December 12, 2006

Experiences and Impressions
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Listed below are just a few of the numerous memories and impressions that I've picked up from countries/regions explored during the past 12 months.

The Caribbean

Original route thoughts

I was foolish to think I could just jump between the Caribbean islands, blissfully backpacking from one to the next. The reality was that it's not that easy (unless you're on a yacht). Looking back, I really had no idea how long it would actually take to travel such a silly (and impossible) path.

Financially, the Caribbean is a rough place to travel in. Ferries between most of the islands don't exist; flights can range from moderately inexpensive to outrageous; accommodations are always way overpriced for what you're getting; there's little to no backpacker infrastructure; Internet café prices can go as high as US$9/hour; immigration officers aren't use to travelers without a return ticket; and tourist bubbles (faux environments) are everywhere.

It is generally a lonely, expensive place for a backpacker, devoid of other travelers who aren't carrying a suitcase.

That being said, my best cultural immersion happened in this region. I lived with locals, not in hotels. In my efforts to run away from the cruise ship and honeymoon prices, I found either solitude or friendly locals to spend my time with.

I sailed on a 20 meter (65 foot) yacht for a month (having no prior experience with such things), and learned a lot about the Yachtie culture (and how unsexy boat travel can really be, as well as how little sailing is actually involved in the lifestyle).

Puerto Rico

One of the strangest places I've visited. An island with an identity crisis.

Pretend Latin America and North America had a little bit too much to drink one night, they hook up, Latin America gets pregnant and decides to keep the child, leaving North America to kick down child support to help out with things. They had given birth to a hybrid—Puerto Rico. Latin flavor with U.S. tendencies.

Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar, votes in some U.S. elections, is issued U.S. passports, but Spanish is the official language, kids can drink legally at 18 (easily at younger ages), and residents aren't required pay standard U.S. taxes.

It's no wonder they don't want to be made the 51st state. All the protection, with few of the limitations.

When I visited there was no immigration control for U.S. citizens, all you needed was a divers license (like flying to any other place within the United States). Prices are around 20% less than a typical U.S. city.

Flights to/from New York are very inexpensive—probably less than the cost of gas to drive some place. Rumor/joke has it that so many Ricans are living in New York and vica versa, that 40% of the island is registered to vote in NYC.

Mofongo—one of the best dishes I've eaten in the past 12 months is found here. Beaches on the island of Culebra are very attractive.

Why did it take me so long to visit this place?

Dominican Republic

I visited this country with no guidebook and virtually no Spanish (just a quick crib sheet I made with a Puerto Rican before I left).

The capital city of Santo Domingo is host to some of the worst exhaust pollution I've experienced. I use to go back to my room at the end of the afternoon and wipe the soot off my face.

I spent part of my time on a pretty beach in the SE part of the country, controlled by the all-inclusive resort I snuck into. I hear there's great kite-surfing along the northern beaches in the DR. Dominoes can be found being played on most any street.

Venezuela

Stranded in immigration limbo in the airport for well over a day—I was Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

The cold and compassionless employees of the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal and airport staff in general make me never want to return to this country.

Trinidad and Tobago

This natural gas nation, consisting of a pair of "Caribbean" islands next to Venezuela, is by far and away the absolute last tropical destination I'd ever recommend a tourist or traveler to visit. Wild horses couldn't pull me back.

I really didn't believe the rumors of the level of crime on these islands, but when I saw first hand the demeanor of the population (especially on Tobago), they started to make sense.

It really says something about a place when within the first five minutes of meeting a tourist, you're discussing what type of crime they've seen, heard, or experienced. Rape, assault, and robbery are way too commonplace. There's amazing amounts of aggression on the part of the men, and so much passive aggression by the women.

I'm going to point my finger at these British women who fly in—direct flights are inexpensive from the UK—and proceed to sleep with the exotic rasta-types. This has created a culture in the tourist areas of extreme land shark behavior. Sometimes a local man will accost and stalk a woman for the totality of her vacation.

A week before I arrived, there was a stabbing at a nightclub down the street from my guesthouse. One local man had claimed a white woman as his own (probably unbeknowst to her), and when another man started dancing with her, he came up and stabbed him once in the heart. Dead.

Local women will turn their nose at white girls (especially those with blond hair).

Tobago is the only place I've ever carried around an empty bottle around at dusk, for fear of something going down.

Granada

Where kids from the U.S. go to work on their tans, and maybe their medical school degree. Nutmeg and rum production is king.

No drinking and driving laws. You can roll up to a policeman on the street with a beer in your hand, and the most he might do is ask for a sip; but you better be wearing your seat belt! Heavy fines for belt-less drivers.

I spent Valentine's Day in the middle of the jungle with a group of locals and three Swedes, catching crayfish, swimming in the river, and cooking bushman food.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines

The collection of smaller islands south of St. Vincent (the Grenadines) is host to one of the most spectacular places I've visited: The Tobago Cays. This uninhabited nature preserve of three small islands, only accessible by private or chartered boat, is considered to be Mecca for sailors in the Caribbean. This preserve is as close to touching the postcard image of a perfect beach as I've ever come.

I spent almost a month living in a banana plantation on St. Vincent—without running water and an hour and a half away from the closest town with Internet access (or white people). This was one of those unique experiences that I always mention when summing up where I've traveled this year (for someone).

I still can barely understand a word of the regional dialect—about as far off from English as Russian. Everyone walking around with machetes takes a bit of getting use to.

St. Martin and St. Maarten

Two controlling countries—one island.

Legend has it that generals from both the French and Dutch armies agreed to divide the island instead of continuing to fight over it. A runner from each side would be selected, and where they met in the middle would be the border divide.

The French supposedly gave the Dutch army masses of wine and food the evening before the event, Dutch runner included. Unable to run as fast because of his hangover, the French runner covered more distance. This is why the French half of the island is slightly larger.

Party in the Dutch casinos; dine in fine restaurants, and tan naked on the wealthier (and less populated) French side of the island.

Everyone rents cars, and buses are very infrequent on the French side. Hitchhiking isn't common, but is practiced by some (including me). It can be a bit of a chore to get to a good beach.

I was living out a spare bedroom in a local woman's home because the cost of accommodations was so ridiculously high (a "hotel" with horrible, concrete, cave-like rooms was charging US$35/night).

Inexpensive French bread, wine, and cheese are available for the taking. Overall, a decent place to drop a quick US$2,000 for a week-long vacation.

Bonus: Mix and match your currency when paying for fun! Use the Euro, U.S. Dollar, Eastern Caribbean Dollar, Dutch Gilder, and British Pound all in the same day (or at the same time)!

Anguilla

(snore)… A dry, sleepy island.

A British territory that's absolutely devoid of public transportation. Taxis and private vehicles are the only method of transport, and the taxis are charging rates that make London and Manhattan cabs look inexpensive. Hitchhiking is the only way to affordably move about the island.

Home to one of the loveliest beaches and most expensive/luxury bungalow scenes I've encountered (imagine US$80,000 per week).

Mexico

Cancún: Where all the Americans go to get drunk. Playa del Carmen: Where all the Europeans go to get drunk. I couldn't stand living inside a gift shop.

Mérida, the capital of the Yucatan, is the best city in Mexico I've been to. Although it's hot as the sun, it has a fantastic cultural scene that puts many U.S. cities to shame. A wonderful change of pace from the typical touristy city scene. A large population of retired Americans are living there.

Belize

This country is about as close to a mirror image to the Caribbean island scene as you can come—with one exception: 90% of the restaurants are serving Chinese food. There's a massive Asian population in Belize.

There's a lot of sugar cane, and because of it the population has problems with diabetes.

Belize: Your entire nation is on fire. Whenever I smell smoke, I always think of Belize. So much jungle being cleared with fire (as well as existing plantations burned to enrich the soil).

Get off the beaten path and you'll find zero backpacker infrastructure and expensive accommodations. You really need to travel with a companion here to make this country affordable.

Honduras

One of my favorite Central America cities is in this country: Santa Rosa de Copán, host to one of the finest cigar factories in the world. Situated between to über-popular tourist destinations, Santa Rosa is setup perfectly for tourists, but simply passed by. Central American tourists can be found here, but no gringos.

If I was a cowboy rancher, this is the country I'd want to be in.

Gorgeous landscapes and a fantastic highway infrastructure make traveling here simple.

Going to the Bay Islands to scuba dive? Skip Isla de Útila and head off to Roatan. The Lonely Planet is way out of date for both prices (now US$250 for your PADI open water certification), and both islands are charging the same amount. You'll go mad from boredom if you don't go to the bigger island.

Honduras: Winner of my hardest country to find a MasterCard-enabled ATM award. If you want to pull out money here, better have a Visa.

El Salvador

This country has a real problem: There's no middle class. People are either very wealthy or extremely poor, with little left in between.

Implosion is imminent. The rich invest their money outside the country, and the poor have no money to invest. It's the middle class that support a nation (and El Salvador doesn't have it).

Expensive for a backpacker to travel here. Why would someone want to pay three times the amount for a room and transport in a country compared to their immediate neighbors? They don't—and that's why there's no tourism. (Although I have encountered a few travelers that really enjoyed their time there.)

I feel sorry about the massive U.S. fortress (embassy) that's been constructed in your capital.

Guatemala

Known as the backpacker nation to travel in Central America. Prices allowed me to live very comfortably (in private rooms) with total daily expense of about US$8.

The pride of the Guatemalan roads are the chicken buses—old U.S. school buses that have been painted up with designs in bright colors. It is not uncommon to see livestock or a woman giving birth inside the bus with you.

Getting off the tourist trail is easy and enjoyable. I have very pleasant memories of markets (the one in San Francisco el Alto, Guatemala, is the craziest I've seen), clothing colors of the indigenous people, inexpensive Internet access, and the fried foods.

I do not have pleasant memories of theft in Antigua.

Nicaragua

Nicaraguans have no concept of personal space in supermarket lines. They will unnecessarily push up on each other like it's a Japanese metro.

Folks from this country tend to despise Costa Ricans.

Vivid memories: The city of León being so hot that I was taking seven showers a day; a visit to the dentist; a power company arguing with the government cutting the power to the city of Grenada whenever they felt like it; and one of the ugliest beaches I've ever seen.

Costa Rica

This is the Central American country people from the United States visit—there are heaps of relocated residents and vacationers.

If it wasn't for my brother backpacking with me for two weeks (awesome), I would have probably left sooner.

Parts of Costa Rica felt like Puerto Rico.

Vivid memories: Rain; expensive coastal food; surfers, turtles, monkeys, and crabs; the company of my brother; watching Germany loose the World Cup (I was saddened); luxurious buses (for Central America); getting my ass kicked in chess; a Frenchman in the streets who has been scamming money out of tourists for over a year; long travel days; and one of the most interesting beaches I've been on (amazing quantity of shells and the such).

Panama

Panama City is one of the most vertically aggressive towns I've seen since Manhattan—a large collection of skyscrapers that dwarf the highest cathedral. The convergence of modern metro with the colonial and impoverished sections of town made this capital city one of the more interesting in Central America.

The Panama Canal, now about 100 years old, is feat of engineering that left a lasting impression on me.

Colombia

The stigma of Colombia exists all over the world, but the word is starting to get out—Colombia is an amazing country that needs to be traveled in. The landscapes and the people make this one of the top places I've visited this year.

One traveler described Colombia like Brazil was 20 years ago, before the tourism really changed things (for the worse). Colombians are very curious about travelers, and most everyone seems to be happy you're in the country.

This was the big culture change I was looking for from Central America—different customs, people, and craft markets with new crap not seen in the north!

I love the phrase a la orden—at your service—used by every shop owner in the country.

Vivid memories: Groups of Israeli men hunting for beautiful women; walking through the malls and seeing flashes go off as people take my photo; massive hamburgers; being adopted for a week by locals; Bogota's endless sea of concrete; drugs cheaper than drinks; and the worst "beach" I've ever sunned myself on.

Ecuador

I think of Ecuador and I think of food—the food I ate and all the sweets I saw Ecuadorians eating. It's cold outside—what are you people doing eating ice cream?

I thought Guatemalans were the farming experts until I saw what Ecuadorians were capable of.

I would return to Ecuador.

Vivid memories: Tourists fighting to ride on the roof of a train car; corn; free rum and coke nights at the hostel in Quito; more corn; the diverse landscape (from jungle to desert); riding atop a bus in a parade; Quito shawarmas; great radio in Cuenca; and catching a bandit trying to pick my pocket on the city bus.

Peru

The western half of the country is an endless desert—I can't remember ever seeing so much sand.

I love llamas—and their everywhere in Peru. One should be on the flag.

With all the tourists and tourism-based businesses, Peru felt like Mexico.

Vivid memories: Sneaking into Machu Picchu; sandboarding; food poisoning; paragilders floating between the skyscrapers of Lima; people living on rafts of decomposing reeds; and dozens of insect bites that itched for weeks.

Chile

Traveling in northern Chile was like looking at the world long after a nuclear war—total wasteland. This country left such a bitter taste in my mouth it'll be a long time before I ever think of returning.

Chile felt like El Salvador.

I've received mail from a really nice Chilean girl who told me about the beauty of the southern regions of the country. I'm sure they're lovely, and have some really nice people, but I'm just not ready to go back for a second try yet.

Vivid memories: Expensive everything; a frigid ocean; meeting up with a friend in the driest place on Earth; a wretched border crossing into Bolivia; too many hot dogs eaten; and an odd variation of Spanish that's always spoken at lightning speed.

Bolivia

The roads my be unpaved, but the prices are exactly what I want from a Latin American country. I walked around very pleasant cities, saying to myself, This is Bolivia? Who knew!

Bolivia felt like Guatemala.

My top three Bolivian memories: Salt flats, dynamite, and natural juice drinks.

Argentina

What to say about one of the most hyped countries that people speaking about, save Thailand?

I'm going to put it out there—Argentina feels similar to parts of Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. It's just that CR and PR are directly influenced by the United States, and Argentina is influenced by Europeans. Elements of Italian culture are everywhere.

I'm overwhelming neutral on the country at the moment. I've been here since the end of October, but I still feel like my overall opinion of the place is far from being formed. There are positives (steak and wine) and negatives (attractive, yet amazingly standoffish and defensive women). I'm saving treks through Patagonia for another time, so my exposure has been generally limited to city life.

Things in Argentina's win column: The price of meat (wonderful); the price of wine (fantastic); fashion; nightlife; maté; barbecues; and apparently the sport of polo (uninterrupted world champions since 1949).

Most every traveler that I've run into has raved about Argentina (or Buenos Aires). I now know the question that I should have been asking these folks: What did you do with your days? Because I know what they did with their nights (drink, dance, and flirt until sunrise), but not with their days. I have a hunch that it was sleep.

I've been spending a lot more than I'm use to for my day-to-day expenses in Argentina. I think it's hovering around US$130 a week (quite a bit, seeing as I'm relatively idle in these cities).

I have truly never seen supermarket lines in Latin America as consistently long as they are here. It might take me two minutes to find the cheese I want, but 15 to check out. Often times it's not the length of the line, but the lethargic and inefficient checkout practices that keep people waiting.

The variation of Spanish spoken here is nuts.

The jury is still out—more thoughts will come to me as my time here continues.

Latin Girls

Of course, what the guys really want to know about—the girls. Well, here's the scoop:

The women of Mayan decent in Mérida, Mexico, are naturally beautiful—small statured, with soft facial features, and caramel-colored skin. Very pleasing on the eye.

Guatemalan girls can be very cute, but I'm told no Guatemalan boy will marry a Guatemalan girl that isn't a virgin. Parents are very protective. Boys are as promiscuous as they want to be. Many young couples are married and with child in their mid- to late-teens.

The legalized prostitution is a strange sight in Costa Rica. I hear that many fathers get their son a hooker on or around his 13th birthday.

The women found in the nightclubs of Medellín, Colombia, represent, without a doubt, the highest concentration of approachable, model-caliber females I've ever seen. Guys traveling in this region flock to the city to see if the rumors are true—they are.

The uniforms that the high school girls wear in Arica, Chile, are absolutely scandalous. Most are busty and fully developed by this age, wearing the little Japanese-styled outfits with a man's tie loose around their neck. They look little strippers.

The number of stunning women found in the Argentinean city of Rosario is absolutely staggering. Hands down the winner of my best looking population I've ever seen award. The jaw dropping and double-taking isn't just limited to nightclubs—it's found on every street. Walk down any avenue for five minutes and fall in love—a dozen times over.

Traveling American

I get asked if I'm ever given a hard time from people (locals) because of my nationality. Questions such as Do you ever lie and say you're from Canada? are occasionally encountered.

Surprising to many, I have not. I smile a lot, and I have found nothing but smiles and curiosity in return. People that think ill of me just because of my passport are not people I surround myself with, and thus I don't have those experiences.

Before I arrived in Argentina, I believe I had only a single local (in the Caribbean) mention President Bush to me. Argentine kids (in their teens and twenties) seem to love to mention their displeasure with Bush. I find it disrespectful to meet me and within 10 seconds of doing so start yelling about the American presidency and policies (in an ignorant manner). This is an instant goodbye from me.

Price of Electronics

Perpetual problems with my digital cameras have left me looking at the prices of these (and many other electronics) as I travel from country to country. I'm still amazed at the markup compared to the United States—folks are paying double or triple the price you'd find State-side, in very modern cities. Replacing a broken/stolen camera is going to cost you—that US$200 stocking stuffer model is probably retailing for US$550 in Latin America. PlayStation 1 games from 10+ years ago retail for US$40–50 in St. Vincent.

Food

Puerto Rican soul food might clog my heart, but it brings a smile to my face.

The five-star food and drinks I liberated from the all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic were devilishly delicious.

Caribbean breadfruit and salt fish has a special place in my heart.

Everything is deep fried to perfection in Guatemala—I was never left wanting.

Belize: Calm down with the Chinese food restaurants.

Costa Rica: The price of food (and lack of options) on your coastal cities forced me to eat bread and cheese for two weeks. Thanks.

Colombia: I ate a bag of giant fried ant asses in your country—not bad.

Ecuador is obsessed with corn, and I'm obsessed with loving corn in Ecuador—the only place you can find a drink from seven different varieties of corn. Massive skewers of grilled meats the size of my forearm sell for US$0.50. I would be a fat, fat man if I lived there.

Peru: You've got guinea pig and llama meat on the menu, but I've only tried one of the two (and it was delicious).

Chile: All I could afford to eat in your country were f***ing hot dogs. Learn to sell something on the street for less than US$3.

Bolivia does nothing better or cheaper than sell amazing natural fruit juice drinks for US$0.06 a glass.

Argentina: The land of inexpensive steak and wine. There's something odd when the price of a can of tuna costs twice the amount of a sizable cut of quality meat. The entire country is totally wired on maté and dulce de leche. AR sells peanuts for the lowest price I've seen in Latin America.

Related Year-1 Anniversary Writings

Comments:

Anonymous

December 14th, 2006

I must say things change quickly in Trinidad and Tobago and things have indeed moved in a positive direction since your trip earlier in the year.

It is a beautiful island and its people are even more beautiful.

Happy Travels!

Edward

February 26th, 2009

This is my favorite post that I've read so far. Very concise and comparative, invaluable for people not exactly sure what to do in South America.

Very happy to see the comments on the girls in latin america. Guys, let's face it, which is a more memorable experience?
1. Touring an old cathedral
2. Seducing and laying a hot girl from another country with a language barrier?

No question.

Can we have more postings about socializing, flirting, and sarging while abroad?

Also I really dig the cost stuff. I, as well as most of your regular audience, is serious about long-term travel, not vacationing and you gotta crunch your resources… whether it's to survive longer or to save for indulging on truly awesome experiences.

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