How to Spot a Gringo

gringo

Gringo – click to enlarge

I hear it all the time from tourists travelling South America, they are shocked that the locals can always pick them out as foreigners.  I even remember one guy telling me that his family is 100% Peruvian, but he was born and raised in the US, and it didn’t matter if he was in a group with 10 other Peruvians people would be able to pick him out as the “gringo.”  But there is more to spotting a foreigner than the colour of their hair, eyes and skin.  Obviously, a goofy looking white guy with bright blonde hair and glowing blue eyes like myself cannot hide himself, but it comes down to so much more than that in the end.

  • Footwear

Some backpackers in South America feel it very necessary to wear flip flops everywhere they go, including the business districts of  large cities.  This is a dead giveaway as most locals in the big South American cities, with the exception of perhaps Rio de Janeiro, wouldn’t leave their house in flip flops.  South Americans pride themselves on dressing well, and wandering around downtown in flip flops doesn’t not fit their mold of business casual.  If you want to fit in while travelling South America, pack some shoes.

  • Hair

When I talk about hair I could talk about hair colour, but after spending some time in South America you’ll notice that even many locals here have light coloured hair.  It comes down to more than just the hair colour, it comes down to how we wear it.  Latin American men are more worried about how their hair looks than any girl I’ve ever met.  You’ll find them in the bathrooms picking at each and every strand to make sure that every one of them has fallen in the right place.  It is almost comical to see at first, but after a while you become slightly embarrassed about the state of your hair.  Most western men have never combed their hair or picked at their hair in front of a mirror.  I don’t spend a whole lot of time in women’s bathrooms so I can’t say for sure if this is the same with women.  However, I’m fairly sure that I’ve never seen a Latin American girl pass a mirror she didn’t want to check her hair in.  If you want to fit in a bit in South America, make sure that hair-do is carved like a prize poodle.

  • Facial Hair
    Gangster with Cash

    I spent 2 months growing a beard just for this picture – click to enlarge

     

I am probably more guilty of this than anyone I know, but South Americans are rarely found with a beard, and if they do carry one it is very well manicured.  This all comes down to appearance, and having beard stubble in South America simply means that you don’t care enough about yourself or how you present yourself to others.  I know that the backpackers all think that because “Che” Guevera had an epic beard that they should too, but that’s just not the case.  If you want to fit in, get the razor out and keep that peach fuzz to a minimum.

  • Walk

I personally think this is the biggest giveaway of all our traits.  We, as gringos, always walk as if we are late for somewhere.  We are so focused on our destination that we often walk at a near sprint.  Take a look at the locals walking and try to keep pace with them someday, you’ll find yourself in pain trying to walk that slow.  Picking out a gringo can be as simple as watching which person on the street is walking at a near sprint with their or her head up and eyes tunnel visioned on their destination.  If you want to fit in, slow down a little bit and remember that it’s not the destination but the journey that is important.

  • Eyes

I’m not talking about eye colour at all in this sense, but instead the eye movement.  How the eyes appear is a dead giveaway for your gringo status.  In crowds gringos tend to have a nervous look in their eyes and you can just tell that they are trying to hid their fears.  In the open their eyes are constantly on the move exploring every spec of the landscape that they’re surrounded by.  There is nothing wrong with trying to get to know your surroundings, or being cautious, but if you want to fit in try to act as if your walking down main street in your own hometown.

  • Adios Gringo

    Adios Gringo

    Dress

Shorts people?  Seriously?  You’re going to wear shorts downtown Bogotá?  As I mentioned in the section about shoes, if you’re wearing shorts in a South American city, again, with the exception of some Brazilian cities, you might as well be carrying a giant flag with “gringo” written in bright sparkling font.  Latin Americans place a very high emphasis on personal appearance and that means always dressing nicely.  Personally, I would be straight up embarrassed to walk downtown Bogotá with anything short of jeans and a nice shirt.  It is a respect thing too.  People feel that if you don’t care enough to put on some decent clothes that the people you see and the city that you are taking part in aren’t worthy of your best.  Walking around downtown in shorts and flip flops should feel to you the same way as you would showing up to a business meeting in a clown costume.  If you want to fit in, and be respectful at the same time, throw on a decent shirt, a pair of jeans, and your shoes before wandering around downtown or going out for dinner.

  • Bags

It’s not the fact that we have bags that gives us away, it is how we carry them.  It is actually quite entertaining to watch, but so many gringos carry their possessions with such a death grip that their fingers turn white.  This is not only a flag that your are a gringo, but a sign that you have something of value in that bag with you.  I am not telling you to carry you bag lightly, but maybe just look a little less like you’re worried about it.  And please, I am begging you, don’t wear your bag on your stomach unless you’re in a very crowded space.  This basically tells people around you that you think they are thieves.  When I see gringos walking like this it actually makes me want to try and rob them, and I’m a pretty honest person.  If you want to fit in while traveling South America act natural with your possessions, or maybe see if you can leave your bag full of sunscreen, snacks, and a sweater that you so nervously clutch to in your hotel for the day.

Honourable Mentions:

  • Language: Learn the basics, it might not change your accent but people will respect your for trying
  • Hand in the pockets: Gringos walk with their hands in their pockets out of custom, and because some are covering their wallets.  Dead giveaway.
  • Water bottles: We are very worried about staying hydrated.  Gringos almost always have water bottles on them.

Conclusions

In South America they use the term “gringo” as a joking term used for all non-Latinos.  However, in Central America the term has a slightly sharper meaning.  Despite what the wikipedia listing says the word gringo comes from, the people I talked to in Central America say the term comes from the days of American occupation in the region.  The marines that occupied many Central American countries at a point in history wore green.  The locals who wanted the marines out of their country used to say “green” “go!”  It was eventually melded into the term for Americans, and basically all intruders, to form the word gringo.  As such, I do my best to avoid the word since no one wants to feel like an intruder.  So when you travel South America do your best not to act like an intruder, an outsider, a gringo, be yourself but be respectful at the same time and you will be treated with that same respect in return.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

Share This Post On

15 Comments

  1. How about conversation. I’ve been living in Central America for over 10 years, and it amazes me all the time, that the expats here don’t even bother learning Spanish and if they do, they don’t bother learing the basics like Hola the h is silent! You can just imagine how horrible the rest of their talk is:)

    Post a Reply
    • Yeah, Marina… I almost thought that one was too obvious to write in though haha

      Post a Reply
  2. Another one I’ve noticed is the water bottles. Gringos these days seem to carry water bottles everywhere, either in their hands or sticking out of a purse or backpack, and that’s a dead give-away.

    Post a Reply
    • Oh Emily, I never thought of that one but you’re dead on! I think I’m going to make an honourable mentions list!!! Another one is hands in their pockets!

      Post a Reply
  3. ” Latin American men are more worried about how their hair looks than any girl I’ve ever met.” yes, yes, and yes! and FYI, it’s the same in the girls’ bathroom.

    Facial hair: many Argentinean men sport a goatee.

    And what’s with this obsession with water bottles? It’s not like you can’t you one in the city 🙂

    Very entertaining post.

    Post a Reply
  4. This is a great list Brendan! And quite honestly, this also applies to people in Europe as well. The only people wearing shorts there are tourists (mainly Americans) so sometimes it can be quite easy to pick us out (and you Canadians as well). However, i do some of these things as well – I do walk with my hands in my pockets. However, i definitely agree with you about the way people dress.

    I am not sure if this applies to South America but Americans (in general) has walk differently than Europeans as we tend to swing our arms too much and are much more animated with our bodies when we walk. I’ve had people tell me that someone was an American just by how their body moved and arms swung when they walked.

    Post a Reply
    • Yeah Jeremy, you’re right. I’ve been told that I’m an arm swinger too… dead giveaway.

      Post a Reply
  5. Love the list, I think I’m in the encyclopedia next to the word! I basically don’t think I’m going to look like anything other than an outsider anywhere south of the US border and haven’t worried about it frankly! It just means I have lots of ‘friends’ who want to sell me something when I walk down the street.

    Post a Reply
  6. I will always have a death grip on my bag, and it will always be in my lap at a restaurant. And I will probably continue this custom when I get back to the US out of habit.

    I’m pretty sure they know I’m a Gringa anyways 😉

    Post a Reply
  7. Ah, I’ve been teased so many times by my water-bottle carrying habit — even when I was working in a hostel in the U.S.!

    Post a Reply
  8. A very enjoyable post indeed…but the part we are going to have trouble getting our heads around…we come from Saskatchewan, Canada…hell half the time it is 30 below, and really there are only 4-5 months of the year where it is safe (i.e. warm enough) to wear shorts, so it is tough not to want to embrace the heat and the sunshine and tan our pasty little white legs at every possible opportunity !!

    How does a guy win??!?!

    Post a Reply
  9. Nice article, very funny analysis.
    I would say that wearing shorts in general means “I’m on holidays”, right? Did you ever see some local going for work in shorts? At least not in LA or Europe.

    Post a Reply
  10. Great post. Yes, it’s so easy. The first time I went to a bus station in Santiago, Chile I looked at all the optoins and was confused. Then I scanned the sea of people waiting, spotted a female gringo and yelled over the crowd to her to tell me how it worked. She seemed stunned that I picked her out so quickly. Gringo or tourist in any location, we stand out. This was my inspiration for a post on “Blending in when You Can’t”. Thanks Brendon

    Post a Reply
  11. Hahaha this kinda helped me. I’m hoping to go to Nicaragua in February and I don’t wanted to get robbed and stuff, so I was wondering what to wear to not look gringa. In my opinion, I hate being called a gringa -.- Another thing, don’t wear jewelry. Maybe you don’t want to dress formally all the time though. I know in America we go out in our Sweats, flipflops, t-shirts/sweatshirts with our hair in a bun and a headband. They don’t do that in Latin America jajajja..

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *