We spent 4 months backpacking in South America. We swam in the Caribbean in Colombia; we swam with playful baby seals in the Galapagos; we hiked (ok, crawled on our hands and knees) in the Andes in Ecuador; we crossed the border into Peru in a chicken truck, we attempted (and failed) to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru; we visited Pablo Neruda’s lopsided house in Chile; we drank our collective weight in wine in Argentina. Although each of the countries we visited was as unique and different from one another as can be, we did notice a few universal truths about backpacking in South America… things nobody told us about before we left. In no particular order and in various degrees of usefulness, we’ve compiled our observations into this list of 30 things no one tells you about backpacking in South America!
Things No One Tells You ….
… about transportation in South America
- Public transportation in South America puts the USA to shame. In most of the USA, not having a car is basically a death sentence. But in South America, even the most middle of nowhere towns have public transit. And it’s easy to find, too. You just have to step outside and think about a destination you wish to go to, and a bus, taxi, collectivo, moto-taxi, horse, rickshaw, or other form of transport will magically appear in front of you happy to take a little bit of your money in exchange for a ride. Now, that isn’t to say your ride will be comfortable … or fast… but hey, it’s cheap!
- Say goodbye to such the illusion of safety while riding in a car. Working airbags? Backseat seat belts? They don’t exist in South America. Just find something to hold on to.
- Of course, there are often seat belts in the back seat. Like, they’re literally there, tantalizing you with their existence. The only problem? There’s nothing to actually buckle them into. The seatbelts are a lie! The worst part? You’ll never lose the habit of attempting to buckle your seatbelt when you slide into a taxi. Fresh disappointment every single time.
- Things like “road rules” and “stop signs” and “speed limits” are variously seen as suggestions or challenges throughout South America. When you’re not staring wide-eyed into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road in a van that is busy racing a truck, you’ll be holding on for dear life as your bus flings itself dangerously close to the edge of an unprotected cliff face while warning signs informing you that you’re breaking the law at faster than 90 kmh flash helpfully above your head. My best suggestion is to write your will before you leave and make sure all of your affairs are in order.
- Every taxi will try to charge you a gringo tax, and you are well within your rights to haggle. If you don’t know how much a taxi should cost and can’t find a friendly local to ask, just start by undercutting the offered price by 2-3 pesos/dollars/soles/etc. Even metered taxis can screw you: we found out in Chile that some taxi drivers actually adjust their meters to start higher for gringos! If you’re in an area where haggling isn’t acceptable, don’t worry, every taxi driver will let you know as soon as you try it (although we’re not convinced that wasn’t BS, either.)
… about pop culture in South America
- The radio stations in South America do this incredibly irritating thing. They’ll have someone talking (loudly) while they play a song in the background at a low volume. Then, suddenly, whenever the person talking (yelling) pauses for breath or dramatic effect, the background song suddenly BLASTS at full freaking volume out of nowhere, only to go back to background music as soon as the guy starts talking again. So there’s this impossible-to-ignore ear attack of yelling and loud music and then more yelling and then 2 seconds of loud music and yelling yet again and then another .5 seconds of loud music and it’s just awful. It’s like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Why!? WHY!?
- Speaking of radio: you may hate reggaeton now, but give it a couple of weeks and you, like the rest of South America, will suddenly find yourself singing along to every Enrique Iglesias and Shakira song. They’re catchy AF, no shame. Bailamos!
- It’s not just reggaeton you’re going to end up loving. Never in my life have I found a sport so exciting and fun to watch as soccer in South America. Watching soccer in a South American bar is like watching the Bachelor with your gal pals: you can’t help but get caught up in the drama! From the telenovela style fouls (can we just be real here: nobody has ever actually injured Neymar to the level that he pretends that they have. Never in my life have I seen a man fake cry and roll around in fake pain with such conviction) to the guys yelling GOAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL for like 5 straight minutes (Jeremy and I are convinced that there’s an insider competition to see who can say it the longest) South American soccer is SO addictive, and SO much fun! If the local team is playing, show up at a bar – any bar – and tune in.
- Don’t get your geography mixed up and lump Mexico in with South America. You’ll be incredibly disappointed when you realize that you will not find a decent burrito, quesadilla, or even a lone tortilla floating around South America. There are no mariachi bands or sombreros, Dia de los Muertos is variously celebrated (or not), and margaritas are not the international drink. Latin American food and culture is varied and incredibly different from region to region and country to country. I know this seems obvious, but when you start craving a taco and then realize oh shit, they don’t exist in South America AT ALL?? you’ll understand why it took me a minute to check my assumptions.
… about bathrooms in South America
- Never get caught without toilet paper! Always have a spare roll or at least a few extra sheets on your person at all times. Most public toilets don’t offer the courtesy of a toilet seat or soap, much less toilet paper or something to dry your hands on (who do you think you are, the queen of England??) Sometimes a public toilet will sell a paltry amount of toilet paper for a high price. Bring your own to save money and embarrassment.
- You can’t throw toilet paper in the toilet. There will be a trash can for you to use instead. You’ll get the habit of doing a sort of wadding and wrapping thing to make it slightly less icky. And don’t try to be cute and throw the toilet paper in the toilet anyway: you’ll clog the thing and make everyone else’s lives miserable.
… about being a gringo in South America
- If you’re a gringo (which means foreign person) backpacking in South America, you will get stared at. A lot. Even if you’re in a place regularly visited by gringos. Even if there are 12 other gringos standing right in front of you, all with gaudier outfits and bigger backpacks than you. You’ll still get stared at. In some countries, being a Gringo also means you’ll get honked at, aggressively sold things, and occasionally taken advantage of. In other countries, you’ll get kind offers of help or assistance if you happen to look lost or confused for the slightest moment.
- Generally speaking and with few exceptions, the people in South America are so incredibly nice. From Colombia, where even strangers who spoke no English at all would stop to give us advice or ask if we needed any help, to Chile, where strangers engaged us in conversation about everything from politics to the price gouging practices of local taxis, South Americans are typically friendly and helpful.
- Speaking of the kindness of South Americans, we encountered a huge amount generosity and willingness to help. Sometimes this was made more complicated by the language barrier, but that never seemed to stop anyone from trying to assist us. In the event of a communication challenge, don’t be surprised if someone hands you a cell phone with their cousin/friend/acquaintance who supposedly speaks English (it never actually helps, but it’s the thought that counts).
… about food in South America
- Always visit the local Mercado for groceries and fresh food! When we first started backpacking in South America we did our grocery shopping exclusively at supermarkets and were always disappointed by the lack of affordable fresh fruits, veggies, and non-sketchy looking meats. Turns out it’s because we were looking for them in the wrong place! Farm fresh fruits, veggies, and meats – not to mention cheese, nuts, olives, and chocolate – are sold at the mercados, not the supermarkets, and they’re a zillion times cheaper and better quality. Plus, some mercados have cats.
- To try some authentic local cuisine, hit up your local Mercado (again). Most mercados have stalls selling fresh cooked meals that are always a good representation of the local specialties, and they’re (usually) fantastic quality and very cheap. From cheap ceviche and llapingachos in Ecuador to flaky empanadas and giant grilled steak sandwiches in Argentina, the mercado was always our favorite spot to find excellent traditional food at budget-friendly prices
- No, I’m not done talking about how great the mercados are yet. Other things you can get at the many wonderful and unique mercados in South America include, but are not limited to: hair ties; petrified llama fetuses; batteries; pots and pans; fresh juice; canned foods; towels; fresh spice mixes and sauces; and any portion of a cow, chicken, or pig that you can possibly imagine. Mercados are the best. Just stay away from the meat aisle if you’re squeamish. (Trust us on that one.) OK, now I’m done with the mercados.
- Everything is extra sugary in South America. The local pastries and cakes are insanely sweet. Tea, coffee and juice are usually pre-sweetened to a stomach turning degree. The local sodas make Coke seem like a well-spiced low-sugar infusion. Stick to fresh fruit (or maybe fresh sugarcane) for dessert or risk developing a raging, eye-bulging sugar addiction (it happened to us more often than we care to admit).
- You can’t just drink milk in South America. Like you can’t go to a store and buy a bottle of cold milk and drink it like it’s a beverage. First of all, the milk is all shelf-stable, whether it comes in bags or boxes. It’s okay for cereal or hot chocolate, but on its own, it tastes like sugary fat-water. Like you know those creamers that you sometimes get in an office kitchen that list nothing but milk on the label but are curiously shelf-stable and taste like weird cream? That’s what the milk is like in South America. What that means is that you’re going to crave fresh milk every single time you eat a super-sugary cake or deep, rich locally produced chocolate and then realize with bitter disappointment that the milk is always a lie. On the bright side, it really helps with curing the horrible sugar and chocolate addiction you’re going to inevitably develop.
- The go-to for a budget-friendly meal in South America is an almuerzo. An almuerzo is a set menu lunch, typically consisting of a soup or entrada (appetizer), a segundo (entree – always a typical local dish), and often a drink and a postre (dessert). They’re set at a cheap price and always the best deal in any restaurant. If you visit a restaurant at lunchtime, chances are they’ll only be serving a set menu, usually with a couple of options. We ended up only eating almuerzo meals each day and cooking for dinner to save money.
- Most of the tap water in South America is not safe for drinking, with only a few major cities as exception. Our Steri-Pen saved us loads of money (not to mention sickness) as we were able to filter our own water for drinking and washing food with totally for free. Read more about the best items that we brought to South America here!
- Because tap water is unsafe, be wary of fresh vegetables and unwashed fruits, as well as ice. Usually ice is purified water, especially if you order a blended jugo naturales in a restaurant, but it’s always best to ask. Fruits and veggies are a tossup. Of course any fruit that can be peeled entirely, like a banana, is safe. But if you’re eating the peel (such as a tomato or cucumber), be careful! We avoided all but the most delicious looking salads and managed to stay sickness-free, although our stomachs were never quite functioning at 100%. The best bet is to buy your produce at a mercado and wash it yourself with purified water.
… about money in South America
- As a general rule, nothing is free in South America. There are no free samples, there are no free photos with people in indigenous costumes (or alpacas in traditional dress. Or eagles). The people you will encounter in South America work for every cent they have, and as a tourist or traveler, you are expected to contribute to the local economy and to local people by paying your way. So do not act surprised or offended when someone demands payment for a “gift,” photo, or otherwise. Don’t take anything expecting it to be free – this is how many people make their livelihood.
- If someone tries to give you something that you didn’t ask for, either politely refuse them, ignore them, or just wait for them to come back and retrieve it. At first we would be confused as to why someone just walked through our restaurant dropping off souvenirs on every table, until we watched them walk back through and pick them all up from the uninterested patrons.
- On most local bus rides, vendors will frequently hop on with baskets of homemade treats for sale, or offer them through the windows while you sit in traffic. These are the BEST. We always looked forward to bus snacks! Sure, it may seem sketch the first couple of times your bus stops to pick up some little old lady selling treats out of a basket, but but trust us, that abuela knows what’s up. Bus snacks are cheap, delicious, and totally safe. Our favorites: fritadas and popsicles in Ecuador, salted green mango in Colombia, or habas in Peru.
- If there is an expensive tour, there is usually also a cheaper DIY alternative that involves public transit. You just have to figure out the exact order of buses or collectivos, and find the general location to pick them up. This sounds super complicated because it is super complicated, but have no fear. To accomplish this feat, just ask a friendly local. And then continue asking locals at each step. You’ll get there eventually!
- On the flip side, some things are actually only possible to do with a tour. We found this out the hard way when we tried to visit a dairy farm on our own in Cajamarca, Peru. No one had a clue where to find the only dairy farm we were able to Google, and we wasted a whole day trying to find it on our own instead of just paying for a dairy farm tour. Also, many outdoorsy tours are protected legally and require a certified tour guide, such as in the Galapagos or the Sacred Valley.
… about animals in South America
- You are likely to encounter animals on a regular basis when backpacking in South America. From the dogs roaming the streets (many of which are friendly pets, some of which … not so much) to stray kittens that you can’t help but scoop up and bring home to your hostel, to the pigs and cows and sheep grazing in backyards and tied to stop signs, to the guard llamas, to the roosters you may find seated next to you on a bus … South America is filled with animals! We saw this as a huge plus (we jump at any chance to make a new pig or llama friend) but to each their own.
- Let’s just talk about guard llamas for a minute. Llamas, those adorable, long-necked, droopey-eyed creatures that look like a cross between a hillbilly camel and a muppet, are found all over South America (much to our delight). Although their smaller relatives, the alpaca, are mostly bred for their soft, fuzzy fur (and cuteness, we assume) the much less conventionally adorable looking llamas are employed for a different purpose: security. That’s right. Instead of having a snarling dog tied to a stick in the front yard, in South America, you just stick a llama there and let it munch grass and sort of sass anyone who comes too close. Llamas aren’t vicious, but they can be hurtful: we tried to make friends with a lot of llamas only to end up brokenhearted because they were too busy “working,” which is to say, eating grass and sassing people. I love them so much.
The Most Important thing to know before backpacking in South America!
- You need to know basic Spanish when backpacking in South America. Depending on the country, English is often not very common. At the very least, know how to ask for directions or prices – and of course, to say please and thank you! Otherwise … I mean, best of luck, let us know how it goes.
We hope you enjoyed our semi useful, highly disorganized list of things no one tells you about backpacking in South America. If you still need some backpacking in South America travel advice, we recommend reading about the best things we packed for South America, and what NOT to do in South America (a guest post on Probe Around the Globe).
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