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Argentine Travelers as Economic Refugees

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 [...]

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?

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 88 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 3396 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

15 comments… add one

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  • Bob L October 16, 2011, 9:59 pm

    There is much talk about there not being jobs available, especially for young people, in the USA. I know that many parts of this country have been hit very hard by the economy, but at least in this part of the country, at least by those I talk to, there are many jobs. The problem is that the business owners cannot find anyone to hire. I don’t have direct experience with this, but from what I am told, this is the problem. Many of the young people do not want to work at low paying jobs, or at jobs that are very hard. Many of the young people, when they do get a job, don’t show up on time, don’t work, or don’t show up at all. Most of the jobs that are available for new workers are small businesses. These are the kind that can least afford to have a slacker on the payroll. This country has lost much of it’s work ethic. As you say, many of the young people have a safety net in their parents. The problem with a safety net is that a safety net can quickly become a hammock.

    Now, there IS a severe lack of good paying jobs. But if one has a good reputation as a worker, there are some jobs available, not good ones, but they are there.

    As for Argentina, they have suffered much through the years. It is too bad that some of it’s seemingly hardest workers have to leave the country to work. These are the people that are the best hope for such countries (including ours). What little I saw of Argentina showed that the people have a fairly good work ethic. This is a country that should succeed, but due to bad luck, bad policy or bad politicians, it has not.

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    • Wade Shepard October 17, 2011, 5:10 pm

      Excellent observations here. There is a big difference between there being “jobs” and there being “good jobs.” Especially for kids that go to university, being offered work shoveling shit on a farm or busting balls on a construction site does not seem like much of an option. I’ve never had a hard time finding work when I need it (though I’ve been self employed for some years now), because I have two attributes that work in my favor:

      1. I don’t shun manual labor.
      2. I can move to where the jobs are

      I can also get to work on time, work hard, and do all that I need to in order to keep myself employed.

      All too often, unemployment is not a case of their being jobs available but the lack of “convenient and desired jobs.” There is more than enough work for illegal manual laborers in the USA no matter how bad of an economic crisis they are in because they are more than willing to do the crap work that few naturalized citizens are prone to search out. How many white guys do you see standing on the sidewalk in the day labor lines in the USA? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, as they are all Hispanic workers always ready to be picked up and taken off to do ANY kind of work available.

      The kids of many countries don’t grow up working — meaning that most don’t really NEED to start working a job they are serious about until they are well into their 20’s. Parents coddle their children too much in Western culture, providing for them until way too late in their physical/ social development. But I believe this has more to do with compulsory public schooling and idiotic child labor laws than any mishap on the part of parents.

      “Many of the young people, when they do get a job, don’t show up on time, don’t work, or don’t show up at all.”

      It seems as if it takes time for people raised into this social system to learn how to work. It is just not something that our childhoods prepare us for.

      It is often said that people want money, but I don’t believe this is true. People want easy money, but few are willing to bust balls to get money if they already have enough to survive or some other type of safety net. This is the same for people just lazing around the tropic or kids playing video game all day long in their mom’s basement in the USA. It takes a while to cultivate work ethic, which may be another reason why some employers may be unwilling to hire and invest in a fresh faced uni grade who hasn’t yet proved himself in the job market.

      As for the Argentine travelers, many do work hard — whether at braiding jewelry, baking deserts, or performing in the street — but they also do occupations they seem to enjoy. This is part of the reason many give their country the split, I believe. You can either work hard for an employer 40 hours a week doing something you don’t enjoy at all, or you can make jewelry when you feel like it, sit around in the streets with your friends, and live on a beautiful beach.

      I could either dress up in a button up shirt and slacks each day, work for a newspaper in the USA, and spend my time penning bingo schedules and human interest crap about cats stuck in trees or I can work for myself, travel the world, and write about whatever I find interesting. What am I going to choose here?

      So lifestyle preference is definitely a big part of this modern economic refugee movement.

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      • Bob L October 17, 2011, 9:10 pm

        I just spewed beer out my nose. I had this sudden flash of an image of you in a Clark Kent reporter suit and hat holding a pad of paper while interviewing a little old lady holding a cat.

        Bob L

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        • Wade Shepard October 17, 2011, 10:07 pm

          Man, I fear this is what it would have come to if I didn’t start traveling haha. Yes sir, a scary proposition.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell October 17, 2011, 3:26 am

    Greetings from Tajikistan … Agreed Wade; across Latin America I met so many Argentines on the road as street peddlars / gypsy travelers and have spent some months in Argentina, back in 2002 (during the peso crisis; great people and country but the prospects still seem as bad as ever in 2011, for most …) ANYWAY as you point out this movement will no doubt spread globally … hey, shit, aren’t we part of this “trend” …

    the candy trail … a nomad / drifter across the planet, since 1988

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    • Wade Shepard October 17, 2011, 4:44 pm

      Yeah man, we were the rats that jumped off the boat before it even began to sink haha. I can envision large tribes of travelers moving from country to country across the world peddling their wares, performing, and offering their services to local populations/ tourists in the years to come. I suppose one of the reasons why I do this website is to help encourage this haha. It is getting a little lonely out here.

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  • G October 17, 2011, 10:56 am

    The question I have is why aren’t these young Argentines going to Chile instead of the far north countries? Chile is famous for having perhaps the most robust economy in Latin America and is also right next door to Argentina. It would seem to be the obvious choice for someone trying to improve their employment prospects. My personal guess (good chance incorrect) is that these folks are at least half hippie backpacker and the other part economic refugee. G

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    • Wade Shepard October 17, 2011, 4:40 pm

      Hello G,

      From what I hear, Chile has gotten super, super expensive recently — like way more expensive than the last time I was there a decade ago. Though, when talking to these travelers, many do go through Chile and Brazil, but they seem to gravitate more towards the places where the living is cheap and there are lots of tourists to sell their wares to — Guatemala and the south of Mexico especially.

      Yes, your guess is right on: half hippie backpacker/ half economic refugee. I think a good part of the reason why they travel is also for the adventure and fun of it — like the rest of us haha.

      These travelers would make a good series on here though. I may do this soon.

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      • G October 18, 2011, 4:35 pm

        Thanks for the confirmation Wade. I don’t blame the Argentines a bit, I’d choose Guate and Chiapas over Chile too even if the wages are lower. And I suppose hemp necklaces probably sell better to college kids from california in atitlan than they would to miners in chile. I hope you enjoy your time in San Cristobal, have to admit I’d like to be there myself now that the weather is getting cold up north. G.

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        • Wade Shepard October 19, 2011, 10:45 am

          Yeah, for sure, I would choose selling hemp necklaces in Guatemala than working any job in my home country haha.

          Looking forward to getting back to San Cristobal. Come on down!

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  • Jasmine October 17, 2011, 10:05 pm

    Great analysis. I also thought that they were just hippies who liked traveling so much that it became a cultural thing… I had no idea about the work situation. Now that I think about it, the travelers that I have met from neighboring Chile (economically well off) travel completely differently, spending a couple of weeks in one place on their vacation (presumably to get back to their jobs) travel completely differently than Argentinos.

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    • Wade Shepard October 17, 2011, 10:11 pm

      Right on, the Chileans do travel way different than their Argentinian neighbors. It is interesting though that most of them are kind of hippies with pretty much the same economic initiatives — peddling and performing in the streets. I have not yet met many digital nomads, freelance writers, or tech workers from Argentina. I suppose that’s our gig haha. The “economic refugees” of the north are armed with laptops while those from the south earn their keep with macrame.

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  • Ruth April 21, 2012, 2:38 pm

    Fortunately the young people can still flee from Argentina; but what about families with kids, like my case? We don´t seem to fit anywhere: can´t have a refugee status (political, financial, legal, safety and education levels are worse than ever), can´t apply for a USCIS form to get into US as an investor, can´t settle in countries like Colombia or Mexico, where we see similar poor conditions. I contacted many humanitarian institutions, none of them, that is NONE has had the kindness even to answer my messages. We can´t go and have a hippy life with a kid! What can we do? We feel like hostages in our own country: can´t buy dollars, can´t start any kind of entrepreneurship because you fail before even starting (it´s long to explain but believe me, please), we´re out of hope right now.
    We have lots of minors who murder people and walk free within night, legal system stinks terribly (judges called “garantistas” that is that even with proof the guilty person is still innocent. Well, hope to hear from you soon, don´t want this present/future for me and my family. Thank you to notice the truth. Argentinás Montonero´s government (terrorists of the 70s) gives an image that differes compeltely from truth.

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    • Wade Shepard April 21, 2012, 8:53 pm

      My wife, daughter, and I all travel together. So the kids should not hold you back. Though you’re very right, it is difficult to settle anywhere but your home country these days even for people from the USA and Europe.

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    • Bob L April 22, 2012, 11:30 am

      This may not help you, but the guy who runs this site recently left Argentina. He wrote the book “Surviving the Economic Colapse”.

      http://www.themodernsurvivalist.com

      He is a survivalist, so some of his rants and advice may seem over the top for many people, but he has a fair amount of sound advice that can be used by the average person. You just have to look for it.

      Many of these people (survivalists) are similar to long term travelers or really anyone who is at the extreme end of their interests. There are not a lot of people traveling like Wade and his family. Much of his advice does not pertain directly to what most of us would do, but it is all good advice and can be adapted to the typical person’s travels and encourages us to think. Same with these survivalists, well, the good ones anyway. They have a lot of advice that does not pertain directly to most of us, but much of the advice can be adapted to our lives.

      Of course, as with anything, some of them are just kooks.

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