South America's 'Gringo Trail'

9 minute read
On the Gringo Trail:
To be young and sampling the Third World


What compels the sons and daughters of wealthy nations to depart their homelands, cram a few pieces of clothing into a backpack, and brave distant lands? In South America, this phenomenon is currently on an upward trend. Some of us simply want to find the real world, others want to find their real selves. Many consider it a part of their education. Quite a few need to quench a restless hunger, a desire, a love. But few can call it a vacation.

They come from all over the first world. In my experience I’ve met Americans, Canadians, French, Spaniards, British, Irish, many Dutch, Italians, Germans, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, lots of Australians, and a disproportionately large number of Israelis. Most travel for extended periods of time, some as long as a year. Whether they’ve just completed army service or college, or they’re about to enter the workforce, they’re usually very fit, good-looking, adventurous and politically liberal.

Most are in their 20s, but that doesn't preclude a sizable minority of middle-aged and older folks from braving the Gringo Trail, which stretches from Tierra del Fuego in the south through Patagonia in Argentina and Chile, and up through the Andes in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Some venture into the jungle in the Amazon Basin towards Brazil or the Pacific coast and the Galapagos and Easter Islands. Most skip Colombia due to security concerns about its drug wars; likewise Chavez's Venezuela, which has a reputation of hostility towards Westerners.

Like the conquistadors, except…

In many of the most touristy areas, Gringos outnumbers the locals, raiding the area not unlike Pizarro's Spanish conquistadors. But instead of armor, their bodies are protected with bug spray. In place of the Bible, their holy book is the Lonely Planet guide to South America on a Shoestring. Instead of swords and muskets they wield the latest models of iPods and digital cameras.

This jaunt is doable for under $700 per month for the most frugal, or up to $1,500 per month for those who wish to travel more comfortably. Either way, the cost of intense traveling in the Third World is still below standard cost of rent and utilities in the First World.

A large portion of time and expenses go toward bus fares, which can vary from $4 to $30 for an eight-hour ride. It’s always well worth the extra cost for the better buses. First-class bed-buses feature leather seats that recline almost all the way, food service, on-board restrooms, and a smoother ride. Unfortunately this luxurious offering is ruined with loud screenings of the worst American movies of the past decade, dubbed in Spanish.

If your backpack smells funny…

The cheaper buses are worth a ride or two, just for the experience. Smelly peasants carry their agricultural products and other merchandise with them. Sacks of toys to be sold in the city, loads of sponges, potatoes that often spill out of their bags and roll down the bus aisle-- anything that will fit. On this class of bus, air is scarce, diesel fumes are plentiful, kids sit in the legroom, and old men sleep in the aisle.

Bumpy and windy roads along precipitous Andean cliffs don't help the situation. Disembarking from one of these cramped vehicles, I went to retrieve my backpack from the luggage compartment, where I found it lying next to a pair of butchered pigs.

Private hostel rooms with reasonable beds and a hot shower usually can be found for less than $10 (of course, $100 rooms are also available). In some beach towns, huts can be rented for as little as $2 a night. Unlike luxury hotel rooms or even budget motels back home, hostels serve as more than just lodging. They’re information centers and meeting spots for like-minded and lonely travelers. Groups are formed. Outgoing backpackers share recommendations with weary incoming backpackers: What to do, how to get there, how much to pay, how long to stay. It’s always best to glean the information by word of mouth rather than websites, even when it’s relayed in an amalgamation of Spanish, English, French, German and Hebrew.

Robbery is not uncommon. Pickpockets snatch electronic devices and wallets. Trips are ruined when entire backpacks disappear during bus loadings.

Mother Nature in your nose

Inevitable bouts of traveler's diarrhea and altitude sickness can sidetrack trips for days. After a few days on the dusty roads, a curious epiphany can be achieved: blowing of the nose results in blackened tissue paper, and picked buggers also come out black and rock-hard— and the realization is made that snot actually serves a purpose other than to make you miserable when sick with a cold: it’s an excellent filter for dirt and pollution that would otherwise enter the lungs.

Visits to countryside clinics usually include a few cursory questions, after which a few generic mystery pills in a plastic bag are handed over. Accidents occur with alarming frequency. Youngsters ignorant of their fallibility and certain of their invincibility drown, fall off cliffs, fall victim to crime and get lost in the wilderness. Most are rescued and sent home after the enormous bills are covered by their parents. But every few months, gringos perish in South America.

Those snow-capped peaks

The uncertain ordeal is as memorable and as much a reason for going as are the destinations themselves. Hundreds of snow-capped peaks guard the skyline, each with a different character-- some cleanly triangular, others rugged and asymmetrical. These mountains were considered Gods by the native Indians, and it’s not difficult to see why. Crumbling glaciers melt loudly in the summer and wax layers of ice and snow in the winter. Colonial churches ring proud European-style plazas. Museums house archaeological artifacts and mummies of kings and humans sacrificed to Gods, as well as paintings and statues in a wide variety of creative styles.

Musicians cater mostly to tourists and are rather disappointing— they’re not much different from the Peruvian pan flute ensembles found in many Western cities. Mysterious archaeological ruins of the Inca Empire, and the remnants of their gold wealth are pilgrimage sites and focal points of any trip. Colorful dresses, woven shawls and sturdy top hats crowning long black braids adorn the local women.

Sickening poverty rots alongside malls and highways. Bustling nightlife rocks the bigger cities. Gorgeous mountain lakes and waterfalls offer moments of bliss at the end of arduous treks. Dense rain forests, where even the pathways must be cleared daily with machetes, are abuzz with diverse life forms. Colorful insects, worms, birds, reptiles, and mammals can sometimes be spotted. Llamas and Alpacas graze the impossibly steep green mountainsides.

A word about cuisine

Hectic markets, where livestock is sold alongside second-hand TV sets and hunting tools, liven the countryside economy. The cuisine can be as simple as huge ears of corn or as frightening as roasted guinea pigs. Drinks include the intoxicating saliva fermented beer, and the soothing coca tea.

Slow, wide brown rivers fed by restless white foam tributaries emerge from the impenetrable cloud forests. Narrow, muddy roads at the edge of deep canyons will insure that even the atheist prays for a safe arrival. Tropical white sand beaches provide a place to relax after dangerous adventures. Desolate deserts are crossed on long bus rides. Gaping canyons bear witness to the inner geologic force of the earth.

Remote villages prove that ancient ways of life are still very much in existence, and are still viable in our world. Terrace farms use methods unchanged for millennia alongside modern greenhouses. Mud-brick houses roofed by corrugated tin ceilings house millions; glass-and-steel high-rises house the wealthy few. Frequent strikes block the transportation systems, protesting corrupt politicians and monopolistic businessmen who make our government officials and CEOs seem like angels by comparison. Active volcanoes also cause problems.

Where the tourist dollar goes

In addition to the list of unique experiences available on the continent, tourist centers tout another list. The natural landscapes and contradicting facts and beauties are enhanced with plenty of extra gimmicks: mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, canyoning, rock climbing, horseback riding, snow boarding, sand boarding, bridge jumping, bungee jumping, off road motoring, etc. As if the spectacular natural and cultural scenery isn’t enough?

Apparently it isn't, because most Gringos partake in these activities and spend a good portion of their budgets on them. They travel to temporarily escape the materialism of their homelands. Yet knowing how addicted Westerners are to additional accessories, the locals make good business of it and market it aggressively.

An addictive quality

It's all enough to keep travelers busy for months and months. But when it comes time to return to the real world of jobs, commutes, taxes and deadlines, everyone I've met still has a few destinations unchecked on their lists. The longer you travel, the longer the list grows.

The epic length of these trips is made possible by the myriad high-speed Internet cafés available for less than a dollar per hour. Free conversations with family, friends and loved ones via Skype offer much needed comfort in the young traveler's rough life. Checkups on familiar websites make you feel at home. Nightly e-mail reports serve not only to ensure Mother of our safety, but also as diaries.

It is from one of these Internet spots in Quito, at the end of my trip, from which I write. Exhausted yet exhilarated, I feel a bit wiser for every new person I encountered, for every conversation, for every new word learned, and of course for every new place visited, whether ugly or enchanting. I feel a good deal richer than I did at the beginning of the trip, even though I've spent a good deal of my savings on this trip. Although I enjoyed my time immensely (most of the time), I long to return to the comfortable quiet suburbs, the jobs, the routines I sought to escape not too long ago. I'll return to work for a few months or maybe a few years, until I feel the need to escape again.

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