What I wish I had known before coming to South-America

Nobody’s perfect. Despite having traveled and lived countries for years, this still applies to me and traveling. I started out on my trip through South-America, thinking I’d be gone for a month or two…. Boy was I wrong and how I wish I had considered some of these points below.

Visacard

The dominating card that was accepted in South-America seemed to be Visa. Especially in smaller stores and supermarkets, I would get asked whether my card was a visa card. Of course, some places accept MasterCard and American Express. Still, with a Visa card, your chances for a successful transaction are a whole lot higher.


Bank card without transaction/cash withdrawal fees

This has probably been my most costly mistake.

I had started my trip thinking I would only be gone for 2-3 months and somehow completely forgot to look into how well my bank (account) would serve me abroad. I realized very quickly that my transaction & cash withdrawal fees could have been lower if only I had prepared this better. When you withdraw money in a foreign country with your card, you basically get charged twice: by your home bank, which might charge you a fixed fee per withdrawal, and the fee that is set by the local bank of the country you’re in. The latter can vary greatly, and it’s definitely worth shopping around for the lowest transaction/cash withdrawal fee. That fee can vary depending on your home bank, so asking other travelers doesn’t always help.

The one point I want you to take away from this is that if you do your research, you can set up a bank account in your home country with a bank that will refund you (parts of) these costs. It can save you hundreds of dollars!

Bottle with a water filter

Drinking tap water in South-America is a tricky business. There are many countries where it’s not advised to drink the water from the tap. I really wish I would have bought a water bottle with a water filter in it. The number of plastic bottles I had to buy almost made me cry….. I am only guessing that you might be able to buy such a bottle in South-America as well but I didn’t come across it so I’d get one beforehand.

Good sleeping bag & super light tent

I wish I had taken a really small lightweight sleeping bag with me. Especially in Chile and Argentina, camping can significantly lower your accommodation cost, and having a sleeping bag is super useful. It can get cold in hostels (or if you’re sleeping on the boat down the Amazon 😉 as well as on bus rides in overly air-climatized buses. Just check whether the locals are taking a blanket with them on the bus to know whether you should have something to cover you as well.

Everyone wears jeans no matter the temperature

I had read this and didn’t fully believe it. I thought people would wear much lighter clothes in the heat. That wasn’t really the case as long as you weren’t close to the beach so you might want to pack a comfy and light pair if you don’t want to stand out as a tourist/backpacker that much 😉

Let’s get into some medical points:

Some countries provide healthcare for free

Going abroad for a while, you might be thinking of how you’d pay for medical treatment.

I had a traveler’s health insurance. However, I noticed how some countries don’t charge you for hospital visits and medication. I experienced this in Argentina and heard from other travelers that they received this in Brazil and Chile as well. I’d always check the current situation per country to make sure. Also, keep in mind that many countries will provide free medical treatment in PUBLIC hospitals. If you prefer going to a private clinic (which might give you better service and treatment), then you’ll definitely be charged.

Don’t take too many pills – they are sold in individual doses at pharmacies!!!

When I went to get some vaccinations done at the tropical institute in Montreal, I was also handed a list with all the medications and equipment I should take with me on my trip. I knew, though, that you can always get any medication abroad if you need it. I wouldn’t fill up my backpack with pills and ointments’ just in case’. If you stay in populated places, then you should always have access to a pharmacy. What I liked was that in many countries, pills were sold individually, so you could actually get one headache pill instead of buying a whole package that you later wouldn’t use up.

Vaccinations are cheap

Vaccinations in South-America are a lot more affordable from what I was used to.

I would assume that generally, you’d get all your vaccinations done in your home country because otherwise, you might be denied entry to some countries (i.e., Yellow Fever vaccination in Brazil). However, in case there is a vaccination you’d need, it will not come at a high cost.

and back to some more techy pointers:

A universal charger with several USB plugs would save me so much trouble

Changing countries one after the other often meant changing power outlets one after the other. I always had to buy new adapters and wish I had brought a universal all-in-one adaptor (with a minimum of 2 USB slots) to save me from that trouble.

One SIM card– several roaming possibilities

Do your research when you buy SIM cards. You don’t necessarily need to buy a new prepaid SIM every time you switch countries. Depending on your carrier, you might be able to use roaming and pay your previous tariff. I was recommended to keep my Paraguayan SIM cards by Claro and top it up with enough money to use it in other countries. Like that, I kept paying what I paid in Paraguay, which was less than I would have e.g., spent in Argentina.

If you run out of credit, you can charge your local sim from anywhere through the website ding.com.

US dollars are the king

It never hurts to have some US Dollars in cash with you. You will always be able to exchange them, and some countries will accept payment in US dollars. Of course, this is optional, but in general, if you carry any other currency, I’d go for this one.

Argentina and money…

Argentina and money is a story on its own. Due to the high inflation over the last years, money matters are a bit tricky. What I mean by that is that a) you can only take out less than 100$ at once from an ATM and b) paying by card, especially credit card will often be refused. I’d advise bringing a lot of cash, mainly USD, so you don’t have to take out money all the time and overspend on ATM fees.

Inka and Andean highland souvenirs

The first time you come across them (I’m talking knitted bags, purses, wallets…, alpaca scarfs, etc.), you might want to buy them all. Personally, I don’t buy any but his in case you’re planning on doing so, remember: You can get pretty much the same stuff everywhere between northern Argentina (Salta/Jujuy région) up to southern Colombia. You will find all those cute authentic-looking things again, so wait for the end of this section of your trip instead of lugging it around the continent.

Last but not least:

You can buy EVERYTHING in place

Don’t panic, and spend too much time thinking about what you should take. You can, indeed, get pretty much everything you might need in any country. Don’t overpack, instead pack light, and then get what you really need when you know that you do. The only exceptions I’d do would be for expensive gear that you know will be worth carrying with you throughout the whole year. Otherwise, I’d take cheap clothes, etc. that you could leave behind if you didn’t need them anymore. You’re traveling for the experience not for what things you’re dragging around with you 😉

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