5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Headed To South America
Know Some Of The Lingo
Being a native English speaker, I guess I am guilty of being lazy on this point but less touristy places will be a challenge to navigate without knowing your left and right, please and thank you, how much is this and that in the local language. Make your life on the road a little easier and worry free by learning some of the Spanish basics.
I’m not suggesting that you attend night school for a year before you head off but there are any number of phone apps that will help you learn through repetition. Duolingo is probably one of the most well known but Flashcards and Brainscape both do decent jobs. If you like something more tactile I can highly recommend the Pasos 1 book, available from your local Amazon website or book seller, for beginners after using it for the first 2 years of night classes. They also no have an accompanying app to download to your phone to learn on the move. For emergencies on the move, the Spanish Dict app and website has been a lifesaver to me on more than one occasion. Type in a word or a phrase in either Spanish or English and the results are displayed on screen to jog your memory or show to a local. One of the most useful free apps I have ever downloaded.
If you plan on spending a lot of time on the continent think about taking a siesta from your travels and learn the language in an intensive course that is taught in many of the main cities. You can stop thinking about your next destination all the time and truly relax living in a city while learning and immersing yourself in its culture and surrounding yourself with its people. Popular cities include Buenos Aires in Argentina, Sucre in Bolivia, Santiago in Chile and Lima in Peru to name a few.
Be Prepared To Pay
Theres no getting around the fact that, compared to some other countries, South America isn’t the cheapest of places to either travel to or explore in. With relatively few gateway cities to fly to and a select few airlines dominating the lucrative routes, don’t be surprised to spend more flying here than you would do to Sydney.
Similarly, eating out and entertainment, especially in the large cosmopolitan cities can be taxing on the pocket. To get value for money you will need to travel well off the beaten path in cities. The desolate Patagonian region in the far south can be more expensive than the cities oweing to the sparse landscape and vast distances that everything has to travel seeing as nothing can be grown on the Patagonian Steppe.
Get Used To Taking The Bus
Even on a map the South American continent looks huge. Internal flights are often on the expensive side. Save money by travelling by coach wherever you can. Coach travel is a way of life across most of the continent, even for journeys that take 12 hours or more to complete.
Contrary to what you may have read, bus travel is safe on the continent. Thousands of people use it daily and people watching at a bustling bus station while sipping a coffee waiting for your bus to leave will tell you a surprising amount about a city and its people.
World famous chicken buses, the brightly coloured former American school buses are a staple in most big cities for travelling local and medium length journeys. They are the cheapest form of travel for many and get their nickname from the many locals that use them bringing even farm animals aboard. Experiences rarely get more authentic than a trip on a chicken bus if you have the opportunity.
Backpackers – Know When To Go Where!
With 2/3 of the continent sitting near either the equator or the Tropic Of Capricorn you can expect a tropical or sub tropical climate in huge swathes of the landmass but the far southern tip is a frozen, windswept barren place in the winter between April and October. The further north you travel, traditional seasons give way to the wet and dry seasons of the tropics.
Much of the far south of the continent shuts down thanks to impassable roads and life threatening weather conditions in the winter making sightseeing almost impossible. The same isn’t true for things such as the Bolivian Salt Flats or trekking any number of picturesque trails through impossibly high mountain ranges further north. A lot of things run year round through wet and dry seasons. Your comfort will directly depend on how wet you are for the duration of your trip.
By all means be spontaneous if you want to be but there is no substitute to getting a little clued up on when best to visit or avoid certain places.
Use Your Noggin!
A lot of countries in South America have somewhat lax health and safety standards compared to the cotton wool state of the European Union. You’re largely free to roam without boundaries where, in Europe at least, you wouldn’t be allowed within 100 meters of some places without a raised walkway, luminous warning signs stating the obvious and barriers enveloping everyone and everything in sight.
While the freedom may seem refreshing at first, don’t check your common sense in with your luggage. If something looks dangerous, it probably is. A tragic story from 2015 ended with a tourist dying after falling into a mud pool in the highest geyser field on Earth, hundreds of miles from help. One lonely sign points to the danger but walking around you see steaming plumes of boiling water spout from the ground while mud pools bubble menacingly. There are most certainly no go areas for tourists in some parts, commonly the working class sections of larger cities (typically called barrios) which can be dangerous, particularly at night. Rio De Janeiro gets a bad reputation for its outlying cartel controlled slums and Venezuela is currently spiralling downwards into civil war and unrest. Colombia has long had a reputation as a drug cartel haven but the government have made great strides in recent years tracking down the gabs. Its much safer to travel to Colombia now that you will ever hear on mainstream media.
South America has struggled to shake off its drug fuelled past. Drugs are still a big problem but the cartels rarely go looking for trouble and are limited to only a fraction of a percent of the continental landmass. Travel safe, travel smart and be aware of your surroundings. Remember to enjoy every minute. I promise you will have the time of your life and once the travelling starts the drug fuelled wars of the past will be the last thing on your mind.