In my opinion, South America is one of the most extraordinary places on earth. One of the best parts about it is that many countries offer easy border-hopping opportunities. I grew up visiting Europe a lot and was always intrigued by how you could change countries in mere hours and within a short distance, everything from culture to money completely changed. South American countries, however, don’t offer a single visa entry to all countries. It’s important that you do some research and planning before attempting to do a multi-country trip between borders of the south.
1. Every Country Has Different Rules
This is why research is key. Even though you’re on one continent, you’re not traveling through countries with united economies. So that means paper currency will change, entry and exit rules will be different, and so will visa requirements. If you’re a U.S. citizen, Travel.State.Gov is a great resource to start your research.
2. Rules Can Change
Things work very differently in South America. Governments can change rules at will, or at least that was my experience. Also, world conditions can impact your visa requirements. For example, when I was in Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, it cost $160 USD for a visa for Brazil. But they were ending the need for a visa three days later. It can literally pay to be aware of pending changes to visa situations. I skipped out of going to Uruguay because, while I was there, the U.S. government had offended the Brazilian government, so they responded by increasing the price for U.S. citizens to get a visa to enter the country.
3. Entry And Exit Rules Are Also Different From Country To Country
One thing I found intriguing is that in Argentina, for example, I got a 90-day visa which renewed every time I left and came back. I went to Chile for a few weeks, and when I returned to Argentina, got a new 90-day visa. The same thing happened when I entered Paraguay, but for a day trip. I haven’t encountered an official rule on how many times you can exit and return, legally, but I did have a friend that had done it more than five times, and it raised eyebrows with Argentinian immigration. So if you plan to do a lot of hopping in and out of South American countries, especially where a 90-day visa doesn’t cost anything, make sure you don’t take advantage, and do speak to fellow travelers about their experiences crossing borders.
4. Border Crossings And Fruit And Veggies
Border crossings are a big deal. I did most of mine by bus, and Chile was the harshest. They have very strict rules about not bringing fresh fruit or nuts into the country. I forgot I had a bag of nuts in my jacket pocket, which was searched. I narrowly got out of a $500 fine, only because the immigration officer attending to me had spent time in America and liked Americans, and gave me a warning. If you end up with any fruits and nuts with you, declare them immediately. They’ll be confiscated, but at least you won’t pay a fine. The form you have to fill out, at least in Chile, is a bit confusing, so just ask an officer for help (some do speak English well) and declare everything you think might be an issue to avoid fines and problems crossing. Most other countries were more concerned about paperwork and less about inspecting all your belongings. If you travel by air, it’s also much easier.
5. Don’t Overstay
Whatever amount of time your visa has, don’t overstay. I got the feeling that overstayers are not treated with kindness. Traveling by bus, especially in Argentina, we were often boarded by police as we crossed principalities, who requested to see our passport. It’s likely you’ll find yourself asked to show your passport to an official a few times while you wander in South America, so make sure you’re traveling legally.
6. Plan Your Trip With A Paper Map
As you plan out your amazing trip, I strongly advise a paper map. We’ve all gotten so used to technology and using apps like Google Maps and Maps.me, which are great for getting around a city. When it comes to creating an itinerary for travel throughout South America, however, you really need to look at everything all together, laid out flat. You’ll see how the geography means you’re likely to have an easier time flying, instead of driving, or crossing borders and back or not. For example, when I was in El Calafate, Argentina, I planned to take a bus to Ushuaia. Then I learned that the way the roads are laid out, you have to cross through Chile, and it’s about a 19-hour bus ride. The flight was roughly one hour.
7. It’s Always A Little Strange
From country to country, there always seems to be a little confusion on where to stand, which line to go to, and so forth. If you’re traveling with luggage by bus, you’ll have to bring the luggage into the immigration office (you’ll carry it yourself, so bear that in mind when you pack for your trip), get the luggage scanned or opened, and, separately, deal with the paperwork and getting your passport stamped. At some point, you’ll feel like you’re in the wrong place, or just waiting for someone to do something. Just be patient — it all sorts itself out.
Depending on the distances you travel and the duration of your stay, you’ll probably do a lot of flying, since South America is immense. Flying is definitely fast and more direct. Bus travel, however, gives you so much more of an understanding of the land and culture. The other thing about buses in South America, especially in Argentina, is they’re a bit more luxurious than companies like Greyhound. Because of inflation, it’s more than likely that you can afford a first-class seat for bus travel. This gets you a choice of seats from plain comfortable to business luxury. Seats recline, and, most importantly, you get fed! Outside of Argentina, I found meals were more often a cardboard box with a sandwich, but hey, food on a long bus ride is appreciated. I was stunned when I traveled from Posadas to Iguazu, however, to find the coach attendant wheel through the aisle with what looked like a first-class airplane cart, and serve us a piping hot meal, with wine! The catch is often that the bus will break down at some point, but, it’s all part of the experience!
9. The Spanish Changes In Each Country
One of the difficulties I adapted to is that, even with intermediate Spanish, I had to get used to different accents and words every time I changed countries. In Chile, for example, some of their Spanish language is rooted in the Mapuche language, their first settlers. In Argentina, they speak a Catalan, but it’s entirely different from the Spanish you’d learn in Spain, which is normally what those of us taught in the U.S. learn. Be ready to re-learn Spanish at every turn. This will be important for your day-to-day interactions with locals.
10. Don’t Enter The Pisco Battle
There’s a rivalry between Peru and Chile as to who invented pisco. I recommend you don’t enter the battle, just drink the pisco. It’s delicious, and the pisco sours are some of the best I ever had. Lima, Peru, had the fancy ones down perfectly. In Chile, I loved visiting pisco distilleries the way you’d drink whisky through Scotland. So, in the end, it’s more important to taste pisco than to take sides.
11. Prepare For Altitude Sickness
This is going to affect your trip, somewhere. Depending on which countries and which cities you visit in South America, you are unlikely to escape this experience. If you’re traveling throughout South America, let me enlighten you on a few unfortunate aspects of it.
Being in an airplane at 30,000 feet does not give you immunity to altitude sickness, because the cabin is pressurized. Once you acclimate to, say, 15,000 feet in Peru, if you come back down to travel over to Bolivia, you don’t maintain your resilience. The symptoms start all over once you climb back up. Either get the prescription medication for it or try out the many herbal remedies available in each country. They’ll take longer to work, and relief is temporary, but it is possible to treat naturally.
12. If Flying Into Peru, It Will Be At Night
For my first time to Peru, I flew in from Buenos Aires. I was surprised that even coming from South America, and not the United States, the flights still arrive late at night. With the warnings to U.S. citizens traveling there, nighttime is not ideal, especially if you’re a solo traveler like I am. If you’re going to Peru, I’d suggest pre-booking pickup at the airport with your hotel. Safety is worth paying for as you travel.
South America is now one of my favorite continents, and I can’t wait to return. You’ll find amazing people, colors, foods, and history. The fact that you can so easily travel between countries, even by bus, is just another reason this area of the world is so desirable for travel. If you’re trying to choose your South American destinations, click the linked locations above, and also consider reading: