Updated: Jun 6, 2018
South America, home of warmth, good food, and the friendliest of folks! Booking a one way ticket to SA wasn't as daunting as I thought it would be. Sure, I was leaving my entire life behind and taking a complete leap of faith, but that's what life is about! I knew I had to follow that little voice inside my head that was telling me to go for it. So far, no regrets and a huge list of things I learned in my first month backpacking across South America.
1. Be open: Coming from NYC, we have a reputation of liking our personal space. However, South American people are very warm, and very touchy. Not saying allow some rando to feel you up (unless you're into that), but don't be surprised by the closeness when having a conversation, or someone touching your arm when trying to get your attention.
2. Money adds up: Don’t be fooled by the currency. You'll be surprised by how inexpensive food, goods, and other items are in certain countries, but they add up! Also, consider applying for a travelers credit card! This is a great way to avoid transaction fees. Loads of hostels, restaurants, and tours are still old school, and don’t take credit cards, so you’ll probably be taking out cash more often than not.
3a. Allow yourself to feel safe and relaxed: South America has long had a bad reputation for safety which, although not completely untrue, has kept many people from visiting. Yes, parts of the continent are dangerous for backpackers, locals even, but the vast majority places you’ll likely visit when you’re traveling are incredibly safe and would be a real shame to miss out on just because of fear. That’s not to say you shouldn’t exercise caution here. Part of the trick to avoiding South America backpacking dangers is being aware of what’s happening in each city and town you visit, and listening to the recommendations of people like hostel owners and locals who are better informed than you. Keep your belongings close at all times and don't show money or expensive items out in the open. At the end of the day it's all about common sense.
3b. But don't trust everyone: Sure, people will seem warm and friendly, and most of them are, but just like anywhere in the world, you need to proceed with caution. We’ve had two unpleasant experiences so far with trusting locals. In one occasion, we ended up in the middle of a forest resulting in Jose getting bit by an aggressive dog. In the second, we met a friendly old man during a hike who promised to lead us to a short cut, but turned out to be so far off of our trail in made no sense. One can only be lead to believe what he had in store for us, probably nothing, but the mind can’t help but wonder!
4. Solo traveling is safe for women too: Solo female travelers might feel intimidated by the idea of backpacking in South America. I sure did. There’s no way of escaping the sexual harassment that many women experience traveling here, but its the same all over the world. Attitudes towards women are slowly changing and while it’s never recommended that female backpackers wander the streets late at night or hitchhike alone, most feel comfortable traveling on their own. We were surprised at how many solo female travelers we came across on our journey!
5. There's always a cheaper option: If you’re on a budget like us, free options are always welcome. Whether it's haggling at a market, to booking a hostel with free coffee & breakfast, there are always work arounds to saving money. Using apps like hostelworld.com and booking.com can help you compare on prices and amenities and even let you book rooms without needing a credit card. Just because a tour is offered for something you're interested in doesn't mean it's your only option. With a little research, you can enjoy those activities on your own with no time constraints while saving money.
6. Transportation: Don't fear buses or colectivos! They are super cheap options and safe to ride although you'll just have to get used to the insane drivers. If you're putting your backpacks in the storage compartment underneath the bus, make sure they are locked and the ones you carry on with you on sight. Some of the longer bus rides are really nice, they offer snacks and a movie. However, don't hold super high expectations! We have had our fair share of broken bus seats, bumpy and uncomfortable rides, and some very odiferous passengers along for the ride. NOTE: Uber and Easytaxi are usually available in bigger cities!
7. Learn some Spanish: Honestly, it's been so helpful traveling with a native Spanish speaker. We've managed to snag deals while overhearing many stories of how so many outsiders have overpaid. That being said, it isn't mandatory to learn. You will encounter many travelers on the road that would be more than happy to help you. And most of the people working at your hostel will speak English as well.
8. Workaway and Helpx is a thing: While we haven't had the chance to try it out, plenty of people we've met on the road told us about their experiences. From working with indigenous tribes in remote parts of the jungle, to helping out at trendy hostels, there is a lot of variety you can do for free food, accommodation, and experiences. Just keep in mind these are unpaid!
9. Pack lightly but smartly: I was spoiled in Cartagena, with it's yearlong summer weather. However, I was surprised at how different the weather changes from city to city. Cute is not always worth it. Make sure you bring layers that pack easily so you are prepared for rapidly changing conditions. This is especially true when you are at high altitudes. The days can be really hot, but the nights really cold. We've experienced heat, humidity, rain, and snow in the span of a couple of days.
10. Pick and choose: Know the difference between what you can miss and what you shouldn’t. For me, The Galapagos Islands and the Lost City Trek in Colombia could have waited. Both adventures set us way back on our budget and in my opinion, while amazing to experience, they will always be there. This doesn’t mean I recommend missing out on all big activities. Make a pros and cons list to weigh your options, and make sure you don't blow through all your cash trying to see everything in one trip!
11. Step outside of your comfort zone: Become confident with your own capabilities. If you don’t say what you want, you will never get it. Don’t be shy to speak in really bad Spanish! It’s easy to become a hermit crab, but don’t allow yourself to miss out on cool experiences just because you’re traveling solo! You will be surprised at how easy it is to enjoy things alone, and with other cool people you’ll meet along the way.
14. Hand sanitizer and toilet paper are a luxury: Half of the places we’ve been to don’t provide hand soap or TP. Prepare yourself the night before any long trek, stay in a small town, or even some restaurants. BTW! Don't be surprised if you see a pricetag on a public restroom! Don't worry, they're usually less than a dollar.
15. Watch what you eat: Eating healthy is pricey, and most (budget) street foods are fried. We make an effort to search for hostels with kitchenettes so as to save money cooking. Also, be wary of the snacks, they are dangerously inexpensive.
16. Hiking poles are your friend: if you plan to do any volcano hikes or multi-day trekking, they will come in handy. Not only for the steep ascents, but also as a weapon to fend off stray dogs. We've been surprised at how many we've encountered along the way. Budget solution: tree branches work wonders, just make sure they're sturdy and long enough to support your weight.
17. Bring offline activities: There will be many occasions where you will be without wifi for days. A book, a Kindle, a deck of cards, or downloaded games on your phone are a must-have during your trip! Also, bring external batteries!
18. Bring enough underwear: We made sure to bring travel essentials for washing clothes by hand, such as a clothes line you can hang off bed posts, a sink plug, and detergent. However, there have been too many occasions where we've found ourselves on the constant go with no time for our clothes to dry. This has left us with damp smelly clothes, in turn going commando until the next available laundry service. Luckily most hostels offer it, but priced per kilo!
19. Update your passport if you haven't: If I told you have many times I've been stopped by boarder patrol, you'd laugh. Probably not as much as you did when seeing the shocking differences of my face. For the record, they were taken 5 years apart!
Alright guys! That ends my What I Learned in my First Month Backpacking Across South America post. If you found this helpful or simply enjoyed reading along, please be sure to share it!
Thanks for reading!