10 Top Tips for Travelling South America

Me at La Boca

At La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Just over a year ago I returned from an epic adventure around South and Central America. I’m still often pinching myself with the memories I have from there, some of which I can’t believe really happened!

I travelled completely solo, I didn’t know anyone in South or Central America. I donned my backpack fresh from a trip through Africa, landed in Sao Paulo and hit the ground running… or well crawling under the weight of my pack. Close to 6 months later I’d made it clockwise around the continent from Sao Paulo, Brazil – down through Argentina, in and out of Chile, up through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, over to the Galapagos, then onwards to Colombia. From there I took a boat for a 3-4 day trip through the San Blas islands to Panama, finishing up in Costa Rica.

I wish I could have lasted longer and made it further up Central America, but I was worn out.

With a few people I know travelling through South America in the near future I thought I’d pull together a few tips for people to consider when travelling through South America. I hope this helps anyone who is planning a trip get prepared and excited!

10 Top Tips:

#1: Only consume bottled water

I can’t express this enough. Which is why I made it number 1. If there is one thing you take away from this post it’s drink bottled water. Not only that, but brush your teeth with bottled water and clean any fruit/vegetables with bottled water. Be wary of what other people use to clean fruit and veggies that you eat. Avoid getting any water in your mouth from showers or taps.
Parasites. Sounds gross but it’s painful and not pleasant. With the altitude and various meds you may take as precautions to malaria or other things at times, you can confuse parasite symptoms with other things.

A Chichico having fun in my hood

A Chichico having fun in my hood – volunteering in Ecuador near the Amazon

#2: Get comprehensive travel insurance with decent medical care

Chances are you’ll get sick even if you’re trying to be careful.
I ended up in hospital twice with parasites and several times to try get a sea urchin spike removed from my foot (thank the pesky thing in the water in the Galapagos for that). I thank my lucky stars as annoying as my insurance company could be at times, they paid out everything when I returned to NZ. I could travel and visit private hospitals knowing I’d be covered.

#3: Learn a spot of Spanish

Even the doctors don’t really speak English. At the very least take a little phrase book with you that you can point to words.
After a 20 hour bus journey the last thing you want to be doing is asking random policemen and locals where the freaking laundromat is… and continue to fail to find it for 2 hours…. My Spanish sucked. I’d done an 8 week course in London then gone to Africa for about 2 months and didn’t practise. Brazil was a write-off because it was Portuguese, Argentina wasn’t too bad, pretty easy to communicate. However, Chile and up got harder and harder. I had some people shocked how little I knew and how far I’d managed to travel without much Spanish. It’s doable, but not easy.

Shops at Humahuaca

Shops at Humahuaca

#4: Pack light

Backpacks make it easy to get around, but when you’re under 50kg and carrying 22kg on your back plus around 10kg on your front, it’s not ideal. I’d drag my backpack to the nearest bench, squat and lump it on my back and try not to fall forward.

My backpacks pre-Africa/South America journey back to NZ

My backpacks pre-Africa/South America journey back to NZ

#5: Spend money on good buses

Night buses are a way of life when travelling around South America. Some airlines can provide cheap flights in certain countries, but for the most part, buses are your best friend. Good buses like Cruz del Sur provide options like seats that recline to flat beds, meals etc. however, take your own food where you can because the quality varies. These bus companies that cost a bit more will be more secure and in some parts you’ll get your bags searched and be filmed getting on the bus. There are times you’ll have no choice but to choose crappy buses, so make the most of the good ones while you can!

Our 4WD transport for 3 days

Our 4WD transport for 3 days through the Salt Flats

#6: Get some motion sick pills

Particularly if you’re taking a bus from somewhere like Arequipa to Nazca in Peru. 14 hours of windy roads that will test the best of stomachs. Likewise after said journey when it came to the open seas to get to the San Blas I found the strongest sick sickness pills I could find. Knocked me out for almost 40 hours with only one or two breaks, but I was cool calm and collected by the time we arrived in the island paradise!

Beach on an island in the San Blas

Beach on an island in the San Blas

#7: Spend an extra $5 for a private room on occasion

About once a month I’d shell out a little bit more to get a private room, particularly if I wasn’t feeling well or I was in a super cheap city, sometimes this would only equate to $15 for a double bed, heating and excellent service (they carried my backpack all through town to the bus and would fill my hot water bottle up and deliver it – Copacabana, Bolivia).
Hostels and dorm rooms are great for meeting people and having fun, but if you’re going for a long time it will drive you insane if you don’t take breaks from it.

My suite on the Treasure of Galapagos

My suite on the Treasure of Galapagos – first ever upgrade!

#8: Plan like this is your last time here

It takes a lot of time and effort to get around South and Central America, who knows when you’ll be back? Make the most of it. If it means having a big breakfast and skipping lunch to be able to visit that special national park, do it. If you come back, how likely are you to come back to that exact area again?

Machu Picchu, view from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain

Me at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu City

Machu Picchu City

Southern Right Whale (head), Puerto Piramides

Southern Right Whale (head), Puerto Piramides

Ngaire at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

At Iguazu Falls, Argentina

#9: Change USD in Argentina, namely Buenos Aires

Yes you can make a lot of money for your travels by getting to BA asap and changing money there. If you’re running out of USD, nip over to Uruguay to get some out for a day and come back. Be wary of how to tell real money from fake and for safety I don’t recommend going alone because it’s literally visiting a back room off a street with a random guy offering you a good deal.

I’d do my research of what rates other people were getting and then refuse a bunch of people until I got a decent rate, then follow through, but check the notes.

A street in Valparaiso

A street in Valparaiso

Lady selling bits and pieces

Lady selling bits and pieces

#10: Listen, gesture and have fun

The Latin culture is so very friendly and welcoming. They talk with their hands, so learn how to read gestures and invent your own (that’s how I managed I think). Immerse yourself safely during the daytime, help locals – if an old lady grabs your arm to cross a road in La Paz, she’s really just as scared as you. If you’re a female travelling solo, find friendly hostels and think about your safety before going out at night. I kept to days mostly but would socialise in hostels at night.

Those are my Top 10 Tips for travelling through South and Central America. I’m sure there are so many more, so if you have any questions flick me a comment below and I’ll answer them the best I can.