Have you ever traveled overseas and had a local person laugh at the way you phrased a question or seen a group of children pointing at you and whispering? Each culture has an array of idioms, non-verbal communication signals, and unspoken cultural norms. As frequent travelers have learned, these cross cultural differences can be a source of great humor and sometimes frustrating dismay. Fortunately for us, Latin Americans tend to be quite forgiving. For the most part, they are used to seeing travelers and are welcoming and helpful. They appreciate our efforts to communicate and are happy to share their cultural traditions. To make your journey go even more smoothly, here is a little advice to get you started on the path to understanding their fascinating cultures...
When should I tip a service provider?
Is bargaining acceptable?
How should I respond to panhandlers?
Should I pack particular types of clothing?
Should I bring gifts for my homestay?
Are there particular concerns for single female travelers?
Do I have to speak Spanish?
Propina is the Spanish word for "tip," and, as it is everywhere, giving a propina is optional. However, it is customary in Latin America to tip when you have received good service. It is common to tip service providers such as waiters, bartenders, hotel staff, and anyone who goes out of their way to help. It is important to remember that salaries are very low and everything aside of food and shelter is comparatively high priced (about what you would pay here). What little bit you give to a good service provider goes a long way for him or her.
The bill in most restaurants may have an added local tax of 10 to 20 percent. Part of this may be a so-called "gratuity" tax, but the wait staff rarely sees any of this money. If you feel that the service in a restaurant merits a tip, leave it on the table or, even better, give it directly to the waiter/waitress.
Tipping guides is also at your own discretion. As a guideline, we suggest an extra $5 per day, per person for local guides in the areas you visit. For assistant guides, drivers, cooks porters and horsemen, the standard rate is from $2 to $3 per day per traveler. Your Adventure Life guide is paid well by us, but $3-$4 per day has become a standard tip for excellent service.
As in any situation that you might find at home, if you feel someone has provided exceptional service, any small gift or extra tip is graciously (as in "gracias") accepted. Some travelers even enjoy making a gift of a piece of their high quality outdoor clothing or gear to guides, horsemen, porters, and cooks, as these rare items are especially appreciated.
Bargaining is a way of life in many Latin American countries. However, in metropolitan cities and department stores, prices are generally fixed, especially in downtown stores. In the indigenous and artisan markets, on the street and rural areas, haggling is accepted practice. When bargaining is in order, be aware that in South America, as opposed to Mexico, the initial price is usually closer to what is expected. After you make a first offer and the vendor counters, continue until you settle on between about 80 percent of the original price. At times, you may need to accept the fact that you are paying more than a local, and enjoy your beautiful hand-crafted item that is worth much more back home than the price that you have paid for it.
Beggars are not as common as some people imagine in Latin America. When you do encounter one, you will realize that the beggar does what he or she can to appeal to your guilt. It's a good idea to prepare your response in advance. If you decide to give anyone your small change, offer it to the old, crippled, or blind, as there is no welfare system to help these individuals. Giving money to children, unless they have performed a service for you, only reinforces them to ignore more productive pursuits. Although we believe that you should not give to begging children, if you must do so, please consider giving bread, fruit, pens or paper - please do not give children money.
If you are staying with a host family, it is a nice gesture to bring writing utensils and paper for the children in the family. Pens and paper are valued commodities in the rural areas. Small items are the most advisable. An excellent gift to people who live at very high altitudes and in remote rural areas is fruit and bread, as they often have very little variety in their diet and the markets for these items are far away.
Some visitors have been moved to provide a larger amount of school items, clothing, or other hard to obtain items to their hosts. If you are inclined to bring a larger gift, please let us know in advance (if possible) so we can help make sure that your gift reaches the schools, families and orphanages that are most needy.
The Earth Family Fund is also an excellent means of giving back to the Latin American communities where you travel. Adventure Life founder, Brian Morgan, created this non-profit organization in 2003. Earth Family Fund seeks to bring holistic, long-term support to rural and urban communities in Latin America through direct assistance, providing material goods as well as funding for medical services, U.S. volunteers and environmental education.
Latin Americans are generally used to seeing travelers so you do not need to worry about packing a particular type of clothing. Comfort should be your biggest guide. Bring lots of layers, convertible pants that zip off into shorts, and lightweight, synthetic fabrics that dry quickly (especially for the tropics). Skirts, jeans, shorts, and tanktops are all acceptable in most areas. That said, locals will tend to dress more conservatively. Shorts are somewhat rare and women in many areas still wear traditional skirts. If you don't want to attract undue attention, avoid T-shirts with offensive slogans, leave your military fatigues at home, and don't wear particularly skimpy outfits that would garner stares even in the U.S. You are unlikely to completely "blend in" so don't spend too much time fretting about how your floral print tanktop will look while you're in Machu Picchu. Instead, pack clothes that you enjoy wearing and be prepared for a few second glances from the locals when you are in especially remote areas.
Our tours tend to attract a wide variety of people, including many single female travelers. Tour leaders are generally very good at making everyone feel comfortable and secure. Our female travelers almost always report that they felt surprisingly at ease throughout their tours and that any pre-trip worries were unfounded. That said, women on the trip may experience passes or whispering comments by local men. It can be uncomfortable being eyed so blatantly by Latin men. These stares and comments are generally just that - stares and comments with nothing more behind them. In fact, although there is a long history and tradition of the patriarch or male being the "king" in Latin America, one often finds that women rule the home.
You do not need to speak Spanish to enjoy your tour. Our guides are bilingual and most of our travelers speak little to no Spanish. That said, Spanish is the official language in most of Central and South America. English is not widely spoken by the general populace. Knowing a few words of Spanish can be useful, and any effort made to speak in your hosts' native tongue is greatly appreciated by the locals.
Some useful Spanish phrases to know - follow along with their pronunciations in parentheses.