What comes to your mind first when thinking of Brazil: the colorful carnivals or the favelas? What about Mexico: its wonderful cuisine or the crime rate? Many people have mixed feelings about Latin American countries – on one side, they are excited to travel to a part of the world that they know very little about, but on the other side, they are worried about the risks of going there.
In this article, I would like talk about the myths that Latin America usually attract and why the good far outweighs the bad for potential travelers.
Travelling to a different country can be scary – especially if the country you go to has been labeled ‘dangerous’. Unfortunately, many Latin American countries have a reputation for being unsafe to travel to. When you hear of countries like Colombia and Brazil, some might first think of drugs and gangs, and as much as not cool, this is many times the image portrayed by the media.
And while there is some truth to it, you can easily stay safe. Wilson, one of our volunteers from The University of Nottingham who went on a Global Volunteer exchange in Brazil and Mexico said “based on my 6-week experience in Brazil in 2016 and my 7-week experience in Mexico last summer, I would say be smart when you travel, learn the ground rules from the locals e.g. when it gets too late at night, never take public transport but call an Uber, and you’re perfectly fine. Don’t assume that the rules from your country apply to others”.
As a tourist and a traveller, there will be certain locations and circumstances that you should do your best to avoid. Locals know that, of course, which is why it helps to know someone there that you can trust for information. So as long as you take sufficient precautions, do your research and avoid making silly mistakes – just like you should for anywhere else – you can pretty much have a great time without worrying too much. There’s variety and diversity from one place to another
To someone that has not been to this part of the world, you may find it easy to assume that the people and culture in Latin American countries are all the same, or at least very similar. However, you would be wrong to paint them all with the same brush; the truth is these countries are as different (or more) to each other as European countries are to each other.
For example, with just language, there already comes great cultural difference: the most common language in Brazil is Portuguese, while most other South American countries speak Spanish, and language dictates cultural many times. Even within the Spanish-speaking countries there are differences too – the Spanish they speak in Mexico is quite different from what is spoken in Colombia, we can easily spot this in the accent and pronunciation (for example, in Mexican Spanish the ‘Y’ sound is pronounced like in English but in Colombia, it is pronounced ‘J’), but also vocabulary (if you’re studying or speaking Spanish, you know what we mean).
The food is very different too and reflected by its geographical and historical differences. Peruvian cuisine is focused on fish, due to its large coastline and proximity to the ocean. Mexican food is reliant on its agriculture, featuring corn, beans and chilli, and has also been influenced by Spanish cuisine. Brazilian food has many origins, coming from Portugal, Africa and Native Americans, making it as diverse as its culture.
Happier than their wallets suggest?
Latin American countries – by the standards of countries such as the UK, Germany, and USA – are still developing. Colombia has a GDP per capita (GDP per person) of $14,100 while it is $42,500 for the UK (World Factbook, 2016). However, at the same time, Colombia is considered the second happiest country in the world with a score of 84 on the Positive Index Experience while the UK scores 75.
Yes, it is true that many Latin American countries are underdeveloped compared to UK, Germany and USA. By their standards, people in Brazil, Colombia, Peru or Mexico should not even be happy! Yet, they are.
Wilson also explains, “Latin America in general has its limitations, but nothing can stop anyone leading a happy life there. Yes, people can be poor, life can be rough, but people are still happy. This is because happiness is rooted for within. It’s about focusing on the good over the bad. When Mexican get to drink tequila, they are happy. When Mexican get to dance Salsa, they are happy. When Mexican get to eat a nice tortilla, they are happy. See, they’re reaping happiness in the small little things in life. That’s how I learn to worry less and live more”.
The most welcoming place on Earth
As mentioned before, some of these places get tarred with a negative reputation. You hear some unpleasant stories in the news about politics and crime, and you think: the people must be unfriendly and unwelcoming there!
In fact, according to an Expat Insider survey, Mexico and Colombia were two of the most welcoming countries for foreign travellers. So for all the problems that these countries may have, it comes as a shock to foreigners when they are treated as if it were their home.
“They are very accommodating. They do not discriminate even if I look different (I’m originally from Malaysia). In contrast, they treated me like a local and wanted me to try everything Brazilian/Mexican. I even made friends with a street food vendor in Mexico and sometimes he would give me extra toppings for free. That’s how nice the people can be” – Wilson jokes
In all honesty, to travel to any country different to your own is a task that is difficult whatever the destination will be. You will have to suffer the culture shocks and get over the unique barriers that this place will pose for you. The truth about global travel is that it is challenging yet empowering and enlightening.
And what better place to experience than Latin America, where the food is unique, the culture is colourful and exciting, and the people welcome you with open arms as friends? When you visit this side of the world, your eyes will be opened to a universe that you otherwise could not access from the comfort of your home.
We have volunteering projects in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico – and for 6-8 weeks already open for the summer, you may just experience the most thrilling journey of your lifetime, and make sure you secure your spot before someone else does.
Your journey starts here!