Backpacking South America is a worthwhile adventure I recommend everyone to have at least once in their lives. Before I arrived on the continent, I was unsure of what to expect. To help prepare you before you go, here are some things I wish I had known before I left for my trip.
Know the Exchange Rate
The exchange rates vary considerably from country to country in South America. For example, while travelers can spend a lot of time in Bolivia and Peru, stretching their dollar very far, popular tourist cities in Brazil, Chile and the Galapagos Islands can be expensive. If you’re on a budget, look up which cities are the most affordable beforehand. For example, I noticed in Argentina that the farther south I went – basically the farther into Patagonia – the
more expensive things cost. For example, my usual chicken sub went from being 10 to 15 Argentine Pesos ($2 to $3) in Buenos Aires to 45 to 60 Argentine Pesos ($10 to $14) in Bariloche.
Moreover, don’t always think “roughing it” will save you money. Making use of the shelters on the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine and camping your way through the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu are quite expensive. In fact, one night in a “refugio” in Torres del Paine will cost about $40 to $60 – and that only includes the mattress. Camping in the park is free if you bring your own gear; however, this can be tricky as the hike is difficult at times and you will have to carry your own
equipment. Moreover, to trek with a good company for the Inca Trail will cost about $500 to $650 for the trek.Likewise, bring a mix of US cash, debit cards, credit cards and foreign currency with you. It is not uncommon in smaller towns for ATMs to run out of cash, so it’s good to be prepared. Additionally, make sure to tell your bank and credit card company you’re leaving the country beforehand. If you don’t, you may find yourself with a frozen account.
Check the Weather for the Places You Want to Go Beforehand
While most people will check the weather for the first city of their trip, it is a good idea to check for each area when traveling in South America. For example, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, you may be able to walk around in shorts and tank top, while heading to Bariloche in the same country may require a hat and coat. Furthermore, don’t think that because it is a certain season in the country the weather will match that season in your home country. Autumn in Patagonia or Brazil is a lot different than autumn in New York.
Traveling to South America, you will have many opportunities for extraordinary landscape and nature shots. Even if you don’t have a DSLR camera, I would recommend taking a photography course, or at least getting familiar with your camera’s features and how to properly use them. You may also want to practice at a park in your hometown at different times of day and night, to figure out what the best settings are.
Bring Your Sweet Tooth
In many places in South America, you will be surrounded at all times of day by delicious cakes, cookies, pastrys and candies. I especially noticed this in Brazil, where it is not uncommon to eat sweets for breakfast. In fact, at all of the Brazilian hostels I stayed in, treats like chocolate cake with sprinkles and chocolate sandwich cookies were served in the morning.
Try the Local Specialties
While there are many preconceived notions that exist on what “South American food” is like, each country, and even the different cities within a country, has their own local specialties. For example, Argentine empanadas are delicious; however, their ingredients differ from city to city. Additionally, in Brazil eating açai is more than just a treat, it’s a cultural experience. Ceviche in Peru, cuy in Ecuador, seafood stews in Chile, giant steaks and matte tea in Argentina, barbeque in Brazil – these are just some of the delicious options waiting for you on your backpacking adventure.
Not only do the countries of South America feature unique and appetizing foods, many are also known for their national drinks. In Brazil, you must try the caipirinha, a strong cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime. Moreover, Argentina is world-renowned for its Malbec wine, while the Pisco Sour, created using pisco and lemon juice, is typical of Peru and Chile. In Colombia, make sure to try aguardiente, or firewater, which is made from sugar cane molasses converted into alcohol. The proof is usually 60%, and many times sugar is added to make the drink sweeter.
Take the Bus
Bus transportation in South America is very good. While the popular bus routes usually take hours, the drives are very comfortable and scenic. Beautiful desert, mountain and lake landscapes that would be missed by taking an airplane can be photographed from your bus window. Another great thing about bus travel is you can usually travel overnight, saving you money on accommodation and allowing you to not waste an entire day traveling. Moreover, food, beverages and sometimes even champagne and wine are usually included in your ticket price. One tip: spring for a cama bus. This will allow you to recline your seat far back. Doing this, along with pulling down the leg rest in front of you, will allow you to almost feel like you’re sleeping in a bed.
Keep a Loose Itinerary
With such convenient bus transportation, keeping a loose itinerary is easy. You can arrive in a city, peruse the different bus routes and then figure out where you want to go. I’d also advise talking to other travelers in your hostel to get recommendations. For example, when I arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, I immediately went and booked a bus ticket to El Calafate, simply based on the fact that I had read this is what you were “supposed to do in Patagonia.” After talking to other backpackers in my hostel, however, I realized I was skipping over El Chalten, a hotspot for my favorite activity, hiking. If I had waited to book my ticket, I could have stopped there first and then moved on to El Calafate.
That being said, you should plan out any big hikes in advance. For example, if you want to trek the Inca Trail in Peru, you’re going to need to book it months in advance if you want to ensure you have a spot. Moreover, doing the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine, or even a shorter version of it, requires some beforehand planning. Will you camp, stay in a refugio, or book a nearby hotel? Are the refugios open when you’re going? If it’s high season, they may even be booked up. Where will you store your pack? Will you trek with it? I’d also recommend checking the weather, as this windy park can be difficult to trek in stormy weather.
No Matter What the Weather Is, Pack Layers
Like I mentioned above, the weather in South America is very different from city to city, even if you’re still in the same country. Additionally, while certain places may be hot during the day, such as desert areas, they can be freezing at night. It is also worth mentioning that the buses tend to be very hot or cold, depending on what the weather is outside. For instance, when taking an overnight bus from São Paulo to Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, I wore a tracksuit, figuring I would be warm enough if there was air conditioning. I ended up shivering all night long from the Artic temperatures of the bus. What was really funny was when looking around, I noticed everyone – including the bus drivers – had gloves and scarves on and were wrapping their coats around their heads. Despite this, the air conditioner was never touched.
Interact With Locals
While I believe this is a good idea no matter where you travel to, I especially recommend it for South America. In most places, it is really easy to meet locals, as they are very friendly. For example, when flying from Miami, Florida, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I sat next to a Brazilian girl on the plane. By the time we landed, I had made a new friend, was being brought to her house to meet her mom and was given a grand tour of the city. Likewise, at a bar in Buenos Aires, a local overheard me speaking English and was excited to practice his own as well as tell me all about the city’s history and must-see sites. I also noticed many people in South America tend to backpack around their own countries, so you’ll be able to meet a lot of natives in your hostel. Even though South America is often thought of as one culture, each country, and even each city, is very interesting and unique. For example, not all of Brazil eats the same exact foods or dances the same way. It depends what city you’re in.
No matter what thrills you, you’ll find it in South America. Surfing Rio de Janeiro’s beautiful beaches, hiking glaciers or ancient ruins, hang gliding over picturesque Patagonia, trekking the Andes or Amazon and scuba diving the clear waters of Paraty – these are just a few of your options. If you think about it, simply backpacking South America is an adventure in itself, as you never know whom you’ll meet, what cultural discoveries you’ll make or where you’ll end up the next day. When I was in Paraty, Brazil, there was one night I felt particularly tired and lazy. Despite that, I went to the beach bar across the street from my hostel for a caipirinha, just to feel social. I ended up hanging out with locals all night, learning how to forró dance and going to the town’s signature nightclub, Paraty 33. It ended up being one of my most memorable nights of the trip.
Know Where You Need to Take Extra Precautions
I don’t care if you’re in your hometown, you should always be alert. Bad things happen everywhere, not just when you’re traveling. That being said, there are certain cities – and areas within cities – that you need to be extra vigilant in. When arriving at a hostel, I always make sure to ask the staff to circle the areas on my map that are more dangerous. For example, when in Buenos Aires, the hostel staff told my friends and I to be very careful when walking around in the southeast part of the city near La Boca. Not listening, a friend of mine not only went and walked around the area alone, but also made it obvious he was carrying a camera and stored it in his backpack – where it was completely out of his sight. It wasn’t surprising to me that by the time he returned to the hostel, his camera had been stolen. Moreover, on a bus ride in Bolivia, where you should always be on high alert, one traveler fell asleep with her DSLR camera sitting in her lap. Luckily her boyfriend was awake, because one local actually reached over to snatch it off her lap. He was able to stop the theft from occurring, but the situation could have been avoided if the girl would have been more cautious. Keep in mind, these are examples of petty theft. You also want to keep yourself safe from physical danger.