One of the most important parts of learning a new language is immersing yourself in it — and what better way to do that than through travel? Unfortunately, some well-loved travel destinations have become so popular that you barely hear a word of Spanish spoken on the streets. From cities to beaches and across three continents, we’ve rounded up some of the most incredible spots to visit, away from the tourist trail. Read on for our top 5 picks.
If you don’t want to deal with the throngs of beachgoers in Tulum or Playa del Carmen, head West along the coast of the Yucatan to Campeche: the vibrant little sister of its larger northern counterpart, Merida. From the perfectly preserved center of the city to the colorful outskirts, Campeche’s sense of magic will catch you fast and hold you tight.
What to do:
Like their more well-known neighbors to the East, Campeche beaches are a definite “do not miss.” The white sand and the ocean views almost make you forget that you’re sprawled out in front of a city with a rich colonial history and UNESCO World Heritage status. Almost. Campeche is a small city, and taking advantage of that by going a pie is always a good idea. The best way to get from point A to B is via the Malecón, the three mile strip that runs between the town itself and the Gulf of Mexico. From there you’ll eventually find yourself at the center of the city, where old historic walls contain fortified ramparts and elegant mansions so well preserved, it’s hard to believe you’re not on a set. Once you’ve finished pretending you’re in a Hemingway novel, grab your camera and wander through the streets of outer Campeche. These streets are lined with houses so brightly colored, it feels like you’re walking around the inside of a giant Crayola box. When your legs get tired, head to Calle 59 for a cold Tecate and a prime people-watching spot.
La Paz, Bolivia
If you’re looking for busy streets, visible energy, and amazing street food, try La Paz: one of the highest cities in South America at 11,975 feet. The city, still grounded in its indigenous roots but growing more every day, sits at the bottom of a cauldron-shaped river canyon, nestled right next to the beautiful Illimani mountain.
What to do:
Once you catch your breath (11,975 ft is no joke!), there’s A LOT of options here. . First, try the street food — you can’t walk a block in La Paz without the delicious smell of llauchas and saulteñas hitting you full force. Check out El Marcado de las Brujas (the Witches Market), where you can buy herbal remedies, aphrodisiacal formulas, or, if you like, a dried llama fetus for good luck. Take a cable car over the city, up the canyon to the arty, bohemian suburb of Sopocachi where you can find great art museums, like Salar Galería de Arte, known for its representation of local artists. At sunset, head just south of the city to Valle de la Luna (the Valley of the Moon), where you can watch dusk settle over surreal geological formations that will make you feel like you might just be standing on the actual moon.
If you want to explore South America but avoid the throngs of tourists in cities like Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Lima, look to the top of the continent, to the northern tip of Colombia: Cartagena. Between its colonial architecture, thriving music scene, and its Caribbean coast, Cartagena is an overflowing mezcla of delights for the off-the-beaten-path traveller.
What to do:
Walking through the city, it’s hard to overlook Cartagena’s rich — in both senses of the word — colonial history. Columbia used to be a world leader in the production of gold, and Cartagena is filled with huge mansions, sprawling courtyards, and elegant promenades. The cobbled streets and pastel balconied buildings give you the feeling that you’ve been somehow transported back a couple hundred years. Head to the city wall, and post up at one of the open air cafes with a view of the ocean and a cold refajo. If you’re craving a good cup of café, check out Ábaco Libros y Café and browse their vast, multilingual collection of books. If it’s the beach you’re after, Cartagena’s coastal border offers easy access to the three S’s: sun, snorkelling, and surfing. A quick 40 minute boat ride will take you to the Rosario Islands, a chain of little islands right off the coast. Pro tip: after a long day relaxing at the beach, go get your bailar on at Café Havana for a salsa club scene straight out of the 1930’s.
If you’ve wanted to travel to Costa Rica but don’t want to deal with the crowds, head to its Northern neighbor, Nicaragua. Right next to Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, is Granada. Like Cartagena, Granada is a colonial city, the oldest in Nicaragua. Pastel buildings, beautiful churches, and cobblestone streets abound. Granada has a fast-growing expat population; artists and entrepreneurs alike keep moving there, and between the colonial feel, the vibrant, creative energy, and the best-of-its-kind nature, it’s not hard to understand why.
What to do:
If you want to see the heart and soul of the town, hit the local markets, which usually pop up on the side streets. There, you can find tajadas (think potato chips — but made from plantains) and sweet drinks (instead of a cup, expect to drink your pinolillo out of a plastic bag). Granada has a vibrant creative energy that has produced some of the best art spaces around. Make sure to stop by Casa de Los Tres Mundos. Sometimes there are cool events there (readings, panels, etc.), but even more fascinating than the events are the galleries that double as studios — you can actually watch the talented artists at work. For the outdoor lovers, make sure to spend plenty of time on the water. You can’t swim in Lake Nicaragua (water too rough and pollution too strong), but you should definitely take a dip in the calmer waters of Laguna Apoyo. After working on your tan, take a quick boat ride to the nearby Las Isletas, where you can find some local wildlife (like this little tamandua!) on top of panoramic views of the Mombacho volcano.
You’ve heard of Seville and Majorca, but you may not have heard of Barbate: a small coastal town in the Cádiz province. It’s a sleepy town — head East to the island of Ibiza if you’re looking for a party — but its whitewashed buildings, clear ocean waters, and fresh food make it the ideal place to disappear for a week… or a few.
What to do:
Attention foodies! The markets of Barbate have some of the best produce you will find in España. The local market has row upon row of fresh guisantes (peas), alcachofas (artichokes), patatas dulces (sweet potatoes), and much more. Don’t miss out on trying the fish either, caught right off Barbate’s own shores. Once you’ve eaten your fill, burn off the calories with a hike up the Tower of Tajo for some panoramic views, or walk through the marshes of Barbate National Park. Most importantly, though, hop on a rented bike and cycle thirty minutes along the coast to the beach village of Caños de Meca. This stretch of beach between two cliffs has become a home for nude bathers, multi-generational Spanish families, naturists, and surfers alike. Strip down and wade in — the water is so warm and clear you’ll feel like you’re in a gigantic saltwater bath
Know Before You Go: The less touristy the spot, the better opportunity to practical tu español! Find our Spanish classes here, and get exploring.