So you’re traveling to Latin America for the first time? Maybe you’re a little nervous, maybe you have a bunch of questions. Don’t let your nerves get the best of you. There’s no better learning experience on earth than traveling (on your own). Ladies, we’re taking over the world day by day.
One of the best things about traveling to Latin America (Central and South America) versus other regions, is you practically have an entire continent (minus Brazil) that speaks the same language, shares similar culture and values. I find this makes for smoother traveling experiences versus maybe going around Asia, Europe or Africa where when you cross a border you’re almost guaranteed to encounter a new language and/or culture. If this is your first big venture, there’s no better place for these upcoming travels than by easing yourself into them anywhere else than Latin America.
Here’s my top 5 tips for smart traveling around Latin America. I hope they’re of use to you!
Don’t Bring Too Much Cash!
Unless you’re on remote island or high up in mountain villages, ATMs are accessible almost anywhere. It’s more than likely that you’ll be starting your holiday in a capital, or major city and once you’re there you can feel out the vibes of the city/country you’re in, and put together a long-term budget.
I usually start my travels with $250 cash (in the local currency) and $100USD as a safety net. I know that I can pull more out of a machine when need be.
Make sure before you set off on your travels that you contact your bank and make sure you’re debit and credit cards have international capabilities. If they don’t, you might be calling mom and dad to send you an emergency Western Union wire transfer.
While you’re on the road make sure to separate your money into different parts of your person. Have a decoy wallet even- and only keep close by the max amount of cash you’ll be using each day. There’s nothing worse than opening up your wallet in a local marketplace and flashing your big bills, or pulling out your whole worth for a fresh fruit smoothie.
Stay In A Hotel Or Hostel Your First Night
I personally like total independence when I travel and have become almost an exclusive Airbnb traveler- expect when I first arrive to the country.
Having pre-arranged accommodations at a hotel or hostel means an easy escape route from the airport. You can jump into a taxi and give them an exact address, or if you’re feeling adventurous and it’s a reasonable time of day (with plenty of sunlight) you can hop onto local transit and punch in the address on your (pre-downloaded) offline maps.
Once you’re all settled into your hostel or hotel it should be quite easy for you to connect with other travelers in a bar or common area. You can grab advice from other travelers who’ve been in the region awhile, or talk to your concierge for some great tips about where to go, what to see and especially where to get great local food. Particularly important would be to find out which areas to avoid too. At this time, you might even pick up a new travel partner in the midst of it all! Since you’ve taken the time to get your bearings, you’ll be more well equipped to tackle the intertwining streets and the daily grind the way locals do.
Knowing that across South America has vastly different climates and even different seasons you might need everything from a baiting suit to winter boots for your travels. You’ve got to think quality over quantity.
A backpack always gives you more flexibility and ease than a wheel suitcase. You’ll often find yourself in areas with minimal infrastructure, bad roads to wheel your suitcase through, tops of collectivos you’ll have to toss your luggage on; so stick to a backpack. Forty-five to fifty litres usually work quite well to diversify your load.
To keep in mind as well, there is always going to be a little old lady or a hardworking family who own a lavanderia and be bending backward for your dirty travel clothes to wash. You can get a 24-48 hour service usually for about $5/ 2 kilo, which is a steal of a deal. It won’t break your bank, but it’ll support theirs.
You might think you need those 10 t-shirts initially while you’re packing, but maybe only bring 4 instead. I always tend to go heavier on full bathing suits as I spend more time in beach destinations. They’re easier to pack, and can often double as shirts.
Layering is key too. So long as you have some kind of Under Armor, t-shirt, long-sleeve, sweater and windbreaker, you should be able to fend off the elements. And, I always vouch for hiking sandals over hiking boots as they’re great for almost all climates, they clean off easier and are lighter to carry. And, unless you’re some kind of professional photographer or blogger, leave all the technology at home! You’ll be happier for the experiences outside of the screen anyway! Not only is all the extra stuff heavier to carry around, but it always draws attention to you and the perception of your privilege and wealth. Stick to minimalism.
Stay Alert & Dress To Blend In
Friends and family will often be the first to jump down your throat and tell you all the horror stories about the county you’ve decided to travel to. Safety should always be a concern for you, but knowing that your actions often determine how safe a situation is, is important too.
Maybe you’re staying in a small fishing village, or somewhere remote in the Amazon? Maybe the locals aren’t accustomed to seeing too much skin? Keep your outfits modest and skip on the shorts and bikinis. Long linen pants go a long way and tend to keep you cooler in that sweltering Latin American heat more than most other fabrics! Maybe you’ve noticed a lot of men cat-calling you because of the color of your skin or hair. This is an unfortunate reality you’ll often face, best to learn to tune it out, but also, have you thought about tossing on a hat?
Oh, you’re running low on money? But it’s late at night? And you decided to solo venture at an Airbnb? Wait until the morning’s daylight to grab that cash from the machine. If you’re out on the town at night and you’ve run out of cash, ask a friend to borrow some, never go to an ATM after dark.
Lastly, never, ever, ever drink with people you don’t feel totally comfortable around. There’s nothing worse than losing your inhibitions or your bearings. A cocktail or two won’t kill you, but don’t let the beverages flow past that if you don’t have a solid crew to make sure you’re all making it home together and safely.
Learn the Language!
As previously mentioned, most of the large landmass of Latin America speaks the same language. All the way from Mexico and the Caribbean down south to Argentina and Easter Islands. If you’re traveling for anywhere from a week to a year, you should be willing to put some effort into learning Spanish. The locals will be thrilled with your attempts, you’ll be less likely to be ripped off or scammed, and you’ll feel a tremendous amount of self-pride. No one is saying you need to become Penelope Cruz, but even the basics like “hello”, “thank you”, numbers and directional questions come in handy.
It’s such a great sense of independence when you’re sitting in a restaurant and you don’t need to ask for the English version of the menu. Or maybe you’re on a beach and want to buy some little bracelets. You’ll have an easier time negotiating a good price if you know your numbers and a complimentary phrase to speak to the seller.
Just by immersing yourself in Latin America, you will naturally pick up bits and pieces of the language. If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge and to sustain your language skills, you could always take a course at a language school. These courses can run anywhere from a week to a month (or more) and they’re usually very, very cheap! Often the language-learning will be something experiential versus the grammar-hitting-books-style you were accustomed to in your elementary and secondary school days, which makes the whole thing less intimidating and more fun!
Hopefully these tips have given you the confidence to go forth in South America. Travel safely. Be fearless, but don’t be silly. Have fun and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Latin America: it’s beautiful coffee regions, bustling beaches, perfect Pacific Ocean sunsets and much more await you!