How to Plan Your Long-Term Trip to South America
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Last summer, I started my six-month solo trip to South America and it still feels like it was yesterday. The trip to South America was the longest one I have ever done and it was challenging and rewarding at the same time.
I did not plan my trip on a short notice. In fact, I thought of visiting South America in summer 2013 and it took me four years to put this trip into reality. It involved lot of planning and preparation. If you plan to do a long-term trip to South America, here is a guide to help you plan your trip so you will make the most of your time there.
Do not book everything in advance
There might be specific places in South America you have dreamed of visiting, but remember you will spend a long time in a continent where most parts are not jam-packed with tourists in any season, which means you will have enough time to book your trip.
While Lonely Planet has some suggestions on famous places to visit, there are lots of beautiful places in South America you will probably know on arrival by talking with locals and other travelers there. In this case, it would be better to have some flexibility than to make a detailed itinerary and follow it. Moreover, if you mess up on your visa and miss your flight and the bus, you will probably spend more time canceling your booking and rebooking than actually enjoying your trip.
Before I leave for South America, I only booked a one-way flight to Bogota and my first few days of accommodation there. I had a vague idea of making it all the way to Chile and Argentina but I had no idea where I would end up. It was four months into my South America trip that I confirmed my return ticket leaving from Peru. It felt right to leave from there and the airfare was significantly cheaper than flying out from other countries.
Learn Spanish before you go
Spanish language skills are a daily necessity in South America. You can get by without speaking Spanish if you are in the capital city and tourist areas, but most locals I met did not speak English at all. Having a basic knowledge of Spanish will come in handy.
There are people taking Spanish classes after they arrived in South America because they are affordable and offer an authentic immersive experience. However, if you have time, it would be better to learn at least a basic level of Spanish before your visit.
I took group classes for half a year before I went to South America and joined the language practice group every week, which offered me a glimpse of Latin-American culture as well. You can also watch Spanish TV shows and movies on YouTube and Netflix.
If you are locked up in your day job, you can take online classes. I recommend Preply, which has local instructors who offer one-on-one language tutorials to their students through Skype and the price is affordable (Currently, I paid $10 for an hour of private Turkish class). It allows you to choose your own tutor and take classes according to your own schedule.
Related Posts that will help you plan your travels in South America:
- The Cost of Travel in Chile and How to Keep Your Expenses Low
- My First Impression of Bogota Colombia
- The Best Non-Party Hostels in South America
Several blog posts tried fantasy talking on how you can travel for a long time for free. I had a few situations where I was offered free hotel stays, did hitchhiking, and ate free meals with the locals. I am not one against budget travel, but I do not recommend that you hitchhike and couch surf just because you cannot afford to take the bus and check into a hostel, or you will put yourself in a vulnerable and desperate situation.
To be able to travel in reasonable comfort, you need to have access to funds that will cover the basic travel costs: accommodation, public transport, flights, meal costs, and selective guided tours.
If you have a job and live in developed North America and Europe, you can work hard and try to save up for your journey. I also recommend that you cut your unnecessary expenses, such as Starbucks coffees, hairdressing, and regular shopping for shoes and clothes.
You also need to be aware that not all the South-American countries are cheap to travel. If you plan to spend a few months in Chile (the most incredible country in South America in my experience) and Argentina, you need to prepare at least twice the amount of budget as that of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru combined. If you consider traveling extensively in Patagonia, then you need to be ready to blow at least half of your South America travel budget.
If your budget does not allow you to visit Chile and Argentina, you can visit more affordable destinations in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. However, you need to consider if you want to fork out hundreds of dollars into famous treks like Lost City and Inca Trail.
If you are on a shoestring, you can work on the road to sustain your trip. For resources on how to work from the road, you can check out this great post here.
Level of Fitness
A long-term trip to South America requires that you have a moderate level of fitness in order to do trekking activities. The level of physical fitness will either make or break your hiking trip. It is good to have a basic idea of what will be expected of you during these trips.
These usually involve multiple-day hikes at a high altitude level, walking 12 to 21 kilometers per day on the mountains, and night camping with limited access to basic shower and cleaning facilities. For instance, you may trek 21 kilometers one day on the Inca Trail and reach 4,000 meters high and there will hardly be any flat areas during the entire trek. If you walk very slowly, are prone to altitude sickness, and are not able to finish the required distance in a day, you will struggle and that can add lots of stress to your body.
If you are getting behind during your multiple-day group trek, I mean really behind, it will involve a ride on the horses or mules, or an indirect request of turning back by your tour guide. In that case, you will not only need to pay extra for your return trip but also have a not-so-good experience.
If you plan to do the multiple day trekking tour, I suggest you to train your body few months in advance by jogging, swimming, hiking and going for fast and long walks. Multiple-day trekking tour in South America is challenging for everybody, but at least you need to get your fitness level up so you would be better prepared for your trip.
There are many gorgeous day hikes that cannot be missed. Most of the day hikes do not require a tour and you can walk at your own pace. This is less stressful, as you do not have to complete walking a certain distance in a given timeframe, but most day hikes can be challenging in parts.
For my trips in Patagonia, I would go out in a remote area in the mountains, then do a few hours of hiking. The weather is always changeable and the trail can be muddy and steep in parts so it is not good for people who have knee problems. For the mountains at a high altitude level, I recommend that you take the time to acclimatize before you start the hike, drink lots of water, and listen to your body.
Another preparation for your departure is to make sure you have the required travel documents with you. You need to purchase plane tickets, set aside emergency cash, and buy travel insurance. I purchased my travel insurance from the World Nomads and it is affordable and the service is reliable.
Some countries require you to have a return or onward ticket as part of entry requirements. In this case, you can purchase an onward ticket or you can rent one-way online tickets for $20-$30 on OneWayFly.com.
Please note that an onward ticket is only required if you cross the border by airplane. I have never been asked for this document when I travel overland.
If you are traveling for a few months or a year, you will want to pack as lightly as possible.
Take your travel documents and only your necessary possessions, and try to put them into one suitcase or backpack. I did not have any checked-in luggage when I left for South America. I only took a carry-on-sized suitcase and a big purse, which meant I could easily get around on my own. If you travel long term, having few possessions will make your moving easier and save extra costs on cabs and checked-in luggage.
You will certainly purchase extra things and souvenirs for your family and friends. For this reason, you either need to leave extra space in your suitcase or bring an extra one. I purchased a foldable duffel bag to put in my suitcase. It only took up minimal space and it allows me to bring more items back.
Have courage and stick to your guns
In some countries, quitting your job and taking a few months to travel around South America is not the norm. Lots of South-American countries have suffered a bad reputation and lots of people still feel unsafe to travel there.
Friends and family members who have not been to South America will worry about your safety and question your plans, but if you really want to make this trip happen, you have to stick to your guns and take action. From my experience, South America is a lot safer than you expect it to be and you will meet lots of interesting people along the way, and some of them have been on the road longer than you, so suddenly you will realize your long-term travel plans do not look like something out of the norm.
Overcome your fears
When you first plan your trip to South America, you will be excited. I had thought of visiting South America in 2013 and I remember my excitement the day I decided to take Spanish classes because I really knew I was going to do it.
I had estimated the months I would be arriving in South America and booked my flight tickets six months beforehand and pictured myself traveling through this amazing continent.
However, two weeks before my trip, my initial thrill turned into trepidation and I started feeling overwhelmed. I have lived abroad for ten years and traveled solo most of the time, but this was my first big trip and South America, for me, was a mysterious place. The fear of the unknown and the worrying and questioning coming from my loved ones gave me some negative thoughts. I remember calling a friend 10 hours before the trip and telling her how I felt. I had entered this “why I am doing this and how I am going to make this trip” phase.
However, the moment I set my feet in Colombia, my feelings of fear and worry faded away. I sat in the back of the cab and looked at the buildings and streets and felt it really was a dream come true.
Lastly, to help you prepare for your journey to South America, I have written dozens of articles about South America on this blog since last year. They are a mixture of destination features, personal narratives, and travel tips and guides. They will help you to go through the initial excitement, to plan your trip and overcome your fears, and to make the most out of your trip.
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