Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Gringo!

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Gringo trail, South America
By Jared Johnsen

From the moment you get off the plane, you are handed a new identity. Think of a new world where your language is no longer in use, a world where you and many like you have all the money that the people compete over. Welcome to the gringo trail, your name is Gringo and so is mine. Sure you may have avoided it simply by not being an American in Mexico, but in the southern hemisphere, they don’t discriminate by nationality. Here, we are all gringos. Don’t be too offended though. Gringo is not usually meant in the pejorative – and you will know when it is. Usually, they just mean foreigner. But then there is this gringo trail thing. What is it? Is it like a yellow brick road leading to the wizard, where tourists can merrily befriend other tourists on an established journey against a few villains who try and prevent them from frolicking all the way to their destination? Sadly, this isn’t too far off. Must we be so predictable as to have a path we typically follow across a continent named after us? Maybe we deserve our newly given identity. I say, since we all know the wizard is a fake anyway, perhaps we don’t need a yellow brick road. Perhaps, we should think of this trail as a place from which to veer from our branded identity – and subsequent itinerary. It is impossible to avoid it completely, and with places on it like Machu Picchu, Huaraz, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, Arequipa, and endless others, who would want to? There are, however, a great number of places that require our departure from the trail, offering us not only some non-business interactions with locals, but a very necessary component of local life and scenery that is missing from the mêlée of mass tourism.

The Gringo Trail

The gringo trail is a rather long one that spans from Tierra del Fuego to…say El Paso, Texas. But we are going to deal specifically with the South American section of the gringo trail. As I began to describe above, it is loosely defined as popular areas of mass tourism. That is, if visitors to Europe were considered gringos, the Eiffel Tower might just be the number one destination on the gringo trail. Thus, in South America, we might award it to Machu Picchu. Of course, this doesn’t make the great ruin a place not to visit. Therein lies the problem. Many destinations on the gringo trail are quite desirable places to visit. Like Cusco, for instance. This is a charming town. Yet, I saw almost as many gringos there as locals. Some people like this aspect of traveling, this mutual friendship achieved among travelers. I find this nice in moderation, but let’s be honest: we see plenty of each other back home. Part of people’s reason for traveling is getting to know other cultures. We all know the Irish pub down the street isn’t going to be much help in that department (unless, of course, they’ve got the local soccer game on, which truly is a cultural experience). So I’ll be fair. I am going to put forward one “out of bounds” destination that is a reasonable distance from a g-trail destination in most South American countries. Further research will be up to you. But then that’s the fun of being off the trail isn’t it?

Beginning in Peru, we’ll go clockwise. If you are heading north through Huaraz, Trujillo, and Chiclayo, take a side trip to the eastern towns of Chachapoyas and Tarapoto. These edge-of-the-jungle towns offer some hikes in the cloud forest of breathtaking beauty that are laden with billions of butterflies. The ancient ruin site of Kuelep, matching Machu Picchu in proportion, is also not far off. In Ecuador, check out the Quilatoa loop from the safe gringo stomping ground of Quito. This high-mountain adventure explores rural Andean life and brings you to a gorgeous volcanic crater lake (check out my other article, Adventures in Ecuador, Episode II: The Quilatoa Loop).

If you are in Colombia, well, quite frankly, you already left the gringo trail my friend. This is an amazing country, despite its marred image. Cartagena, Bogotá, and Cali are all worth a visit if you are willing to brave the widespread warnings. Close to Cartagena, there are amazing beaches inside Parque Tayrona and on Isla Blanca. These days, Venezuela is pretty much off the gringo trail as well. Merída, the mountain town in the southwest, is quite interesting as is the table mountain, Roraima, in the southeast. These tepuys, as they call them, are home to some of the most unique landscapes on the continent. Brazil is quite known for its beaches, many of which are quite popular and part of the gringo trail. There are, however, millions of Brazilians on those beaches, squelching the gringo factor to relative absence. If not, there are always less touristy beaches in between the famous ones. Check out Ihla Grande, just south of Rio if you want to get away from all the people.

In Argentina, I am going to have to nominate Buenos Aires as the winner for both gringo and non-gringo destinations. It would otherwise be like calling New York City touristy. BA simply offers a wide variety of activities from museums, cafés, and shopping to antique shops, art fairs, and tango. It is in many ways the cultural center of the country. You really can’t go wrong here, unless you simply party and miss everything (and even that isn’t exactly missing out). Jumping across the river to Colónia or Montevideo in Uruguay is not a bad possibility either. Again, these are urban areas with too much culture to miss. Bolivia, while it is not a hub of the gringo trail, it does have its share of mass tourism. La Paz, with its mountain biking down the “world’s most dangerous road” is sure to be on the gringo trail hit list for Bolivia. While this is actually great fun, another fantastic experience is on Lake Titicaca from Copacabana. Hike a few hours across the peninsula and hire a boat to Isla del Sol on the lake. This mythological birthplace of Incan deities provides small hostels at which to spend the night and exhibits great views of the sapphire Titicaca water – not to mention relaxation from the large groups of tourists on the Peruvian side of the lake.

This is just the beginning of what exists in our great land of Oz – that is, if you stay off the road. If, by chance, you are interested in knowing more about where the gringo trail itself is, you’ve come to the wrong place. But don’t worry. Finding it will be second nature to you. You have been christened a gringo, and everyone will surely tell you how to follow the yellow…never mind.

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