Notes On Latin America
Disclaimer: There are a lot of travel blogs, I don’t intend this to become one. That being said, I realize that I’d be foolish not to write a bit about the places I’ve been to. I’m going to try and provide a somewhat unique perspective, with a focus on remote working, taking inspiration from Dormin here.
Thus far I’ve only spent 2 months in South America. During those I went to Peru (Lima and Cusco), Ecuador (Guayaquil and 4 of the Galapagos islands), Colombia (Medellin and the surroundings), and the Dominican Republic (mainly Santo Domingo).
I landed in Latin America with a very strong bias. The bird-eye view provides two very worrying facts about its component countries:
- Their murder rates are incredibly high, ranging from US-levels to civil-war
- Their GDPs are unstable, often stagnating, not seldom plummeting
Unlike most countries in Africa, these 2 facts are set against a backdrop of population stagnation, religious unity, strong armies, semi-functioning democracy, reasonable HDIs and GINIs, as well as fairly high GDP… which I find rather odd.
I can’t say that either of these facts is really “felt” when you’re on the ground. The only hint of threat was locals telling me to be careful about leaving belongings unattended. Depending on the place, security ranged from electrified barbed wire fences and private guards (Lima, Guayaquil), to everyone leaving their door unlocked (Galapagos).
I’m not sure if this relates to the patterns in GDP, but in most of the places I went, goods and services seemed both expensive and of poor quality, with some exceptions.
i — The Food
I know this take is not a “unique” take, but Peruvian food is really, really, really good.
The problem with saying this is that assholes with no imagination, taste, or perception will say it about every country’s cuisine. I guarantee to you I am not among them. I think the cooking of almost every country I’ve visited is garbage, worth trying exactly once as a masochistic experiment.
So far I had identified 4 places that understood cooking: the Levant, South-East Asia, Japan, and India. I thought we’d be better off, both from the perspective of instant gratification and that of long-term health, if we erase all other forms of cuisines, starting with everything French.
After my visit to Peru, a 5th location has been added to that list. When I opened “La Liste” (think Micheline guide, but less racist and focused a bit more on food than service) in Lima I was stunned, the amount of top-tier venues superseded all but a handful of European cities, it was on part with Paris and London.
Peruvian cuisine is really flexible, and most places I ate it at were some sort of “fusion”. The best ones are certainly Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurants, given that the country has had a large Japanese population for a long while, it’s had time to develop into something unique and mind-blowing.
The food in all other places was unimpressive and somewhat unhealthy, which is what I expected. With a tiny mention for Colombian fast food is for some reason much better than junkfood anywhere else, even if the brands are the same. A Colombian McDonald matches a European Five Guys.
ii — The Hosts
The hotels were terrible. Everything from private apartments to 5-star hotels. They were expensive, old, dusty, with bad beds and paper-thin walls. To top it all off, almost every place was duplicitous and penny-pinchy.
The first apartment we rented assured me it was quiet, only to be located in the literal middle of a construction site. The hotel we rented in Cusco first tried to charge us almost 2x the price, and we had to withhold payment for two days in order to get heaters and heated water. The (5 stars) hotel I rented in Medellin had the staff insisting I double-pay the room after checking out, happily enough I knew the drill at this point, and had taken some extra time to get to the airport, so I didn’t give them an inch and they gave up after half an hour.
Most places have “unofficial” charges amounting to 20–40% of the listed prices. Most places have paper-thin walls and are extremely loud either during the day due to construction or during the night due to parties (mainly weekends and Friday), some have both sources of noise. I’ve found exactly 1 place which had neither.
I think this doesn’t matter much for vacations. But for working, consistently getting a good night’s sleep and having a proper workspace is crucial. I think the only way to do this is to “test out” rentals, ideally on Friday, since you get both a workday and a party day at once. But it’s certainly a cumbersome way to go about things. Beats wasting a deposit and a 1-month rent on a place where you can’t sleep.
I’d also never pay the full amount in advance, even if it was the fanciest of fancy rental agencies or hotels, haggle and withhold money until the last minute. If you do pay, record it and get a bill stating exactly what you paid for.
iii — Miscellaneous
Speaking of noise. Latin America seemed very, very loud.
Motorcycles with noisy exhausts, horrible tweeters everywhere pumping out reggaeton, loud construction sites all over the place, midnight music audible from over a kilometer away. I seriously wonder how much hearing loss people living in these cities must suffer from; I often found the levels of noise on the street to be physically painful in a non-trivial way.
In spite of being known for its parties, Medellin was not the worst offender. Motorcycles were decently silent and partying past 11 was resigned to specific streets.
I find it hard to talk about “the people”, especially since I was already acquainted with the ones I hung out most with.
But I will say, almost everyone was really nice to me, trying to help me without asking or seemingly hoping for money or favors. It reminds me a lot of Japan. Trying their best to understand my broken google-translate assisted Spanish. Weirdly enough, this seems to apply to everyone except the people actually working with tourists (e.g. hotel staff).
The area around Cusco is gorgeous and the “Inca” ruins are among the best sights I’ve ever seen. Machu Picchu was as amazing as everyone promised (wear long sleeves and use DEET liberally). I do however think the ruins add little to it, the main draw is how scenic the spots they picked for their edifices are. But there are ruins all over the sacred valley that are worth visiting. I’d specifically recommend you check out Pumamarca.
Overall, Peru is very touristy, which can be a minus if you’re like “slow emersion”. I don’t think that’s really possible here, the way to go is to just book guided tours during the weekends and spend the days doing work and visiting the cities.
History and nature blend together very nicely here, but they don’t blend in with “normal life” the way they do in many European and Oriental cities.
iv — The “Favela”
The spicy bits of South America are, as always, the drugs and the favelas/hoods/comunas/whatever.
In Guayaquil, I tried visiting a densely-populated hill in the center of the city, the “poor” part of the “poor” residential area in the south, and the old “industrial” area on a separate island. I was turned away by police when heading towards the first 2, I visited the last in an impromptu taxi tour. It looked poor in a non-specific way, reminding me of semi-abandoned communist industrial towns in my dear eastern Europe.
I went on a tour through “comuna 13” in Medellin, where in the early 2000s war was waged between 5 paramilitaries and the army, with tanks and air-sport, as well as the resulting mass graves and accusations of murder and rape. Comuna 13 switched from being the deadliest spot in Columbia to being an art-driven tourist trap, it still seems “poor” but it occupies an odd place in the uncanny valley. Our guide did seem rather uncomfortable with the occasional posters of Pablo Escobar’s face and the words “El Patron” underneath.
I also walked around the “historical center” (Candelaria area), which is a bit more “rough”. It didn’t help that I am 2m tall and was wearing a black dress-shirt. Everyone was staring at me. I walked around for a few minutes. Then, in under 30 seconds, the following happened:
- A man got a bit too close and started (maybe?) following me
- Some very loud Christmas(?) crackers went off and a few people got obviously worried, followed by someone shouting an assurance that it wasn’t gunshots
- 2 policemen passed by carrying a (presumably confiscated) rusty “shiv” the size of a hefty sword.
This was sufficient for me to hop into a store and call a cab to get me out.
Finally, I paid some locals in Santo Domingo to give me a tour of one of the “hoods”. Not a particularly dangerous one, but given the murder rate in the capital, having a few people around me was probably a good idea. It looked gorgeous and had a bunch of improvised fish farms using tiny damns to create lakes. Unlike most of the other “bad” parts of town I’ve seen, this one had nice roads, and as far as I was told, the sewage and water were working well and everyone was connected to them.
In the poorest countries I’ve been to, the “poorest” parts of town were quite literally without sewers or electricity. There was poverty because the government had abandoned the people.
Here though, the situation seems to be more one of tightly-packed aggression. Young men come to the city, they don’t find work, they go to the cheap neighborhoods, they rent a tightly packed house with a dozen other young men in need of work. If a communist guerilla or drug cartel recruiter shows up before an opportunity to work in construction, you’ve now got the makings of a bad neighborhood.
It seems like the governments were actually trying to provide equal~ish services to all areas.
v — Cocaine
Between the age of 17 and just before I landed in South America, had you asked me what would be the first thing I’d do in Peru or Columbia, the answer would have been obvious: cocaine.
I am still confused as to why, after 2 months in South America, I left without even a sniff.
Coca leaves are legal in Colombia and Peru, I did try a bunch of coca leaves teas and I honestly found high-concentration tea to be more enjoyable than cocaine, the high is longer and steadier (my recipe: grind 30–100g of leaves, cover in water, microwave right until the boiling point, stop, stir them, repeat a few times, strain)
Cocaine salts are extremely illegal though; There are theoretical allowances for personal consumption; But multiple people told me the police ignore them and will beat, ask for bribes, and jail people that possess cocaine. This seems weird to me… why not just assault random tourists for money? I guess it might be a “selection” mechanism of sorts? Maybe it’s harder for them to file charges? Maybe people were just investing stories.
Nonetheless, none of the people I hung out with did or mentioned ever trying cocaine, which I found odd. The bartenders I asked told me the aforementioned police stories, and only none mentioned being able to provide. A few street sellers did approach me, but they were 10 times as shady as I’d have been comfortable with.
I feel like the chances of actually ending up in a South American jail or being poisoned with scopolamine were slim, but “South American jail” is one of those things I want the probability for to be asymptotic to zero. Given that the internet did confirm tourists were arrested for buying drugs… I am crestfallen but stand by my decision of not trying cocaine at the source.
Still, you can get cocaine salt everywhere and it’s rather boring, I think consuming it as tea is a much better idea.
vi — Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands were something else. The housing was shit and expensive, the internet slow (but good enough for laggy zoom calls and music streaming), food options were limited, but they were still great.
The weather was what I’d expect of a tropical island, I don’t remember ever wearing a coat or using the AC.
The giant tortoises are awe-inspiring when viewed in person, I think it’s worth going just to see them, they are everywhere.
All the islands have very inhospitable vegetation, dense, spiky, and poisonous. This, combined with their remoteness, means that only a few land species live there. Finches, tortoises, iguanas… that’s about it (though cats and rats do exist). This does allow you to witness speciation live.
Every island is the same yet different. The tortoises have different sizes, carapace shapes, and neck lengths. The finches are differently beaked, sized, and colored. The water iguanas have different group densities and the males have different coloration patterns.
Add to this the diverse marine flora, which you can swim and dive with, and It’s certainly one of those places any scientifically minded animal lovers ought to see.
Most coast guards are sedentary, but the US variety will roam the oceans and start guarding any free coast it finds… marine zoology is fascinating.
vii — Medellin is amazing.
The people are nice, the parties are great, the nature is sublime, the weather is almost perfect, the rent is low, the food is good.
Monthly rent in the fancy, safe, modern, and quiet high-end residential areas start at 400 to 500$ a month, for places that would run you 4000 to 5000$ a month near a popular London high street.
Everyone seems to speak a bit of English. There are loads of people working a tech, with all the international culture that brings, bubble tea, poke bowls, coworking cafes with slow drip and Chemex brewed coffee, unwashed light-roast beans, fancy tea, and a general feeling of unease due to income disparity; Made more pungent by the number of guns, special-ops geared police and history of cartels.
The areas around Medellin are among the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, it feels like you can just pick a direction, get in a car for 50 minutes, and bam, you’ll be surrounded by this or that pristine natural vista.
The pine trees and bricks buildings are the aesthetic cherries on top, it’s so pretty I want to fuck it. It’s the one city I’ll almost certainly revisit.
viii — Colonial Art
The colonial art in Peru was something else….
They have Conquista Jesus:
Pictured here eating grilled cuy (aka guinea pig… yes, they still cook that) and drinking Chicha Morada with the boys (note he Judah):
Another one from when he was a baby, with his mom, the queen of Spain:
I thought it was quite on the nose until I visited Santo Domingo: