Travel Tips

How Not to Visit South America in Twenty-Two Simple Steps

June 28, 2016

Disclaimer: This is my second summer in South America and I’m not going to claim to be some form of travel guru or ‘South America expert’. However, my visits here have given me some insight into mistakes that I have made or that I have observed in others’ behaviour as ‘travellers‘. The word ‘travellers‘ is used and highlighted because many of those I come across have told me that they are ‘travellers, not tourists’. 

South America

South America is vast, filled with sights and a multiplicity of nations and identities. You wonder at your inability to communicate in Spanish with a vendor in a traditional Bolivian market until you realise that the lady only speaks Quechua. Surprises abound and misconceptions come undone. For some, it represents the trip of their dreams, while other younger travellers may regard it more as a rite of passage. Here are twenty-two foolproof ways to have a ‘HELL’ of a vacation in South America. I promise to put my hands up when guilty as well. 

View of the Valley of the Condors, Peru

Don’t come to South America for the views

Poor Planning

1. Go for the cheapest possible flight and fly as far as possible from the place that really intrigues you. Guilty as charged on this point. So, you want to go to Colombia, but how can you pass up that 600 euro flight to Lima on Skyscanner? Well, folks, Ryanair has yet to make it here and, although you may find plenty of cheap domestic flights, that bargain flight from Lima to Medellin may somehow elude you. 🙁

2. Neglect to pack basic necessities in your hand luggage. Picture the scene: You arrive in Lima after a long day of travel and you go to the baggage carousel. You wait and you wait and then you wait some more. Your luggage is nowhere to be seen. Inquiries at the help desk reveal that although you are in Lima, your bag has somehow gone on vacation to Madrid. Back at the hotel, you open your hand luggage to find a pair of shoes, two guidebooks and a roll of toilet paper. Enough said, guilty as charged on this point.

The Results of Poor Planning

3. Transit an American airport from hell. It’s the leader of the free world, the greatest country on earth; what can possibly go wrong? Somehow the Americans have invented a system whereby you have to go to a machine to process your ESTA, get in line for immigration, identify your bag, go through customs and basically check in again for your onward flight. Go to Miami International Airport and you can add in officials shouting at everyone to get in line ( a very, very LONG line). If Mr. Trump is serious about making American ‘great’ again, he may start here…

4. Book flights with short connections. Save every cent! Go through some of the best places such as London Heathrow or Roissy Charles de Gaulle and you are guaranteed a good time or your first cardiac arrest. Did I mention Miami?

Time and Money

5. Never carry cash and assume that every street vendor, shop, and language school accepts Visa debit and credit cards. First of all, it is probably best to always some emergency cash on you just in case. Also, although some of the main cities see cash as ‘passé’ just like we do, your mountain hostel may not be quite there just yet.

Market in rural Arequipa province, Peru

Do they take Visa or American Express?

6. Be over ambitious in your travel plans. South America is huge and it can take a while to get around. You may look at the map, go onto Booking and book everywhere. You get here and reality hits home again…Guilty on this point. Sorry, I’m a dreamer who just can’t help himself.

Acting the Maggot

7. Parade around as if you have just come from an alpaca fleecing session. Some ‘travellers’ go so local that they appear to be more ‘local’ than the locals themselves. I really need to get some photos of these people.

8. Ransack the local markets and argue over every centimo or centavo. In order to go local, you need to hit the local markets. I’ve heard of aggressive selling, but it seems that South American budget travel inspires some aggressive buying as well…

9. Flash your luxury goods at every opportunity. Behave as if your iPad or iPhone is a status symbol that must be conspicuously left lying around for everyone to see. This way, you are bound to catch someone’s eye.

10. Use cards in bars as if you were back at home. It’s a Friday night after work and you take out that card to pay for the last round of drinks. This may work fine here too or you may just have your card cloned…

Being the Tourist From Hell

11. If it’s Tuesday it must be Santiago. This is part of the ‘See South America’ mentality that will be dealt with in more detail later on. For the uninitiated, it goes something like this- ‘Last week I saw Santiago, Mendoza, Bariloche and someplace I can’t even remember.’

12. Complain that the chambermaid can’t speak English. Okay, you pay 15 dollars per night and the chambermaid only speaks Spanish. Warning: is full of these HORROR STORIES.

13. Neglect to learn even the basic words of the local lingua.  It’s true that the closest you may ever come to speaking Spanish again maybe an occasional ‘grassy ass’ in Ibiza, but simple words like ‘please ‘ and ‘thanks’ go a long way regardless of the culture.

14. Ignore all local foods in favour of the ‘local’ McDonalds. It’s a guaranteed culinary experience whether you are in London or Lima. Who wants to try Peruvian food apart from a few celebrity chefs and food critics?

Chocolate cake in Arequipa, Peru

Peruvian food is penance

Forgetting Why You Are Here

15. ‘See South America’ by going on endless tours. What better way is there to experience the continent than by spending weeks on tours with a selection of random Europeans and Americans? After all, you’ve come here to see the place and you’ve spoken to a fascinating array of tour guides…

16. Forget to set aside money for tips. You go on that tour that lasts three days and costs 100 dollars. With this kind of money, it’s fairly certain that the guide won’t be a millionaire anytime soon. The end of the tour comes and you realise you forgot to set money aside for tips. Ouch!

17. Spend your days connected to social media. Has anyone back home seen that latest Facebook photo of those alpacas? Did anyone like that photo of the colonial cathedral on Instagram? Could there be a better way to spend your time here? And Peru has functional Wi-Fi. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Bolivia anymore.

Photo taken in Monasterio de Santa Catalina

This photo got 14 likes on Facebook

Miscellaneous Stupidity

18. Don’t have your most important documents either hidden in a safe or hidden on your person. That card they gave you at the airport is important and you need to keep it safe. As for your passport…

19. Have too many plans or no plans at all. Related to an earlier point, you may want to do this, go there, see that or experience this. Conversely, have no plans at all and you may spend your time buried in a guidebook, reading online blogs or seeking travel advice from every passing Scandi or Isreali.

Why Take Precautions?

20. Party with all your documents, money and cards on your person or in your bag. Keep a note of the address of your nearest embassy or consulate in your back pocket just in case everything somehow magically disappears in an alcoholic haze. There are one or two party hostels in South America and I’ve heard stories…first hand.

21. Don’t take out any travel insurance and have no basic backups. It’s a vacation after all and nothing could ever go wrong. Right?

22. Disregard all local advice. So, you’re told to bring a heavy sweater, but you decide to ignore the advice in favour of packing light. As I sit here miserable with a heavy cold, I am writing a cranky travel post and wondering what fool could be guilty of this last ‘piece of advice’.

The man said it would be cold, you idiot!

The above contains some of my own errors and some of what I have seen others doing over the last two summers. Feel free to add some ‘travel advice’!

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  • journalofnomads August 13, 2016 at 10:35

    Hahaha, I love this post! So honest and yessss so true!! Both my partner and I are guilty to have made some of those mistakes. Even years of experience might make you forget the most essential tips 🙂 I’ve learned to always have the essentials in my hand luggage. Even though we don’t take flights and we hitchhike, our bags almost always end up in the boot of the car. My partner had his backpack once stolen like this. I never put any valuable things in there and keep that little backpack always, always with me. It never leaves my side or body (while traveling) And for that last tip, I hear you. Now I’ve decided to always take a warm sweater with me, even if it is for a day trip. Rather comfortable than cold. And that sweater can also be used as a soft cushion to sit on 😉

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