South America is the adventure of a lifetime. I have completely fallen in love with the chaos and charisma of this continent. However, I think that in order to appreciate and enjoy them, there is a certain frame of mind you need to acquire when you’re traveling through places like this. You’re not in Europe. You’re not in US. You’re not in the first world, so you have to be prepared for the differences you’re going to experience and subsequent challenges they may present. So, upon returning, I have compiled this list of guidelines for traveling South America. This list would also apply to South East Asia and I’m sure many other third world countries accustomed to tourism.
#1: Listen to the Locals
I would say that I owe the fact that I traveled for five months through South America without anything bad happening to me to the locals, with the aid of my own common sense (it’s important to have that while traveling 😉 ). I found that people would usually inform me about which areas to avoid or warn me to say, watch my purse, without me even having to ask them. Years of traveling have shown me that people are generally good, and they want to help and protect you from the ones that aren’t so good if they can. I always felt like somebody had my back the whole time I down there, when common sense alone didn’t cut it.
#2: Have Change!
The photo above cracks me up every time I look at it. I was so delighted when I saw this to be able to snap a photo of a sign that captures this widespread dilemma that all of us travelers were facing throughout South America: nobody ever has change for you. The irony is that ATM machines will always disperse large bills, but not many people will be able to break them for you. It starts to get frustrating when pretty much anything larger than exact change is too big for a vendor to break, or he ends up having to run down the block to get change from his buddy for you and taking fifteen minutes to come back. So, the best advice I can give you is to change out those big bills in a big supermarket (the corporate, chain variety of supermarket that can handle larger amounts of money) as soon as you get them and just have change on you all the time. It will save you a lot of time and headaches as you travel and spend.
#3 Go directly to the agency to book your tour
The only real negative experience that I have from my 5 month trip involves being conned by a “captador” or tout at a bus station upon arriving at Huaraz at six in the morning who ended up selling us a tour for double what it actually cost, lying to us about what we were getting in the tour, and disappearing into thin air once the money changed hands. It was a rookie mistake and I absolutely should have known better than to listen to this type of character with the experience I have traveling, but the point is they are preying on tired travelers who just got off of long uncomfortable overnight bus journeys or who don’t speak Spanish. In a weak moment, it’s easy to follow these people who promise to take care of it all for you. But they are not your friends and they are not trying to help you.
In any case, before you book any tour anywhere you should talk to people who have already done it and find out what the going rate is for the service. This is what we should have done BEFORE booking the Santa Cruz trek through the tout, instead of finding out during the trip that everyone else in our group paid half of what we did. The saddest part is that all that extra money went directly into this crook’s pocket, instead of to our guide, the donkey driver, the van driver, and the people who actually do the work for it but, end up getting paid very little. So, avoid people on the street trying to sell you tours and go directly to an agency to find out what you should be getting and what you should be paying while traveling.
Our guide and the donkey driver: they deserved the money!
#4 Don’t expect the tour that you were pitched (especially at a backpacker price)
We may have been the ones who got ripped off the worst monetarily of our group on the Santa Cruz trek, but every one had at least one thing to complain about that wasn’t as advertised when they booked the trip. I can say that this pretty much rings true for every single tour I booked in South America: Not once were things as advertised. They will always talk it up in the agency when you are booking but at the end of the day, if you are booking a cheap tour at backpacker price, you get what you get. Now, there does exist the option of paying more money to get a better, private service for people who can manage it. If I weren’t a long-term backpacker trying to make my money stretch as far as it could, I would certainly sign up for one of those and save myself the frustration of feeling lied to all the time. But I think whether or not you can do that, the best thing is to keep your expectations low and don’t ever assume that things should or will be the way that they were pitched to you when you were booking, because they will not be and you will only feel annoyed and disappointed.
#5 Check Trip Advisor reviews
Continuing on the same theme/rant/lesson learned from #3 and #4, before you book any tour anywhere- check Trip Advisor! For example, when we looked up the tour “agency” we booked the Santa Cruz trek with (“Jhonny Tours” they were called, by the way) afterwards, we read that they are touts and crooks and to avoid them at all costs like I am telling you to do now. If only we would have checked Trip Advisor first! The same thing happened for our Amazon experience: there were several problems with our lodging, and we found all of them discussed in the Trip Advisor reviews of travelers who went before us when we checked afterwards. So I’ve definitely learned my lesson now to always check Trip Advisor BEFORE booking anything, again to save yourself the frustration of feeling deceived and let down.
#6 Bargain for Everything
Anyone who has experienced traveling in third world countries knows that the first price you are quoted is not the price you are supposed to pay. If there isn’t a price tag on it- and even sometimes when there is- you are meant to haggle for the price of what you’re getting. Bargaining can actually be fun once you get the hang of it, while in contrast not knowing how to bargain can make your travel experience miserable. I like being able to bargain because it gives the buyer back some power, otherwise you are going to feel like you’re getting ripped off all the time. I don’t blame them- if you are living in poverty and you can get some clueless gringo to pay three times what they are supposed to for something, why wouldn’t you? Of course they have to try. And you don’t have to let them. You can assert your power as the buyer by entering into the beautiful exchange of bargaining.
The general rule of thumb is to start by offering them half of what they first quote you. They are going to start with an unreasonably high amount, you will counter them with a low amount, and then you will keep going back and forth until you finally reach a price that both the buyer and seller are happy with. I’m telling you, it can be fun!
BUT there is one important thing I really want to stress about bargaining: Do it respectfully. If you are in a country where this is practice, it is most likely a poor country, and the person you are bargaining with is much poorer than you are. A few extra cents or dollars to them is a lot more than it is to you, so keep this in mind and be considerate. Don’t insult them or their service by refusing to give them a fair amount, so that they can make some profit off of what they’re selling. Respect, respect in general: remember you are a guest in THEIR country, and also you are representing YOUR country- and you want to be a good ambassador, don’t you?
#7 Cash is King
One thing that I have learned from traveling is that having a credit card and being able to buy things with invisible money is an enormous privilege that most of the world can not afford. They deal with real, tangible money and they need it to survive. So don’t be surprised if you go days or weeks without finding a place that will take a credit card for anything. Be prepared and have cash to spend wherever you go. And be grateful that you are privileged enough to have access to such a thing as a credit card, which is not the norm on world-wide scale.
I have seen travelers let these these things get to them to the point that it interferes with them enjoying their trip. It’s happened to me. That’s why it’s important to relax and try to understand where you are. Put yourself in a certain frame of mind to be prepared for these types of frustrations. Let them go, laugh them off, and learn to appreciate the differences instead of resist them. After all, this is the reason why we travel: to experience something completely different. We can’t expect that all of the differences will be extraordinary and beautiful without carrying some downsides as well.