By Flora Baker. Flora is a writer and travel blogger, who chronicles her travelling adventures at Flora The Explorer. For more immediate updates you can find her on Twitter, where she spends a large portion of her time discussing travel.
It’s a well-known fact that South America is one of the biggest and craziest continents to travel through. Its myriad of differing cultures are filled with heat, colour, dancing, incredible food, friendly locals and extremely variable weather: the place is primed for visiting travellers to have a good time.
The continent is also famed for its distinct lack of trains, with the vast majority of the continent running on buses – the slower they are, the cheaper, which also normally means the better option! Although a great way to get from place to place, safety on these bad boys is key; there’s a likelihood that people may attempt to relieve you of your belongings when you’re looking the other way.
If you’re feeling a bit wary of the bus system, there’s always the economy car hire option. Driving in South America gives you the freedom to make your own itinerary, pull over for photo opportunities and also keeps your possessions safe.
But it’s not just on transport where you have to keep your wits about you: there’s the language barrier to overcome and tourist traps to avoid. But on the flip side, there’s a wealth of amazing food to enjoy, some incredible sights and, of course, the World Cup 2014.
So here’s a rundown of the best ways to enjoy South America, while behaving as little like an absent-minded foreigner as possible.
Rule 1: learn the local lingo
Of the nine major countries in South America, eight speak Spanish. If you’re a language whizz, it’s a breeze to get yourself around the continent. However, the vast majority of South American tourists aren’t likely to be fluent – myself included.
Before I left for South America, my Spanish skills were mediocre at best. Although you can take Spanish classes before you leave, most people will end up flogging long-forgotten GCSE phrases and it’ll make you stick out like a sore thumb. So I decided to start my trip with a Spanish course, taking lessons in the home of an Ecuadorian family in Quito. It was a wonderful way to immerse myself in the language, learning how to use it in a conversational way, rather than just parroting the stilted formalities of some language courses.
Of course, other options include taking professional classes for a few months when you arrive. Countries like Peru, Ecuador and Argentina are some of the best countries to learn in. Alternatively, you can simply make the effort to talk with as many locals as you can. Couch surfing is also a great way to improve your Spanish; you’re likely to hang out with your hosts and want to communicate in their language!
Rule 2: eat local, eat well
There’s a tonne of amazing food to be eaten in South America. From the classic favourites, like empanadas, ceviche and avocado, to the more adventurous cuy (roast guinea pig) and alpaca meat. You’ll never go hungry when travelling about. Shopping at local markets is one of the best ways to both sample the local produce and save quite a bit of cash – plus you can practice your Spanish with the stall holders too.
The only downside is that the selection isn’t great for vegetarians, who might find it tricky to eat their fill purely on corn, potatoes and rice. Luckily there are countless delicious fruits on offer – and if you’re alright with eating guacamole all the time, you’ll be more than happy.
Rule 3: avoid the tourist traps
There are so many ‘must do’ activities in South America it’s hard to count. Trekking along the Inca Trail to reach the mysterious Machu Picchu, posing for perspective-skewed photos at Bolivia’s salt flats, and partying hard at Rio Carnival in Brazil are all experiences you’re never likely to forget.
But it’s also imperative to get off the beaten path and do some of your own exploring. With such diverse countries to navigate your way around, it’s extremely hard to have the same experience as anyone else – which also means you’re likely to discover some incredible locations that none of your friends have ever heard of.
There’s every chance that somewhere in South America will suck you in; a tiny town, particular neighbourhood or beach community that suddenly feels so much like home that you’ll find it hard to leave. Regardless of where you end up, whether you’re travelling through South America or just visiting for the World Cup, it will undoubtedly change your life. So what are you waiting for? A continent of discovery awaits!
Have you explored South America and if so, what tips do you have? Let us know in the comments section below…
- Backpacking Guide to South America
- Top 10 Cheap Things to do in Rio de Janeiro
- Backpacking in Brazil Part 1
- Machu Picchu Alternatives: Five Historic Inca Places in Peru
- Off the beaten track in Trujillo, Peru
Thanks to Terry George for the excellent photo. Please note images were suitable for use at the time of publication according to the Creative Commons License.