The 10 Uncomfortable Truths of Travelling in Central + South America

Tomorrow is the eight month anniversary of my backpacker travels through the continents of Central and South America.

Since arriving in Cancun, Mexico back in October, I was gently exposed to a new culture and way of life. As I’ve ventured off the gringo trail and gone deeper into the heart of the eleven countries (en-counting), I’ve had some incredible experiences along the way. During that time there has been a lot of self reflection too, and I wanted to share some of the common truths that I’ve learnt for any future travellers that may be reading.

1. A Little Spanish Can Go A Long Way

I spent the empty hours on my flight listening to Michel Thomas audiotapes to Learn Spanish. The basics I learnt through the audiotapes were certainly enough to survive in the much more Americanised city of Cancun. In fact, I think the only time I needed to speak Spanish in the two weeks I was there was at the bus station. I knew I would be visiting countries where I would need to have a more rounded knowledge of the language and for that reason I decided to take some classes.

I signed up for a 5 week language course in the excellent school of Antigüeña in Antigua, Guatemala. Classes were four hours each day, private tuition, one to one – Monday – Friday. After this time, while I certainly wasn’t fluent, I had covered past, present and future tenses and was able to converse in simple Spanish on a range of topics. Antigua is an excellent place to learn the language because it is one of the cheapest on Earth. This coupled with a Host Family, Homestay option could really accelerate your learning. I’m extremely happy with the hard graft I put in during those weeks because in the seven months that followed I could make myself understood easily, enhancing my experience and ability to connect with locals.

2. Gringo Love/Hate Tug of War

At the start of my trip, I really enjoyed getting to meet so many people from other countries and quickly made lots of new friends, travel companions who have joined me en route to far and wide destinations. The inexpensive hostel scene inevitably brings like minded, young backpackers together and it can be great fun for a while. There comes a time, however, when the novelty wears off. For me this was around the six month mark. The constant flux of people passing through, sharing travel war stories gets very tedious especially as everyone tends to follow the same path neatly mapped out on the latest Lonely Planet guide book.

As much as I love my fellow countrymen, I inwardly sigh when I hear another Irish accent in my hostel. From my perspective and the reason I invested weeks learning the language, was to get away from the gringo scene and see a little bit more of the culture. For this reason, I suppose people considered me a little anti-social in the past few months, but my seemingly apathetic nature wasn’t extended to the locals where I tried my best to integrate with some success.

An excellent website that I used for this purpose was Conversation Exchange. Of course, it depends what your reasons are for travelling. Some of the people I have met in the last eight months are what I consider to be friends for life. We have braved the storm together and really bonded over some incredible once in a lifetime moments. But it is the moment you are led off the gringo trail, hand-held by a local that you really get to see the behind the guidebook and truly appreciate your surroundings.

3. Your Diet Goes to Shit

In Guatemala, I ate what the Host Family prepared for me. This was the staple dish of beans, meat and some variation of vegetable. Not necessarily unhealthy in and of itself, but eating it three times a day, everyday makes your tastebuds crave something more. A queue of gringo’s would be regularly found skipping their cereal breakfasts and heading to the nearby café to study over a huge fruit licuado (smoothie) or something more satiable.

Dulce-de-Leche_2Most backpackers are on budgets therefore the free breakfasts in (most) hostels become something of a bingefest. I’m currently in Argentina and this morning in my hostel, I had four medialuna croissants, a short baguette with dollops of Dulce de Leche (amazing!), three oranges squeezed into a juice and a bowl of cereal. The next time I had something to eat was around 7pm (early for Argentina) when I had six empanadas (pastries filled with meat).

Back in Ireland I would actually avoid carbs but in this country it seems that the people live off it. Pizzas, Pastas, Meat and Bread are everywhere. The sooner you accept that and stop beating yourself up over your inability to stick to your designer diet, the more you can get on with just enjoying your experience.

Naturally McDonalds and all the major fast food outlets are everywhere. In far flung places like La Paz, Bolivia when walking down the street and faced with lines of restaurants serving items whose names weren’t covered in your Spanish classes, the temptation is always there to resort to a familiar Big Mac Meal. Especially when it is so cheap.

4. Your Fitness Goes to Shit

I considered myself quite fit before I left to go travelling. In fact, it was probably the fittest I have ever been, regularly hitting the gym four-five times each week for months. The goal was to look good on the beach primarily if truth be told, and when I arrived in Cancun, I felt that my hard work had paid off. Then it went downhill.

Seeking out gyms as you travel is a noble aspiration, but incredibly difficult in reality. Given my relatively poor diet, constant lack of sleep owing to dorm life, the fact I am on HOLIDAY, and a slip in standards, I’ve not once been interested in seeking out weights equipment. My main exercise these days is walking, and lugging a backpack around for eight months has helped me maintain some of my physique. But unless you are based in a city for longer than 3 weeks it’s really difficult to maintain any kind of exercise unless you are incredibly motivated.

5. Dorm Life will make you Hate Humanity

I’ve lost count of the number of hostels I’ve stayed in. Preferring the dorm option due to cost, I’ve probably managed to eke out more travel experiences longer term by diverting my finances to those endeavours instead of opting for private rooms. I don’t regret that decision, but along the way I’ve had countless incidents where I’ve butted heads with fellow room mates.

I’ve had my fair share of eventful dorm buddies – the fairly common and universally hated one being the guy who feels inclined to pack, unpack, assemble and then repack his things pre-dawn while everyone tries to sleep. He would turn on the full glare of the light to carry out this task and usually use an assortment of ziplock plastic bags for your added annoyance.

Snorers are everywhere, others have been puking and farting sometimes at the same time, there have been nymphos having sex in your teetering column on bunk beds, drunks stumbling into the wrong bed (your bed). To all of these characters I salute you for making the good dorm mates seem like angels. With travelling, you learn to take the rough with the smooth.

6. Quality Sleep as a Currency is not Available in Central/South America

Life is relatively cheap here. Alcohol is super-cheap. Nightlife is bustling and clubs in most countries in South America don’t even start to get busy until 2am, with a closing time of around 5am. That coupled with a vibrant backpacker scene in most major cities, and discounted drink offers/promotions and pub crawl events through hostels lends itself to a fairly rowdy drunken scene 24-7. The likelihood of catching some decent sleep in a dorm is slim to none. Some dorms here can fit ten people to a room. All it takes is for one drunk to come in at 4am to make it a living hell to catch a wink.

WinkThe bus network throughout Central and South America, while efficient and reliable for the most part, can be a stress inducing voyage. Numerous unplanned pit stops in gas stations, random police checks in the wee small hours of the night, being tossed from side to side by winding roads around mountains, and the joys of having the locals flatten their seats in front directly onto your lap the moment they are seated, all make the experience pretty memorable, if not enjoyable. You eventually adjust of course, grabbing some shut eye whenever and wherever you can.

7. You’ll probably get ripped off/ mugged or attacked

I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve not had any incidents that have put me in danger. I’ve been warned by my guidebook and other travellers about certain hotspots in various countries (Antigua, Guatemala for one), but owing to the fact I’m 6 ft 1, and fairly well built, I think my size might have helped me in that respect. Others haven’t been so lucky.

During the time I was in Mendoza, the news story that hit the press that week was about a New Zealand tourist in his early 30’s who was gunned down by a local man in a botched robbery attempt. This was in broad daylight at one of the main touristic parts of the city. I have had friends who have been mugged in Guatemala while walking back from clubs at the end of the night. A lot of this criminal activity occurs because of the ill advised strategy taken by the tourist. Walking home drunk in a foreign city alone is not encouraged, regardless of how well lit the streets are. It’s just not worth the danger, yet still every month there is a report about missing tourist or injuries.

Speaking of daylight robbery’s, taking a taxi here can be an expensive business. I’ve been stung a couple of times with a high charge. Some of the drivers seem to have a Gringo setting on their meeting in Buenos Aires, and it speeds is three times the normal rate. I have learnt to agree the price before jumping into the taxi – much harder for them to impose a surcharge that way.

8. Travellers are Slaves to Technology

I haven’t had a mobile phone in eleven months. I had use of my laptop for four of the last nine months before it decided to have early retirement. I’ve survived. This zen state of no technology has kind of been forced onto me and I’m actually quite happy to have had hours to fill with other activities like reading and walking.

My Tech Savvy Travelling Companions in Guatemala
My Tech Savvy Travelling Companions in Guatemala

Every hostel I’ve been to without exception has the same scene in the common area. A group of 20 something’s all glued to their Ipads and/or tablets, thousands of miles from home but still checking their facebook updates. It’s been a little bit sad in a way to experience this, at least in the beginning where I was still fresh and looking to catch peoples eyes and engage them in social banter. I guess it’s just a damning indictment on our society that even in some of the most incredible parts of the world, we’re still so wrapped around our devices, taking selfies and sharing with our friends instead of actually just enjoying the moment.

9.  You’ll Probably Fall In Love

Maybe it will be the weather, the language, the cuisine, the charm of the cities like colonial Cartagena or bustling Buenos Aires. Or maybe it will be with a local.

I have met some amazingly generous, beautiful, kind hearted and downright gorgeous women since Mexico. At various turns on my path some fellow travellers have pointed me in the direction of this city or that as having the most beautiful women in (choose country here). For those interested, apparently Rosario is the Holy Grail for Argentinian beauties. Medellin for Colombian. Florianopolis for Brasil.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of these women, and been able to practice my Spanish with them. The incentive is much easier when faced with a beautiful woman of course (no offence meant toward my Guatemalan teacher Lily!), and in ways that no guidebook could ever tell I’ve really gotten to learn about the countries by speaking and spending time with these women. It has been with a heavy heart I’ve had to continue my travels but they have made an impression on me and I long for such time when I can return someday.

10. You Won’t Want to Return Home

This post has mostly focussed on the negatives of travel. While I stand by them, and feel they serve as an important caution to the bright eyed and bushy tailed adventurer keen to set off around the world, I have had more more positives than negatives in my trip so far.

Reality StrikesWhile I’ve had some bad luck with various technological gadgets imploding, losing countless clothes in launderettes, fracturing and dislocating a wrist on Bolivia’s Death Road and other small incidents, I’ve been very lucky compared to others. There are some things I would do differently if I had another nine months to travel. I will probably cover these on a separate blog post. But all being said, I’ve had great fun and enjoyed the freedom to wonder aimlessly around this giant continent. The thoughts of reconnecting into the rat race when I return in a few weeks are in the back of my mind, and I’m trying my hardest to keep them there, hoping to squeeze as much out of my final two countries . Uruguay and Brasil – as possible.

If I had the finances, I would probably still continue but my budget is almost exhausted. It will be very sad to return but I’ll be forever grateful for the people and experiences that have helped shape my journey and they’ll be with me forever.

6 thoughts on “The 10 Uncomfortable Truths of Travelling in Central + South America

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