The South America Travel Diaries: The Top 10 Lessons Learned (so far)

So thanks to this lovely thing called the interwebs, I’ve cyber-met a handful of other good people that are also planning on doing a trip through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, etc. I have a few lessons learned to share, and I’ll try to keep it short. Bear in mind this mostly applies to Peru and Bolivia, the only two countries I sorta know through my travels…

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1) You gotta know a decent amount of Spanish – Or travel with someone who does

I honestly can’t even imagine traveling through South America without knowing Spanish. I’ve heard that it’s easier in Argentina (more English-speakers), but whenever I did ANYTHING in Peru or Bolivia (went to the bank, made hostel reservations, crossed the border, went on a tour) – it was mostly or all in Spanish. Some bilingual tours are great (the Pampas), while others give a 5 minute speech in Spanish with a 30 second description in English (Puno). Avoid feeling helpless and having a strange blank look on your face when you’re at the border by working on your Spanish – or befriending other bilingual tourists.

I used Livemocha.com a few months before I left to study up and really liked it – you can chat with other people from all over the world while going through formal lessons and learning regional vocabulary.

And of course, many cities in Bolivia and Peru offer Spanish (and Quechua!) language programs too, so check those out!

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2) Don’t travel during the rainy season

Well, at the very least I wouldn’t recommend it. As much as I’ve enjoyed my travels, I’ve never realized how dangerous and sucktastic rain could make things: more car and bus accidents, rainy or snowy treks/tours, mudslides, a thousand times more mosquitos, HAIL… quick-dry panties that are still wet because you forgot to take them inside to dry. More plane or bus delays (well, that happens anyway). And cancelled or ruined tours (The Salar de Uyuni tour was almost un-doable due to the heavy rains that have escalated jeep accidents, mud being dragged into the Salar, and floods that cancel 50% of the trip’s activities for a few weeks).

If you do choose to go during the rainy season (because of the low season), just go early – the later it gets, the more chances the rain will ruin the activities you’ve always wanted to do.

That said, pack and prepare for ALL types of weather! From the cold high altitude cities like La Paz, to the hot and humid low altitude areas like Rurrenabaque, you’ll need a variety of clothing options.

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3) It doesn’t matter how buff you are. Accept the fact that you’ll probably get altitude sickness

Altitude sickness has nothing to do with fitness, actually – I think it has more to do with genetics. I, like some people, thought that I would be fine hiking Machu PIcchu because I go camping and backpacking (with a full backpack) through Tahoe and other places in California every year. Well, California is not Cusco. Get to your destination at least a few early (to acclimate), get lots of soroche (altitude sickness) pills and take them before you get to a high altitude area, have a good first aid kit with a variety of meds on hand, and have people around that can take care of you if things go bad (thank god for Raina and the rest of the homies on the M.P. trek!).

I’ve heard a few stories of people having to go back after suffering through incredible altitude sickness on the Inca Trail – people who were marathon runners or just incredibly fit and did a lot of hiking and trekking at home. Just do some research, and accept the fact that you will most likely barf or “go #3” (maybe a lot) at some point in your trip. And on that tip, know the first signs of altitude sickness! Whether it’s Machu Picchu or La Paz – walk slowly and take it easy (and don’t stay at the party hostels if you might get sick!). Life ain’t a race.

4) Know your available resources…and get second opinions

The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is a great place to look up travel information or post up your own questions about your future trip plans. LP books are my bible – I bring one whenever I go abroad! They can do everything – from breaking down the most comfortable and safest bus companies in Peru, to how to say the word “bathroom” in Thai so you can avoid disastrous situations on long bus rides.

Hostelworld.com is a great site to book any type of lodging accommodations.

Google has always been my best friend.

And last but not least: ask the locals, your taxi driver, the people working your hostel’s front desk…and ESPECIALLY other travelers for advice. Locals are great folks to talk to if you’d like to learn about all the great places and activities that other tourists don’t know about. Other tourists can give you the most up-to-date news on the treks you just have to do before you leave, or the best tour companies to use (or not use).

But don’t just take one person’s word for it – make sure to ask around. I’ve found quite a few people to be wrong (including locals) or just have a different opinion on things (everyone has a different style when traveling)…

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5) Be street-smart

Oftentimes I’m traveling abroad, I act like I’m walking the streets of Oakland, California at night (where I’m from) – it definitely helps. Some people are excellent pick pockets while others are incredibly talented at snatching your backpack from under the chair you’re sitting in. Put your money and credit cards in different places/different bags/different shoes. Remember that people aren’t stupid and that many know what money belts and money purses are. And above all, be aware of your surroundings as much as you can. After that’s been said and done, all you can do is do your best…the rest is just luck and timing.

I’ll be posting have a future blog post on “Dangers and Annoyances”, but a few quick tips: you can connect your bag to your chair with carabiners. Wear your day pack on your front to avoid bag slashers. Beware of distractions, they may be a set-up. Put extra mini carabiners or locks on your bag zippers so people can’t easily open your pockets. Only use official taxis (the ones with their phone number on the outside of the car). And don’t put valuable things in your bag’s external pockets – airport bag checkers may just walk off with your cell phone or ipod!

6) You get what you pay for

(This mostly applies to tours and buses – NOT restaurant food or artesnias/gifts at the markets). It’s like getting a tattoo – don’t be cheap about it, spend the money so that you can get a really good one. Paying for the nicer buses means more comfortable seats (more sleep) and improved safety odds. The same goes for tours. Before hiking Machu Picchu, I heard that a few guys tried to go white water rafting (during the rainy season – BAD idea) in Peru for just 15 soles. Their boats flipped over and everyone except the guides drowned.  When it comes to mountain biking down “the World’s Most Dangerous Road” near Coroico, paying more for bikes means better working bikes and breaks. Just do it!

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7) Eat the almuerzos (and even cook your own food) 

IMHO, I find that the tastiest meals are oftentimes found at the small local restaurants (or street vendors) that do a sopa and a segundo plato. A soup and a dish for 4 soles or 10 bolivianos? That’s about US$1.50. And eat the spicy sauces! Be cheap while supporting the local folks who make great food.

Some hostels allow you to use their kitchens for free. Find out where the local mercados are at and make your own lunches or dinners – the low food prices at the markets are just mind-blowing. Save money while catering to your own dietary needs/desires better that way.

8) Ask whether or not the showers tiene agua caliente

When you get to a hostel, check out the showers. I’ve gotten quite used to cold showers – but that doesn’t mean that I like them. Even lukewarm showers can make you miserable (and even sick) in cold and high altitude places like La Paz, etc. Figure out how to use the faucets too – sometimes you just have to turn the (one) knob juuuuust a little bit to make the water warmer.

If you do get a cold shower, talk to the front desk people. Maybe they forgot to show you the switch to turn on the hot water. Or maybe they just need to turn on the hot water furnace themselves…

Btw – reserving rooms at more expensive hotels/hostels does not guarantee hot water! Just the opposite in my experience, actually.

9) Everything here takes…a lot longer

Sometimes stores or offices aren’t open for unknown reasons at any time of the day (usually the afternoons, but still – one can never predict!). And unless you order the fixed meals (almuerzos), meals might just take forever (we joked  that they just started to harvest the quinoa in the back after we made our orders).

Just account for the slowness in your schedule and you’ll be fine. Don’t arrange plane flights right after tours if you care about missing your flight, and know that buses, tours, and other modes of transportation sometimes take longer than expected. But whatever you do, just don’t arrive LATE – I arrived a little bit late for a bus ride to Tupiza and had to chase after my bus in a taxi until I could board it at its first stop!

Other notes: buy your plane or bus tickets at least two days in advance (if not more) and reserve your treks/tours at least a few days in advance. You can sometimes do the day before, but you might not get the best tour/deal.

During the slow rainy season in South America, tours don’t always happen as often as they would during the busy season, which means a solo traveler like me couldn’t join a group and won’t be able to go to el Parque Nacional Madidi in Rurrenabaque like I had always wanted to 😦

And last but not least, I have yet to find an internet spot (wifi or paid center) that has fast service (most is slow…sometimes even “it takes 20 minutes for my gmail to load – if it does at all” slow, as it was in Uyuni).  Slow internet makes planning trips and making reservations very hard, if not impossible. One thing that helps: I brought my netbook on my trip with me. It’s heavy, but it’s the most worthwhile decision ever!

Except Rurre - I could stay here all week long and just chill in this warm jungle town!

Except Rurre – I could stay here all week long and just chill in this warm jungle town!

10) Unless you have friends and can party wherever you go, cities are just cities – there’s not always that much to do (most of the time)

(This goes for some other counties too) Don’t get me wrong, Peru and Bolivia are awesome and amazing places to travel, and I’ve really enjoyed my time here! Every city has it’s different highlights. But for most of the places I’ve visited – from Arequipa to La Paz – the main activities are the museums, and the sights (if there are any) and city architecture. Sometimes the markets and the food too, if they are good. This is really captivating for about a day.

Some of the main highlights for each town or city are the tours/trips they offer. Like many other places in Peru and Bolivia, La Paz has a grip of tours to choose from (everything from the historic ruins at Tiwanaku, to “the Death Road” bike trips, to ice climbing Huayana Potosi). Just factor that into your budget (they’re pricey but hella worth the plata) or find ways to go on your own if you can. You could do the bare minimum (eating, hosteling, and some city sightseeing) but it probably won’t be very entertaining for very long.

El Parque Nacional de Fauna Andina

My trip from el Parque Nacional de Fauna Andina to Uyuni was amazing

Of course, the other best thing to do is learn more about the country and hang out with local folks. If you can volunteer for at least a few weeks, do an educational trip (with a non-profit, etc.), or just hang out with the people living in the cities and get to know each other, that’s in my opinion some of the most memorable and meaningful experiences you could ever have while traveling. Even my short conversations with some of my taxi drivers have been some of the best moments of my travels.

BONUS: Other “General” Traveling Tips (for any country/continent)

11) Accept the fact that we are Gringos/Foreigners

(Unless one is from a certain country) No matter how well one speaks the local language or “blends in”, I try to remember that we are outsiders and guests in other people’s countries – and that the locals (South Americans locals and vacationers) often see us as gringos. Centuries of colonialism/imperialism are not a “thing of the past” – their impacts and injustices are still quite visible and well-felt today. Even as a person of color that speaks a decent amount of Spanish, I am still an American. And a foreigner. And someone with incredible privileges. We gotta check ourselves on that from time to time.

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12) Respect culture and have gratitude

Okay this is just a personal thing. But I believe that if you visit another country, it’s best to follow the local customs and courtesy – and engage in the culture. I think it’s somewhat rude to, say, not drink the chicha during Pachamama ceremonies (unless you’re allergic or something). Or refuse food (it’s an enormous privilege for us to be able to choose what foods we want to eat). I have a few friends that are vegetarian or vegan most of the time, but if someone makes them food that contains meat, they’ll eat at least eat a little bit of it. Meat is a luxury and many families will offer it to honor your visit and show you love. I don’t know if you want to refuse a gift like that; it can be a bit disrespectful…besides the fact that sharing a meal is a great way to build (and literally “break bread”) with other people!

Feel free to share your travel Do’s and Don’ts too 🙂

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2 thoughts on “The South America Travel Diaries: The Top 10 Lessons Learned (so far)

  1. Kristine says:

    Awesome post! I’m interested to see your Dangers and Annoyances one too–I’ll be by myself when I go (in October…clearly planning ahead, haha) and I’ve traveled solo before, but I am a little nervous about doing so in some of the SA cities.

    This also reminded me to take up LiveMocha again…isn’t it the best?? I also did conversationexchange.com, both for e-mail pen pals and face-to-face exchanges.

    Hope you’re enjoying your travels (wherever you are ATM), I am incredibly jealous!

    • Thanks! I just added a few more pointers that I forgot about (#9 and #10 revised).

      Solo traveling out here has been great so far, but the only downside is sometimes not being able to do tours in the low season (they usually do groups of 3 or 4 for some tours, which are better for groups of friends) and the occasional spats of loneliness. I feel like living in the States is more dangerous than traveling out here, but the one thing that does shake me are the taxi scams and the notorious BUSES. I’ve heard of waaayyyy too many accidents (even with the good companies). It’s just a gamble sometimes. More about that soon!

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