uruguay flag punta del este
uruguay flag punta del este

Punta Del Este, Uruguay

December 10th 2013. This was the date that the tiny South American nation of Uruguay broke new ground and became the first country in the world to (re) legalize marijuana. Jose Mujica, the leftist now ex-president who pushed the initiative, was hailed as a hero by stoners worldwide, and other countries watched on to see what would happen. As an occasional indulger of the herb and a supporter of legalisation, the country was a must-visit stop on my tour of Latin America. I ended up spending a month in the country and the weed situation wasn’t exactly how I imagined it. So what is it like?


As a tourist you’re not legally allowed to buy cannabis. That right is reserved for Uruguayan nationals and residents. Still, must be dead easy to pick up in a country where it’s legal right? Not so fast. Because of the incredibly slow rate at which the state is sorting out ‘government cannabis’, buying from licensed sellers isn’t an option because, to date, there aren’t any. This means no dispensaries, coffee shops, pharmacies, or any official outlet where one can go to legally buy cannabis. Sorry to shatter your weed-utopia dreams. Effectively, Uruguayans have to grow their own cannabis if they want to smoke it legally, or be given some by a friend. It’s not even legal for growers to sell their herb as their cultivation hasn’t been overseen to match government regulations. I know, not quite how I imagined the first country in the world to legalize cannabis either.

Update July 2017: Pharmacies in Uruguay started selling marijuana on 19th July. You can read more about it at these links:
Long Lines, $1.30 Grams Mark Uruguay’s Legal Cannabis Debut – Leafly
Uruguay, First Country in the World to Legally Regulate Marijuana, Begins Retail Sales Today – Drug Policy Alliance

montevideo coast uruguay

Montevideo, the country’s capital

With that said, you’ll have to buy weed illegally from a home grower. Yes, still black market! This makes finding weed a little more difficult than you might’ve expected, but not that difficult. Asking around in hostels will likely find you some leads, but its certainly not guaranteed – a friend and I had a few fruitless days searching in Punta Del Este, luckily the remains of his stash held us over until the day we found more – by a stroke of luck, meeting a local on the street. The herb found me on more than one occasion, but usually as being invited to smoke with others rather than as an opportunity to top up my personal stash.


Because you’re buying on the black market there is no official price and how much you pay will vary. Uruguay is not a cheap country in general and the price of the weed reflects this. Typically you’ll pay more in tourist areas, at the upper end expect to pay the equivalent of UK prices – £6 / $7.50 per gram. The price can drop down to about half that, and if you’re lucky you may well be gifted some by a proud grower or just some friendly dude, as I was on a couple of occasions.

uruguay punta del este joint

Enjoying a J on a fisherman’s pier, Punta Del Este.

Tourists can expect to pay more so if you have a Uruguayan buddy who can buy for you, you’ll almost certainly get a better rate. This happened to me in Cabo Polonio; I first bought some at the equivalent of UK prices then later befriended a local who went to the exact same guy, paid a bit less cash, and got a bit more green.


Because of the non-existence of official sellers, you won’t find the choice of herb or product that you would in other locations with progressive laws. Menus of strains like Amsterdam? Forget it. Choice of edibles like in Colorado? No such luck. It’s pretty much as it would be anywhere it’s illegal – you can’t be picky, you will get what you are given – if it’s weed it’s weed, and you can buy it or not.


This is where Uruguay comes into its own and all the troubles of obtaining the herb are forgiven. As the only illegal bit is the exchange of cash, once you’ve obtained your weed, you’re golden. The shady part of buying is over and you can smoke it anywhere you like. There are no coffee shops or designated chill spaces but really they aren’t necessary because aside from enclosed public spaces (bars, restaurants, offices etc.), you can smoke anywhere you like. Yes, anywhere. With its beach lined coast Uruguay has no shortage of great spots to stop and melt into a stoned haze. Tucked between Brasil and Argentina, the country has a large musical influence from both and weed-infused local drum or music jam nights provide a great atmosphere to get dazed.

Atmosphere & Culture

Smoking freely on the street

Weed is no big deal in Uruguay. It was as novel as it was refreshing to see workers lighting up and sharing a joint with a tea on their break – just as one might see workers on a ciggie break. Noone, besides myself, batted an eyelid. While waiting for a bus at the Montevideo terminal, a middle aged lady came and asked me for a light before smoking her joint nonchalantly in front of, amongst everyone else, security guards. Of course, in terms of where you can and can’t legally smoke, weed and tobacco are the same thing. To me, the scene was peculiar, smoking so casually and carefree in a public space was an alien concept; the dodginess of smoking or carrying weed has been so deeply ingrained in me. I’ve lost count of the amount of sneaky or covert joints I’ve smoked; retreating to rooftops, leaning awkwardly out of bathroom windows, scanning parks for potential sources of trouble. Really though, there should be nothing strange about it; I know too well by now that tobacco and alcohol are far more dangerous than weed, but because of my cultural programming the sight was a novelty. The novelty extended to when I finally had my own weed and was free to smoke without worries. I can’t understate how liberating this was and the novelty didn’t wear off during my month in the country.

The Myth Of Legalising Weed

The notion that everyone will start smoking and the population will become lazy was shattered on my trip to Uruguay. In fact, I was surprised by how few locals smoked during my visit. I guess its like how alcohol is treated in France and other European countries; once the repression and stigma are removed, so is the urge for abuse – it’s no longer a big deal, or ‘cool’ because it’s illegal, it’s just a choice people can make for themselves. I’m not saying there are no potential dangers to smoking weed and that no Uruguayan potheads exist, but it doesn’t seem that criminalizing the drug does any good to minimize them. Legalization bit over, you know my stance.


The situation around obtaining weed makes Uruguay far from the stoner’s utopia. That being said, I can’t understate how nice it was to be smoking out and about without looking over my shoulder or some paranoia creeping in. My buddies and I continually used the phrase ‘sin prisa’ to describe our experience of life in Uruguay. It means ‘without hurry’, because when we were cycling around and stopping off for joints, that’s exactly how we felt; totally relaxed and without haste. There was no sneaking down quiet alleys or rush to ‘burn the evidence’, and to me, that’s exactly how weed should be enjoyed; in the moment and savoured. (And as a medicine for those that desperately need it too of course!) And that is why the experience of smoking in Uruguay was unique, in the best way.

san jose del pacifico sunset mexico

One year ago today I arrived in Rio De Janeiro to begin my exploration of the Americas. One year on and I’m still travelling, writing this as I sit sipping my morning coffee from the Caribbean Island of Caye Caulker in Belize, considering how lucky I am.

rio de janeiro view ipanema beach

First stop: Rio one year ago

They say that as you get older each year passes more quickly than the last. Well, thats just not been true for me; looking back over the last year I can hardly believe how much I’ve seen and experienced in just 365 days. I’ve partied ridiculously at Carnaval, hitchiked to Patagonia, trekked the Amazon rainforest, been to the Mexican desert in search of Peyote… I could go on. Let’s just say it’s been an epic and life-affirming year that’s been full of incredible experiences. It has opened my eyes to so much, and not only the sights I’ve been seeing and the cultures I’ve been exploring, but also in ways of living and the choices we have in life. One revelation I want to share with the world: being stuck in an unfulfilling job with a few weeks vacation each year IS NOT THE ONLY WAY. You have a choice. If you’ve ever dreamt of doing something similar – long term travel or an extended adventure- I’m here to tell you it’s more than possible. And not only is it possible, it’s awesome.

san jose del pacifico sunset mexico

San Jose Del Pacifico, Mexico -where I spent New Years and one of my all time favourite stops

One Life-Affirming Year

Over the last year I’ve had moments where I’ve felt so content and fulfilled that I’ve looked back over my entire life and felt totally content with every decision that I’ve ever made, because they led me to where I am – and I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. It’s felt like everything I’ve been through, including every struggle and low, has been worth it. And for that, I have no regrets.

Now I want to ask you, how many times in the last year have you thought to yourself:

‘Life is truly amazing. The world is incredible and full of beauty. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be and nothing else I’d rather be doing’

It’s a pretty awesome feeling. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve thought this. I want to share with you that this feeling doesn’t have to be rare and elusive. It comes as a frequent and welcome visitor when you’re living a life that you want to live.

Now I won’t pretend that I haven’t had my low points- I certainly have – but when they come I’ve been able to console myself with the fact that I’m living a life true to myself and accept the hard times as a part of that. When I’m missing my bros back home or just going through a rough patch, I can see that its just a part of how I’m choosing to live my life – I can own it and have no resentments. And when the storm passes, as it always does, I can again easily realise how incredibly lucky I am.

bolivia national park uyuni tour

Another of countless beautiful places I’ve visited – Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, Bolivia.

Your Life Is Passing You By

Worth reminding yourself of this, regularly. Time is ticking. I’m sure you have dreams. I’m sure you have things you want to experience. I’m sure there are adventures you’d like to embark upon. If you’re not in some way working towards those dreams, start today! Do not let your dreams gather dust or they’ll be lost in the attic of unfulfilled desires forever. Those things you want to do aren’t going to come and find you, you must take ownership of your life and think about how you can make them a reality. In the last year I’ve lived and fulfilled two dreams of my own; to explore Latin America and to learn a second language.  If you’ve dreamt of travel and exploring the world then I have some good news for you – this is becoming easier and easier.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
– Hunter S Thompson

When you come to the end and look back on your life, do you want to have regrets about a life dictated by fear? Or do you want to be able to say ‘Damn, what a trip!’.

I think we both have the same answer.

If you are now feeling excitement or inspiration, then awesome, that’s what I was aiming for. Now, stop waiting, start planning!

If you want to know more about how I’ve been travelling for so long check out My Ultimate Guide To Budget Long-Term Travel. I’ll be writing more about travel soon – including how to stay sane during what can be at times an exhausting, lonely or overwhelming experience.

I’m off for a swim in the sea, have a great day!

London England Shanghai Pudong

When I left the UK in 2012 to go and live and work as an expat in Shanghai I obviously expected to learn a bit about China and its culture, but what I didn’t foresee from the experience of living away was how I would learn about the country and culture I grew up in; England.

London England Shanghai Pudong

A buddy in London – another in Shanghai

I lived over a year in Shanghai, went onto South Korea, and after three years of living away I returned to my hometown. The day I returned I took the family dog out for a walk, a walk I’d taken a thousand times before, but there was an obvious difference this time – it was fascinating. I saw my neighbourhood and its streets and people with new eyes. What used to be a typically mundane walk to the park had become an opportunity for insight into the lives of English people. I felt like a tourist. The variety of nationalities astounded me after the homogeneous populations of China and Korea, and I marvelled at the narrowly paved streets lined with houses and the traditional public house on the corner – how English! Sound boring? Well, it was for me too, that’s why I left! But on returning home everything was fresh and inspiring and I realised how much better I actually knew my country than when I had left a few years earlier.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot 

Dog Leamington Spa England

Walking the dog – different this time

Gaining A New Perspective

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
– Marshall McLuhan

Arriving in China I was struck by the obvious differences from English society; language, mainstream culture, education, architecture, social norms, food, transport – and naturally compared everything to how it was back home. I had a new reference point for all of the things that’d made up and influenced my life in England but which I’d never had any real perspective on because I’d never lived anywhere else. I discussed the differences with other expats and came to a new appreciation of different aspects of my home country whilst discovering and exploring the wonders of my new life and home in the East.

Living with the internet restrictions of Chinese society (no youtube, facebook etc.) gave me a gauge on the cyber liberty of the UK, and living under their dictatorial regime – where speaking out as a dissident and protesting are dangerous acts to be involved in – gave me a benchmark with which to compare the freedom of expression my friends and family could enjoy back home. Leaving my country had enabled me to see it in a new way.

❝Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.❞
‒ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

New perspectives can totally reshape what has become mundane, boring or even invisible. After learning how to read and write Hangul – the entirely phonetic, syllabic and incredibly easy to learn alphabet of Korea (seriously, you can learn it in a day) – I realised how poorly designed English is as a written language. Indeed, Hangul was designed to be easy – it was created by King Sejong in 1443 in an effort to increase literacy rates and to lessen the power and wealth gap.

Hangul Korean alphabet

A couple of words in Hangul – it’s easier than it looks

By comparison, English is a clunky mongrel language – spelling, pronunciation and usage have evolved and mutated in as many and as varied ways as the places our words came from. Whilst I could easily have learnt this information without ever leaving England, the necessity of learning other languages forced these considerations into my consciousness and gave me an experiential appreciation of what would’ve been purely theoretical knowledge.

There Is No End To Discovery

Language is just one example and there is seemingly no end to the new insights one can gain by delving into another culture. After three years in the far East I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface, yet had still found countless new perspectives on all manner of things that I’d never really considered back home; from greetings; handshakes vs. bows, to social outlooks; individualism vs. collectivism.

Renewed Interest Through Others’ Interest

Buckingham palace London

Turns out the UK is an interesting place

Wanting to learn about whichever land I find myself, I ask locals their opinions and thoughts on their country. “What are the best things about your country?” is a common one I like to ask. Asking others about their homeland invites questions about your own and when I first started having my questions mirrored back to me it triggered my own interest as their curiosity of my country rubbed off on me. Trying to explain life and aspects of the UK to someone who’d only seen it in films was like an exercise in expressing thoughts and feelings on things which I hadn’t really considered. Like most people I enjoy sharing information – we all know the nice feeling when someone asks you about something that you know a lot about – and I wanted to know more, not only to be able to answer other people’s questions but to know for myself. With new insight into how culture affects people, it also made me learn about myself and how I’ve been shaped by English culture.

International Impressions – First Hand

These conversations with people of other nationalities changed the way I think about my own country in another way too – in its worldwide perception and reputation. Interestingly I found out that mention of England in the East commonly summons pictures of fish & chips, double-decker buses and red phone boxes. I also found it interesting that England is considered a very advanced and modern country, despite being way behind the East in many things like technology, transportation and rates of violent crime.

Metro in Tokyo

Metro in Tokyo – Japan is the future

I’m currently writing this as I travel Latin America, and during my 7 months in South America this year I’ve found that people here associate us with tea (of course), the old empire, the musical legacy of the 60s & 70s (I found that Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and our other greats are probably listened to more in the continent of South America than at home- I’ve lost count of the times people have told me ‘I love the music from your country’), and specifically in Argentina, the Falkland Islands and Maradona’s hand of god in ’86 – which is seen as a powerful and symbolic act of rebellion against the tyrannical empires of Europe. I previously had little idea about these international impressions and connections with of the piece of land on which I spent the first 23 years of my life.

Coming Home: Seeing With New Eyes & Appreciating the Culture That Made Me

When I left England it was the only culture I’d lived and been immersed in. I’d never been outside the country for more than a month and had never worked, studied, or lived anything like the ‘typical’ life of a citizen in any of the countries I’d visited. So when I arrived in China, everything was measured up against home – it was the only first hand reference point that I had. By the time I’d arrived in Korea, China had become another reference point. Everything new and novel about Korea was now also measured up against China. After Korea I visited Taiwan and then spent a month in Japan – and of course comparisons were then made to China and Korea. By the time I was heading back home I was thinking less about how places compared to England, but more about the finer differences between the different cultures of the far East. Because of these experiences I had new perspectives, and when I finally made it back to England it was a different country to the one that I’d left.

Street in Sheffield England UK

Typical street scene – not as typical on my return

You’ve probably heard the term ‘reverse-culture shock’, but I’m not referring to that, what I experienced didn’t induce any stress, only an enchantment with my country and culture. I saw things differently and noticed quirks in my home culture that I’d never thought twice of before. Far from becoming anti-patriotic, I became endeared with the culture that shaped me.

I remember going to a rugby game with my Dad over the Christmas holidays. Gloucester were playing, his hometown team. After a pub meal in the centre we walked through the crowds of fans filling the streets of the city surrounding the stadium. As we entered the songs started up. I’d been to countless rugby games in the past with my family but this time was different. The atmosphere bubbling as everyone was singing the two-tone refrain in the west-country farmery accent of ‘Glaaaawsteeeer, Glaaaaaawsteeer’. It struck me for the first time how quirky the experience of going to a local rugby match is. Looking through the crowd I saw all the peculiar characters you find there; the old-school fans with beers in hand to young kids in cherry and white scarves being initiated into the community. What used to be a simple enough activity for spending time with my Dad had become a fascinating cultural spectacle. After spending years where practically noone plays, watches, or talks about the sport, the novelty of hulking athletes throwing a ball around and smashing each other whilst cheering locals surrounded them was again a captivating spectacle.

Playing rugby

Playing rugby as a boy – the quirks of the sport never really occurred to me

Now when on visits to see my friends and the favourite Earl Grey tea is served with milk and biscuits, it’s not just another cup of tea and a chance to sit down and catchup – it feels so charming and typically British.

And this happens all the time, I see the things we do and how we do them in a totally new light. It stretches to everything; art, politics, interaction, humour (yet to find somewhere that tops our humour, and is probably the thing I miss most when I go away!).

Looking Back

I never expected to learn about and reflect on my home culture so much when I decided to leave home, and I certainly never expected it to transform my boring old home town into a place of wonder. But what can I say? It did. As I write from Mexico a good few months from my next return home, I look forward to the cup of tea and Sunday roast that await me. If you’re on the fence about making a leap to live overseas because you’re worried you’ll miss things from home, I can’t promise that you won’t. But I can tell you that it’s an amazing journey of discovery that can change your experience of your homeland in a truly positive way. Nothing is quite like home, and I can tell you, it’ll never be the same again.


If you’re planning a trip to Mexico or Central or South America, the first piece of advice I would give you is: learn Spanish! Unlike travelling a region like South-East Asia where every country has its own language making almost everything you might’ve picked up useless every time you cross a border, almost the whole of Latin America (nearly 20 countries) has Spanish in common. Speaking the local language is incredibly useful anywhere but the fact that in Latin America you can continue using it and building on your previous progress as you pass from country to country should only fuel your motivation.

‘Sure, speaking Spanish would be great, but it’s hard work and will cost me money. Can’t I just get by with English?’. Learning needn’t be a costly chore on your trip; you can do it in fun ways, totally independently and for FREE.

Admittedly you could survive on English, but here’s why you really shouldn’t…

Day-to-Day Convenience

Fairly obvious but it seems to go over many traveller’s heads. Want to ask the price of something? Directions? Where to get the bus? With Spanish you can, without you’ll have to mime your way there and occasionally be typecast as an ignorant disrespectful gringo (which admittedly will still happen even if you do speak Spanish, but it’ll certainly lessen the odds).

Going Beyond Convenience… When The Fun Begins

❝The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.❞
‒ Ludwig Wittgenstein

Imagine a foreigner going on a trip to the UK or US and not speaking English. Sure they could snap pictures of Big Ben or the Statue of Liberty, but their experience of the country outside of taking selfies at famous landmarks and getting drunk with other travellers who share their language would be extremely limited. This is being a tourist, which, by-the-way, I have nothing against – it’s pretty fun actually – but if you’re planning on being in Latin America for a while and want a more authentic experience of the place, learning the language is the best place to start, and totally worth it.

Going Deeper Into The Culture

❝Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.❞
‒ Rita Mae Brown

Speak to the Man on the Street: Hear the Voice of the People

English is widespread worldwide but in Latin America, like many places elsewhere, learning English is a privelege and mainly limited to those with money; the middle classes and above. Without Spanish, conversations with locals will be restricted to those from a certain economic background (and even then to the percentage within that stratum who can speak English). Finding a fluent English speaker from a working class background would be a very impressive feat, from poverty, closer to a miracle. When talking about anything from the history or politics of the country to the local neighbourhood, the information and opinions you get – which will inform your impression and perception of the place and its people – will be skewed and unbalanced because you’re missing the voice of a huge part of the population. In a poorer country like Bolivia, where 60% of the population live below the national poverty line and almost no one speaks English, it’d be impossible to get a balanced view of what Bolivians as a whole feel about their country.


Protestors during Obama’s visit to BA this year

In Buenos Aires Spanish allowed me to ask protesters at the Plaza De Mayo about their indignation against President Macri, in Bolivia it enabled me to understand my hairdresser as she told me about her enormous family (1 of 18 siblings!) and their hairdressing lineage, about how her father cut the ex-president’s hair, and their migration from the countryside to the whitewashed capital of Sucre. Anywhere you go it will allow you to speak to the man on the street, literally and figuratively.

People & Conversation

This isn’t only the case with locals; on your travels you’ll encounter countless people and other travellers from other parts of Latin America and Spain who also don’t speak English, and why should they? They already speak the language of the land, and if you do too the number of potential friendships and human connections you can make will multiply massively.

sole musician (2).jpg

More than just the information and insight you’ll gain, oftentimes the conversations will be unique experiences in themselves; like the crazy porteño in Cordoba who was constantly trying to usher me to the bar with him to guzzle more fernet, or the wizened Peruvian anthropologist who enlightened me on the multitude of tribes in the Amazon. ‘But I want to DO and SEE things when I’m travelling, not just talk to people’. Well, the conversations that you’ll be able to have will also open you up to…

More Experiences


Hitchhiking to Patagonia

Beyond conversation, being able to speak to more people will also open you up to more experiences. If I’d lacked Spanish, would I have been invited by a Bolivian woman I met on the bus to go and stay at her home on the edge of the rainforest? Obviously not because the conversation would never have started. Could I have hitchhiked to Patagonia with an Argentinian buddy to stay with her family friends for a couple of weeks? Understood the dedication made to me on local Chilean radio? Been invited to the weed-infused drum night in Punta Del Diablo? The fleeting romance with the local girl from Asuncion? I’d have missed out on all of these experiences because Spanish opened the door.

Tourist Activities

Tourism is under-developed in a lot of areas which is typically a nice thing as it means less crowds. It also means there are plenty of museums without English object labels or placards and tour companies that only employ Spanish-speaking guides. You’ll have more choice not only of things to do, but in ways you can do them too.


Weathering the winds on an alternate Salt Flats Tour

Fulfilling my tourist agenda and booking a place on a tour to the Salt Flats of Bolivia, I was able to choose an alternate route which meant seeing a wider variety of natural wonders, gentler progression to the higher altitudes – which also meant a warmer first night in the desert chill – and a better price. This was because the only company that offered this version of the tour didn’t have English-speaking guides. Employing bi-lingual staff raises costs for a company and the cost to the consumer – you – goes up with it.

Negotiation & Escaping Tourist Tax

You’ll get a better deal on most things because you can barter and negotiate prices and conditions for anything from taxis to rooms to tours. Also, anywhere that has English-speaking staff is likely to be after tourists which invariably means worse value for money; tourists always pay more than locals – it’s tourist tax.

mexican food.jpg

Delicious Mexican Food in Oaxaca. Photo by Zoe Kerslake

When going out to eat you’ll have more choice as you won’t be limited to restaurants with English speaking staff, picture menus or ordering one of the two local dishes that you already know. I like to ask locals or waiters for recommendations of dishes specific to the area; the culinary variety is staggering and I’ve tried local specialities that I didn’t even know existed nor can be found in any guidebook. A few times I’ve had people want to go to dinner with me so that I can talk them through the menu; going on their own they’d just pick something they recognised or knew was a safe bet, missing out on what might be the most delicious discovery they’ve made in months.

Finally… it’s a Great Chance to Learn a Foreign Language

Learning a language is a trip. If you haven’t yet learnt a second language then you are going into an amazing journey of discovery which will not only improve your memory and increase your brain size, but it’ll also change how you think and see the world. What’s more, language acts a bridge that allows you to go to previously inaccessible places. More than 410 million people speak Spanish as their native language, more than English, that’s 410 million doors you are opening. Spending time in Latin America will give you the magic ingredient in learning a language: immersion! You will continuously have the chance to learn, why not take it?

How? See How To Learn Spanish Whilst Travelling Latin America (For Free)

Still not convinced? Check out these 10 Inspirational Quotes for Language Learners at Voxy Blog


If you’re planning a trip to Latin or South America and don’t yet speak any Spanish, now is the time to learn. On a basic level it will make your day to day life much more stress free and you won’t have to play charades every time you go to the shop. If you speak a little but want to improve, this is the perfect opportunity. Going beyond the basics is when the real fun begins and you can start conversing with people and entering their world. Either way, this post is for you.

I’ve met so many people travelling here that wish they’d spoke more or any Spanish, and hope to just ‘pick some up’ as they go. Beyond a few survival phrases and swear words, it doesn’t work. Before I came I’d decided that I wanted to learn, and not feeling naturally gifted with languages (C in high school Spanish), thought about how I could learn before I set off. In 6 months, I’ve gone from competently buying food in a shop to discussing American politics with Mexicans over a beer: using all the techniques that are listed below. Travelling in Latin America might be the best opportunity of your life to learn Spanish, here’s how you can do it without spending a dime…

Hit the Ground Running

Landing in the continent with a few basics and survival phrases will not only help you massively but also enable you to start using the language from day one. Learn some vocab before and fix in habits that you will use on your journey before you leave; this way you can get a headstart and establish some kind of a learning rhythm. What habits? Read on…

Keep a Daily Diario

I advise this to everyone wanting to learn. Even if you have been hanging around English speaking people all day you can get some practice by yourself. Writing a short passage about what you did each day only takes about 15 minutes but you get practice constructing sentences in a zero-pressure situation and they will come out much easier when you come to say them in conversation. If you don’t know a word you can look it up on google translate; a chance that you wouldn’t be afforded when chatting to someone without the inconvenience of halting the conversation.


Memories of Uruguay

If you find yourself without internet, underline an empty space for the word with the English beside and fill it in later. You can also choose the tense you write in; start writing in the present, then move on to writing everything in the past. Later, you can start planning things and writing in the future tense. Occasionally asking a native speaker to read an entry and correct it will help you from falling into the trap of making the same mistakes over and over. People are easy to find, if you have a diary, others are nearly always curious to read. Doing this you’ll also keep a diary of your travels that you can read back in years to come – two birds, one stone.

Start Every Conversation in Spanish

When you meet anyone new, open the conversation in Spanish. The language you start in sets the precedent for the rest of your conversation with that person and potentially all of your interactions with them. You have a chance to practice all your basic phrases and small talk: your name, where you’re from, your travels plans etc., and as you learn more and more, your conversations will become longer, more detailed and more interesting. If they don’t speak Spanish, you have lost nothing. One time in Uruguay I was chatting to a guy for 10 minutes in Spanish before we found out that he was from South Africa and myself from England. We laughed and switched to English, but we both got speaking practice that we wouldn’t have if I’d greeted him with a ‘hey, how’s it going?’. Moreover, in the beginning it can be easier to get speaking practice with other non-native speakers who are also learning as they will speak more slowly, use basic words instead of slang, and be understanding of your mistakes and crappy accent. Take every opportunity to speak and with every encounter, however brief it may be, you will be clocking up practice time.

Make Notas

Get a pocket-sized notebook and pen and take it everywhere with you. EVERYWHERE. When you overhear a word or phrase in conversation that you don’t know, write it down immediately. Later ask a local what it means and then write down the English. You can go over the words in your free time – walking to the shop, with your morning coffee – and then start using them yourself. My vocabulary exploded doing this and I learnt words that I knew local people actually used.


My trusty tattered notebook

At the start of my travel I was a total outsider in so many group conversations. Argentinians, Colombians and Spanish all bantered and chatted with each other whilst I was sat with them barely understanding a thing. But I sat listening, writing, and learning. With time I understood more and more, could join in more and more, and by the time I got to Argentina (after 3 months in the continent) was holding my own in discussions about the Falklands (touchy subject – be careful with it if you’re British!).

Ask Locals

Many locals will be impressed if you speak any Spanish and if they know that you’re learning will be delighted to help you out. Throughout my journey I’ve had a string of teachers; every day is a chance to learn something new and everywhere you go there are people who can help you. During extended stays in Argentina and Mexico I’ve had porteños and chilangos proudly versing me in the local slang and received help with new words and pronunciation everywhere I’ve been.

Avoid Your Compatriots! (…Or Travel Alone)

When you are hanging out with English-speakers; you’re gonna speak in English. When you hang out with people that speak only Spanish; you will be forced to speak Spanish. Fairly obvious, but I meet a lot of people who spend their whole time hanging out with other travellers and then tell me that they wish they knew more Spanish (‘didn’t realise how useful it would be’ …duh).

At various points of my trip, anytime I spotted foreigners or overheard English being spoken, I headed in the other direction and went to find Latin Americans. Result of this; more practice and a better insight into the culture. I didn’t come all the way out here to meet other English people; I wanted to learn about the people of the place: their language, their food, their lives – you’re going to get a much deeper and more authentic experience of the country you’re visiting if you’re doing this. If you miss speaking in your mother tongue or a slice of home, just skype someone or find another traveller – if I had to actively avoid them then they can’t be too hard to find.

Volunteer or do a Work Exchange

Find a work exchange on workaway or helpx, or just ask around when you arrive in a new area. You can usually get an idea from a host’s profile which languages they speak and use. Tell them you speak a little Spanish (even if you don’t – then you will have to learn) and are eager to practice and improve.

workawayWorking with people in Spanish forces you to use it. I worked in a hostel for a month in Cordoba and needed to use Spanish to check people in, sell beers and answer the phone. I wasn’t too keen on phone calls, the lack of the use of my hands to mime or draw myself out of tight spots worried me but the job required it and eventually I got comfortable taking calls. By working as a volunteer you will be surrounded by the language and making local friends too.

Use CS for Language Exchanges and Meeting Locals


Couchsurfing isn’t just for staying with people, lots of people use it for meetups too. Find your location and start a thread in the discussions section saying you are searching for a language exchange – your English for someone else’s Spanish. English from a native speaker is sought after in nearly every corner of the world and I have always had numerous responses and a handful of options in every city that I’ve done this. Before you meet you can arrange how you’d like to do it; you can bring a sheet with any questions you have and some phrases you want to learn, or you can just chat casually and have some conversation practice. Post in a city’s discussion forum before you arrive and organise to meet up on your first day in the city. Aswell as your language lesson you will invariably get some handy local knowledge too.

  • Alternatively, in many cities, there are weekly language exchange meetups that are open to anyone. Have a look through and go along if you don’t want a one-on-one appointment.



tindbetHave a bio in Spanish, message them in Spanish, then go on a date! To start with you can meet up with locals who speak a bit of English too, and in a few months you won’t be limited by your language skills. If you like them you’re gonna have serious motivation to learn more, and if you end up with a romance or a boy/girlfriend, well, your learning curve will steepen dramatically.

Use Language Apps

[Set your phone and facebook to Spanish – you’ll pick up some useful vocab]

Duo lingo

duolingoEveryone knows about duolingo now so all I need to say is; use it! I’ve met so many travellers who have it on their phone but don’t use it. Set a daily goal on the app and build up a run of days. It isn’t time consuming, meeting your target can be 5 minutes a day. Install it, use it, it works!


memrise-smallerAnother very useful app, Memrise has fun ways to learn vocab which actually work. There is a course with the 250 most common Spanish verbs – massively recommend it. This is the backbone of the language and these verbs will be used in at least 80% of your interactions. When you learn how to change a verb depending on its tense, having these 250 verbs will begin to open you up to exploring deeper topics of conversation.

Listen to a Podcast

Download a free podcast and listen to it when you can (read: regularly). Coffee Break Spanish has a free podcast course that I’ve learnt a lot from. Each episode is like a lesson and only 15-20 minutes. It starts with the basics and goes on to more advanced things. If you already have a bit of Spanish you can quickly find your level and jump in on an appropriate episode, after the basics they have another course for intermediate level.img_2915
Always carry unlistened episodes downloaded on your phone so they are ready to go and you’re not reliant on internet connection or phone signal. I used to listen to them on long bus journeys and as I was going to sleep; all I needed was my phone and my headphones. I relistened to episodes to catch what I’d missed or revise things.

Supplement with Films…

Watch classic films from the place you’re visiting. Listen carefully for words you know, it feels great to catch newly learnt words and phrases. Whilst getting a feeling for the accent, you’ll see films set in places you’ve visited and hear characters talk about the history and politics of the place. Also, watch films in English with Spanish subtitles, this will train your reading and writing skills too. A hostel in Asuncion I stayed in always had the movie channel on in the lounge – American films with Spanish subtitles. I would sit with my notebook and pen and write down little phrases that were funny or useful – many of them I still use today.

…and Music

Get recommendations of music from the country and when you find something you like, get it on your phone. Learn the words to a few of your favourite songs and you will see your level rise (starting with rap might be tricky but if you can rap a song to speed you’ll impressive any native). Staying with proud Argentinians in Buenos Aires, I was taught all about their fathers of rock: Spinetta, Cerati, Garcia. One of them sat down with me and went through the lyrics of a Spinetta song that I liked, line by line, explaining words I didn’t know and the meanings in the expressions; I realised that Spinetta was a poet as well as a musical genius and listened to his masterpiece album Artaud so many times that I started singing the words and understanding the songs.

Keep Trucking

So this one isn’t especially concerned with being on the road or in Latin America but I think it’s so fundamental to learning anything that I decided to include it anyway. Sometimes your progress will be great, you will feel good about learning, be using more and more Spanish and feel like you’re going to be fluent in no time. Other times it will be tough, you might have moved to a new place with a totally new accent or spending all your time with speakers of other languages. Your progress will slow but if you’re still writing your diary, catching new words when you can and taking opportunities as they arise: you’ll still be going in the right direction. As they say out here: paso a paso – step by step.

Best Of Luck!

To my mind, having taught English for the last 4 years, the winning combination for effectively learning a language can be simplified as:

(Immersion + Practice) x learning smart

Being in Latin America and surrounded by the language is immersion and presents ample opportunity for practice, and how you learn is up to you. This post has all the techniques that I’ve used and have worked for me. Find which of these work for you and adapt your own. Work diligently, patiently and persistently, day-by-day, hop back on the horse after you’ve been slacking for a bit, and you will be bantering with the guy at the corner store and haggling like a pro before you know it. If you have any extra tips that have worked for you, please leave a comment below.
Buena suerte!

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A Final Note: Going Further…

For the sake of brevity this post was primarily concerned with ways that are focused on learning Spanish while you are travelling in Latin America, based on techniques that have worked for me. Of course it’s possible to learn in your home country and there are loads of other techniques out there (like mentally saying to yourself what you are doing as you do it throughout the day; ‘Estoy caminando a la tienda’ – I’m walking to the shop), but if you are wanting to really hit the next level I’d advise doing a little investigation into more techniques and the process of learning itself; there are tips and tricks to hack your learning experience and make your learning more efficient, helping you to learn more in less time. Here are a couple links to get you started:

12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time – Benny Lewis

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months – Tim Ferriss