Since the Olympic Games in Brazil, the fascinating continent of South America has been on everyone’s lips. Great nature experiences and friendly people await you. Find below the best tips for South America newbies.
Find the right country for beginners
If you want to enter „gently“ into the adventure of South America, you should choose Argentina or Chile. Both countries have been strongly influenced by their European immigrants and in some places they give you the feeling of home. They also impress with their magnificent nature – from tropical forests to deserts, plateaus, mountains and glaciers.
All those who like it a little bit more „South American“ are right in the Andean states Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador with their varied landscape and culture. On the colorful markets and folk festivals there is an exuberant atmosphere, but now and then there can be incidents. Bolivia is considered the poorest and least developed country in South America with a high crime rate. Be careful and / or travel in an organized manner.
Colombia is still one of the continent’s best kept secrets. The scenic, hospitable state has done much to increase security in recent years. All problems have not yet been solved, but crime in the big cities has decreased. South America beginners explore Colombia best in a group.
The same applies to Brazil: If you are traveling to this exciting country for the first time, it is best to book an organized tour. In this way you get a feeling for the country and its people, feel safer and can visit many places in a short time. Experienced Brazilian travelers with Portuguese language skills, who travel on their own, will have a lot of fun in this huge country with its joyful people – if they are well prepared and careful.
Prepare your stay in South America well
A good travel preparation is already half the battle. On the website of the Federal Foreign Office you will find a lot of information, safety tips and medical advice about your destination country. The German embassy and local consulates are also almost always helpful and will answer your questions. The embassies of the countries you are traveling to clarify any problems concerning the necessary travel documents.
Remember that in many countries it is now difficult to pay with travelers‘ cheques – in some states not all credit cards are accepted. In Brazil it often happens that in shops only small amounts can be paid by foreign credit cards. In Argentina, it is often only possible to withdraw a small amount of money from cash machines. To get cash quickly, you can use the savings cards of certain banks, which allow you to withdraw money ten times a year free of charge. Or check out the DKB-VISA-Card to withdraw money from ATMs worldwide (including Germany and Europe) free of charge. A list of emergency numbers is a must in your luggage. In order to be able to make cheap phone calls during longer stays in the country, it is worth buying a phone card. If you have internet access just call via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, FaceTime (with iPhone, iPad, iPod touch…), etc. If the connection is not the best, it is better not to use the videochat.
Acquire language skills
Although English is partly spoken in the tourist centres, it is important to learn a few chunks of Spanish or Portuguese. Both languages are more or less well understood throughout South America. If you travel mainly outside Brazil, the best choice is Spanish. Apart from private language schools, which are quite expensive, the community colleges also offer various Spanish courses. If you have only little time, you can acquire Spanish skills with a little discipline via a self-study course or on a learning platform on the internet.
Portuguese courses are also booming since Brazil became the focus of worldwide attention with the Football World Cup: In addition to the community colleges, private language schools and private teachers also offer language courses (e.g. in the internet). But there are also self-study courses for Portuguese. For a trip to Brazil you should learn Brazilian Portuguese, as its pronunciation sometimes differs from the European version.
Turn on the famous common sense
Listen to the tips and warnings of the locals on site. They know which parts of the city and which areas tourists can visit without worries or where caution is required. Don’t be surprised if, for example, you are approached on the street in Buenos Aires and your packed daypack invites theft. Or if a passer-by in Rio points out to you that you are a tourist with a city map and camera in hand and arouse the desire of crooks.
But don’t let the horror stories of other travellers spoil your stay in the country! If you feel insecure, it’s better to book a group tour with a tour guide who knows the country better: Have a look around and develop a feeling for the foreign culture.
Keep an eye on money and valuables
Despite the – compared to Germany – high crime rate in South America, nothing happens to most tourists. But there are no guarantees. Therefore, a few precautions are necessary to make the trip a positive experience.
It is better to leave valuables and jewelry in your hotel room and only take as much cash with you as you need on your city walk or excursion. In case of emergency, insert a credit card if there is not enough money. In some countries you must identify yourself, but often a copy of your passport is sufficient.
Spread your finances close to your body in various places and put a small sum in your pocket in case you are mugged and asked to pay. When withdrawing money, it is best to use cash machines in a bank or shopping center and keep an eye on your surroundings. Whether you are collecting money or paying at the checkout in a supermarket, put your money in a safe place before you leave the building. Avoid the deserted city centres outside business hours. This also applies to lonely streets during the day and nightly walks in deserted areas.
Safe travel on public transport
Most subways are highly recommended, but sometimes overcrowded, inviting pickpockets to pickpocket. The same applies to the city buses. In addition, they often get stuck in traffic jams due to the chaotic traffic.
Ask the locals which lines you can take without hesitation. You should be careful with suburban trains, as they sometimes travel through unsafe areas on the outskirts of the big cities. Night owls are best to call a taxi when they want to go back to their hotel. Radio taxis are particularly safe. You should be careful with unofficial taxis.
For longer distances it also depends on the time frame and wallet whether you take the plane or the mostly comfortable coach. In addition, on some routes there are attacks, for example in Brazil, so that a domestic flight is the safer option.
In Chile and Argentina many people do not want to get out of the luxurious and safe buses, which do not cost much even in the highest category. But caution is only advised at the large bus stations.
In countries like Ecuador, the number of accidents is above average because basic safety precautions are often not taken. The German Foreign Office therefore advises against traveling in intercity buses in Ecuador.
Don’t lose your nerve in an emergency
Do not resist if you are attacked on the open road or in an interurban bus and give the criminals money and valuables. In this (usually unlikely) case, always have a small amount of cash on hand. It is best to ask on the spot what amount is „appropriate“. Behave like the other passengers during a bus robbery. Again, you should not try to provoke the bandits in order to physically survive the attack.
In case of robberies, arrests and other emergencies, notify not only the German embassy, but also the appropriate authorities in the respective country. You should have the telephone numbers of emergency call, police, tourist police, ambulance and so on at hand. Have the identity card of the officers shown to you during police and military checks. In Peru, for example, swindlers like to pose as police officers.
Do not take any risks when hiking in the Andes
The longest mountain range in the world is even more pristine than the Alps. In order to reach your destination safely, you should follow a few rules during your hikes: Pack adequate clothing! At night it often gets very cold in the mountains, during the day the air warms up quickly. Rain must also be expected. Do not hike without sturdy mountain boots with a good profile! Bring your trekking equipment with you from Germany, as equipment is scarce in some countries!
Don’t overestimate yourself and choose the right degree of difficulty (many tours lead through difficult terrain at over 2500 meters altitude)!
Tell a friend in Germany where you will be staying and leave a contact address in Germany!
Follow the news carefully before your hike! Your destination area could be affected by storms, floods and landslides. During the hike, apply sufficient sunscreen with a high sun protection factor, always wear a headgear and drink enough water! Do not underestimate altitude sickness! Nobody knows beforehand whether it will affect him or not. Drink a stimulating tea made from coca leaves („Mate de Coca“ – not a drug!) if you feel shortness of breath and circulatory problems. In Peru you can buy medication against altitude sickness in any pharmacy. If the symptoms do not get better, you have to descend to lower regions.
Book your overnight stay in time!
Finding an overnight stay in South America is not difficult – if you consider a few points. While in the low season you can book almost everywhere without advance notice, in the high season there are bottlenecks especially in tourist areas. Find out in good time which holidays are coming up in the destination country and book your room as soon as possible. Otherwise, you may end up paying a fortune for a dump. Many accommodations nowadays have their own website, sometimes in English. The tourist offices will also be happy to help you find them.
„South America in a nutshell“ is impossible
Those who travel individually to South America may easily be tempted to want to see everything. After all, with an area of around 17,843,000 square kilometers, this is completely impossible unless you are traveling for a very long time. Those who try it nevertheless will spend more time on the road and in airports than on location. 100 kilometers by bus can take hours in Brazil because the infrastructure is poor and traffic in the big cities is chaotic. Strikes, unrest and storms can also put a quick end to the „South America in three weeks“ project.
Find out what is feasible before starting your journey. Of course, you can also change your travel plans and include side trips (for example, change from the Brazilian to the Argentinean side at the Iguazu waterfalls, take a short trip to Rio from Buenos Aires or take the ferry to the Uruguayan town of Colonia).
Rather enjoy the stay at your pre-determined places of choice than rushing from one country to the next – otherwise you will have seen many stamps in your passport at the end of the trip, but few interesting things.