Central and South America are popular destinations for students wishing to embark on adventures and go on gap ‘yah’ experiences. I’m very lucky in that my mother was born and raised in Venezuela, but of Bolivian and Peruvian parents, and I have an extensive family spread around the continent. Consequently, I’ve been to Latin America a fair bit, and I thought it’d be a good idea to share some tips I’ve learnt along the way, along with a few others from my friends and family. Granted, this will be biased around countries known to me and them, but any advice is good advice for such a diverse, often unpredictable continent.
Here are five useful tips:
1. Don’t travel alone.
This is, unfortunately, especially applicable if you’re a girl. Latin America is an amazing place, but a lot of places are not safe. Traveling in groups is recommended for general travel anyway, and I’m still amazed when people say “oh I’m going by myself.” – what? You need a buddy, to help look after belongings, for companionship, and for safety.
2. Don’t expect things to happen just because that’s the way they are.
Example: the day before we were meant to fly out of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, my mother phoned up to check everything was alright. The people at the airport said it was all going to plan. We turned up three hours in advance the next day and the flight had gone; they’d sold tickets in the morning for the highest prices. Things like timetables, departure/arrival times and booking confirmations should be taken with a pinch of salt.
3. Go to ancient pre-Colombian monuments.
The Incan ones in Peru and Bolivia will blow you mind (Ollantaytambo, Pisaac, Nasca Lines, Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca), as well as the Aztec/Zapotec/Toltec/Mayan ruins in Central America, and especially in Guatemala and the Yucatán peninsula, and Teotihuacan in Mexico. Also, make sure you see colonial remnants, especially castles, such as Fuerte San Felipe in Cartagena, Colombia. One of the many brilliant things about Latin America is that European levels of health and safety laws haven’t quite reached there yet, meaning you can really explore these ruins. For example, in Fuerte San Felipe there are tunnels which go from under the castle to the sea and far under the city. If you have a torch, you can just follow them and see where they end up. No restrictions.
4. Talk to locals,
They’re usually friendly and like meeting tourists. Speaking to locals will help you to find the best local sites and food (and having a Spanish speaker is obviously key here). If you have time, try to find a cooking class; a cousin of mine was in Cusco, Peru, and met a restaurant owner willing to spend all day with her group, taking them to markets to buy food, all the while talking about history and culture lessons centred around food. The day finished with him teaching them how to take the ingredients they’d bought and make traditional meals back at his restaurant.
5. Some places just are just not safe,
Don’t let your sense of reality be overridden by a hunger for adventure. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, has incredible violence simply unfathomable for people outside it. Caracas, Venezuela, has high levels of violence and kidnappings. I wanted to go this summer to visit my Grandfather in Venezuela, but everyone told me not to, including him. Safety in Latin America is no joke. Other places not recommended are places North of Mexico City, especially near the US border; in Central America avoid Honduras and El Salvador, and in Colombia, the higher up you go land-wise, the more dangerous it gets as they are home to guerrilla strongholds. Medellín, for example, is quite high up and has dangerous parts, especially slum areas. The area of El Chocó is not really for tourists. The southern part of Bogotá is also not recommended. Recent stats released from Honduras indicate a homicide rate of 20 per day in 2011, in San Pedro Sula. That would be another place not to go!