1. South America is big
Yes, South America is a vast continent. To get a clear idea of just how vast, think about a few simple facts. The 48 contiguous states of the US are actually smaller than Brazil. In fact, you could easily fit every single European country into Brazil with plenty of space left over. Yet, Brazil is only half of South America. Now, think about the logistics of travelling around this huge space.
2. Have a base for your first and last few days in South America
As with any travel, you just never know what may happen. Baggage may go on its own special trip. As someone who once arrived in Lima only to find that his luggage was on another continent, let me say that things will be easier if you have a base to work from for a few days. You can stock up on those essentials like socks and underwear until your bag eventually joins you on the trip. Likewise, relax for the last few days. Racing back to the capital to catch a flight is no fun.
3. Always have emergency clothing in your carry-on luggage
Number 2 on this list may be a bitter pill to swallow. However, having a change of clothes, a few pairs of socks and some underwear will make things a little easier.
4. Travel in South America can be a true adventure
Expect the unexpected! They tell you your bus will be heated and have bathroom facilities. Yet, the windows freeze over inside and outside, and the toilets are locked all night.
5. Your electronic devices are sensitive
We rely on those phones, computers, and cameras so much that they cannot fail! Oh yes, they can! Sensitive electronic equipment exposed to extreme cold at altitude can and does fail. Watch out in La Paz, Bolivia! Similarly, walking up that canyon in the Amazon with a camera in your hand is not the best idea. Should you go for a swim, so does your camera (I’m still mad at myself over that one).
6. Flights are often expensive
Ryanair has not reached South America yet. Although flights within Colombia can be a good deal, in other countries you can expect to pay over $100 for a one-way trip. In Argentina, you can possibly double that!
7. Argentina is not cheap.
The country is a charmer. If Italy could be transplanted into South America, then Argentina would be the result. However, there have been so many issues with exchange rates over the years, often resulting in a bum deal for travellers. Also, trips to Patagonia or Iguazu entail either long bus journeys or expensive flights. It all adds up.
8. Withdraw money at ATMs in bank branches
We pay our bills with cards in shops and restaurants and we use ATMs on the street. In South America, this is not a particularly good idea. Brazil, in particular, is a place where card cloning is a recognised and significant issue. Be cautious and use machines inside banks to minimise the risk.
9. Inform your bank when and where you are travelling
Likewise, you don’t want to find yourself with a blocked card while travelling. Inform your bank where you intend to travel. Otherwise, suddenly seeing surprising transactions all over South America, they may decide to block your card.
10. Have some spare cash
Have an emergency stash of cash. No matter what happens, you need a fallback. On my first trip, I had an emergency $100 bill hidden on my person. I didn’t use it until my last day (in New York City), but I always knew where it was if the worst came to the worst. On a related note, remember that some out of the way places may not have either a bank or a bank machine. Additionally, these types of place often enforce strict rules when changing dollar bills. They only accept banknotes in mint condition.
11. Get to know the local currency quickly
In some of the bigger tourist centres (think of places like Cusco, Peru), street vendors know that they can get away with scamming the tourists. Consequently, some of them will try to pass you fake notes. Have a local show you the local bills and explain the telltale signs of a counterfeit note. Usually, you can tell by the feel of the paper, but you can double-check if you know the foils.
12. Smaller towns are the places where you experience the real deal
The bigger cities may offer lots of sights and culture. However, in the smaller places, people have the time to talk to you. Stay in Sucre instead of La Paz or Ollantaytambo instead of Cusco.
13. Build some flexibility into your itinerary
Be prepared to chop and change during your vacation. You may totally fall in love with a place and not want to leave. Build a rigid itinerary and your trip may turn into ‘If it’s Monday, it must be Machu Picchu’. Another thing to remember is that things can go wrong. Blockades may stop you in your tracks in Bolivia or you may get stranded overnight in the high Andes of Peru. I’ve experienced both!
14. Listen to local advice
Oh, how I wish I had known this! If they tell you it gets cold in the mountains, then that may mean that temperatures will plummet way below zero at night. Pack accordingly! If they warn you about a common scam, pay attention. Although I have not experienced any fake policemen or the like in South America, many others have.
15. Pack layers
The Andes define the geography of the continent. Many places have warm temperatures during the day and freezing temperatures at night. Similarly, overnight bus journeys may be overheated or bone-chillingly cold. Have layers of clothing to adapt to changing conditions.
16. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track in South America
Some of my favourite experiences have been off the beaten track. Try staying for a few days in a traditional Amazon community or just hanging out on a coffee farm in Peru. Everyone will have been to Machu Picchu and Iguazu Falls, but you will have special memories if you’ve stayed in a remote village or community that does not see many tourists. Speaking Spanish or Portuguese will enhance the experience, but is not always necessary.
17. Reports of its lawlessness are exaggerated
Everyone’s first question tends to be: Is South America safe? Of course, crime does exist, but the same might also be true in Europe or North America. Use common sense. Don’t go down alleys and don’t wander around empty streets at night. Try to get your bearings in a new city so that you look like you know where you are going. Listen to local advice about places to avoid and crime. In Buenos Aires, I was advised to wear my daypack on the front of my body. I always did so and I never experienced any problems on the underground trains (SUBTE).
18. Indigenous culture is alive in South America
Nowhere is this truer than in Bolivia and Peru. Indeed, there are still places where Quechua is spoken. Throughout the continent, people showcase traditional music, dance, and artwork. In many parts of the Andes, the culture is syncretic, a mix of European and indigenous influences. Take the time to discover the vibrant cultural scene.
19. Pack light
Why do I never seem to get this one right? South America is full of markets and prices in stores are often far cheaper than anywhere in Europe. Leave plenty of space in your backpack. Stock up when you get there.
20. The variety of experiences available is breathtaking
Ride a helicopter over Iguazu Falls. Climb the hills overlooking Lake Titicaca. See the sunrise over the ancient stones of Machu Picchu. Ride a horse through the giant wax palms of Cocora Valley. Take a boat to an isolated island in the Galapagos. Discover urban cool at San Telmo market in Buenos Aires. The choice is yours.
21. Don’t let people who have never been there prevent you from going
Rewind to December 2014. I tell people that I’m planning a trip to South America. The reaction…You’ll be killed, kidnapped and robbed! If you read this, rest assured that I’m still alive. I’m glad that nobody got me to change my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed my vacation. In fact, I loved it so much that I went back again last year. Now, I am only weeks away from my final trip (for a while). I only have one regret. That I didn’t go years ago!
Travel Resources for South America
Unlatinoverde – This website has information pages and blog posts that cover the experience and practicalities of travel in Argentina (Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls), Bolivia (La Paz, Sucre, The Bolivian Amazon, Lake Titicaca and Death Road) and Peru (Lima, Cusco, Arequipa, Colca Canyon and destinations throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas).
Goats on the Road – The always charming goats share their experiences of Argentina, Colombia and Chile. This is one of my favourite blogger websites.
Along Dusty Roads – This couple have travelled throughout South and Central America and their site is a comprehensive resource for travellers. Navigate to ‘Places’ in the top menu to find the South American destination that interests you most.
Next Stop Latin America– The LATAM blog is a great source of ideas for travellers. I must say that I’m impressed by the airline’s innovate approach to Social Media.