During the last 12 years, I’ve been traveling to big parts of Latin America. In all, I’ve visit 15 of the Latin American countries. From Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. Somehow, I keep finding my soul in this place, and I’ll forever keep this part of the world close to my heart. But after spending nearly 10 months in Latin America this time, it’s once again time to say goodbye – or even better: Hasta pronto, mi corazón.
So how can I describe this wonderful, diverse, and peculiar continent? Maybe I should start in the countryside where the coffee, cacao, coca, and bananas fill the landscape. Or I could take you to the streets of the cities and try to explain you what my eyes see. It’s a street fill with contradictions. On the one hand, you got the many beautiful churches and fine architecture. A lot of it dating back to the Spanish colonization with amazing patios and wooden carved balconies. On the other hand, you got the houses and buildings that if the wind was strong enough, it would probably nock down most of them. These houses are often build with an iron roof which is another thing that’ll forever remind me of Latin America: The crazy sound of rain falling heavily on an iron roof. Nothing calms me more than this wild, loud sound.
Photo: Streets of Paraty, Brazil
And you got the many only half done buildings. I keep asking myself, why not finish the first and then move on to building the next? Strange enough, this is actually a fact that irritates me.
But one thing I love, is definitely their use of colours. I love how they are not afraid of painting their cities and houses in a thousand different colours, and how the many colours can be found in their markets as well, where you can buy anything from dead animals and vegetables to warm socks and alpaca jumpers.
Photo: Streets of Jinotega, Nicaragua
Photo: Witches’ Market, Bolivia
Then you got all the writing on the walls. Most of it, commercials for beer, water, or other daily things, or it could be political slogans telling you whom to vote for as mayor. It could also be religious sayings explaining you that God is great and present for those who believe. Apparently, they prefer writing directly on the wall instead of putting up a poster. I wonder how they decide on which commercial to place on the wall, especially considering that when painted, it’s a pretty permanent condition.
On their patios, terraces, or inside their houses, you will most likely find a good hammock, or at least a rocking chair. These colourful hammocks are the true essence of Latin America, and they’ll always have a special place in my heart. Nothing beats laying in a hammock looking up at a blue sky. Surely, one of my favourite things in the world.
Photo: Tulum Beach, Mexico
Take a step back into the streets, and you’ll find all means of transportation. If it can roll then it’s good to go, is more or less the Latino expression. Maybe this perception is the result of getting all the junk cars from the United States, but somehow the Latinos found a way of adding charm to the fact. I mean take a look at the old cars of Cuba that have become a national icon. Not to mention the amazing chicken buses of Central America. I swear there must be some kind of contest going on to see who can pimp their ride the baddest. Just have a look at all the colours and religious sayings scattered all over the buses. In Venezuela, they even add huge speakers and subwoofers to their buses. I still have this funny image in my head of a bus full of Venezuelans sleeping to the heavy beats of reggaeton playing on max volume. Latinos really got an amazing skill that makes them able to sleep anywhere. 5 minutes on a bumpy road with the music so loud that you can’t even hear your own thoughts and the Latino next to you are sound asleep.
Photo: Old Cars of Havana, Cuba
Another thing, that shouldn’t catch you by surprise, is when you hale a taxi and soon after, are sharing it with 3 other people. The so-called colectivos. A word that also covers regular public transportation in South America. Finding the right colectivo can sometimes be challenging in Latin America, but at least, the continuous calling and yelling of the city names will help you get on the right bus. There’s something magical about these calls. It’s like they found a whole new way of pronouncing the cities’ name. A way, you can’t really get your tongue around yourself, but you’re in no way uncertain where the colectivo is heading. Yes, the callings… I can still hear the sounds of “A la pala pala Paz” (La Paz) and ”Pana Pana Pana” (Panajachel) when closing my eyes.
Photo: Chicken Bus, Nicaragua
At this point, you might have a sense of what it would be like walking down a street in Latin America, but to widen your understanding of Latin America, I should probably introduce you to the people of the region. Taking the many differences and the big diversity into consideration, there’s still a lot that can be said to characterize the people. Traditions and cultural heritage are definitely words that should be part of this description. Especially, when it comes to the indigenous people of the region. From the Mayans and Aztecs in Central America to the Incas and Amazonian people in South America to all the smaller groups like the Uros, Pemón, and Tiwanakus. It’s a heritage that inspires and fascinates me. Most of all, the old believe in nature as the sacred and divine, and the believe in strange rituals and the power of the Shaman.
Photo: Lady and Child Dressed in Traditional Clothes, Peru
The different Indian groups keep their languages alive, and for the majority, Spanish is their second language. They often wear traditional clothes, like in Chiapas in Mexico where the women wear black, furry skirts, and the men leather cowboy hats, or in Guatemala where the women wear beautiful coloured clothes together with their fascinating way of tying their hair. A method I never got the hang of. In Peru, and most of all Bolivia, you’ll find women with big skirts, two braids with pong pongs in the end, and what looks like a fun little bowler hat.
Photo: Lady Dressed in Traditional Clothes, Guatemala
If we move further down south, the Indians will be replaced by cowboys. How cool is that? You’re seriously in a part of the world where Cowboys and Indians are not just a game you play as a child. The cowboys, or so-called Gauchos, mainly rule the vast areas of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil. Similar groups are to be found in Venezuela and Colombia. Here they go under the name Llaneros. The Gauchos and Llaneros are skilled horsemen who have been throwing lassos since the age of 4. Seeing 5 Llaneros in Venezuela work their way around a huge group of cattle on the back of wild horses with lassos in their hands, is an image I won’t forget any time soon.
Photo: Gaucho of Argentina
Of course, the Gauchos and Indians are only part of the big population. Between the younger Latino crowd, there’s a tendency to wear what can best be described as reggaeton inspired outfits. For the boys, it’s about looking cool while the girls are chasing a sexy look when squeezing into small outfits consisting of tiny pants and short shirts that seem to be a size or two too small. In other words, most Latinos are not afraid of showing off flesh.
Photo: Latino Men, Nicaragua
Food, Music and Values
If you’re still uncertain about the Latino way of life, I could invite you to take a seat at the dinner table where you’ll get served tortillas, beans, corn, quinoa, guacamole, tacos, arepas, ceviche, empanadas, papaya, or bananas in all shapes and sizes served in a million different ways. Together with the meal, they might serve you coca mate (coca tea), Inca Kola, a good red wine, dark rom, a strong tequila, or a terribly sweet coffee. Even though they have the best coffee in the world, they have no idea how to treat it. This is why I sometimes find myself ending up in a touristic coffee bar.
Photo: Street Food in Flores, Guatemala
Photo; Coffee Fields of Nicaragua
Photo: Taco Stall in Mexico City, Mexico
Most of the meals are consumed together. Actually, most things are done together in Latin America. Being social is something that’s deeply rooted in the Latin American culture. Try telling a Latino that you live on your own and you’ll most likely get a pity look. In Latin America, it’s in no way uncommon that you live with your parents long after you’ve turned 30. And maybe you even got your grandparents living next door. There’s really no doubt: Family is what matters in this part of the world.
The need for social activities also shows in their many celebrations. In Latin America there’s always a reason to celebrate. Carnival? Let’s go crazy to the sounds of samba rhythms, or let’s drag a bull through the streets. Day of the Dead? Let’s dress up and celebrate the loved ones we’ve lost. Easter? Let’s have huge parades in the streets to celebrate Jesus. The daughter of the family is turning 15? Let’s put her in a big fluffy dress, take tons of pictures and put them on a shelf for many years to come. 6th of January? Let’s buy tons of presents and hide them under the beds of our children. Whatever the thing, the Latinos find a way to celebrate it.
And what better way than celebrating by dancing your feets off to the sounds of Latin American music. Nothing makes your hips move as the sounds of salsa, reggaeton, merengue, and tango. There’s such a talent to be found in this part of the world when it comes to music, and I don’t just mean the music we already know from TV and radio. Walk down any street in Havana and you’ll be in for a treat when encountering several street artists. If the music isn’t enough for you, then surely the language will do the job. I mean, is there seriously anything sexier than Spanish and Portuguese?
Photo: Street Musicians in Havana, Cuba
Photo: Tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina
At this point, I should have covered most, but one thing is surely lacking. So get ready. It’s time to go on a journey to the magnificent nature of the continent. It’s a nature that truly knows how to silence you. So great, diverse, and beautiful. You can find anything from mountains, glaciers and volcanos to deserts, waterfalls and deep rainforest to sandy beaches, turquoise seas, and crystal clear lakes and cenotes. They even got the world’s longest mountain ranch (the Andes), the world’s tallest waterfall (Angel Falls), and the world’s biggest rain forest (the Amazon).
Photo: Iguazu Falls, Brazilian Side
If you’re still not impressed, then maybe the wild life of the continent will do the job. Try closing your eyes. Imagine that you’re in a small kayak deep inside the Amazon surrounded by alligators, jaguars, anacondas, pink river dolphins, and capybaras. Gazing up at the sky, you’ll find parrots and toucans flying high above your head. And the sounds… Nothing beats the sounds of the jungle waking up at sunrise.’
Photo: Sunrise over the Amazon, Peru
Not really into the whole jungle thing? Well, how about a trekking tour in the Andean Mountains? The glorious mountain ranch begins in Venezuela and makes its way down to Chile and Argentina. Somehow, I’ve always been drawn to these mountains. There’s something magical about them. It’s no wonder that they’re considered sacred within traditional Indian religion, and for many years, they provided shelter for Indians fleeing the Spaniards. Macchu Picchu was one of those places. A safe haven tucked away deep in the mountains. The same was the case for the jungle of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. The Indians of these regions fled deep into the jungle which is why we can find the amazing ruins of the Mayan cities Tikal and Palenque today.
Photo: The Andes, Argentina
Photo: The Old Mayan City Tikal, Guatemala
Photo: Inca Ruins in the Andes, Peru
One thing is for sure, you’ll never run out of places to see and things to do when visiting Latin America. Most of the countries are huge and contain so much history, nature, and culture that one visit will never be enough. I guess that’s why I keep making my way to Latin America again and again.
Photo: Me saying hi to a lama, Inca Trail Peru