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!



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

  • great sharing, small points but very important for daily-based trip! love it, thanks


  • I’ve been to Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and loved them all. And yes, they are all different. Great tips!

  • All great tips but I have to say the toilet paper and the currency tips are total keys!

  • I didn’y know ANY Spanish, luckily the people I was travelling with did. My biggest one was to book the Machu Picchu trek monthssss in advance. I tried cooking 3 months in advance and couldn’t get on for the dates I was there

  • Omg I didn’t know about the different seasons!
    Jabeen x

  • I wasn’t sure if this was aimed at backpackers/those who travel outside the beaten path, but as someone who was born and raised in Colombia, I’d like to clarify a few points in light of the generalizations I saw on this post that make it sound as though the entire continent is one giant mass of uncivilized land:

    – Seasons are different, but it’s not as extreme as simply switching them 180º vs. what we in the U.S. experience: Sure, Chile and Argentina may get snow during U.S. Summers and heat + sun during U.S. Winters. But Colombia, for instance (and perhaps even Venezuela and nearby countries) get no seasons. (Harsh rains depending on where you are in a certain city? Sure. But it’s not as extreme a change.)

    – Toilet paper: This made me crack up because most bathrooms will have toilet paper and nice facilities. You’re welcome to pack your own, but don’t think LatAmericans live in squalor. (Bathrooms at American gas stations aren’t five-star, btw :/.)

    – WiFi: Internet and cellphone service are cheaper in LatAm, and even better-quality (read: less restrictive than U.S.) in some areas. Will you be able to get it on a mountain in the middle of nowhere? Nope: neither in LatAm nor in the U.S.

    – Bills: Why not use the local currency and avoid any inspection? Or if you must use USD, LatAmericans aren’t as anal about bills.

    In sum, there WERE some good tips here. But others must be taken w/a grain of salt. Before you go anywhere, ask the locals. Thanks for sharing and for reading my long comment.

    • Hi Annie! Thanks for reading my post. It was definitely aimed towards someone traveling the entire continent. I do realize Colombia is much different from the rest of the continent and was actually my favorite place! I did however have lots of bills rejected in Peru and lots of no toilet paper experiences in Bolivia. I just wanted to help make sure people were prepared in all situations no matter where they were.

  • Ariadna

    I’ve been wanting to visit South America for so long, so I’ll keep these post in mind! I visited Peru some years ago and it was beautiful! xx

    Ariadna || RAWR BOWS

  • This is a great article! I’ve been thinking recently about a trip to Peru and I wouldn’t have thought of half of these things – especially the toilet paper! Definitely keeping these tips in mind!

  • AWESOME TIPS !!! Definitely didn’t know a lot of these tips!

  • Thanks so much for the tips! I just returned from a month long stay in Thailand and am planning on South America as my next destination. Your tips are very helpful and I love the photography.

  • Hello, there are many Spanish speaking countries in South America as you said, but you forgot to mention that the largest country in South America is Brazil (even larger than the United States if you don’t count Alasca and Hawai). In Brazil we speak PORTUGUESE, not Spanish.
    Brazil’s area is almost the same as all the other countries added and the total population (206,517,577 inhabitants) is bigger than the population of all the other countries together.

  • Great tips! I only been to a few countries in SA but hope to visit more places like Bolivia, Chile and Peru.

  • Another thing to add to the bathrooms is that you will be hard pressed to find paper towels to dry your hands and the blow dryers are not nearly as good in the states. I loved the fact that they listen to classic tunes and fix there cars rather than buy a new one. The buses in the cities, like Lima, are such fun but not the easiest to figure out there routes so knowing some Spanish is very helpful.

  • Great tips! I was shocked at how cold most of the cities are due to altitude. I would advise taking LAYERS.

  • Agatha

    Great article, but only 9 of the 13 countries in South America speak Spanish. Guyana (English), Surinam (Dutch), French Guiana (French) & Brazil (Portuguese). Also, the weather is not the same.

  • Great tips, thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to visiting South America. The whole continent has always been on the top of my list.