Travel in South America
April 13, 2010 9:15 PM   Subscribe

What should I know before backpacking across South America? Experienced travelers' advice needed!

I'm a student leaving in two months for a trip running from early June to mid-August. I'll be flying in to Peru and making my way across the continent to Montevideo. however I can. I'm going with two other people (all three of us are male). We are going through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. We've got about 20-30$ to spend per day, and access to more in the event of emergencies.

But whenever I tell people I'm going on this trip, they tell me, "be safe." What are they talking about? I know we need to watch out for dangerous criminals, dirty water, and maybe altitude sickness , but millions of people live their whole lives in these countries. Especially because all three of us speak Spanish well, I have a hard time believing this trip will be fraught with hazards. But please- humor me. What should I watch out for? Of course, I'd like to know about the awesome and amazing parts, too. That's what we're travelling for. But I'd like if somebody could give me an idea of what the legitimate concerns I should keep in mind are.
posted by barbudo to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
In two trips to Peru ~30 years ago, I got altitude sickness the first time and was in a bus accident in which a number of people were killed the second time. After the accident, the locals stole a lot of my stuff.

I *love* Peru, but be careful, especially with buses. Things may be better now.
posted by lukemeister at 9:24 PM on April 13, 2010

I've been travelling in South America for the last 18 months and have been to all the countries you mention plus a few you don't! To be honest, being robbed either without knowing it or being held up are the two greatest risks. There are several basics you can follow which reduce the risk, but you will always stand out as the gringo so you will always be a target to some extent.

You will hear a lot of advice, and a lot of stories and the important thing is not to lose perspective and let fear of crime and general safety overshadow your preparation and anticipation.

I have a lot more info I can share, so when I have more time tomorrow I'll add more to this post, or drop you a meMail.
posted by jontyjago at 9:58 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

"But please- humor me. What should I watch out for?"

Based on a friend's experience...

If you meet a local, don't bring them back to a hotel room. You might wake up to a 16-year old "cop" brandishing an M-16 in your face and hauling you off to jail to rot, until sufficient funds have been extracted.

Know the local laws in the areas you are traveling to, because you don't want to go to the local jails. You just don't.
posted by markkraft at 12:02 AM on April 14, 2010

More than one South American pointed out to me that I would have been more likely to have died by being shot while travelling in "safe" North America than while in the south; paranoia runs in both directions.

One activity that is sufficiently more likely to kill or badly injure you is travelling by by rail, air and (especially) road. You can't avoid this - but I might be worth thinking twice before climbing into a particularly rickety looking taxi, bus or plane - or when choosing between a route with a bad accident record and one which looks OK.
posted by rongorongo at 12:38 AM on April 14, 2010

Pick up a copy of The Gift of Fear. Would be best if all 3 of you could read it before you go. I haven't spent much time in South America, but I hope to live there someday soon. I do currently live and work in a number of 3rd-world contexts in Africa, and have also been working in Haiti, and yeah - I'd pretty much boil my advice to you down to the same 2 words you are getting: be safe.

- Don't drink the water (or brush your teeth with it, also try to keep your mouth closed when showering). If you have to, find a way to boil it first. Bringing a bunch of water purification tablets is not a bad idea. This includes not taking ice in your drinks, drinking local juices, basically anything not coming out of a soda bottle, water bottle, or can.
- Be careful with uncooked foods, specifically fruits and veg washed in local water.
- Have some Cipro with you in case you fail on the above two.
- Consider taking some of your own needles with you - can get them at pharmacies and there's a chance you could end up at a clinic where you'd really want your own safe needles.
- If some of your adventures range into the sexual, you will hopefully use the same precautions you would elsewhere, but you should also be aware of the *much* higher HIV prevalence in many 3rd-world contexts.
- Be careful with bodies of water you jump into. They can have nasty critters that could hurt you externally (i.e. piranha) or internally (i.e. bilharzia).
- Wear sufficient footwear and keep your feet washed. You have a higher likelihood of stepping in something that could get into your system in many of these places.
- Best if you can have an SOS medical evacuation insurance card for each member of the trip. Something as simple as a broken leg can become life-threatening if you get it in a place where you can't get decent medical services.

- Avoid displaying flashy clothes / luggage / jewelery / electronics, especially in crowded situations. I've always scoffed at my mom and her traveler's money belts, but I carry my wallet in a front pocket where I can easily keep a hand over it - YMMV.
- Try to not carry more cash than you can afford to lose at any one time, but this is of course difficult to manage.
- Keep your head about you. Don't be a gawking tourist, don't draw attention to yourself. Pause to take in a situation, see what people are where, do a casual threat-assessment. Just take stock of your surroundings regularly and don't let something flashy distract you from where you are and what you're doing.
- Your life is more important than anything you own - if faced with threat of physical harm, just give them what they want and get the hell out.
- Keep an eye on your drinks if out at clubs / bars, watch them being poured and then keep them where you can see them and be sure nobody's adding anything unwanted.

General safety:
- Avoid local transport options as much as possible. You take your life in your hands when you get in any vehicle in the 3rd world, but much more so when you put it in another driver's hands.
- If driving, drive very aggressively and extremely defensively. I like to say that I drive offensively. Most other drivers do not have the level of training and certification that you will and will pose a real threat - many aren't even licensed. Driving after dark or in inclement weather should be avoided.
- Avoid large crowds / demonstrations / political events. Keep abreast of local news and stay out of hairy situations.
- Being out after dark is generally a bad idea. Being out alone even more so. Drunk, even worse.
- If doing climbing / hiking / other types of outdoors exploring, be cognizant of the fact that you're probably doing it somewhere without a significant park-ranger / local search and rescue outfit waiting to come find you if you get in a scrape. Explore accordingly.

That's what comes to mind off the top of my head, but there's a lot more, most of which you can only learn by being there (that's half the fun of it). Keeping your head on you won't always give you the most engaging or most "local" experience, but it is the safest route to go, even when it means saying no to some things you might otherwise have wanted to try. You will be a target in these places, and those who fare the best are those who remember that and act accordingly.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:41 AM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

As for crossing Argentina, as a local I would advise you to pay close attention to your valuables, documentation and gadgets (phones, cameras, etc). We have very skilled career thieves that specialize on such things, and their nose for detecting the unknowing foreign tourists is uncanny. Resisting the theft is a very very bad idea, no matter if you're three males: these guys tend to be very violent and usually armed. It's a good thing you are crossing our northern parts during winter, since it seems we have now developed dengue fever in those parts as endemic during the warmer months, thanks to the complete fuckup our government has made of handling the outbreaks of dengue last summer. On the nicer parts, see if you can't detour southwards to the Sierras of Cordoba before going east to Montevideo, there's tons to see and do around that area.
posted by Iosephus at 1:50 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of your preparation is going to depend on the type of person you are. You can overthink every potentially bad situation and plan for it. Or you can get some good travel insurance beforehand and whilst you're there figure out a method that works for you of protecting your valuables (passport and cards being number 1) whilst travelling and in hostels.

I'm very much the second type and touch wood I've not had a single problem in 18 months. The basic for buses is don't put anything valuable into the hold and don't put your bag in the rack above you. Apart from that you'll figure it out.

Yes, buses in South America are a little wild compared to our Western eyes, and yes there will be times your life flashes before your eyes as you veer round a bend on a mountain pass on the wrong side of the road (it does happen) but to be honest, there's not much you can do except make sure you buy your tickets in the terminal from a company with a big nice shiny office and not some guy in the street. But even then, it will still happen. Having said that, the worst buses I've experienced have been in Colombia, Ecuador and Northern Peru. Buses in Argentina are fantastic, safe and comfortable, in Peru use Cruzero del Sur (I think). Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay are a little more "rustic", but distances are generally shorter.

As for the fun stuff - well, where to start?

Peru - Macchu Pichu, Cuzco, Lima, Ica, Nazca, Arequipa - there's plenty of Peru advice on AskMe, there was a MP one a few days ago.
Bolivia - Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, La Paz, The Most Dangerous Road in the World, Sucre, Potosi (highest town in the world), Uyuni and the Salar de Uyuni (one of the most amazing things you will see in your life)
From Uyuni you can get to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and from there get to Salta in Argentina, a detour but worth it. Or alternatively, enter Argentina through La Quiaca and travel down the Quebedra de Huamawuaca (sp?) which is beautiful.
Argentina itself is huge and there is a LOT to do. You'll probably be sticking to the top half so there's Salta, Jujuy, Mendoza, Cordoba, Iguazu and of course Buenos Aires .
Paraguay, if I'm brutally honest, does not have much for the backpacker - unless there is a specific reason, save your time for other places.
Uruguay is a nice place, close to Buenos Aires (3 hrs by boat) and worth a few days if you have time left!

Um, I think that's about it to start with! Feel free to mail me with any specific questions, and let me know when you get to Buenos Aires, we can have a mini-meetup! Suerte!
posted by jontyjago at 7:27 AM on April 14, 2010

People have attempted to rob us twice in South America.

We avoided the kid robbery because we hold our pockets shut with unobtrusive safety pins and that slowed them down enough we could get out of there.

The second time, a guy was waiting along a path trying to trick people into going down a more deserted trail. We avoided this one by 1) knowing where we needed to be and 2) being scary ourselves (big people with knives. They're little knives, and they're more for hiking needs than safety, but when my husband very casually moved his jacket like a mobster showing off a gun, that's when the guy hared off.) Once we got the creepy guy to go, we got within ear shot of a larger group of tourists and stayed there until we were safely out of the area.

General advice that's kept us safe so far: whenever you get to a new town, before you leave the airport or the bus station, ask the locals what taxis it's safe to take. In some cities, you always want to call for a taxi. In some cities, there's a trick to telling the legal from the illegal. In some cities, you can just flag them down or a museum or policeman can flag them down for you. Talk to your hotel, ask them what is and isn't safe. Don't trust people who strike up strange conversations out of the blue. They're probably just happy to practice their English, but don't be stupid and go off with them or buy something. This doesn't lock you off from meeting real people, but it protects you from the obvious scams. Trust your gut. The more touristy an area is, the more we expect pickpockets and scams. When we travel, if we're not alone in a safe space with locks, one of us is always "in charge" - awake and alert. We don't look rich when we travel, and we don't quite look like backpackers either. Pack a pair of blue jeans. When we wore blue jeans in Peru, if we kept our mouths shut we could pass as South American. When we wore our travel pants with the zip off legs and dry fast fabric, we didn't. Being able to pass on a first glance is worth the weight of the denim. Always look like you know where you're going - memorize maps before you go out, always know what direction you want to head in, and if you MUST pull out a map and consult, try to do it unobtrusively. Remember, you don't have to look like a local, you just don't want to look as touristy as the obvious tourists. There will be places you'll stick out no matter what you do, but if you look confident, you'll attract less harassment. Don't be afraid to be rude if the situation calls for it.

I wouldn't travel without a cell phone anymore. Everyone expects you to have one, and they minimize the times where you're vulnerable. Get the kind where you can pick up a new SIM card in every country.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:51 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

It never fails, you hit post and think of something else.

No matter what you do, assume that you'll get robbed some day. Mitigate this - have copies of important documents stored back at the hotel and online (google docs is good for this.) Have money hidden somewhere (in your shoe, in your underwear, sew a hidden pocket inside your pants between your pants and your pocket) so even if your wallet is gone, you can get a taxi ride back to the hotel. Don't travel with large amounts of cash on your person. Travel with alternate forms of money. Don't travel with anything you can't lose. Get insurance for your camera if it's nice enough it'd hurt if it were taken. Before we leave home, we transfer the majority of our money out of the bank account with the ATM card we're taking, so even if we're kidnapped and driven to every ATM in the city, there's a limit to how much can be taken. We call our bank and our credit card company to tell them we'll be traveling between such and such dates and they should deny any charges made outside those dates.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:59 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I took a similar trip 2 years ago - except I was 22, female, traveling alone, and with only rudimentary spanish at the beginning. I got the exact same reactions you have received when telling friends or family of my plans - I think that most people don't know what else to say, and you're doing something that they find scary because it's unknown to them. It's well established that people's perception of risk is not very well calibrated to the statistics =)

I had a fantastic time, and never felt *personally* unsafe - I only really worried about minimizing the risk of rape/murder/kidnapping, and accepted ahead of time that I'd likely be a victim of petty crime. I wholeheartedly recommend the sort of travel you're proposing. It helped me to do all my worrying in advance, which allows me to relax and enjoy wherever I'm at. Figure out what sort of uncertainty y'all are comfortable with - some people need to have a day-by-day itinerary all arranged, while others are OK not knowing what city they'll be sleeping in tomorrow night. I happen to fall in the later camp, and it sounds like you may too.

I traveled by bus all over Argentina, then used a mixture of bus/train/plane to get from northern Argentina through Bolivia and into/around Peru. So ... I can only speak to half the countries on your list, and my info is a few years out of date.

Here's what comes to the top of my head: (I'm undoubtedly repeating lots of the good advice above...)

* be sure to check out the state department's travel warnings, and keep on top of local news. US news will sensationalize events and you shouldn't base your safety judgments on it, since it lacks all sorts of important nuances/details.

* in the same vein - talk to the locals! I always asked hostel staff about safe/unsafe neighborhoods. Also - strikes happen all the time, so be prepared for your travel to be delayed.

* don't forget your vaccinations. Several countries require you to show proof of Yellow Fever vaccination for entry. Similarly, it would suck to get malaria. If possible, find a travel doc and talk to them. IIRC, I took doxycycline for malaria prophylaxis, and got vaccinations for HepA, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Tetanus. Rabies was too expensive (but endemic, and there are stray animals ALL OVER), so I made sure I could afford an emergency flight back to the states in case of animal bite. You should check the CDC's travel site for more region-specific info.

* you mention water - I brought iodine tablets as a backup, and mainly drank bottled water. I did risk drinking the tap water in a few places w/o getting burned. I'm mostly vegetarian, so I also risked some fresh produce, because I'd have gone crazy otherwise. (this is not generally recommended ... if you cook it or peel it, it's probably safe) Remember that ice cubes aren't safe either.

* make sure somebody knows what your plans are and when to expect contact from you next. Worried parents actually appreciate being assigned this chore ... I e-mailed my dad my hostel/bus info whenever I figured it out. As he put it, he didn't want to be calling the state department with no more info than that his daughter didn't make her flight home, and was somewhere in South America.

* the same person should have backup copies of all your important documents: passport, credit card info, vaccination records, prescriptions ...

* it's really easy to get a local pay-as-you-go cellphone (or just a sim card), but not necessary, due to the prevalence of locutorios (places you can pay for computer/phone use)

* I did have a lot of my stuff stolen, in short because I was an idiot. This wasn't a big deal, mainly because I had an extra credit card hidden in my shoe, my dad was able to email me a copy of my passport, and I had packed assuming that I would lose anything I brought along. No laptop, no expensive camera, etc... I did have to get myself back to Buenos Aires and visit the US Consulate for a new passport, but the turnaround time was like 2 hours, and there was an entrepreneurial dude out front with a polaroid camera =) It was actually harder to find replacement toric contact lenses ... If this happens to you, getting a police report is VITAL.

* It may be easier / less stressful to get your Bolivian visa ahead of time, to avoid being hassled at the border. You should be able to do this easily in Lima. If you're from the States, it'll cost you $100. It's worth it. I should have spent more time there.

* The buses were awesome - ONLY use the main carriers, and if you can afford it, go for the Coche Cama seats, which allow you to fully recline/sleep. In Peru, the bus stations xray/wand everything and everybody, which was a bit unnerving. Bolivian buses were much less luxurious/well organized, but still managed to get people where they needed to go.

* I only planned the first week out ahead of time, which was unnecessary (well, it helped to calm my dad down). You'd be fine with a plane ticket + credit card + somewhere lined up to sleep the first night. It's a lot easier to make travel arrangements once you're in the country itself. For example, in Bolivia, the only way I could get the train tickets I wanted was to show up at the station *that morning*. I usually bought my bus tickets at most one day before travel, and often made hostel reservations after arriving in the city - all the bus stations had locutorios, which I used to make reservations.

* bring a Visa or MasterCard ... AmEx isn't nearly as universal as I could have wished (but has AWESOME customer service)

* the ATMs have ridiculously low per-transaction withdrawal limits, which means I paid more than expected to get access to my money.

* be careful with taxis. Always use registered ones, from a taxi stand if possible. It varies by country, but flagging one down on the street can be dangerous. This is another case where asking the staff at your hostel for advice is a good idea.

* the Footprint travel guides are awesome - they placed more emphasis on my interests than Lonely Planed seemed to.

* relax, be flexible with your plans, and have fun!!

Sorry - I tried to keep this short and relevant to your concerns, but certainly failed on the first count. hIf you want more details about anything in particular, just ask.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:59 AM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Join the Metafilter CouchSurfing group! It looks like we only have one member in South America right now, but I think we used to have a couple more. You never know when it may come in handy.
posted by Demogorgon at 4:43 PM on April 14, 2010

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