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- Going into Rural Areas of Latin America
Originally, I am from a small town in Iowa.
However, being honest, I much prefer living in a large metropolitan city.
Ever since I began traveling around Latin America…
I have spent almost all of my time in the cities.
From Xela to Cochabamba to Buenos Aires to Quilla to Mexico City to Pachuca to back to Mexico City and more.
Having said that, it hasn’t always been time in large cities.
My very first trip to Latin America was to some territory in the Mexican state of Chiapas controlled by a group known as the Zapatistas.
In which we visited some rural indigenous village area.
And since that visit…
I’ve at times gone into other rural areas at times in Latin America.
In other parts of Mexico…
To areas in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
In this article, I’ll break down some basic observations I’ve had while going out of my bubble and checking out areas not often visited by foreigners.
So let’s get to it.
Observation 1: Indigenous Influence
As I wrote in this article here, my first trip to a more rural area in Latin America was to an indigenous village area in Chiapas, Mexico.
Before I even showed up…
I remember how, in a Spanish class I took, a professor of mine was talking about how, in her experience, you sometimes can find folks in rural parts of Latin America who have a mixture of Catholic and indigenous beliefs.
Something like this video here.
And when I was in Chiapas…
It was the same when I was in Guatemala also in which I met folks who either didn’t speak a lick of Spanish or spoke it as a second language.
That might sound strange to some folks to think that there are people in Latin America who don’t speak Spanish (or Portuguese).
But some are like that.
In some rural areas, it can be possible to find some.
In Chiapas, I learned quickly that some of the folks there couldn’t understand me when I spoke Spanish.
And the language they spoke sounded very different to anything I had heard.
Here’s some pictures.
Observation 2: History
When in some rural areas, you can sometimes either find places that have historical value or where history is being made now.
For example, one type of place that I’d love to visit are the Jesuit Missionary places in different spots of South America.
Here’s an example of what I mean in this video here.
Typically found in more rural areas.
Another rural spot of great historical importance is this place in Peru here where supposedly it is a cradle of civilization.
One of the few original ones we have on Earth.
That is another place high on my places I’d love to visit.
So on and so on…
So you have a lot of historical importance that can be found in more rural areas.
Though not just history from the past…
But history being made right now.
Take for example Chiapas.
Where the Zapatista movement – agree or disagree with them – have made history in Chiapas over the last few decades.
That isn’t to say that they have had a positive contribution necessarily…
Just saying that they have left a footprint in Mexican history.
Same thing with the Homeless Workers Movement in Brazil.
In which I visited some of their rural encampments.
Where they effectively try to take land that they deem to be unproductively used…
Then use it to help homeless people.
Again – agree or disagree with that how you like.
But that is history being made.
And so it is interesting to see some of these more rural movements take place and the changes they are trying to enact on a local level.
I have no stake in the game with what they are doing so I can appreciate the impact these rural movements have without getting emotional about it like some of the locals might.
Here’s an article I wrote on my time with the Homeless Workers Movement.
Observation 3: Deep Marginalization
Having said that, you also see some of the deep marginalization that happens in these communities.
For Americans, it’s like if you go to a rural town in the middle of the US that has suffered from de industrialization with the factory moved out to Mexico.
All the jobs done.
Drug use up.
Though when you go to some of these rural areas in Latin America…
Like some I saw on the outside of Masaya, Nicaragua as you can read here.
Or the rural areas I saw taking buses everywhere in Bolivia…
So on and so on….
You do see a similar or much worse level of marginalization of some of these communities.
Which, along a more academic topic, you remember how that can be a recipe for disaster in Latin America.
Like when a guerrilla group originally known as the FLN (but later EZLN) came to Chiapas….
Took on much of the support of many of the local indigenous communities…
And then those same communities voted in 1993 to start an armed uprising against the Mexican government one year later…
To also how, in other rural areas of Latin America, you have similar cases where armed groups basically co-opt the support of marginalized rural folks living in deep poverty.
The worst is when you have literal terrorist or narco groups doing that.
In a way, you see how some of these areas can be natural places for those type of groups to gather local support that can later be turned into violence.
Observation 4: Are You an Alien from Mars?
Next, you will likely notice more people staring at you intensely when you go into some rural areas…
Simply because, in some areas, they haven’t seen a foreigner walk by in forever.
When I was visiting a small town in Hidalgo, Mexico known as Ixmiquilpan to see the parents of an ex-girlfriend of mine…
Well, I remember clearly random folks staring at me much more than how it was in Mexico City for example.
Now, to be fair, it could just be curiosity.
Though, at times, it could be a case where you are dealing with someone who is suspicious or xenophobic of you.
I’ve rarely had experiences like that in more rural areas.
Sometimes could happen though.
Just like anywhere in the world where folks in more rural areas can be more suspicious of outsiders.
Here’s a vid of what Ixmiquilpan looks like.
Observation 5: Non-Pretentious Folks
Having said that about possible xenophobia or suspicion that you might encounter…
It’s also the case that folks in more rural areas are, as you can imagine, less pretentious.
That’s fair criticism you can throw at a fair amount of urban folks living in Mexico City.
In neighborhoods like Polanco for example.
The upper class Mexican in Polanco or wherever of Mexico City that has that pretentious mentality.
Not something you will see so much in Ixmiquilpan
And sometimes the locals in more rural areas are, as you can imagine, very helpful!
I remember one time when I was living in Xela, Guatemala…
A city that you can see a picture I took of here.
And I got into one of those little vans that other countries like Mexico call “combis.”
I’m not sure if they use the word “combi” for it in Guatemala because it’s been years and I forgot.
Anyway, they are little vans that have specific routes they go on.
I was new to this and thought you could just walk right in and tell the driver where you want to go.
Not that he would have a specific route he has to stick to…
So it’s getting late…
And the combi is seemingly not going where I want it to!
Now, I didn’t speak Spanish very well…
I studied it for years but never had much practice.
So I was still getting used to speaking it.
But there came a point where the combi was going more and more outside of the city and into rural little areas in the outskirts..
These destitute looking villages or whatever on the outside of Xela that didn’t look very nice late at night.
At that point, I ask out loud kindly if “we are going to x area?”
The area being some area in Xela that people know about that was close to my homestay.
I forgot the name of it but that’s what I asked anyway.
And the driver yells back “como?!”
Being confused and all.
And there was this middle aged lady sitting next to me who seemed very concerned.
Asking me now “where do you want to go?” in Spanish.
I tell her that I am headed to this area to get back to my homestay.
Anyway, the combi keeps going…
And she was one of the last people to get off in some rural looking area on the outskirts.
She gives the driver a little bit of money to have him take me back to where I was intending to go to.
I didn’t know she was going to give him money either.
So that was very kind of her.
Reminds me of when I was in Nicaragua…
And it was the same in that you’d find very down to earth people in more rural areas at times.
Much less pretentious.
More down to earth.
Curious too about what you are doing there but not necessarily always in a hostile manner.
Observation 6: Seeing Cool Shit
When I visited a small Colombian town or village area near Barranquilla, Colombia some years ago…
As you can read more about here.
I went there because my then girlfriend at the time named Marcela wanted me to go.
At first, I pretended to be sick and told her I couldn’t make it because I didn’t want to be stuck for a week or so in the blistering heat in some village area without AC.
In that part of Colombia, it is hot as hell.
Anyway, I couldn’t pull the excuse twice…
And she managed to get me out there soon enough for just one day.
Alright – fair compromise.
Anyway, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
First, it wasn’t anywhere near as hot as Barranquilla.
Second, people were nice.
Third, you got to see shit that most folks don’t see when going to Colombia.
Shit that, to most people, doesn’t mean anything.
But small waterfalls or little river streams or ponds that have an importance to the locals in this specific rural community…
That while they don’t have an importance on Lonely Planet…
They have an importance to the people who call this place home.
And that’s cool.
You know, you see a lot of the typical stuff people recommend you do when you live in Latin America long enough.
The Amazon Rainforest, Medellin, Mexico city, Cancun, Patagonia, etc.
And it’s definitely worth checking all of that out!
But there is a part of me that appreciates greatly seeing life in Latin America beneath the “Tourism Surface.”
To go deeper than that.
And even though the little waterfalls don’t make a mention on Lonely Planet….
They still mean something to the locals there who call this place home as I said.
So I find it cool to see that.
Observation 7: Cool Stories
But it’s not just the natural beauty of these more rural areas either…
When I lived in the US, I found it cool how sometimes my high school had foreigners coming into study at our school from places like Puerto Rico, Germany, Spain, etc.
Well, we didn’t have that many but we had some.
And to think “why would they come to my small town out of all the places we have in the US?”
Just a curiosity thing.
And I’m sure some of the locals in Latin America think the same if they see one of us in their small town…
Still, having grown up in a small town myself…
I have a greater appreciation for the rural small towns.
Especially to meet normal folks in those areas and learn from their knowledge about what their area is like.
Because it is often another world from a place like Mexico City!
Going into Chiapas again…
And I remember listening to the story of this one guy who was about my age at the time (20s) talk about his community and his long term plans…
How he told me that, in their community, drinking is prohibited apparently.
And what he does day to day in that part of Chiapas…
To how he aspires to maybe move out to the bigger cities nearby like Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
Of course, you can get interesting stories from folks in big cities also like Mexico City.
But it’s nice to get that other perspective from those in more rural areas.
And, like I said, perhaps I appreciate more the more rural stories because I come from a small town myself.
Reminds me of home….
Observation 8: Your Home
And speaking of home…
In my experience, some rural areas of Latin America do remind me of home!
That was the case when I travelled to Misiones, Argentina and Paraguay.
When I was in Misiones, I travelled to some rural town to conduct interviews for some work I was doing regarding yerba mate production.
When I was taking the bus to that area going through Misiones…
Looking outside of the bus window, it reminded me of home.
Same when I was in rural Paraguay.
Though while I wouldn’t live there because it reminds me of home and I don’t see a point living there if I could experience the same back in Iowa…
Still, you miss home.
And it’s nice to get a taste of something that reminds you of home in Latin America.
But could it ever be a second home?
Observation 9: Finding a Second Home?
As I said before, I prefer large metropolitan cities to live in.
However, there could come a day where I contemplate moving to a smaller town in Latin America.
However, to be fair, I don’t see myself doing that in most parts down here.
Would have to be Chile, Argentina, Uruguay or maybe the south of Brazil.
Still, there have come days where I visit a more rural place personally…
Some town like El Chalten in Argentina…
And think to myself “this could work. I could find a happy life here. Enjoy the amazing natural scenery and live a calm life in tranquillity.”
And, as some of you know, I share a ton of photos of so many places in Latin America on Twitter most days of the week.
In doing so, sometimes I find photos of places I’ve never heard of that look quite nice to settle down in!
Some small towns and what not that look like El Chalten in terms of tranquillity and amazing scenery nearby.
There was some small town in Chile and Argentina that I shared pictures of that I never heard of before.
But they looked nice!
So as I get older…
Could I do that?
Move to a small town in Latin America?
Chile or Argentina?
In rural Patagonia being a successful fisherman and writing the next Great American Novel with a nice family?
Life goals right there.
Observation 10: Greater Appreciation of Latin America
Finally, I think visiting and spending time in more rural areas, as I hinted at before, gives you a greater appreciation for this region.
It gives you a better understanding of whatever country you are in beyond the surface level.
Beyond what the tourists see.
And to see how life is in parts of the country that are never talked about among foreigners.
In a way, I think this not only makes you appreciate the country you are in more…
But arguably, it helps you understand it better perhaps?
In a weird way that I’m not sure how to explain…
But, generally speaking, I feel there might be a hint of truth to that in how it might help you understand better the culture of the country you are in..
Or why people behave the way they do.
As well maybe the local histories of certain areas you travel to and what importance they have in the national history of the country you are in.
Like the significance that Boyacá has in the battle for South American Independence.
A place that you can see in this video here…
In which this is another place on my list of cool places to visit.
So this is all that comes to mind right now regarding observations I’ve had at times when visiting more rural areas of Latin America.
In short, I definitely recommend to everyone to visit cool areas outside of the cities.
Just be safe and smart about it obviously.
Not recommending you visit some territory of a Mexican cartel like this VICE journalist tried doing in this video here…
Instead, try a rural area that wouldn’t be as dangerous!
Just an idea.
Either way, got any comments or observations yourself?
Drop them below in the comment section.
And follow my Twitter here.
Thanks for reading.