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Top 10 Unique Latin American Experiences

Gringo Joe . . . Comments

A few years ago I submitted a list of interesting Latin American holiday destinations. In an uncertain economy, travelers from America, Europe or Australia may be seeking a more affordable destination this year. These experiences are sure to be interesting and unique without breaking the bank.

NOTE: The extreme gap between rich and poor in Latin America has created pockets of high crime in some of the following destinations. I am an American and have never had the slightest problem. However, one should always use common sense and read up on areas to avoid when planning a holiday abroad.


Panama City, Panama


One may be surprised to learn that the oldest Chinatown in the western hemisphere isn’t in San Francisco or New York. In fact, some 20% of Panama’s diverse population is of Chinese heritage. Located in the colonial San Felipe district of Panama City, Barrio Chino is home to an array of Chinese eateries and markets. It may not be the biggest Chinatown in the world, but it’s an especially offbeat and interesting place. Shop for exotic spices in its neon-bathed alleyways and sample Chinese-Panamenian fare at the greasy spoon of your choice. It’s definitely worth a day’s exploration while visiting this fascinating and dynamic city.


The Chocolate Coast


If you’re part of the small and relatively narrow demographic that enjoys chocolate, consider a stay at a Venezuelan cacao plantation. Venezuela is known far and wide for the quality of its chocolate, and with good reason. Cacao was first discovered by indigenous Americans in this region, near the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, thousands of years ago. Dominican priests then introduced the bean to the Caribbean coast in the 1500s, and it has been flourishing ever since. Forgo the chaos and crime of Caracas and head straight to the Paria Peninsula, where you’ll find a lush, green country bathed in glorious tropical sunshine with fresh sea breezes. There are several working cacao plantations that offer tours and accommodation, not to mention the most sinfully delicious chocolate in the world!


The New Medellin

Medellin 09-2007 115

Medellin may conjure memories of Colombia’s shockingly violent drug wars. Notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar called the city home, and in 1991 alone there were over 6,000 murders here. Things couldn’t be more different today. Medellin is a beautiful and much safer city nestled between sheer mountains. There are several major universities, meaning that Medellin is perfect for the hip, young travelers seeking a pub crawl. Check out the new Metrocable connecting the hillside “barrios” with the city center for some spectacular views. Many older visitors find its museums appealing, particularly the Museo de Antioquia, which displays works of Medellin’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero.


The Wine Country
Valle del Maipo, Chile


Though it’s home to the driest place on earth, Chile’s fertile river valleys enjoy the perfect climate for growing wine grapes. There are many such valleys throughout the central portion of the country, each offering its own special variety of wines. The closest, and most easily accessible, to the capital of Santiago is the Valle del Maipo. This valley is best known for its cabernets and merlots. Most, if not all, of the local vineyards offer tours. Some also offer accommodation, though prices tend to be considerably higher for the more luxurious. Still, it’s a price many consider to be well worth the expense. Valle del Maipo’s central location make it an excellent point of departure for exploring more of Chile’s wine country as well.


Afro-Ecuadorean Experience
Esmeraldas, Ecuador

Ecuador - Same - Esmeraldas - 009

Ecuador is a small but fascinating country. In less than an hour you can fly from the fetid jungles of the western Amazon, across the sheer Andes Mountains, and down to the largely untouched beaches of the Pacific coast. On the northern coast lies the city of Esmeraldas. It’s a place that’s often overlooked, even by Ecuadoreans of the interior. Most visitors seek the beachside party towns like Atacames without seeing Esmeraldas. The city is the epicenter of the country’s relatively small but vibrant Afro-Ecuadorean community. Walking through its streets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d been transported to sultry West Africa. Poetry and dance are central to the Esmeraldan way of life, and they’re both exquisite and intense. Strike up a conversation with the friendly locals and they may even invite you home for a beer and a hearty bowl of “tapao,” an Afro-Caribbean-inspired dish with a decidedly Ecuadorean twist. It’s not the cushiest place to spend a holiday, but you’ll certainly find it a unique and especially rewarding experience.


On the Trail of Che Guevara


Long before his image graced the t-shirts of disaffected youth and hipsters everywhere, Che Guevara was inspiring leftist revolutions across Latin America. This didn’t sit well with either the traditional Latin American elite or the power brokers in Washington. It was in Bolivia that Che was tracked down and killed in 1967. Today visitors can trace his final route, across one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Start in the low-lying city of Santa Cruz, where Che passed through on his way to the capital of La Paz. From there make your way to the mountain town of Samaipata, where Che’s guerrilla band once attacked an army post. La Higuera is the small, remote village where he was eventually caught. You may visit the wooded canyon where Che was cornered by the Bolivian army, the schoolhouse where he died from his wounds, and the small hospital where his body was taken. Regardless of your opinion of the man, it’s a marvelous way to see the country.


Sojourn in Coffee Country
Esteli, Nicaragua


Two hours north of Nicaragua’s bustling capital of Managua, there is a small city in the highlands which had previously been a hotbed of guerrilla activity during the Sandinista revolution. Esteli remains a very politically engaged town, despite its relatively small size, though you’d never know it in the peace and tranquility of the mountains nearby. You won’t find any Internet, ATMs or Holiday Inns here, and you’ll be glad. Some of the finest coffee in the world comes from these mountains, and it’s a perfect place to get away from it all. There are a number of small plantations where you can stay at a very low cost, or even volunteer. Primitive accommodations can be expected. Ride horses or hike in the mountains and nap in a hammock to the calls of tropical birds. Good luck on that whole “leaving” thing.


Looking for Hemingway
Havana, Cuba


There was once a time when the larger-than-life titan of 20th Century literature walked (and, more often than not, stumbled) through Old Havana, having spent more than twenty years living in Cuba. His favorite haunts have since become well-known landmarks in the city, which has changed very little since his death in 1961. His room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos has been preserved as he left it, typewriter included. La Floridita bar is within staggering distance, a place Papa once described as a den of wild and motley drinkers of varying origins. A short drive from town is his old home at Finca Vigia (now a museum), which once housed both Hemingway and his veritable menagerie of pets. And of course, you have to spend some quality time fishing while you’re there.


Mexican Foodcation
Mexico City, Puebla, Veracruz


Mexico is a vast country, encompassing many diverse cultures and culinary traditions. Sadly, most Mexican restaurants outside Mexico offer a very limited selection, usually drenched in cheese and red gravy. Head to the Valle Central for a more rewarding food travel experience. You can start in Mexico City, considered by many to be the premier destination for gastronomy in North America. You can have your pick from 5-star gourmet restaurants to (my favorite) “tacos al pastor” in the streets. From there you can head to historic Puebla, famous for its “mole,” “chiles en nogales” and lamb-filled “tacos arabes.” End your tour with amazing Afro-Carribbean inspired shellfish dishes in the port city of Veracruz, also home to nice beaches and charming colonial architecture.


Tango School
Buenos Aires, Argentina


Even if dancing isn’t your game, it’s difficult to imagine Buenos Aires without thinking of the tango. The tango was first made popular among the city’s blue-collar Italian, French and Spanish immigrant communities, and has since become a national treasure. Buenos Aires is filled with clubs where tourists can take lessons and watch professional dancers. The best option, however, is to head to the “milongas” around midnight. Make sure you enjoy a hearty steak dinner beforehand to power you through the night. The locals who frequent the milongas will be all too happy to show you the ropes. Class prices vary depending on the reputation of the instructors, should you choose a more regimented program. You may find yourself dancing your holiday away.


Salvador, Brazil


Few images are so iconic of Brazil as those conjured by its outrageous Carnaval season. Its origins lie in pagan rituals adapted to Christianity, a celebration of excess prior to the self-denial of Lent. Salvador, with its charming pastel colonial architecture and strong African influence, is host to the largest Carnaval in the world. Every February the city comes alive with parades, music and dancers in over-the-top costumes. Americans might draw comparisons to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Some two million revellers fill the streets each year, to deafening Reggae, Samba and Reggaeton music. It’s a full sensory assault, and indeed it may be too overwhelming for some. But if you can take it, you’re guaranteed an experience to carry with you for the rest of your life.

  • Missy

    I’ve been to a Carnaval in Brazil. It’s FANTASTIC! I’m booking my ticket for Esmeraldas though. Sounds terrific. Thanx for the list.

  • Ned Stark

    Winter is coming!

    • Game of thrones

      Have you even seen a winter?

      • Ned Stark

        No, I died last season. :(

  • Will Trame

    The chocolate and food entries made me hungry. It was nice to see the historical tidbits mentioned concerning Hemingway and Che Guevara. The multi-colored structures pictured in the Tango School entry appealed to the artistic aesthete in me.

    Not a bad list.

  • manikin

    its sad that belieze always gets left off these lists its one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

    • brian

      Does it qualify as Latin though? the language is English

  • ryohji

    Great list! It really made me want to pack my bag and book for the next fly to a south american country.

  • Gringo

    I love Mexico, its food, and especially its women!! You have to be extremely beautiful to be on Mexican tv

    • Arsnl

      So do you mean to say it’s like Italy? And you know how happy italian women are about that.

    • Jake

      Mexican women have insanely killer bods. Northern Mexicans are the most beautiful too

    • Phillyphil

      Mexican women are the weakness of white men like me. Especially Salma Hayek and Ninel Conde

  • Coffee Country, Wine Country, Chocolate Coast and Tango… South America sounds like my kind of place!

    • barefoot_med_student_is_hot

      Druglords, leftist governments, and malaria; Latin America sounds great to me.

      • SaturdaySportsman

        The kidnappings too. Don’t forget the kidnappings.

        • Oh kidnappings aren’t so bad. If you’re lucky, you can have your body dumped on a bridge or on the front lawn of a school.

  • Zair

    Love the list I have a always wanted to visit south america but never got the time to this list makes me want to drop everything and take a flight out :) the food is also tempting me I better go have breakfast now :p

  • lovesya

    These lists recently have been EXTREMELY boring…no offense, but i come to this site to get rid of my bordom…

  • culo rico

    I like the list and every picture is accurate except Mexico’s food picture. That looks like something you would get at a Mexican-American restaurant here in America not something you would find in Mexico at all. Soooo not authentic.

  • Uncle Ronnie Says

    Hi im Timmy and this is my comment. The list you just read or looked at the pictures was about experiences that one or two or several or more than several people can experience in Latin/Latino (or latina if you are a girl p.s a well liked porn category of mine) America. This was an interesting list and reminded me of my time in latin america and the amount of blow my nasal canal (similar to panama canal) and dingle dangle enjoyed on my holiday. I enjoyed this list although i cant beleive that the author left out the Swiss Alps nevertheless this list was great but too American (too latin american see see Timmy made a joke guys). I give this list 5 thumbs up.

  • BigBen

    What about ayahuasca in the Amazon??

    • fcr

      that´s a meta-experience

  • jerk

    aside from chocolate, esteli is known for its excellent cigar tobacco that rivals cuban. make sure to light up a fine smoke to go with the coffee!

  • wealth30103

    Good travel list!

    When I have money and time, maybe I will go!

  • Claude Sylvanshine

    If you’ve never been to a Honduran prison I urge you to go as soon as possible. 9 out of 10 travelers and Lonely Planet agree that it’s the best gang raping outside of Swaziland

  • David

    Not a single entry for Costa Rica? It’s one of the most stable countries in the area, plus it boasts various locales to go to.

    • Pablo

      One of the most stable countries in the area? What a ringing endorsement.

      • david

        No army or war for over 50 years can back me up on my endorsement. Enlighten me with the country that is more stable other than Chile or Uruguay.

  • Mizu

    I think the title is a bit of a misnomer, much of these things aren’t… unique. Interesting yes but not unique.

  • Jonas

    The famous Puebla State dish is “chiles en nogada” not as the author wrote. Thanks.

  • American’t

    This list is too American.

  • oouchan

    So beautiful! I would love to visit any one of these places or experiences. The Carnaval would be fantastic as well as visiting Coffee Country.

    Great list.

  • Ovidio

    Sir, what about Tikal National Park? It is after all an ancient Mayan city deep within the jungle where you’ll see architecture as well as local fauna and flora…

  • Jonathan Roseland

    I recently spent some time in Panama City, Panama. Seriously one of the greatest ‘values’ for your travel buck! Delicious food, amazing sights and pretty decent beer. I especially liked Casco Viejo. I’ve got video tour of the historical part of the city on my website. Here’s a link

  • L

    Medellin is absolutely stunning, highly recommended.

  • me

    the carnaval in salvador is mainly known for the axé-music that comes from the region (Bahia) and authenticate the salvador carnaval..though other types of music is played during carnaval, it’s the axé that fames carnaval in salvador.
    -research is apparently not important when writing lists..?

  • Reblogged this on itsmysticmeg and commented:
    Nothing like a bit of armchair travelling…

  • Zeke

    The greatest gift ever bestowed on humanity from a culinary perspective… Chilaquiles Verde at any place in Mexico City. It is one of those dishes that is so good that if there is still any left to fill your plate, regardless of how satisfied you already are, you will continue eating until there is none left to be had.

  • Diriangén

    Wow, I’m Nicaraguan and I’m surprised that my country made it into this list, not that it is bad, it’s just my countrymen don’t value my country as much as the writer does, and it is plain sad. By the way, there are better places here, like the biggest Lake in Central America with fresh-water sharks, and beautiful beaches where the International Surf Tournament is taking place, currently. Also in Lake Nicaragua we have two volcanoes in an island, one which is currently active and the other dormant.