South America offers travellers great food, diverse cultures, unique landscapes and an unforgettable adventure. If you’ve got South America in your travel sights, check out this list on 20 things you need to know before you go.
1. You’ll need hard cold cash
Many South American countries are cash economies – meaning you can only buy goods and services with cash. The good news is that ATMs are plentiful.
Ecuador and Bolivia especially rely on cash. However, as you head south, there’s a more likelihood of credit card facilities, but cash is always preferred. Some hostels and tour agencies in Chile and Argentina accept credit cards, but this is not always the case. Always have cash on hand.
It’s also a good idea to have some US Dollars or Euros on hand to exchange into the local currency.
If you do find a place that accepts credit cards, they are likely to charge you a hefty fee ranging from 5% to 10% of the total price.
2. Small change and notes are a necessity
In countries that trade mostly in cash, prices are low, therefore coins and small notes are a necessity. You will often get pained looks or a simple refusal if you want more than $5 in change.
3. ATMS may charge foreign cards a hefty withdrawal fee
While cash is essential in South America, unfortunately you are likely to get hit with hefty ATM withdrawal fees. Ecuador and Bolivia have low fees, however Chile and Argentina charge between $10 and $13 AUD to withdraw cash on foreign cards.
4. You might need a visa
Entry requirements vary across nationalities in South America. For example, while Australians get into Bolivia visa free, US citizens have to pay $160 USD on entry and provide proof of accommodation.
In Chile, Australians entering by Santiago airport have to pay a $95 USD (~$128.50 AUD) reciprocity fee but aren’t charged if entering by a land border. Do your research before you go to see what you might need.
5. Toilet paper goes in the trash, not the toilet
It will soon become a habit that the toilet paper goes in the bin beside the toilet, not in the toilet. That’s because South America’s sewerage pipes are small and toilets get blocked easily.
You’ll find signage in almost all hostels in South America telling you not to put the paper down the toilet.
6. You have to pay for the public toilets
There’s no free rides for public toilets and you’ll have to pay at bus stations and in city centres to a bathroom attendant.
Don’t expect there to be any toilet paper in the cubicle though. You may get some on the way in from the bathroom attendant or there will be some near the basin. However, sometimes there may be none, so be prepared. I carried a roll of toilet paper with me throughout South America.
7. You can buy bus tickets on the fly
Buses are the chief mode of public transport in South America and the most efficient way to get from A to B.
It’s pretty easy to live spontaneously in South America, as you usually turn up at the bus station, get your ticket and be on your way in less than 15 minutes.
In most South American countries, each bus company has a counter. Find the company you want, state the destination, and you’ll be given a ticket for the next bus.
8. Ignore how long Google Maps says your bus ride will take
Google Maps tells you it will take you three hours to get to your destination? Best to double that figure. Roads are notoriously bad in South America – many are unpaved or seriously potholed – so bus rides often take much longer than you think.
If you’ve got a long way to go across a country, consider if your budget stretches to taking a national flight. There’s several low cost airlines operating in South American countries, such as Bolivia and Chile.
9. Altitude sickness is a real threat
Some popular destinations in South America are high. Real high. For example, La Paz in Bolivia is the highest capital city in the world at 3,600 metres above sea level. Its airport is even higher at 4000 metres.
It’s best to acclimatise slowly. If you can, ease yourself into high altitudes by gradually ascending and not flying straight from sea level. If you have to fly from sea level, give yourself a few days to acclimatise before doing anything strenuous, avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water. Check out Michael's tips on how to deal with the dangers of altitude.
You might also want to consider asking your travel doctor about altitude sickness tablets before you head overseas.
Check out this video below to see what it is like to trek the Inca Trail! Stephen and Jess from Flying The Nest show us their journey.
With high altitude comes the risk of getting sunburnt easily. Particularly when you’re at high altitude, wear a hat and slap on some sunscreen. Don’t forget that even on a cloudy day you can burn very quickly.
There’s also lots of desert parts in South America where the sun is harsh.
11. You can’t drink the tap water
It’s best to avoid the tap water across South America or risk getting a stomach ache or worse! Bottled water is readily available across South America.
12. The showers can be temperamental
Would you like scalding hot or freezing cold with your shower? You never know what you’re going to get when taking a shower in South America. When you actually get a steady hot water flow it feels like the best day ever! Be prepared for varying temperatures and low water pressure.
13. Hablas Espanol?
You’ll need a basic knowledge of Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) to be able to communicate across South America. English is virtually non-existent in many South American countries, such as Ecuador and Bolivia. Colombia and Brazil has varying levels of English speakers depending on where you go, and you will likely get away with basic Spanish in Chile, Argentina and touristy parts of Peru.
Be prepared with some basic Spanish phrases and knowing numbers is particularly helpful. It’s also a good idea to get the Google Translate app and load the Spanish and/or Portuguese language files so you can translate without a data connection.
You may also consider attending a Spanish school on your travels. Many countries offer Spanish lessons. Popular traveller hotspots I came across to learn Spanish were Sucre, Bolivia; Santiago, Chile; and Medellin, Colombia.
14. Watch your valuables on public transport
Be on guard with your valuables in public transport. I was reminded often not to put my valuables at my feet or in the overhead compartment on buses, so it always stayed with me on my lap.
15. Don’t forget the Imodium
It’s pretty much a fact of a backpacker’s life that the food may not always agree with you. So always have some Imodium handy in your first aid kit.
16. The local food can be amazing
Don’t let the risk of South America belly deter you too much from trying the local food. One of my favourite parts of travel is trying out the local cuisine that you never see at home. To lessen your risk of getting sick, make sure the food you eat is prepared fresh and is hot.
17. The alcohol is really cheap
Cerveza and vino lovers will be in heaven in South America because the alcohol is so cheap. Even in expensive countries like Chile, I could find wine for less than $3 AUD!
18. Beware of bed bugs
I heard many stories of travellers being attacked by bed bugs. Check out the reviews of hostels before you go and avoid if there’s any mentions of bed bugs.
19. Change local currency before you leave a country
Got some leftover cash when you’re exiting a country? Try to exchange it before you go as you’ll be hard pressed to change it in other countries. It’s best to exchange it into US Dollars or Euros as these currencies are widely accepted across South America to change into local currencies.
20. Be wary of scams
There’s plenty of scams in South America. A common one I was often warned about was fake police, where a ‘policeman’ would stop and ask to see your identification documents. Don’t carry your passport on you when out and about. A photocopy will suffice.
Also be wary of taxi scams. Make sure you negotiate a price before you hop in the taxi. Most South American taxis don’t have meters.
Armed with this handy guide, you’ll be better prepared for your South American adventure. You’re sure to have some great stories to tell and many Instagram worthy shots!
Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 70 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer. Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.
Plus, for helpful destination-based COVID-19 information, don't forget to check the COVID-19 Travel Risk Tool before and during travel.
*The cover information contained on the above pages refers to Cover-More policies sold on or after 26 June 2023. For cover information on policies sold prior to this date, please read the relevant PDS.