In general, South America is not well set up for travelers with disabilities, but the more modernized Cono Sur (Southern Cone; a collective term for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and parts of Brazil and Paraguay) countries are more accommodating – notably Chile, Argentina and the bigger cities of Brazil. For city travel, Santiago is the most accessible city in South America. Things are slowly improving in some places, particularly in Ecuador, which now has a president who uses a wheelchair.
Unfortunately, cheap local lodgings probably won't be well equipped to deal with physically challenged travelers; air travel will be more feasible than most local buses (although this isn't impossible); and well-developed tourist attractions will be more accessible than off-the-beaten-track destinations. Start your research with the following websites:
Lonely Planet (http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel) Free Accessible Travel guides.
Emerging Horizons (www.emerginghorizons.com) Features well-written articles and regular columns full of handy advice.
Go Wheel the World (http://gowheeltheworld.com) Chile-based outfit that leads excellent adventure tours. Check the website for inspiring documentaries about traveling off the beaten path.
Mobility International (www.miusa.org) This US-based outfit advises travelers with disabilities and runs educational-exchange programs overseas.
Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (www.disabilityrightsuk.org) Good resource for travelers from the UK.
Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (www.sath.org) Good, general travel information; based in the USA.
Bargaining is accepted and expected when contracting long-term accommodations and when shopping for craft goods in markets. Haggling is a near sport in the Andean countries, with patience, humor and respect serving as the ground rules of the game. Bargaining is much less common in the Cono Sur (Southern Cone; a collective term for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and parts of Brazil and Paraguay).
Dangers & Annoyances
To avoid becoming a victim, use common sense and take general precautions throughout South America:
- Carry only the minimum cash needed when out for the day.
- Dress down, leave the jewelry at home and don’t walk around flashing iPhones, iPads and other expensive electronics.
- Be alert and walk purposefully. Criminals home in on dopey, hesitant, disoriented-looking individuals.
- Use ATMs inside buildings. Before doing so, be very aware of your surroundings.
- Check windows and doors of your room for security, and don’t leave anything valuable lying around.
Confidence Tricks & Scams
Keep your wits about you if nefarious substances (mustard, bird droppings, human excrement) are thrown upon you followed by the appearance of someone who lends a helping hand – while others steal your belongings. Other scams to be aware of involve a quantity of cash being 'found' on the street, whereby the do-gooder tries to return it to you; elaborate hard-luck stories from supposed travelers; and 'on-the-spot fines' by bogus police. Be especially wary if one or more 'plainclothes' cops demand to search your luggage or examine your documents, traveler's checks or cash. Insist that you will allow this only at an official police station or in the presence of a uniformed officer, and don't allow anyone to take you anywhere in a taxi or unmarked car. Thieves often work in pairs to distract you while lifting your wallet. Simply stay alert.
And now a word from your mother: marijuana and cocaine are big business in parts of South America. They are available in many places but illegal everywhere, apart from Uruguay (where smoking marijuana is legal but non-Uruguayans are not allowed to buy it). Indulging can either land you in jail or worse. Unless you're willing to take these risks, avoid illegal drugs.
Beware that drugs are sometimes used to set up travelers for blackmail and bribery. Avoid any conversation with someone proffering drugs. If you're in an area where drug trafficking is prevalent, ignore it entirely, with conviction.
In Bolivia and Peru, chewing coca leaves or drinking maté de coca (coca-leaf-infused tea) may help alleviate some of effects of altitude. Keep in mind, though, that transporting coca leaves over international borders is illegal.
The Pacific Rim 'ring of fire' loops through eastern Asia, Alaska and all the way down through the Americas to Tierra del Fuego in a vast circle of earthquake and volcanic activity that includes the whole Pacific side of South America. Volcanoes usually give some notice before blowing and are therefore unlikely to pose any immediate threat to travelers. Earthquakes, however, are not uncommon, occur without warning and can be very serious. The last big one in the region was an 7.8-magnitude quake that hit the northern coast of Ecuador in 2016, and over 600 people died. Andean construction rarely meets seismic safety standards; adobe buildings are particularly vulnerable. If you're in an earthquake, take shelter in a doorway or dive under a table; don't go outside.
Police & Military
In some places you may encounter corrupt officials who are not beyond enforcing minor regulations in the hopes of extracting a bribe.
If you are stopped by 'plainclothes policemen,' never get into a vehicle with them. Don't give them any documents or show them any money, and don't take them to your hotel. If the police appear to be the real thing, insist on going to a police station on foot.
The military often maintains considerable influence, even under civilian governments. Avoid approaching military installations, which may display warnings such as 'No stopping or photographs – the sentry will shoot.' In the event of a coup or other emergency, state-of-siege regulations suspend civil rights. Always carry identification and be sure someone knows your whereabouts. Contact your embassy or consulate for advice.
Theft can be a problem, but remember that fellow travelers can also be accomplished crooks, so where there's a backpacker scene, there may also be thievery. Here are some common-sense suggestions to limit your liability:
- A small padlock is useful for securing your pack zippers and hostel door, if necessary. Twist ties, paper clips or safety pins can be another effective deterrent when used to secure your pack zippers.
- Even if you're just running down the hall, never leave your hotel door unlocked.
- Always conceal your money belt and its contents, preferably beneath your clothing.
- Keep your spending money separate from the big stuff (credit cards, tickets etc).
- Be aware of the risk of bag slashing and the theft of your contents on buses. Keep close watch on your belongings – the bag isn't safe under your seat, above your head or between your legs (it's better on your lap). Be mindful in crowded markets or terminals where thefts are more likely to occur.
- When exploring cities, consider ditching the daypack and carrying what you need in a plastic bag to deter potential thieves.
Some countries and areas are more dangerous than others. The more dangerous places warrant extra care, but don't feel you should avoid them altogether. Venezuela, especially Caracas and anywhere near the Colombian border, is particularly volatile. Colombia is much safer than it has been in years, but certain regions are still off-limits. The northern border region of Ecuador, specifically in the Oriente, can be dodgy due to guerrilla activity. Travelers have been assaulted at remote and even well-touristed archaeological sites, primarily in Peru; stay informed. La Paz (Bolivia), Caracas (Venezuela), Rio and São Paulo (Brazil) and Quito (Ecuador) are all notorious for assaults on tourists.
Be careful when taking taxis. 'Express' kidnappings occur in some cities, like La Paz (Bolivia). These incidents involve whisking travelers to far-off neighborhoods and holding them there while their ATM accounts are emptied; sometimes assaults have also occurred. We've noted in individual country chapters the known places that pose this kind of risk to travelers. To be on the safe side, have your guesthouse call you a taxi rather than hailing one on the street, and use official taxis at airports rather than those outside the gates. And never ride in a vehicle that already has a passenger in it.
There are loads of great adrenaline activities on offer, from rafting to mountain biking, but do your research on an agency before joining a tour. Travelers have lost their lives owing to poorly maintained equipment and reckless, ill-prepared guides. It's never wise to choose an operator based on cost alone. In Bolivia, for instance, the mine tours in Potosí, bike trips outside La Paz and the 4x4 excursions around Salar de Uyuní have become so hugely popular that some agencies are willing to forgo safety. Talk to other travelers, check out equipment and meet with guides before committing to anything.
Lonely Planet has received correspondence from travelers who were unwittingly drugged and robbed after accepting food from a stranger.
Be very careful in bars as there are occasional reports of folks being unwittingly drugged then raped or robbed. Always keep a close eye on your drink, and be cautious when meeting new friends.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smarttraveller.gov.au)
- British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories)
- US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)
Discrimination in South America – and it's a different beast in every country – is complex and full of contradictions. The most serious reports of racism experienced by travelers have been from black travelers who were denied access to nightclubs, in some cases until the door person realized they were foreigners. Some black travelers describe experiencing genuine curiosity from people who simply aren't used to seeing folks of black African descent. Brazil, with its huge Afro-Brazilian population, is among the most welcoming places for travelers of color.
An HI-USA membership card can be useful in some places (particularly in Brazil, where there are dozens of HI-affiliated lodging options.
An International Student Identity Card (ISIC) can provide discounted admission to archaeological sites and museums. It may also entitle you to reductions on bus, train and air tickets. In less developed countries, student discounts are rare, although high-ticket items such as the entrance to Machu Picchu (discounted nearly 50% for ISIC holders under 26) may be reduced. In some countries, such as Argentina, almost any form of university identification will suffice where discounts are offered.
Electricity is not standard across South America. Voltage ranges from 100 to 240V, with the most common plug types being flat-pronged American style and rounded European style.
Embassies & Consulates
As a visitor in a South American country, it's important to realize what your own embassy – the embassy of the country of which you are a citizen – can and cannot do. Generally speaking, it won't be much help in emergencies where you're even remotely at fault. Remember that you are bound by the laws of the country you are in. Your embassy will not be sympathetic if you end up in jail after committing a crime locally, even if such actions are legal in your own country.
In genuine emergencies you may get some assistance, but only if other channels have been exhausted. For example, if you have all your money and documents stolen, it might assist in getting a new passport, but a loan for onward travel will be out of the question.
For embassy and consulate addresses and phone numbers, see each country's Directory section.
Emergency & Important Numbers
There is no continent-wide emergency number.
Entry & Exit Formalities
Visitors from the US and some other countries require visas (best arranged in advance) when visiting Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. Make sure you have enough blank pages in your passport, and that it will be valid for six months beyond your proposed entry date to each country.
Customs vary slightly from country to country, but you can generally bring in personal belongings, camera gear, laptops, handheld devices and other travel-related gear. All countries prohibit the export (just as home countries prohibit the import) of archaeological items and goods made from rare or endangered animals. Avoid carrying plants, seeds, fruits and fresh meat products across borders.
Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months beyond the projected end of your trip and has plenty of blank pages for stamp-happy officials. Carrying a photocopy of your passport (so you can leave the original in your hotel) is sometimes enough if you're walking around a town, but always have the original if you travel anywhere (never get on a bus leaving town without it).
Visas are sometimes required, or in some cases other charges must be paid, for example for reciprocity fees or tourist cards.
Some travelers – including those from the USA – may require visas to enter several countries, including Bolivia and Brazil. Arrange these well in advance of your departure. Some countries don't generally require visas but may require a reciprocity fee (such as the $117 fee Chile charges to Australian travelers), paid upon arrival. If no visa is required, a tourist card is issued upon arrival. See individual countries for more details. Suriname charges U$35 for a tourist card, available upon arrival if flying in; if coming overland, get this from a Surinamese embassy before heading to the border.
Carry a handful of passport-sized photos for visa applications. Hold onto any entry-exit cards you are given. There can be serious fines and complications if you lose them!
If you need a visa for a country and arrive at a land border without one, be prepared to backtrack to the nearest town with a consulate to get one. Airlines won't normally let you board a plane for a country to which you don't have the necessary visa. Also, a visa in itself does not guarantee entry: you may still be turned back at the border if you don't have 'sufficient funds' or an onward or return ticket.
Onward or Return Tickets
Some countries require you to have a ticket out of their country before they will admit you at the border, grant you a visa or let you board their national airline. The onward or return ticket requirement can be a major nuisance for travelers who want to fly into one country and travel overland through others. Officially, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Suriname and French Guiana demand onward tickets, but only sporadically enforce it. Still, if you arrive in one of the countries technically requiring an onward ticket or sufficient funds and a border guard is so inclined, he or she can enforce these rules (yet another reason to be courteous and neatly dressed at border crossings).
While proof of onward or return tickets is rarely asked for by South American border officials, airline officials, especially in the US, sometimes refuse boarding passengers with one-way tickets who cannot show proof of onward or return travel or proof of citizenship (or residency) in the destination country. One way around this is to purchase a cheap, fully refundable ticket out of the country and cash it in after your arrival. The downside is that the refund can take up to three months. Before purchasing the ticket, you should also ask specifically where you can get a refund, as some airlines will only refund tickets at the office of purchase or at their head office.
Any ticket out of South America plus sufficient funds are usually an adequate substitute for an onward ticket. Having a major credit card or two may help.
Sufficient funds are often technically required but rarely asked for. Immigration officials may ask (verbally or on the application form) about your financial resources. If you lack 'sufficient funds' for your proposed visit, officials may limit the length of your stay, but once you are in the country, you can usually extend your visa by producing a credit card or two.
- Greetings These 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.
- Shops Always greet people when entering and exiting a shop.
- Cheek kissing When meeting people socially, give besos (kisses) on the cheek (both cheeks for Brazilians). Men shake hands.
- Shorts Dress for the occasion; for example, only tourists and athletes wear shorts in Buenos Aires.
- Photographs Ask before photographing people, particularly in indigenous communities – payment may be requested.
A travel-insurance policy covering theft, loss, accidents and illness is highly recommended. Many policies include a card with toll-free numbers for 24-hour assistance, and it's good practice to carry it with you. Note that some policies compensate travelers for misrouted or lost luggage. Baggage insurance is worth its price in peace of mind. Also check that the coverage includes worst-case scenarios: ambulances, evacuations or an emergency flight home. Some policies specifically exclude 'dangerous activities,' such as scuba diving, motorcycling or even trekking. If such activities are on your agenda, avoid this sort of policy.
There are a wide variety of policies available and your travel agent will be able to make recommendations. The policies handled by student-travel organizations usually offer good value. If a policy offers lower and higher medical-expense options, the low-expenses policy should be OK for South America – medical costs are not nearly as high here as elsewhere in the world.
If you have baggage insurance and need to make a claim, the insurance company may demand a receipt as proof that you bought the stuff in the first place. Make a list of stolen items and their value. At the police station, you complete a denuncia (statement), a copy of which is given to you for your insurance claim.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/bookings. You can buy, claim and extend online anytime – even if you're already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Wi-fi access is widely available, with many hostels, cafes and guesthouses offering free wi-fi. In contrast, internet cafes are a rarity.
In city police stations, an English-speaking interpreter is rare. In most cases you'll either have to speak the local language or provide an interpreter. Some cities have a tourist police service, which can be more helpful.
If you are robbed, photocopies (even better, certified copies) of original passports, visas and air tickets and careful records of credit-card numbers and traveler's checks will prove invaluable during replacement procedures. Replacement passport applications are usually referred to your home country, so it helps to leave a copy of your passport details with someone back home.
Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Santiago are the most gay-friendly cities, though gay couples are openly out only in certain neighborhoods. Elsewhere on the continent, where public displays of affection by same-sex couples may get negative reactions, do as the locals do – be discreet to avoid problems.
Despite a growing number of publications and websites devoted to gay travel, few have specific advice on South America. One exception is Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com), an excellent guide to gay-friendly accommodations throughout South America.
International Travel Maps & Books (www.itmb.com) produces a range of excellent maps of Central and South America. For the whole continent, it has a reliable reference map at a 1:4,000,000 scale and a commemorative edition of its classic 1:5,000,000 map. The maps are huge for road use, but they're helpful for pretrip planning. More detailed ITMB maps are available for the Amazon Basin and every country in South America. All are available on the ITMB website.
Maps of the South American continent as a whole are widely available; check any well-stocked map or travel bookstore.
ATMs are available in major towns and cities; stock up on funds before visiting remote areas. Credit cards are widely accepted.
ATMs are available in most cities and large towns, and are almost always the most convenient, reliable and economical way of getting cash. The rate of exchange is usually as good as any bank or legal money changer. Many ATMs are connected to the Cirrus or Plus network, but many countries prefer one over the other. If your ATM card gets swallowed by a machine, generally the only thing you can do is call your bank and cancel the card. Although such events are rare, it's well worth having an extra ATM card (to a different account), should something go wrong.
If possible, sign up with a bank that doesn't charge a fee for out-of-network ATM withdrawals. Also, find a bank that offers a low exchange-rate fee (1% to 2%). Before hitting the road, call your bank, informing them of your travel plans – that way the bank won't put a hold on foreign withdrawals while you're on the road.
Many ATMs will accept a personal identification number (PIN) of only four digits; find out whether this applies to the specific countries you're traveling to before heading off.
Nowadays, official exchange rates are generally realistic in most South American countries, so the role of the black market is declining. Most people end up using the mercado negro (black market) when crossing isolated borders, where an official exchange facility might be hours away. Some travelers might still want to use street money changers if they need to exchange cash outside business hours, but with the convenience of ATM cards, this necessity is declining. The one notable exception to this is Venezuela, where ATM withdrawals and credit-card transactions cost much more than exchanging cash on the black market.
Street money changers may or may not be legal (but are often tolerated), and the practice of changing money on the street is prone to scams – one such trick consists of money changers handing their client the agreed amount less a few pesos; when the client complains, they will take it back adding the few pesos while making a few larger notes disappear. Money changers may also distract their customers during the transaction alerting them to supposed alarms such as 'police' or any other 'danger,' or use fixed calculators which give an exchange rate favorable only to the money changer, or pass counterfeit, torn, smudged or tattered bills.
It's convenient to have a small wad of US dollars tucked away (in US$20 denominations and less; US$100 bills are difficult to exchange). US currency is by far the easiest to exchange throughout South America. Of course, unlike traveler's checks, nobody will give you a refund for lost or stolen cash. When you're about to cross from one country to another, it's handy to change some cash. Trying to exchange worn notes can be a hassle, so procure crisp bills before setting out.
In some countries, especially in rural areas, cambio (change) can be particularly hard to come by. Businesses even occasionally refuse to sell you something if they can't or don't want to change your note. So break down those larger bills whenever you have the opportunity, such as at busy restaurants, banks and larger businesses.
Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most large stores, travel agencies and better hotels and restaurants. Credit-card purchases sometimes attract an extra recargo (surcharge) on the price (from 2% to 10%), but they are usually billed to your account at favorable exchange rates. Some banks issue cash advances on major credit cards. The most widely accepted card is Visa, followed by MasterCard (those with UK Access should insist on its affiliation with MasterCard). American Express is accepted at fewer places.
Traveler's checks and foreign cash can be changed at casas de cambio (currency-exchange offices) or banks. Rates are usually similar, but casas de cambio are quicker, less bureaucratic and open longer hours.
It is preferable to bring money in US dollars, although banks and casas de cambio in capital cities will change euros, pounds sterling, Japanese yen and other major currencies. Changing these currencies in smaller towns and on the street is next to impossible.
Traveler's checks are not nearly as convenient as ATM cards, and you may have difficulty cashing them – even at banks. High commissions (from 3% to upwards of 10%) also make them an unattractive option. If you do take traveler's checks, American Express is the most widely accepted brand, while Visa, Thomas Cook and Citibank are the next best options. To facilitate replacement in case of theft, keep a record of check numbers and the original bill of sale in a safe place. Even with proper records, replacement can be a tedious, time-intensive process.
- Restaurants In some countries (such as Brazil and Chile), a 10% service charge is typically included.
- Tours When booking tours (such as to the Galápagos or the Amazon), it's customary to tip your guide – from a few dollars per day to 15%, depending on service.
- Taxis Not expected, though you can round up the bill.
- Bars Not expected.
Unfortunately, ATM-card cloning is a big worry in Brazil, and your account can be drained of thousands of dollars before you even realize it.
On Sunday, nearly everything is closed. In the Andean countries, businesses tend to close earlier.
Banks Monday to Friday (for money changing).
Businesses 8am or 9am–noon and 2pm–8pm or 9pm Monday to Friday. Shorter hours on Saturday.
Consumer electronics are readily available throughout South America, but taxes can kick prices through the roof. You'll probably find better deals at home. Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography is full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.
Ask for permission before photographing individuals, particularly indigenous people. Paying folks for their portrait is a personal decision; in most cases, the subject will tell you right off the going rate for a photo.
Some tourist sites charge an additional fee for tourists with cameras. Don't take photos of military installations, military personnel or security-sensitive places like police stations. Such activities may be illegal and could even endanger your life. In most churches, flash photography (and sometimes any photography) is not allowed.
International postal rates can be quite expensive. Generally, important mail and parcels should be sent by registered or certified service; otherwise, they may go missing. Sending parcels can be awkward: often an aduana (customs) officer must inspect the contents before a postal clerk can accept them, so wait to seal your package until after it has been checked. Most post offices have a parcels window, usually signed encomiendas (parcels). The place for posting overseas parcels is sometimes different from the main post office.
UPS, FedEx, DHL and other private postal services are available in some countries, but are prohibitively expensive.
Bring your passport when collecting mail. If awaited correspondence seems to have gone missing, ask the clerk to check under every possible combination of your initials. To simplify matters, have your letters addressed with only your first name and surname, with the latter underlined and in capital letters.
Argentina Smoking is banned in workplaces, all public indoor areas, schools, hospitals, museums and theaters, and on all public transportation.
Bolivia Banned in certain public spaces, including on public transportation, in health-care facilities and government offices, but there is no law against smoking in restaurants, cafes, bars or offices. Many hotels forbid smoking in rooms.
Brazil Banned in restaurants and bars; some hotels have smoking rooms.
Chile Banned in public places (restaurants, bars), though smoking is allowed on outdoor verandas.
Colombia Forbidden in enclosed spaces, including bars and restaurants. Some hotels have ventilated smoking zones although many are smoke-free.
Ecuador Banned in restaurants and bars.
French Guiana Universal smoking ban.
Guyana Universal smoking ban.
Paraguay Banned in indoor public spaces; permitted at outdoor establishments.
Peru Permitted in designated physically separated smoking areas in hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Suriname Universal smoking ban.
Uruguay Banned in indoor public spaces, including restaurants and bars.
Venezuela Banned in indoor public spaces, including restaurants and bars.
Skype and other net-to-phone services are the best way to call abroad.
From traditional landlines, the most economical way of calling abroad is by using phone cards. You can also try direct-dial lines, accessed via special numbers and billed to an account at home. There are different access numbers for each telephone company in each country; get a list from your phone company before you leave.
Local SIM cards can be used in unlocked European and Australian (GSM) phones. Or you can purchase a phone when you arrive (a cheap one costs about US$30).
Cell (mobile) numbers in South America often have different area codes than fixed-line numbers, even if the cell-phone owner resides in the same city. Calling a cell-phone number is always more expensive (sometimes exorbitantly so) than calling a fixed line.
If you plan to travel with a smartphone, you may want to purchase an international plan or local SIM to minimize (what could be) enormous costs. Remember it's possible to call internationally for free or very cheaply using Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems.
Aside from Skype, the cheapest way to make an international call is by using a phone card, the type you purchase at a kiosk or corner store. These allow you to call North America or Europe for as little as US5¢ per minute with a good card. The caveat is that you need a private phone line or a permissive telephone kiosk operator to use them.
There are two toilet rules for South America: always carry your own toilet paper and don't ever throw anything into the toilet bowl. Except in the most developed places, South American sewer systems can't handle toilet paper, so all paper products must be discarded in the wastebasket. Another general rule is to use public bathrooms whenever you can, as you never know when your next opportunity will be. Folks posted outside bathrooms proffering swaths of paper require payment.
Every country in South America has government-run tourist offices, but their quality and breadth of coverage vary.
Travel with Children
In general, wherever you roam across South America, you'll find a warm welcome when traveling with children. Family culture is strong in Latin America, and locals generally do their best to accommodate young travelers. That said, infrastructure can be lacking. Baby-change facilities are rare outside of big cities. And pushing strollers (prams) around can be a challenge amid broken pavements and missing sidewalks (a wearable baby carrier is a better idea). Public transport can often be quite crowded. For insider tips check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
- Disposable diapers (nappies) are found in big-city supermarkets, but variety may be limited, so come prepared.
- Cribs (cots) aren't widely available in hotel rooms.
- High chairs are found in many midrange and top-end restaurants.
- Children get in free or half price to most major sights around South America.
- Baby formula isn't always available outside major cities; bring your own supply.
If you just want to donate your hard work, there are plenty of local organizations that will take you on, though you'll have better luck looking once you're in the country. A good place to start is at a Spanish-language school (Quito, Cuenca or Cuzco are top choices); many schools link volunteers with organizations in need.
If you prefer to set something up before you go, keep in mind that most international volunteer organizations require a weekly or monthly fee (sometimes up to US$1500 for two weeks, not including airfare), which can feel a bit harsh. This is usually to cover the costs of housing you, paying the organization's staff, rent, website fees and all that stuff.
Here are a few places to start the search:
Amerispan (www.amerispan.com/volunteer_intern) Volunteer and internship programs in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Cross Cultural Solutions (www.crossculturalsolutions.org) Volunteer programs with an emphasis on cultural and human interaction in Peru.
Go Abroad (www.goabroad.com) Extensive listings of volunteer and study-abroad opportunities.
Idealist.org (www.idealist.org) Action Without Borders' searchable database of thousands of volunteer positions throughout the world. Excellent resource.
Rainforest Concern (www.rainforestconcern.org) British nonprofit offering affordable volunteer positions in forest environments in several South American countries. Volunteers pay a weekly fee.
Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com) Useful portal for both paid and volunteer work.
UN Volunteers (www.unv.org) The lofty international organization offers volunteer opportunities for peace and development projects across the globe.
Volunteer Latin America (www.volunteerlatinamerica.com) Worth a peek for its interesting programs throughout Latin America.
Working Abroad (www.workingabroad.com) Online network of grassroots volunteer opportunities with trip reports from the field.
At one time or another, solo women travelers will find themselves the object of curiosity – sometimes well intentioned, sometimes not. Avoidance is an easy, effective self-defense strategy. In the Andean region, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas, modest dress and conduct are the norm, while in Brazil and the more liberal Cono Sur, standards are more relaxed, especially in beach areas.
Machista (macho) attitudes, stressing masculine pride and virility, are fairly widespread among South American men (although less so in indigenous communities). They are often expressed by boasting and in exaggerated attention toward women. Snappy put-down lines or other caustic comebacks to unwanted advances may make the man feel threatened, and he may respond aggressively. Most women find it easier to invent a husband.
There have been isolated cases of South American men raping women travelers. Women trekking or taking tours in remote or isolated areas should be especially cautious. Some cases have involved guides assaulting tour group members, so it's worth double-checking the identity and reputation of any guide or tour operator. Also be aware that women (and men) have been drugged, in bars and elsewhere, using drinks, cigarettes or pills. Police may not be very helpful in rape cases – if a local woman is raped, her family usually seeks revenge rather than calling the police. Tourist police may be more sympathetic, but it's possibly better to see a doctor and contact your embassy before reporting a rape to police.
Tampons are generally difficult to find in smaller towns, so stock up in cities or bring a supply from home.
Aside from teaching or tutoring English, opportunities for employment are few, low-paying and usually illegal. Even tutoring, despite good hourly rates, is rarely remunerative because it takes time to build up a clientele. The best opportunities for teaching English are in the larger cities, and, although you won't save much, it will allow you to stick around longer. Other work opportunities may exist for skilled guides or in restaurants and bars catering to travelers. Many people find work at foreign-owned lodges and inns.
There are several excellent online resources, including the following:
Association of American Schools in South America (www.aassa.com) Places accredited teachers in many academic subjects in schools throughout South America.
Dave's ESL Café (www.eslcafe.com) Loads of message boards, job boards, teaching ideas, information, links and more.
EnglishClub.com (www.englishclub.com) Great resource for ESL teachers and students.
TEFL Net (www.tefl.net) This is another useful online resource for teachers from the creators of EnglishClub.com.