It’s only been two years now that I’ve been dipping a toe in the ocean of experiences on offer in our closest neighbouring continent. On my own I’ve only visited Colombia, Peru and now Chile but I’ve learned a few valuable lessons along the way that I think can be applied to most travelling situations.
1) Not everyone speaks English
Native English-speakers often make the (arrogant) assumption that most persons in foreign countries speak at least some English. I know I did. The immigration officer in Colombia’s Medellin Airport quickly proved me wrong though, as have a vast number of denizens of South America since.
Last year in Peru I took an entire cycling tour in Spanish because my guide spoke not a lick of English.
It turned out fine because my understanding of Spanish is vastly better than my speaking ability, but it was a valuable experience for me as a traveller. I’ve noticed that in both Peru and Chile, a large number of people on the tours are actually locals, or from neighbouring countries. Therefore it makes some sense that English isn’t a requirement to work in the tourism sector in this part of the world. I will say though that MOST of my tour guides have been able to speak some English, but I’ve had to improvise along the way when it comes to ordering food, buying anything anywhere, conversing with fellow tourists, etc. While I encourage learning a few key phrases in the language of the place you’re visiting, Google Translate (download your language of choice offline) is essential for excursions to South America.
2) Skip the capital
Ok ‘skip the capital’ is a little drastic, I mean you could stand to spend like a day in capital cities, of course, but in my experience so far, you wouldn’t miss it if you did pass it up. I’ve had my richest and most memorable experiences outside of the capital cities in the countries I’ve been to (and not just in South America).
Learning from my experience with Lima last year (i.e., bored out of my mind after one day) I opted to only spend one full day in Santiago at the end of my trip. I’ll use that time to visit some museums (Santiago seems to have a really vibrant art and museum culture) and eat some food and then get the hell out of dodge.
3) Do a food tour
I’m a firm believer that the best way to get to know a country and its people is through food. I make it a point to do at least one food tour in every country I go to. Food tour guides have also proven to be the most comprehensive, holistic ambassadors for the country, because food has its roots in every single aspect of life – from culture, to religion, to the economy and class divisions. It was a food tour guide who took me to temples in Thailand and then in Japan, and explained the prayers and rituals they have there.
It was food tours that took me down lanes and alleys traversed mostly by locals, giving valuable insight into daily habits and ways of life in the countries I was visiting.
If you only do one tour in a foreign country, I strongly recommend you do a food tour, but make sure your belly is up to the challenge.
4) Less is more
If you told me even a year ago that I would not only own a backpack, but I would be using it to traipse up and down Chile, I’d be like ‘Ok weirdo, you don’t know me AT ALL!’
Some people balk at the idea of backpacking. God knows I did. It’s definitely not for everyone – packing minimally for a few weeks of travel. But there are certain advantages to having nothing but a backpack when traveling – like when you have to climb a few flights of stairs cause the hotel or hostel you’re at has no lift and you’re on the top floor. Or when you’re rushing to catch a bus and can run like the wind because you don’t have a suitcase to yank along behind you. Not having to wait at a luggage belt or deal with lost luggage. And the list goes on. It challenges you to be resourceful and versatile.
I washed all my underwear and thermals in a hotel sink last week and HOPED to the heaven above it would all dry before I had to check out the following day. It did. Thank God.
My scarf on my Chile trip is actually a Turkish towel I got in a subscription box and I carried it because it’s a versatile item – scarf, sarong, light blanket or towel (of course).
Packing light forces you to be economical with space and weight, and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised how much you don’t need to carry with you.
Some blogs I read recommended just buying toiletries in your destination, instead of loading up your luggage with them. If you’re not comfortable with no toiletries at all, buy some travel-sized bottles and decant your must-have potions accordingly.
Packing cubes have become travel essentials for me and I use them even when I’m not using a backpack. They help keep your clothing compact, separate and easy to find.
If you’re travelling somewhere temperate, I’ve tried and tested the Uniqlo Heattech line and found it to be toasty warm when you need it to be, but extremely thin and light weight. Pair it with the Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Jacket – also super packable – for extra warmth.
5) Functional wifi is a luxury, not a right
One thing I’ve had to get very comfortable with when travelling in South America is a lack of connectivity.
While it was very easy to get wifi or data plans in Asia, South America has proven to be more of a challenge on two occasions. In Peru, my schedule was just so packed I couldn’t get to a mobile provider store to get a SIM. Their set up is similar to T&T’s where you have to go to a dealer to acquire a SIM card, but even more stringent as even the phone kiosk in the airport couldn’t sell me a SIM, I had to go to a flagship store. And in Chile, I got my hands on a SIM, only to have it stop working on me 15 minutes in because apparently my phone isn’t ‘unlocked’ for Chile. You can imagine how thrilled I was by this, seeing that I’d already spent my money. But to be honest, not being reachable all the time is a real blessing. It means I can concentrate on the experience in front of me and not get caught up on what’s happening elsewhere. I’m a hyper-connected person when I’m home so it takes something as drastic as complete digital isolation to give me the space and breathing room I need to be fully engaged in what I’m doing in the moment. Sure it gets annoying, not having the resource of the internet in a fix but you can prepare for eventualities ahead of time and go brave. Also! I’ve had my fair share of janky wifi in hotels – both high end and hostels. My most reliable wifi to date has been at a hostel in the Atacama desert. My fancy lodge in Patagonia had the worst wifi ever – it didn’t even work properly in the advertised communal spaces. So be prepared to be disconnected, and be prepared to love it, even if you don’t want to.
6) Layer up
The Andean mountain range and its surrounding topographical siblings provide a healthy range of sub climates across the South American continent. I’ve experienced sub zero temperatures giving way to T&T-like heat within a matter of hours; torrential rainfall and immense gusts of wind combined with hail and snow and then abruptly, heat again as you descend to sea level. To cope with this you have to get comfortable with the idea of layers and pack smart. Right now, as I mentioned previously I’ve been using the Heattech as a base layer (this post isn’t sponsored by Uniqlo, promise) and had every intention of using a lightweight sweater over that, then my down jacket, and when necessary, a waterproof shell from Columbia.
Being able to remove and add as necessary makes moving across the varying climates much more manageable and comfortable. Don’t forget the hiking boots if you’re heading for even the slightest of rugged terrain. Opt for something waterproof and with ankle support.
7) Relax and enjoy the ride
I’ve grown so much as a traveler since my first real solo trip to Thailand early last year. I did nowhere near the level of planning for this trip as I did for Thailand. I think that’s a normal and healthy progression. I encourage anyone travelling solo for the first time, or indeed even if you’re not travelling solo to take some time and prepare your agenda. However, be prepared for things to go off track from time to time. Sometimes you might miss a flight or a bus, sometimes you might realise your hotel is NOT what was advertised and you end up with no water in your bathroom (true story) after 12 hours of travelling and multiple delays. Sometimes your hotel calls to say they can no longer accommodate you (also a true story). Sometimes a tour you were reaaaalllly looking forward to and kind of planned your trip around got altered or cancelled due to the weather (true story x 2 in Chile) MEH. Wah yuh go do? Having a credit card and a sense of humour will take you far when travelling, not just in South America but anywhere in the world. Have all your necessary documents secured, upload copies to Google Drive or your cloud service of choice, make sure your bank knows you’re travelling and do your best to keep a positive attitude on the road. Shit happens but you don’t have to let it ruin your trip.
I’ll add more travelling lessons as time and my adventures progress, but I hope what I’ve written here is helpful so far if you’re considering exploring this beautiful continent. If you have any questions about any of the places I’ve been or am planning to go (Bolivia or Ecuador looks like it’s up next) leave me a comment or reach out to me on IG @CeolaB.