Let’s be honest, to most Asians or I should say Singaporeans, we are unfamiliar of what’s going on with the other side of the world. (Excluding US and Canada) Well, I refer particularly to South America. Many people think of South America as an exotic place, to a certain extent you may not be wrong, but truly, not many people know much about this amazing continent in the world!
As Singapore just set up the first embassy in South America in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil in 2012, (To the majority, your mind is running now “isn’t Sao Paulo the capital of Brazil?” haha) you will probably have an idea how many Singaporeans will think about traveling there. Before I embarked a solo adventure to this truly unknown continent, many people cautioned me, prayed for me and some were clueless why I wanna explore South America alone. LOL Well now I have to say, I’m glad I did it! South America is nothing close to what we have in Singapore. After many people saw my amazing travel photos from my personal Facebook account, they realised this hidden gem in the world. Some even start to check out this amazing spot for new travel ventures but they still have concerns, about the long distances, worried about the cultural differences, wonder about the safety aspects and figuring out the language barrier.
So after resting for many months, I will attempt to share the 10 tips to survive a solo trip in South America. In my opinion, one of the most spectacular continent in the world. So let’s go conquer South America now. 🙂
First of all, knowledge is gold and knowledge is power. The most basic thing you need is knowledge about this continent. Even though South America may not be as culturally diverse as Asia (in my opinion), there are still a lot of differences between the countries in terms of history and cultural aspect.
At the very base line, you need to know where you are heading, where are the safer places to visit, what are the appropriate time to be out and avoid the dangerous areas. The internet has provided tonnes of information that makes life much more easier than in the past. Leverage on tripadvisors or other traveling portal to do your own research. Conveniently, you may email me at email@example.com to ask for some basic advice. LOL!
Above all, be the hero of your life! When traveling alone, you are the only one to depend on. Not even the police in some areas or cities as they may not speak English or are corrupted. Courage is very important for solo travelers, without courage, you won’t even dare to step out of your hotel. Constantly ask yourself what’s next when you reach a destination. Without courage, you won’t even have the guts to make friends and meet amazing people, that is one of the main deal breaker element for the trip of a lifetime.
I have met many travelers when I was traveling around South America and most of them have shared with me their experiences with troubles i.e. mugging, pick-pocketing, scamming etc… I got a little worried, but it is good to be alert in these places, but not overly concerned that you miss the fun out of it. I am one of the truly blessed and fortunate one who went without any troubles, but I did experience some challenges. I.e. Almost got robbed at the traffic light in a taxi by a local gang in Ecuador, almost got robbed by a man eyeballing me with a hoodie in Paraguay, followed by some men in Bolivia and etc… You need to be street smart and always be aware of your surrounding.
Stay calm and react according to the situation. I will stick to my main travel principle, the rule of thumb is to practice the basic caution in traveling and do not be an ignorant tourist who doesn’t pay attention to your surrounding. Don’t be too nervous and remain confident and calm. People can tell whether you know what you are doing or whether you are comfortable. When surrounding makes you uncomfortable, get out of the place immediately by taxi or get into a shopping mall or somewhere crowded. Don’t carry valuables with you while traveling, especially in some high crime cities. Reduce the number of things and amount of money you carry. Don’t be overly worried and you will be fine and will have a good time.
3) Able to Take Long Flights/Buses/Boat Rides
Need I say more? No matter where you are flying from, traveling within South America is never as straight forward as anywhere else. Probably due to its terrain, traveling within South America can sometimes be a challenge itself. For example, the long hours bus journey can be a kill joy at times. Imagine you are taking hours or days of bus traveling through the treacherous road, while enjoying the beautiful scenery, you are also worried about your own safety. I am down with it that it will not be a pleasant ride after so long on the road.
Taking a flight can be torturing too, especially when there are many connecting flights to get to somewhere probably not that far away in terms of distance. Be prepared to sleep in airport, bus or ferry terminals if you are not willing to spend money for the mere few hours of comfort while waiting for connections. AND these only work when the plan fits perfectly for you. At times, there are unforeseen circumstances such as protest/strikes, extreme weather, or things you could never imagine to cause flight cancellation. LOL Well, this will be further discuss later.
4) Good At Playing Charades If You Don’t Speak Spanish
If you think speaking a fluent English, can get you everywhere in the world, then South America will prove you WRONG. This is the continent that stresses me out the most because of my inability to speak Spanish. LOL I had situations that no one understood me, I was desperately in need for help. Thankfully, within the whole entire airport, I met a British couple, who can speak English. (never was more excited to meet people who can understand you) We helped each other out of the situation. Imagine you are already feeling trapped or stuck in an airport, to make things worse, in the entire airport, only three people speaks English plus maybe a couple of ground crew. That’s it! Yea, this is the kind of scenario you need to prepare yourself in South America. Trust me, you will do whatever you can (charades) to make people understand you. LOL
Well that doesn’t mean you can’t travel without fluent Spanish. Good news is, Spanish is not that difficult to pick up after all, especially if you know a bit European languages i.e. Portuguese, Italian or French. They have their similarities. If all else fails, we all know when we studied communication skills in University, the most important element of an effective communication is actually our non verbal communications that involves posture, eye contact, gestures, tone and sincerity! Focus not only the explicit but also the implicit messages. Just a recommendation for travellers, be good at charades.
When I was in Santiago, there was an evening I craved to make my own meal. So I went to the supermarket and tried to get some eggs. I attempted by using my limited Spanish, everyone was like hah? when I said “Huevos, huevos” Ended up, I realised the best way is to act out what I need, so I literally did an action of a chicken laying eggs + the stereo sound of an egg popping out! haha Everyone laughed and few of them (yea not just one person but a few people) brought me to other market to get the huevos (eggs). To sum it up, I walked home that evening not just eggs that I bought, but also made some new local friends who invited me to their house for dinner after that. A blessing in disguise, right? haha
5) Sense of Direction
If you can’t speak the language, and you have a bad sense of direction. A BIG NO NO! You will be in trouble. It’s not fun to be lost in the middle of a strange place. It will make you nervous, and less confident about yourself. Worse of, you might be an easy target for crime. So I would think having a good sense of direction is very important to travel around especially when you are traveling alone.
Especially in South America, I always try to use major landmarks or convenient stores to aid my memory of the location. A tip is to look and memorise the street and direction where you are heading in the hotel before venturing out on your own. I will avoid using or looking at a map on the street. It really makes you a vulnerable target. With technology nowadays offering offline maps to download, sometimes is good to backup these maps in your mobile in case you need it, you can glance at it when you in the restaurant or somewhere discreet.
When walking in quieter streets or remote alleys, I will always pay more attention to the surroundings than paying attention to street names or turnings. When I walk with more confidence, you tend to blend in better with the locals, rather than portray yourself as a tourist, which indirectly make you a vulnerable target.
6) High Altitude
Depending which part of South America you want to visit. Most of the attractions and beautiful places to visit are either at the coast/seas or up in the high altitude mountains. Thankfully, I didn’t have any problem with sea sickness, but I did experience some shortness of breath at high altitude. I have heard some travelers experiencing serious problem with the high altitude sickness in South America cities or mountains. Some symptoms are nausea, vomiting, swelling of limps and face, shortness of breath, drowsiness, stomach flatulation, and some severe cases will be fever, dry cough and shortness of breath even when resting or sleeping.
Best way to overcome these sickness is to get enough rest and drink a lot of water. Perhaps include a few days to acclimatise to the high altitude before exerting yourself to explore the places. Of course, you will also need some strength to climb the mountains and do the strenuous trekking trip for days.
7) Ability to Swim
If you can’t swim or dive you are missing out a lot in South America. One of the most amazing places I ever been was Galapagos, Ecuador. Truly inspiring to be able to see many wildlife and marine life animals. i.e. Seeing the big giant sea turtles, and swim with the sealions etc… Need I say more?
8) Not Afraid of Cold or Extreme Weather
In general, many major sites in South America are located in high altitude mountain due to the Andes fault line, so even if places i.e. Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil are located at or near Equator line, they can also be cold in terms of temperature. For example, Quito, the capital city of Ecuador is sitting at the line of Equator, the temperature throughout the year fluctuates only between 7 to 21 degree celsius. Unlike Singapore, which experience the real equatorial climate of 21 to 32 degree celsius all day and all year round.
You need to be prepared for extreme change in weather at some places of South America. For example, I was smacked by a blizzard from Anatartica in Ushuaia, Argentina and I was trapped in the city for a day. Thankfully only for a day. In some cases, it can happen for weeks or longer. Imagine if you are not well prepared, you may really get into some serious trouble and will not be able to withstand that kind of temperature drop + wind.
In the Altiplano, Bolivia the weather can be pleasant like 15 degree celsius in the day and the evening it could dropped to sub minus degree celsius with strong breezes. It was really brutal when I was up in the mountain, especially at night.
If you are someone who goes according to a fixed plan, take my word for it, South America may not be the place you wanna be. Surprise is the constant. Unless you travel with a tour group, otherwise, you need to be flexible if you are traveling in South America by yourself.
For example, I got to know from a kind soul that the Argentinean were shutting their border with Chile when I was at Puerto Natales bus terminal a day before it happened. Fortunately, I was having a conversation with a stranger at the bus terminal and I shared about my plan of crossing into Argentina, or else, I might be trapped in a town in Chile for weeks.
I never experienced many flights cancellation before traveling in South America, but after my trip to South America, I am well-trained to be immune to flights cancellation or delay. Just this trip itself, my flight was cancelled in Ushuaia due to the blizzard from Anatartica, another flight was delayed and I missed a connection to Uruguay. Third flight was delayed and I missed my connection to Iguazu Falls in Buenos Aires. Some of the airlines were kind enough to make arrangement for me to catch up, but there were a few airlines that they simply didn’t bother to help by going with a reason “due to extreme weather”. I would say, all the best to to those those who plan their travels in a tight schedule or aren’t flexible enough. There may be disruptions, and might affect your plan for entire trip if things doesn’t go well and according to your plan at the initial stage. I also experienced a strike by the immigration officers in Easter Island, but I was very fortunate to be able to continue my travel to Easter Island. No complaints! I have heard some travelers were affected by previous strikes and they didn’t allow to fly into Easter Island even with the expensive flight tickets. Opps.
“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill
A favorite quote of mine, a journey is indeed more memorable and best measured with new friends you meet when you travel. I met many amazing people from different corners of the world, and they enriched my knowledge, often prepare and set my new target for other trips or simply contribute to my bucket list. Most importantly, they made my adventure fun and exciting without being alone entirely. What surprised me the most that I met some people who don’t speak English, but yet we were able to become friends simply by communicating with my limited Engnish and their limited Spalish. haha I guess the magic ingredient you need is, just be yourself, friendly and meet people with a sincere heart.
All thanks to technology that brings people closer, i.e. Facebook to keep up with each other lives and share knowledge and information, Instagram to see the amazing travel photos and stories, Skype to video call and see each other, Google Translate or other translation app to take me out of difficult situations and communicate better, and Travel Inspiration 360, to help people know more about my traveling tales. haha the World indeed has become smaller! 🙂
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta