14 Essential Tips For Backpacking South America

Backpacking South America

Bring a good book for the long bus rides. Photo courtesy of Karoly Czifra.

Backpacking South America is a worthwhile adventure that I believe everyone should experience. Before I arrived on the continent, I was unsure of what to expect. To help you prepare, here are some things I wish I had known before I left for my trip.

1. Bring Offline Activities

Traveling to different cities around South America means you’ll be taking the bus. If you’re doing the typical backpacker circuit, be prepared for plenty of overnight bus rides. While you can spend a lot time gazing out at the beautiful scenery, it’s also wise to bring some offline activities to occupy your time. Download apps and games that work without WiFi, bring a book, write in your journal, knit, draw, or do anything else that you enjoy to pass the time. Travel tip: Use this time to practice your Spanish or Portuguese (depending where you are). These buses are typically full of locals, so you’ll essentially have access to a free language exchange.

2. Watch What You Eat

The food is South America is delicious, but it can also be dangerous for your waistline. Because Brazil, Argentina and Chile tend to be more on the expensive side, I typically opted to cook in my hostel. However, once I was in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, I could get a three-course meal for around $1. As a result, my food intake increased (as did my pant’s size). While the local eateries that offer these traditional meals are worth frequenting, try to eat only half of your food and add lots of active adventures into your itinerary.

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3. Wear Pick-Pocket Proof Clothing

Like I mentioned before, you’ll most likely be taking a number of long bus journeys in South America. Therefore, falling asleep on these buses is inevitable. Theft and pick-pocketing are common throughout South America. Instead of trying to stay up all night or losing your hair worrying about your belongings, wear pick-pocket proof clothing from retailers like Clever Travel Companion. These garments allow you to keep valuables inside of your clothing close to your body, so nobody even knows you have anything on you.

I’m also a big fan of my ROBOCOPP Personal Sound Grenade, which blares as loud as a firetruck when you pull off the pin. I wear mine like a bracelet when walking alone at night or hiking. Use promo code “JOURNEY10” for $6 off their online store.

Of course, the number one way to prepare for problems is to purchase travel insurance. When my luggage was lost for a week when backpacking, my travel insurance reimbursed me for the toiletries and clothing I had to buy while waiting for it to be returned. It can also ensure you’re covered when big emergencies strike.

4. Interact With Locals

Every country in South America has a unique culture worth exploring. The best way to do this is by interacting with locals. While the bus is a great place to strike up a conversation with locals, you can also use resources like CouchSurfing to find a local host or Viator to book local tours. I also love Visit.org for booking unique nonprofit-led experiences that benefit the local community I’m visiting.

Backpacking South America

Chocolate chip cookies. Photo courtesy of superfloss.

5. Bring Your Sweet Tooth

In many places in South America, you will be surrounded by delicious cakes, cookies, pastries and candies. I especially noticed this in Brazil, where it is not uncommon to eat sweets for breakfast. In fact, at all of the Brazilian hostels I stayed in, treats like chocolate cake with sprinkles and chocolate sandwich cookies were served in the morning.

6. Take A Photography Class

South America is full of surreal and otherworldly landscapes.These beautiful sights include Patagonia, the Uyuni Salt Flats and Iguazu Falls. Scenery like this deserves more than a quick snapshot. Before your trip, take a photography class to hone your skills,. If you have the money invest in a DSLR for professional looking shots. If you have any interest at all in photography, South America is a great destination to play around and get creative using beautiful landscapes as a backdrop.

For shooting video I recommend using ProEditors for editing. You can send their team of professionals your raw footage to have them create a professional video for you for just $100. You can use promo code “jessieonajourney” for 25% off, as well.

Use your next trip to South America as an excuse to splurge on a nice camera! Click To Tweet

7. Know the Exchange Rate

The exchange rates vary considerably from country to country in South America. While travelers can stretch their dollar very far in Bolivia and Peru, popular tourist cities in countries like Argentina Brazil and Chile can be expensive. If you’re on a budget, look up which cities are the most affordable beforehand. I noticed in Argentina the farther south I went – basically the farther into Patagonia – the more expensive things cost. My usual chicken sub went from being 10 to 15 Argentine Pesos (less than $1) in Buenos Aires to 45 to 60 Argentine Pesos ($5.50 to $7) in Bariloche. By the way, here’s everything you need to know about the US dollar exchange in Argentina.

Bring a mix of US cash, debit cards, credit cards and foreign currency with you. It is not uncommon outside of big cities, especially in Patagonia, for ATMs to run out of cash, so it’s good to be prepared. This happened to me in El Calafate — right as I was attempting to book tours to Perito Moreno and Torres del Paine National Park. Despite begging and pleading for the travel agencies to let me use my credit card they would only take cash. Luckily, someone I had met on the road trusted me enough to loan me the money — aren’t travelers the best? — and I paid them back in the next town. Additionally, tell your bank and credit card company you’re leaving the country beforehand. If you don’t, you may find yourself with a frozen account.

8. Sometimes “Roughing It” Isn’t the Best Option

Moreover, don’t always think “roughing it” will save you money. Making use of the shelters on the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine and camping your way through the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu are quite expensive. In fact, one night in a “refugio” in Torres del Paine will cost about $40 to $60 – and that only includes the mattress. Camping in the park is free if you bring your own gear; however, this can be tricky as the hike is difficult at times and you will have to carry your own equipment. Moreover, to trek with a good company for the Inca Trail will cost about $500 to $650 including entrance fees.
It's always good to be prepared! Make sure you're aware of the exchange rates before you travel. Click To Tweet

9. Check the Weather for the Places You Want to Go Beforehand

While most people check the weather for the first city of their trip, it is a good idea to look it up for each area when traveling in South America. For example, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, you may be able to walk around in shorts and tank top, while heading to Bariloche in the same country may require a hat and coat. Furthermore, don’t think because it is a certain season in your destination the weather will match that season in your home country. Autumn in Patagonia or Brazil is a lot different than autumn in New York.

Backpacking South America

Tostada de Ceviche. Photo courtesy of Los Viajes del Cangrejo.

10. Try the Local Specialties

There are many preconceived notions that exist on what “South American food” is like. The truth is that each country, and even the different cities within a country, has its own local specialties. Argentine empanadas are delicious; however, the ingredients differ from city to city. In Brazil eating açai is more than just a treat, it’s a cultural experience. Ceviche in Peru, cuy in Ecuador, seafood stews in Chile, giant steaks and matte tea in Argentina, barbeque in Brazil – these are just some of the delicious options waiting for you on your backpacking adventure.

If you’re looking for a unique culinary experience, sites like BonAppetour, Feastly and EatWith allow you to dine in local homes.

What was the best local cuisine that you tried while traveling in South America? Click To Tweet

11. Prepare Your Liver

Not only do the countries of South America feature unique and appetizing foods, many are also known for their national drinks. In Brazil, you must try the “Caipirinha,” a strong cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime. Moreover, Argentina is world-renowned for its red Malbec wine, while the Pisco Sour, created using pisco and lemon juice, is typical of Peru and Chile. In Colombia, savor “Aguardiente,” or firewater, made from sugar cane molasses converted into alcohol. The proof is usually 60%, and many times sugar is added to sweeten the drink. For more on this, check out International Booze Cruise: The Best Local Cocktails From Around The World.

12. Keep a Loose Itinerary

With such convenient bus transportation, keeping a loose itinerary is easy. You can arrive in a city, peruse the different bus routes, then figure out where you want to go. I’d advise talking to other travelers in your hostel to get recommendations. For example, when I arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, I immediately went and booked a bus ticket to El Calafate, simply based on the fact that I had read this is what you were “supposed to do in Patagonia”; however, after speaking with other backpackers it became sadly apparent I was skipping El Chalten, a hotspot for hiking. If I had waited to book my ticket I could have stopped there first and then moved on to El Calafate.

13. Plan Your Big Hikes in Advance

That being said, you should plan out any big hikes in advance. For example, if you want to trek the Inca Trail you’re going to need to book it months in advance if you want to ensure you have a spot. Moreover, doing the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine, or even a shorter version of it, requires some beforehand planning. Will you camp, stay in a refugio, or book a nearby hotel? Are the refugios open when you’re going? If it’s high season, they may even be booked up. Where will you store your pack? Will you trek with it? I’d also recommend checking the weather, as this windy park can be difficult to trek when stormy.

Backpacking South America

Let loose! Photo courtesy of Nuno Duarte.

14. Bring A Sense Of Adventure

No matter what thrills you, you’ll find it in South America. Surfing Rio de Janeiro’s beautiful beaches, hiking glaciers or ancient ruins, hang gliding over picturesque Patagonia, trekking the Andes or Amazon and scuba diving the clear waters of Paraty – these are just a few of your options. Simply backpacking South America is an adventure in itself, as you never know whom you’ll meet, what cultural discoveries you’ll make or where you’ll end up the next day.

I felt particularly lazy one night when I was in Paraty, Brazil. Nevertheless, I went to the beach bar across the street from my hostel for a Caipirinha just to feel social. I ended up hanging out with locals all night, learning how to forró dance and going to the town’s signature nightclub, Paraty 33. It ended up being one of my most memorable nights of the trip. For the full story, check out Breaking Language Barriers: A Date Without Words In Paraty, Brazil. 

Make sure you open yourself up to adventure when you travel. You may surprise yourself! Click To Tweet

15. Know Where You Need to Take Extra Precautions

I don’t care if you’re in your hometown, you should always be alert. Bad things happen everywhere, not just when you’re traveling. That being said, there are certain cities – and areas within cities – that you need to be extra vigilant in.

When arriving at a hostel, I always make sure to ask the staff to circle the areas on my map that are more dangerous. For example, when in Buenos Aires, the hostel staff told me to be very careful when walking around in the southeast part of the city near La Boca. Not listening, a friend of mine not only went and walked around the area alone, but also made it obvious he was carrying a camera and stored it in his backpack – where it was completely out of his sight. It wasn’t surprising to me that by the time he returned to the hostel, his camera had been stolen. On a bus ride in Bolivia, where you should always be on high alert, one traveler fell asleep with her DSLR camera sitting in her lap. Luckily her boyfriend was awake, because one local actually reached over to snatch it off her lap. He was able to stop the theft from occurring, but the situation could have been avoided if the girl would have been more cautious.

Keep in mind, these are examples of petty theft. You also want to keep yourself safe from physical danger. For more on this, check out 17 Safety Tips For Solo Travelers.

Packing Essentials For South America

scarf shawl

Scarf Shawl 

This stylish garment is great for throwing on for cool evenings. It also doubles as a travel blanket AND works for picnics.

cute ponchos

Ponchos

They take up almost no space and are large enough to keep you AND your backpack dry.

scubba wash bag

Scrubba Wash Bag

This small portable laundry system provides a machine-quality wash on the go. Way better than the hostel sink!

pickpocket proof clothing

Pickpocket-Proof Garments

This line of pickpocket-proof garments means thieves never know your carrying cash or cards.

Have you backpacked South America? What tips would you add to this guide? Please share in the comments below.

This article was adapted from a piece originally published on Gadling. Featured image courtesy of Phil Whitehouse.

17 Comments

  1. Nice set of posts on Buenos Aires, especially like the free tours one. I found your site through a guest article you wrote so good job getting your writing and name out there.

    BTW, I kept reading your name as “Jessica Fiesta” – then realized it was Festa… kind-of funny 🙂

  2. Hi! This is so so helpful, as my partner and I are about to embark on a year in south america. One thing I am struggling to find out online is how easy/hard cheap/expensive the buses are… We are planning to do all of our travel by bus – do you think this is easy enough to do?? And how much do buses cost country to country? Thanks! X

    1. @Alan: Totally depends! I definitely had a mix of quiet rides — some of the upscale bus services even had sparkling wine at midnight — and noisy music-filled rides. I remember heading from Cuenca to Banos on a night bus and they played a movie SO LOUD I thought my ears would explode.

  3. I am a frequent flyer and I do travel a lot. I love nature and being a part of it. Actually, this Jan 2017, I plan to go Usually, I need a high capacity backpack for clothes and accessories.
    If it comes in pink and good design, it will be awesome. Do you have any good recommendation on this?
    Thanks for your tips and please keep it up.

  4. Hi Jessie!

    My business partners and I have started a Community-Based Tourism project in New York.

    We offer US adventurers (between 23-35 year old) the possibility to travel, live and experience local native communities in the rainforest, andes and coast in the most pristine and exclusive sites of several Latin American countries.

    We have read your blog and found it fascinating. We would like to ask if you are available for a Skype or a quick survey about the US young adventurer and its traveling trends and preferences.

    We are very interested in knowing your opinion in various topics related to our startup and perhaps receive your feedback.

    Cheers!

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