Let’s shout it loud from the rooftops of the great Latin American cities: Free! Free!! Indeed, budget travelers, these metropoli bulge with free things to go check out. From architecture to culture, you can pack your days with tons of things to do. All totally GRATIS, except perhaps for the occasional trolley fare.
The most obvious free attraction is the churches. From white-washed colonial chapels to towering neo-Gothic temples, these monuments are a fascinating window onto the merging of indigenous and Spanish cultures. On the façades of some, native craftsmen slipped symbols from their own religion. Interiors are decorated with naïve wood carvings and elaborate gilded altar screens. In cathedrals are buried the city’s most famous citizens.
Unfortunately, many of Quito’s finest churches charge an entry fee to non-mass attenders, though La Compañía does offer free tours once a month. Parts of Latin America are yet very conservative about church attire: no shorts, tanktops or minis. In small towns, women commonly cover their heads when entering a holy place. And men, please take the ball cap off.
Catholics aren’t the only ones to open their spectacular spaces. In Panama City is the brilliantly white Bahai’i temple, a dome perched atop Motaña del Dulce Canto. Mosques in Maicao, Colombia, and Tacna, Peru, also welcome visitors.
The merging of cultures and styles are also reflected in secular architecture. Glance up while strolling through Buenos Aires. Some Presidential Palaces have free guided tours (take your passport). While in Buenos Aires, check out the Casa Rosada and in Quito Carondolet, also known as the Palacio del Gobierno.
While the politicos are wheeling and dealing in the Palaces, the common folk are doing their trade of daily life out in the markets. Even in large cities the sound of folks haggling prices mixes with the colors and smells of the typical village mercado – only on a mega-scale. Bucaramanga’s four-story-tall Plaza Central is said to be Colombia’s largest public market. For its sheer size, nothing can beat Mexico City’s Mercado de la Merced. The few blocks on the southern edge of this market are dedicated to traditional shamanic necessities. Such traditions are limited to just Mexico, though. On La Paz’ steep streets is the fascinating Witches’ Market.
Major Latin American cities have centro cultural hosting free exhibits, concerts, films, theater and other events. In many burgs are foreign centers, like France’s Alianza Francesa and Germany’s Instituto Goethe. Keep an eye out for art openings (inauguración), an assured visual and gastronomic treat. (Yes, often hors d’ouvres and drinks are served.) These and literary readings also offer you an opportunity to meet the local artist community. My favorite centers are Quito’s Centro Cultural Metropolitano, which has monthly art openings, and the Alianza Francesa in Santa Marta, Colombia, which has not only good art shows, but shows great movies every week.
Exquisite architecture and culture isn’t just for the living. Latin American cemeteries are where you’ll find the famous and poor lying side by side. While in Buenos Aires, drop by to see Eva Perón Duarte in La Recoleta and Carlos Gardel in La Chacarita. Santiago de Chile’s Cementerio General hosts most of that nation’s Presidents, Victor Jara and victims of the military dictatorship’s repression. A small fee is charged to enter Havana’s impressive Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. Here rest writers Alejo Carpentier and Nicolás Guillén, Buena Vista Social Club singer Ibrahim Ferrer, and Cuban Revolutionaries Celia Sánchez and Haydée Santamaría. A free graveyard in this city is San Yu Chun Wa, or the Cementerio General Chino.
Patzcuaro’s Day of the Dead celebration may be the most renowned, but the local cemetery in any small Peruvian, Bolivian and Mexican city is the place to be on Día de los Muertos, or Día de los Difuntos. Join in on the feting with the spirits of the dearly departed on these days when the fabric between the worlds of the living and dead opens. Food, drink and live music are all part of the party, which often lasts all-night long, or even for several days.
Of course, public plazas are THE place to peoplewatch (and if you have sixth sense, perhaps even spirit watch). Take time off your walking tours of the metropli, rest the doggies and have a flavored ice. The vendors will be giving their schticks on whatever product they’re selling, the kids will be chasing soap bubbles catching rainbows from the sun and clowns performing street theater.