My master plan was to live in Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina for six months each, and then evaluate which was best to live in for extended periods of time. Here are the total lengths of time I stayed in each country during my last trip:
Colombia: Six months
Brazil: Five and a half months
Argentina: One and a half months
I left Brazil a little early because of when my monthly lease in Rio ended (I didn’t have the will to mill around in hostels for two weeks).
Argentina was a different story. You know those medical experiments that end early because one condition far outperformed another? If I remember correctly they did this with an HIV study in Africa where they tested if circumcision led to lower infection rates. It proved to be such a strong benefit that they ended the experiment early to tell the uncut guys to immediately get cut. Well that’s why I left Argentina so soon—the little data I had in my hands told me that it wasn’t a place that would have brought me more happiness than Colombia or Brazil.
That said, here is my evaluation of what it’s like to live in all three countries, along with my declaration of the best.
Colombia: While there is a police presence, you can go all day without seeing a single squad car. Sometimes you only see cops on dinky motorcycles that look like dirt bikes. There is no heavy hand of the law here.
Brazil: Maybe only a decade behind the U.S. in terms of the Big Brother factor. The police are heavily armed, well financed (from an equipment standpoint), and make frequent stops. There are speed cameras and sobriety checkpoints. You don’t go long without seeing a cop car on the street. While the laws are more lax than in the U.S., Brazil is not a good place to openly fuck around. Even though Western media loves to portray favelas as lawless, police are generally on top of their shit outside of them.
Argentina: Police are positioned in street corners within rich areas of big cities. They don’t seem particularly well-trained or competent, probably because the country has been spared from narco-wars. It’s unlikely you’ll be bothered here.
Colombia: Local buses are run by private companies. While cheap, the lines are confusing and the buses old and very uncomfortable. The routes are not always logical and transfers are commonly needed. Medellin’s metro line though is clean, safe, and very reliable, but often crowded. The one good thing about the buses is that they come very frequently and you can flag them down anywhere along the route.
Brazil: Buses here are slow, lumbering beasts, the big versions you see in American cities. They come often and are reliable but you generally have to walk to a designated stop instead of being able to stick your hand out wherever you please. They aren’t that cheap, starting at about 2.20 R$ for a single trip.
Argentina: They have big buses like in Brazil but are almost impossible to use without insider knowledge because of nondescript signage. In Argentina you’ll only see something like “H7,” while in the other countries they’ll be a placard detailing a dozen or so stops.
Colombia: It’s hard to find lemons or lunch meats in the bird family. Most sell peanut butter at inflated rates. Boneless chicken breast is usually frozen.
Brazil: Doubly hard to find lemons, and even common vegetables like broccoli and zucchini can be MIA. Peanut butter is astronomically priced. Great selection of fruits, cheeses, and lunch meats. Boneless chicken breast is usually frozen.
Argentina: Lemons are everywhere! But limes are incredibly hard to find, as is peanut butter. Poor selection of cheese, lunch meat, and fruits, but excellent choice of wines. Boneless chicken breast is refrigerated and of good quality, though much more expensive than their famed red meat.
Colombia: Not much selection in local fare except for dirty diners, but you’ll find many decent fusion restaurants in tourist centers, usually run by expats. I still don’t know what typifies Colombian cuisine besides stews, arepas, and fried snacks.
Brazil: Beans, rice, and meat seem to be the Brazilian staple. Local restaurants have fixed plates that will serve bland but filling meals of rice, beans, potatoes, and meat. There is more of a food tradition with dishes like feijoada and moqueca, but convenience foods like pizza and fried bread snacks are beginning to fatten the population. Upmarket restaurants put interesting spins on typical foods.
Argentina: Great value for breakfast and lunch, especially the latter where for $5 or $6 you get a tasty three-course meal with beverage. While restaurant service here is the worst, you’ll find far more creative fare with more European influence than in Brazil and Colombia. Argentina is also a better pick for the foodie who is impressed by plate presentation.
Colombia: The hardest part of getting laid in Colombia is dealing with the language barrier (you won’t meet too many girls who speak English), but if you’re conversational in Spanish and approach during the day you shouldn’t have too many issues banging cute girls. Flakiness will be your main problem.
Brazil: Brazil has proven to be a country of streaks for me and my gringo friends. You’ll bang three girls in a couple weeks then get nothing for a while. Otherwise the country is very gringo friendly and you’ll find tons of girls who speak English. The okay girls are quite easy to get in bed, but the cuter ones take more work. Towards the end of my time in Brazil I was getting sick of all the mediocre girls throwing themselves on me and having to seemingly rely on luck and the numbers game to get anywhere with the quality ones.
Argentina: These girls have a reputation for being difficult and I find that to be the case. Not only will you work your ass off to get laid, it won’t be with one of the hotties that you went there for in the first place. My second trip to Argentina I gave up on the women and found myself a Brazilian girl.
Colombia: Tables and chairs. People prefer to sit down everywhere, even in clubs, but on the plus side nightlife is concentrated in the cities so it’s easy to stumble on a variety of places that have electronic, rock, pop, or local music. Bars are a total bust in meeting people. Clubs have decent value in terms of cover charges and drinks.
Brazil: Much more Western in that people mingle. While typical bars offer tables for socializing among friends, you can find bars where there is standing and movement. Some cities have nightlife centered in specific areas, but others like Rio can be quite spread out and hard to get around. Cover charges for the high-end clubs can be astronomical.
Argentina: It has the typical bars with tables, which people start going to around midnight, and then a progressive club scene with rotating DJs develops after 2am. The nightlife is agreeable for younger kids with energy to stay up all night and dance, but for older guys over 30 it can be quite annoying to go out so late to deal with girls who aren’t even drinking anyway. A positive is that the value is very good, and you won’t pay much for cover charges and drinks.
Colombia: There is a cafe culture with the Juan Valdez shops where you can sit with your latte and laptop for an hour or two. Ironically one of the best cafes I’ve been to in Medellin was the McCafe.
Brazil: Brazilians love their cafezinho (espresso shot), but they don’t linger. Since all coffee shops have waiters, they don’t expect you to sit down and write the next greatest American novel. For that you need to go to the mall and find a Starbucks, which is prohibitively expensive (10 R$ for a caramel frapp).
Argentina: Hands down the best coffee shop scene. Big cities have tons of pleasant cafes with wireless internet and delicious sweets. There is a lingering culture here so feel free to camp out for a couple hours.
Colombia: Safer than I was led to believe. I never had issues walking around at night even in shady areas. It’s a shame that the stereotype of the country being a warzone persists, but in a way this is good because it keeps out a lot of gringos who visit Costa Rica or Panama instead.
Brazil: Most dangerous of the three. While I’ve never been robbed in Brazil, I keep hearing stories that tell me my Brazilian-like appearance probably helped keep me safe (though don’t think Brazilians don’t get robbed). Brazil is very unforgiving for gringos who don’t have a lot of travel experience, though the most common “robbery” is getting severely overcharged by a taxi driver. I have to dedicate more energy here to staying safe than I would like.
Argentina: I’ve never heard a gringo getting mugged here—only petty theft in bus stations. Many times in Cordoba it didn’t feel like I was in South America at all.
FRIENDLINESS OF THE LOCALS
Colombia: Very friendly. They are much more intrigued that you’re a gringo and will always ask about where you’re from and why you’re in their country. They’re almost thankful that you’re visiting Colombia.
Brazil: It depends. I’ve met some incredibly rude and cold Brazilians, and I’ve met some who welcomed me into their home without even wondering if I could be a ax murderer or not. I would say Brazilian people are friendlier than Americans, but their friendliness is overhyped by quite a bit. A better term to describe them is warm—within a short time you’ll feel quite at ease, like you’ve known them forever.
Argentina: Outside of clubs Argentines are friendlier than Brazil, believe it or not. Even though Brazil has a more open culture to gringos, it seemed easier to make superficial friendships in Argentina with random people. I accumulated more phone numbers of both guys and girls one month in Argentina than six months in Brazil. A lot of guys though initially mistake the friendliness of Argentine women to be that they’re easy. They learn eventually.
Colombia: Taxi drivers are usually honest, and are great to practice Spanish with. All I had to do is ask “How are you today/tonight?” and we’d get into a long conversation. Towards the end of my time here I had pretty tight taxicab game, rarely getting ripped off.
Brazil: Taxis here are the worst. It’s very rare that a taxi driver, no matter how nice to me on the surface, will not try to scam me. I’ve had to argue with so many that I dreaded taking a Brazilian cab—I began taking buses everywhere instead, even late at night. While getting ripped off rarely means more than a $5 difference, it was the principality of it.
Argentina: Mostly honest, though less friendly than the Colombians.
Colombia: You got three main choices here: salsa, reggaeton, and vallenato, all of which are danceable, in addition to your normal house clubs. Plus you got Juanes, Colombia’s Michael Jackson, and Shakira, Colombia’s Shania Twain. Rock is also popular.
Brazil: Brazil has a very rich musical culture. Each state has their own flavor of music and you can live here for years until you know them all. From traditional samba to pagode and forro (I need more triangle!) to the newfangled tecno brega, music is an important part of how Brazilians connect with each other and pass the time, but most of the music is hard to dance to for the average gringo. Expensive clubs usually have Western music (fun fact: the song “Forever Young” is huge in Brazil).
Argentina: Reggaeton is slowly making its way here in addition to mainstays like cuarteto, cumbia, rock, and house. Argentines are pretty crazy about house music, but unfortunately they have very little idea how to dance to it.
CELL PHONE SERVICE
Colombia: Expensive and mostly reliable, though some text messages remain in the ether for hours until delivered. You have a lot of options on the street to make cheap calls from minuto celular vendors.
Brazil: Crazy expensive at more than 50 cents a minute if calling another cell phone from your own. Your only other option is Skype as they don’t have phone vendors on the street like in Colombia. Text messages sometimes get temporarily lost here too.
Argentina: About the same as Colombia, but no minuto celular vendors.
Colombia: Group classes can be found at reasonable prices, from $5-10 an hour.
Brazil: Expensive as balls. Prices starts at $20 an hour for group classes if you include “enrollment” and “material” fees. I eventually found a private tutor for $35 an hour that I used for two hours a week, but I couldn’t help but feel raped. Everyone I met reminded me that I was indeed getting raped. Unfortunately Portuguese is harder to learn on your own because of a dearth of self-study materials.
Argentina: The cheapest, which is why so many gringos come here to study Spanish. You can find freelance private tutors starting at $6 an hour.
Colombia: Great value that is slowly diminishing as both the economy (and peso) get stronger.
Brazil: While I was in Brazil I felt like I was paying American prices. Besides grocery store food there is very little value to be found. It was rare that I felt like I was getting a good deal on something.
Argentina: Super great value that will only get better as the peso crashes and burns due to continued government incompetence. They say the Argentine government is so corrupt because their ancestors are Italian.
Colombia: Colombia is full of good-natured, curious people who want to learn about foreigners while showing the best of what their culture has to offer. While Colombians don’t go nuts like Brazilians, they’re a sensual people who are fun to pass the time with. Edgy city life keeps you engaged and interested.
Brazil: Brazilians are constantly in celebratory moods, and it seems like there is always some type of street party or event that makes for a good excuse to start drinking early in the day. There are lots of nightlife choices and daytime activities, and the locals are always ready to party and meet others. The sexual atmosphere is very favorable to visitors of both sexes.
Argentina: You’re not going to have much fun here unless you get into a social circle or have some sort of university class or job where you can make easy friends. Argentines are diehard conformists and always worried about what other people think of them, so there is not much in way of personal flair or spontaneous excitement. But once you get to know some cool people, you’ll have a good time and maybe bang a cutie or two.
There is no debate in my mind that the overall winner is Brazil. While it doesn’t outperform Colombia and Argentina in all categories, and is also frighteningly expensive, it’s the one place in South America that I must return to. It’s also the best option for the single man. While Colombia is a fine choice as well, I think it’s worth saving up your money for a Brazilian adventure that I guarantee will be the first of many.
While I’ve tried my best to explain Brazil’s charm in previous writings, it’s something you have to experience yourself to understand why fans like me love it so much. I remember something a man told me many years ago: “There are two types of men—those who haven’t been to Brazil, and those who are trying to go back.” Not a week goes by that I don’t fantasize about what my third visit to the country will be like.