South America is not for the faint hearted. It’s different than any part of the world I’ve ever been to in complicated and beautiful ways. Depending on your travel style, making your way through South America could be a piece of cake, or it could be a challenge.
Like going to any new and exciting part of the world, there are a few things you should know before you go to South America for the first time. Here are 6 important things to know before you go and enjoy what will be nothing less than the trip of a lifetime in South America.
A basic command of Spanish is key
I love the Spanish language and enjoy learning it, which really came in handy when I began traveling through South America. It is more difficult to communicate with locals if you’re unable to say basic things in Spanish. From my experience, it’s not as easy to get by with English in South America as it is in other places like Europe and even Southeast Asia. You’re more likely to get scammed with higher “tourist tax” prices and that’s just not fun. It is definitely more fun to communicate with locals in their native language. The locals I interacted with in South America were very friendly and appreciate the effort of trying to speak Spanish even if I wasn’t saying everything correctly. Learning Spanish will make for a better local experience!
Keep your belongings close
Travelers who aren’t native to South America but are traveling in the continent automatically look like outsiders and can be targeted for petty theft. Keep your important belongings close, especially when traveling by bus. Backpacks can be cut or easily stolen if not kept on your lap. One of the first things I was told in Ecuador was not to keep my daypack even on the floor by my legs when traveling by bus.
As dorky as it might look, keep your daypack closely at your side or in front of you when getting on and off metros and in markets. These are things I never really worried about even when I lived in New York City, but became starkly aware of when I heard about other friends getting their wallets stolen right out of their backpacks.
If these sound like precautions to take anywhere in the world, it’s because they are. But a reminder is better than feeling bad about it when something gets stolen.
Know your visa requirements and border crossings
You might need to present proof of the yellow fever vaccination to enter some countries or pay a reciprocity fee, you might not. It’s really important to know what the requirements are for you to enter a country. I’ve been almost stranded at the Peru-Bolivia border and nearly paid a reciprocity fee to enter Argentina when I didn’t have to. Check the visa requirements and make necessary copies of everything. Your passport, vaccinations, proof economic solvency, visa application, everything.
Another important thing to note is that some countries require a proof of return to your home country, not just proof of onward travel. While I was never asked any questions by border officials about this, I’ve heard of this happening to travelers in Colombia and Argentina in South America and Costa Rica and Panama in Central America. This typically is an issue with land border crossings. While it might seem completely ridiculous if you’re on a long-term trip, just make sure you’re prepared in the event that you have to show proof.
To the same effect, know how long you’re allowed to stay in a country. If you only have a 30-day stamp in your passport, you will have to pay a fine for overstaying your visa. I overstayed my visa for Peru by 3 days and had to pay a fine, but because I was paying it at the border and not through a bank, I was charged an extra fee. Don’t let this happen to you!
Be prepared for different types of weather
South America has many different landscapes, so the weather can change vastly from place to place. The weather even changes drastically in one place. I’d leave my hostel in Cusco when it was perfectly sunny only to be running under the closest roof I could find when it started pouring rain. The salt flats in Bolivia are hot during the day but other parts of that area are freezing due to high winds and elevation. The week I went trekking in Torres del Paine National Park was absolutely gorgeous and not too cold, but the travelers I’d met who had just returned before I started said it was snowing and raining the entire time they trekked. Buenos Aires was so much colder than I expected it to be in May. If you’re traveling from the Northern Hemisphere, don’t forget that South America’s seasons are the opposite. And with deserts, mountains, rainforest, and beaches, South America has a wide spectrum of weather all over the continent. You’ll never experience just one.
Altitude sickness is real
Many big cities in South America are located at a high altitude in the mountains: Quito, Cusco, and La Paz, for example. I noticed myself feeling out of breath while walking and talking to friends in Cusco. Luckily, this was the only issue I noticed. Altitude sickness can be awful; fits of vomiting, nausea, and headaches make it difficult to actually experience what you’re there to see. Chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea is a way to alleviate the discomfort, but really the only way for altitude sickness to go away is to return to a lower elevation.
Allow yourself time to acclimate to the changes in altitude as you travel through South America. Spend a day or two adjusting before beginning a strenuous hike or trek. Not everyone experiences severe symptoms, but it can really be a buzzkill if you’re not feeling your best in some of these beautiful places.
Be aware of viruses and illnesses
We’ve all heard of zika, malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, but have you heard of chikungunya? With the increasing fear of the lasting effects of illnesses and mosquito borne viruses in foreign countries, it’s really important to do the research and plan ahead to get necessary vaccinations and medications before going to South America. It’s better to be aware, but don’t let these fears stop you from seeing one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
So go on, South America awaits!