5 Ways to Truly Experience Latin America as a Gringo
Gringos: there are a lot of us here in South and Central America.
In our wake, follows an undeniable clash of cultures: facial features, socioeconomic means, clothing choices and behavioral habits that stand out from local norms. Many of us show up here with curiosity, seeking to engage with and participate in the communities we visit. Arguably, even more arrive in groups of isolated cliques, preferring to observe the scenery or participate in the culture through widely available “curated” experiences.
In planning our 5-month stint in Latin America, Shaun and I both felt strongly that we didn’t want to be observers or part of a curated tour; instead we hoped to the participatory kind of Gringos. The kind who get under the surface layer of the places we visit, speak in the local language, ask questions that open our minds and give us a more authentic and less sheltered view of the places we were traveling to.
Looking back now in the last few days of our time here, it’s exciting to see that our strong resolution stuck. We’ve become comfortable speaking more or less bilingually in Spanish, have spent quality time connecting with people that we’ll keep in touch with for years to come, and have learned more than we ever expected to about the challenges and triumphs of the countries we spent time in. We laughed – hard, and almost every day. In small spurts, I cried more than I ever have over a 5 month period of time.
Choosing this participatory route wasn’t easy: getting beneath the surface of a place is sometimes very uncomfortable. There were long walks in rain, many perilous bus and taxi rides, a handful of minor medical incidents (upset stomachs, dehydration, rashes, burns, bug bites), and many uncensored and deeply sad stories that were shared with us – ones that profoundly moved us, and shaped our experience here.
As we’ve started to build ties in the travel blogger community, I’ve noticed that there are many people like us out there. Travelers who seek to have more than just a vacation experience, and instead want to get under the surface of the places they visit in Latin America. So, if you’re a fellow Gringo who identifies with this philosophy, here are some shortcuts we’ve found to help you plan a trip like the one we’ve been on: one that isn’t always the most comfortable or easy but is powerful. One that will move, change and inspire you in ways you can only find out for yourself.
TIP #1: LEARN TO SPEAK SPANISH
Everything else on this list will be a much more enjoyable experience if you invest the time in learning at least a basic level of conversational Spanish. Thanks to modern technology, learning a new language is easier than it’s ever been! I’ve had the benefit of studying Spanish in school, but Shaun built a comfortable level from scratch with lots of constant practice (the real secret to learning the language), and by using resources like:
Duolingo Phone App
This phone application is fun, interactive, and helps keep you accountable by reminding you to do 10 minutes of daily practice over a long period of time. You can test into whichever level you’re at, and work up to “fluency” from there, starting with basic vocabulary then working your way up to grammar and phrases.
Download them offline and listen to them in the car, on airplanes, in transit. There are lots out there – our personal favorites are the “Coffee Break Spanish” and “Learn Spanish: Notes in Spanish for Inspired Beginners” series.
[Offline] Spanish Translation Apps
Since we don’t have a roaming plan and aren’t always within WiFi, having offline apps to help us on the road has been essential. In the last few weeks, Google Translate just launched an improved offline version of their app – which is great, because we’ve only been able to use it within WiFi for most of our trip. If you know basic sentence structure but are looking for word references or verb conjugations, we’ve found Es-En Dict, Conjuverb, and Spanish Dict Box to be our go-tos, and use one of the three almost daily as we’re traveling.
TIP #2: VOLUNTEER IN THE COMMUNITY
In planning our trip, we picked Colombia as the place we would stay for a longer period of time and seek out community-based projects to participate in. Deciding in advance to do this was helpful for planning, but as we’ve traveled, it’s become very clear to us that you don’t always need to research or sign up for things like this in advance. There are thousands of community-based projects all over Latin America, and many impactful ones can be found by word-of-mouth: through local hostels, other travelers you meet, local churches, AirBnB or Couchsurfing hosts, and from people who work at tourist information centers. All you have to do is ask and make time for it in your travel schedule.
Here are a few projects we supported, that we’d highly encourage you to check out:
Empanadas Del Mundo (Santa Elena, Colombia)
Angeles de Medellin (Medellin, Colombia)
Puesto Del Sol Community (Ometepe Island, Nicaragua)
BOZ Surfing @ Bananoz Guesthouse (Leon, Nicaragua)
TIP #3: STAY IN PEOPLE’S HOMES
Hostels are great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something extra special about sitting down for meals with and getting to know people in their own homes. As AirBnB hosts in San Francisco, we already fully believed in the power of home-sharing, so about 70% of the places we’ve stayed have been found through this site. (Side note: if you’re traveling in a pair, most AirBnBs charge by the room instead of per person, so we’ve often found it to be more economical than staying in a hostel!)
We’ve also been fortunate enough to stay in homes of generous friends (ones we’ve had from back home, or made on the road) and families of friends, who we actively reached out to and coordinated with before we arrived.
TIP #4: VISIT FINCAS
Fincas, or Family Farms are all over South and Central America. Many of them work with websites like AirBnB, Hostelworld, WOOF and TripAdvisor to advertise themselves; others are more grassroots and solicit visitors locally from hostels and tourist information centers.
Things you can do on a Finca:
Stay there overnight
Take a coffee or cacao tour
Volunteer Short or Long-Term
Eat and purchase their products
TIP #5: LEARN ABOUT THE COUNTRY’S POLITICAL HISTORY
This has been an especially important experience for me as a [United States of 🙂 ] American. Our history with foreign affairs in South and Central America are vast, complicated, and oftentimes very ugly. Learning about the struggles many countries have had to stabilize their governments, feed and employ their people, and develop a common sense of national identity has been extremely eye-opening to me, and has given me a very different perspective on my national identity.
The majority of Gringos – especially those of us from the United States – are either unaware, or understandably uncomfortable with the topic of politics, and thus avoid learning about the grittier parts of the past and current reality people are experiencing. I found that being open minded, curious to hear people’s perspective, and objective in reading/hearing negative information about my country really helped me to peel back an important layer of context in the places we visited, and made people feel much more comfortable giving me the non-sugar coated version of their truth.
Want to learn more about what’s really happened/happening in the countries you’re visiting?
As simple as it sounds, getting in the habit of simply Wikipedia-ing the countries you’re visiting and reading the full page of their social and political history is an objective and easy way to gain some context for what you’re going to experience.
The Book: Open Veins of Latin America
I was given this book by an Argentine friend we made in Buenos Aires, and reading it was extremely enlightening. Thick, and a heavy read (from the perspective of the socialist leaning author, it traces the injustices Latin America has experienced since Spanish colonization, through slavery and into the 19th and 20th century), it provides quite a bit of background for many Latin American’s justifiably negative perspective of the US and Europe.
A hugely important figure throughout Latin America – in most countries there are murals of him, references to him, and a common popular opinion of him as a hero and even a martyr for the common people. Being Communist and ultimately killed by the CIA, he’s naturally a controversial figure in the United States – but all the more reason to get a balanced perspective of his legacy and understand what he stood for.
If you speak Spanish, we’ve found that opening a conversation with a Taxi driver using questions like “how is life in this country?” “How long have you been driving a taxi for? How is the job?” and “it’s our first time here – in your opinion, what is your country best known for?” usually opens a can of worms that’s very interesting to hear. It should be noted though, that Taxi Drivers in most countries (including the United States) tend to represent a very pessimistic perspective, so listen, but take it with a grain of salt.
Many of our tour guides – especially free walking tour guides – have been surprisingly objective and open to talking about what’s going on politically in their country. In Valparaiso, Chile, our host was a teenager during the military coup and when asked, shared many personal stories about what it was like to live there during that time. In Colombia, our walking tour guide used a top hat to symbolize drug money whenever we passed a spot with related history, and openly described to us the relationship between the various cartels and paramilitary organizations to demystify some of the sources of conflict.
Personal Stories of Your Hosts
This, of course, depends on the relationship you have with your host. But by and large, I’ve found that most AirBnB hosts and friends we’ve met have been very thankful that I’ve been aware of, and openly curious to ask about life in their country through a political lens. By asking people to share stories about periods of conflict they lived through, I’ve gotten very humanized, personal angles about their experience, and have worked toward breaking the (sadly, justified) stereotype that Americans are blind or ignorant to the historically controversial relationship between our countries.
So, my fellow Gringos. Together with a strong personal drive and using the suggestions above, I am confident that you will have a fun, memorable and perspective or maybe even life-changing experience in Latin America – we look forward to hearing about it!
Michelle and Shaun, best friends and married for 4 years, are taking a break from professional life in San Francisco to follow their dream of traveling the world for a year with backpacks. Drawn to understand other cultures and get off the beaten track, they are spending anywhere from a few weeks to several months in each major region of the world, sometimes working and/or volunteering in the community; other times simply being open to new adventures that each culture and natural setting has to offer. To follow them and their journey and even suggest where they head next, head on over to AllBonVoyage.
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