Best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish
Travelling to a new place can be nerve-wracking, and when a whole region is your oyster it can be difficult to know where to start. Even for those who have travelled extensively in Asia or Europe, Latin America can present fresh challenges. In fact, it’s a totally different ballgame. We often get asked for the best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish, and although lots of people worry about it, there are still several options that wouldn’t be a total disaster should you find yourself up the Amazon without a paddle.
If you’re sticking to the touristic centres of capital cities and organised tours, you could essentially pick anywhere for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish, but then you would miss out on really getting the flavour of the country you’re exploring. We do appreciate though that organised tours are still a favourite with lots of people due the ability to really get to know fellow travellers and relax about travel plans, so if you want an immersive group tour we highly recommend checking out G Adventures.
How is travel in Latin America different to South-East Asia travel?
While the culture of South-East Asia might actually be more different to what we’re used to in Europe or North America (where most of our readers are from!), we see the main factor in what makes Latin America distinct as being the striving to speak a common language. In Europe or Asia, where almost every country has their own language built up over thousands of years of history, it becomes more important to find a common language, and adapting to the English-speaking world’s language and culture has become a way to make it in a globally-connected world in terms of business and career success. English media is more far-reaching due to past empires and Hollywood budgets, and therefore has a greater influence on countries where media in a language that’s only spoken in one nation has a smaller audience and therefore lower budget and reach. Are you still with us?
Skip over to Latin America. Spanish is the common language. This (mostly in terms of number of countries where it’s the national tongue) Spanish-speaking region is a cultural powerhouse in itself. While there are thousands of years of history of indigenous languages, most were wiped out by colonisers, or their modern-day speakers are taught in Spanish at school anyway.
It seems Latin America doesn’t have as much interest in English-speaking media or culture (who needs to look outwards when you have Reggaeton?!). Domestic tourism from an emerging middle class within the region is on the rise, and that’s still where some countries focus. They don’t see the need to look to other regions for economic gain as heavily as much of the rest of the world, nor is there particular excitement about Western culture or media compared to other parts of the world.
If you’re travelling in South-East Asia you can’t and won’t be expected to learn Tagalog for your 2 week stay in the Philippines, then Thai when you visit Thailand for 3 weeks, then Khmer while you pop into Cambodia, so you come to expect that the locals in (and even outside) the tourism industry will cater to you and speak the international common language of English. Some tourists may even complain if there are no English-speaking staff to help them. While there are cultural confusions and cock-ups all over the continent, people do generally try and make things easier for you as an English-speaker, and at least understand and giggle when there are no common ways to communicate. If you travel around certain parts of Latin America, however, people will find it strange and perhaps even rude if you don’t know any Spanish. After all, you’re in their country, hoping they might they speak your language?! Our feelings of entitlement as English-speakers simply don’t matter here.
And that can all have several knock-on effects on your experience as a traveller during your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish (even in Brazil you can just about get by with understanding each other in Spanish, and many locals will speak it as an advanced second language in border states). It’s quite normal for tours to only be run in Spanish or Portuguese, for museums not to have any placard translations, and for managers of your accommodation to speak little to no English, depending on how urban the place is.
It is noticeable that the average age of travellers in Latin America is higher than those in Asia, especially South-East Asia which has a sort of a backpacking-for-beginners type vibe in places. Latin America is often seen as a more challenging region for travel, and having seen both we would have to agree in most instances. There is generally a heartwarming effort amongst mid/long-term travellers in Latin America to take the time to learn at least survival Spanish. Just a few friendly phrases can make the difference!
But hope is not lost if you don’t speak Spanish in Latin America!
Don’t let this put you off your travels to this incredible region! there are some places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish that will be easier than others. We want you to have the best experience of this breath-taking region, and sometimes that means not throwing yourself completely in the deep end. Sooooo, we’ll finally reveal the list we’ve put together our recommendations of the best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish.
If you would like any further information on these destinations, check out our country travel guides, or feel free to get in contact with us directly to ask any questions! We also suggest that you check out our post on how to pronounce Spanish place names for when you head out to this part of the world.
The best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish
Having a wonder of the world on your turf comes with great responsibility. And the Peruvians have succeeded in creating tourism infrastructure that can handle the demands of international visitors in their thousands, making it a sure favourite in our list of best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish. Though English isn’t always spoken in places, the strength of their catering to tourism means that it’s harder to go wrong and end up in the middle of nowhere, dressed in a poncho and surrounded by llamas (doesn’t sound that bad, actually). Services such as PeruHop make this even easier.
We see this as Latin America for beginners. While some (ok, I) think it’s compromised its feeling of authenticity, Costa Rica has sort of turned itself into the perfect destination for a short holiday, and therefore one of the best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish. Yes, they charge prices that are expensive enough to make a seasoned travellers’ eyes water, but juuust low enough that a North American or European thinks it’s cheap compared to home, and they play up ‘pura vida’ to get the foreigners excited (the expression ‘pura vida’ comes from a Mexican film in the 1950s, by the way). BUT they’ve invested a huge amount into creating experiences that last a lifetime, and as long as you take pricey shuttles and don’t even attempt to look at public transport routes, you’ll find Costa Rica very easy to navigate as a non-Spanish-speaker.
Don’t miss in Costa Rica: Santa Teresa, Puerto Viejo
Well, this is one of only 2 countries in Latin America with English as an official first language (the other being Guyana which is considerably less safe), so you best make the most of it! Belize is a stunning piece of the heart of Central America, famous for its many islands and otherworldly diving spots. Things are more expensive in Belize, and the country is small, so most people only spend 7-10 days here if they’re budgeting for a longer trip. If for your first time in Latin America you’re really worried that you don’t speak Spanish, combining Belize with an organised tour into Guatemala (Flores/Tikal) or Southern Mexico, such as Tulum could be a good way to beat that anxiety.
Don’t miss in Belize: Cay Caulker (pronounced ‘key corker’) and the Great Blue Hole
In the main tourist areas (Montañita, Quito, Baños, Galapagos Islands) there is actually a fair amount of effort made to try and speak English. Tourism is huge business for Ecuador, and the route that most tourists follow is fairly etched into the map, so the tourism infrastructure in those places tends to be well established. As a bonus, the currency in Ecuador is US dollars, so you don’t have to think too much when buying things 😉
As long as you go in with the right expectations, you don’t have to worry about your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish. New tourism infrastructure is set up every day in each country, with plenty of organised tours, tourism transport routes, English-speaking accommodation, ticket offices, and guides to be found. You don’t have to limit yourself to this list by any means, but we hope that these best places for your first time in Latin America if you don’t speak Spanish can help you if you’re feeling anxious about getting around and feeling safe amidst a language barrier. If you want to consider other countries that are more challenger for a non-Spanish speak, read up on our Latin America country summaries to see which would suit you best.