I took my first trip to South America in 2019. I had freed myself from the corporate grind and finally felt like I had enough time to begin exploring this vast continent. I’ll be honest, I had some fears going into the journey.
As an American who is part of the STEP program, I’m used to ongoing warnings in that region about kidnapping, crime, etc. I started my journey in Cali, Colombia, to celebrate a friend’s birthday party. I continued onward, solo, to six more countries. My preconceived notions were challenged and shifted every day. Here are my thoughts on what you should know as a solo traveler going to South America.
1. Local Buses Are Safe And A Great Way To Travel, But You Need A Couple Of Tips
If you’re alone and on a budget, take the buses. I was surprised at how safe I felt journeying all over Argentina, around Chile, Peru, and Brazil. Chile was the only place I was warned to look out for people dressing like a bus employee in a ploy to steal your luggage. I met a lovely young English couple in Santiago that fell prey to the scam and lost all their bags, including the one with their passports.
As long as you know a few ground rules, you’ll have an excellent experience. Luggage goes in the bus, not on top. Don’t accept offers from anyone wanting to put your bags on top, that’s how the aforementioned couple lost their belongings. Line up by the luggage hold when your bus arrives and make sure to get a ticket for your bag. Tip the luggage attendant at least a dollar, U.S. That and your ticket will guarantee your bags will be there when you arrive at your destination.
Some countries, like Peru and Bolivia, have a “Hop” bus. I highly recommend using these services when you can. You might want to check out my review of the best ways to use Peru Hop. What I loved most about this was it’s a transportation method and tour guide all in one. You’ll meet lots of fun people as you go, and perhaps most important, the drivers are safe.
2. Pay Attention To Dangerous Areas, And Use Your Intuition
Most countries in South America have a version of slums, like the favela, in Brazil. Ask whether it’s safe to be out at night, alone, when you arrive at your accommodation. Whatever they advise you, listen. Be open to the idea that places may not be as dangerous as you read. I wandered around the beaches in Rio de Janeiro in the early evening and felt perfectly safe. Intuition, especially as a solo traveler, is your best and strongest ally. Always listen to it, even if it makes no sense at all.
3. Learn Some Spanish, But Be Ready For Dialects
There are many places in South America where you need to speak Spanish. If you want to get to some of the remoter parts of any of the countries, you’ll soon find there are parts where no English is spoken. I heard about the “gringo tax,” but I rarely encountered it. Either I didn’t notice, or it’s because I made an effort to speak Spanish. Only once, in Buenos Aires with a friend, who’s from there, did we get charged a “table fee” that we both found ridiculous.
I do recommend basic Spanish if you’ve never studied it. However, even if you consider yourself fluent or a good Spanish speaker, the dialects change from country to country, and sometimes even within larger countries like Argentina. As a solo traveler, you’ll be more comfortable traveling with some Spanish.
4. It’s A Lot Colder Than You Might Expect
Despite the advice I got in advance, I wasn’t prepared for how cold some South American countries are. It’s easy to forget that their seasons are flipped with the U.S. Understandably, places like Ushuaia are cold mid-year. I was surprised by how cold Chile is all year round, especially at night. I didn’t expect Urugay’s winter to be so cold, nor did I know that in winter, Buenos Aires can be 2 degrees Celsius. You’ll be grateful that this area of the world makes some great sweaters!
5. Make Room In Your Suitcase
South America has stunning scenery, and you’re going to find a lot of souvenirs you want. First, those sweaters I mentioned? I don’t think it’s possible to leave this region of the world without at least two. If you go to Peru, you’re getting a poncho, even if you didn’t plan to. If you become a fan of yerba mate in Argentina or Uruguay, you’ll want the cups, the metal straws, and the yerba. It could become an addiction. I’m in the Facebook groups about it, so I know I’m not alone!
6. Respect Your Altitude Sickness Symptoms
Don’t take this lightly. I brought Western medicine with me, but I hate taking medicine, so I used in-country herbal remedies everywhere I went. From coca leaves to herbal pills and lozenges, I tried it all. The difference is, if you use the prescriptions, you’ll more likely suffer the side effects than the altitude sickness. If you use the herbal path, it will take a little longer to kick in. That’s where time comes into play. Ideally, give yourself 2 to 3 days to adjust to the altitude in places like Peru, Bolivia, etc. You may suffer bad headaches and shortness of breath.
If you’re a solo traveler, altitude sickness could impact your wits and your ability to function at 100 percent. Make sure to respect your symptoms. I learned that, unfortunately, altitude sickness resilience doesn’t build up over time. If you’re at a high altitude for a few days or a week, then go back down and come back up a few days later, the symptoms start all over.
7. If You’re A Female Solo Traveler, Abide By Local Customs
I will simply give you the advice that you should not go to dinner or drinks with a man, alone, unless you’re physically interested in him. Unlike other countries, there’s often a base assumption that if you go out alone with a man, you want to have sex with him. I suggest, whether you like that or not, you abide by this rule. If you like a man, go out with him. If you aren’t sexually interested in a man, don’t accept his invitation.
8. Pay Attention To Dog Culture
I realize this may sound strange, but dogs are a big part of travel in South America. In much of Argentina, especially smaller towns, dogs are like people. They don’t wear collars, they wander the streets as if on their way to important meetings, and if you pet them, they’re yours. They will literally follow you around, possibly for hours, and be your literal best friend.
Of course, they would love a treat, but even if you don’t feed them, show a dog affection in Argentina, and you’re likely to have a new best friend who won’t want to leave your side. (Yes, they usually do have owners that love them, too.) In Chile, dogs are so important that a law was passed punishing people who abuse them.
9. Take As Many Free Walking Tours As Possible
These are now all over the world. If you aren’t familiar with them; the tour and guide are free, with the hope that you’ll tip them for their great service. I loved all the guides I had throughout South America. The groups are usually small, and it’s a nice way to meet people as you travel. As a solo traveler, it’s always nice to have reliable and inexpensive ways to meet other travelers.
10. Be Ready To Overhaul All Your Prejudgments
Some South American countries have gotten a bad rap. Colombia is an example of a country still trying to overcome its guerilla warfare reputation. I’m not saying that safety in South America is the same as what you’re accustomed to. However, South America is also not rife with militants and drug dealers everywhere you go. I’m sure they do exist, but the perceptions are based on something other than meeting wonderful locals and connecting, which is what you’ll be doing when you go there.
South America is one of the most fascinating continents I have ever been to. The colors, the people, the llamas, the views, the food — there’s so much to tantalize the senses. I miss it and can’t wait to return. As so often happens when you gain an emotional attachment to a place, it follows you on your travels.
The other day, here in New Zealand, I met a woman from Ecuador. It’s getting cold as we roll into winter, and she was selling ponchos and jackets from her country. I don’t have winter gear with me so I tried on one of her jackets. Because of my now excellent Spanish-speaking abilities, she gave me a huge discount. The experience warmed my heart and my body, just like my time in South America.