Latin America: a guide for beginners

My first taste of independencia was in Buenos Aires, where May 25, Argentina_s May Revolution Day, is celebrated not with screams of passion in the Plaza de Mayo _ that_s reserved for football matches and for going to war with Britain _ but with a doughnut, and not a round one, but a straight one called a churro _ a creation, oddly enough, from Spain. There was also a brief and polite military parade and some flag-waving. The grandest thing about the day was the place where I went post-parade to eat my doughnut: the Gran Caf__ Tortoni, dating from the 1860s and the smartest spot in town for a mug of hot chocolate, also customary. I lived through the celebrations 10 times and they never changed.

When I spent another Independence Day, September 15 2005, in Durango, Mexico, I experienced lots of patriotic fervour. After standing to attention for the commemorative speech, I found myself in a dimly lit bar, with dozens of new amigos, enjoying a steady flow of tequila, tacos and mariachi songs. I threw myself into a lively party that wound up in a pub crawl and a memorable hangover. It all felt very democratic and libertarian _ libertine, even, in the best spirit of that other great republican revolution, the French one.

Independencia is celebrated every year in Latin American countries, but this year is a momentous one, especially for the five countries that will be remembering not their declarations of independence but their gritos, or cries for freedom, from the shackles of Spain. They are, in date order, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Chile. Following on from the gritos, all waged war with colonial forces and all, finally, succeeded in breaking up the confederation of viceroyalties, captaincies and audiencias to become free nations after long and bloody battles.

It all began when Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king Charles IV and replaced him with Charles_s son, Ferdinand. On May 10 1808, after less than two months, Ferdinand abdicated. This left the colonies without a divinely ordained Spanish ruler; paradoxically, independence movements were spurred on by allegiance to the monarchy. As many travellers will know, the countries of the Latin American mainland, and the three island nations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti (not covered in this two-week guide), are related by language, culture, history and cuisine. There is greater homogeneity across Latin America than across any other continent. But there are also many differences, and 2010 is an opportunity to begin to explore the variety and colour of this vast, rich, beautiful _ and troubled _ part of the world. If you_re thinking of going for the first time, our potted histories and brief tasters will help you decide where, when and how. If you have been before, perhaps it_s time to see a side of Latin America you have never really thought about. Paraguay, perhaps? Or Surinam? Buen viaje and felicitaciones, in the bicentennial year of so many great countries.

When to go
Summer in Central America stretches from December until about April. The rainy months are from May to October, with storms most likely in August and September.

South America is a year-round destination, with the austral spring and summer being the best time to visit cities such as Buenos Aires and Santiago. However, travel in Patagonia is more difficult from April until November, as temperatures fall and the chances of rain and snow increase exponentially. Conditions fluctuate widely according to altitude across Latin America.

Hotels fill up fast for the festivities at Easter, especially in Central America.

Telegraph | By Chris Moss

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