No matter how experienced you are at travelling, there will always be surprises, things you wish you knew before you left, perhaps when you were budgeting or packing. My experience in South America has been no different. Reading other travel blogs has helped without a doubt and I had a fairly good grasp of what to expect but I have still learnt so much and I’d love to share that knowledge with you so you can be as prepared as possible before you travel to South America. So here are 20 things that are super helpful to know before you set off for South America!
- The temperature is incredibly variable here especially in the highlands! One moment you may feel sweltering sitting in the direct sun, a few hours later you will be hunting for your thermals. Please do not underestimate how cold it can get and pack plenty layers.
- Not all hotels have heating even though it can reach sub zero temperatures in the highlands. Again I recommend layers – I have been known to sleep with my hat and gloves on!
- Similarly, the weather conditions can change VERY quickly! Always carry a rain coat even if there is a beautiful clear blue sky – don’t get caught out!
- Hot showers are a luxury – take advantage every time you have an opportunity as you never know where the next one will be! Keep a supply of baby wipes, good deodorant and dry shampoo just in case!
- South America is more expensive than you’d imagine. Save hard so you can enjoy your trip without worrying about money. Whilst cheaper than western countries – it’s a lot more expensive than places in S E Asia! For example a main meal is about £8-10 in most restaurants in Peru though you can eat cheaper if you look about. Beer is the cheapest alcoholic drink costing approximately £2. Most expensive so far is Ecuador – you can easily spend $25 dollars on a meal out. A bottle of wine in a restaurant is between 25-40 dollars!
- There is a BIG tipping culture so try to factor this into your budget. You will be asked for money for photographs and need to tip bus drivers etc. This can really add up so try to factor it into your budget. For the Lares trek and Inca trail I believe the average tip is around 30-40 soles a day which works out as about £10 per day so £40 for the Inca trail.
- Not much English is spoken so the better your grasp on Spanish the better your experience will be. I personally find duolingo a very useful tool for learning Spanish and I practice everywhere I go, even if I’m spoken to in English, I will try to answer in Spanish. Remember though in Patagonia the language is Welsh, Brazil it’s Portuguese and there are also lots of local languages and dialects you will come across at times. If you don’t know any Spanish at all, I’d recommend joining an organised tour e.g Gadventures to make life a lot easier. Or alternatively take some Spanish lessons when you first arrive!
- Altitude is a real b*tch! Even the super fit will suffer in the highlands – in fact fitness has very little to do with how badly you suffer. Even the competitive athletes I have spent some time with in Peru have noticed some shortness of breath and fatigue climbing hills and stairs. No one is immune so prepare for it, ascend slowly, consider using altitude medication such as diamox which is readily available at travel clinics, before you go.
- For everyone altitude sickness is different and is intermittent. I get sudden moments of shortness of breath even at rest and periodically get bad pins and needles in my feet. Others had dizziness, nausea or headaches. I was expecting it to be a more consistent thing which gradually improves over time so the intermittent nature of my symptoms felt odd and unexpected. Also even a few hundred metres can make a huge difference so be prepared with headache tablets etc when you go out! Keep an eye out for my blog post about my experiences with altitude sickness to learn more about what to expect!
- If you do suffer badly with altitude sickness, either descend a little or consider taking local remedies to help. Chewing cocoa leaves is popular in Peru. Whilst associated with the illegal cocaine, cocoa leaves are actually not illegal and are widely used. I personally do not like their taste (a bit like green tea) so I avoid the leaves and the teas but instead have the toffees (which actually taste like coconut) and sometimes the peppermint flavoured cocoa gum.
- Even when it is overcast and cold, the sun is super powerful! Especially at higher altitudes and near to the equator. Wear factor 50 suncream. There are a lot of tomato faces walking around in Peru (mine included on one occasion after an hours stroll at 8 am!)
- It would be hard to be a vegan or vegetarian in South America as in restaurants they eat LOT of meat. Meat (or fish) and carbs! Most meals will come with potatoes AND rice! I met one traveller who was vegetarian at home but had given himself a free pass to eat meat whilst away as it was just too hard to stick to it here. That’s not to say you have to eat meat but I’d recommend if you are vegetarian, do your research on trip advisor etc to find restaurants more suitable and be prepared!
- I really recommend doing a homestay if you get a chance! I did a homestay in a little village on the edge of Lake Titicaca. It felt a little strange at first trying to communicate where my Spanish was poor and the families English almost non existent but after a while, it was easier to communicate than you’d imagine – with lots of miming, showing photos on our phones of our families etc. It’ll give you the best insight into the lifestyles and cultures in the villages.
- You will pee an awful lot so be prepared on long bus rides! If you’re taking altitude medication, it acts as a diuretic making you pee more than normal. Even if you’re not on meds, the sun and the altitude will make you feel thirsty and you’ll drink a lot more than usual! Get used to peeing behind bushes as service stations are few and far between!
- Speaking of toilets, toilets here are much better than other places I’ve travelled for example South East Asia where there is just a hole in the ground! But do remember to put your toilet roll in the bin not in the toilet as the plumbing is not great. You will however forget on occasion, (especially when you first arrive) and then panic that you will block the toilet and how embarrassing would that be?! This is normal but do try to remember!
- Most hotels and hostels can arrange to do your laundry but I suggest always double checking the price first! Someone I know got stung for $200 for a few kg’s clothes in a Hilton hotel in Ecuador! In most places it shouldn’t cost you more than $5!
- Uber is available in lots of places in South America and is often cheaper than regular taxis where you may be charged ‘gringo price!’
- Tuk tuks are the cheapest way to get about – for a short journey < 5 minutes it may only cost you about 25 pence! You can also get tricycles – seats with a cyclist on the back but these are a bit more pricey and they cycle like lunatics cutting up traffic! Great fun though…
- It pays to be organised and sort out transfers to and from the airport as airport taxis cost a fortune! I paid $25 in Quito! But a return transfer was $10. In lima, you can catch the Peru express which is about £11 for an open return which lasts 6 months. They personally take you to the bus and point out your hotel on a map. I then got a taxi for a few dollars from the stop off nearest to my hotel.
- The travel police are really friendly. I’d heard so many bad things about the police in Ecuador (about corruption and not taking tourists seriously.) I had a pleasant chat with one police officer and when he couldn’t answer my questions about a demonstration that was going on, he kindly offered to walk me to the nearest tourist information point. Others I spoke to had similar experiences and I definitely felt safe and looked after!
I still have another 6 weeks in South America so keep your eyes peeled for more tips about travelling around this beautiful continent!
Do you have any tips you can share? Or questions you’d like answering? If so, please feel free to comment below!