Five Mistakes I Made in South America (And How To Avoid Them)

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

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.

On the way to the airport for the South American adventure. I still have so much to learn!

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.

With an altitude of up to 4058 m above sea level, La Paz is the world's highest capital city. Breathing here is not easy!

Drinking coca tea helps.

Coca tea - made from the Andean plant that produces cocaine

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.

Argentina's steaks are incredible but get some veggies in too. We cooked this one in the hostel
Dulce de Leche cheesecake in Colombia, simply divine!

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.

Our trip to San Pedro de Atacama was delayed by 8 days because all of the buses and hostels were fully booked.

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!

Expense

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!

  • Climate

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.

Layered up in Bariloche. My bikini didn't leave the backpack for 5 months!

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?

12 thoughts on “Five Mistakes I Made in South America (And How To Avoid Them)

  1. Thanks for all the info. I plan on going to Peru this coming April/May and just started doing my research. Although I do plan to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the most of my time is going to be spent off the coast surfing and I’ll be CouchSurfing along with staying in a hostel.
    Ron | Active Planet Travels recently posted..St. Patricks Day!My Profile

  2. I agree with the expense in Argentina, we were there in 2010 and the cost had gone up dramatically from 2009. Although we found that most of the people we tried to communicate with tried very hard to understand our very poor Spanish. The national holidays caught us by surprise as well, who knew that everything closes down, Thankfully some locals we befriend warned us to get everything we needed from the stores a day or two before the holiday.
    Rob recently posted..DemocracyMy Profile

    1. I think that hostels should inform their guests when a national holiday is coming up, in some places ATMs were totally out of money and as not many hostels accept credit cards people had to stay longer than they wanted because they couldn’t settle their bills! Argentina was better for locals trying to understand our poor Spanish, it was actually Chile that didn’t want to try most of the time!

  3. Pretty much looking in the mirror here… we made most, if not all of these mistakes while we were traveling around the world last year.

    I guess too often you get caught up in the traveling itself to worry about the little details like watching your expenses or what you eat. Hopefully someone will learn from what we’ve done wrong!
    Kieron recently posted..Choosing Life (And A Dream Job) Over TravelMy Profile

    1. It happens so easily doesn’t it? I actually tried to eat healthily but found that I couldn’t, healthy food is very expensive overseas. In some countries a salad was as expensive as a steak on the menu. The sensible part of me knew that I should order the salad but I couldn’t bring myself to pay as much for that knowing I would be hungry again straight away. This gal’s gotta get her meat and carbs!!

    1. As long as you are prepared for Argentina you will be okay, we only found out as we were sitting on the plane that the country had recently faced a 30% inflation so it was a bit late for us by then! I can’t remember the name of the pills I took but they are fairly easy to buy over the counter once you are there.

      Like you, we don’t often book ahead but that did cost us some of the better hostels in South America and we kept ending up in really bad places in the middle of nowhere!

  4. Yeah…speaking Spanish is a must for some places down there. There were so many times in Colombia I would have been totally screwed had I not had the basic grasp of communicative Spanish. Now I’m fairly fluent, and it saves me *sooooooo* much time and hassle even here in Cancun, where things are definitely more English oriented. I get discounts on everything, I don’t get the run around, cabbies don’t try to rip me off, the bus drivers don’t either, and when in doubt I just turn around and ask someone passing on the street, “Hey, what’s the going price on taxis/buses right now.” or “Where’s X or Y”.

    My favorite was in Colombia when I asked a shop-keeper where I could find a place to get my shoe fixed, he closed up his shop and took me on a 30+ minute tour of the local area, showing me where to get my shoes fixed, keys copied, clothing repaired, two cafes, three little street vendors for street food, restaurants, bars, ATM and money exchange. Then he offered to buy me a beer. That was my Colombian experience. It was epic.

    Have I made any mistakes? Hmmm. Not in awhile, but I’m also into this now for closing in on 5 years of living as an expat and 14 years of traveling extensively. And I am into immersion travel, which means heavy research beforehand on income requirements, bank policies towards U.S. passport holders, tax rates, rental properties…I usually spend 2-3 months talking to locals via CouchSurfing/etc. these days and friends of friends, so I can usually have a fairly smooth transition into whatever city I go. That’s why I loooooooooooooove the Internet.

    In the beginning, yeah. I had been traveling to Bulgaria for 6 years before I moved there, so I knew rates and etc., but I hadn’t ever picked up the language beyond the basics, so before I took language classes in 2008 I was still pretty basic. And that was rough. I had to go to the U.S. Embassy to get some paperwork signed and took a cab there. Normal ride, 45 minutes or so in traffic, 7 leva. That’s…I think round 3 dollars nowadays. Not sure what the exchange is off hand. But when I was leaving the embassy there weren’t any taxies around other than one parked out front, and I didn’t know the layout that well to hike to the nearest boulevard, so I just got in.

    About 2 minutes into the ride I noticed that the meter was up to 24 leva and rising rapidly. I knew enough Bulgarian to tell him to stop and then it was broken “what the hell are you trying to pull here” and he locked the doors. I told him to call the cops and he wouldn’t do it, so I called the cops and then as the phone was ringing he was like ok ok and unlocked the doors. I just got out, walked up the street from there, caught another one and it was kosher back to the house.

    After that I made sure that learning basic Bulgarian was a priority.

    Good post 🙂 Cheers!
    T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries recently posted..Comment on Making the transition by T.W. AndersonMy Profile

    1. I love your experience in Colombia, Colombia was my absolute favourite country in South America and the friendliness of the people was such a huge part of that. I’m pleased to hear you sorted out your bogus taxi driver, it’s amazing what the threat of calling the Police can do sometimes 🙂

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