Checklist

  • Ensure your passport is valid for six months past your arrival date.
  • Apply for visas well in advance.
  • Organize travel insurance.
  • Medical check-up and vaccinations.
  • Stock up on contact lenses and prescription medicines.
  • Inform banks of travel plans.
  • Scan key documents (passports, visas, credit cards) and email them to yourself in case of loss.

What to Pack

  • A week's worth of clothes
  • Rain gear (jacket, dry pack for electronics)
  • Hat (for sun and rain)
  • Good walking shoes
  • Small flip-flops (for beaches and dodgy showers)
  • Earplugs
  • Medicine/first-aid kit
  • USB drive
  • GSM mobile phone
  • Refillable water bottle
  • Sunscreen
  • Tissues (for public toilets)

Top Tips for Your Trip

  • Don't be shy. Talk to locals, who are often happy to share their culture.
  • Be prepared. Read up on destinations before you arrive; know the exchange rate. Have a map handy when arriving in a new town.
  • Slow down. Don't be in such a hurry to tick off sites that you miss the beauty in front of you.
  • Learn some Spanish and Portuguese. A little effort goes a long way.
  • Prepare for crazy driving. Pedestrians have no rights.
  • Carry valuables in a hidden money belt to prevent theft.
  • Don't overpack. You can wash clothes and purchase things you need on the road.
  • Don’t cram the whole continent into a month. Pick a country or two, and get to know it.
  • Prepare for huge contrasts in weather and terrain.

What to Wear

In general, lightweight, loose-fitting clothes will be the most comfortable options. Bring a jacket for cool highland temperatures and over-air-conditioned buses. Pants and long-sleeve shirts are handy insect protection for jungle hikes.

Sleeping

  • Hostels Dorm rooms provide cheap and social lodging for solo travelers.
  • Hotels A wide range of options, from boxy cells to flashy boutiques.
  • Guesthouses Often family-owned, guesthouses run the gamut from bare bones to lavish.
  • Homestays Live like a local in a family home.

Bargaining

Bargaining is common practice at markets and when arranging long-term accommodations.

Tipping

  • At many restaurants, the service charge (and tax) is already included in the bill.
  • Bartenders and taxi drivers are rarely tipped.
  • Taxi drivers aren't commonly tipped, though it is polite to round up the bill.
  • If you take a guided tour (to the Amazon, the Galápagos etc), it's common to tip the guide.

Language

English is not widely spoken in South America, and learning a few phrases will be be helpful in your travels. You can also plan your trip around language study: many countries offer inexpensive language-immersion classes, particularly in Ecuador. Spanish won't be much help in Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language. If you speak some Spanish, however, you'll be able to read a fair bit of Portuguese. Learn some basic phrases and pronunciation to take your skills to the next level. Many locals are quite patient with language learners, and appreciate your efforts, however rudimentary.

Etiquette

  • Greetings are important. In Spanish-speaking countries, greet people you encounter with buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon) or buenas noches (good evening). Use bom dia, boa tarde and boa noite in Brazil.
  • Always greet people when entering and exiting a shop.
  • When meeting people socially, give besos (kisses) on the cheek (both cheeks for Brazilians). Men shake hands.
  • Dress for the occasion; for example, only tourists and athletes wear shorts in Buenos Aires.
  • Ask before photographing people, particularly in indigenous communities – payment may be requested.

Destination Specific Topic

The dangers of traveling in South America are greatly exaggerated, often by people who've never been here. While there are threats, traveling sensibly will reduce your risk of becoming a victim.

  • Dress down. Leave flashy looking jewelry and designer sunglasses at home.
  • Don't use iPhones and other expensive-looking electronic devices in public.
  • Credit- and debit-card fraud is rife in Brazil. To avoid card cloning, use only high-traffic ATMs inside banks during regular opening hours.
  • In urban areas, take a taxi after dark.
  • Be mindful of walking in deserted areas.
  • Don't take valuables to the beach or leave them lying around your guestroom.
  • Don't accept food and drink from strangers. Druggings can occur.