Travel South America

How You Can Experience Local Culture in South America

January 21, 2016

We pride ourselves on being travellers, not tourists. Yet how can we experience more than just the backpacker trail with its tours and hostels?  In short, how can we have genuine contact with locals in South America? Bolivia, in particular, has earned criticism for its ‘Tours, Tours, Tours’ traveller scene.  Here are some ideas and tips for would be ‘authentic travellers’.

Homestay

It was actually a post about homestays on Bolivian Life that initially piqued my interest in this subject, primarily because of my own homestay experiences in South America.  In Argentina and Bolivia I stayed with families in homestays arranged by language schools. Breakfast and an evening meal were provided as part of the package, although I often had lunch with them as well. In the case of the homestay in Buenos Aires, it was reassuring and beneficial to get local advice on where to go and what to watch out for.

What Can I gain From A Homestay? 

The Bolivian experience proved to be even more rewarding. Vicky, the lady I was staying with, turned out to be a single mom with three year old twin boys.  From the moment we met at Sucre Airport we got on like a house on fire. Our long chats often lasted until late in the evening. For her it was great to have someone to play football with the boys when she was busy. I, on the other hand, gained insights into the changing role of women in a conservative South American society. Not only did the experience really polish my Spanish, but it taught me a lot about the country in which I was travelling.

Although both homestays were organized through Spanish schools, it is also possible to arrange homestays throughout the continent on homestay.com.

Points to consider

  • How good is your Spanish? How comfortable would you be if the host family did not speak English?
  • How flexible are you prepared to be regarding food? *Generally, hosts are quite willing to accommodate special dietary requirements. However, you should be upfront about your needs when making your arrangement.
  • How important is it for you to meet fellow travellers?
  • Can you adapt to ‘House Rules’?  *My Argentinian ‘house mom’ told me of a young traveller who brought back a local lady friend after a night out. She was not amused.

Spanish Schools

Classroom interior at Academia Andina in Sucre

Academia Andina, Sucre (one of many Spanish schools to also arrange homestays and volunteering)

The cost of one day (three hours) of private tuition in Academia Andina (Sucre, Bolivia) is almost half the cost of one hour of similar tuition in Madrid. The school in Spain might be really good. However, you will get more bang for your buck in South America. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that Spanish schools are a booming industry across South America, particularly given the number of backpackers on the road for six months or more. For those who have basic or ‘school’ Spanish, this is the ideal opportunity to brush up.  Speaking the language can really open doors into local culture. This is doubly true when you venture off the beaten track.

What Can I gain From Studying Spanish in South America?

But you are wondering just how beneficial it is to study at a Spanish school? One advantage in terms of travel is that, mixed in with the short-term students there for a quick boost, you will come across those who have made a more long-term commitment. You are more likely to find that cool local haunt in Palermo with these people than in the 2013 edition of the Lonely Planet. Yet, you think that this is still not quite ‘authentic travel’ in the sense of contact with the locals.

Due to the competitive prices, you can probably afford  individual tuition. This means that your classes can be tailored to your needs and interests. One of my Spanish teachers shared her experience of getting pregnant at a young age and then finding the strength to escape a difficult marriage in provincial Sucre, Bolivia. Speaking of gays in her country, she expressed the hope that they would someday be accepted as in Europe. Again, not only was it an opportunity to learn the language, but it was also a cultural learning experience, an insight into a changing society.

Points to consider

  • What is your aim in attending a Spanish School and how realistic is that aim? Remember that learning a new language, although rewarding, requires a great deal of time and dedication.
  • Will you feel restless in a classroom when you could be climbing Machu Picchu, recovering from a big night out in Buenos Aires or exploring Salar de Uyuni?

Volunteering

IMG_0095

La Paz is one the many locations where you can volunteer in South America

Volunteering is another activity that puts you in contact with locals.  Done correctly, it can enable you to leave a positive footprint behind. Apart from being a learning experience, you can also use your trip as a way of giving back to the world. Volunteering opportunities exist throughout South America through language schools and specialized voluntary organizations. Possibilities range from working with children in La Paz to protecting animals in the Amazon. Farming cooperatives often accept help and you can live and work in a South American village. The question is -how far off the beaten track do you want to get?

*Note: the South American Explorers’ Club keeps a comprehensive list of volunteering opportunities

Points to consider

  • Short-term volunteering can be frustrating- Also, working with children needs time in order to establish a rapport with them.
  • Many volunteer projects require a longer commitment in order to be of real benefit to the volunteer and the community. How much time have you got? Is this the way you want to spend your vacation?

Useful Resources

Homestay.com: a website that can arrange homestays across the globe

Alternativeperu.org:  an organization that can arrange ‘off the beaten track’ travel throughout Peru

Globalhelpswap.com: a blog specializing in ‘authentic travel’ throughout the world

Responsibletravelperu.com : an agency that arranges authentic trips throughout Peru

www.saexplorers.org: provides travel information through its clubhouses and keeps a list of volunteering opportunities

academiaandina.com: a small Spanish school in Sucre (Bolivia) that will also arrange volunteering opportunities

vamospanish.com: Buenos Aires language school in Palermo that will arrange classes and homestays

www.volunteerbolivia.com: volunteering with homestays also possible

www.globalcrossroad.com: immersion programmes including homestays

www.bolivianlife.com: comprehensive website packed with information to arrange a trip to Bolivia

Please feel free to leave a comment below if you want to share an opinion or an experience. You can also mail me at unlatinoverde@gmail.com

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply Silvia @FindingUpendi January 22, 2016 at 14:43

    What a wonderful and useful post! I will definitely be using this when planning my trip to South America.

    Silvia

  • Reply vellissima March 4, 2016 at 01:24

    Good suggestions. I have found that homestays and small hostels in small towns provide some contacts. City hostels are just full of backpackers, who themselves can be useful resources for travel, but not the local contacts. Arriving with some Spanish is useful, but not all Spanish, as not all English, is the same. My Mexican Spanish, little that I have, is somewhat different from Colombian. I’m trying to sort that out, but I also find that my Spanish is not as good as I thought, Mexicans speak a lot of “Spanglish”, as do a lot of us Americans, so we fill in a lot for each other, It will be Spanish school for me soon! Thanks for the great post and blog.

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