From skiing in the Andes to trekking through the jungle, South America truly has it all. You might envision a tropical beach with palm trees and pina coladas, but it’s truly far more than the surface-level paradise we tend to think of.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to travel to three different countries – Chile, Argentina and Peru. I was able to experience each in its own unique ways and to venture outside of the common tourist traps.

I learned that the people there are quite possibly the most friendly people in the world. Despite their happiness and welcoming attitude, however, the people of South America feel as if they have been forgotten. Millions of people remain in chronic poverty, but due to relatively stable economic times and governments, these poorer communities are not priority for aid organizations. Additionally, despite some progress, South America is still not considered an economic powerhouse.

In Chile, students had overtaken universities to protest rising costs and to demand free higher education. In Argentina, I watched people line up outside of an ATM at 6 a.m. to withdraw money before it ran out. In Peru, workers in the Sacred Valley shut down the train to Machu Picchu to demand basic infrastructure needs like paved roads.

In Argentina, I met a young man who gave horseback riding lessons one day and wine tours the next, because that’s what makes him happy. I visited with a family in a rural farming village in Peru where they were taking a few days off from work to celebrate their 88th year of independence from slavery.

I did a lot of cool things while abroad, but the point isn’t about all of the cool pictures you take or how many Instagram likes you can get. The point of traveling abroad is to fully immerse yourself in another culture, which means learning about current social and political issues, past historical events, local holidays, and being able to handle the good parts as well as the bad. The travel abroad experience should be one that enriches your mind and deepens your cultural understanding instead of just a semester-long vacation.

Sure, there were times when I was frustrated with how things were, but I was also in awe of the simplicity and deep appreciation of life found there.

It’s cliche to say you ‘find yourself’ abroad, but it’s hard not to admit that you learn a lot about who you are. From the moments where you’re dancing the night away in the best discoteca to the moments where you’re stranded in a foreign country, you learn a lot about the things that make you who you are.

The most important thing to remember is to not be afraid of the unknown. Travel to the places you know absolutely nothing about. Get out of your comfort zone; I promise you won’t regret it. Even if you do, it will probably make for a great story when you get back home.

Courtney McKimmey studies economics and international affairs She can be reached at and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.