I’ve just returned from travelling around South America, during my time there I visited 8 countries and spent six months travelling from the bottom to the very top and learnt a lot about how to travel this varied continent along the way.Here are a few tips and tricks to help you along on your South America journey.
Bring $USD for Argentina and Chile
Upon arrival in Buenos Aires we soon found out that all of the ATM’s didn’t work, there was a bank strike on so there was no money anywhere. Apparently this is quite common so for the first few days we literally had no cash and could only go to places that accepted cards (which wasn’t that many) but after a few days the banks were up and running and we were able to access money BUT there was a catch.
In both Chile and Argentina the fees to get money out of an ATM were extortionate! Each time we got money out it cost £7 withdrawal fee even on a card that didn’t charge us and you could only get up to £80 per transaction and considering Chile and Argentina are the most expensive countries in South America it’s safe to say we spent way too much on bank fees.
The only way to get around this is to bring USD with you and change it at a ‘cambio’. We wish we had done this as the fees were low and the rates were good. So bring a lot of USD cash with you to these countries to avoid the heavy fees!
Learn numbers and phrases in Spanish
English is not widely spoken in South America and I’ll be the first to admit I really struggled at the beginning with the limited Spanish that I had. Over the months I did learn enough to get by and could definitely understand a lot by the end of my trip but without a doubt learning your numbers to help when buying things, telling the time and general enquiries were so useful!
Get google translate on your phone and make sure you download Spanish offline so you can access it anytime.
I used ‘Coffee Break Spanish’ podcast as well to learn a lot of really useful conversational Spanish. I can’t recommend this podcast enough to people who are trying to learn Spanish.
Get Maps Me
Probably the most useful app in South America, it is offline maps that not only can you pin specific locations but you can get routes for walking, car journeys, bus and train completely offline! It’s just like google maps but you don’t need the internet at all to use it, only to download the specific region maps. I found it particularly helpful when we got in a taxi and they didn’t know where they were going (which was more often than not). Being able to show your location or the driver that indeed they are going in the wrong direction was priceless.
Bargain with Airbnb hosts
OK this is a bit naughty but as a backpacker with a limited budget this came in handy! We met someone who told us that you can very easily bargain with airbnb hosts to get a lower rate during your stay. We had used airbnb in Chile and Argentina and found them to be quite similar in price to hostels but in Peru I assume because it is so touristy it wasn’t that much cheaper. But we tried our luck during our two week stay in Cusco and had success, they dropped the price massively for us and only charged us for 4 people instead of 5. They got the money they wanted and we got affordable prices. It is still all through airbnb but if you are a host you are able to adjust the price while the booking is pending.
Get hostel recommendations from travellers you meet
The best thing about staying in hostels is the people you meet and we met so many amazing people full of knowledge about destinations that you were on the way to. In South America you’re either going from North to South or vice versa so we met a lot of people who were coming from the places we were headed to and we got some great recommendations on hostels. There are a lot of party hostels in South America, we like a party every now and again but advice from other travellers was to steer clear of these places if you value your sleep.
Hostels are tricky, for me I wanted something social but not a party hostel, clean but not too expensive so being able to get advice from people was the perfect way to work out whether it was a good place to stay or not.
I also found fellow travellers on the same route on instagram and most would post where they were staying.
Don’t buy bus tickets online, buy at the bus station it’s cheaper
I know it is the opposite in the U.K and probably most places in the world but South America doesn’t like to do things by the book. We tried to be organised a couple of times and buy tickets online but upon arrival at the station curiosity got the best of me and after a few questions I found out that actually it was either cheaper with the same company or even cheaper with the companies that don’t have websites.
The best way to get a good deal is either go down to the bus station the day before and book your tickets or if you know the timetable just turn up on the day and buy your tickets there and then. There’s no need to be too organised, that’s not how they roll in Latin America.
If the taxi doesn’t have a meter, without question get a price before you get in
Taxi drivers are notorious for ripping you off so if you don’t spot a meter the second you get in before the driver takes off sort out a fair price and don’t pay anymore even if they ask for it once you arrive at your destination. The amount of times we arrived at our destination and the price had a little extra or even doubled was astonishing. We would just have to hand them the money and get out as quick as possible.
An example was in Cusco, we paid 20 pesos to get from our apartment to the airport but on the way back after our Amazon trip we got in a taxi and agreed on 20 pesos to get us to the exact same apartment. The driver then took it upon himself to try and sell us any trip under the sun available from Cusco, when we didn’t take him up on his offer I assume he thought he could cash in on us another way. So when we got to our apartment and handed him the agreed 20 pesos he said “no no no 20 pesos per person”. There was 4 of us so he’d just put the price up 4x without hesitation, we handed him 20 pesos and got out of there as soon as possible.
Shop around for tours and even bargain for a good price
If you have the time definitely shop around for any tours that you do, whether it be a 3 day hike or 1 day dune buggy tour shop around. The prices can vary so much and often hostels are affiliated to just one tour company which is often more expensive than if you go to town and book it yourself. You can even bargain the price if you’ve spotted the same tour elsewhere but you’ve been recommended this particular tour company.
Our Amazon stay got discounted by 5% because there was 4 of us booking together.
Death Road Bike Tour with Barracuda Biking was discounted by around $10USD each, again because there was 4 of us.
Same goes for long tours, I did a tour through Patagonia with Tucan Travel and got a 30% discount when I booked it and after many conversations with other people on the tour it turns out that hardly anyone had paid full price for it. Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount!
In Colombia it is often cheaper to fly than get a bus
Although I tried to reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible it was almost impossible in Colombia because Viva Colombia airline is super cheap and saves a lot of time and money when it comes to travelling around the country. We took flights from Bogota to Santa Marta, Cartagena to San Andres, San Andres to Bogota & Medellin back to Cartagena. It is a budget airline and sometimes flights were delayed or the flight time changed and the clientele wasn’t great at times but it serves a purpose!
Try and carry as little as possible when you go out
We were in South America for six months and had no trouble at all really. During our time there we never really felt unsafe or in danger and there was only one attempt at mugging (which didn’t work out for the guy at all) so I’m happy to report on how safe I felt.
In saying that, we always took precautions. The biggest one being that we never ever took a bag out, bags can easily be snatched or let potential muggers know you have items on you. Dan would carry the wallet, I would carry a phone and that would be it. If it was somewhere worth taking photos I’d take either my DSLR camera or the GoPro but more often than not the phone would be sufficient. Obviously if you are in a desert or hiking a mountain the threat of being robbed is literally 0! So a little bit of advice would be to not carry a bag if you don’t have to, especially in cities.
Always check your hostel bill
Lots of hostels do a pay as you go scheme when it comes to food and drink but there were a few that ran a tab system which if there is a bar onsite is designed to keep you drinking! At a couple of these hostels I made sure to go through the bill with a fine toothed comb at the end because every time something that we hadn’t ordered always ended up on the bill. One thing you will find in South America is that people will always try and either rip you off or get something for nothing so be aware!
“No I didn’t order those 10 gin and tonics because I don’t drink gin but yes those 10 mojitos are definitely mine” happened a fair few times when it came to pay the bill.
Those are my tips for the wonderful place that is South America. All I can say is if you are thinking about going do it because it really is such an incredible continent. Totally diverse, full of culture, great food, amazing people and wonderful experiences. It is safe, no you won’t get Zika and just enjoy the madness.