Wayfinding in South America

Part of the trouble with traveling is that you find yourself in a completely unfamiliar city every 3 or 4 days, and you have to figure things out all over again. To make it even harder, South American cities tend to use a lot of the same street names, but each city puts them in a new order. Did Rivadavia come before or after Bolívar here? Step one is always to ask for a map.

More than likely, you will find occasion to ask directions on the street. At first, you think you’ve had the greatest luck, the very first person you ask knows what your talking about! But after following their directions, you realize that they lied. People here just want to be nice. I can count on one hand the number of people who have responded “I don’t know” when asked for directions. Whether they know what your talking about or not, chances are you will receive a confusingly vague response. Your destination will lie a la vuelta, which could be translated to roughly “around the block.” Around the block literally, or around the block and then five more blocks?! It’s hard to tell.

So what do you do it you’re lost on the street and you can’t trust the directions you’re receiving? A tour guide in Medellín told us that his mom had a saying, “Ask, and you will arrive in Rome.” Meaning, keep asking, and you’ll eventually get there. I like to ask, on average, about once a block. If the directions remain pretty consistent for a few blocks, I might back off, but if their all over the place… well, you can always increase the number.

Another trick is to just pull out that map, and within about 25 seconds someone will have stopped to ask you what you’re looking for. You might say, won’t that make you stick out like a tourist? It could, but in 95% of the places you’re likely to visit, everyone already knows you aren’t from there.. And truly, there are more good people out there than bad. Good luck!

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