This year I traveled to South America for the first time. I started in Colombia and began my journey with fears of violence, guns, and drugs. I ended up being baffled at the stereotypes and completely falling in love with both the country and the continent. Here are some things I learned that can help make your first trip to South America wonderful.
1. Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Today’s Colombia is a perfect example of a country suffering from its 1970s guerrilla warfare reputation. Though it can be ironic to feel safe when all the homes have thick metal gates in front and a guard at the door, it’s unlikely you’ll see gangs with guns or drug deals. The Venezuelan crisis made my family nervous about my trip as we heard about violence spilling across borders. Every Venezuelan I met (and there were many) was hard-working and wanted, desperately, for things to improve in their country so they could return.
2. It’s A Good Idea To Learn Spanish
I was surprised that, in many South American countries, signs were not translated into any other language. This included museums and public transportation. Even some airlines only make announcements in Spanish, which I found scary while traveling through bad turbulence because I didn’t know whether to panic. There are many places you’ll go where limited, or no, English is spoken. Speaking even a few phrases is better than knowing no Spanish at all.
Google translate doesn’t always offer correct interpretations, and if your phone only works with Wi-Fi, you’ll be frustrated at how often you need the app and can’t use it. It’s better to bring a dictionary and have at least a modest working knowledge of the language.
3. Be Prepared For Different Spanish Dialects
No matter how much Spanish you know, however, you’ll have to adapt to different words and accents as you move between countries. In Chile, for example, the Spanish contains words from the Mapuche tribe. Argentina’s Spanish contains the word vos, which is unique to its version of Spanish, and has a range of different accents from the north to the south of the country. I found that Colombians spoke the clearest and slowest Spanish on the continent.
4. Research Taxi Apps
If you’re used to taking Ubers everywhere, you’ll find the app isn’t operable everywhere in South America. More importantly, Uber isn’t always the safest choice. For example, in Lima, Peru, I was told that Uber drivers aren’t always verified. I switched over to Cabify since the locals told me this company was safer. It’s worth researching local transportation apps and downloading them before you go because — another difference — Wi-Fi and cellular service are not always as fast as they are in North America.
5. Malbec Is Not the Only Fabulous Wine
I thought Malbec was “the” wine of South America. It turns out that Chile has a phenomenal wine route (in addition to pisco), but more surprising, Uruguay has some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted, including their own varietal, called tannat. We don’t hear much about it because their vineyards are too small to make large quantities for export. The only wines I found disappointing were Brazilian. Most of the ones I tried tasted like sweet grape juice.
6. It’s Good to Have An Adventurous Appetite
As I traveled through Argentina and Chile, I was spellbound by the guanaco, not to be confused with the vicuna, llama, or alpaca. What shocked me, more than anything was finding some of these animals on restaurant menus. I eventually caved when I found out these meats have no cholesterol. I tried alpaca stew and llama pot pie. I was momentarily ashamed to like both, especially because I petted a baby llama the day I first ate one for dinner.
When I visited Peru I ate alpaca cooked three ways at a pre-Incan restaurant in Arequipa. Having such a good experience with all these local delicacies, I dared to try a guinea pig in Cusco. They placed the cooked carcass on our table with pride, like the pig at a feast, and then cut it for us to eat. It was slimy and chewy, and I couldn’t shake the thought that I was eating someone’s pet. That’s the only one I wouldn’t eat again.
Want to know more about South American dining? These are the best local dishes to try in Peru.
7. There Are Interesting Rivalries Between Countries
Chile makes excellent pisco. So does Peru. Both countries assert that they originated the drink.
Argentina claims that Ushuaia is the “city at the end of the world” because it’s the furthest south on the planet. Chile, however, has land further south: Puerto Williams. However, it’s considered a town, not a city, because it only has about 5,000 inhabitants. In order to compete with Argentina, Chile’s government is in the process of changing its law so that towns with as few as 5,000 people can be called cities!
8. One Country Can Have Multiple Climates
Depending on where and when you go, you may encounter a full range of seasons. If you’re from the Northern Hemisphere, know that the seasons are flipped. While we have a nice snowy Christmas, South America is enjoying its summer. Ushuaia in southern Argentina is cool year-round, and Iguazu, in northern Argentina, is warm and humid year-round. Lima, in Peru, is at sea level, and Cusco is thousands of meters higher, so temperatures vary immensely all year long.
9. Bus Riding Is Safe (Overall), But Watch Your Luggage
In Argentina and Chile, bus drivers are fined if they exceed 99 kilometers an hour, and the bus lists a phone number you can call, while riding, to complain. In Bolivia, there are fewer regulations and the rides can be more dangerous. The thing to watch out for, everywhere, though, are fake luggage handlers. In Santiago, I met a lovely English couple who had trusted their luggage to a man dressed in a company uniform who told them he’d put their luggage on top of the bus. When they got to Santiago, everything was gone, including their passports.
Luggage always goes into a compartment at the back of the bus. Don’t let anyone assist you with your bags. Instead, line up beside the bus and hand your luggage to the baggage handler who will put a tag on your bag and give you one with a matching number. You’ll need that tag as proof to retrieve your bag at your destination, so keep it safe!
10. Jesus Is Everywhere
I’m not religious, but I couldn’t help noticing that Jesus is everywhere. Rio is not the only place that has a Cristo Rei — a huge statue of Jesus that seems to touch the sky. In some ways, I’m saddened that so many local religions have been replaced. Eventually, however, I ended up feeling like love was following me all over South America. I was disappointed, however, that I couldn’t figure out how to take a good selfie with Jesus because my double chin came out larger than him.
11. Prepare For Altitude Sickness
While we associate Peru and Bolivia with altitude sickness, even northern Argentina has high altitudes, so do your research before you travel. If you’re prone to symptoms at high altitudes, build in a few days to recover. If you don’t feel like taking prescription medication, every country has its own herbal remedies and people there will tell you theirs is the only one that works. My experience was that all the remedies helped, some more than others, but none of them completely took the symptoms away.
12. There’s A Different Sense of Wealth
If you’re from North America or Europe, you’ll notice that things in South America look different. Roads aren’t perfectly paved; people don’t wear fancy jewelry and clothing; houses are simpler. You won’t find the same conveniences you’re used to, like Amazon or robust transportation systems. Instead, you’ll encounter wealth in some of the most beautiful street art in the world. Colors will dazzle you, fruit and seafood will offer you new tastes and aromas. Time seems to move at a slower pace — and what’s more valuable than time? Connection, perhaps, and there’s plenty of it in conversation and different dances like tango and salsa.
All across South America, I encountered many smiles. I found that because I spoke Spanish, people wanted to converse with me, to share their lives, and to know about mine. I dared to taste different foods, move my feet to unfamiliar dance steps, and drink local beverages like yerba mate and pisco. But most importantly, I dared to see past scary news headlines and experience one of the most beautiful continents in the world.
Want to experience Peru? Here’s what one of our writers learned planning a girls trip to Machu Picchu.