I toiled through four years of high school Spanish and never did I think that it would be useful someday. At the time, it was just another class that I needed to graduate. I was really never great at it, let alone good. I failed pretty much every telenovela quiz, didn’t (and still don’t) understand the subjunctive phrase, and could barely roll my R’s. Growing up in California, you meet your fair share of Hispanic people but I didn’t ever think I would actually have to be proficient Spanish.
Looking back, I guess it is was a bit naive. Not only is Spanish one of the most widely spoken languages in the world but it is the main language for nearly all of our neighbors to the South. Of course, at the time, I had never really been anywhere outside of China and Europe and remained fairly ignorant to what the rest of the world offered.
This all changed in March of 2009. When I landed in Quito with seven weeks and a return flight from Rio de Janiero, I faced the daunting prospect of traversing an entire continent to catch my flight home. And for the first time in my life, I realized maybe, just maybe, I should have tried a bit harder in high school Spanish…
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It’s funny how fast you learn things when it’s by necessity. Slowly, I untangled the cobwebs in my brain and unearthed the bits of Spanish from four years prior. Little by little, week by week, my Spanish improved. By the end of my trip, my Spanish had improved to the point where I could hold a pretty decent conversation, provided that I was boozed up. I no longer felt disconnected from every non English speaker and with the language barrier down, the whole of Latin America opened up for me.
Since that first trip down, I’ve made five additional trips to Central and South America, with another planned in June of this year. Aug. 2010 was Honduras, followed by Guatemala and Belize in Dec. 2010. In 2011, I went to Colombia and then Costa Rica and Panama in the beginning of 2012. Just last month, it was a three week romp through Argentina, southern Chile, and Uruguay. These trips, combined with the countries I visited in 2009 means I’ve been to the majority of Central and South America.
Looking back, it amazes me how much time I’ve spent in this part of the world. In total, it’s around 5 months.
So why do I keep going back?!
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One of the main reasons I love going down is that when it’s winter up here, it’s summer down there. Winter is when I get my longest holiday breaks and I like to go somewhere warm. This last trip, Buenos Aires was hovering in the mid to high 90′s while the US was freezing over in a “Polar Vortex”. In 2010, I spent Christmas day on a beach in Belize. In 2011, while most of the US watched the NFL playoffs in cold winter weather, I watched it from a bar on a beach in Costa Rica.
You simply can’t get that sort of surreal experience in the US, except maybe Florida (but then who wants to go to Florida?). Swimming in the ocean, hiking through hot and humid jungles, and walking around in tshirts and shorts in the depths of northern hemisphere wintertime makes me extremely happy and content.
With so many countries and such a vast swath of land, Latin America has so many different things to offer. Each country is so unique in culture, personality, and landscape. People from Andean countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia are a world apart compared to those from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Guatemala has their brightly colored and rickety chicken buses while their neighbor to the east, Belize, has a deep rooted rasta-Bob Marley culture. Honduras has tropical diving while Bolivia is home to the largest salt flat in the world. If you want to party all night you can in Buenos Aires, Medellin, and Cusco. Hiking? No problem, Patagonia is full of world class hikes while Peru and Colombia have their own signature hikes in Machu Picchu and Ciudad Perdida, respectively. You can ski, climb, white water raft, sand board, hang out on the beach, hike in the jungle or the mountains in Latin America. Pretty much any sort of activity you can think of, Latin America has.
Latin America is also closer to the US than a lot of other places. You can get to Central America in more or less 7-8 hours via two flights. Northern South America is slightly longer whereas the more Southern parts top out around 20 or so hours. While this may seem long, compare it to at least 15-20 hours to get to most parts of Asia, even longer for the Middle East and Africa. While some parts of Europe are closer, it shares the same winter as us which makes December vacations undesirable for me.
Another really attractive aspect of Latin America is that the majority of it is cheap compared to the US, Europe, and other developed countries. Most of the countries are still developing 2nd and 3rd world countries which makes everything cheaper. I’m a big fan of stretching my dollars and paying anywhere from 30-50% less than home is great. Of course, there are some places (Punta del Este, Brazilian and Chilean big cities) that cost equal, if not more than home but those are few and far between. I wrote a post a while ago that has some of the costs explained which you can see here.
Last, but certainly not least, I go to Latin America because it is home to some of the friendliest and warmest people I have ever met. While you do hear a lot about the violence and crime that occurs in many of the countries, I have yet to (knock on wood) personally meet anyone who was truly a dick. Everywhere I went, people were more than willing to help with directions and help translate when I was completely over my head. Warm smiles, joking laughter, and a very genuine sense of friendliness were the norm everywhere I went. And unlike some parts in Southeast Asia, no one tried to scam me.
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After my first trip to Latin America, I would have never guessed that I would return another five times. Yet every time I get to see something new and amazing. Every time I’ve encountered different cultures, people, and sights and despite the fact that I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good deal of Latin America, there is still a lot more to explore.
The World Cup in Brazil will be my next trip to Latin America and if history is any guess, it certainly will not be my last.