Useful tips to help you plan your holiday in South America
Heading to South America on a whirlwind journey without knowing what to expect can seem exciting and adventurous at first glance but, sometimes, it can also be a recipe for disaster. Sometimes, it’s wonderful to get a head’s up, to understand a little about what the continent is like and what you should be expecting. I hope my insider tips on how to transform the way you see and experience South America will help you understand more about the continent and what you should be expecting. More than anything, however, my aim is to highlight the proactive things you can do to ensure your journey is meaningful and worthwhile.
Having a great trip in South America is easy…here’s how to make it unforgettable.
1. Take some Spanish classes before you travel – you will NEVER regret it
Apply your Spanish language skills in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador or other countries in South America.
Being able to speak Spanish and connect with locals is inarguably the prime reason I loved my time in South America. Aside from the obvious (making personal connections abroad helps you gain an in-depth understanding of the county’s culture) it also helps one set him or herself aside from the masses on standardised group tours who don’t know their leche from their luche. This is especially true in the more touristed areas, where locals sometimes feel like zoo exhibits – constantly photographed but hardly ever approached. Speaking even just a smattering of Spanish will greatly enhance your trip by breaking that invisible barrier between you and the locals, and this is true even if you’re planning a fully-guided private tour. You shouldn’t (and shouldn’t want to) be joined at the hip with your guide, 24/7. Plan an itinerary that leaves you free time to explore on your own and boost your communication confidence with a few Spanish classes before your leave. I promise, you’ll be so glad you made the effort, especially when it comes to the next point.
Tourist buying in the local market in Chile
2. Include homestays or smaller, family-run lodge stays in your itinerary
Support and experience unique culture during our tours to South America.
It’s wonderful to know that South America boasts an impressive array of luxury lodges and 5* hotels – exploring the continent, nowadays, doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your creature comforts. But sometimes…you might just want to. Homestays in authentic remote villages are a wonderful way to inject a serious dose of cultural immersion into your experiences, bringing you closer to smaller (usually indigenous) communities who lead a wildly different life to their city-dwelling counterparts. Homestays and rustic lodge-stays can be organised just about anywhere with prior knowledge and are also a genius way to explore further afield. If you limit yourself to 4 or 5* hotels, it means you can never be too far away from any major city or tourist attraction, as that’s where most of the best hotels are found.
Peruvian kid playing on the sun
3. Give nature a chance to overwhelm you
Take your time to enjoy giant Andean mountains, endless clear water lakes, and stunning views in South America.
South America is a continent that’s rich in history and culture but it is also insanely beautiful, as long as you get away from major inhabited regions. There are places that are great to see if you’re in the region and then there are those that are worth a round-the-world-ticket. I call this kind of places ‘Patagonia beautiful’. For me, Patagonia is the epitome in awe-inspiring natural splendour, the kind that leaves one utterly speechless. If you’ve ever stood someplace, feeling awe-struck in the face of such magnificent nature, you’ll know what I mean and you’ll no-doubt want to experience that again. The most overwhelming places to experience this in South America include Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares national parks in Patagonia (or any other prime spot along the Andes), the arresting Atacama Desert in Chile, the Bolivian Altiplano and Salar Uyuni and the Amazon Rainforest, not to mention the Galapagos Islands and the Pantanal in Brazil for life-changing wildlife encounters.
Natural wonders in South America
4. Include an activity (or three) that you’ve never done before. Especially if it’s a little bit daunting!
Don't be afraid and dive into new adventures exploring South America.
For as long as I live – or at least until Alzheimer’s kicks in – I will never forget the overwhelming emotions I felt when as hang-glided over Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. I had never even remotely contemplated going hang-gliding and the sheer idea of it scared the bejeesus out of me. But I did it anyway, because by the time I’d reached Rio, I’d realised that doing a brand-new activity in a brand-new destination had the potential to cement the whole experience into my memory bank forever. Whether you’ve never tackled a multi-day hike, gone horseback riding or even eaten bizarre food, busting out of your comfort zone and doing something new, in South America, is a sure-fire way to make the trip immensely memorable. If you remember nothing of your journey in years to come, you’ll remember that.
Horse ride in Andes mountains in Patagonia
5. Know what to expect & learn to let it gooooooo!
Keep an open mind and get all the best from South America.
Unlike Europe, Asia or Africa, South America is an exceptionally varied continent, one whose countries boast wildly distinct economies, infrastructure, political stabilities and, in many ways, even cultures. It’s important to keep this mind when on a multi-country tour, especially if you’re visiting lesser-developed nations like Bolivia, where the standards in the service industry can fall short of many people’s expectations. The trick? Have as few expectations as you can and you’ll find yourself having a much more enjoyable journey. A 4* hotel in La Paz is not the same as a 4* hotel in Santiago and even the fanciest restaurant in town, rated 5*, boasts a hit-and-miss level of service. That’s just the way it is and as long as you accept that from the get-go, you’ll suffer fewer disappointments and that will ensure your journey will be remembered for all the right reasons. If you really want to transform the way you see South America, you’ll need to be patient, open-minded flexible and understanding.
Food market in Bolivia
6. Leave room for spontaneity - if you're tight for time, choose fewer places to visit
Ask us to design your perfect holiday in South America leaving room for plenty of surprises.
Head to South America with a pre-planned itinerary that includes toilet breaks (seriously, some people do that) and you can be assured that whatever it is you expect to see and do, that’s precisely what you’ll get. Leaving yourself no room for spontaneous changes and impromptu experiences can be not only exhausting but also counterproductive to an exceptional travel experience. South America travel can throw some magical curve-balls your way (like wildlife encounters that stop you dead on your tracks for 2 hours) but you can only enjoy them with ample wiggle room in your itinerary.
Jaguar walking in the river, Brazil
7. Don’t underestimate altitude sickness
Go for a hike in the beautiful Andean mountains. Check out our collection of hiking trips in Central and South America.
It’s very rare to suffer the hellish pits of full-blown altitude sickness in South America (thank god) but it is very common to feel unwell for quite a few days when exploring the high Andes. It totally sucks. All the above-mentioned tips will not help when you’re feeling miserable and exhausted and this is, alongside common stomach complaints, the main risk-factor to a serious itinerary disruption. So do yourself a huge favour and heed the advice of your trusted South America travel agent and health advice bulletins on altitude sickness: plan those extra two days in Cusco before visiting Machu Picchu, take the first day off sightseeing when you fly into La Paz and, whatever you do, stay away from alcohol, double your water intake and have an early night’s sleep. It’s infinitely better to plan your trip taking rest time into consideration than having to cancel two days’ worth of excursions once there. Protect your precious travel investment – you’ll be so very glad you did.
Exploring Andes mountains in Ecuador
Ready to hit the road? Then hit us up! At Viva Expeditions, we love nothing more than helping people plan their once-in-a-lifetime trip to South America. Whet your appetite with our collection of tour ideas and contact us for personalised advice.