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Phone Calls From the Western Caribbean

By The Ithaka - Published June 16, 2006 - Viewed 2217 times

Phone Calls From the Western Caribbean

Nicole and Jean R., from Brussels, Belgium, just moved aboard Tigré, their 1987 Amel Sharky. She wrote, "I'm going to miss our grand-children. How big of a hassle is it to make phone calls from the Western Caribbean? Is it expensive?"

From Douglas and Bernadette: The hassle of making calls depends on where you are, and how much you want privacy and comfort. Calling gets easier and cheaper every month, because of the galloping expansion of cell coverage. A year ago, in Isla Mujeres, in the Mexican Yucatan, sometimes our U.S. domestic AT&T phone worked -- sometimes it didn't, but the roaming charges were higher than our mast. We used our Globalstar satellite phone there, as well as all along the coast and islands of Mexico and Belize. In Cuba, no foreign phones work at all, and you have to use the government-owned service, which is neither efficient nor cheap, and you can be real sure of no privacy.

In Belize, you can buy local phone cards everywhere for use in pay phones on land, sometimes a noisy and dusty proposition, or you can sign up for a local cell service, but the range doesn't reach most of the islands in which you'll be sailing. (Globalstar worked well in the islands.) Calling is much easier and cheaper in Guatemala and Honduras. There isn't an extensive grid of good land lines here; so even campesinos on donkeys can be seen with cell phones on their saddles, and we keep expecting to see a bandoleers full of batteries.

We had a situation arise recently at home that required our making many extensive long-distance phone calls. Due to the high surrounding mountains, our Globalstar phone had spotty coverage in the Rio. After the first expensive pay phone call to the US from the Rio, knowing we had to make more, we researched getting a cell phone of our own. Here's what we learned.

In Guatemala, there's an incredible array of cell services, and some of the towers are close to the beach, which means you can make calls from your boat even out to some of the Sapodilla Islands. There are now price wars among the competing Guatemalan companies -- BellSouth, Telgua and Comsel. The current best bet is the 500 Quetzal deal (about $62), for which you get a Nokia or Mitsubishi phone and 500 Q worth of minutes. If you choose to use all of them calling North America, that would work out to roughly 160 minutes of outgoing calls. To Europe it's 80 minutes, in either case far less than making those calls from the cheapest of pay phones. (Incoming calls don't count against your usage, so if you're willing to hear a phone ring on your boat, you can give your number to the folks at home, and the calls coming in cost you nothing.) We've met many cruisers who sign up for these cheap plans, use up their minutes, then throw away the phone and buy into a new plan, because depending on the deal of the month, that sometimes proves cheaper.

NOTE: Since we wrote that answer in 2002, we've traveled to Panama and Colombia. In both countries we had our Nokia cell phone reprogrammed for a few dollars, and bought cheap phone cards from each country. Our calls home were under 50 cents a minute. When we arrived back in the United States this summer, we called AT&T from a phone booth, and an operator walked us through the easy set of numbers we needed to key in to reprogram the phone back to our American number. In addition, be sure to buy a cheap phone card from, say, Sam's Club to get the best rate on minutes inside and outside the country.

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