If you cut your backpacking teeth on Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail, the next step is often South America. Even for seasoned travellers, the continent presents new challenges and a grittier backpacking experience.
To help you plan your epic adventure around this hugely diverse continent, we’ve collated all of our favourite South America travel tips, put together with the help of our intrepid Facebook community!
This list has been created by travellers, for travellers. These South America tips will help you maximise your time and budget while still getting the most out of this amazing destination.
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37 South America Backpacking Tips
1. Learn some Spanish
Okay, okay, we know that not every country in South America speaks Spanish. However, a whopping nine out of fourteen of them do! Knowing a bit of Spanish will make your life so much easier in every situation you could imagine (except maybe when you’re trying to learn Portuguese for the Brazilian leg of your trip…)
If you’ve just downloaded Duolingo and are suffering the worrying realisation that your Spanish is painfully lacking – don’t panic! There are a ton of great Spanish schools across South America, many of them aimed at backpackers!
Book in for a crash course at your first destination and get learning! It is an investment but one you definitely won’t regret!
2. Always carry Imodium
This could be a bit TMI but we’re all friends here so I’m just going to tell you. South America ruined my bowels.
Trying new food is always one of my favourite parts of travel but it is no surprise to anyone that if you’re on the road for long enough, something you eat will eventually make you ill. To avoid getting caught short in terrible situations, make sure you have Imodium on your person at all times.
I forgot my trusty Imodium and nearly shat myself on a canoe in the Bolivian Amazon. Although the river was teeming with piranhas, I seriously contemplated jumping in rather than dealing with the embarrassment. Heed this warning!
3. Befriend the locals
Getting to know the locals is a really important part of travel. They’ll help you find hidden gems, the tastiest restaurants and can offer a whole new perspective on a destination. Talk to them!
From the guys who work behind your hostel desk to that old lady at the bus stop, you never know what you could learn from a local. And, if you want a really authentic experience, why not try Couchsurfing? You’ll be amazed at how quickly you become one of the family!
4. Know the exchange rate
When it comes to sorting out your South America travel budget, it helps to know what your money is worth in the local currency. Knowing the exchange rate will help you to avoid getting ripped off and make your money go further. Don’t forget to download one of our favourite backpacking apps XE currency converter to get all this information in your pocket.
5. Put your toilet paper in the bin
Yes, you read that correctly. In most of South America, you should throw your toilet paper in the bin and not in the toilet.
The sewage system has not been made to deal with paper and you will find that it is very easy to block the toilet if you do not pay attention to the trash bin rule.
There’s no doubt that the whole ‘chuck not flush’ thing will take a while to get used to. But eventually, you’ll be searching for the bin in every toilet, even when you get home!
6. Pack light
The debate around the best size backpack to take travelling is an ever raging one. However, according to our Facebook community, the consensus is that a bag around the 40-litre mark tends to be best.
Backpacks of this size tend to be able to pass for hand luggage and are much easier to transport than heavier, bulkier bags. To be honest, pack anymore and you’ll find that you only use a fraction of the stuff you bring anyway!
7. Book a dorm room to make friends
Hostels are a backpacker’s best friend. They provide the perfect setting in which to meet like-minded travellers and often cost the same amount for one night as a decent meal.
These accommodation options tend to be cheap and cheerful which is usually reflected in the people that you’ll meet there. For solo travellers, make sure that your first night is spent in a hostel. Many a backpacker has met a lifelong friend in this setting and you may get lucky and find travel buddies for the rest of your trip!
8. When it matters, splash the cash
Splash the cash you say?! But I am a backpacker! Hear us out for a minute here.
While we are all for taking care of the pennies, there are some occasions when it just makes sense to pay more. Once-in-a-lifetime activities should never be scrimped on and anything that involves your safety is also well worth the investment.
Skimping on a hostel might result in old sheets and a dirty toilet but economising on tours can have much more serious consequences. For example, if you’re planning to fly over Peru’s Nasca Lines, be prepared to spend. Cheaper tour providers have been known to cut corners when it comes to safety. It just isn’t worth the risk.
9. Invest in a good daypack
A small daypack is a must-have travel item for backpackers. It enables you to leave your bulky luggage locked safely away in your hostel and take only the essentials when you head out for the day.
As a good rule of thumb, somewhere between 10-20 litres should be enough for most people. If you’re spending a lot of time in the Andes, remember that your daypack should be big enough to hold a few extra layers which you can put on or strip off as required.
A hip belt also comes highly recommended for small bits (like your phone or camera) that you might need easy access to on the move. If you hate the idea of taking two bags travelling, consider getting a collapsible daypack to save on space in transit.
10. Bring entertainment
Much like gin and tonic, bus travel and backpacking come hand in hand. But, even if you are used to overland travel abroad, taking the bus in South America can come as a bit of a shock. Trust us when we tell you, these journeys are long!
To keep your sanity on seemingly neverending bus journeys, make sure you come armed with entertainment. No matter whether you’re a bookworm or a Netflix binger, it is good to be prepared with something to keep your mind busy.
11. Check the weather before you hike
When you’re at altitude, you can’t take anything for granted. A day that starts with cloudless blue skies can quickly turn into angry storms, often with very little warning.
Being so exposed to the elements when you’re high up can be extremely dangerous and people have been known to get seriously hurt. Lightning strikes, landslides, avalanches and altitude sickness can all happen so listen to your body and take heed of the forecast before setting off on an adventure.
12. Get a hiking backpack
If you plan on taking on some of South America’s most epic hikes (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), get a hiking backpack. Although some travel backpacks will be okay for use on a hike, they haven’t been designed for this purpose.
They won’t have the features that you require and are likely to be a bit uncomfortable over long distances. A hiking specific pack is tailored to this very purpose and will better lend itself to the multi-day trek experience.
13. Download Uber
When it comes to safety in South America, many backpackers feel understandably concerned. After all, I bet everybody you’ve told about your travels has already warned you about drug cartels and gang violence!
To lessen your chances of falling victim to a dangerous taxi situation or scam, download Uber. Available in many South American cities, this ride app will save you from needing to flag down a cab on the street.
The rating system also adds an extra layer of protection for travellers. After all, no driver will be driving for long if they’ve robbed a customer. Just imagine the reviews!
14. Invest in a money belt and a theftproof backpack
Let me be quite clear, the purpose of this post is not to make you too scared to visit South America. However, if you’re a worrier like me, becoming a victim of crime is probably something you’ve already dedicated a fair bit of headspace to.
To ease your worries, consider some safety accessories to protect your valuables. Whether you opt for a money belt or an alternative such as a bra stash, these discreet hidey places will give you peace of mind when out on the road.
A theftproof backpack is also a great idea, especially if you are a digital nomad travelling South America with your laptop. Many of these are slash-proof and have lockable zips to keep your stuff safe, no matter where you are.
15. Be a responsible traveller
If you’re lucky enough to be travelling and exploring the world, you have a duty of care to Mother Earth. Always follow leave no trace principles and try to depart every place you visit in a better condition than you found it in.
Reef-friendly suncream is an essential item if you’re visiting coastal destinations such as Tayrona National Park in Colombia or the Galapagos Islands. Check out this website for more information on why reef-friendly suncream has never been so important for protecting vulnerable marine life.
16. Learn how to haggle
Haggling is an essential skill in South America, especially if you want to bag yourself a bargain on one of the many excellent markets. No matter whether you’re buying an alpaca jumper or a bag full of coca leaves, there will always be a tourist price and a local price.
Remember that while you don’t want to get ripped off, you still want the haggling experience to be positive for the vendor. Don’t drive too much of a hard bargain.
17. Make sure you know what to expect from the climate
Luckily for travellers, there is no bad time to visit South America. When one place is getting hammered by rain, another will be in full bloom, ready to woo travellers. Even though we’re big advocates of going with the flow, we firmly believe that a small bit of planning never hurt anyone.
By doing a bit of research on the best time to visit South America, you can plan your visit accordingly and make sure that the weather doesn’t interfere with your schedule. Some leading attractions (for example, the Inca Trail and some refugios in Patagonia) close at certain times of the year so make sure you’re clued up if you don’t want to miss out!
18. Don’t drink tap water
Although the initial outlay for these kinds of products can be quite steep, you’ll quickly make your money back by not buying bottled water. This is my biggest regret of my most recent South America trip, I spent over $300USD on bottled water alone!
19. Pay attention to the onward travel rule
You may have read that you must have proof of your onward travel to enter some of the countries in South America. Do not ignore this! Failure to adhere to the onward travel requirement could mean that you are refused entry onto the plane and not let into the country.
But we’re free and easy backpackers, right? Right. If you want to travel with a more flexible itinerary, there is a way to get around the onward travel rule. You can either buy a fully refundable ticket or ‘rent’ a ticket from an onward ticket company. We recommend One Way Fly and Onward Ticket.
20. Download Whatsapp
In South America, everybody uses Whatsapp. Whether it’s your hostel, a pal you met on a bus or your tour provider, you’ll likely be chatting to them over Whatsapp. Make sure you have the app downloaded and be sure to invest in a local SIM for every country you visit. This is by far the most cost-effective way to stay connected.
21. Avoid protests
In South America, people rarely do things by halves. Blockades are a common method used to express anger at political and social rulings and protests occur regularly, especially outside notable buildings and in town centres.
During my time in Peru, I actually saw a little old lady in her 80s chase a driver away with a machete for trying to pass a road blockade! Keep yourself out of trouble and avoid protests and demonstrations.
22. The South American concept of time is different
One of the most useful things I wish I’d been told before heading to South America, is that South American time is a thing. Your ticket for the bus that leaves at 7.27? Don’t be surprised if it shows up at 7.47 or even 9.53!
South Americans generally have a very relaxed attitude toward time and things often run late. If stuff isn’t going as you expected, try not to stress about it. Things always seem to work out in the end somehow!
23. Get a mobile bank
Nobody likes paying costly ATM fees. After all, it takes plenty long enough to save for travel as it is! Do yourself a favour and get yourself a mobile bank like Monzo, Starling or Revolut. These digital banks are ideal for long-term travellers and digital nomads, helping you to reduce (and sometimes avoid altogether) ATM charges. You’ll be amazed at how quickly these savings add up!
24. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations
Have you read Jungle? Or seen the movie with Daniel Radcliffe? If so, you’ll know it’s the story of a group of backpackers who ventured into the Amazon together with only half of them coming back out. Although you shouldn’t let the fear factor put you off exploring South America, there are plenty of dangers out there.
Be sensible and know your limits. If you fancy doing some of Argentina’s hikes like hiking up Aconcagua, for goodness sake, hire a guide. There are some things in South America that it is not only foolish to do alone but downright stupid. We all like to save money but those extra dollars in your bank account won’t make any difference if you’re not around to spend them.
25. Keep your plans flexible
The best thing about backpacking has got to be going with the flow. By keeping your itinerary loose, you allow yourself the freedom to change your plans on a whim and open yourself up to new experiences. After all, the best thing about being a backpacker is moving on whenever you feel like it!
26. Carry a decoy wallet
Crime happens everywhere and South America is no different. In case you get caught up in something horrible, it is always worth carrying a decoy wallet. Keep the odd note and a few old cards in here so it looks legit and hand it over to any demanding thieves. If it looks convincing, you could manage to avoid giving away your real wallet with all your real cards and cash.
27. Eat local
Trying local street food is one of the best things you can do when you travel. Cheap, tasty and usually very filling, this is a great way to keep your food expenditure low and your belly full.
If you’re staying somewhere with kitchen access, you can also buy groceries from the markets and cook yourself. We recommend heading to a local cooking class beforehand so that you can try your hand at some of the nation’s best dishes.
28. Don’t mention the war!
The Falklands War is still a very contentious issue in Argentina and conversations about the sovereignty of Islas Malvinas can get very heated very quickly. If you’re looking to make friends and not enemies in Argentina (especially if you’re British), avoid talking about entirely.
29. Get travel insurance
It’s probably the most important bit of information on this entire list: Buy. Travel. Insurance. Now repeat it…
As much as travel insurance is an outlay that many of us would rather didn’t exist, it is probably the most important purchase of your entire trip. Put simply, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
Many destinations in South America are a long way from professional medical care and a lot of must-do activities come with risks. Bear in mind that usually any activity above 3,000 metres will not be covered as standard which rules out a lot of the must-do stuff in South America.
30. Queuing isn’t really a thing
If you’re from somewhere like the UK where forming a queue is a matter of national pride, you may find that visiting South America comes as a bit of a shock. Everybody, from businessmen to old indigenous ladies will shove to get on a bus and if you don’t join in, you could get left behind.
31. Make a budget and stick to it
Ask any traveller what the worst part of backpacking is and they’ll probably say “coming home”! Although most of us will have to return to the real world sooner or later, a bit of careful budgeting can push this date far into the future, leaving you more time to explore!
One of the apps that we swear by is Trail Wallet. You can set a budget for your trip, log your expenditure and keep on top of your spending. If you want to travel for longer, budgeting is an essential skill!
32. Download maps.me
Travel in South America isn’t quite as instinctive as travel in other parts of the world. And, if you don’t speak much of the language, you could find things a little difficult. For example, how many times have you hopped on a bus not knowing where your stop is? If you can’t speak to the driver, this could quickly become a problem.
With maps.me, you can preload maps of places you’re planning to visit and track your journey so you know when you arrive. That way, you don’t have to worry about missing your stop or trying to communicate in broken Spanish trying to make the driver understand where you want to go!
33. Get used to peeing outside
South America is home to some of the world’s great wildernesses. Understandably, this means that toilets can often be hard to come by in certain areas. If you’re heading off the beaten track with a guide, prepare to hear the classic ‘Inca toilet’ joke more than once. This essentially means, squat and get on with it.
In keeping with ‘leave no trace’ principles, never litter toilet paper. Also, be careful where you apply the outside peeing rule. You won’t last long at Machu Picchu if you drop into a squat with your trousers round your ankles!
34. Look for local restaurants with a high turnover rate
As we’ve already covered, it is easy to get sick when you travel. To lessen your chances of eating something dodgy and needing to stay within five metres of a toilet all day, choose your food wisely.
Restaurants populated by locals with a high turnover rate are what you need to look for. The local presence indicates that the food is good and the prices are reasonable. A high turnover rate means that the food is less likely to be sitting out for hours on end.
35. Hitchhike for added adventure
One of our favourite South America travel tips comes from Bella in our Facebook group. She said, if you can avoid flying, you absolutely should. Hitchhiking is way better for the planet and also adds an extra dose of adventure to your trip. We couldn’t agree more!
36. Join Facebook groups
Having a line of communication with people just like you who are on the road right now is invaluable. No matter whether you have a question about buses, are trying to find travellers to hang with or simply want to share your own travel experiences, our South America Facebook Community is one group you should DEFINITELY join!
Do you have any extra South America travel tips we’ve missed? Let us know what they are and we’ll add them to our list!