Compared to tips about backpacking in Southeast Asia, there isn’t a heap of advice up on the web about backpacking South America. We made many mistakes on our South America trip, but through trial and error but we picked up a few bits of useful info. Here is what I wish I knew before I travelled South America:
1. Learn Spanish food words
Spoken English is rarer than you would expect considering South America’s solid tourism infrastructure. Sometimes Jack and I struggled on just our basic travel-level Spanish and wished we’d spent some time learning words for food.
The first time we sat down in a restaurant in Chile the only food we recognised was pizza, so that’s what we ate on our first day in South America, boring right? Many tours don't have an English speaking option either.
2. Bring an e-reader
English language books are sparse in South America and finding decent reads in English is nigh impossible. The bus rides are long, the internet connection is shoddy and unless you can't stand reading, bring electronic books with you.
3. Pack for all temperatures
South America is freezing in some places and blazing in others; the coldest place we visited was the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia at -3 degrees Celsius and the hottest was at 30 degrees Celsius in the Bolivian Amazon, just a few hundred kilometres away.
Pack a mix of shorts and t-shirts, as well as a long sleeved shirt, a pair of jeans, and some cheap thermals that you can throw away when you don’t need them anymore. I brought a big puffer jacket with me and while I used it a couple of times it wasn’t worth the bulk of having it with me and I sent it home in a package. A few pairs of thick hiking socks wouldn’t go amiss either. Don’t bother bringing hats and scarves; just buy the alpaca knit ones they have there.
If you're looking for a more detailed packing list for South America - I have one here.
4. Be aware of your surroundings
While South America is not as dangerous as you would think when watching the news, we heard nasty stories from other backpackers of muggings, assaults and scams. Don’t walk alone at night, watch your belongings and if an offer sounds too good to be true it usually is, although scams as common in South America as in other tourist heavy parts of the world.
5. Cover up
Travelling South America as a solo woman is not easy, but not dangerous either. Latino macho culture lends arrogance to South American men and many will say hello as you walk past, nothing harassing but the attention can still get tiring at the end of the day when you’re lost, hungry or homesick. I found walking around in shorts meant more catcalling, but wearing sunglasses (thus eliminating eye contact) helped.
6. Record your daily budget
South America is not as cheap as Southeast Asia, but where is? Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia are great value destinations for backpackers. We completely under budgeted in Chile at $50 a day and spent close to $80, because we weren’t watching our spending for the first few weeks of our trip. I suggest recording your budget each day, but without being too strict. So long as your weekly budget is matching up, you'll be fine.
7. Take advantage of lunch specials
An Almuerzo is a daily changing lunch deal of a bowl of soup (with plenty of potatoes and corn), a plate of rice, meat, beans and salad, and a fresh pressed juice for anywhere between $2.50 (Ecuador, Bolivia) to $5 (Peru, Colombia).
Almuerzos are not advertised and are usually found in local restaurants. We didn’t find out about them until we were in South America a month and didn’t know we had to request one to get it. They’re cheap, delicious and filling so if you want to stick to a budget then use these lunch deals as the main meal of the day and for dinner forage the local supermarkets for bunches of cheap fresh fruit like bananas, mangoes and passion-fruit, plus beautiful supple avocados for around 50c each.
Grab some wholegrain bread rolls from the local bakery (the white bread is loaded with sugar and resembles cake, it’s just awful) and a wedge of cheese for a dollar or two and you’ll have yourself a healthy dinner. We found it really hard to get our vegetable intake each day and most meals we ate in South America left us feeling bloated. You’ll probably start to miss flavour varieties but thankfully, sushi has really taken off in South America and many coastal towns have a sushi bar (although pricey at $10 a person). Luckily, Peru is full of Chinese eateries at about $4 for a soup and stir-fry.
8. Don't be paranoid about taking antimalarials
Will you need antimalarial medication for South America? For the Amazon jungle, yes, although our guide claimed that eating nine grilled grapefruit a day for three weeks will cure malaria, but you really don’t want to rely on that. We spent most our trip at high altitudes in the Andes and we barely saw mosquitoes so the only time we took antimalarial tabs was for the Amazon excursion. See a malaria map here.
9. Don't underestimate the size of South America
Don’t underestimate the time it takes to travel from one side to the other. Allow at least a month to see each country. We spent six weeks in Colombia and still missed huge swathes of the country.
10. Bring water with you to restaurants
Being served by a 10 year old is common. We would order a glass of coke and watch the waiter run across the road to buy a bottle the store only to pour us a glass and charge the same price. We could have just done that. I used to bring bottled water into restaurants and so long as you're not obvious about it, it's fine.
Llamas and alpacas really are everywhere and they are all named Princessa, so don’t forget to take a selfie with one, although the owner may charge a dollar for the privilege.
Pin it to your South America Board: