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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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