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Maybe it was after flicking through yet another friend's study abroad pictures in Europe - grinning in scarves in front of Big Ben, pretend-sustaining the weight of the Leaning Tower or toasting glasses of sangria - when you decided to seek out an alternate continent. With its breathtaking colonial cities contrasting natural beauty in all corners, South America offers a diverse palate of countries to choose from for an abroad experience.
While South America lacks the jet-setting ease and affordability of Europe, each country has incredible landscapes and cultures to explore. You will eat, drink, dance, talk, listen, learn and spend hours on uncomfortable buses with questionable safety standards. "Gringo" foreigners are still enough of a novelty in many corners of the continent to merit you overwhelming kindness and generosity from locals.
Compared to other study abroad destinations, many South American countries will be kind to your wallet. Food and transportation are often very cheap. Drinking at corner tiendas will be your weekend go-to once you learn the higher price of popular bars and discotecas. You will save money studying in smaller cities - Mendoza versus Buenos Aires or Valparaiso over Santiago. Similarly, countries like Bolivia and Ecuador have lower living costs than Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Brazil. No matter where you find yourself based, it's recommended to fall into a frugal day-to-day lifestyle and splurge on weekend trips or vacations. Eating lentils all week is absolutely worth the money you can spend on a boat trip in the Amazon, scuba diving or an Andean climbing adventure.
It's hard to set your sights on South America without a general interest in learning Spanish. While a handle on the basics will help you get by the first few weeks, immersion in any country in the region will do wonders for your second language. Particularly outside the major cities you'll find fewer people who speak English and thus more need to rely on and expand your newly acquired vocabulary. For advanced Spanish students, there is always the challenge of local slang or indigenous dialects. Programs in Brazil are rapidly becoming more popular for Portuguese learners as well.
South America's Spanish ranges widely from clear, slower speech in Quito or Bogota to choppy Chilean dialects and Argentina's accent surfacing with every "ll" sound. Within individual countries you will find very distinct accents, slang and vocabulary from region to region. Think of it not as learning Spanish or Portuguese - you're learning Peruvian Spanish. Or Venezuelan. Or north Brazilian Portuguese. Whatever language you pursue will be a far cry from your standard-issue school textbooks.
Trying to describe countries in this continent by specific regions is futile as each individual country has such striking geographical and natural diversity. The Amazon rainforest spans nine countries and the Andes run from Venezuela to Chile, only Bolivia and Paraguay lack ocean access and the continent is marvelously riddled with forests, deserts, plains, lakes, rivers, mountains, and canyons between the cities that range from skyscrapers to preserved colonial centers to dirt road towns.
Unlike Europe where a budget flight or train will bring you to a different international destination each weekend, travel between South American countries is typically expensive and time consuming. With some exceptions (Uruguay is a short trip across the river from Buenos Aires), you will probably find yourself taking advantage of your host country's offerings rather than border-hopping.
Several characteristics define the general South American culture. Here's a crash course. Things of importance: family, food, music and dance, soccer, love and national pride. Things of less importance: timeliness, organization and youth independence.
With patience and a smile, you will likely find a warm, welcoming population throughout the continent, although like anywhere in the world, big city populations can be harder to penetrate. There is more rich history and culture than could ever be discovered in a lifetime evident in architecture, music, dress, literature, museums, traditional societies and ancient ruins. What you study in the classroom will come alive in the truest sense of the word when you visit ancient ruins or participate in rituals and cultural celebrations.
South America's soul comes out in its cuisine. Delicious fruits with no translation, succulent pastries and baked goods, fresh fish and beef, intricate soups and stews, mountains of rice, yucca, potatoes, plantains, and corn await. Lunch is typically the principal meal and you will quickly adopt favorite snacks and fast foods in each location you frequent.
Many international students find themselves at Pontifical Catholic Universities like PUC-Rio in Rio de Janeiro or PUCRS in Porto Alegro, Brazil; PUCE in Quito; PUC in Santiago or PUCV in Valparaiso, Chile and PUCP Peru among others, many of which land on U.S. News' Best Universities in Latin America. Study abroad programs vary but many involve a combination of classes directly enrolled at local universities, either with local students or other international students, and other classes at study abroad centers that are catered directly to the program's objectives.
For example, you might take a literature class with Argentines and an art class with other international students at the Universidad de Buenos Aires then a History of Conquest class with peers from your program and a university professor. You can often choose from classes in English, Spanish, Portuguese or another language depending on your comfort level!
The countries of South America offer unique and fulfilling study abroad experiences full of legitimate adventures and academic experiences that truly come to life outside the classroom. You will be exposed to diverse walks of life - different cultures, classes, social groups, religions and family units that will enhance and shape your view of the world at large. The continent offers every kind of experience you can imagine, from cosmopolitan city life to rural villages to rainforest immersion - and there is ample opportunity to try them all during your time abroad.
A semester or year in South America may actually be comparable to your home university, but securing a scholarship can help you avoid financial stress that might dampen the experience. Many locations in the region are still somewhat novel when compared to more popular study destinations in Europe and Oceania, and your university might have specific scholarships available for study in Latin America. Smaller, independent scholarships are less competitive and may be more interested in your alternative study abroad experience!
Brighid Carey has been making herself at home in Latin America as a teacher, volunteer and traveler for several years but won't commit to the term "expat". Writing, rugby, socializing, dog watching, pining for Guatemala, climbing things and jumping off things occupy most of her free time. She currently resides in Colombia and thinks you should visit no matter what you've heard about it, or just read the truth on Brighid's blog.