Here are just a few things you need to know and others which are nice to know before your South American backpacking adventure.
1. Spare cash in US Dollars
Hide some spare cash in your backpack (not in your day pack) just incase… You never know when it might come in handy. Not too much! Like $100-$200.
2. Planning and bookings before you leave
Don’t stress too much about this before you arrive in South America. If you plan too much you could restrict yourself and you anyway find out most things as you move from country to country and place to place. They have supermarkets to buy anything you forgot at home and there are plenty of laundromats to wash clothes.
We only booked our plane ticket (with a flexible return date) and Inca trail before we left RSA. If you want to do the original, classic Inca trail you need to book it about 6 months in advance! But there are many alternative treks to Machupicchu that you can book a day or two before the time in Cusco which we heard are also really good.
You need to find out what visas you need before you leave. We got Bolivia visas before we left (with a lot of effort) but we have heard of South Africans who didn’t have Bolivia visas and at the border they just made them pay US$50. That’s the same price we paid for our visas! But I suppose if the police at the border are in the wrong mood that day they could make things difficult for you.
Here is the post I wrote about finding out what visas are required and how to get a Bolivia visa: More on Visa requirements
4. Spanish lessons
We knew about two Spanish words when we first arrived in Peru but you learn the basics quickly. Something a lot of tourists did is a week or two of Spanish lessons. There are many schools in all the countries offering this. I heard Bolivia is the cheapest. If you have the time, I think it would be a good idea to have some Spanish lessons. Spanish is a cool language!
5. Work Away options
To save money and for an interesting experience explore options like www.workaway.info and similar sites. We had such an enjoyable 2 week work away experience in Argentina.
6. Blue exchange rate in Argentina
Find out about this before you go to Argentina! You could save quite a bit! We didn’t know about this until we got to Argentina. Basically, you get more Argentinian pesos if you take US Dollars in hard cash with you…if you draw money at the ATM you get the official rate which works out much less than exchanging hard cash. Here’s a website that explains a bit more: best exchange rate in Argentina
Excluding the plane ticket, we budgeted about US$50 per person per day. This covered accommodation, food, drinks, busses and tours. We only stayed in a shared dorm room twice, we had our own private bathroom about 50% of the time, we travelled far South in Argentina. We ate mostly at local places and avoided expensive tourist places. We also used public transport the majority of the time which is much cheaper than taxis. You could do it cheaper if you eat very little, don’t drink any alcohol, don’t travel too far and stay in shared dorms. Then of course, it could also be much more expensive!
Never get into an unofficial taxi and always settle the price before getting into any taxi.
9. Don’t throw toilet paper in the toilet
You will block the toilet if you throw toilet paper in the toilet. The paper goes into the bin next to the toilet.