Photo: Chapultepec Park
Whether it is a national title or a neighborhood pick-up game of soccer, sports (deportes) are obsessively popular forms of entertainment and the front door to cities, countries, and cultures.
Travelers who want to gain a better understanding of local culture owe it to themselves to check out the venues that go beyond traditional jalai and bull-fighting.
Professional leagues are found throughout the region. There’s no doubt that soccer is the favorite sport, but it’s by no means the only game. Baseball, basketball, football, cycling, and rugby all have their fans and organized tournaments.
There are impromptu matches played in urban parks such as Parque La Carolina (Quito, Ecuador) or Ciudad Deportiva (Mexico City) and in less orthodox places as well. It might be a cow pasture on weekdays, but there is always space to construct a cancha de futbol.
While public and private schools rarely have the capital to build large sports facilities a la the United States, the bigger cities do boast some of the largest stadiums in the world. Brazil’s Estadio Maracana holds 90,000, down from its record capacity of 200,000 built for the 1950 World Cup and Estadio Azteca in Mexico City holds 120,000 and has hosted two World Cups, an Olympics and a PanAm game.
For individual travelers, the issue isn’t joining a team but just trying to keep in shape. Travelers who want to keep fit find health clubs open for visits. Many aren’t in the best of shape. In Quito, I purchased a one month’s entry to the gym, but was hampered because the ceilings were too low to lift any weights over my head!
If you’d like your team to play, you might check local websites and see if they welcome visitors. Local rugby teams, for example, welcome international competitors, whether they are individual players or teams.
Baseball is a popular sport in the Caribbean, Mexico and Venezuela. Professional baseball scouts have been heading to Latin America since the 1940s and 50s.
The sport has been played south-of-the-border since 1864, when three students from Cuba who attended college in the United States — Alabama’s Springhill College — brought balls and bats back to their home country and founded the Havana Baseball Club. At the start of the 20th century, marines from the United States and stationed in Nicaragua introduced the sport, making the nation a baseball beachhead in Central America.
Professional biking is a favorite sport throughout the region, and Colombia is well known for excellent cyclists who compete in the Tour de France — they are excellent mountain climbers. No wonder — Colombian cyclists train at high altitudes in one the world’s most mountainous countries.
Regional rugby is increasing in popularity thanks to the fine showing of Argentina in the 1999 World Cup. The sport has historical ties to schools in the UK. Rugby is also getting more attention as regional games are broadcast on the regional cable channels.
The most popular sport in Latin America is without a doubt soccer, or as known the world surrounding the United States, futbol. Introduced in Mexico by British miners in the 1800s, the sport has been a popular fixture in the region. Soccer is more popular in Latin America than it is in the United States where cynics say that ‘it’s a sport of the future … and always will be.’ Regional tournaments include the Copa America for national teams and the Copa Libertadores for club teams.
Futbol Americano is growing in popularity in Latin America, Europe , though Mexico has the most fondness for the sport. Pre-season NFL games have been played in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon and Mexico City five times since 1993.