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South America is unlike any other continent and has some of the most photogenic landscapes in the world.

But before you pack your bags, get prepared. Here’s a list of 9 things I wish I knew before I traveled throughout the amazing continent.

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RELATED: 14 Jaw-Dropping Places That Keep South America #1 On My Bucket List

 

 


 

 

1. You need to know basic Spanish.

9 Things You Need To Know Before Traveling South America
photo: Carrie Lyman

 

While I was backpacking through Southeast Asia and Europe – being able to speak only English was almost never a problem.  South America, however, is a huge continent consisting of so many countries where Spanish is the first language.  It is way less common for people to speak English. Be prepared to learn the basics and arrive at many hotels and restaurants where only Spanish is spoken.

 

 

2. The seasons are not the same.

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Below the equator, many people forget that the seasons are the opposite of the States (and many other parts of the world).  Our winter is their summer, and their summer is our winter.  You don’t really want to arrive in Patagonia in the middle of a winter snowstorm or during rainy season at Machu Picchu in February.  Research the seasons + average temperatures ahead of time to make sure you’re prepared (and packing the appropriate clothing).

 

 

3. Altitude effects are real and sometimes unavoidable.

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Be prepared to possibly feel the effects of altitude sickness.  Bolivia is home to the highest capital city in the world. Chile, Peru and some parts of Colombia also have some higher than average elevations.  In Peru and Bolivia, the locals have been known to chew on “coca” leaves, or use “coca” flavored candy and teas to help with altitude sickness. It may be worth a try, but make sure you don’t bring them out of the country with you as they are illegal elsewhere.

 

4. Get your visa for Bolivia and Brazil ahead of time.

9 Things You Need To Know Before Traveling South America
photo: Carrie Lyman

 

Visas for American citizens are not required in most South American countries but Brazil and Bolivia are exceptions.  There would be nothing worse than arriving at your destination airport only to be told that you cannot enter the country. You can supposedly get a visa on arrival for Bolivia, but unless you are at a major airport – it can be a huge hassle. If you plan to cross the border into Bolivia by bus, I would definitely recommend getting your visa ahead of time.

 

 

5. The continent is so much bigger than I had thought.

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Unlike Southeast Asia or Europe, where you can country-hop pretty painlessly – South America is a massive continent, and often you will need 20 or more hours to get between countries.   Want to travel from Lima, Peru to Quito, Ecuador? That will take you over 30 hours by bus. Check the map, estimated times and do the research.  Read forums from other travelers to give yourself an idea of how long you’ll need to move between each point on your South-American bucket list. This will help you plan your trips accordingly, and reduce stress levels.

 

 

6. Make sure you pack toilet paper & don’t flush it.

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While you may usually be able to find a public bathroom in the touristy areas – the likelihood that it will have toilet paper or hand soap is not high.  There’s nothing worse than realizing after using the bathroom that there’s an empty roll (or no roll at all).  Pack toilet paper with you or buy some for the week at a local store before you head out for the day.  Also note that the septic systems in South America are not built to flush toilet paper so make sure you toss it into the bin instead.

 

7. Internet will be… slow.

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Don’t expect the wifi internet or your cell service to be as fast as they are at home. If you are very concerned about internet speeds, read the hotel reviews on the different booking sites and see what other guests have said about the speed at that specific hotel.  But sometimes disconnecting is part of the charm.  Consider expecting to not have good cell/wifi service – so that you can shut off and soak in the moment that much more. 

 

 

8. The paper slip with your passport is very important.

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When they give you the extra paper slip upon entering a country, make sure you hold on to it! Leaving the country will be a huge headache if you end up losing it.  You may even be forced to miss your flight.  Keep it packed and keep it safe. 

 

9. Make sure your US dollars are pristine.

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While in Central America, I had noticed that they were pretty lax about the condition of your dollar bills, but in South America – they will inspect every bill.  And while they don’t seem to mind denominations of twenties, when you go to the bank – make sure you check that no bill has any rips, tears, markings or wrinkles.  Some shop owners may flat out refuse to take your money if it’s not in good condition.

 


And as always, keep an open mind and never assume one place will be like the last. South America can be a great adventure if you let it.

 

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Do you have any other tips for traveling South America? Leave us a comment below!

 


 

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