of their employees, and they have no cash left to operate. The time schedules will be drastically reduced.
Buses, on the other hand, while also having had a tough time of this, are nimbler and don’t have the same level of daunting overhead to maintain. They will have some wiggle room to offer discounts to lure airline passengers looking for an alternative. That doesn’t mean buses will continue being cheap, or that they will have the same seating capacity they did in the past.
Changes are in progress.
In Colombia, authorities have ordered bus capacity should not be more than 35%, while in Argentina it will be 65%. More than that, bus companies around Latin America are working at a much faster pace to comply with new practices of social distancing onboard their fleets.
There is also a newer kid on the block that was growing in popularity even before coronavirus and will be especially popular now, and that is private shuttles. These evolved out of a combination of transportation trends, namely small-capacity public transportation like 9-passenger buses and the swelling of taxis.
Private shuttles are basically charters arranged for a single person or a group of up to 12 passengers related to each other. They maintain a higher class of comfort standards and of course, don’t make any stops unless the person or group agrees to it.
Travelers seeking a super-clean environment and a more personable transportation experience that goes door-to-door are largely finding the extra price worth it to switch over to private shuttles, and speeding up their travel time too.
In other parts of the world, countries are creating “travel corridors” or “travel bubbles” which refer to areas of the country that are safe to contain tourists. In Latin America, much the same concept is emerging but using the stoplight colors to help residents and non-residents alike use a global shorthand to quickly understand unsafe conditions, conditions being improved, and safe conditions for travel.
Economies in Latin America are not resilient enough to withstand lockdowns, and many cities almost entirely depend on income from tourism. Therefore, you can understand their motivation is even greater than ours to return to business and win the confidence of tourists in how they care for your health concerns.
Chile, for example, has created a “red” corridor between Santiago and Viña del Mar/Valparaiso that is still quarantined because of the congestion of that route. However, travelers will find safe “green” corridors to many other popular areas of the country like Temuco, Pucon, and Puerto Montt, the latter of which is the hopping off point to Patagonia. Bolivia has granted almost 200 municipalities a “green risk” that permits transportation in and around those cities to return to pretty much normal.
Uruguay, my current focus, is doing well in containing the spread by applying social distancing practices. Schools and factory workers have started to reopen again, and they have lately become an example for other countries in Latin America to follow. So, maybe my trip isn’t as far away as I thought.
What about all the myriad non-salaried tourism vendors like street-walking souvenir sellers and vendors of local home-made refreshments that board the buses?
These were the most immediately affected and most devastated by the spread of the coronavirus, and you can probably guess right that they did not have the means to survive and recover. Even those that did will no longer be as unregulated, as governmental health authorities will no longer allow such casual access to foreigners in an effort to better control the tourist environment. But as I said earlier in referencing informal sellers of PPE, entrepreneurial creativity coupled with the will to survive will outmaneuver governmental control, as long as they satisfy and not endanger customers.
Certainly, the whole reason many travelers go to Latin America is to see the Amazon, the Galapagos, Patagonia, or the vastness of the Paramo. But not in the same proportion as they will now.
Parks and reserves are by definition socially distant, full of fresh air, and free of all the hassles of highly regulated travel in the cities and beaches. They will be the first front that tourism ministries will re-open and receive requisite improvements to make them even more accommodating to post-pandemic travelers.
To get ahead of the effects of the pandemic, winter parks in Argentina are already planning economic measures to help them recover from the situation in the upcoming seasons.
If you start planning your trip for destinations in Latin America, there will likely be new trends derived from social-distancing travel. This further supports the growing Slow Travel movement (S.L.O.W. = Sustainable, Local, Organic, Whole) that encourages travelers to take less interest in trips that extend over a wide swath of countries in an attempt to satisfy a bucket list, and instead dwell more deeply in a smaller walkable area.
This is safer for the traveler because it limits the amount of transportation needed to be in contact with, or doing more day trips from a “base camp” in which you can reuse a consistent transportation provider or driver.
Travel in Latin America will most likely be rebuilding itself by offering discounts, both in hospitality and transportation, as they try to attract local and foreign tourists.
For me, it means that I should not turn off my fare tracker, instead I should set myself to do meticulous research, hunt for discounts, and see what’s ahead for the region I can get busy exploring again.
Kali Kucera is President of AndesTransit and also known as "the bus guy" for his adventures across South America by bus. He is co-author of "South America Borders" and "365 Days of South American Festivals".
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