Quite a few people have asked me recently whether it’s safe enough backpacking South America on their lonesome. I thought I’d write a post about everything Steve & I did (we backpacked there between March – June 2013) and any advice and tips I can give you if you are also thinking of going there.
The first things first – Is it safe?
Seriously, do not panic when it comes to backpacking South America. You will be fine. There are sooooooooo many single travellers there it’s mental. And there are a lot of young British backpackers (of the 18 year old variety) so if they can manage to get around (and sometimes I had no idea how they even got there) then you will be definitely fine! I even remember over hearing two young British girls in the beach town of Mancora, Peru trying to figure out the difference between a debit and credit card. I kid you not.
Even though it is very safe, always be aware of your valuables, because situations can arise no matter what country you are in anywhere around the world. Buenos Aires in Argentina is a bit on the dodge side although it is a very charming city. I’ve heard Brazil is a bit dodge too but I didn’t go there. This is what I learnt in Buenos Aires as backpackers were mugged every single day we were there. You just have to take this into account and remember this when you are there as the locals have some tactics they will pull on you to get your bags. It generally happens when you are completely unaware so don’t think that everyone had a knife pulled out on them.
So this is what the locals do: you are walking around the street, suddenly you feel something hit your clothes, it looks like bird poo and smells horrendous. Before you know it someone is there to help clean it off and suddenly your bag has disappeared before you know it. This happened all the time while we were there to people staying in the same place as us. BA has a bad rep for muggings. I never had that happen to me luckily but it sort of puts you on edge there. There are different variations to this system and a lot of people were aware of this but it still happened to them. If you feel anything hit your body like that always keep on walking, don’t stop for anyone and that goes with anywhere. Other situations were a couple I met had literally just got off the plane from Sweden, walked through a park to get to their hostel and a guy reached out to hand them some bird seeds. Suddenly they were swarmed with birds and before they knew it their bag with passports, all their research for their trip etc was gone.
Never put your phone in your pocket (people I know had theirs stolen on the underground) and that goes for your wallet. When on the train, put you bag on your front not back and handbags always across the body not over the shoulder. We found that going to the very back of the train and standing against the back wall was the best as it’s really hard for anyone to get into your pockets or to your bag. Obviously don’t stand mid aisle. It’s all just common sense really. Oh and if you are in a cab, don’t wind down the window much when sat in traffic, locals can reach in and grab your bags.
I don’t want to scare you all but you just have to think of these things anywhere you go in the world really. I wouldn’t be walking around on my own in the dark either. You will stand out a mile as a tourist whether you like it or not which usually spells out $$$ signs to some of locals in poorer countries. Be careful in going to Brazil (around the touristy areas of Rio and San Paolo) as I’ve heard not to get phones or cameras out in public. Saying that, that’s just what I’ve heard as I’ve actually not been there but I think you can suss it out on how dodgy somewhere is before pulling out an ipad in public!
The second question everyone asks is – Do I need to learn Spanish before I arrive?
Spanish is spoken in all countries apart from Brazil I think (they speak Portuguese). There is a typical ‘gringo’ backpacker route that everyone does through the continent and you’ll end up bumping into the same people over and over again. It’s very easy to make friends over there so all you got to do is book yourself into a dorm and you’ll meet other people instantly.
Steve had been before so had a bit of a route in mind which is the same one everyone does. I really didn’t research at all, all I knew was I wanted to go to Machu Picchu, a dream of mine. I usually research a bit before getting into a country or at least a continent but none of it makes sense until you get there really. Once you start talking to people in finding out where they have been or where they are going, towns and tourist attractions start making way more sense to you.
With the Spanish course, a lot of people travelling couldn’t speak the language and so they end up finding another backpacker who can. It’s easy to get by with the basics like hello, how much, thank you etc but defo do a course. I would recommend doing one at home before you leave and again one while you are there. I did a 6 session course I bought off Groupon for a cheap price but doing a course in SA is better because the teachers will take you to a restaurant and you’d practise ordering things etc. I was actually quite surprised by the little English spoken in SA at first. I know people told me to do a course and that English is rarely spoken but I always thought it would be OK. I had a bit of a culture shock arriving into BA to find that everything was obviously written in Spanish. We went to a restaurant when we arrived and I struggled because I couldn’t understand anything on the menu! It got easier as time went on and Spanish is actually quite easy to pick up. You’ll find that local people working in the backpacker hostels who can speak English very well but that is as far as it goes over there.
So now I’m just going to go through what we did and this was our route that we ended up doing:
Argentina – Buenos Aires, Igauzu Falls, Salta – 1 month, March 2013
Bolivia – Tupiza, Salt Flats Tour, Potosi, Sucre, La Paz, Rurrenabaque, Copacabana – 1 month, April 2013
Peru – Cusco, Machu Picchu, Huacachina, Lima, Arequipa, Mancora – 1 month, May 2013
Buenos Aires is a great buzzing city with a very European vibe. There are markets on a Saturday called San Telmo with tango dancers in the street and you can find some awesome vintage finds there. Obviously be careful with your stuff in BA like I said before, especially at these markets as it’s a bit of a tourist heaven there.
Everyone raves on and on about steak in Argentina, especially in BA. It is literally all you hear the backpackers talk about. These steaks are massive and incredibly tender, a meat lovers dream really. You can find many specific meat places in BA to try out the famous Argentinian steaks. Empanadas are also very popular which are a bit like a pasty and cost next to nothing. We lived off these for a while seeing how cheap they were! Also another piece of advice is the ‘Menu del dia’ which is a local cuisine where you pay around $2 for three course meal. You rarely get chance to choose what you are having but it usually consists of a soup, chicken & rice dish and a sweet dessert. We found these all over SA but just ask when you go to a restaurant.
We stayed in the Arty district of San Telmo at America Del Sur. It’s one of the top hostels on HostelWorld although we found it a bit boring there. It’s always really hard to find that balance with hostels. They are either too loud or too quiet. Saying that this hostel was one of the better ones we stayed at in BA and was very clean, had a great TV room and came with a free breakfast. People didn’t really socialise here and kept to themselves quite a lot. There was a decent kitchen to do your own cooking and a small supermarket over the road to buy some groceries. The party hostel in BA is called Millhouse. That place is meant to be full of intense partying. A bit more on the posher end was the area called Palermo where a lot of the nightlife is and I wish we had stayed around there as well as it was really nice.
A few things we did while in BA that is worth visiting was a Graffiti Tour with Graffiti Mundo which takes you around the city to see some incredible murals and art and we also went to the Cemetery to see Eva Perone’s grave. This graveyard is incredible, definitely must see!
When booking buses around SA always go to the bus station to book your tickets and when you do, make sure you ask if they will give you a discount because you are paying with cash. They will tend to do that for you and you can end up saving quite a bit of money! We jumped on a bus to Iguazu Falls which was incredible, really awesome place, a must go to! When you book your bus ticket at the station the buses go in classes such as semi karma, karma, karma suite (this being the top one). SA buses are awesome!! They are amazing and if you go karma suite you get whiskey, champagne, 3 course meal full reclining seats. It’s great! Be aware though that the buses especially in Bolivia are freezing!! They are super cold so take your sleeping bag on board.
Salta was ok, nothing special, I wouldn’t stay there long to be honest and did a tour to see some cacti which we bargained down to half price from the tour operators in town.
We missed out Mendoza which was shame as Steve has been before and loved it where you get bikes and go on wine tours.
Argentina is so expensive. Bus ride for 21 hours was $175 which is loads in backpacking terms. Accom was $90 for a double room, $30 for a dorm (in BA). I really regret not going down south of Argentina to Ushuaia which is at the very bottom. You can haggle a good price to go to Antarctica which I wish I did now. Its $10,000 to go on a boat for 10 days but you can get it for $4000. A really must do! There are also glaciers down south and it’s just meant to be stunning. We had just started our trip and were being money conscious in wanting it all to last which is why we didn’t do it.
A quick note on currency. Because it’s expensive, a few people we met changed up US $ to the local currency and got an amazing exchange rate from the ‘gambio’ dealers on the street. You’ll see these guys everywhere shouting ‘gambio’ all the time which we didnt think much of at time. Wish we had changed our money back then as it would have made it a lot cheaper. Steve said in the two years from when he first went until when we were there saw prices triple.
It’s way cheaper in Bolivia than in Argentina – pheww! Most people either go to Uyuni or Tupiza up from Argentina or if you are coming the other way then from the Salt Flats Tour. Do not stay in Uyuni as it’s a proper dump and everyone who stayed there said the same as there’s no hot water and it’s freezing there. We stayed in Tupiza at an amazing hostel called Hotel Mitru and it had a pool! We booked our salt flats tour from there ($200), incredible experience, a definite must see! It has some of the most amazing landscapes in the world there!! We had five days with some people we had literally met a few days before. It’s all luck really if you find the right people to spend that amount of time with them.
We then went to Potosi, the world’s highest town at over 4,000 metres which was a cool little place. I quite liked it there. You can do a tour down through the mines but with my suffer of claustrophobia, it was out the window for me. A lot of people I know really enjoyed it though. Then onto La Paz which is about partying. There are a few big hostels throughout SA called Wild Rover and the other is called Loki. These are both party hostels and we stayed in the La Paz Wild Rover. It was quite a cool hostel with a great Irish pub! Everyone from Loki came over to this bar. You must want to party to stay there as its loud most nights. We went to see the Female Wrestlers when we were in La Paz which is a great day out, if all a bit odd. We also went mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road known as Death Road. A lot of people race down this absolutely stunning route whereas steve & I just cruised on down taking in the views. No one told us how beautiful the scenery is on this route so we were surprised when we went on it. It wasn’t dangerous at all but I suppose it could be if you raced down.
Copacabana Lake is so beautiful, it’s gorgeous there. Oh and Rurrenabaque, it’s amazing!!! You MUST go there. We flew as the bus ride is too dodge and you go on this tiny plane and fly right next to that paramount pictures mountain. It’s so lovely and a bit of a relief after being in high altitude for so long and you are back down at sea level and it’s really tropical and hot. We did a jungle trek through the Amazon. You have the choice of two tours, either the jungle one or the boat one. I really loved the jungle tour, it was so beautiful even though camping right in the heart of the jungle was an experience!
Huacachina is awesome! It’s an oasis in the desert where they have built a little backpacker town. It’s really fun! I really enjoyed it there and it’s another party town like most are in SA but sand boarding is a huge activity. Be careful, a lot of people ended up with injuries doing this. We stayed with friends in Lima. Theres not a huge amount to do there but ok for a couple of days. Arequipa is a lovely little town and then we went up to Mancora to the beach which was nice.
Oh and we went to Cusco which is a lovely but very touristy town which is where everyone goes before they head up to Machu Picchu via the train or trek. We stayed at a lovely quiet place there called Mama Simona. Otherwise there’s always a Loki or Wild Rover there to stay at if you want to party. I really wanted to do the Inca Trail but it was booked out. You need to book in advance and the only plus to this tour is its the only one that you actually hike into the Machu Picchu site. All of the others do hikes that end in Aguas Caliantes the town nearby and you stay the night before getting the train up to the site at 6am. Everyone arrives at 6am just like we did and it felt like a bit of a circus. Because Steve had been before he knew what to do so we just walked up to another look out point, waited until after 1pm when most of the crowds hopped back on their tour bus and then we had the site pretty much to ourselves. The light is much better in the arvo anyway so if you have the time, hold out and wait until the afternoon to really experience the pure beauty of this site.
I am glad I didn’t do the Inca Trail because I would have had to plan the whole trip around it. We did the Lares Trek with Andina Travel. It was awesome!! Usually $600 + we got it down to $400 as they were leaving the next day and needed other people to fill it up. It was just me and Steve and a brother and sister from Canada and we had a great time. We didn’t see anyone else trekking through our path for 5 days and ended up at the most amazing natural hot baths right in a valley. We camped there and sat in the pools at night looking at the stars. It was awesome! I would highly recommend doing this tour as it was one of the best things we did in South America and the porters were incredible. We had a team of what seemed like 10 people who carried our stuff throughout the whole trek and cooked us amazing meals along the way. There is also a jungle trek which is cheaper where you do different activities during the 3 day trek such as walking, biking, zip lining which a lot of people did as it was around $200-$300. Just depends what you want really.
A lot of people then go onto Ecuador to the beach there but we cut it short so we could get over to Africa. Steve absolutely LOVES Columbia. Most people say Bolivia & Columbia are the best countries in SA. I am gutted I didn’t make it that far. I think you get a lot of 18 year old British school kids that do the route that I did but then go home so there’s an older crew between Ecudor and up through Cental America. I wish I went to Brazil too but it was a mission with getting Steve a visa being from Aus. If you start in Brazil, get a visa before you leave as I think you need to show it at the airport in UK. Everywhere other country you can get on arrival.
Steve has also been to Central America and really loved it. Mexico is one of this favourite countries in the world. If you fly there from UK can get flights super cheap if you get a cheap flight to Madrid and then to Cancoon is super cheap (one of our friends got a flight from Cancoon to Madrid for $124!!!) We always look on skyscanner.net and Priceline.com for cheap flights. We booked all of our accomodation through either Booking.com or Hostelworld as the latest version of Lonely Planet was a good few years old. Hostelworld is way better for booking as the turn over of new hostels over there is huge.
What to take?
Take warm clothing and hiking boots for SA. I wish I took a pair of normal fashion boots with me looking back at it just to wear for nights out. It’s not something I’d usually take with me travelling but for SA it would have been nice and very useful as wearing hiking boots all the time isn’t going to make you feel particularly dressed up and it gets cold over there so you cant get away with wearing flip flops all the time. Just buy cheap ones you can throw away along the trip if needs be.
I bought a good North Face jacket with detachable fleece which was very useful. You’ll also need a hat and gloves and you’ll have to buy the token llama knitted jumper from a local store that will rip you off. Also take summer clothes because once the sun is out its really hot as you’ll be in high altitude and you’ll be experiencing 4 seasons in one day. I took a really light jumper from Aussie store MacPac which was so useful as it was made from merino wool. A bit on the pricey side but you’ll need a good quality jumper that packs up really small and is super warm. We also bought our backpacks from MacPac which I really loved as you can open it from the top and on the side. One of the best things I took away were vacuum storage bags for my clothes. This is probably my best idea yet. it gets really tiresome having to unpack and pack your things constantly so by having a vacuum bag which is clear means you can just pull out what you need then squeeze all the air out as you’re obviously not going to have a vacuum to suck up all the air and then before you know it, the vacuum bag is really small and you can just bung it into your bag. Genius!
1. Machu Picchu, Peru- is just as amazing as you imagine it to be.
2. Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia – some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen in the world.
3. Jungle Trek, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia – What an experience trekking through the Amazon Jungle. Just spectacular.
4. Igauzu Falls, Argentina – The most amazing waterfalls I have ever laid eyes on.
So, I’ve given you as much detail as I can remember about South America. If you need anymore advice, please let me know. You will have an amazing time out there!
Thanks for reading!