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Free! Free!!

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.

Another Eiffel creation: the steel cathedral in Arica, Chile. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Another Eiffel creation: the steel cathedral in Arica, Chile. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

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.


Clowning around in Villavicencio, Colombia. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Clowning around in Villavicencio, Colombia. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

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.


The Polyester Mushroom Season

A crop of polyester mushrooms in Argentina

A crop of polyester mushrooms in Argentina

Spring has arrived in the Southern Hemisphere. Days are now longer and warmer. Soon forests of multi-colored mushrooms will be cropping up across the landscapes of Chile, Argentina and Uruguay as travelers pitch their tents.
In most of Latin America, carpas (tents) are looked upon with curiosity. Few can understand how rich foreigners can so innocently leave their belongings in something as flimsy as a cloth hut. It opens one up to theft – and possible worse – in the night. Luckily, though, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have a culture of camping. Popular with local people looking for inexpensive vacations, camping is also the shoestring traveler’s best lodging option in these costlier countries and a safe one for solo women travelers. A few sites are open all year. Others begin opening in spring. By summer, the season is in full swing until the end of vacations in February.
Argentina is the best prepared country for camping. Even many small villages have their camping municipal. Local tourism offices keep lists of all public and private sites and their rates. Expect to pay a one-time fee for the tent or vehicle plus a daily per-person charge. Some additionally charge for showers. Solo Campings lists Argentine campgrounds www.solocampings.com.ar). ACA – Automóvil Club Argentino – operates good sites that are open to motorists and non-motorists alike (www.aca.org.ar/servicios/turismo/frame.htm).
Unlike its eastern neighbor, Chilean towns do not have municipal campgrounds. Privately owned facilities are more common in tourist-popular destinations. Many of the national parks have designated sites and allow backcountry camping for trekkers. Some parks also have basic refugios (check with the local Conaf office or ranger station about availability). In general, camping is more expensive in Chile. For more information on campgrounds throughout this country, check:





In many parts of Uruguay are double campgrounds.  At one locale is a public or private ground with complete facilities. Not too far away is another (usually free) that has no facilities (or perhaps only latrines). Guía Gambia is the most complete listing of campsites in the country. Many kiosks sell the printed guide, which can also be consulted at: www.guiadeturismo.com.uy/guiaweb/.

In all three countries, a rain-proof tent is needed, and in the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, one resistant high winds is advisable. If you have one without a rain fly, you can use a rain poncho or tarp. If you have left home without a tent, pick it up in a cheaper neighboring place like Bolivia, as they are expensive further south. Another necessary piece of equipment is an insulation pad. The cold, damp ground robs your body of heat. Depending on how rough you’ll be going, you may need a camp stove. Gas canisters are easy to get in most areas. Open fires are prohibited in national parks. If sticking to established campgrounds, you can get by without one, as many places have fire pits or a quincho with kitchen facilities. By camping, you’ll find that polyester mushroom soon pays for itself with what you’ll be saving on hostels or hotels. 

Volcano Erupts in Colombia's Cauca State

A volcanic eruption in Colombia’s Cauca state has left four dead and hampered transportation throughout parts of southwestern Colombia. At 17,600 feet, Nevado del Huila is Colombia’s highest active volcano. Its eruption sent mudslides crashing over roads and destroying bridges and left piles of ash. President Alvaro Uribe has toured the affected area by helicopter and has promised to get aid to needy Colombians. If you’re in the area, be sure to check on current conditions before any travel.

Ecuador Approves New Constitution

By a landslide vote estimated at around 65%, the people of Ecuador approved a new constitution yesterday that gives President Rafael Correa more power in his quest to end corruption and erase poverty in this Andean nation. The new constitution guarantees worker rights and allows Correa to run for two more terms, meaning he could still be in office as late as 2017. It is unclear if the constitution will affect tourism, one of Ecuador’s most important industries.