South America has become a favoured destination for the intrepid backpacker, and while it’s impressive in the astounding diversity of its nations, there are a number of universal lessons that every traveller will learn at some point during their time here.
So whether you fell foul of altitude or accepted that you – inevitably – suck at Latino dancing, here are some of the other life-enhancing lessons you might learn from backpacking South America.
1. You never have the right clothes
Nowhere has such an erratic climate as South America: from 95% humidity along the equator, to sub-zero temperatures in the southern tip of Patagonia. Throw altitude into the mix, and it’s game over: expect weather that switches from hailstones to scorching sun within minutes.
2. You have no choice but to embrace crimes against fashion
Similar to Southeast Asia, where the backpacker uniform is unofficial, yet widely recognised, South American travellers commit their own cardinal fashion sins. While alpaca jumpers paired with leggings and flip flops might seem a comfortable, low-maintenance outfit, everyone has the same idea.
3. Don’t mess with altitude
Walking at altitude hurts. The aftermath of alcohol at altitude hurts. In fact, everything at altitude hurts.
4. Any moving vehicle is a potential form of transportation
Tuk-tuks, cargo boats, transit vans without opening windows, trucks carrying gas canisters, metal sheeting or livestock: you name it, you’ll take it. Anything goes in South America and you’ll find yourself sorely disappointed when you get home and can’t just flag down a lorry on the main road.
5. You appreciate the little things in life – particularly after surviving the showers
You develop lightning-fast responses to the capricious temperament of a South American shower: a Superman-style ability to dodge scalding or freezing water.
6. Flushing toilets are a godsend
“No tirar papel higiénico en el inodoro.” Oh how you’ll come to loath these sellotaped notices. You’ll to rue the day you stepped onto South American soil and left the lands of sewage pipes large enough to cope with flushed toilet paper. Worse still, it may take you a good few days to correct yourself of this practice upon returning home…oops.
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7. A little language goes a long way
You can try using English, but will see what a better – friendlier and cheaper – response you receive when you use the local lingo. Bueno, no?
8. You no longer underestimate the size of this continent
While a three-week mega tour hitting Lima, La Paz, Santiago, Buenos Aires and ending in Rio de Janeiro looks perfect on paper, you’ll spend most of your holiday inert on buses, planes, and airport floors. South America is huge: after some time here, you’ll understand that travelling at a leisurely pace is the more rewarding, and sensible option. (We've got some itineraries to help you start planning.)
9. The Four Carb Rule
Pasta and potato in your soup? Check. Spaghetti and rice in your main? Check. It’s an unwritten South American rule that all menus of the day need to offer at least four independent types of carbohydrate to be registered as a proper meal.
10. Liquids in bags is a thing
Fresh juice from the market to take away comes in a plastic bags. Coffee to go? Yup: a warm bag of liquid with a straw. ¡Qué rico!
11. Loose change has never felt so precious
Trying to hand over a hundred soles note to a Peruvian shop owner is like trying to dispose of a live grenade. Guarding small change with your life will lead to fewer frustrating moments in shops, and guarantee you always have the a coin for the toilet – an added (and necessary) bonus.
12. Latin dancing is not your forte
Let’s face it, the locals make salsa look so damn easy, but only because they’ve been putting their snake-hips into action since six-months-old. Given there’s nothing less sexy than a gringo with no rhythm, you quit while you’re ahead and turn to the pisco sours and caipirinhas for consolation.
13. You’ve never partied properly until you’ve experienced carnival on its home turf
14. You get what you pay for
By paying for a cheap tour of the Amazon, or a budget Inca Trail trek, everything has a price and a consequence for those involved: whether low wages for the porters who lug your rucksack, or that jungle tour where they handle the wild animals they should be protecting. You use this power wisely, hunting for responsible agencies seeking to protect, rather than abuse, the possibilities that South America has to offer.
15. South America isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience
Whether it’s the legacy of the conquistadores, civil wars, corrupt governments or natural disasters, South American people have seen their fair share of hardship. But, despite this, the welcoming nature of everyone you encounter defies all odds and proves how this complex but fascinating continent deserves your time. One visit just isn’t enough: you know you’ll be back.
Explore more of South America with The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.