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space universe man

What’s the best way to prepare for a psychedelic experience? When I ask this question, what I mean is: how can one prepare in a way that will maximise the positive benefits of an inner journey; the insights, increased awareness, greater sense of connection and wellbeing, and all those other magical things you’ve probably heard that psychedelics can do.

In this post I will outline some practices and techniques that I believe constitute a preparation that, if undertaken, considerably improves the chances of these benefits.

traveller journey night

Prepare well for the journey, there is a long road ahead.

Preparing the ‘Set’

When it comes to shaping a psychedelic experience, there are two key words: set and setting. Set refers to mindset and setting means the environment. This post is not complete in this regard and will focus on the set; the inner state of the individual. It will focus on preparing the mind.

The practices and techniques covered here are:

  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • The Photo Trip
  • Life Timeline
  • Forming An Intention
  • Clearing

Meditation

Familiarising yourself with mindfulness techniques and developing a meditation practice is always my number one recommendation for a session prep. 

The potential benefit of meditation is twofold. The first is to relieve anxiety and approach the session from a more relaxed place. The second is to practice exploring your thoughts and feelings without avoidance, judgement, or resistance.

meditation

In this second way, meditation can get the psychedelic process going before taking any substances; exploring your inner world and cultivating introspective and reflective states. Getting comfortable facing your thoughts and feelings, including uncomfortable ones, will serve you well, and can be thought of as something of a psychedelic warm up.

With all this in mind, meditation aids one in their ability to follow the ultimate tenet of psychedelic navigation: let go and surrender. This basic rule of thumb follows the observation that difficulties occur in a session when one resists or fights the effects of the psychedelic. Thoughts like ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’ or ‘this isn’t what was supposed to happen, I don’t like this, get me out’, are more problematic than actually going into what we understand as negative feelings; sadness, grief etc. and prevent us from processing something that might’ve been stuffed down. Meditation gives one practice in being with these feelings, allowing them, and all the while, breathing.

Leary Metzner Alpert meditation quote ram dass

Janis Phelps’ referencing Leary & co in her talk at the Breaking Convention conference

If you are new to meditation, you’ll need some basic instruction and guidance to begin. Try finding a group or class near to where you live as some in person guidance with the support of a group is an excellent way to begin.

If that’s not possible there are many resources available online. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Center is a good place to start. Headspace and Waking Up are apps that both have a free run of short guided sessions and are a great introduction. Insight is another that has many guided meditations.

If you have the time and are serious about learning, a silent course is probably the best way to become well versed with meditation quickly. You can find donation based ones with Vipassana all around the world at dhamma.org

dhamma dipa vipassana

If you’d like to read more about psychedelics and meditation, I have written about how they’ve influenced each other on my personal journey, and also on the mutual relationship of the two on the New Moon retreat website.

Journaling

If meditation is difficult for you, try keeping a journal.

Rather than recording what you’ve done each day as one might do in a diary, invite introspection. Focus on your inner world, writing about feelings and thoughts, and include more general reflections and ideas about life. As author and write-letters-to-yourself enthusiast Cal Newport has pointed out, composing thoughts in the structured form demanded by written prose can often help to gain clarity.

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Journaling, like meditation, can help to increase awareness of your perceptions. Though it need not be one or the other, and journaling can be an excellent companion to a meditation practice. Though it’s not necessary to write on a regular schedule, some kind of minimum regularity, say once a week, will probably help to begin the practice.

Alternative Option: Audio Journaling
You might try audio journaling, opening a voice memo app and speaking your mind, if thats easier for you.

The Picture Trip

The ‘picture trip’ is a technique that was employed by a pioneer of psychedelic therapy, Leo Zeff. This description of the method is adapted from the book about Leo and his methods, The Secret Chief Revealed.

To do this exercise you will need to gather some photos before the trip. These photos will form a history of your life.

photos collection

Pictures to Gather:

• Yourself, one at age two and one every two years thereafter through adolescence, up to adulthood.

• Two pictures each of your mother, father and any siblings; one when they were young but you can still remember them, and a recent one.

• Pictures of any other family members that are or were significant in your life.

• A picture of your husband/wife, or any woman or man who has had great significance in your life. Lovers, current or past. If you’re married, wedding pictures.

• If you have children, a picture of them when they were about two years old, and a recent one.

• Any other significant pictures. Any pictures with an emotional charge.

As you go through your photos to find these, spend some time looking through your photo collection. Spend a few moments with each photo, looking at it and seeing what you feel with each one. If any memories or feelings come up, sit with them and see where they go. When you come across a picture for the picture trip, put it aside. Try to do this no further away than a week before the trip, as close to the time of the trip as you can.

secret chief revealed

Leo Zeff was a pioneer in the modern psychedelic therapy movement

As a teaser to convince you of the potential of this method, I’d like to share this quote from Leo found in the book:

‘People will come to me who have already tripped who want to have my particular kind of way of tripping. One of them had tripped at least five hundred times on acid, others who have tripped three, four hundred times, down through the early Sixties, clear up to recent times. You know, plenty of trips their own way […] We talk about it, and [..] so I’d say, “Sure.” They would have their trip on acid. Invariably these people have said, “I’ve never had an acid trip before in my life! This is the first time I’ve ever really had an acid trip.”

Personally, I can also tell you that my first acid trip using this method was the one of the most significant events of my life. So, I can recommend!

Life Timeline

If you aren’t able to collect the photos for the picture trip, you can do the life timeline. The aim is the same, to explore your life story. If you feel up to it, you can do both.

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• Begin with a wide piece of paper, approximately 1 metre in width. At least A3. It’s fine for you to stick or tape together smaller pieces if you don’t have one this size.

• Draw a long horizontal line across the length,.

• Mark your birth on one end and your current age on the other.

• Divide the line into segments which mark every five years of your life.

• Fill the timeline with people, happenings, decisions, events and anything which was significant. Use pictures and symbols, and you can write words, quotes or sentences. Anything which helps you to reconnect with these chapters and what you went through during these times of your life.

As you go through your life, spend some time thinking about and exploring feelings around the significant events. When you’ve finished, spend a few moments with each mark on your timeline, seeing what you feel with each one. As memories or feelings come up, sit with them and see where they go. Try to do this no further away than a week or two before, again ideally as close to the time as you can.

Formulate An Intention

Understanding your intention helps to give clarity and direction for a journey, so its worthwhile to consider.

Set aside some time to yourself and sit down with a journal or pad. At a park or somewhere in nature might appeal to you but anywhere without potential disturbance or distraction is fine.

person nature contemplative

Here are some questions to think about and make notes on.

  • Why are you doing this? What are you seeking?
  • What would it mean for this psychedelic journey to be ‘successful’?
  • Where are you now and where do you want to get, related to your motivation
  • What is working in your life? What isn’t?
  • What are you curious about? What would you like to learn more about?

As the journey approaches, try to have something of a clear intention for your journey. If it is wide ranging and incorporates many areas, try to sum it up so that it can be stated as one precise sentence by the day of the journey.

Some examples of how this might work:

  • “I intend to have a healthy life’ could be a sum of ‘I intend to quit smoking, I want improve my relationship with food, and understand how I can get into a good exercise regime”.
  • “To explore past traumas and to gain insight into my potential’ might be summed up as “To learn about myself”.
  • “To get outside of my mind, to experience a higher dimension, and to go beyond my normal consciousness” might be put together as ‘to explore spirituality’.

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The intention is formulated to plant seeds in your mind and the process of refining it helps to get to the essence of what you are searching for. Though formulating an intention can be powerful, the process of formulating it is as important as the final result. This is to say that it should not to be held on to too tightly during the session. You should be open and able to go with the experience as it unfolds. It is often said about psychedelic experiences that you don’t get what you want but that you get what you need. Clinging too tightly to a specific intention may mean that you miss something that offers insight in other areas, ones that actually are related to your intention, albeit in less obvious ways.

Having a clear intention can also help in that you have a clear motivation and it gives you an answer and some frame of reference for when you might think ‘Why am I doing this?”. This question can come up in difficult times and it can be very useful to have a clear answer ready, to aid you in letting go of resistance and moving in to the experience. In moments of your journey when you would like some direction, your intention can be called to mind.

Clearing

Clearing can be thought of as making space. Space for insight, space for discovery, space for expansion. If you like Chinese proverbs, another way to put this might be: “Empty Your Cup”.

Firstly the basics; clearing the day, the day after, and ideally day before of any obligations. Book them out so you can be offline and effectively disappear from the world.

clear schedule

Next, try to tidy up loose ends in your life to help clear some space in your mind and heart. Stuff that you might’ve been putting off, like difficult conversations and resolving any current difficulties in your relationships. If this isn’t possible, try journaling about it or writing a letter to the person even if you can’t send it to them.

This clearing process should also include physical and practical things, which can be done a little closer to the journey, like cleaning your room, paying overdue bills, sending certain emails and making phone calls you’ve been putting off. Even taking the trash out (a nice symbolic act).

Keep phone use and digital communication to an absolute minimum during the day of the journey, so take care of potential calls and emails in advance. If you think you might want to speak with someone like a close friend or family member soon after, its a good idea to notify them in advance so they will be available and ready for the conversation.

Prepare Well, and Journey Safely

The preparation one takes will significantly influence how a journey plays out and is the groundwork for a transformative experience. Put simply, the influence of a good preparation should not be underestimated. That said, it should not become a gruelling undertaking or huge burden. It should be done with enthusiasm and should help you, rather than stress you. So go, prepare well, and take care!

I wish you well with your preparations and on your journey.

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Did I miss anything? What do you think are the best ways one can prepare for a deep and rewarding journey? Please share in the comments below!

san pedro wachuma cactus powder

My experience of drinking San Pedro in the Sacred Valley was an incredibly powerful, humbling and beautiful experience. I would seriously recommend it to anyone inclined to such experiences. It was a highlight of months of travel in South America and so in the spirit of sharing information, I’ve written this guide to taking San Pedro in Peru.

Interested in experiencing psychedelics in a legal and private setting? Contact me to find out more and set up a discovery call.

What is San Pedro?

San Pedro is a species of psychedelic cactus native to the Andes – scientific name Echinopsis pachanoi. Also known as Wachuma, the cactus contains the psychedelic compound mescaline, also found in the peyote cactus and the source of inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s classic ‘The Doors Of Perception’. The Spanish name San Pedro (Saint Peter) came after the Spanish conquest and refers to the disciple from the bible who holds the key to heaven – the cactus named after him as it’s believed to allow users to reach heaven whilst still on earth.

Echinopsis pachanoi san pedro wachuma cactus

Echinopsis Pachanoi AKA San Pedro

Why in Peru?

If you’re interested in taking San Pedro, Peru is a great country to do it. The cactus has a history of use in Andean traditional medicine going back thousands of years and is a part of the native culture. Like ayahuasca, it is not viewed as a ‘drug’ in the same way that it is in the west, but rather as a plant medicine, an ally, or a teacher. The same stigma doesn’t exist around it as in western countries and this makes it a great place to do it; where it is an honoured and proud part of the culture. For this reason San Pedro is completely legal, and therefore openly and readily available.

Where Can I Buy San Pedro?

calle san pedro cusco

Head to Calle San Pedro

You can find San Pedro in the medicines aisle of Mercado San Pedro, Calle San Pedro in Cusco (San Pedro Market, San Pedro Street – should be fairly easy to remember). It is sold in powder form, after the cactus has been dried and ground. I’m sure there are many others places to get it seeing as it’s legal, but this is where I got it and buying it at the market was as easy as anything. It was very cheap and excellent quality. Just go to the medicines aisle and ask around for San Pedro. You can buy in batches of 33g – one standard dose.
Cost
When I went one standard 33g dose cost 10 soles ($3 / £2)

mercado san pedro cusco

mercado san pedro cusco hierbas medicina

Head to Seccion Hierbas Medicinales

Dosage

1 standard dose is 33 grams. The general advice is to start by taking one dose and if you don’t feel anything after 2 hours, then drink more. If you are going to have a strong trip, typically you will start to feel effects before the two hour mark. Be sensible with your dosage!

san pedro wachuma cactus

Three bagged doses – 33g in each

Serving

One you have the dust, all you need to do is mix it in water and then drink it. No special preparation or boiling needed. It’s bitter as hell and not the easiest thing to get down, but then you weren’t drinking it for the taste were you?

N.B. My advice would be to drink on an empty stomach. This will help with the absorption of the San Pedro into your body, and will also lessen nausea, a common side effect of the cactus.

Pisac

Pisac, a town about one hour from Cusco, has grown into something of a magnet for the hippie/alternative crowd, unsurprising considering the many ayahuasca and San Pedro retreats and ceremonies available there or in surrounding areas. I arrived into town the day before my trip and had passed all sorts of interesting characters and places as I walked through the narrow streets – there’s even an ayahuasca art cafe.

Where and How To Take It?

This is really up to you, but here are a few options as to where and in what manner you take San Pedro. Scroll down for more info on each one.

Option 1: Go to nature
Option 2: Find a guide or facilitator
Option 3: Organise your own gathering / hike / ceremony

Option 1: Go To Nature

This was the option I went for and in many ways the most straightforward. I wanted to be alone and in nature so it was perfect. Peru is abound with incredible nature so finding a place should be easy. Staying in Pisac, I just left town and went out into nature, through woods and by a riverIf you are going alone, pay careful attention to where you are going and be prepared. When deciding where I would go I asked a friend who I was staying with for suggestions. He’d been living in the area a little while and had done some organised Wachuma hikes there. He advised me an area of woods and told me to stay by the river. That was important advice as when heading back the woods were like a maze and appeared identical in all directions. Luckily, I was able to locate myself in relation to the river and follow it back towards town.

What to take?

Basically the normal stuff you’d take for a typical day out – water, shades, suncream etc. Here are some other specifics I’d recommend:

Clothes suitable for heat and cold
On my trip the temperature varied massively depending on the shadow of clouds – it was scorching under direct sunlight, then pretty damn chilly under the shadow of a large passing cloud. I changed clothes, switching between jeans and shorts, putting on and removing layers, a few times throughout the trip. Ideally find a spot in shade.

Something to lie on [e.g. sleeping/yoga mat, sleeping bag, picnic blanket]
During your trip you may well want to lie down. I took a sleeping mat for my trip and certainly made use of it, lying on it for a good 6 hours. You can of course just lie on the ground but I think its nice to have something to lie on. Depending on where you are it may or may not be easy to find a comfortable spot. I highly value physical comfort during a psychedelic experience and think it can make a big difference to the experience itself.

Water & Food 
It may well be the case that you’re not hungry at all, but I think it’s best to be prepared, especially as you’ve just fasted, and also just in case you get lost and it takes you longer than anticipated to make it back. On my trip I took some snacks and ended up not eating anything. I had plenty of energy and was OK to walk into town before I finally ate a meal at a restaurant in the evening – around 24 hours since I’d last eaten, and 12 since drinking the San Pedro. Even then I wasn’t hungry but felt it would be a good idea to eat some nourishing food. Indeed it’s common that people have plenty of energy purely from the cactus.

Anything else is optional and additional. If you are in nature I don’t think there is much you will be left wanting; you will have the trees, the mountains and the sky!

What else you take depends entirely on you and what you would like with you. Here are some suggestions;

Pad & Pen – Personally I like to take a pen and pad with me and wrote a lot throughout my wachuma trip. At times I found writing in it was like talking to a friend, giving me a sense of company.

Music & Headphones/Speaker – I didn’t actually listen to anything but imagine it could be pretty awesome.

Marijuana – The nausea can be quite bad and weed can certainly help this. I smoked one joint as the nausea started to come on, about an hour after drinking, and felt immediately relieved. The nausea came back again a couple hours later – I smoked another small joint, and that was the end of the nausea for the entire trip!

Final note: Drink early
I think it’s a decent idea to make your way back out of nature before sundown – the cold will set in and the dark will make finding your way harder. Drinking early will mean you peak earlier in the day and then be ‘down’ to consensual reality earlier, making the return trip easier. Also I think it’s nice to have the whole day and trip in the sun. Another option would be to camp out in nature.

If you’re not with a friend and don’t fancy being alone, consider options 2 and 3.

Option 2: Find a Guide or Facilitator

There are plenty of guides and facilitators around the town of Pisac offering Wachuma hikes and different types of ceremony. Just google search ‘San Pedro Pisac’, check the facebook group Spirit Events Sacred Valley, or ask around when you arrive to Pisac. There are all kinds of events – from hikes in nature to ceremonies with mantras and sacred songs. If you do this you will be paying a fee and the price will include the san pedro so you don’t need to worry about buying any beforehand – you can just show up and your facilitator will give you the dose. If you go this route you should speak with your facilitator and clear up any queries you may have beforehand – procedure/schedule/dose etc. If you find shamanic or new age ceremonial type things to be a bit cringe or just not to your tastes, a hike would surely be preferable, or…

Option 3: Organise Your Own Gathering / Hike / Ceremony

Another option is finding some others and organising your own ceremony. This is more easy than it sounds. Many travellers’ and spiritual seekers can be found in Pisac and when I was there I met others who were just getting together and doing their own ceremonies (often ‘ceremony’ might be as simple as drinking a cactus mix sat around a campfire). The day after my own experience I was invited by an Argentinian to join a ceremony she was organising with her friends a few days later. Some others were also organising trips to Machu Picchu with a San Pedro stop en route. Needless to say you should feel comfortable with everyone who you plan on doing this with.

Safe Travels!

San Pedro can have powerful effects on the taker so I wouldn’t recommend taking the decision to drink lightly. However, if you do decide to you may well be in for an ineffably beautiful and potentially life-changing experience. I am still awed at what I experienced, and would absolutely drink again when the right opportunity arises. I’d love to hear how your journey with San Pedro is, so if you journey, please share in the comments. Safe travels!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

Tinder

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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

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

10 Day Vipassana meditation courses are available all over the world. This post is intended to give you an idea of what to expect on the course and, if you decide do one, to make the most of your 10 days.  Read more