After 5 months traveling nearly entire South America, Panama and Costa Rica, I want to share some tips and advices, some to do’s and to dont’s that I collected during the trip. But in the end, gathering your own experiences and learn from both the good and the bad is the best thing you can do.
It’s useful to have a rough schedule about what you want to see in what time. We flew to São Paulo on October 31st 2014, went down the east coast until Buenos Aires, were crossing Argentina to Santiago de Chile and then went up north the east coast until Costa Rica and flew back end of march. We absolutely wanted to reach Costa Rica in this 5 months because my friend and I had an exchange there in 2012. For that reason we rushed a little bit and it would have been better if we hadn’t a destination to reach. If you feel like staying longer at one place, just do it! What we booked in advance was only the flight from Munich to São Paulo and the first two nights in a hostel. And it’s really the only thing you should book because it’s so much better to decide where to go and how long to stay spontaneous on the spot. You can check what vaccinations you need on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had to refresh some and I got vaccinated against yellow fever and hepatitis B. In addition to that you need a travel health insurance, mine was from Hanse-Merkur and I was very pleased with it. The best travel guide for backpacking South America for the first time is definitely the Lonely Planet – South America on a shoestring, which I had as an ebook on my iPad. Although it leads you through the trail where every backpacker is going, there are the most important informations and sightseeing tips from every country including hostel recommendations and how to get best from one place to another.
Work for it!
I frequently got asked „How much did you spent?“ or „How could you afford this trip?“. To answer the first question: My monthly average was 1200$, including all the transport, food, accommodations, shopping, tours and activities and excluding the outbound and return flight. It was more than I expected (I thought I could survive with 1000$/month), but it was totally worth it and I’m not the type of person that is economical with good food or means of transport that make traveling more comfy. How much your journey will cost depends on the way you want to arrange your trip, but South America in general is very affordable comparing to Europe, Australia or the US. I only brought 100$ in cash for emergencies, but I usually withdrew money from the ATM. I totally recommend you the credit card from the DKB (Deutsche Kreditbank), where you can withdraw money free of charge wherever you are. In Argentina we used Azimo (azimo.com), a great way to send money from home with a good exchange rate. A very good application for organizing an recording your expenses is the Trail Wallet App and xeCurrency is great for looking up the current exchange rates.
To answer the second question I first of all have to say that I didn’t work during the travel, so I saved all the money before. At the age of 14 I started to deliver newspaper, later I worked in a supermarket and the summer after I finished highschool I worked as a waitress. In addition to that my parents support me too, although I wanted to finance it mostly from my own ressources. Money is the main reason why many people can’t travel that long, but If you really want to do it, you can manage it, I’m sure!
DO travel by bus!
I already mentioned that we spent round about nine days in bus. Traveling by bus is the cheapest and also a adventourus way to get around. The flights between the countries are usually very expensive, but we also checked skyscanner.com if cheap flights were available. At the bus terminal you can compare the prizes and departure times from the different bus companies and book your next ride right there or you just ask at the hostel reception where and how to buy the bus tickets. Compared to the german or european coaches the southamerican ones are first class. Sometimes we even got drinks and food for free and were having our own television in front of our seats. If the ride took more than 8 hours we traveled overnight to save a night in a hostel. Passing so many kilometres by land is exhausting, but you get used to it and get prepared for the next destination.
DO sleep in hostels!
I always thought that hostels are dirty and uncomfortable and I shuddered at the thought of sleeping with 9 people in one room. I think most people have those associations, but sleeping in hostels is one of the best things to do on a backpacking trip. We would never get to know so many awesome people by sleeping in a normal hotel. Hostels are made for backpacker and young travelers from all over the world, and they’re telling their stories and giving advices for your next destination. The more people sleeping in one dorm the cheaper. But allow yourself some privacy and luxury from time to time by sleeping in a private room. Don’t forget that it’s still a vacation! Hostelworld.com is definitely the best website for booking hostels with a large choice and recommandations from previous guests. Also check airbnb.com if you wanna have your own appartment for a change. We always booked the next hostel some days before we left, but don’t be to late! Especially for Christmas or New Year’s Eve it’s better to book some weeks in advance. Another advantage is the shared kitchen many hostels have. Cooking yourself is cheaper than eating in a restaurant and we often shared our meal with other travelers and had a nice evening together.
Staying fit and healthy in a 5-month trip isn’t easy. At home I’m doing sports three times a week to compensate my love for food, so I planned to go jogging regularly during the trip, but in the end I went for a jog once in five months. But nothing to worry about it. Walking through the city all day, carrying the backpack around, hiking, swimming, surfing, rafting, horsebackriding… All of those activities are keeping you fit, so it’s not that bad if you can’t meet your sports resolutions. The local food is often fried and fatty and we ate a lot of pizza and pasta, but in the other hand we often cooked ourself fresh veggies and ate fruits from the market. I think it’s important to keep the balance and renounce nothing.
Don’t worry if you get sick! You might will have some stomach problems sooner or later (I had them in Bolivia – stay away from the street food there!), but there are lots of farmacies everywhere where you can buy medication if you didn’t brought any from home. The people working in the hostels are very helpful and can translate your health problems into spanish or portuguese so you can go to the doctor if it’s necessary. Everyone gets sick sometimes, but chin up, it will pass by! In those moments friends are the greatest.
DON’T be paranoid nor naive!
I heard a lot about the criminality in South America and informed myself about the current situation at the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’m a person that rather sees the positive site in each human being instead of being critical, but don’t unterestimate the danger! We were very lucky that the only bad thing that happened to us on the whole trip was that my friends wallet got stolen in the bus. Other travelers told us stories that they got threaten with a knife or a gun and got robbed. Always secure your valuables like camera, passport, iPad, Laptop or credit card in the lockers (they’re available in each hostel). Always keep a vary eye on your luggage while you’re at the bus terminal! One big advantage of traveling in a group of friends is that everyone looks after another and you can go to toilet without having panic that someone’s stealing your things. Never store your backpack in the overhead compartment in the coach! Also very useful is a belt beg – I know it doesn’t look very stylish, but you’re passport and credit cards are in every case safe. Btw I had one which you can wear under your shirt, so the style problem was solved. Don’t take too much money with you while walking through the city! Avoid shady neighbourhoods and don’t go out alone by night. You can always ask at the reception what they recommend you to visit and which neighbourhood is safe. I always brought my beloved reflex camera with me (except to the favela in Rio) and I used to store it in a bag to hide it a little bit.
You can also get robbed in Europe, you just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just use your common sense and be alert and you can travel safe through South America.
DO have fun!
This is the most important advice i’ll give. Enjoy the moments, be open-minded and have the best time of your life!