I stand in a sea of Latinos, eagerly talking to one another in Spanish. As the only gringa inside I fidget around uncomfortably waiting for the mass to being. Then suddenly the chatter dies to a low hum as the congregation starts to sing in unison in preparation for the mass.
This upcoming June will two years since I stepped on a plane from Santiago to Toronto, swearing to myself that one day I would be back. And yet, my move to Canada was followed by a move to Belgium and with each passing month my promise to return seemed less likely. Last Sunday as I say through this 1.5 hour Spanish mass, I was reminded why I had made that promise two years ago as I witnessed the incredibly sense of community, love and respect between each attendee, culminating in a message at the end about the importance of solidarity and an invitation for the obvious asado afterwards. It was a sight that I, a regular Catholic practitioner for the last 10 + years, had never witnessed.
If you ask anyone who really knows me they’ll say that I am obsessed – in fact, I tell people that I must have been a latina in another life (I’m still figuring out if that statement offends actual lations, anyone?). So it saddens me when I hear people tell me that they are afraid to travel to Latin America (Central or South America). One of the main reasons that they are afraid to travel to Latin America is because they are concerned for their safety. You know what, I get it! I was robbed and mugged in Chile, and I understand that terrifying feeling of having people constantly stare at you, catcall or stand uncomfortable close. I’ve also heard it all – numerous stories of people being robbed or recounting their “close-call” stories. But guess what, I’ve also heard these stories about Paris, London, New York, Brussels and Toronto. IN FACT, I can recount many more horror stories from the time I was living in Paris 8 years ago … but that’s for another time. But does that mean that we should all cower underneath the covers because there is a chance something might go wrong? Ummm…. HECK NO!
So why should you travel to Latin America? Oh, let me count the reasons.
My experience is limited to a number of Latin American countries, specifically Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Panama, but as I visited each country I found one commonality that made me truly fall in love: the people. Warm and inviting, many of the Latinos that I met along my travels made me feel a part of their circle, even if had met only a couple of hours prior. I can’t remember the number of times I was invited to a family dinner and treated like I was part of the family. When I lived in Pamana my host mother would drive me everywhere; she told me she’d rather pick me up at 2 am at a club because it was safer then having me take a taxi home. When I revisited them 3 years later, they took me and my friend (who they never had met before) out for a fancy dinner and told us we could stay in their house during our stay … no problemo.
Nature is another favourite of mine – you may have heard of Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, Patagonia and Iguaçu Falls but the list of natural wonders found within these 20 countries is endless – for example, did you know that paradise falls featured in Disney “UP” is actually a portrayal of Angel Falls located in Venezuela? My Latin American bucket list is pages and pages long and includes a number of adventure sports – from scuba diving, windsurfing, surfing, hiking, canoeing etc. This region has something for everyone here.
Then of course there is history; rich history that not only dates back hundreds of years ago but has roots in the present. Latin American countries are recognising the tourist interest in more authentic travel experiences and have taken advantage of this. The indigenous people of the Americas, from the Mapuche in Chile to the Kuna Yala in Panama or the Quechua in Bolivia, have started to create community-based tourism projects (in collaboration with other partners) to cater to this demand. The system is not perfect, but the growth is there and I am optimistic that these community-based projects will grow and strengthen in the region in the coming years. I also find it extremely fascinating that it is believed that around 67 different un-contacted tribes still exist in Brazil.
Oh and the food. Wait, did I mention the food? If you are a meat lover, then I have good news – barbecue (known as asado), is quite popular in South America, in fact it is considered the national dish in Argentina and Uruguay. Each country has their own particular dish, from ceviche (Peru/Ecuador), Bandeja Paisa (Colombia), pastel de choclo (Chile)… there is just too much deliciousness to name! And what better to wash down all this delicious food than with a traditional drink or a glass of red wine? I would recommend a pisco sour!
I can not rave enough about travel to Latin America;the region is truly is the land of discovery, from its rich history, to its breathtaking landscape, its friendly people and ending with its food and drink.
Still don’t know if you want to travel to Latin America?
Here are a couple of safety tips on what you need to know when visiting the region!