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10 Tips for Visiting South America
Learn how to navigate the continent's captivating natural and cultural highlights with ease.
Picking up a few key phrases and leaving room for spontaneity will go a long way for a stress-free vacation. (Getty Images)
South America, with its diverse collection of natural and urban wonders, stretching from staggering snow-capped peaks to sprawling metropolises decorated with towering skyscrapers, beckons to travelers of all kinds. Across the region, you'll find lush islands, storied ruins, world-cuisine, larger-than-life parties, endangered wildlife and so much more. But as enchanting as the continent's illustrious past and mixture of cultures and climates can be, visiting can also be overwhelming for first-time visitors. If you're itching to tap into the best of South America, follow these tips to explore the region's fascinating countries with ease.
[See: Best Trips for Adventure Junkies.]
Learn Local Phrases
Picking up a few key phrases before you traverse South America's dynamic cites will go a long way. If you're planning to visit Spanish-speaking countries, make sure to master a few simple phrases to get you around with ease, like "Me lo escribe por favor?" (Can you write that down, please?). Of course phrases such as "gracias" (thank you) and "Discuple" (Excuse me) help too. Also remember that if you're planning to travel to Brazil, the primary language is Portuguese, so be sure to learn a few essential phrases before your trip.
Understand Visa Guidelines
Each country in South America determines its own visa regulations for U.S. citizens. Some countries offer a nearly open border, while others require detailed visa documents. For example, Brazil requires U.S. passport-holders to obtain a visa for $160 before departure. Make sure to consult going current entry and exit requirements on the U.S. State Department's website.
Time Your Trip
South America is one of the world's largest and most diverse continents, so the best times of year to visit vary drastically. Argentina and Chile, which boast breathtaking landscapes are best seen in the summer. But for a more peaceful, crowd-free exploration of Torres del Paine or the El Chalten glacier, visit during the shoulder season (spring and fall). For those looking to visit the Amazon rainforest, October to November is the best time to visit, as there are less crowds and less rain, making it easier to spot local wildlife. If you don't mind the crowds, December to March ushers in festivals like Carnival in Brazil, along with pleasant conditions for exploring Ecuador and the famed Galápagos Islands.
Follow the Festivals
If you want to party while visiting South America, follow the continent's iconic festivals, many of which are known the world over. Brazil's Carnival, the largest in the world, is well worth planning a trip around thanks to weeklong parties, elaborate parades and ornate costumes. But Brazil isn't the only place with a lively festival and nightlife scene, however. The famous Mendoza wine region in Argentina hosts a National Grape Harvest Festival in March, which features the lights and parades of Carnival along with samplings from the area's top wineries.
Know the Local Currencies
Unlike the U.S., South America doesn't rely on one currency. Instead, there are a variety of types of currency used throughout the continent with different exchange rates, from the Argentinean peso to the Brazilian real to the Columbian peso. Also, keep in mind, the exchange rates fluctuate often, so use a reputable online currency converter to familiarize yourself with the current exchange rate before your trip.
Food is certainly not lacking in most of South America, but if you have a sensitive stomach, loading up on safe snacks before you depart from home is always a smart idea. If street food makes you weary and you're on a budget, bring ample things to keep you fueled between larger meals, especially if you're doing strenuous hiking, biking or climbing, such as peanut butter, granola bars, protein bars, trail mix and mixed nuts.
Build a Bucket List
The best tip to see the best of the continent without feeling overwhelmed? Arrive with well-thought-out list. Luckily, most of South American's top attractions provide multiple once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If you want to hike, head to Patagonia and trek through Torres del Paine National Park and Route of the Seven Lakes. If you've always dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu, trek the Inca trail, head to the ruins and then climb up to Huayna Picchu for unrivaled views. Even better, cap off your trip by exploring around the Sacred Valley. If you want to see multiple countries, pick destinations that require less travel time, such as Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay or Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Embrace All Modes of Transportation
If you're used to traveling in the lap of luxury, you might be in for a bit of a rude awakening after crossing the border. Though there are many lavish ways to reach South America, one of the most popular (and cost-effective) ways to travel from town to town (or even country to country) is by public bus. While some public buses are pleasant, with air conditioning and comfortable seating, others lack plush seats and offer few stops while commuting from point A to B. Do your research ahead of time to ensure you find the best mode of transit for your itinerary. Flying is also easy and budget-friendly for many connections between major cities, thanks to low-budget airlines such as LATAM Airlines and Andes Líneas Aéreas.
Try the Local Cuisine
South American cuisine is some of the most eclectic in the world, and each country has its own regional specialties worth sampling. If you've got the stomach and curiosity, make your way to vibrant food markets, which sell everything from fresh produce and exotic fruits to hearty dishes. When in Peru, you can't skip sampling ceviche or a pisco sour. In Venezuela, make sure to try arepas (flatbread sandwiches filled with cheese or meat). And while visiting Argentina, don't miss digging into a hearty steak paired with a classic Malbec. And in Colombia, you can't skip ordering a Dulce de Leche; street carts around Bogotá, Medellin and Cartagena sell waffles or cones slathered with the sweet treat.
[See: 9 Ways to Travel Better.]
Allow for Spontaneity
Whatever you do, if you're visiting South America for the first time, don't plan an overly involved itinerary. While you'll want to secure hotel reservations, plane tickets, bus transfers and tours, there are some details you'll want to wait to book until you arrive to embrace unique, off-the-beaten-path attractions and experiences. Plus, plans can change – so allow for some impromptu trip-planning decisions – whether that means a few extra days to cultivate a relationship with locals in Peru or skipping a well-traversed landmark to discover a local gem.
About En Route
Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.
Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.
Edited by Liz Weiss.