Tips For Backpacking South America

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.

Get Familiar with Photography

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.

Prepare Your Liver

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.

Plan Your Big Hikes in Advance

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.

Bring a Sense of Adventure

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.

[photos via H.L.I.T., alexkerhead, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey]

Isolated tribe discovered in Paraguay

Officials in Paraguay say that they have found evidence of a never-before contacted tribe living in a remote region of that country’s Chaco forest. The discovery came about as two Brazilian ranching companies moved into the region and began encroaching on the tribe’s space. Now there are fears that these indigenous people could be unfairly forced off their land due to increased deforestation and a growing number of cattle ranches.

Experts believe that the tribe belongs to the Ayoreo Totobiegosode culture, which is a reclusive group that has had violent encounters with the outside world in the past. While this particular tribe has yet to be spotted, authorities say they have found numerous footprints, broken branches and traps designed to capture turtles. Those traps resemble the ones used by other Ayoreo tribes encountered in other parts of the forest.

Brazilian companies River Plate and BBC recently purchased the land on which this tribe lives. Those two organizations have been systematically logging the forest to create more land for grazing cattle and both were cited for illegal deforestation in the region just last year. As these two companies continue to remove trees from the Chaco forest, they force the natives living there onto increasingly smaller plots of land or into a situation where they can no longer avoid contact with outsiders.Because these tribes haven’t been touched by the modern world, first contact must be handled very delicately. The indigenous people lack immunities to diseases and infections that we take for granted and something as simple as the common cold can have a devastating effect on a tribe. It is also not uncommon for them to react violently against interlopers in their territory, particularly interlopers that they don’t understand very well. It is because of these dangers that the United Nations has passed a treaty that makes it illegal to contact these people unless communication is first initiated by members of the tribe.

The Paraguayan government hasn’t decided how it will proceed yet, although there have been calls to investigate how River Plate and BBC came by the plots of land they are now clearing of trees. It is highly possible that the government will step in and prevent further encroachment on the land in order to protect the natives who are living there, but that outcome is far from certain.

When I read stories such as this one I can’t help but wonder what those tribes think of us when they encounter us for the first time. Clearly we are of the same species but we have technology that must seem like magic to them. I can’t imagine how that makes them feel.

[Photo credit: IIosuna via WikiMedia]

10 countries Americans need advance visas to visit

We live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.

Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites.

  • China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
  • India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
  • Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
  • North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
  • See also: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan


  • Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
  • Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
  • Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
  • See also: Turkmenistan


  • Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
  • Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
  • Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
  • See also: Nigeria, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Suriname

The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thomas Claveirole.

Classic Treks: The Inca Trail, Peru

Peru is, beyond a doubt, one of the top adventure travel destinations in the entire world. It offers an amazing array of things to see and do, perfectly blending culture with both mountain and jungle settings, along with ancient artifacts and ruins that rival those found in Egypt. Of course, the most spectacular and famous of those ruins is the lost city of Machu Picchu, located at 8000 feet above sea level, in the Andes Mountains, near the town of Cusco.

Machu Picchu is the number one tourist attraction in a country full of tourist attractions, and there are multiple ways of getting there. Most take a train to the site, preferring to enjoy a scenic ride through the mountains. But one of the other ways of reaching the “Lost City of the Incas” is hiking the Inca Trail, an option that has grown in popularity over the past few years.

The Inca Trail traditionally consists of four days of trekking through the Andes, culminating with hikers catching their first glimpse of the fabled city while passing through the Sun Gate, another small ruin not far from Machu Picchu itself. Along the trail, travelers will experience tropical jungles, cloud forests, and high alpine passes. They’ll also have the opportunity to visit several other ruins as they travel the ancient Incan highway.This option for reaching Machu Picchu is obviously more demanding than taking the train, but more rewarding as well. At least three of the days on the trail are fairly rigourous hiking, and altitude comes into play, with the trail reaching as high as 13,800 feet in a place called Dead Woman’s Pass. Nights are spent camping in tents, and the weather can vary greatly depending on the time of year. But the hikers taking the Inca Trail are there to soak in the scenery and rough it a bit anyway.

In recent years, the trail has become extremely popular, forcing the Peruvian government to put a cap on the number of hikers who can set out each day. During the peak season of June through September, the permits for the trail can sell out weeks in advance, so if you’re planning to hike the trail, get your reservations in early. During the high season, you can expect larger number of hikers, up to 500 per day, and crowded campsites, which can ruin the experience for some. Off peak season means a bit more solitude and open trails, but less predictible weather, usually resulting in more rain or snow.

The payoff for the days on the trail is at the end, when the hikers emerge from the mountains and descend the Incan Staricase from the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu, much the same way that ancient travelrs did hundreds of years ago. Completing the hike is a reward in and of itself, but finding the lost city at the end, and exploring it for several hours, just caps the whole experience.

The Inca Trail is considered by many to be one of the great treks of the world and still holds a high place on many hiker’s “life lists”, despite the fact that it has now become so popular and crowded. For many adventure travelers, it’s still worth the hike, and will always beat taking the train.

If you are interested in trekking the Inca Trail, there are dozens of guide services to choose from. A guide is required by all trekkers, and you are also required to book at least a month in advance, although that too can be flexible when you’re in Cusco. Expect to pay between $300-$500 for the trek, depending on the guides and services they offer.

Ciudad del Este – South America’s black market hotspot

The tiny country of Paraguay doesn’t often pop up on the “must-see” list for those traveling to South America. Sitting landlocked between Argentina to the south, Bolivia to the west and Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay has been described as “the forgotten country of Latin America.” But Paraguay has nevertheless attracted quite a bit of attention lately, less for tourism than because it is an important hub in the global smuggling trade.

A vast bazaar of illegal weapons, counterfeit goods and illicit substances is spread out for sale in the markets of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s smuggling capital. The city is conveniently located at the convergence of the borders of three countries (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay), making it the ideal transit point for tax free and often illegal goods headed to all points beyond. GOOD magazine has an interesting profile on Ciudad del Este in its most recent issue. Author Sacha Feinman dives into the city’s back alleys and sidestreets, where he discovers everything from AK-47’s to Montblanc pens to bricks of marijuana can be easily obtained for purchase. Feinman also befriends some of Ciudad del Este’s many porters-for-hire, who package illicit goods and carry them over the city’s 1,600-foot “Friendship Bridge” to neighboring Brazil. Instead of crossing through customs, the men drop their packages off the side to the riverbank below, where waiting teenagers sort through the packages for distribution. So much for filling out that customs form…

As long as the Paraguayan and Brazilian authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the thriving smuggling practice, Paraguay’s black markets will continue to thrive. For a country that doesn’t see much tourism (or other industry for that matter) it seems to be as much an economic necessity as it is a fact of life. Do exercise caution if you’re even considering a visit. Aside from all the petty lawlessness, Wikitravel warns that Paraguay is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of Yellow Fever in over 60 years. Yikes.