Tips for Backpacking South America
Traveling to South America for the first time can be exciting and also a bit scary. Some of the most popular travel horror stories come from South America. When backpacking through South America always be aware of your surroundings and follow these tips to make your experience safe and satisfying.
South America Tips for Backpacking
Tip #1: Learn basic Spanish
Although many of the younger people in South American countries speak very basic English, many cannot communicate with you effectively unless they speak Spanish. Every country in South America has its own Spanish dialect, and in Argentina there are some conjugation differences that you’ll need to know to understand the locals. There’s a lot of free resources online to learn like Duolingo.
Tip #2: Eat with the locals
If you’re looking for a cheap meal that is delicious and filling, your best bet is to look for where the local workers and families eat. Generally you can find these places a few blocks of the main tourist areas. If the establishment is family run you can bet that grandma is in the kitchen cooking up an awesome meal. Not only will you eat great but you will get treated very well, as many of these places aren’t accustomed to foreigners visiting them.
Tip #3: Tours are cheaper with groups
The more people you have when traveling the cheaper things become, especially when it comes to tours. Going solo or with two people will cost you a bit more than if you team up with two or three more backpackers. This is especially true for the multiple day hikes to Maccu Piccu.
Tip #4: Don’t look like a tourist
We always encourage people to dress nice when they travel and similar to the locals. When you blend in it makes you less of a target, regardless if you’re foreign or not. When thieves see someone wearing long white socks, sandals, cargo shorts (with a big camera around their neck) they know they have an easy target. Dress like the locals to avoid this. If you’re not sure what to wear, check out a packing list for South America here.
Tip #5: Know what taxi company you use
If you’ve told anyone you’re going backpacking in South America, they usually respond with “but it’s so dangerous down there!” Followed by a story of someone they know that knows someone that was robbed in a cab. This is one of the most popular travel horror stories that gets passed around the fire. The likelihood of you getting abducted by a cab and held for ransom is pretty low, but that doesn’t mean you should jump into any cab you see. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and to be safe familiarize yourself with the local placards that are required, by law, to be displayed on all cabs. Also, ask the hostel which cabs you should use in the city and get a card to call them for a pick up. When getting in a cab use your best judgment and trust your instincts. If you’re getting a sketchy vibe, get out.
Tip #6: Don’t walk home alone at night
Better yet, don’t walk home at night at all, even if your hostel or hotel is nearby and you’re with a group. If there are a lot of people out it’s fine, but if the people start to thin out and you find yourself on a empty and lonely street, turn back and get a cab. Regardless of where you are in the world, if you aren’t familiar with the area take a cab.
Tip #7: Take the buses, but be careful
Getting from country to country is cheapest by bus, but not all buses are created equal. Some break down and some tumble off cliffs and explode into fiery doom. We recommend spending a little bit more for the more luxurious (still cheap) bus lines. Also check the route before you travel, some are dirt roads which can become treacherous in weather. If sketched out consider flying.
Tip #8: Avoid the border crossing into Colombia
Now that a peace has been brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government, this may no longer be an issue. Still, this is the route where you hear stories about masked men getting on a bus and robbing and kidnapping people. It might be better to fly to Colombia than by bus, your choice.
Tip #9: Beware of deported North Americans
After 9/11 in the USA the government enacted the patriot act. One of the laws that was rolled into the Patriot Act allowed the USA to deport non US citizens, with a criminal record, for any reason. This means that there are a lot of homeless Americans living in South America (especially in Colombia) who were born in the USA, made a mistake, and were kicked out of their country to a foreign land they don’t know.
Their main goal is to get back to the United States. The problem is, that the Darien Gap (between Colombia and Panama) is the second most dangerous border to cross in the world. The only way to get past it safely is to take a boat, that costs around $300 US dollars, and land on the other side. The dream and hope of many deported Americans is to scrounge up enough money to take this trip, and sneak back into the USA. They may not be bad people at heart, but they are desperate and will try and befriend you, tell you their story in hopes of you helping them out, and sometimes straight up rob you. It’s a messed up situation and desperation leads to hostile acts, so be careful.
Tip #10: Mingle with the locals
Traveling is all about experiencing local cultures, so mingle with the locals. If you’re unsure how to do this check out sites like Reddit or Couch Surfing for meet ups. You’ll meet a lot of cool people at them while you travel.
Tip #11: Lock up your belongings
You may be surprised to hear this, but the majority of people who steal from travelers is other travelers. Take a few locks to ensure no one takes your stuff.
Tip #12: Always smile
Smiling is the universal language and will help you when your Spanish fails. It will also open more doors, allow you to meet more people, and propel you into new adventures.
Traveling in South America Tips Summary
South America is no more dangerous than the United States, and in some cases less so. Remember to always be aware of your surroundings, keep and eye on your belongings, and mingle with the locals.