This post focuses on the do’s and definitely do nots I learned whilst exploring South America with my cousin Dreanie back in 2012.
To be honest, I am amazed that we survived our South American adventure with the surreal things that happened and our combined lack of, well, any kind of sense.
Fly into Rio De Janeiro and stay for the week of the carnival > travel to Ilha Grande (an island off the coast of Rio) > Back to Rio to join an 11-day STA tour which took us to Paraty (a beautiful Brazilian coastal town), Iguassu Falls at both the Brazilian and Argentinian side and then into Buenos Aires where the tour finished > From there we travelled to Mendoza (western Argentina) > Santiago (Chile) > Santa Cruz (Bolivia) > La Paz (Bolivia) > Uyuni (Bolivia) > back to La Paz > Lima (Peru) > Iquitos then deeper into The Amazon (Peru) > Lima > Cuzco (Peru) > The Inca Trail > Lima
You can perhaps tell from the above, that Dreanie and I forged our own haphazard path across South America. Infact, the only organised part of our trip was the STA tour, the rest, well it was pretty chaotic. With many people likely to be heading over to South America to get involved with the World Cup action, here are our do’s and don’ts that may help you.
- Learn to speak basic Spanish before you go, not really knowing more than ola, unsurprisingly, can cause real problems.
- Embark upon group tours as well as exploration on your own. This enables you to make friends with whom you can then meet again along the way.
- Be as open minded as possible. You’ll meet some of the world’s most interesting people travelling, so leave any pre-judgements at home.
- Have an initial route mapped out, even if you amend it slightly as you go. This will allow you to actually put a bit of research into the places you want to visit.
- Remember that each South American country is completely different to the next, with their own regional dialects, customs and currency (yes, Dreanie and I often found ourselves flummoxed by this).
- Set yourself a budget. We massively underestimated the amount of money necessary for this trip and had banked on the fact that SA would be cheap as chips, when infact the only country that we found to be much cheaper than the UK was Bolivia. Mind you, when you eat in top restaurants and treat yourself to random bottles of champagne in unnecessary places like Nature Reserves, it really is little wonder you should log onto your online banking half way through the trip only to find your combined wealth is 3p…
- Save up before you go. Like seriously try to save between £10K – £15K (to cover the whole trip, including return travel, if you are away for 3-4 months and want to see as much as possible). I am sure there are those who can do it on a shoestring, these were probably the people staying in the hostels every night eating noodles. But for me travelling is getting out and about at all times and so if you are anything like Dreanie and I, save bloody hard…oh and take a credit card.
- Sample the native cuisine. Ceviche, which is a traditional seafood dish in Peru, is one of my all time favourite meals and the traditional Brazilian BBQ experience is out of this world (this is where barbecued skewers of different types of meat are offered to you until you are ready to burst.) Want to try it here? I’d recommend Viva Brazil.
- Prepare yourself for long bus journey’s between the countries (we are talking 24 hours+). Flights are a fortune and if you travel first class on the buses, you’ll get a choice of movies and a seat that rolls back into a bed.
- Let any vanity you may have disappear. Understand before you go that that feeling of being truly clean gets left at home and that if you do tend to err on the glittery side of glamour, this will quickly change along with your concern for hair and make-up. Expect to dress like a traveller and find yourself purchasing local attire you would never have put yourself in before setting off on your adventure. Back home I would class Dreanie and I as being ‘girly girls’ but over there… well we really changed.. mountain yeti’s springs to mind.
- Leave any valuables at home. Do not wear things that people would want to steal, we witnessed two ladies getting mugged in Rio for jewellery and bags in a place called Lapa. A bum bag will become your friend on this trip and preferably the flat, under garment belts!
- Be conscious that Latino men do fit well into that red-blooded stereotype and they are very interested in western women, not least those who are blonde (a colour which is rarely seen in the local women, with the exception of Argentinian women who are European in their styling). Just be aware of this, watch your drinks when you order them etc. There were a few situations we found ourselves in, which I just don’t think would happen back here. Like the time two undercover policemen escorted us into an interrogation room in Cuzco Airport, went through our stuff and ended up asking inappropriate questions as they pulled out underwear/ contraceptive pills (largely insinuating we were in the Peru for the pene). Or the time when a pilot of a plane requested we go into the cockpit for a picture with him and he ended up aiming his iPad right at our cleavage….WTF…This attention on our part was unwanted, so much so a consideration for both of us should we return to SA, would be to go brunette.
- Wear a hat if you go sailing on the Amazon, heatstroke will ensue if you do not.
- If your STA guide shouts RUN GUN, try not to stop and stare at the carjacking which is happening on the road beside you (I would actually advise to stay away from the town of Iguassu, or Foz do Iguaçu, in Brazil based on this).
- Prepare yourself for the altitude of cities like La Paz and Cuzco. Altitude sickness is a common problem for travellers, you need to take things slowly the higher you get. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is said to happen at altitudes of 2500m above sea level, Cuzco for example is 3399m above sea level.
- Believe you can borrow clothes in hostels. For example, don’t stumble into your hostel room in Rio (same goes for any hostel dorm); full of Caipirinhas (a traditional Brazilian drink made with lime, cachaça, sugar and ice); put the light on to awake your fellow travellers, only to put it off in fits of laughter; mistake the unfriendly German girl’s dress – who sleeps in the bunk above you – for your pyjamas; and then fall into a drunken slumber wearing it…The first Dreanie knew she had done this was when she was awoken with a prod and a very harshly spoken ‘why da fuck are you wearing my dress?’ at which point she jumped out of bed, ripped off the dress apologising profusely and in all the panic, forgot she was completely naked under that borrowed dress…
- If you do not eat red meat everyday at home, do not expect that your stomach will react well to this on your trip. Not great when you are sharing toilets with often hundreds of travellers in hostels, nor is it ideal if you decide to take an organised tour of Rocinha, Rio’s largest Favela, and you have to get on the back of a local’s motorbike, to be taken up a winding mountain road, leaving you quite literally scared shitless…
- Expect any real concern for health and safety. For example, if you book a horse riding excursion in the Andes, you will be expected to take your horse up and down cliff faces wearing not a jot of protective clothing, never mind a helmet.
- Go to the waterpark in Santa Cruz (infact go to Santa Cruz in Bolivia at all) we were THE only people there, which was extremely eerie with the place itself being massive. We kept expecting people to jump out shouting ‘sorpresa’ like we were victims of some kind of sick joke.
- Completely forget the name and address of the hotel you are booked to stay at. For example, Dreanie and I never printed or even noted down the name of the hotel we were booked to stay in Uyuni (the salt lakes in Bolivia), only to be taken to the salt museum out in the middle of nowhere and end up having to pay a fortune to stay in the nearest 5-star hotel, which was fully made of salt (ironically this ended up being one of our favourite places of the trip).
- Get off the plane at the wrong stop. Planes in South America are like trains in terms of the number of stops they make, which we never initially appreciated. We were on our way to Iquitos, a town in the centre of the Amazon and had luckily told a fellow passenger of our final destination, so that when he saw us in the airport at his stop, he warned we had better run and get back on the plane. It’s always going to be a surreal moment when you are running, flapping like a bird trying to flag down a plane on the runway.
- Turn up at the airport a day early. We had to rely on our guide from the earlier STA tour to save the day and allow us to stay with him until our flight the next day and re-book future activities based on this error.
- Trust a taxi driver to take you to a reputable tour company in The Amazon. He is likely to take you to his friend’s house, who is going to sell you a dodgy 3-night tour of The Amazon and then kick his daughter out of her bedroom so you can sleep there the night before the tour kicks off.
- Get your jungle guide drunk at what was apparently the village bar, but was really just someone’s house, and then have to lead him back on the twenty minute walk to your hut in the pitch black.
- NEVER think about drinking the Ayahuasca with an Amazon witch doctor! Dreanie and I were all set, right up until our guide told us there was a chance that under the influence we could decide to run off into the jungle naked if the fancy took us. Or that there was a high chance he would have to help us go to the toilet… em nah you’re all right pal!
- Go on a midnight cruise of The Amazon river with on old jungle man. Like us, you are likely to expect this tour to be in a large boat, but beware of it taking place in a canoe, which is actually level with the water. If you do find yourself in this unfortunate position, best not to then ask your guide what the chances of a croc or an anaconda knocking the boat over are – good old Manuel didn’t know a word of English, but to these queries he would give an overly enthusiastic thumbs up. That was until he dropped our only source of light, a small torch, into the depths of the Amazon… after that he looked decidedly agitated.
- Expect to get away with shaving your legs at the villager’s bathing pool (which was a green pond) in The Amazon. Remember you are not part of a Herbal Essences advert, villagers will stare, open-mouthed as you try to make yourself feel less jungle beast and more female again.
- Don’t be suprised if vilager’s in the Amazon cross themselves when you pass by… apparantly it was because I was so pale…
Dreanie and I’s top ten most memorable locations in South America
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil – during the Carnival it must be the most colourful place on Earth
The Amazon, Peru – an absolute must, even on our dodgy tour it was unlike anything else I have and I’m sure will ever do
Mendoza, Argentina – for its cycling wine tasting tour, paragliding and horse riding excursions in the Andes
The Inca Trail, Peru – hardest thing Dreanie and I have ever done but such a good Bucket List tick and worth the excruciating pain when you catch sight of the magical Machu Picchu
The Salt Lakes, Bolivia – feels like you are on the surface of another planet
Ilha Grandhe, Brazil – a tropical paradise and great escape from the madness of Carnival
Paraty, Brazil – this pretty coastal town was the location of Edward and Bella’s honeymoon in Twilight
Buenos Aires, Argentina – great to both party and soak up the culture
La Paz, Bolivia – where you can stay in one of the highest cities in the world, visit a witch market and dine at the so-called highest Indian restaurant (where they even sell Irn Bru)
Iguassu Falls – The Argentinian side is truly awe-inspiring
I hope the above survival guide will help you make your own path around South America, it truly is one of the world’s most exciting places.
Adios amigos x