Whether it’s the rhythms of salsa and tango, the thought of succulent Argentine steaks or the chance to learn more about indigenous peoples and traditions that first springs to mind when thinking of Latin American culture, few will deny that the idea of discovering it for yourself holds a certain allure. At once exotic yet familiar, the modern trends and long-held traditions of this region always rank among the highlights of travelling here. Discover the laid-back, fun-loving spirit of the people, the fantastic flavours of local cuisines and the rhythms of Latin American music.
Being a vast region, Latin America of course has much variety when it comes to culture; different countries have different traditions and each offers its own unique attractions and experiences. Today, we will be taking a broad view of the wider elements of the culture, then focusing on how you can experience these in individual countries.
Shaping your experience almost as much as the attractions you visit and the activities you try, the people you encounter along your travels always represent the local culture. While we can only speak in general terms here, Latin Americans tend to be laid-back and fun-loving, with a passion for music, food and parties – something that makes this a really vibrant, enjoyable region to visit. The fantastic flavours of the various cuisines is also a staple of any cultural discovery is the cuisine, and in Latin America there is a real variety of culinary experiences to be had. When exploring big cities such as Santiago or Buenos Aires, you’ll notice a distinctly Spanish influence that harks back to colonial times – but if you get the chance to head a little off the beaten track and visit some indigenous cultures, you will have a completely different gastronomic experience. Among the more unusual, particularly to European tastes, is guinea pig, which you may come across in Peru.
For most of us, Latin American culture is synonymous with the lively rhythms of salsa and the sass of the tango, alongside many other musical styles. The fact that music springs so readily to mind when thinking of this culture is indicative of just how central it is and, as we’ll explain below, losing yourself in the rhythm is one of the best ways to have an authentic cultural experience during your travels.
In the 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese colonised Latin America – and this has had one of the biggest influences on its culture. Stroll through the streets of places like Santiago today and you’ll be struck by the Spanish colonial architecture and the prevalence of Spanish-style cuisine – but perhaps what’s more fascinating still is the contrast provided by the presence of indigenous cultures such as the Mapuche people. This contrast can be seen not only in Santiago but across different parts of Chile and through wider Latin America.
Sightseeing is a cornerstone of any culturally focused holiday, but arranging to take part in activities is a simple way to make sure you really experience the culture, rather than simply observe it. While the best things to do will, of course, vary depending on the country (or countries) you intend to visit, here are some of our favourite ways to delve deeper into Latin American culture.
Mixing with local people is always a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the culture – so it’s best not to leave this element of your holiday to chance meetings. Instead, take advantage of tours that give you the opportunity to meet people. For example, it’s possible to take a tour of a coffee plantation and meet the farmer, or to visit a village and watch the locals making tortillas – this way, you can add a human element to your cultural discoveries.
A similar option is to visit an estancia in Argentina or Chile. These traditional ranches were established by the first settlers, and are where gauchos farm cattle and breed horses. As well as simply seeing the gauchos at work, you could taste the fruits of their labour at a delicious barbecue later in the day.
And indeed, tasting the food is always an important step on the road to cultural discovery. In Argentina, the absolute highlight is the steak, though its delicious empanadas (which are similar to Cornish pasties and can also be readily found in neighbouring Chile) are also something of a must-try.
In Mexico, forego the restaurants in favour of street food, as this country is renowned for its street food culture – particularly dishes such as tacos and burritos. Venture off the beaten track to discover indigenous cultures and you may come across more unusual fare; in Peru, for example, it is possible to try guinea pig – something that may appeal to the more adventurous traveller!
With music being at the heart of Latin American culture, taking a dance class is a fantastic (and extremely fun) way to get in touch with your Latin American side. In Buenos Aires, you can take part in a tango class, allowing you to try for yourself some of the culture’s most distinctive dancefloor moves.