Recently I posted Five Things I Did Right in South America to highlight my best decisions during my travels. In this post I intend to highlight some of the things that I didn’t know before I went to South America, things that would have made travelling the continent much easier had I been better prepared.
After 3 years of living and travelling around Asia I consider myself pretty travel-savvy and this proved to be the source of many of my difficulties in South America: I made the mistake of thinking that I could travel in exactly the same way.
I could not have been more wrong.
On the positive side, everybody knows that you learn best by making mistakes so here’s what I did wrong in South America.
Mistake: I couldn’t communicate effectively
Advice: learn some Spanish beforehand
I was advised to try and pick up some Spanish before I left for my trip and I had every intention of doing so, despite my appalling track record at learning languages. I knew a few very basic phrases which I thought would carry me through until I picked up some more of the language. I thought that I would ‘get by’ most of the time as it is possible to do in other countries that I have travelled to. The problem is that many places in South America do not cater for the non-Spanish speaking traveller. We encountered travel agencies, bus conductors, taxi drivers, airport officials, restaurants, and hostel receptions that would not speak to us in English; some were not even prepared to decipher our weak Spanish and simply just waved us away. This highlighted to me just how lazy the English speaking world has become, and I felt embarrassed by my inability.
Before you go learn basics such as: days, months, numbers, words like ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, ‘tomorrow’, and basic phrases for the things you will do most – booking accommodation, bus journeys and ordering food in restaurants. At bus stations you will need to know how to ask if the bus has a toilet and meals provided.
Mistake: I underestimated Altitude Sickness
Advice: Prepare for high altitudes by taking pills beforehand and keeping a supply of coca tea
Altitude sickness is very common in South America and as we spent months at altitudes exceeding 2400m, the height at which altitude sickness becomes prevalent, I experienced the effects of altitude sickness frequently. The first time I was affected was during our trip to Salar de Uyuni when we went up to 4,900m to see the geysers and I was violently sick for hours. Although the nausea abated after the first day, I suffered regular headaches, shortness of breath and dizziness for the next few weeks—particularly in La Paz, Bolivia. Other than taking pills beforehand (which I will do next time) there’s not much you can do to prevent altitude sickness, but you should be prepared for the possibility that it could happen to you. It does not only affect the weak or unfit, as many people believe, and if you do get it then you should rest and not exert yourself.
Drinking coca tea helps.
Mistake: I didn’t watch what I ate
Advice: enjoy the local cuisine but try to find a balance between fatty fried foods and desserts, and healthy vegetables
As every traveller knows, it is impossible to eat healthily on the road. After a few months of indulging in chunky steaks, empanadas, dulce de leche and alfajores, the extra calories began to take their toll. Not many dishes in South America come with a salad or vegetable side. There’s no easy solution to this problem but you can minimise the damage by cooking at the hostel and buying fruit to eat as snacks during the day.
Mistake: Not booking ahead caused me to miss out on the best hostels
Advice: Book ahead in high season
This is something that I have NEVER had to do during any of my previous travels: generally there will always be a bus with space on the day you want to travel and you will never struggle to find a room.
Not so in South America.
During high season the best hostels fill up quickly, sometimes weeks in advance. As many of the hostels only have a few private rooms you will be very lucky to turn up and get one on the spot. Even beds in a dorm can be hard to find in busy periods. If you happen to arrive during a National Holiday then you can pretty much forget it. We had to spend an extra 8 days in Santiago when we discovered that all buses and hostels in San Pedro de Atacama were fully booked over the holiday period.
We had a miserable time in Mendoza when the ONLY room available was a shabby hostel miles away from anything else. The only other people staying there were those, who like us just couldn’t get anything else.
And we missed out on the coolest hostel in Santa Marta because of yet another National holiday.
Mistake: I underestimated the countries I visited
Advice: Research, Research, Research!
Some of my issues could have been easily resolved by researching the destinations more thoroughly. The following three areas caused me no end of grief!
Our biggest issue was that we seriously underestimated Argentina and as a result we spent a third of our entire travel budget in our first few months. Argentina has faced massive inflation in the past year or two but we only learned this on our outbound flight to Buenos Aires. Even the most recent Lonely Planet ‘South America on a Shoestring’ published in 2010 is wildly inaccurate when it comes to the cost of Argentina.
In an article on the issue of Argentina’s rising prices, the BBC states that: “The official statistics office, Indec, says inflation last year was a little over 10%. But many economists, opposition politicians and shoppers dispute that figure, believing the true figure to be between 25% and 30%. If that’s the case then inflation in Argentina is among the highest in the world.”
It is easy to believe that this could be the case. Our travel fund haemorrhaged in Argentina and there was nothing we could do about it. Unfortunately this meant that we had to drop equally expensive Brazil from our itinerary, thankfully our plans were flexible so this did not cause any issues with flights or further connections.
- National Holidays
In South America National Holidays are a big deal and many cities become ghost towns on these days. Hostels are full, buses are booked, restaurants and supermarkets are closed, tours are cancelled and ATMs run out of money. We have been affected by National Holiday Meltdown in Puerto Madryn, Mendoza, Santiago and Santa Marta. Do yourself a favour and look them up beforehand. That way you can book ahead and stock up on food and cash!
When we planned our trip we envisaged eating steak on sun-drenched terraces, cooling our feet in warm tropical waters and lazing shamelessly in hostel hammocks. Some of the time at least. The reality of our situation is that we spent quite a lot of money on extra layers of woolly clothing because we didn’t have enough, shivered even inside the hostels, and didn’t see a beach until the very end of our trip. If we had planned it better we could have travelled later in the year or chosen a different route.
If I had been armed with some of this knowledge prior to our trip then parts of the journey would undoubtedly have run more smoothly. Thankfully none of these mistakes are serious and are all part of the learning curve of travelling.
What mistakes have you made when travelling?