Ah, South America! The fourth largest continent in the world comprised of twelve sovereign states, replete with ethnic, linguistic and geographical diversity. Whether this be your first backpacking trip, or you are already a seasoned traveller in other parts of the world, it’s always useful to read up on a few tips and tricks to consider before you get out there. See what we have in store for you as you get geared up for an adventure of a lifetime backpacking in South America!
Essential Tips for Backpacking in South America
Talk to the Locals
Remember when you were *forced* to take Spanish in high school and you can hardly remember how to say anything except ‘hola’? Well, start rummaging through that old cerebral suitcase and hope that you’ve still got a few words swimming around there. Spanish is spoken in nine different countries in South America and there are close to 200 million Spanish speakers on the continent. Portuguese, spoken in Brazil, has almost the exact same number of native speakers, in one extremely large country.
Other languages spoken in South America are French, Dutch, Quechua, Aymara, Guaraní and several other indigenous languages. Communication is vital for so many things: directions, recommendations, exchanges, and any social interactions. Once you plan your route, take a language class online with www.listenandlearnusa.com so you can talk to the local people in their own language. You can customize it so that you can interact like a local in Colombia, Chile, Peru, Argentina, and so on, so you won’t look like a clueless ‘Gringo‘.
Or, if you don’t want to invest that much time and effort that’s okay, too. Good options for a “quick fix” are Babbel or Duolingo. Either way, learning to speak some words in the local language will make a huge difference to your experience, and to how the locals react to you. Even a simple hello, please and thank you will work wonders! Being able to speak to local people in South America really changed my experience for the better, and gave me a whole new perspective to the countries I visited.
Prepare for a World without Wi-Fi
There will be Wi-Fi and cell phone service in big cities, of course, and actually in most small towns too. However, when you’re backpacking in South America there are more isolated places, where you’ll be sleeping under the stars in Atacama or deep in the Amazon, you might have less internet access than you have become accustomed to elsewhere. For this reason, make sure you have enough things to keep you entertained offline. This could be books, music, movies, a journal to document your travels or even make some notes to practice some of that Spanish or Portuguese that you’re going to need. Since you will still have your phone with you, going back to the language bit, you can download MindSnacks, a language learning app with tons of games to help you along, that can also be used offline. Don’t forget to bring a portable phone charger too to keep your battery charged.
Take advice from the locals around you, but more importantly, research before you leave; it’s always better to be safe than sorry! This can mean anything from no-go areas in certain ‘barrios’ of cities, to which trails to take if you decide to go trekking. Don’t be afraid to ask first!
And while you are considering safety, make sure you think about protection from the elements too. Depending on the time of year that you are travelling, the further south you go, the more the extreme the weather conditions may get, with some areas in the extreme south far too cold in winter for those used to warmer climes. In areas close to the Equator and the Caribbean the sun is extremely strong, so take sunblock and stay in the shade where you can. In mountain regions around the Andes, the temperatures may be cooler here than you expect, high altitude means lower temperatures, so warm clothes are also important.
Plan a Little
Even if you’re the kind of person who likes to do their travelling a little more spur of the moment because South America is a huge continent you really should make a list of must-see places. Each country you visit will have a wealth of culture, nature, and all sorts of other things for you to want to see or try. A good guidebook like the Lonely Planet Guide to South America is a good choice to get an idea of a basic route. Whether it’s the beautiful biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands and the cloud forests of Ecuador, the majesty of the Peruvian Andes or the sprawling cities of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Buenos Aires in Argentina that you want to explore, you are guaranteed to be spoilt for choice when backpacking in South America!
Don’t plan everything though, as you can guarantee that you will meet other backpackers or local people who will recommend different places to go and new things to do that you hadn’t thought of. Leave some room in your itinerary to be flexible so you have time for these new ideas. Ask advice from other people in your hostel, local people on the bus, and from backpacking Facebook groups. Fellow travellers who have done a similar route to you can share their tips and tricks, and of course, travel bloggers can offer a different view too.
Bring the Right Kit
Planning a backpacking trip can be hard if you have no idea what to expect. South America is a huge continent, and the temperatures and landscapes vary dramatically. Think about whether you will need hiking boots for trekking, a good waterproof jacket is definitely useful for the rainy season, and warm clothes, as well as beachwear, will depend on where you are travelling to. A water bottle with a filter like a LifeStraw will save you money and save on plastic and was the one item I used every single day on my travels. I could drink tap water, and even fill up the bottle in rivers and streams and still have clean water to drink. Check out this post for other essential items for your backpack.
Keep Your Valuables Safe
Most people I met travelling in South America had something stolen at some point, so consider leaving very expensive items at home. When I had my laptop and passport stolen in Ecuador I was annoyed but luckily the cost of the items stolen wasn’t that much. Keep your money and any travel documents out of sight in money belts or invest in clothing with special pockets that no one else can easily get into and split your valuables up so that they aren’t all in one place. And while you’re at it, check the currency you need depending on where you are going. Research the best exchange rates, and always keep a mixture of cash and cards if possible. On buses always keep your small bag with your travel documents and essential items on your lap, not under your seat, and be especially careful on night buses.
Whatever you are planning to do in South America, you are sure to have an amazing time. Take lots of photos! And share your experiences online for other would-be explorers.
Do you have any other tips for backpacking in South America? Have you found speaking to the locals really changed your trip? I would love to read your comments below.
You might also like these in-depth guides to backpacking in specific countries in South America:
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