I recently completed 5 months of travelling in South America, and as with any place that you have spent several months in, you learn a lot while you’re there. Despite being an experienced traveller before this venture I’ve learned a lot about travel (and life) since I came and went to South America, much of which I could never attempt to convey in a simple blog post like this. However, particularly pertaining to travelling this continent and the practicalities of it all I thought I had some interesting insights and useful info to share that should hopefully help you should you ever visit. I know personally that if I ever come back here in the future (which I’m sure I will at some point), that I’ll be a better traveller because of these experiences.
Everyone’s an entrepreneur…
South Americans, particularly those in the poorer South American countries, never cease to amaze me with their creativity and ingenuity in how they manage to find ways to earn a living and get by. There are so many entrepreneurs in South America from the smallest level right up, and it astounds me that back home in Europe we do not take advantage of opportunities like they do. For example, in Bolivia it’s quite common for people who are travelling on a (long distance) bus to bring home-baked goods on board to sell. You’ll often find a family trying to off-set the cost of their tickets by selling cakes, home made crisps (chips), or other food & drink products. In Peru and Ecuador you’d often find that just as your bus was about to depart 2 salesmen come on board and try to sell you everything from food to electrical products! A lot of it seemed like quite simple ways of making a small living, but it has me wondering why we don’t take advantage of opportunities like this back home?
Some useful websites for booking buses in certain countries
There are certain countries in South America where it’s useful to book ahead with your bus and there are other countries where it’s much easier just to turn up on the day and ask for your destination. In Bolivia for example there didn’t appear to be any decent website to even so much as check bus times and schedules. If you were in a good hostel they’d usually have a paper bus timetable to the main destinations up on a board somewhere. Otherwise you could usually just turn up and book your ticket at the station. As long as you were going to main destinations you’d usually find buses going regularly from most places.
In Argentina I found the website Plataforma 10 useful for checking bus times and dates for all around the country. I believe you can also make bookings on there but I personally just used it for checking schedules as I had a bus pass.
In Ecuador I used the site Andes Transit to check bus times and schedules. I also used the same site a little bit in Peru and Colombia but found it was much more extensive for bus times in Ecuador. However, in terms of actually booking buses in Ecuador you quite often found that you just got on the bus and then paid once you were on. With the other countries you usually had to book at the ticket desk first (and pay tax separately at another stall too) before they would let you through the platform where you could get on board your bus.
The dairy is awful!
I think I forgot how spoiled we are here in Europe for good food until I went to South America, particularly on the dairy front when it comes to good cheese and real milk! Never have I missed good quality dairy more than I have when I was travelling through South America. It was certainly not the craving I expected to experience before I departed upon my 5 month trip. The UHT and powdered milk they tend to use in most of South American is awful. I literally just stopped eating cereal or having a cup of tea or coffee with milk in it. And if you are lucky enough to find decent cheese it’s usually extortionately priced because they’ve imported it from abroad. As a bit of a cheese and crackers addict this was one of the small things I missed when I was in South America for sure.
An older breed of backpacker
One thing I really enjoyed about my time in South America was the fact that most backpackers were at least 23, with many much older than that too. Having spent so much of my time previously in Europe I’d been feeling rather ancient at the ripe old age of 25. I seemed to be surrounded by lots of Gap Year kids and/or students who were fresh, or not long out of high school. It was nice for once to be surrounded by people my own age and also find more than one person rocking a front pack too. You can always tell an experienced traveller by those who carry a front backpack alongside their main one! They know that practicality is much more important on the road than whether or not you look stupid.
Bolivia is the cheapest (and poorest) country in South America
Bolivia was somewhere that I fell in love with whilst travelling in South America, but it’s not for everyone. As the poorest country in the continent you’ll find many little towns and villages that just shut off electricity for an entire day here. And this happens quite regularly, usually at least once a week. They quite simply don’t have the power to have 24/7 electricity in the smaller destinations where business isn’t quite as affected by a shutdown. You’ll also find the cheapest prices in South America here for just about everything, e.g. food, transport, accommodation etc. However, you’ll unfortunately also find a lot of people living in poverty alongside of that too which obviously isn’t good.
Many people I met who were also travelling Bolivia described local Bolivians as being a bit cold and unfriendly, but I personally never found this to be the case at all. In fact, I couldn’t disagree more! Yes, Bolivians are not all smiley and happy looking people when they’re walking down the street if that’s what some people expect, but then what do you expect from a country where most people live in great poverty? When you actually got talking to most local Bolivian people they were (for the large part) very honest and helpful people. This is the only country in South America where I never once had to pay ‘tourist price’. Despite these people being the poorest in the continent they did not once try to rip me off even though they quite easily could have done so. I was quite obviously not from around there and in other countries you would expect this to happen.
Argentine buses are ‘da bomb’
As I’ve gotten a little bit older and travelled farther I’ve grown tired of long distance bus journeys. It’s not usually the kind of travel I enjoy anymore, so where at all possible I always try to travel by train or by air. However, given that Argentina has an almost non-existent rail system, and that airfare prices in the country are extortionate, travel by bus is your only real option if you’re travelling on a budget. The good news is that long distance buses in Argentina are seriously pimped out in comparison to the kind of buses you would get for a similar distance travelled in Europe or further north in South America. For example, by paying approximately $15 more you can upgrade to a ‘cama’ seat on most overnight journeys. This means you get an extra wide seat which reclines almost 180 degrees. There is also usually food served on board which is included in the price of your ticket.
International flights in South America are extortionate (but domestic flights are cheap)
If you’re looking for the cheapest way to fly to your next country your best bet is often taking a domestic flight to the city closest to the border and then taking a bus for the last jaunt. For example, if you were flying from Cartagena (on the Caribbean coast) in Colombia to Cali (near the border with Ecuador) with Avianca (one of the cheaper airlines domestically) you’d expect to pay around 196,000 COP (£59 / $96 / €71). A bus (or buses if you’re changing at the border) from Cali to Quito is approximately 53,000 COP (£16 / $26 / €19). That’s a total of £75 for your journey from Cartagena to Quito. However, if you flew from Cartagena to Quito (changing in Bogota) with Avianca you’d pay around 839,000 COP (£251 / $411 / €302). In this particular example you would save £175 ($292 / €213) by flying to the nearest domestic airport to the border and then taking a bus. With the exception maybe of a much larger country like Argentina, where you’re covering much more land, by enlarge you’ll save a lot of money by adopting this tactic.
The world cup in Brazil will be incredible!
I didn’t have as much time to experience Brazil as I would have liked this time around (given how large the country is), but of what I did see so far I have to say I think the atmosphere here during the World Cup is going to be epic. It’s hard to ignore the news reports that consistently detail the protests that have been going on in Brazil right now, and during my visits – particularly to Rio de Janeiro – you could see just how expensive things must be for locals here. These are things we shouldn’t ignore when we think about the World Cup in Brazil this year or the Olympics that will follow a few years after. However, given the great footballing history of this nation, the people, the weather, the beaches and the beauty of its most famous city, I can’t help but thinking anyone who goes to see the World Cup in Rio this year (or indeed elsewhere in the country) is going to have an incredible time.
Vegetarians and vegans will find it hard here
Vegans and vegetarians find it hard in South America. Many of the vegans and veggies that I met who were travelling in South America often resorted to eating eggs or fish when presented with a complete lack of options on a consistent basis. Surprisingly Bolivia seemed to have more vegetarian restaurants or veggie options than any other South American country I visited during my 5 months there. I suppose in a country where people are very poor, a choice without meat is naturally going to be cheaper and therefore of more interest to them than the mega-carnivorous (and much richer countries) such as Argentina, a country which specialises in its beef steaks.
South America doesn’t have to be dangerous
When I first announced I was going to South America back home, the immediate reaction that I got from most people was a sort of “oh be careful” type comment, or other people telling me how dangerous they thought it would be. Needless to say all of the people who said these kind of things were not regular travellers and had never been to South America before. On the contrary everyone I spoke to who had actually spent a bit of time there themselves absolutely raved about the continent! These are the kinds of people I tend to listen to more as they have first hand experience of something rather than just what they may have surmised from a 2 minute news bulletin they may have heard 20 years ago.
Having now spent and returned from 5 months travelling in South America myself solo, I can definitely say that most of South America is as safe as anywhere. Yes, there are places that have their bad spots. For example, I chose not to go to Venezuela this time around because of the current safety concerns that local South Americans and people who had travelled there before warned me of. I also made sure not to wander into bad parts of town in cities like Lima (Peru), but the key is simply to do your research before you go somewhere. Also, there are bad things happening in places all over the world. Including your home country. You should always be mindful of your personal safety anywhere you go, not just in South America. Equally though, I do think that somewhere like South America will be a bit more challenging for a first time traveller than say somewhere like Australia, New Zealand, or Canada might be. I met first time travellers in South America who got along just fine, but I also imagine that if I’d come to South America for my Gap Year when I was 17 (like I did in Australia back in 2006), and if I’d made the same mistakes here as I did in Oz, I’d probably have paid a bit more heavily for them. I’d therefore recommend to come here after you’ve had at least one independent trip somewhere else first – just to be on the safe side if you’re new to travelling.
– There was so much I could have written here about South America that I found fascinating while I was there. I’ll always love the music, the salsa, the passion, the indigenous cultures, the vast natural landscapes & wonders… I could easily go on… But I hope that this list of things to know before you go either help, inspire or interest you to come here for yourself. It’s definitely one continent you’ll fall in love with!