As my journey around South America is now over I can reflect on some of the good choices that I made in order to ensure that my trip was successful and enjoyable. There is much debate amongst the travel community about the best way to travel but as far as I am concerned you should only ever travel in a way that makes you happy, whether that means roughing it the whole time, or enjoying some luxuries along the way.
This is not a ‘How-To-Travel’ list, just a summary of the things that made me happy when I travelled in South America.
1. Remained completely flexible
This trip was initially planned as a Round The World trip but it soon became evident that RTW tickets are expensive and restrictive so my boyfriend and I limited the journey to one continent. We booked a one-way ticket to Uruguay where we planned to spend 3 weeks before heading to Brazil for Rock in Rio. This never happened: in fact we didn’t visit Brazil at all after we learned that attending the concert would set us back about £800. Instead we went straight to Argentina.
In Argentina we met Lucy and Russel who told us that they were planning to take a 4 day cruise through beautiful tropical islands, from Colombia to Panama at the end of their trip. We looked into this and found that the boat trip looked amazing, and that by flying back to Europe from Panama we could factor in a stopover in New York for no extra cost. All of a sudden the decision not to purchase a return flight had paid off. It turned out that our days in the San Blas and New York were some of the best of our whole trip.
2. Paid extra for private rooms/apartments
Accommodation is expensive in most of South America, especially when you compare it to Asia, where for as little as $5 you can get a private room with bathroom, hot water, air conditioning, fridge and TV. In South America dormitories are the norm and in the more expensive countries you can pay over $20 for a bunk in a 16 bed dorm. Personally I hate dormitories, I will stay in them if there is absolutely no other option, but I would far rather pay more for some space and privacy. I understand that this is easier to do when you are travelling with somebody so that you can split the cost of the room. The downside of private rooms is that it is more difficult to socialise and meet other travellers. We used Airbnb to land ourselves a cushy deal in Buenos Aires.
3. Met up with friends from home
When some friends of mine moved to Bogota shortly before I left for South America, I knew that I would go to visit them in their new home. As things turned out, their work schedule and our extended stay in Argentina and Chile meant that we had to skip Ecuador completely if we wanted to see them before they left for the holidays. We stayed with them for over a week in their home 20km north of Bogota city centre which gave us the chance to see Bogota beyond the tourist area. We visited the lovely area of Usuquen and were invited to an early Christmas dinner with some expat teachers, as well as shaking our booty Colombia-style at the biggest club I have ever been to. Even though we had to miss Ecuador in order to meet my friends from home it was worth it as Colombia became my favourite country on the South American continent.
4. Travelled with our own personal entertainment system
Both my boyfriend and I carried laptops with us in South America; he also carried a small Bluetooth speaker and a 4-socket extension lead with surge protector. Although we could have travelled much more lightly without these things, they more than made up for their weight. Many hostels we stayed in had only one electricity socket in the room so the extension lead meant that we could charge everything at once—this was pretty useful on trips when we had limited access to electricity .
The laptops were great for watching movies on long bus journeys and quiet nights in at the hostel, many of which we wouldn’t have been able to hear if we hadn’t had the speakers. Our entertainment system came in handy during the Uyuni tour when everybody piled into our room to watch a movie when all the electricity went out at 10.
5. Had more than one bank account
Unfortunately I discovered that my HSBC account is not very good for overseas travel, which is especially ironic given their claims of being the World’s Bank. The bank often freezes ATM cards when they are used in countries where card fraud frequently occurs, this includes most of South America. While this is a great safety feature, the call centre you need to contact to get your card working again is not traveller friendly. Firstly you have to phone them—not easy if you don’t have a phone—and then there is a long drawn out automated system that does not give you the option of talking to anyone for a few minutes. It is at this point that you are told that the helpline is only available between UK working hours. How unhelpful is that?! Not only have you wasted time and money hanging on for almost 5 minutes but then you have to wait until some ungodly hour before you can call and do it all again!
Not only this but my HSBC visa debit card only worked in about half of the South American ATMs that I tried, whilst my boyfriend’s Swedish visa card worked in almost all of them.
Thankfully I also have a Swedish bank account so in times of emergency I used that card instead. If you are travelling solo then it is vitally important that you have more than one account, preferably with different banks. It is surprisingly uncommon for hostels to accept card payments in South America, even in Argentina, Chile and Colombia, so you will be very reliant on cash. Make sure that you have options for if one card fails because there are times when it will.
What are your tips for travelling happy? Please share in the comments section below.