5 Things You Should Never Do When Backpacking in South America

Written by: Steph Dyson

South America is becoming a firm backpacking favourite, but can still seem a little intimidating to those newly arrived on its sunny, Spanish-speaking and caipirinha-supping shores.

But never fear: dream big but go slow, have a nibble on some local delicacies, and don’t underestimate the altitude and you’ll be in for a good time. Well, those are a decent start at least; here are a few more tips for backpacking in South America.


DON’T speed through all of the countries

12 countries doesn’t sound like much, but mark my words: South America is big. 17.84 million square kilometres to be precise. Brazil alone is larger than the whole of continental USA. So why is it that, with only three months to travel, so many backpackers insist on a whirlwind, must visit every country, South American tour?

Bartolome Island, Ecuador

DO dream big but go slow

While I’m not suggesting you need to spend 11 months in Bolivia like I did, planning a month in each nation guarantees more than a passing understanding of its cultural and historical flavour.

If time is truly of the essence, Ecuador is one of the smaller countries on the continent, thus making it an accessible and bite-sized introduction. Before you plan, bear in mind that South American terrain can throw more than a few mountain-shaped curveballs in your direction: not only do the Andes take a long time to cross by bus, but altitude is a dangerous, unforgiving mistress. If you’re planning on travelling anywhere high-altitude, do yourself a favour and have a few days downtime to acclimatise.


DON’T be intimidated by its reputation

Venezuela might not be looking too rosy as a tourist destination at the moment, but the vast majority of South American countries are now stable democracies with much lower crime statistics than you might expect. That said, personal safety should always be your utmost concern.

Downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil

DO practice common sense

Listening to locals’ warnings about places that are a big no no is one of the best ways of avoiding unlucky experiences.

Attaching valuables to your person when taking an overnight bus (I keep my passport and money in a bag stuffed in my sleeping bag liner), carrying a durable padlock for storing your gear in hostels, and being aware of well-known scams are all travel essentials. Unfortunate things can happen: common sense is always the best safeguard when you’re travelling.


DON’T avoid the street food

The traveller’s trots. Montezuma’s revenge. Numerous euphemisms exist for what is essentially a bout of diarrhoea. The culprit? That often scapegoated enemy: street food. But lumping all such delicacies together is unfair and means missing out on some of the most mouth-watering of South American offerings.

Chilean Empanada

DO follow the crowds when picking your dinner

Not all street food stalls are created equal, but following your nose and the hungry stomachs of locals (particularly older people and children) is a recipe for success.

Amongst the wealth of delicacies to sample in South America, stumble upon the meat and gravy queen, the Bolivian salteña; the god of all cheesy, deep-fried pasties, the Chilean empanada; the Peruvian lord of pretend potatoes, the deep-fried yucca. Perhaps not the healthiest of fare, but these delicious snacks are destined to satisfy a ravenous backpacker.


DON’T accept the prices of goods you’re being sold

As a foreigner with little Spanish, getting ripped off is a fact of life; much the same as the English football team being knocked out of international competitions or never being able to find a decent cup of tea abroad. But there is another way.

Two alpacas

DO barter – but be responsible

Haggling is a traveller’s best friend and checking with your hostel receptionist what prices you should be paying for that 100% alpaca (it’s probably actually cheaper llama wool) jumper should set a few things straight.

Although everyone loves a bargain, don’t feel ashamed to let your conscience lead: knocking 10,000 Colombian pesos off your purchase might sound great, but the quid or two you’ll save will mean significantly more to the seller. Remember: responsible travel feels much better.


DON’T just make a bee-line for the “must-sees”

While every continent has its “unmissable” destinations that warrant the hype, trying to pick off every place your mate, their mate, your mate’s, mate’s long-lost second cousin told you to visit is a lesson in exhaustion and disappointment. Iguazu Falls? Just a big waterfall. The Galapagos? A bunch of lazy sea lions and oversized tortoises. Well, maybe not. But it pays to be selective.

Iguazu Falls

DO be open to where travel can take you

I’ve met two distinct traveller types during my time in South America: the ‘we planned everything three months before and yes we’re having a lovely time’ and those who left most of their trip to the flexible unknown. Many of the latter went on to bump into similarly-minded travellers and subsequent adventures that could never have been planned.

Takeaway lesson: with a surprisingly well-connected network of public buses, travel itineraries can be the last-minute, sweet, sweet product of a pisco sour-inspired whim. Make new friends, plan some ridiculous adventures, and dive into the travelling possibilities that this great continent has to offer.


Steph Dyson writes about adventure travel and meaningful volunteering on her website, Worldly Adventurer. She left her job as an English teacher in the UK to travel the world in 2014. So far, she’s made it to Bolivia and Peru. Follow her on Twitter @worldlyadventur

Check out these top travel experiences

Search

Conservation Work on the Galapagos

from £970

7 - 21 days

Help to preserve one of the most unique and fascinating islands in the world. This is a great programme for...

Teach & Learn Spanish in Chile

from £3315

84 days

Make the most of your chance to travel and head to the far reaches of South America. Get immersed in...

The Ultimate Quest- South America

from £5500

95 days

Our ultimate three month adventure. Join our team for three weeks intensive Spanish training in Sucre, Bolivia, before going to...

Veterinary Experience | Buenos Aires

from £1395

2 - 12 days

Our Veterinary Placement is located in the heart of Buenos Aires and is perfect for a passionate animal lover looking...

Medical Internship in Buenos Aires

from £459

7 days

A medical project open to individuals with varied experience, giving interns the opportunity to learn whilst offering quality and essential...

Expedition Leader Program

from £7700

90 days

Develop extensive guiding skills and qualifications specialising in altitude and steep terrain, learn wilderness medicine and get crucial developing world...

In-Class TEFL Course in Buenos Aires

from £1400

20 days

Join our 4-week TEFL in-class course in Buenos Aires and become a TEFL/TESOL certified teacher of English as a foreign...

Teach or Coach Sport in Brazil

from £995

14 - 112 days

Head to vibrant Brazil and volunteer at an exciting youth centre that helps over 9000 young people. Bring skill, passion...

Amazon Conservation Project

from £1395

15 - 88 days

Have a lasting impact on the conservation efforts in the Manu UNESCO Biosphere – one of the most diverse environments...

Nutrition Internships in Peru

from £975

56 - 168 days

Based in the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, affordable internships in Cusco offer something for everyone!

Search

Glaciers Independent Adventure

Argentina

Spend four days in El Calafate and explore a piece of Argentina's incredible Patagonia region. Witness active Perito Moreno Glacier,...

Trails Turtles and Treks

from £3545

13 - 13 days

Peru

Want to see and do it all? Can’t decide whether to hike the iconic Inca Trail or discover the world’s...

Northern Peru

from £1121

Peru

Unlock the secrets of the Andes on this adventure, discovering lost cultures and landscapes in the process. Embark to the...

Southern Explorer

Argentina, Brazil, Chile

From natural wonders to some of the region’s most vibrant cities, experience the riches of South America on this comprehensive...

Discover Patagonia

from £3439

Argentina, Chile

Fall in love with Patagonia amid its massive peaks, welcoming people, and incredible foods. Take in the colours of Buenos...

Traverse South America

from £3775

Peru

24 April 2018 – Due to an unexpected change on the bus schedule between San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and...

The Lares Trek

from £729

Peru

There’s more than one way to earn your Peru hiking stripes. On the Lares Trek, you’ll get three days of...

Easter Island

from £655

Chile

Journey to enigmatic Easter Island and be forever changed by the remote beauty and fascinating folklore of ‘Rapa Nui’. This...

Machu Picchu by Train Independent Adventure

from £539

Peru

They say the journey is part of the experience of seeing Machu Picchu in person – but no one said...

Inti Raymi Festival and Machu Picchu

from £999

Peru

Here's a week that'll take care of two bucket list wishes in one fell swoop. Start your adventure celebrating with...

Find more South America travel inspiration

Search
[contact-form-7 id="4" title="Contact form 1"]