After spending a year or so navigating my way through South America, I know what it's like to be a tourist amongst Latin cultures. You are overwhelmed by new colors and smells. You find yourself in equally amazing and awkward situations. People are friendly (...maybe too friendly depending on your cultural norms of proximity). There are tons of cheap tricks and tourist traps to watch out for. It's exciting and full of new adventures to be had: volcanos and Incan trails, Amazon rivers and salty desserts, busy markets and live music, dusty roads and perfect surf beaches...in other words, its the BEST! South America is one of those places that backpackers and more experienced world travelers thrive in.
All that said, there are some common mistakes that most tourists make (myself included) and while some of them seem like no-brainers... it never hurts to state the obvious. Especially when it could mean the difference between having a life-changing experience in Colombia or Bolivia or Argentina...OR having a plain vanilla trip as you behave like the run-of-the-mill tourist.
1. Speak Spanish/ Castellano
It might seem obvious, but it seems to not be taken seriously enough by most tourists. Communicating in a foreign language increases the value of any trip, and for purely practical purposes you can actually get on the right bus, find that authentic restaurant, converse with the waiter about how to not get pick-pocketed...Plus, the best thing about testing out a new language, it more than often will win you some new friends...ahem...nuevos amigos!
2. Ride in a Chicken Bus
Ok, so you can take a plane, or a "luxury" tour bus, but lets face it, thats boring! If you want to know a culture, you"ve got to get on the chicken bus. Ride with the local people, and try your best to blend in. Granted the bus will probably be more confusing, more stinky, and potentially more full of pranksters, the experience is worth it. Trust me. (And I don't encourage you to hitch hike, but if you do decide to go the thumb route, do share your stories with us!)
3. Drink local drinks & eat traditional food
Each country has its plato típoco. In Colombia its arepas, in Ecaudor its humitas and ceviche, in Argentina its empanadas and steak...so try it! Take pictures of it! And do leave room for traditional desserts...like cookies with dulce de leche! And of course no country would be complete without its national alcohol! Fernet, Aguardiente, Pisco, Kava...all are part of the experience and help you to bond even quicker with your new native friends.
4. Listen to the local radio station
The DJs might talk crazy fast, or bring up political debates that you have no clue about, but the slang you will learn and the popular music can be very telling about the buzz on the street. Try listening to the radio throughout the day, or first thing in the morning to hear news that might effect your vacation. For example, a concert, cultural event, or sporting event are some activities that you will hear about on the radio waves. Plus, it´s a great way to practice your language skills...
5. Get lost and then ask for directions (in Spanish)
Lets face it, the map can only get you so far...I don't care how much your pride yourself on your navigational skills. However, getting lost is a blessing in disguise! One of the best things about getting lost is the unexpected places you will see and the new local friends you find along the way. Plus you can use the opportunity to not only ask for directions, but get suggestions from locals on where to eat or what to do in their home town. Its all about traveling like a local!