11 Things Latin America Will Teach You

Latin America will teach you a lesson. It definitely did to me.

I have travelled so much since I was a child that even before going on my long term trips across Central and South America I thought of myself as an expert and independent traveller and as someone who knows how the world works. I’d back up my opinion of myself using my academic background in international human rights law and my many travels, throughout Europe and beyond, whether of a few days or a few weeks, as examples to prove what I said and thought.

I really felt I had a good idea of how most people lived outside the Western world. I was also convinced that it would be a good practice to have a strict schedule with carefully planned days so that I could see more places and do more things. I enjoyed spending my time before a trip making minute preparations that included checking the bus schedules and the opening times of a museum, whether I intended to visit Valencia or to go to Peru.

When I gave up my academic career and started my first long term backpacking trip through Latin America, I actually realized that I knew very little and had an eye opening experience. The things I have learned in those months of travel through Latin America I would have never learned even if I kept reading, studying and watching as many documentaries as possible.

So, here are 11 life lessons you will learn in Latin America.

Uruguay
Do I not look like an experienced traveller?

11 Lessons To Learn In Latin America

You can’t carry more than 12 kg on your back

Forget about the long packing list. If you plan to travel long term across Latin America, you need to stay light. You don’t need to carry that many clothes. One pair of shoes is enough, and nobody will think less of you if you don’t wear something different every day, as long as your clothes are (sort of) clean. 

Besides, trying to drag a heavy backpack across a continent is insane. 18 kgs on a backpack may not seem too much to you – you may be the strongest man. But trust me, they become so after a while. Stick to 12 kg maximum and make your life easier.

Guabito
I could hardly walk with such a heavy backpack on my back. Have I learned my lesson?

When you gotta go, you gotta go

Travel across Latin America and you will see that you can pee anywhere. It actually is a skill you can be proud of. It’s more than just going to the loo when it is not so clean, or sharing a bathroom in a hostel. It even goes beyond the peeing in the nature concept. You will learn to pee behind bushes, in coconut shells (yup), in a hole in the ground covered by some wooden boards, in the (dark) toilet of a moving bus, in the hole of the helm on a sailboat in the high seas. I bet you can’t do the same.

Cockroaches are horrible, no matter what

Or spiders. Or rats. You can adapt to weird toilets, uncomfortable beds and you can sleep almost anywhere. The almost means you have to strike out places that are infested with cockroaches, spiders and rats. No human being can ever live with them. I sure can’t – try as I might, if I know there is a cockroach in the room, I have to leave. It is a matter of survival. It’s either me or the cockroach. 

Latin America

You don’t have to plan everything

On my first trip to Cuba, I was so obsessed with the idea of “making the most of it” that I thought the only way I could have a full experience was by following my plans minutely. Then, I was crushed with the Cuban system. No wi-fi, no booking system, no computers, no facebook: I had to improvise or leave. I decided to stay, do as the Cubans and stop having arguments with the locals who had apparently joined forces to boycott my plan to visit their country. When I eventually started going with the flow and relaxed, I felt liberated and I enjoyed Cuba so much more. 

This is to say: if you are planning a long-term trip across Latin America, forget about plans.

Relax on a hammock after an eventful day
It’s when I start relaxing that the trip gets better

Life changes depending on how we look at it

You may decide never to get on a crowded train or bus in Europe. If the London Tube approaches and you see that the train is packed, you can resolve to wait for the next one, because you know one will be coming soon.

In Nicaragua, packed chicken buses are part of the fun and you may find the whole thing a good way to get in touch with the locals – quite literally so.

You will end up taking pictures, having a laugh at the lady that gets on with a basket of live chickens, and eventually even write a post about it. Same thing with the timings. The train is late in London? I bet you want your money back! The bus in Peru doesn’t run that day, for no apparent reason? I bet you will shrug it off, spend an extra night in the village and go meet some locals.

Estelì, Nicaragua
Chickens ride the chicken bus to Estelì, Nicaragua

What is hell to me, may be paradise to you

I have travelled to certain places because other travelers I met told me they were amazing and I should visit – only to find out that I could not see what they saw in them. My friend had a fantastic time in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was completely disappointed when I saw it with my own eyes. 

Then I have been to places that are not even on tourist maps and fell in love with them. People’s opinion should only matter so much when picking a place to visit, because what moves you won’t necessarily move others. 

Bocas del Toro main attraction?
Bocas del Toro main attraction?

It is actually ok to trust people you don’t know

Whenever you travel to some exotic country, family and friends will warn you to be careful, watch out and don’t trust strangers. Then you get back, and people ask if you have experienced any danger, if you were ever afraid, if Ecuador/Honduras/Guatemala are as dangerous as people say. That’s when you realize that you were either very lucky or very oblivious to your surroundings, because not for a minute you felt in danger during my travels.

Quite the opposite indeed.

You will some truly kind people in Latin America, that will above and beyond what is reasonable to help you.

For example, a stranger in Costa Rica saw that I needed a toilet and could not find one, and showed me to her home. Or another woman at a local market in Peru crossed the city to look for some herbs to prepare a tea that would help my sore throat – and she would not want a penny in exchange of her efforts.

Mercado de San Blas, Cusco
The lovely lady who helped me cure my throat

You should never hide who you are

People all around Latin America – from Mexico to Peru, from Guatemala to Bolivia – proudly wear the symbols of their identity. Whether it is a traditional hat, a beautifully embroidered skirt, golden teeth, other particular hair-dos, they do all they can to protect their culture and pass it on to future generations. It is a notable effort at preserving and protecting identities.

Because they know they can’t hide who they are, and they should not. And they are ready to fight for their rights.

I love travelling alone
I had to show my Sardinian pride even when I was in Chile!

Culture and traditions are actually profitable

One thing I saw in my travels in Latin America is that indigenous groups hold on to their traditional sources of income. Women in Guatemala have created cooperatives to keep their traditional occupations: they weave, they sell their works and they even organize workshops for visitors. Their businesses are successful. A sign that a possible solution out of the major financial crisis that Sardinia and Italy are facing may be in returning to their ancestral traditions?

Lake Atitlan
Fully dressed in traditional clothes in San Antonio Palopo – the women have turned their traditional occupations into a profitable business

In 2020, not everybody in the world has access to safe drinking water

Tap water is safe to drink all over Europe and North America. Yet, we have an incredible offer of bottled water; tv advertising that shows the benefit of one specific brand for having low sodium, for being bottled in recycled plastic bottles, for coming from the highest mountain source in Europe and what not.

In many places in Latin America, tap water is not safe to drink. Most people can’t afford to buy bottled water and have to vigorously boil tap water to be able to drink it safely. Malnutrition is hardly due to lack of food or to poor quality food, but is generally caused by contaminated water used for cooking and drinking, whose bacteria cause bad infections and diarrhea. We take right to water for granted in Europe and North America, but for most of the world it is still a dream.

There are poor people who are way happier than wealthy ones

During your trip across Latin America, you will came across shanty towns. You will meet people who, despite the fact that they literally live in shacks, really seem to be happy: they laugh, they smile, and they enjoy life.

Let me tell you this story. I never really enjoyed Christmas – all the frenzy to buy presents, to sit around during endless meals, to meet those relatives that ask the same, annoying questions every time. Then I ended up in Ometepe, Nicaragua, and on Christmas day I was caught up by a thunderstorm. It was raining so hard that walking back for 45 minutes to get back to the hostel was not an option.

The first shelter I found was in what I soon realized was someone’s home. A group of people were sitting in the patio, enjoying the day singing and playing the guitar. I ran into their place, said “Merry Christmas everyone” and after a blank stare that lasted no more than one second, they just offered me a chair and went back to their singalong.

They seemed poor to me and I am pretty sure they had not been exchanging presents that day. Their only wealth were probably the chickens roaming about in the patio. Yet, they seemed way happier than most of the families I know that live a comfortable life.

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Learn what Latin America will teach you - via @clautavani

35 thoughts on “11 Things Latin America Will Teach You”

  1. Well said! Fantastic article.

    I think apart from all the inward, personal things travel has taught me about myself, it is the raised awareness of so many issues that have shaped my thoughts and beliefs today. Wildlife conservation in particular, but also as you say such simple things as water and how we can take things for granted.

    You are shaped by the places you visit, the things you see and the experiences you have, so you may as well make them worthwhile and travel!

  2. These are all great learnings. My husband and I travel to Central America a lot. So far I’ve been to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua. We have found the people there to be wonderful and their simpler way of life refreshing.

  3. Yea, I agree with your life lessons. I’ve learned some of them myself, although not in South America. The last one is the one that still haunts me, because my observation is that more money means almost always less peace of mind.

  4. I agree 110% on the cockroaches! They’re up there with bed bugs! Not in my list of favorite things haha!

  5. This is such a great and insightful post. You certainly had some life changing experiences in South America. Your christmas in Nicaragua sounds heavenly.

  6. I’m definitely with you on the backpack weight. It was one of the first things we learned and just won’t do anymore. Also, cockroaches are just no bueno.

  7. Great lessons. Funny how living and traveling in South Caucasus has taught me pretty much the same things. I’m totally with you on 4 and 7.

  8. I am SO with you about the heavy backpack, and also the cockroaches.
    I’ve managed to trim my belongings down, but it’s still a challenge for me to leave with any space in my bag! I seem to just fill it up no matter what.
    I can also say that although cockroaches don’t freak me the Hell out as much as they used to, we’re never going to be friends. So there cockroaches.

  9. I have learned much more about life, human rights and protection of cultural identity in my travels than in my (MANY) years of work as an academic and human rights lawyer!

  10. I think anywhere works, as long as you approach your travels with an open mind 🙂

  11. i think I can take you up on the ‘go anywhere challenge’! One of the funniest experiences, was when I was cycling across the salt pans of Bolivia. I stayed in this small village on the edge for a couple of days. Every morning, it was a daily ritual for the villagers to wander onto the saltpan, and take a ‘number 2’ – All 200 of them!! lol

  12. Weight is why I have a two step packing system. The first step is to pack everything, I think I need. Then I unpack it. I remove half and then repack. It usually gets me down to the bare bones.

  13. Beautiful thoughts, Claudia! I myself have been in South America for two years now and we have the same sentiments. I’d like to highlight the last two thoughts — those realisations/lessons are very powerful and fundamental. Kudos! xx

  14. Beautiful post, really. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Latin America the way you have. I totally agree with what you said about how people’s opinions should only matter so much when it comes to choosing things to do. I’ve gotten so many high recommendations that ended up disappointing me, and on the contrary I’ve been warned about places that were “boring” “dirty” or “dangerous” and loved them!

  15. Great post! I really enjoyed reading all the lessons you’ve learnt! Travelling often teaches us things we never could learn elsewhere and we (optimally) become better for it! I can’t wait to visit Latin America someday. Thanks again for an insightful and inspiring read 🙂

  16. Very well written piece, it really goes to show how much travelling affects both our hearts and our minds!

  17. I loved reading this! Being able to pee everywhere is an underrated skill (also pairs nicely with the need to drink all the alcohol so you don’t have to carry it anymore… Been there, done that, haha!)
    I also loved watching indigineous people making money from their craft. The way they embrace their heritage post-colonization is beautiful!

  18. I definitely got the same spiel when I set out to travel Central America, “Oh my, be careful, it’s dangerous there!!” Yet, I felt safer in many countries throughout the region than I do in my own home. The people in Central America are absolutely amazing and I have never had a bad experience in the months I have spent through the region. 🙂

  19. Such a well considered article. So many parts i want to comment on. People, in my opinion are very good. It would be the exception to find someone that wasn’t. As an aside, I can also pee anywhere and i mean anywhere so we share some similar skills 🙂

  20. I have been traveling Latin America for over a year now, and to add to your list:

    #12: If you want to see why income inequality is a bad thing, travel in Latin America. I never encountered crime and violence like the media magnifies just as you did, but after seeing wealthy neighborhoods with first world infrastructure, and then seeing shanty towns that were unquestionably third world in terms of their services and collective wealth, I can understand the reason for the danger in some parts of the region.

    Yes, poor people are happy, but they’d probably be even more so if they had access to potable water, health care, and a fair wage.

    Sorry to get a bit political, but that’s my biggest takeaway from my time here, as I don’t want my home of Canada to slide towards the polarized divide between the haves and the have nots.

    Great post!

  21. My dear James, you are 100% right. And, if I can add – polarization is the direction that many EU countries have taken lately, especially Italy. A wealthy north, and impoverished regions in the south (I am from Sardinia, which has been greatly affected by the credit crunch).

  22. Loved the last lesson! People always thinking have more is better, but it doesn’t always buy happiness. I also love what you had to say about cultural preservation and how women in Central and South America have successful cooperatives!

  23. They really are an example for the rest of the world in terms of showing pride for who they are 🙂

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