Ever since I can remember, travel to South America was my dream. I only had 4,5 weeks to explore Peru and Bolivia, but Lia and Jeremy from Practical Wanderlust had much more time to explore the continent. Therefore, I invited them to talk about their experiences with travel in South America. The share their mistakes to avoid for travel in South America and they came up with these 15 things NOT to do when you travel in South America for first timers.
15 Things NOT to do when you travel in South America
I’d like to begin by saying that my husband and I are expert travellers and we never make any kinds of ridiculous, embarrassing, soul crushing mistakes when travelling in South America. I’d really, really like to. But sadly, that would be an utter lie. What my husband and I do best, it seems, is to bumble our way through ordinary scenarios with the adeptness of 2 confused cuttlefish riding a tandem bicycle. Which is to say, it makes no sense but it’s kind of cute in its own odd little way. Anyway, we recently bumbled our way through South America for 4 entire months, and somehow, we managed to both live to tell the tale of it all, AND collected some pretty interesting tales!
Read more: 30-day South America backpacking itinerary
Even if you’re not the bumbling cuttlefish sort – even if you’re the type who things tend to go really well for, who never sleeps late and misses their bus, or leaves half of their most expensive belongings behind, or has to be rescued off a waterfall, and so on – travel in South America can be overwhelming. After all, it’s an enormous continent, filled with myriad things to do and see. Well, have no fear. We’ve made plenty of mistakes and learned from them all so that you don’t have to! Here is our comprehensive, no-holds-barred list of all the things NOT to do in South America for first time travellers.
Don’t forget to bring a towel to South America
Whether it’s the immortal words of Towelie from South Park, or perhaps Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s clear that towels are the key to happiness. At least, not having one when you travel in South America is really, really miserable. If you’re backpacking South America, you need to bring your own towel. Towels aren’t always available to rent at hostels, and I can tell you from experience that wadded up clothes do not make a decent substitute.
Don’t lose your debit card
This one is obvious, but it’s crucial. Cash is king in South America. Few places will accept a credit card at all, and for the few that do, you’ll probably get hit with a surcharge and a dirty look. Always take basic travel safety precautions to safeguard your debit guard. While we didn’t lose our debit cards, we did bring one along that unexpectedly expired a few weeks into our trip. Oops. (We ended up having our bank ship us a new card to a hotel in Bogota. To anyone looking for a great travel-friendly checking account with fantastic customer service, Charles Schwab is the best!)
Don’t run out of cash
Managing to have a functioning debit card is one thing, but don’t make the mistake of assuming there will be an ATM wherever you’re going. Sometimes the nearest ATM is an hour’s drive away. Or maybe there is an ATM in town, but it runs out of cash at 10am every day. Or maybe there is an ATM, but the town happens to suffer from frequent sweeping power outages. If you’re lightning rods of bad luck like we are, you’ll get hit with a combination of these calamities, like we did in Salento, Colombia.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of hiking in South America
We are avid hikers at home in the United States. We thought that we would be up to the challenge of hiking in South America, with its many stunning and famous treks (Valle de Cocora! Patagonia! The Inca Trail!). What we didn’t realize is that hiking in South America is on another level entirely: it’s like hiking on extreme hard-mode. First you’ve got the challenge of altitude: even with altitude sickness pills, trying to hike up stairs in half the oxygen you’re used to is insanely difficult.
Then there’s the terrain: most of the hikes we attempted consisted of calf-deep mud, loose sand, or crumbly gravel. Finally, if you’re hiking without a guided tour, there’s the challenge of navigation – simply identifying the trail itself. Often, there’s the fun combination of all 3, which is how we ended up crawling on our hands and knees up a mountain in Quilotoa, Ecuador. The hikes in South America are well worth the challenge, but prepare yourself to be thoroughly challenged.
Read more: Hike the Colca Canyon near Arequipa:
my disaster story.
Don’t assume everyone (or anyone) will speak English
English speaking is not common in most parts of South America. It’s far easier to travel in South America if you know enough Spanish to get you by. But don’t worry: even if they don’t speak English and you don’t speak Spanish, the people in South America are incredibly kind and helpful.
Many of them don’t seem to mind stopping their day just to play charades with us on the street as we attempt to communicate in broken Spanish. And I can’t tell you the number of people who, upon seeing that we needed help, called up their cousin, family friend, or uncle who supposedly spoke English and handed the phone over to us!
Don’t do all your grocery shopping at supermarkets
As budget travellers, often the first thing we do upon arriving at a new place is to go grocery shopping to help us save money on eating out. In South America, you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, locally produced meat and dairy, and other fresh, affordable local specialties (farm fresh cacao! Olive oil! Caviar! Yes, caviar, I’m serious). But you won’t find them in the local supermarket, if there even is one nearby.
In South America, the best quality and cheapest food is found at the mercado. Ask anyone in town where the closest mercado is and prepare to fall in love. Mercados are a foodie dream come true! We made the mistake of shopping at supermarkets for a full month before we realized the error of our ways.
Don’t avoid eating street food
If you’re after an authentic meal in South America, the easiest way to find it is on the street. Street food is cheap, quick, and delicious. We never had a bad meal from a vendor with a street cart (or sometimes just a basket of food).
It’s perfectly safe to eat street food in South America and oh so delicious! In addition to on the street (or the beach), you can find street food by sitting quietly on a bus (someone will inevitably board with some goodies for sale) or at our favourite food shops ever, the mercados!
Don’t rely on TripAdvisor, Google, or Yelp to find a good meal
At home in San Francisco, we’d never dream of going out for food without checking reliable Yelp for reviews first. That’s not the case in South America. First of all, there is no Yelp in South America. And we found that most Google and TripAdvisor reviews aren’t trustworthy or accurate. The best restaurants – the ones run by sweet elderly grandparents who happen to make the best food you’ve ever had in your life – don’t have an internet presence. Their restaurants are popular simply because the food is good and everyone knows it. So when trying to find a good place to eat in South America, just look for a crowd of locals.
And don’t be turned off by a set menu or almuerzo: for a cheap price, you’ll get 2 or 3 courses of food, all cooked to perfection and chosen for you by someone who understands the cuisine better than you do.
Don’t stick to big cities
There are many amazing and wonderful cities in South America: we fell in love with all of them, from Medellin to Lima to Santiago. But if you only stick to big cities, you’ll miss much of what South America has to offer!
The real gems in South America are found in towns and villages sprinkled in between the big cities. They’re all accessible by bus, but you may have to dig deeper as you prepare for your trip to find some of them. Don’t worry, we promise it’s worth it!
Don’t panic if you miss a bus
Transportation in South America puts the United States to shame. All you have to do to get somewhere is step outside and look like you might need a ride. Like magic, a taxi, rickshaw, motorcycle, collectivo, or bus will appear out of nowhere and take you to wherever you need to be.
It’s insanely easy to get from place to place by bus, and it’s insanely easy to find a bus because they’re typically all in one place at a centralized bus station – and anyone will be able to direct you there. So if you miss a bus, don’t panic! There is always another one or another way to get to your destination. We had the best luck just showing up and asking around until we found a bus by chance. In our disaster-prone case, purchasing a ticket early is typically a good way to ensure that we’ll manage to miss it.
Don’t skip the Galapagos Islands just because they’re expensive
The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are typically associated with expensive cruise ships and high costs. While it’s true that most people visit the Galapagos Islands on a cruise, you don’t have to, and it’s infinitely cheaper not to! We spent a week hopping from island to island in the Galapagos and it was the best week of our entire trip – and about a quarter of the cost of a week-long cruise! For more information on planning a land-based trip to the Galapagos Islands, check out our post.
Don’t drink the tap water unless it’s absolutely, definitely safe
Don’t trust any old tap water. Google at least 83 different sources all confirming that the tap water is safe to drink before you so much as sniff a glass of water. We once saw 2 travellers handed glasses of water after an exhausting hike up a hill. They gratefully accepted them, assuming that a generous gift couldn’t possibly be unsafe to drink. Huge mistake. Both of them spent the next 2 days in agony. Don’t do it! We used a Steri-Pen to sterilize all of our water, or drink bottled.
Don’t pack for hot weather only
Sure, some parts of South America are hot. But most of South America – at least, the parts at a high elevation, which are all of the parts anywhere near the Andes mountain range, so roughly the middle half of the country – are quite cold. For example, we crossed the border from Chile into Argentina in the dead of summer, and went from sweating to freezing amongst the snow-capped Andes at the border crossing back to sweating again. Luckily, there are plenty of cold weather clothes you can buy for low prices: we returned from our trip with a small herd’s worth of Alpaca sweaters, scarves, and hats.
You can find more packing tips for travel in South America here.
Don’t worry about finding Wi-Fi
When we told our family we were going to South America, they all mistakenly assumed that they wouldn’t hear from us until we came back, tattered and dirty and wondering who was the new President. South America is, in fact, just as connected as pretty much everywhere else in the world: hostels, cafes, and airports all have free Wi-Fi. You can pretty much find a Wi-Fi signal anywhere you go. That said, you can’t always count on the Wi-Fi being good quality. We had a few times when we couldn’t get Netflix to load reliably. I know, we were really roughing it.
Don’t be afraid of disconnecting when you travel in South America
South America is so connected that there is some luxury to be found in disconnecting entirely. Some of our favourite hostels were intentionally Wi-Fi free, and it fostered a wonderful sense of community and social interaction that wouldn’t have existed had we all been glued to our phones and laptops! Take the opportunity to just be in the moment and enjoy your beautiful surroundings when you travel in South America.
Did you travel in South America? Do you always forget your towel or miss the bus? What was your worst travel mistake? Share it in the comment section below.
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Thanks for the info. Could you write more about getting around, accommodation etc in the Galapagos?
I disagree about the towel. I have backpacked South America for 10yrs and never have taken a towel. There is always a towel available for free or to rent. A towel uses valuable space in your backpack and is NOT necessary at all! If you need a towel for a special occasion, buy one and then ditch it!
You said you did the inka trail.
Can you share a little bit about it? A friend and me want to do it and we are wondering what the cost is and basically everything about it.
thanks for your message Carolina. This is a guestpost by Lia from Practical Wanderlust. You might find more info on her website.
Great tips… although i got salmonella from the street food so id say just because you didnt get sick… doesnt mean people should not be careful
Loved these tips! Traveling around South America can get tricky when you aren’t in big cities. I live in Chile, but these tips are great for everyone!
Thanks Melissa! I only spent a few days in Chile but love to go back and explore more.