When a man is tired of London, Samuel Johnson famously wrote, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
It’s a line that’s often quoted, and one I’ve mangled for my own purposes just as frequently, usually as I’m moving around a completely different part of the world.
Here’s my version: when a traveller is tired of Latin America, they are tired of life. Or at the very least, they are tired of travel.
Because for all that Johnson loved about London and its myriad attractions, there’s more in Latin America. There’s so much more – there’s everything. There’s good, bad, ugly and amazing. There’s thrilling, shocking, heart-warming and frightening. There’s colour and passion. There’s history and tradition. There’s beauty and grit.
I’m here to tell you that for travellers, it doesn’t get any better than Latin America. This is travel at its essence. Sure, you will find certain destinations that are as good. But as a whole, as a massive area to explore and experience, Latin America is as good as it gets.
Stay with me here while we at least define this sprawling region’s boundaries. Latin America isn’t a continent but a cultural concept, a notional grouping that spreads from Mexico’s northern border all the way down Central America, and on through South America to Cape Horn.
That’s 26 countries (give or take, depending on your definition), more than 600 million people, countless languages and dialects, endless cultures and sub-cultures.
To travel through these lands is to understand just how thrilling and rewarding travel can be. There’s just no way to avoid full immersion here. There is no chance you will leave any country in Latin America and not know what this place is truly like.
A friend of mine, Steve Madgwick, a fellow writer whose name also frequently appears in these pages, is right now on an overland adventure through Central America, from Guatemala to Panama, and watching his journey via social media has stoked all sorts of feelings of envy and excitement. This, I always think when I see his posts, is what travel is about. This is the good stuff.
It’s about riding in chicken buses and rickety wooden boats. It’s about smoking volcanoes and shimmering lakes. It’s about rum cocktails on isolated beaches. It’s about the beauty and the bastardry of humankind, the warmth and the kindness of the people in these places juxtaposed with what is often political and social unrest.
I’ve had many of the best travel experiences of my life in Latin America. Some of the most interesting, most exciting cities on Earth can be found here: Mexico City, Medellin, La Paz, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Cusco. Artistic, creative, brilliant. Historic and proud. I’ve seen landscapes that you wouldn’t believe, from the soaring Andes to the sweaty depths of the Amazon.
I’m not going to tell you that the food in Latin America is always amazing – but sometimes it is. Often, in fact. The asados of Argentina, the ceviches of Peru, the arepas of Colombia, the… everything of Mexico. There are flavours here that are shockingly good. Like, how is the rest of the world not eating like this?
Whatever you’re into though, whatever your reason for travelling, there’s something deeply invigorating about Latin America, which is why I’m so often reminded of that Samuel Johnson quote. This region is filled with life, life that won’t relent sometimes, but that is just constantly there to amaze you.
If you’re tired of Latin America, you’re tired of life – because that’s what this place is. That’s what it offers.
Think of Bolivia, which for me is a microcosm of all that is great about Latin America. There’s a bubbling mix of ancient Indigenous culture and European influence here, as there is a variety of landscapes from mountainous splendour to rainforested depths.
There’s a witches’ market in La Paz where they sell llama foetuses and all sorts of other grim, magical accoutrements. There’s Spanish colonial architecture. There are street vendors selling empanadas. There’s a scrum of traffic, brightly coloured buses and dinged up cars.
Your head spins, and not just because you’re something like 4000 metres above sea level. Nothing here is like home.
Everywhere in Latin America though, there’s music and dance. Salsa, tango, cumbia, samba. These are words we know but they’re a lifestyle in their place of origin, cultural rites that you can participate in, the literal rhythm of a vast and varied landmass.