Discover a Real Gap Year Heaven
South America is one of those places which can captivate you - we've all seen the iconic images of Macchu Pichu, the Cristo Redentor in Rio, or the glaciers in Patagonia - and it's these sites that inspire people to travel to the continent. However, it's not as easy as disappearing over to New Zealand for a couple of months. There is so much to see and do and such a large area to cover. That's before you get on to the many different borders you have to cross and, hardest for most people, the new languages to conquer.
For me, I just didn't know what to expect or where to start with the planning. In the end I had to settle on an entry and exit point (which then got changed) and then made it up once I got there! As with all the best backpacking adventures plans regularly get changed anyway. The only other thing I did before I left was to take a year of evening classes in Spanish. Obviously it helped that I knew a long way in advance that I was going to go but if does help to have a small amount of the language before you get there. Whilst I picked a lot of Spanish up I think I managed it quicker because I had the basics already.
One thing that struck me that I hadn't expected was how European some of the countries were. For example, in the Brazilian, Argentinean and Chilean cities at times felt as though I had only jumped on a short flight to the Med. However, the likes of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia definitely felt like they had their own culture, dress and psyche, especially once you got to the more rural areas.
Getting around in South America can be a very pleasant, relaxing experience or it can be some of the longest hours of your life. Either way, it's an experience and creates many stories to tell everyone back home about. There's no way I would have swapped using public transport for flying. The best buses I ever went on were in Argentina.
There are many different companies to choose from but the basics are all the same - meals, reclining chairs, leg room, films and that's just in the basic class. You can get buses with even more leg room and with some companies you get hot meals, blankets and even a glass of champagne before they switched the lights off at night. At the other end though, buses in Bolivia are cramped, falling apart with drivers taking corners so close to the edge of a sheer drop that there was many a time when you just close your eyes and don't look!
As for other transport, there are very few trains about - the only well used one for tourists is the train taking people from Cusco - Macchu Pichu and back. If you wish to not take a bus long distance you will need to fly, although there are not budget airlines as we know them. If going between countries LAN has the most extensive, although not the cheapest, network. In some towns (e.g. Santiago and Buenos Aires) you can get around on the metro system, all towns have bus networks although sometimes this isn't the easiest thing to understand. Some places (e.g. Quito) will have tram/trolley bus routes and all places will have taxis that can be hailed although there is no guarantee on how falling apart the cab will be. Late at night I'd say use a taxi as the preferred method of getting around. Always negotiate the price first though!
Recommended Bus Companies
Where you stay will of course depend on where you are and how much you are prepared to pay. In some places it is possible to get hostels and stay in dorms, especially in the bigger cities. There are also a couple of chains slowly growing, for example the Loki hostels in Peru and Bolivia. There are also numerous hostels affiliated to the VIP backpackers' network. However, in many places you may be staying in very basic, cheap guesthouses and some of the cheapest ones may not be in the safest parts of town. They also may not have any hot water and the occasional bug but for $1 a night who can complain?! It's not usually needed, or possible, to book in advance although there are some obvious exceptions - Christmas and New Year for one, or Carnaval in Rio. Sometimes, these need to be booked months in advance so it's always worth checking this.
Food in South America depends on how much you want to pay. In the more European countries the hostels are more likely to have a kitchen meaning a quick trip to the local supermarket and you can eat whatever you make. In the poorer countries you will be staying more in guesthouses with no kitchen but eating out is so cheap anyway it would be silly not to. Wherever you are, the more touristy the area the greater choice you will find in restaurants. In some places, every other shop is a pizza place, there's loads of Italians and if you're ever in need of a burger fix then you'll be sure to find McDonald's, Burger King or KFC. However, in other places you will be eating the local food. This will usually involve rice, either chicken or red meat with beans or plantain. It can get a bit repetitive after a while especially when you are also eating this for breakfast as well! It does make you appreciate the times you find bacon and eggs all the more. If you are on tour, you will probably find some meals provided but you're always best to check which ones first.
What to Take
In theory, everything you need can be bought in South America and many times for cheaper so if anything is forgotten you needn't worry. There is nothing in particular that stands out as necessary except malaria pills for the jungle regions where you will also want a good bug repellent. Tampons can be hard to find even in large cities so make sure you bring these with you.
What to Wear
Clothing depends on where you are visiting although many find that they are going to so many different weather situations that you need to bring clothing for all eventualities. One of the biggest myths to dispel is the belief that South America is always hot. It isn't. Sure, Copacabana beach in summer is sizzling but this doesn't fit for the whole continent. Patagonia and Southern Chile and Argentina, even in summer, can be cold and snowy but can also be hot and sunny and the weather can change in an instant. Places that lie in the Andes and are at altitude are generally much cooler, sometimes downright cold and wet even in summer. Night time in these regions is especially chilly. It is worth noting that large parts of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador fall into this category including La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Cusco and Macchu Pichu and Quito. The lower lying regions of South America are easiest to prepare for as they follow the conventional seasons, although as this is the Southern hemisphere, they are backwards to the UK. If heading into the jungle weather will most likely be hot and sticky and quite possibly very rainy. No matter whereabouts you are what you plan to do with your days will also play a part in your clothing. If you are spending all day on the beach, take a sarong not a beach towel, you won't stand out as much as a tourist. If you are trekking, ensure you have adequate footwear and enough layers for day and night. If you are heading into the jungle you may wish to consider longer trousers and long sleeves to keep mossies away.
Some of this may seem downright obvious but it is amazing the number of people who end up with problems because they haven't used their common sense. The most obvious thing when it comes to safety is in the way you conduct yourself. Don't go flashing expensive jewellery or cameras about; don't go wandering round dodgy parts of town after dark on your own - if you have to go there take a taxi. This also applies to if you have been out drinking and may be a little under the influence even in nicer parts of town. Keep valuables locked in your hostel safe or keep them in a money belt on your person. If arriving late, take a taxi even if it's close so you don't have to be carrying large bags around with you. If you feel you have walked into a possibly unsavoury area, turn straight around and go back the way you came. If you are lost, pop into a shop to look at your map, figure out your route then head off. Bus stations quite often attract thieves so take care, keep an eye on your valuables and take a taxi if necessary.
- Learn a little bit of the lingo either before you go or once you arrive. Even if you only have the basics it will help to pick more up when you are there which will greatly enhance your experience.
- Where possible try to travel overland. This may mean a long time on a bus but the scenery can be stunning and you will get to interact with the locals something you could not do so easily if you were on a plane. If travelling overnight this can also reduce the cost of accommodation.
- Check to see if your visit will coincide with any local festivals. It can be a great way to get a feel for a place but it may require some forward planning such as booking a bed or bus.
- Find out about any customs or etiquette beforehand you do not want to offend anyone.
- Most of all, have fun.
The largest non-Spanish speaking country in South America (they speak Portuguese) is also the largest country meaning that it can take a long time to go anywhere. It can also get rather expensive around New Year and Carnaval especially in the major cities. The highlights in Brazil have to include Rio de Janeiro, any of the many white sandy beaches and the thundering might of the Iguacu Falls.
Contains everything from the mountains of the Andes through to the glaciers of Patagonia and throw in one of the liveliest cities in the world - Buenos Aires. You can also pop across into Uruguay even if it's just for a day trip as it's an hour across the water from Buenos Aires. Highlights are Bariloche - snow capped mountains surrounding a clear lake, Iguazu Falls with its 275 falls of up to 80m and Buenos Aires - a city with a very European feel to it famous for its Salsa and Tango dancers.
Home to one of the driest places in the world - the Atacama Desert - this narrow strip of land is very easy to travel around due to its shape. Either start at the top and work down or vice versa. Top highlights include Volcano climbing in Pucon, floating in a salt lake in the Atacama Desert and visiting the Moai (stone statues) of Easter Island.
A country that can take your breathe away both literally, due to the high altitudes, and figuratively, due to the incredible scenery. Large scale tourism still hasn't made it here yet so you can still see lots of the old traditional customs and clothing. Highlights are Salar de Uyuni trip including Salt Flats, Laguna Colorado and Laguna Verde, La Paz - the city built into a hill and hiking on Isla Del Sol in Lake Titicaca - a very important place in the beliefs of Incas.
Home to one of the most recognisable sites in South America, Macchu Pichu, Peru is well and truly on every backpacker's route. Aside from this there are still plenty of other amazing places to be seen and the country hasn't yet become too over commercialised. Top 3 highlights are the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu - the original trek and still as popular as ever with good reason; fantastic views and amazing ruins to explore at every corner, the Nazca lines built onto the ground and undiscovered until recently whilst the Islas Flotantes, the reed islands, on Lake Titicaca show a unique way of life.
Another country both high in the mountains and down on the beaches, full of colonial splendour and Incan ruins. Highlights are Cuyabeno Jungle Reserve soaking up the sights and sounds of the jungle, Ingapirca ruins, Ecuador's most impressive ruins and Mitad Del Mundo - yes it's a cheesy photo op but still worth a visit.
Long off the backpackers route due to its internal security issues, Colombia is fast asserting itself as not only one of the best places in South America but, provided you take the usual precautions, a very safe one to travel around. Highlights are Cartagena, the countries' beautiful old colonial port, trekking in Tayrona National Park and partying the night away in Cali.
About the Author: Hannah Simmons
I have done two RTW trips in the past few years. Aged 22 I finished uni and took off for 7 months to Japan - Hong Kong - Thailand - Malaysia - Singapore - Oz - NZ - USA - Canada. I returned and worked for two years whilst I saved money then went off for nine months to South Africa - Oz - Thailand - Laos - Vietnam - Cambodia - South America - Central America. I am currently working again but planning future trips.