South America has grown increasingly popular as a cruise destination, especially among LGBTQ travelers. Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, I’ve traveled extensively throughout South America (and elsewhere) as an out gay employee of Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation. Based on my experiences living in and traveling throughout South America, I’ve put together an introduction explaining what gay travelers can expect when visiting my home continent for the first time.
If you plan to trade the Northern Hemisphere’s winter for the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, be prepared for sometimes intense hot weather. Although South America extends almost to Antarctica, you can enjoy comfortable weather at the southernmost ports of Chile and Argentina from December until March. However, as you pack your luggage, don’t forget to include a warm jacket or coat next to your beach shorts.
Working as a cruise ship employee gave me first-hand experience of the diversity of South America. On a cruise ship, you can dock one day near the driest desert of the planet on the border between Peru and Chile. The next day you may see huge glaciers (bigger than those you’ll see on an Alaska cruise) in Patagonia.
I learned that contrasting extremes were the rule when cruising South America. You can go from petting llamas to visiting penguin colonies; admiring ancient architecture to walking amidst skyscrapers in one of the continent’s huge metropolises. “Meeting the locals” on a shore excursion can mean interacting with indigenous people, or with the settlers of European descent. South America has it all.
LGBTQ South America
The diversity of South America is also reflected in an attitude of inclusion and acceptance of both local and foreign LGBTQ people.
Generally, South America is a pretty safe destination if you are gay. In many of the places you may visit on a cruise ship, the gay marriage is legal or at least there is a strong legislation to ensure equality and respect. In Peru, Argentina and Brazil, many drag queens and transgender people are celebrities, not just in night clubs, but also on mainstream media, hosting tv shows or starring in movies or telenovelas.
Depending on where you travel, you can find gay pride parades in different major cities year-round. If you’re looking for sexy gay night-life, you’ll find it in abundance in cities like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. What you find depends in part on what you seek out, but, as in big cities everywhere, a dose of awareness and caution is advised. You might enjoy joining in the nightlife in a crowded dark room in a club in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo. Or a handsome escort pretending to be just a friendly local might approach you on a Copa Cabana beach.
This is only if you are single and ready to mingle, of course. If you want to make of this vacation a well-deserved escape for you and your beloved one, the options for fun and explorations are still endless.
Peru and Chile
Let’s start with Peru, a country every traveler should have on their bucket list. The country’s food is amazing, and the cultural background of its people is unique. Cradle of the Inca empire, Peru was home to the most powerful pre-hispanic civilization. After a very intense period of colonization, cities and towns still seem to echo with the footprints of history.
If you want to walk amidst the shadows of Lima’s rich history, the city center boasts an outstanding collection of colonial and neo-baroque buildings packed with the cutest souvenirs. Head to Lima’s Miraflores District if you want to experience the town’s modern bars, restaurants and shopping centers.
Heading southward from Lima, the colonial style dominates most of South America’s coastal historical towns. This style reaches its peak in Valparaiso, Chile, a colorful port proud of its tradition since the city was the first port of entry to Santiago de Chile.
On the Chilean coast the magnificent Andes rise over the ocean, providing cruisers with breathtaking views. The southern edge of the Andean range forms of the border to the Patagonia region, shared by Argentina and Chile. This region’s deserts and grasslands possess an almost extraterrestrial beauty.
In the Chilean Patagonia you will find a few of the most beautiful fjords on Earth. To experience these places from the comfort of your cabin balcony or on open decks is priceless. Once your ship docks, make sure to join one of the excursions to view penguin gatherings.
Although there are many group excursions for viewing this region’s natural beauty, I’ve had great success with DIY excursions here. When you ship docks in Ushuaia, Argentina, you can save some money by booking a private driver right outside the cruise terminal. They usually speak English and you may find also not just a nice couple hours’ drive into the nature, but also a good local guide.
Uruguay and Argentina
On your way to Buenos Aires you may stop first in Punta del Este in Uruguay. At this small city and resort, the rich and wealthy of Latin America come together, particularly during the summer. The water is crowded with fancy boats and yachts waving flags of different nationalities. The restaurants, bars and shops are countless and fabulous, but quite expensive as well. However, it’s worthwhile to leave your ship simply to walk along Gorlero Avenue, the main street of the peninsula.
First priority upon arriving in Buenos Aires: make a quick stop in Calle Florida to get the best
exchange rate in town. You can more easily enjoy all this city has to offer if you have some Argentinean Pesos in your pocket.
If you enjoy exploring cities on foot, you’ll love Buenos Aires. Many of the most iconic places and buildings sit fairly close to each other, making this an ideal city for walking. Going from Calle Florida to the Casa Rosada -which is the presidential palace-, and from there to Plaza de la República takes around three hours, including a few stops for coffee and shopping.
At night, dine at one of the many excellent restaurants in the Puerto Madero area along the old main port of the city. Argentina is well-known for several things, including the excellent quality of its beef. If you are a meat lover, don’t forget to order the traditional Argentinian dish Bifé de Chorizo while visiting here.
Buenos Aires Gay Nightlife
If you want to enjoy Buenos Aires nightlife, book a cruise which includes an overnight stay in this city. The action here begins late at night, not before 1:00 am, including in gay discos or night clubs, and the party finishes late in the morning, so be prepared for an intense marathon. The neighborhoods where you will find the biggest concentration of gay nightlife are Palermo, La Recoleta and San Telmo.
Don’t be shy. Ask your taxi driver for recommendations, even if he/she is not gay. Argentineans, especially in Buenos Aires, are very open-minded people. During one of my overnights there I decided to hang out with my friends from the ship in one of the popular “straight” night clubs in town. Without any major expectations and to my surprise, I ended up meeting an attractive and interesting Argentinian in what I now believe was one more of the many gay friendly places in the city. (This was before I married one of my fellow cruise ship employees!)
Finally, if your South American journey includes Brazil, realize that this country is a whole universe itself. If you’re traveling during the Northern Hemisphere winter, you may want to time your visit to coincide with Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, one of the biggest parties in the world.
Carnival season takes place over the course of a season, not just during one or two days. You’ll hear and see samba music and dancing everywhere during several weeks before the Carnival. The joy of people partying on every street corner feels contagious. This massive festivity includes just only Carnival, but the numerous parties and events floating around it. Rio’s Carnival attracts millions of people from all around the world. Everyone celebrates together with locals without distinction of race, gender, religion, status or sexual preference. A massive gay pride parade takes place during Rio’s Carnival season every year.
Languages and currencies
Money and language can either assist or hinder your sense of flow and ease when interacting with South American locals. I find it a great advantage to speak Spanish, which means I can converse with people (even in the Portuguese-speaking portion of South America, since the two languages share many similarities.) I strongly suggest visitors practice at least a few basic Spanish phrases to feel more comfortable when traveling here.
In smaller towns (and even in some small businesses in major urban centers), you’re likely to experience difficulties if you don’t exchange money to the local currency. In big cities, especially in the most tourist-oriented businesses, you will be OK making transactions with American dollars or just your credit card. Each South American country has its own currency. It is always recommended to be aware of the exchange rates on each port of call. If you have doubts, check with the front desk on your ship. Some cruise lines offer onboard currency services.
Visiting South America
South American countries and their inhabitants are very welcoming and friendly. Most South Americans appreciate tourism and are curious to know more about different cultures through the interaction with travelers. Remember to practice some Spanish or Portuguese, in order to get the most of your South American journey.
This is just a brief introduction to a vast continent. Your real adventure begins once you book your cruise. I plan to write in greater detail about South America in future articles for MeetMeOnBoard.
Ricardo Paiba, has visited over thirty countries through his work in the travel industry. He has worked for the largest hotel chain in Latin America and as a shipboard employee for major cruise lines. Originally from Colombia, he is now based in the New York City metropolitan area.