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You’re about to head off backpacking in South America on the trip of a lifetime; you’ve got your new backpack, a guidebook and a healthy sense of adventure. However, travelling in South America is not as simple as just booking a flight and arriving, and there are lots of things to bear in mind before you travel. Here are 11 important things you need to know if you’re about to backpack around South America.
What do you like to do when you travel? Are you a trekker, a party animal, a sun worshipper, a birdwatcher or a culture vulture? Figuring out in advance the destinations that are right for you can make the trip a lot more enjoyable. There’s no need to follow the well-worn traveller trail if it doesn’t lead you to places you’ll enjoy, so buy some guidebooks, read some blogs and figure out where you most want to visit.
Equally, although it’s useful to have a basic itinerary before you travel, it can also be restrictive to over-plan; if you have all your flights and hostels booked in advance you lose the chance to be spontaneous, which is one of the joys of travel. There’s nothing worse than hearing other travellers enthusing about an amazing destination, but not being able to go because you already have a rigid itinerary. Plan, but leave space to be flexible, too.
While you don’t need to worry about the week-by-week forecasts before you travel, it’s worth checking out the weather patterns of the countries you plan to visit before you book flights. For example, you need to know that trekking in Patagonia is almost impossible in the depths of winter, and that the Amazon experiences months of dry weather and months of torrential rainstorms. To make sure you can make the most of each place, figure out a rough itinerary with the weather in mind.
Most countries in South America speak Spanish, while Brazil speaks Portuguese; English is not always spoken, especially in more off-the-beaten-track destinations, so it’s a good idea to brush up on your Spanish or Portuguese language skills before you travel. Take some classes, download an app or join a conversation club before you travel and your experience will be richer for it.
Costs vary hugely throughout South America: while US$10 might buy you a night’s sleep in some countries, it won’t buy you lunch in others. If money is tight and you are trying to travel as much as possible, figure out where your money will stretch the most and focus on that country more. And bear in mind that, in some places, you will have to invest in a tour in order to have the best experience (the Lost City in Colombia is a good example), so you need to budget accordingly.
There’s no use being precious when you travel in South America: if you really want to explore and get to know the countries you visit, you will be taking a lot of long bus trips. Some will be comfy, but many will have little legroom, loud music or take 20-odd hours to get there. You might even have to sit next to a chicken, but it’s all part of the experience.
South America is a vast continent, but many travellers are remarkably optimistic about what they can fit into a six-week trip. You can’t really experience the best of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil with just a week in each country, but many people seem determined to try. You’ll just end up exhausted and without having seen much of any country. Be realistic about your time and the distances you have to cover, and consider focussing on one or two countries instead.
Overpacking is the scourge of many a backpacking adventure. You may feel like you really need 10 T-shirts, a hairdryer and four pairs of shoes before you set off, but that heavy rucksack will soon become an irritating burden as you’re forced to lug it with you on public transport and on the back of motorbikes. By all means, pack what you want, but a good rule is to pack everything you think you’ll need, then halve it. You can always stock up on socks or T-shirts while you are travelling, if you need to, and you can usually do cheap laundry in hostels.
While there’s no need to be paranoid and avoid street food and the local cuisine, it’s also important to be aware of health issues in the countries you visit. It can be worth investing in a good water filter to help save money on bottled water in some regions, and malaria and yellow fever can be a real issue in others, so stock up on pills, bug spray and even anti-mosquito clothing. Your trip will go a lot more smoothly and be much more fun if you don’t get ill, so prepare a little in advance.
If you are careful during your trip, the odds are that you’ll have no issues and stay safe, but South America can still be a dangerous place to travel. Don’t underestimate the importance of being aware of your surroundings and exercising a little caution sometimes. Don’t flash your valuables when you’re walking around cities, never leave bags unattended, take a taxi if you’re unsure about walking somewhere and generally keep your wits about you.
Of all the things you need to know before you backpack in South America, this might be the most important of the lot: once all the planning, budgeting, worrying and packing is done, all that remains is to go, travel and have the most wonderful and memorable experience of your life. That’s what travel is all about, after all.
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