South America, while definitely a popular destination among travellers, may not be as easy to travel in as for example Europe. Despite the fact that much of the continent is unified by a single language, it certainly still presents some challenges to travellers.
After having spent 10 months travelling there in 2013, we learnt a lot, much of which we wish we had known before going. So, in order to help you avoid making mistakes we made, here are some of our South America travel tips!
Before you start planning
What do you want?
An important consideration to make before beginning to plan your trip to South America is what do you want to do? Are you a person who enjoys immersing yourself in good food, music, culture and history in cities, or perhaps you’re more of an outdoorsy person who enjoys multi-day hikes and camping in the wilderness without any chance of a phone signal for days on end. Of course, you might want to mix up the two, but it’s important to identify what you want before you go on.
What’s your budget?
Also consider, what is your ideal comfort level? Are you happy staying in dorm rooms with twelve other people or do you want a private room and the possibility of room service? What is your budget? How much and how often are you willing to splurge and on what? What things are you happy to sacrifice?
Take US dollars
Having some dollars as emergency money is always a good idea when travelling almost anywhere in the world (except perhaps in Europe, when Euros are obviously a much more sensible option), but in South America you may want to take more than just an emergency fund, specifically if you’re travelling to Argentina where having US dollars with you will mean you can exchange them on the blue market and make your trip roughly 50% cheaper than it would be otherwise.
In most other South American countries, you can easily withdraw US dollars from ATMs as well as the local currency, while in Ecuador it is in fact the official currency, so will be the only option anyway.
Plan for flights
If you plan on taking flights within South America, especially from one country to another, research costs of these in advance and factor them into your budget. Unlike in Europe or South East Asia, there are no low-cost airlines in South America, and prices are quite high, especially if flying from one country to another. Internal flights are less shocking (especially in Bolivia, where they are quite reasonable), but still don’t really compare to Ryanair or Air Asia in terms of price.
That said, there is also less price fluctuation, meaning you can have more flexibility and leave booking them until you’re sure when you actually want to fly. Remember, you can also chase freedom by collecting chase rewards and then exchange these reward points to free nights and other benefits as airline ticket discounts at appropriate airline companies.
Eat out for lunch
As in many parts of Europe, you will get much for your money when eating out if you make lunch, rather than dinner, your main meal of the day. This is especially the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, where most restaurants will offer a daily menu (almuerzo) at lunch time that will be significantly cheaper than the set price for the equivalent dishes on the menu and will usually include a soup or salad, a main, a drink and perhaps a small dessert. It’s also not that hard to find vegetarian and vegan options, except maybe in Patagonia!
Learn some Spanish
With the exception of Brazil and the Guyanas (Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana), Spanish is the official language of every country in South America, so knowing some in advance will go a long way. Because most people living in South America have grown up on a continent where all their neighbours speak the same language, not as many people as in Europe, for example, will learn any foreign languages, and you may indeed meet people who speak little to no English.
There are also many places popular for taking a course to learn or improve your Spanish, such as Buenos Aires in Argentina, Valparaíso in Chile, Sucre in Bolivia, Arequipa in Peru, Cuenca in Ecuador and Medellín in Colombia, among others. Some of these may also be good alternative digital nomad hubs, if that’s how you’re planning to travel.
What to pack
When it comes to packing for a trip to South America, my best piece of advice is to pack layers. With some incredibly diverse landscapes and climate zones, you won’t have to travel far to find yourself needing to keep warm from the biting cold at high altitude to wanting to wear as little as possible on a scorching day on the beach. Layers, rather than hot weather versus cold weather clothes are the answer.
Contrary to what you might have been told elsewhere, travel in South America is generally very safe. Travelling as two males, we clearly cannot speak from personal experience to what it’s like travelling there as a female, but we definitely met many female travellers, both solo and in pairs or groups, who did not report feeling unsafe for the most part. Of course, the usual precautions you would take at home apply in South America, but beyond that, there isn’t really anything special to note.
In some cities, you might be advised to only take official taxis, a good idea in most of the world anyway, and you may be warned away from certain areas of cities, though be aware of who is giving this advice and why, as it may be due to prejudice rather than actual experience. Chile may be the safest country in South America but in general, you can’t go wrong.
There are so many wonderful places to visit in South America, and without a doubt some of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been were there.
Our favourite cities (in order of how much we enjoyed them) were Buenos Aires, Cuenca, Arequipa, Quito and Lima. For lesser visited ruins and sites of historical interest, we recommend the Nazca Lines and Samaipata. For outdoor experiences and amazing landscapes don’t miss Perito Moreno, El Chaltén, Cafayate and Bolivia’s south west circuit.
These are of course only our personal recommendations. Your mileage may vary.
I also wrote some tips specifically for travelling in South America as a gay man on My Gay Travel Guide.
What other South America travel tips do you have that we’ve left out? Let us know in the comments!