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First impressions of South America

First impressions of South America

I’m not sure how to define the exact location: I spent a few days in Panama City in Central America, sailed through the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean and then ended up in Cartagena in South America for a couple of nights. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to the whole trip as my first time in South America.

 San Blas Islands in the Caribbean at sunset

And to be honest, I was nervous about South America. Friends and travel bloggers who had traveled through the area talked about getting mugged multiple times and eating nothing but steak. But when I had a spare two weeks pop up before I started my job in New York City, my friend Jess Jones invited me down to sail from Panama City to Cartagena through the San Blas Islands and I just couldn’t say no. She works as a cook on the Black Dragonfly, and I was eager to have a hostess on my first trip to South America who a) spoke Spanish and b) had been traveling solo through the country for the last 15 months.

By the time my flight back home rolled around, I was pretty disappointed that I had to head home instead of continuing down the coast with all the awesome guys I had met. It made me miss the days of making travel plans on a whim in Southeast Asia, or spontaneously booking a ticket to Bali or daydreaming about Seychelles holidays. I fell hard for the laid-back and friendly lifestyle, incredibly cheap cost of living and delicious food. The South America travel bug bit me hard, and I can promise that two weeks is not enough: I’ll be back someday.

Christine Amorose drinking a coconut in Panama City, Panama

Fresh coconuts! Hooray! My favorite thing about Southeast Asia was having a fresh young coconut for less than a dollar:  it’s better than a coffee in the morning for energy and it’s the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. You could find them in the neighborhood grocery stores and from the street carts, and they were just as cheap and refreshing as I remembered.

Street arepas in Cartagena, Colombia

Street food is the way to go. I don’t eat a ton of red meat, so the meat-heavy culture in South America really worried me. However, Jess showed me the secrets to healthy cooking in hostel kitchens: veggie omelettes, veggie stirfries, veggie salads. And she also showed me the secrets to finding the best street food: coconuts, arepas, roast chicken and fresh-squeezed juice. I cannot even stress how delicious arepas are: Caracas Arepa Bar is fantastic in New York City, but there’s nothing better than one off the street, dripping in some sort of guacamole and salsa.

Colorful architecture in Cartagena, Colombia

The architecture is beautiful and SO colorful! The street art is amazing, but so are the streets themselves. All of the buildings’ facades and shutters and roofs are an instant injection of bright color and passion. There’s a reason why Cartagena Old City is one of the most recommended sites in South America, and why it’s supposedly one of the world’s most romantic cities: it’s just gorgeous.

Street vendors in Cartagena, Colombia

You can get away without speaking Spanish, but it’s much easier if you do. My Spanish is limited to ordering a beer and tacos and asking where the bathroom is. I’m OK at reading–a lot of the vocabulary is similar to French–but I can barely understand the sing-song of spoken Spanish, and I can’t speak at all. We had a few misunderstandings that are funny looking back–taking a cab to the wrong marina (an hour away, through the jungle, over the Panama Canal when we were supposed to only go about five minutes) and ordering cocaine instead of a coconut at 9 a.m. I was super lucky to have Jess around to act as interpreter most of the time, but if I was going back on my own, I would definitely take a few Spanish courses.

Christine Amorose and Jess Jones in Cartagena, Colombia

Be prepared to move those hips. I’m not much of a dancer and I don’t have much rhythm: I rather drink a beer and watch the game than go out to a club and dance all night. But it’s impossible to resist the salsa music that emanates from every bar. Now I know why everyone seems to move to South America and take up salsa dancing: it’s the best way to spend a night out!

What’s your favorite thing about South America? 

Note: this post was made possible by Turquoise Holidays

  • You look so pretty in this last picture in the dress, love it!
    I am not very familiar with most of South America. I don’t even know that I’ve ever known anyone who visited! It looks so beautiful and inviting though, and I can’t wait to make my trek down that way someday!

  • Jess Jones

    Yay, I loved reading this and hearing what you really thought about your experience! I had such an amazing time having you as a travel buddy! Can’t wait to explore more of south or central america with you!!!

  • I’m headed to Central America in January and I’m so excited for that architecture and that street food! I know literally zero Spanish though, so….should probably work on that.

  • EVERYTHING! It is the greatest continent in the world. Please return and visit Brasil and Argentina. You will never ever want to leave.

  • Kate

    Glad you had a great trip! we also just enjoyed our first trip to SA down in Chile and Argentina and it was amazing, breathtaking, delicious (+15lbs of deliciousness in 3 months! uhoh!) and i can’t wait to go back someday! Columbia is VERY high on my list!
    ps. i too love your dress in that last pic… please tell me its available in the US?!!

  • My favorite thing about South America… I can’t really choose one, so I’d say the architecture, the sun and the people! I haven’t found yet any other place where you can have random conversations about culture, history and poetry with about anyone around you!!

  • I’m looking forward to reading more about your adventures – I’ve always wanted to go sailing!

  • camorose

    Thanks lady! It was very different than anywhere else I’d been, but I absolutely loved it. Would really like to go back and explore much more!

  • camorose

    You were the best South American ambassador ever! Who knows–maybe I’ll come back and set up shop in Cartagena with you 🙂

  • camorose

    That would be my biggest recommendation–if I were going back, I definitely would have brushed up on my Spanish basics, especially when it comes to transportation and negotiation.

  • camorose

    Oh my gosh I totally believe you–Brazil and Argentina are so high on my list, I’m really hoping that I’ll make it down there for an extended trip in 2013 or 2014!

  • camorose

    Ooooh I really want to go to Argentina! I actually picked that dress up for $10 in HCMC, Vietnam and left it behind with Jess–it’s the perfect dress for the tropics, but not for NYC 🙂

  • camorose

    See, if only I spoke Spanish–I need to make sure I brush up before I head back 🙂

  • camorose

    It was the best! Pay attention next week 🙂

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