What to Know Before Your South America Trip
A number of you have contacted me in anticipation of your upcoming trip to Latin America or trepidation of the unknown!
What is South America like? Is South America safe to vist?
Don't fret -- it's all good. I loved exploring South America and found adapting to each country to be a breeze after a few initial surprises. If you're ready to cross off a major bucket list trip to South America, don't do so blindly. To ensure you have an awesome time, have your expectations in check. Here are 7 important things you should be aware of before you go to South America:
1. Haggling is common in many markets
South America is a HUGE continent with a wide range of economic standing. One thing is for certain, though -- whether wealthy or poor, expect some degree of haggling in your daily routine. If you don't see a meter in the taxi, you should haggle a flat rate before getting into the car. If you are at the market, you should assume that the price tags are set anticipating markdowns. If you're not haggling, you're probably overpaying.
Tip: don't be afraid to somewhat low-ball your offer. It sets the tone for bargaining! But do so respectfully.
2. Wear Layers & sunblock -- especially near the Equator
For some reason a lot of newbie travelers equate the idea of South America to hot surfing beaches or Shaman rituals in the cold mountains. There are hot beaches... in the SUMMER! And freezing mountains as well. It all depends on when you go.
The majority of this continent is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means their winter is summer for a lot of us. That said, the closer you are to the equator (or if you're high in the Andes mountains) the closer you are to the sun. And boy will you feel it.
Lather on sunblock and protect yourself from wind and sunburn year round. Don't forget a billed cap, and clothing and socks that can wick away sweat. I find wearing three layers and a windbreaker is perfect for peeling off during hot afternoons and bundling up in the morning and night.
3. Altitude sickness is real
Many of the popular tourist attractions and breathtaking scenery are high in the mountains. At up to 15,000 feet above sea level (whoa) you'll find yourself feeling light-headed, nauseous, and out of breath. Be prepared to feel "out of it" and always add on at least two days to your trip for acclimation.
Tip: chewing coca leaves or brewing coca tea really helps relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. But note, if you get drug tested for work you shouldn't take it.
4. Bathroom runs will keep you running
If you are uncomfortable with talking about "the runs", get used to it... fast. You almost certainly WILL have some bathroom emergencies. And it almost certainly WILL happen at the worst time ever.
Rest assured in the stall next to you, there's another tourist equally terrified by their bowel activity. Stay strong and be sure to bring your own toilet paper, hand soap, and money (for entry). I find bringing Pepto Bismol tablets in my emergency kit to be helpful. Additionally, pharmacies in South America give veryyy strong probiotics -- which I totally prefer over antibiotics.
5. Many souvenirs are the same
This is a generalization, but for some countries it's right on target. Specifically geared at the Andean / Quechua / Inca tourist markets, you'll find that a lot of the souvenirs look almost exactly the same. The difference? They get cheaper the farther south you go.
Items I purchased in Ecuador cost almost two times more than in Peru. Items I bought in Peru were found at a discount in Bolivia. That said, fabrics, shoes and notebooks in Peru were of better quality than Bolivia. Wood and metals were the same.
Tip: I recommend purchasing any Alpaca products in Peru -- they seemed to have the best quality (as opposed to poly blends).
6. Some South American towns will have unreliable internet
If you're backpacking to smaller towns it sort of comes with the package, but for digital nomads, finding good wifi in parts of South America is a rarity. Good wifi will make you cry tears of joy. In other parts of South America, though, it will feel like you never left home.
Tip: If in a full hostel, make sure you're one of the first people to log on to the wifi. Once the connection hits a certain number of users, there's no chance. Didn't get on? Head to the wifi owner and ask them to reset the password again. Depending on what country you're in (Bolivia, for example) they reset the password around the clock to prevent outside users from mooching.
7. Speaking Spanish
If you don't speak Spanish you should at least try to learn... it's the respectful thing to do -- especially if you're visiting small towns. Duolingo is my favorite free phone app to recommend.
When in big cities, you'll find a good number of people speak a bit of English, so you'll be in luck. Take the time to learn the different Spanish vocabulary words from each country and show the locals you're genuinely interested! You'll find they'll be much nicer to you.
8. Not every city looks like Cusco
When people think of South America, they immediately picture the Andean region's iconic Machu Picchu, alpacas, and Inca-inspired souvenirs in the foreground of Spanish architecture. But not all of South America looks like a colonized (or deserted) Inca city. Some are quite contemporary and bustling, like Buenos Aires in Argentina and Santiago, Chile. Others are a mixture of heritage sites and towering residential buildings that look like Miami -- like in Cartagena, Colombia. Keep an open mind everywhere you turn!
Feel better about your upcoming trip?
South America was truly a pleasure to visit and I've returned multiple times. Keep these tips in mind and manage your expectations for a unique experience.
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Note: I first wrote this article as a guest post for The Blank Map in June 2015, which is now discontinued. It has been reposted and updated for accuracy.