Myths, Facts, and Tips for Backpacking Central and South America

Now that we have completed our 7 month trip from Argentina to Guatemala, I can speak with some authority on how to best prepare for a trip like this. There’s things we wish we knew beforehand and things that shocked us as well as trucks we learned along the way that I believe would be helpful for any backpacker down there. So here we go:

Myths vs Facts:

  1. Myth: Latin America is warm all year round. Fact: Argentina and Chile are close to Antartica and Patagonia sits at the southernmost tip and gets freezing temperatures from May to September. Also, anywhere with high altitude tends to be a lot colder. Parts of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador were downright freezing and raining all the time at high altitude. Guatemala, as well, gets very cold at night. Tip: Pack accordingly. Research the temperature and bring lots of layers.
  2. Myth: Latin America is cheap. Fact: Only three countries felt cheap and they were Bolivia, Colombia, and Honduras. South America and Central America used to be cheap, but now tourism has brought some prosperity and with it higher prices. Most expensive countries: Argentina, Chile, Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Rich tourists have set the bar too high for backpackers and now costs for most goods are as high as US prices. You can bargain people down, but they are starting much higher than ever before. Only typical food is relatively cheap and local beer, everything else is comparable to US prices. So don’t expect to buy stuff dirt cheap anymore. Tip: Come prepared with way more money than you’d expect to spend and arm yourself with enough Spanish to bargain.
  3. Myth: With tourism comes English. Fact: Central America is more accustomed to American tourists and those in the industry learned English. In South America, most people still speak Spanish and expect you to, too. Tip: Learn some basic Spanish to get around, don’t expect everyone to speak English.
  4. Myth: The whole world takes credit card now. Fact: Almost all of South American and Central American countries don’t accept credit card. The majority of hostels we stayed at were cash only. Tours, even the most expensive ones, tended to be cash only. A lot of restaurants only took cash. Tip: Never expect to pay with credit card. Always have enough cash on you for food and accommodations. If you plan to do a tour ask first if they accept credit cards, because the majority don’t.
  5. Myth: There’s never any toilet paper in the bathrooms. Fact: This is true from Argentina to Ecuador then Colombia to Guatemala, I found toilet paper in most bathrooms. If it wasn’t in the bathroom, you paid a lady and she gave you paper. Tip: Always bring toilet paper on you in case, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find most have paper.

Just Facts:

  1. Latin Americans drive like New Yorkers. Be careful crossing the road, because no one stops for pedestrians. They just speed up and honk if they see you in the road. Expect to get carsick on buses if you get motion sickness, because they fly around curves and slam on their brakes only at the last second.
  2. Customer service at restaurants is non-existent in Argentina and Chile, but they expect a tip anyway. Most countries don’t have much customer service like we have in the US. It’s not common for them to check on you multiple times to see how you’re doing or to bring you’re check right away. You have to wave them down if you want something. Don’t hold them to US standards, because it’s not part of their culture. In more touristy countries, like Costa Rica, they do have more attentive customer service.
  3. Argentina and Chile eat a lot of bread and sweets especially for breakfast.
  4. Peru and Chile both claim Pisco sours as their national drink. If you take a “free” walking tour in either country, they will give you a free Pisco sour.
  5. Machu Picchu is amazing, but it’s like Disneyland.
  6. People expect you to bargain, it’s part of their culture. It doesn’t offend them.
  7. Every country has a typical breakfast and a typical lunch. They don’t stray far from it, so if you like what they serve you can get it everyday, in every town and it won’t change. If you don’t like it, you’re probably not going to be happy with the local food.
  8. Most countries don’t eat beans and rice. Until you get to Ecuador, you won’t see beans and rice in the rest of South America.
  9. Buses are the most common way to get around and Peru has the nicest buses. Argentina and Chile have the second nicest buses. Bolivia has the worst buses. Nicaragua’s buses are all old American school buses. The more money you pay in most countries gets you a nicer bus ride. The less you pay the longer the bus takes, because it stops every few feet to let people on and off. Most buses don’t have toilets unless you’re in Peru, Argentina, and Chile.
  10. Unfortunately, no matter how much you pay for a nice bus, nothing will change the fact that the roads are bumpy and windy and the drivers take turns like maniacs. So, if you are prone to car sickness take Dramamine.
  11. Hostels aren’t as cheap as they used to be. In Argentina, a dorm bed is $15-20 and a private room is $50-70. In Bolivia, they get cheaper and you can find a private for $13-20. Colombia is cheap, as well, if you aren’t on the coast. Costa Rica is super expensive and dorms are upwards of $18 and privates $50-100. Even Guatemala has expensive dorms for $17.
  12. As stated above, almost everything is cash only. The majority of hostels are cash only. Tours are almost all cash only. Credit card machines never seem to work.
  13. Almost always when you go on a tour, the price you pay doesn’t include the entrance fee to the park. Make sure to ask if it does first before booking.
  14. Debit cards without a chip don’t work in most ATMs so make sure your card has a chip.
  15. Every town and city has a central plaza with a cathedral. Every country is Catholic, but not all of them celebrate Carnival.
  16. If you are vegetarian in Latin America it is challenging, because most countries don’t have fresh vegetables and they all eat a lot of meat especially Argentina.
  17. Sadly, there’s a lack of infrastructure and education about litter, so you will see tons of trash on every road, beach and monument. It is upsetting, but hard to remedy if the government won’t provide proper sanitation for everyone.

Tips to Make Your Trip Great

  1. Save more money than you estimate you’ll need. We saved $18,000 and ended up spending $25,000 for 6.5 months.
  2. The cheapest hubs to book flights to South America and Central America from are LA, Houston, and Miami.
  3. Don’t try to do everything especially at the beginning of your trip or your funds will go really fast. All tours in Patagonia are expensive, but a lot of them have tiered options. We always went for the cheapest or second to cheapest option. If you always take the most expensive option, your money will run out fast. Of course if money is no problem then live it.
  4. We found starting in the south, where it’s more expensive and ending in the north, where it’s cheaper, worked out best for our budget.
  5. Find the best travel credit card with no international transaction fees. I signed up for the Capital One Venture card with no international transaction fees, 2x the points on all purchases and 10x the points on all hotel bookings at Hotels.com, and a 40,000 point signing bonus that got us free flights and hotels at the start of the trip. I love this credit card! Best Cards Without Foreign Transaction Fees and What Are Foreign Transaction Fees? are good links to discover the right card for you!
  6. Apps that are helpful: Get the app for your bank and credit card, currency converter for each country to get the right conversion rate, Maps.me to download maps of each country and use them for navigation offline, Rome2rio to research the best way to travel from point A to point B, Hostelworld app as well as Booking.com and Hotels.com apps to get the best room rates, kayak.com app helps searching for cheap flights within countries (Chile and Colombia have cheap internal flights), get WhatsApp to text and call international numbers when you have WiFi. You can also call 1-800 numbers with Skype.
  7. Don’t drink the water even to brush your teeth. I did brush my teeth with the water and was sick most of the trip.
  8. Get travel insurance with World Nomads, they have great quotes.
  9. Bring clothing you don’t care about, so you can lighten your load along the way by ditching clothes you no longer need.
  10. Best time to visit Patagonia is November or March, right before high season and right after. Plus in November the penguins are out and spring wild flowers and in March you get the autumn colors.
  11. You can also rent all the gear you need to trek Torres del Paine in Patagonia at shops in Puerto Natales, so don’t overpack.
  12. Don’t overpack in general. Bring layers for the cold places then ditch them when you get to the warm places. Bring expendable gear that you won’t miss when it’s gone. Don’t come too prepared, because they have pharmacies and regular stores to buy toiletries down there.
  13. Get all your vaccinations for Typhoid, Hepatitis A, tetanus, and yellow fever but don’t bother taking the malaria pills. They cost a fortune and will make you feel like crap.
  14. Don’t worry about all the hype about zikka virus, it’s really not an issue down there like they are making it out to be.
  15. Always keep some toilet paper in your pocket and hand sanitizer in your bag.
  16. Ask locals what they would pay for something like a cab ride to make sure people aren’t trying to over charge you.
  17. It’s totally worth the $160 visa to enter Bolivia in order to visit Salar de Uyuni salt flat.
  18. If you want to do the traditional Inca trail to Machu Picchu, you can’t just wing it. You have to book it at least 6 months in advance. If you don’t plan ahead there are several other treks that are much cheaper, but they don’t end at the sun gate.
  19. Don’t skip Honduras! Everyone skips it due to rumors it’s not safe, but we found it very safe and it was our favorite country.
  20. The best bus company for crossing borders in Central America is Tica Bus. They also have the easiest border crossings compared to South America.
  21. Take rest days once a week or you’ll be forced to take sick days when your body is rundown from overdoing it.
  22. Taking a day off? Want to binge watch shows on Netflix like at home. Now you can download shows when you have WiFi and watch them when you don’t.
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4 Comments Add yours

  1. HaiHui Story says:

    Great overview! 🙂 We left to South America 3 months ago with one-way tickets, and i can say it’s like another planet :))) What an adventure! Love your blog post!

    Like

    1. Thanks! Sweet it definitely is. Have an amazing time!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the good read!
    We’ve travelled a different combo of South and Central American regions to yourself and are always interested by other traveller’s experiences of affordability of particular places.
    I definitely agree with your observations regarding litter throughout Latin America. Even here in the Galàpagos where we thought we’d find a more eco-conscious culture, littering seems very much a commonplace occurence (we’ve confronted both locals & tourists at it!).

    Like

    1. You’re welcome! Which combo did you visit? Always looking to plan future trips. Glad I could help. The litter is definitely upsetting and I think major education programs, campaigns n government support for infrastructure needs to happen in each country to end it.

      Like

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