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Argentine Travelers as Economic Refugees

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CARTAGENA, Colombia- “I ran away from my country,” an Argentinian traveler spoke. His name was Alfredo, and he just opened up a little juice bar/ restaurant next to the Hotel Marlin in Cartagena. Like thousands of other travelers from his country, he came up to the northern stretches of Latin America, working when he can and living as cheaply as possible.

The streets of Central and South America are full of travelers selling jewelry, baked goods, clothing, fire dancing, juggling, doing just about anything they can to get the funds to continue traveling. They are working travelers, moving through this region for many years without much of any savings in the bank, existing off what they can peddle or make in more formal rounds of employment. Many, if not most, of these travelers are from Argentina.

I looked at this pattern and felt my curiosity tinged: why are they all from Argentina?

Argentinian traveler selling jewelry in Mexico

At first I concluded that this pattern was because Argentina is known to have a more developed economy and youth culture than many of the other countries in this region, and that these travelers were, basically, just hippies who are privileged enough to travel because they come from a wealthier country in South America. But, on further inspection, I found that this assumption did not live up to the reality. In fact, it was not only incorrect but the exact opposite of what is happening. Youthful Argentinians perhaps are not traveling and working because they have more money and opportunity but because they have less.

These kids — who are pretty much all between the ages of 18-35 — come from a country whose economy collapsed a decade ago. It has since repaired, but not nearly to the extent that it was before the crisis. I was in Argentina then, and this crisis was not one of those “economic downturns” that the USA gets every so often, but an all out collapse. I remember how the streets of Argentina were full of thousands of people eating trash, how the banks were closed tight with iron walls, and the massive protests that ensued. Many of these Argentine travelers come from the next generation to rise out of this depression. Many just left Argentina all together.

“In Argentina it is expensive to live and you don’t get paid much when you work,” Alfredo continued. “So I was making money just to spend it right away and I was like, ‘What am I doing? I can’t get ahead.’ So I left Argentina.”

Alfredo made it up to the Caribbean coast of Colombia and then tried to open up his snack shop business. Though his juices and empanadas were good, he simply did not have the finances to keep in going. One week later he was out of business.

“What happened to your restaurant?” I asked him upon seeing him in the street.

“I ran out of money,” he said. “I am not good with the business. One day I spend all my money on the restaurant and two days later I have no more money. I spend money but nothing comes back.”

We were both laughing as he spoke. It was clear from the start that renting out a little hallway that leads to the street from the innards of a boom boom girl hotel may not have been the best way to make money in this city, and Alfredo did not seem too upset about his losses. His generation in Argentina has seemingly become resilient to such disappointments.

I looked at Alfredo and he seemed a little more groomed than usual. He did not even look like a hippie any more. His little pointy mustache and beard were all trimmed up sharp, his hair was combed and slicked back, and he was wearing a white button down shirt that did not even have shit all over it.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I am going to look for a job,” he admitted shyly, “I don’t have any more money after I spent it all on the restaurant.”

He then opened up the papers he had folded up in his hands. It was a resume. I did not see “Owner, juice bar, Cartagena, Colombia, one week” anywhere on it.

Alfredo is just one of literally thousands of young Argentinians afoot all around the cheaper climes of the world — working odd jobs, running independent travel businesses, making livings on the road. What I at first mistook to be a fashionable lifestyle — that of the itinerant hippie peddler — I now know to be, at least in some part, a reaction to the economic situation in Argentina.

A sure sign that any economy is doing poorly is to look at the employment opportunities of the young workers — the class of society that is just breaking into the job market. Booming economies will have many well paying options for recent college grads and those looking for intro level employment, while economies on the decline will tend to have closed doors for new employees — especially those with light weight resumes, with more education than work experience: the young.

The youth of a country are disposable, and they are the first in line to feel the economic shaft in any country. For the eternal present, the young can be rendered non-essential in a country whose employment queue is well stocked — who would hire an employee without any experience when they have a host of ones . Young adults often have safety nets — parents — and are often not taken too seriously in their country’s political maneuverings. They are often the easiest segment of a population to ignore.

Argentina seems to be a country whose economy is presenting a dead end for young applicants — a place that is not on the rise in terms of business — and companies seem to be looking to take as much advantage as possible of their young hires by giving short contracts at low pay rather than providing solid career track employment.

“Things are not good there,” Alfredo spoke. “I think in another couple of years will will have more big economic problems and maybe a revolution.”

Thousands of young Argentinians have said enough, and they are not stepping into the street to idly hold protest signs, but are just leaving their country. They are economic refugees in the literal sense, working in the independent economies of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, all of Central America, and the south of Mexico. You can find them in the streets selling jewelry, playing musicdoing performance art, peddling artisan wares, working in hostels, or, like Alfredo, opening up his own business in an attempt to be master of his own employment.

Digital nomad or economic refugee?

During Vagabond Journey’s independent travel business series, many of the working travelers who I interviewed were originally from Argentina, but I feel as if I greatly understated their presence. For every traveler of another nationality working an independent travel business in Latin America there seems to be four Argentinians doing the same. These kids have formed a real traveling community as they work their ways up and down Central and South America working, peddling, and performing.

In many ways, these Argentinian travelers stand as representatives of a way of life that I predict will become more and more common as the once wealthy nations of the world continue on their economic down slides. The young and inexperienced workers of the old first world will become more and more economically disenfranchised in their own countries, and many, like the Argentinians, will take to the road as working travelers — making a living around the world on their own skills, on their own independent businesses, on their own volition. The option of going abroad for many will not be an option of fancy or privilege, but of economic betterment:

You can work like a dog for scraps and get nowhere in your own closed door economy, or you can go abroad where the living is easier, cheaper, and the opportunities for a traveler with a few trades and skills under their belts are far vaster.

Which are you going to choose?

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Filed under: Colombia, Economics, South America, Travel Economics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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