In South America it is common to hear back-packers refer to the ‘Gringo Trail’; the well-trodden routes that foreigners (‘gringos’) take through South America. You can easily tell when you are on the Gringo Trail by the availability of brownies and book exchanges, and the fact that the Israeli in the dorm bed next to you was on the same bus as you last week.
You realise you have strayed off the trail when you find that the town you are in isn’t endorsed by the Lonely Planet, the only transport out is once a day in the back of a truck, and cigarettes can be given to you as change.
Many gringos proudly boast of having ventured off the gringo trail, and I am guilty of this myself.
A New Zealander I met in Bolivia who had lived in the country for over 10 years looked at me with a mixture of horror and confusion when I informed him of my plans to get from Rurrenabaque, the main gateway to the Bolivian Amazon Basin, to Trinidad by bus instead of plane. “There’s nothing to see on the way” he told me, “and the roads are just dirt tracks through the jungle.” He was right and the journeys by minibus, bus, truck and motorbike were indeed the most uncomfortable of my life.
That said there is a reason why the gringo trail is so well-trodden. As exciting as it will later sound to your friends back home, it can be quite disturbing, to say the least, to be woken up on an overnight bus ride in the middle of nowhere by armed soldiers looking through your baggage with a search light. Not to mention that you might get quite hungry in off-trail parts of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador unless you develop a taste for guinea pig or don’t mind eating plain rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There are different types of gringo, but the most annoying type is the pretentious gringo. He won’t mind the guinea pig – in fact he’ll seek it out just to prove it to you. This is the gringo who would never call himself a gringo, he is the free spirit hippy traveller who speaks good Spanish, doesn’t use the Lonely Planet, and, like the locals, has a packet of coca leaves in his bag.
For many indigenous Andean people the coca leaf has an importance comparable with tea in the UK. Just imagine if US foreign policy was to bomb the PG Tips factories. Coca leaves are still used by the miners of Potosi, where the silver that financed the Spanish empire was produced. In the hellish conditions of the mines, coca leaves give a lift similar to coca cola and cocaine, two of the most famous products of the coca leaf.
For South Americans, coca leaves seem to be the solution to any ailments. My friend got an eye infection whilst doing the Inca Trail and our guide proceeded to pour coca leaf tea into her eye. It didn’t help.
The coca leaf is one of South America’s many ubiquitous symbols. Another is the alpaca, which can be seen, eaten and worn throughout Bolivia and Peru. Alpaca is the generic meat of any ‘Menu Del Dia’ and most gringos will be sporting alpaca jumpers and hats to go with their gringo pants (ridiculous and unflattering, striped trousers worn exclusively by gringos). This includes the pretentious gringo who will certainly continue to wear them at home in order to prompt questions about his adventurous travels.
Gringos also enjoy drinking local beers, such as the Cusquena of Cusco and Arequipena of Arequipa, and then purchasing t-shirts with the logos on. The most dominant symbol of South America is the image of Che Guevara. I even spotted Che Guevara cigarettes in Peru. A pilgrimage to the remote part of Bolivia where he was killed and buried is definitely one of the highlights of the trail.
A sharp contrast to the pretentious gringo is the gap year traveller. You will find this gringo in the Irish bar, where he has bumped into friends from school. Gap year gringos will begin their travels with the utmost caution, fearing all locals and hiding their passports in their underwear.
They will also stay in large ‘party hostels’, which organise dressing up and going out to clubs that play English music. It prepares them well for the next three years at university. The gap year gringo will also ensure that their trip is fully recorded on Facebook, so they can keep in touch with friends in South East Asia.
Life on and occasionally off the gringo trail has its ups and downs but ultimately nothing beats it. I substantiate this claim by reference to the countless gringos who have missed their return flight to remain on the trail indefinitely. I met one gringo who was still moving after 8 years on the trail.
It took a hard earned place at Oxford University to make me fly home from Buenos Aires having landed in Mexico City nearly 5 months previously. There is no point trying too hard to get off the gringo trail; it’s South America, not the Costa del Sol.
You can go to the continent’s most amazing attractions, for example Laguna de Quilotoa in Ecuador, a crater lake 4000m high in the Andes, and sit watching the sun rise without a single gringo in sight. Or Machu Pichu, which I trekked to for 4 days, finishing early enough on the 5th day to see the sun rise through the ancient sun gate and fall across the historic Inca ruins.
Also on the gringo trail is one of the highest lakes in the world, Lake Titicaca, where the water, the sky and the cloudy Andean mountains were all so blue that I sat for hours trying to take them all in. We haven’t even mentioned the Amazon, where you can fish for piranhas, swim with pink river dolphins and fall asleep to the noise of the howler monkeys.
Despite their annoying, boastful behaviour, it’s easy to see why gringos are as proud as they come. Finally, a word of warning, if you visit South America make sure you have a good reason to come home…and make sure you buy the t-shirt.