Our top tips for backpacking & travelling in South America
So after three months of travelling through four different countries in South America, it’s time for us to move along to our next destination.. North America!
We covered Argentina, Chile, Bolivia & Peru, all via land and had the time of our lives, but we also learnt a lot along the way and we thought that we would put together a blog with our top tips!
Buses: We found the easiest and cheapest way to get around South America was buses. Whether it was a 24 hour bus trip, or just a 1 hour, we found that buses were constantly running where we needed to go on a daily basis. Due to the incredible ease and frequency, we would suggest never pre-booking any of your bus trips! So many occasions we arrived to a village or town and either fell in love so stayed a few extra days than initially intended, or decided it wasn’t for us and left earlier than initially planned. The flexibility of being able to book your bus the day prior with a number of different companies offering similar services, meant that we had much more freedom.
Reputable companies: Unfortunately in some areas of South America it is quite common (especially during night-trips) for buses to be hijacked, and for locals to hop on/off as they please, often leading to theft of peoples possessions. For all of our long journeys, we always ensured that we booked our tickets with a reputable bus company - sometimes it may be slightly more expensive, however the recommended bus companies will always provide you with meals during your trip, have on-board toilets, guarantee safety on board with locked seating areas, store your baggage away and provide you with bag-tags so that it can only be collected after your trip by providing ID or your tag, and assist you with border crossings when travelling into a different country. Another huge plus is the comfort, with around 32 seats on the top level of the buses that all recline around 140 degrees, and another 8 downstairs which often recline 180 degrees, it’s quite easy to have a sleep and we actually found them much more comfortable than planes! Not to mention you’re also provided with pillows, blankets, and movie entertainment!
Companies we used and would recommend: Turbus (Chile), Bolivia Hop, Todo Turismo (Bolivia), Peru Hop, Oltursa, Cruz de Sur (Peru)
Book your trips with the company direct: There are many travel agencies that sell bus tickets on behalf of the companies, however we found that these agencies would always charge extra commission etc. Find out where the bus company is directly, or alternatively most times you’re able to book online and show your e-ticket upon arrival
Always bring extra snacks and water for your long bus-rides! Often we found that our travel time would be more than initially specified due to traffic/road conditions - although food is mostly provided on the buses, usually this is only a small bread roll sandwich and juice, so make sure you always pack extra snacks and expect your trip to be longer than what your ticket and google maps specify!
Always keep your valuables on you - your camera, passport, money, phone, should always be in a small day-pack with you when travelling rather than stowed under the bus in the luggage compartment, but make sure that it’s always on your lap as it’s quite common for things to go missing as often there are locals on the bus who hop on/off during the multiple stops of your trip.
We completely underestimated the size of South America and distances between locations and travel times! There were many times that we were on a bus for around 24 hours to reach our next destination, so pack a book or something to keep you entertained if spanish movies aren’t your thing!
Maps.Me app for iPhone and android: this thing was our saviour in South America and we will continue to use it around the world. As we are travelling with only wifi phone access, google maps was not that helpful during our travels, however maps.me is a FREE app that allows you to download offline maps and then access them at any time. This helped us in locating our accomodation after a long bus ride, showing taxi drivers where we needed to go, and also find our way to cafe’s, post offices etc. with ease, meaning we rarely had to have an awkward spanglish conversation asking for directions!
Taxi’s: when using taxi’s to/from bus terminals, airports etc. always ensure that you get inside a reputable company car, or one with a phone number on it. If you’re unsure, ask a local service attendant or security guard (they are always around) which taxi companies are safe to use and an estimated cost of where you need to go, as guaranteed the driver will quote you almost double of what you should pay, barter your way down!
Hitch-hiking: We found that Argentina and Chile were much safer for hitchhiking that Bolivia and Peru, but if you are game to give it a go we found that it was always much easier to do so during the week rather than weekends. Truck drivers are usually the ones that will pull over to give you a lift, and they rarely work weekends meaning less opportunities for hitching that ride!
Baggage: South America is definitely one country where we were thankful to be travelling with large backpacks rather than suitcases. With most of the roads being uneven, sandy, or rocky, and most hostels requiring access via stairs, when walking the streets and to/from accomodation it was made so much easier with having our packs on our backs as opposed to wheeling a suitcase around.
Free walking tours: Most large cities around South America would offer free walking tours which operate a couple of times a day - we found that this was a great way to get to know the hot-spots and safe areas of the town quickly when we only had a few days to spare somewhere. They would usually run for 2-3 hours and you would be taken to historical sites, cool restaurants and pubs, market places, and you were able to as your guide for any advice or recommendations. Although labelled as a free tour, it would always be expected that you tip your guide at the end of the tour, usually only a couple of dollars.
Unfortunately South America is not the safest continent in the world, and we would say that 50% of travellers that we met had had their personal belongings stolen from them, or pick-pocketed. When walking the streets, even if it’s just across the road from your hostel to grab some lunch, only bring the money that you need with you, and never carry your passport, phone, or camera with you unnecessarily.
The majority of pickpocketing occurs in crowded areas such as marketplaces so always be extra cautious of your belongings here.
Never bring valuables with you after-dark
Invest in an anti-theft money pouch or bum bag, we heard of many scenarios where people would have their camera or bag straps cut right off their bodies by somebody with a knife.
Lock up your belongings! Most hostels have lockers where you can store away your things, and if this isn’t an option make sure that you have a padlock so that you can lock the zippers of your bag together - unfortunately theft is common even in hostels with other travellers
Go with your gut feel and be aware! There were a few occasions where we felt unsafe, or that we were being followed or eyed off for our camera and belongings. Be super aware of your surroundings and if something doesn’t feel right, make sure that you move fast and get to an area where you are around other people or feel safe.
Hostels: for the majority of our trip we stayed in hostels - we found hostels to have the best facilities, with all of them offering lockers to store our valuables, laundry services, on-location travel agencies, helpful bilingual staff that could assist with any query, security guards so that only guests would be allowed inside, complimentary breakfast service, on-site bar and restaurant usually with reasonably priced food, and great social environments for meeting other travellers! We always tried to book hostels where possible which had kitchen facilities, as it was much more cost efficient for us to go to the local markets and buy fresh food and cook at our accommodation rather than eating out for every lunch and dinner meal.
Never book in advance: even in high season, there really is no need to book your accommodation in South America in advance. Hostels always have vacancies, even the very popular ones. We would generally only make a reservation a night or two before arriving, or once we knew for sure when we would be arriving at our next location
HostelWorld - we religiously used the Hostel World website & app for booking our accommodation - you can filter via location, price-range, and we found that this website has the cheapest prices (we found booking.com to be more expensive even for the exact same hostels/rooms at times) and the most amount of reviews from other travellers regarding their stay. ALWAYS read the reviews - they can be very helpful to ensure that you don’t have a bad experience, or end up somewhere renown for bed-bugs, under construction, and no wifi! In saying this, make sure that if you have a good/bad experience somewhere, you leave a review to assist others also :)
Camping: If you are equipped with your own camping gear and tent, it can be quite cost efficient to camp in many spots across South America, especially in Patagonia in Chile! Read more about our camping adventures in our previous blog posts for more information
A few of our favourite accomodation stays during our travels which we couldn’t recommend highly enough: Aylen Aike (El Chalten), Earthship Patagnoia (El Bolson), Pata Pata Hostel (Valparaiso), Hostel Florencia (Copacabana), Pariwana (Cusco & Lima), Banana’s Adventure (Huacachina), Kokopelli (Paracas & Lima), Psygon Surf Camp (Mancora), Eco Lodge (Mancora), Naif Ecologic & Rustic Lodge (Mancora), Casitas Pacificas (Mancora)
Currency: Each country in South America uses a different currency, so we found the easiest way to manage our funds was to have AUD currency in our travel money card, and all ATM’s would then convert this to whichever currency you required based on which country you were in.
Cash vs Credit: It is very important that you have sufficient cash on you in South America, as there are very very limited establishments that can accept credit cards. Even most hostels and bus terminals could only accept cash, and the only places that we found we were able to use credit cards were in very large supermarkets, or more expensive-type restaurants. If visiting smaller towns, you may struggle to find an ATM at all so plan ahead and get cash-out in a larger city prior
Coins are golden! Most vendors keep limited cash onsite, meaning that it’s often very difficult to purchase something cheap, with a large note! Although the ATM’s dispense the equivalent of $50 AUD notes, finding someone to then give you change for this proves to be very difficult! Try to swap your big money at places like supermarkets and hostels who are more likely to have change, and keep all your smaller notes and coins for your day-to-day purchases
Bartering: Although you may feel uncomfortable doing so, bartering is acceptable in so many situations in South America! Whether it be booing excursions and activities at a tour agency, taxi’s, and local markets and food stalls, we found so often that we would initially be quoted double the price of what you should be paying for so many items, so make sure you ask the question!
ATM’s: apart from our standard $3.50 AUD fee that we are charged each time we use an ATM, many of the banks in South America will also charge you another ATM fee which can be anywhere from an extra $6 - $10 AUD! Most large cities we were able to find larger banks where their ATM’s did not charge this fee, so ask around other fellow travellers, as usually there are only 1 or 2 in one city! We also found that all ATM’s will only dispense a maximum of around $150 AUD per day transaction, which can be difficult when needing to pay for accomodation or buses etc. so always plan ahead with your cash. And a last but most important note on ATM’s, always use one which is a reputable bank company or connected to a bank itself. We met so many other fellow travellers who unfortunately had their cards swallowed, leaving them with no access to their funds.. what a nightmare!
Street markets: The local food markets and street stalls was definitely a way that we ate extremely cheap whilst in South America. While all the food is incredibly delicious and will cost you no more than a dollar or two, hygiene standards are not all that great and it is very common for people to get food poisoning (which isn’t fun, trust us, it happened to us a few times!). But if you don’t take the chance, you will truly miss out on some tasty and local cuisine which just isn’t the same at many of the restaurants (and usually also quadruple the price). All pharmacies sell food poisoning tablets at a very cheap price, so always have some on hand just in case.
Local markets: Each town will have a local market where they sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, cheese, bread, eggs, anything your belly desires for a very cheap price! Here you will need to haggle on prices, but we loved shopping at the local markets to make simple sandwiches, or when we had cooking facilities at a hostel
Menu del Dia: So many cafe’s and restaurants offer a Menu del Dia, which means Menu of the Day and is usually a three or four course meal including a drink, entree, main meal, and dessert. These are always the cheapest option when dining out and are never more than around $6 AUD, they also change every-day which means if you find a place that you like, you can keep going back for new options each day!
Water: Throughout Argentina and some parts of Chile we had no problems with being able to drink the tap water, however once we made our way to Bolivia & Peru we were needing to purchase our drinking water everywhere we went as it was no longer clean to drink. Make sure that wherever you are, you check with the hostel staff as to whether the water is drinkable as this is a huge cause of people getting ill also
Bottle return: Through each country we travelled, we found that there was always a very generous beer bottle return of around $2 AUD (usually you would only be paying $3-$4 for a beer as it was so it was quite a large amount! Make sure that when buying alcoholic bottled drinks you keep your receipts and bottles and get your money back, it’s also obviously helping the earth to recycle :)
Scrub up on your basic Spanish: it will make your life so much easier if you learn a few phrases before you travel to South America. It is very rare to find an english speaking local here, and a simple hello, how are you, please, thank you goes a long long way and we found that people were much more helpful when they could see that you were making an effort to speak their language. If Spanish is a language you’ve always wanted to learn, you can also do short or longer term language courses for a very affordable price everywhere here, and they will tailor them to your needs and focus on the phrases that you would most require to make your way around. If all else fails, google translate is a life-saver! You can download an offline Spanish dictionary which comes in handy when trying to ask questions in Spanish, or deciphering signs and menus!
WIFI: Surprisingly, we found that accessibility to wifi was great throughout our travels. We did not need to invest in a sim card for our phones as all hostels and most cafes, restaurants, bus terminals would all have wifi available for use.
Toilet paper: Always have it on you! Most public toilets will not have any toilet paper, and if they do, they will charge you $1 AUD for about 2 squares!
Have photocopies of your passport, as it’s safer to bring this with you than your actual passport, and it will also be helpful if you do have your passport stolen as even bus companies will often not sell you a ticket without passport identity.
Activities & tours: Never book these in advance! They are always so much more expensive online than the prices that are quoted at travel agencies in town, and most of the time you will be able to barter your price down, or purchase package excursions for much much cheaper prices.
The sun is strong in south america, even on cloudy days many people get sun-burnt, we would recommend bringing sunscreen from home, as purchasing it here is surpisingly very expensive.
Invest in a high level travel insurance and always read your fine print as many companies won’t pay out on specific scenarios (i.e. having your belongings stolen from you in a public place etc.)
Well, we think we’ve covered off on most of the important stuff! But if you have a trip to South America planned and have any other questions at all, feel free to email us and we are more than happy to help :) And for more information on our specific adventures in each country, we have written blog-posts about most of the locations that we have visited throughout our stay so feel free to check those out also!