Updated April 19th, 2021.
What is it like to travel around South America as a black person? Let’s face it, most backpackers come from very similar backgrounds and predominantly, the people we routinely see in hostels are white and usually in their twenties. But what if you don’t fit into that demographic?
Here at South America Backpacker, we want to showcase the experiences of all backpackers and become a travel diary for everybody. In this interview, we catch up with black traveller Nabil who has visited many countries in South America. He gave us the lowdown on what travelling as a black person is really like, as well as sharing some of his highlights from his time in South America.
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How long was your most recent trip to Latin America and what countries did you visit?
Before I go into this, I want to give some context as to why I travelled to South America. At university in 2018, I studied Spanish as one of my electives and took the opportunity to do a Spanish exchange program in Peru. I fell in love with the country, language and of course, the food. After the exchange ended, I visited a friend who lived in Clarmoco, Argentina whom I met while travelling in Spain. I knew after that meeting with him and my trip, I would soon return to the continent.
In early 2019, I was watching a documentary on Cuba (The Cuba Libre Story on Netflix), when I decided I needed to go there. I started talking to a couple of friends in Australia as well as my friend in Argentina, who all recommended I go. They also suggested that I head to carnival in Brazil since it was happening at the same time that I was planning on taking the trip. After some basic research, I worked out my route and purchased flights in and out of Chile. No other plans were set in stone except the plan to enter Brazil from the 19th of February 2020.
My trip spanned from the 25th of December 2019 to the 13th of March 2020. I started in Chile where I caught up with some friends I met in Australia before making my way north via the Atacama desert and into Bolivia. While I had a rough schedule, nothing was booked. From Bolivia, the plan was to go to Ecuador and into Colombia but as anyone who travels will tell you, plans are constantly changing and decisions are made often on a whim or gut feeling.
After around 10 days in Bolivia and after talking to lots of tourists, many said that I needed to spend at least four weeks in Colombia. I decided to skip Ecuador and booked flights directly to Colombia where I would spend around 6 weeks before flying to Brazil for carnival. From Brazil, I would travel by bus to Argentina to visit my friend before flying back to Chile.
Did you travel alone?
Yes, I travelled alone. While I asked a couple of friends to join, they weren’t too interested so I purchased tickets and went solo. I previously travelled through Spain on my own too so it wasn’t my first solo trip. However, during my journey, as many backpackers will attest to, I met some wonderful people who I travelled with. I met a couple of blokes from Wales in Colombia who were also going to Brazil for carnival and we ended up celebrating together as a group. One year on, I stay in touch with many of the great people I met.
What were your trip highlights?
This is a good question and while there were highlights, there were also low-lights that don’t get spoken about.
My highlights would include spending New Year in the Atacama desert, being at the Salar De Uyuni, the mountains in Minca, Colombia and witnessing (and being a part of) carnival in Brazil. As well as these, visiting and staying with my friend in Argentina, seeing the Iguazu Falls, talking to local people, eating local food and travelling through the Valle de Cauca in Salento, Colombia were also highlights. People talk about falling in love with South America and I can see why the continent has so much appeal.
My low-light however, was losing my camera and phone at the start of my three day Salar de Uyuni trip and having to sort out my online banking in a small town at an internet café. Not very fun and extremely stressful! I was also very sick in Bolivia for about a week meaning I missed out on my trip to the Amazon Rainforest!
Were there any countries where you felt vulnerable as a result of the colour of your skin?
So to give some context, as you can see in the photos, I am quite a light-skinned African and I’m aware of the privilege this affords me. I felt a different type of vulnerability during my travels. The issue of racism in South America is a delicate topic and I was stopped randomly by customs and sometimes even the military. Often, I would hide my little Spanish ability and quickly explain I’m an Australian.
However, rather than vulnerable, I felt quite safe. In every country I went to, people either thought I was Brazilian or Colombian and it often meant that I felt like I blended in quite a lot and wasn’t a target. This, combined with my hair being afro-like, meant that I found the locals were shocked when I explained I’m Australian and not from Brazil or Colombia.
Did you experience any racism during your travels?
I don’t recall any experiences of racism, backpackers are generally welcoming and not racist. However, there were definitely times where bouncers or sometimes taxi drivers would treat me differently. Once I established I was an Australian, their reaction changed quite quickly. Maybe I was fortunate, but in general, I didn’t really face much racism.
Did you have any additional safety concerns travelling through South America as a black person?
Apart from the usual safety concerns any backpacker would have, I didn’t have any additional safety concerns. However, as any black person would tell you, your skin colour is always in the back of your mind and how and what you do, can be perceived differently, purely based on your skin colour.
I made sure to stay away from protests and violence and took the general backpacking routes through South America. While I did go off the beaten track, I took your average backpacker safety measures.
Of the countries you visited, which was the most welcoming?
Colombia. One of my favourite memories of my trip was after taking a 16-hour bus from Cartagena to Medellín, I got into a taxi and started talking to the driver. When I mentioned I didn’t have breakfast, he offered me his orange juice and insisted I take his sandwich too. While I politely declined, I learnt very quickly this is the culture of Medellín and Colombia more generally.
Do you think there was more of an expectation for you to be a Spanish/Portuguese speaker because of your skin colour?
Most definitely, many times people started speaking Spanish or Portuguese really quickly before I had the chance to explain that my Spanish is limited and I speak no Portuguese.
How does travelling South America as a black person compare to other places you have travelled in the world?
I’ll be honest, one thing I found strange was that I met only one black backpacker on my entire trip. While I did see black tourists in Cartagena, they were more on luxury holidays than backpacking. I found it very interesting that the majority of backpackers are white European, Asian or white/tanned South Americans. While I have theories, none are based on facts and it would be fallacious to make assumptions.
Did you learn anything about yourself as a result of your travels through South America?
That I can do anything I put my mind to. I learnt that the world isn’t black and white, it’s grey and being able to travel is a privilege I’m forever grateful for.
Do you think the travel industry and websites like ours have a role to play when it comes to skin colour and travel? If so, what?
Good question, I think there’s a role it can play since most of the research and information I found was from the perspective of a non-black person.
As to the what, the only thing I could think of is to have a forum where black people can provide tips and information to other black people about places they have been. For example, in many cities, you are more likely to be searched as a black person by the police or military and maybe it would help to have a note within articles to highlight where that could be.
In saying that, I didn’t witness any racism in hostels (not to say it doesn’t happen) or by travel guides.
What advice would you give to someone from an ethnic minority wanting to backpack South America?
It’s not scary, difficult or expensive. Just go and embrace everything, from the food to the culture to the languages. As someone from an ethnic minority, I realised I shared a lot in common with many indigenous groups throughout the continent. My best experiences came from taking risks, saying yes and living in the moment. Don’t hesitate to go, just go!
Do you have an interesting traveller viewpoint that you want to share? Get in contact with us!