So you’ve decided to head south of the border into Latin America. Good times! You have an adventure and a half ahead of you, you can be sure of that. From tropical Caribbean beaches to the big blue Pacific Ocean, steaming jungles, ancient ruins of civilizations lost, indigenous cultures, soaring mountains and scorching deserts, Latin America is a vast, varied behemoth of a land stretching from the US border in the north almost to the frozen wastes of Antarctica in the far south. And the people – befitting just a huge swathe of the planet, Latinos come in all different colors and creeds and languages – we’re talking about a true melting pot here.
Each country or region of Latin America could have pages written about them in their own right – where to go, what to do and see. This is more of a sweeping statement of an article, attempting to offer the best tips for enjoying and making the most of the region as a whole, things to take into account and bear in mind before you leave so that your trip goes as smoothly as possible. Whether you’re backpacking in Bolivia, partying in Panama City, surfing in Santa Teresa, chilling in Cabo or bumping and grinding your way down the Gringo Trail, here are some tips to do LatAm like a pro:
1. Pick up some of the lingo.
If you can speak Spanish (or Portuguese if you’re in Brazil), you’re ahead of the game before you start. You’re going to be more “tuned in” to the pulse of things and able to better understand the nuances of the different cultures that you’re finding yourself immersed in. But let’s face it – not everyone has the time or inclination to go back to school in preparation for a trip. That’s cool and completely understandable. So why not go once you’re down there? Spanish language immersion courses are a great way to meet local people and pick up some valuable conversation skills. Countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Ecuador offer some of the least expensive courses in the region including home stays with a local family (this is where the “total immersion” comes in!) and a couple of hours of tuition a day. A week or two of this will certainly give you a great base to improve on.
2. Learn to dance.
What screams LatAm Pro more than the ability to salsa, meringue, cumbia or tango? Latinos are born wiggling their hips in a way makes us Gringos look like the clunky awkward two-left-footed oafs that we are. Okay, that’s a little harsh, but compared to anyone else in the world, Latinos can shake it! Being able to replicate at least a semblance of these moves will turn you into a god or goddess of the dance floor and dramatically improve your chances of making local friends and not looking like such a tourist. There are dance schools in pretty much every town across the region – dancing is important down here! For tango, head to Argentina. Colombia is the home of cumbia, and merengue originates in the Dominican Republic – also super popular in Ecuador and Venezuela. Salsa is popular everywhere. You don’t have to be good, but seriously, if you can bust some moves in Latin America, you’ll find doors opening for you where you ever thought that they would, and you’ll have a blast as well!
3. Navigate your way around the street food.
Knowing the difference between a pupusa and an arepa isn’t all-important in the scheme of things, but it does help to solidify your status as an old hand in this part of the world – someone who knows what’s what. You don’t need to learn how to cook – just what what’s good and popular in the part of the region where you are. The best food in Latin America is its street food. This is not a region famous for its fine dining. Street food in Latin America is delicious and once you recognize the various calls of the street vendors (“Quesilla quesilla…” in Nicaragua, for example) you’ll be less hungry for less money than if you’d stayed in McDonalds.
4. Know what time it is.
Or where to be where you need to be at the time you need to be there. As Kramer said about Puerto Ricans in Seinfeld – “They’re very festive people!” Every single city, town village and pueblo in Latin America has it’s own feast day or festival – an excuse to party. This is where your dance lessons will come in handy. If you know a little bit about where you are, you can pretty much catch something going on somewhere most of the time, and the more obscure it is, the better. For example, did you know that the city of Masaya, Nicaragua has a Blessing Of The Dogs festival two weeks before Easter every year, where everyone brings their dogs (dressed up in their Sunday best – the dogs, that is, not the owners) to the cathedral to get blessed by St Lazarus? And then the inevitable party afterwards? These types of things happen all over, for all sorts of reasons. Latin Americans love their saints! Find out about them in advance. Know what time it is and where you’re at, and you’ll never, ever be bored down south.
These are just four basic tips on knowing what’s what in Latin America, from a more cultural aspect to get more out of the region than you might otherwise. Obviously, practical tips such as being careful of crime, packing lightly and using the right guide books all apply as well, but if you can get a handle on even one or two of the tips above, it’s a guarantee that you’ll enhance your trip. Get going south of the border, have fun and suerte!