As I travelled across Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina I was constantly jotting down little facts and titbits that I thought might be useful to share with other would-be travellers when I got home. In this short blog article I share a few of the things I noted in the hope that other folk will find them useful when preparing for their trip to South America.
Money and Expenses
- If you can arrange a card through your bank that allows free cash withdrawals when abroad then do so – having one will save you a fortune. I have mine through Nationwide here in the UK.
- If you hold a UK bank card you can make free cash withdrawals from some ATMs in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. If you are desperate and have to absorb a charge, expect to pay anywhere from £1 to £2. The machines will warn you of this fact before issuing your banknotes so familiarise yourself with the free ones and seek them out when you need more cash. Unfortunately, residents of the United States seem to be charged by the vast majority of banks in South America so these fees are unavoidable.
- Chile and Argentina are a completely different story. Withdrawing money from ATMs in these countries will incur huge charges. In Argentina you are limited to £100 per withdrawal and are charged roughly £6 (a whopping 6%) for the privilege which I found disgraceful. Chile is not cheap either (slightly less than £5 per withdrawal) although their maximum withdrawal limit is closer to £250. Try and pay by credit card when possible in these countries and save cash for when it is absolutely necessary. I must have lost about £60 of my hard-earned cash through having to withdraw money.
- Argentina will hurt you when it comes to spending money. Although not impossible, we thought it was hard to find a bargain here so you will pay far more for food, drink and accommodation when compared to the other countries we visited (Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru). Entry to Iguazu Falls and Perito Moreno Glacier will set you back $500 pesos which is roughly £30 and this does not include transport to the landmarks. When arriving at Puerto Iguazu you will be charged $25 pesos for no other reason than to enter the town. Eat at some of the more unsavoury restaurants and they will charge you inflated cubierto fees just for putting your cutlery on the table. If planning on a budget trip, bear in mind that Argentina is a very costly country to visit for the shoestring traveller.
- If you are from the UK sign up to TopCashBack before you arrange any accommodation. Booking through Hostelworld from their site will net you 40% cashback on every hostel down payment you make. Payouts are surprisingly quick from Hostelworld and I was able to recoup over £80 back.
Drinking and Eating Out
- If you want to save cash on food but don’t want to cook pasta at your hostel incessantly then eat at local markets or from ejecutivo menus/menu del dias. Market food servings are cheap and substantial and ejecutivo menus can be picked up for buttons in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and to a lesser extent Chile. They usually consist of three courses. Me and my travel companion regularly shared these sizeable menus to save even further.
- Service, from what we found, is poor across South America. Slow and uninterested wait staff are the norm and bored cashiers are often more interested in playing with their phones than attending to your needs. It’s important to be patient and remember that you are no longer in the States or the UK where much higher standards are to be expected.
- Be aware of underhand places that charge cubierto or table fees to your bill. This is especially common in Argentina and tourist heavy areas such as Puno and Aguas Calientes in Peru. On top of these undeserved charges you might also be hassled for tips which can be infuriating.
- Opening times are approximate. There were a number of times when we arrived at a restaurant at the advertised opening time only to find it shut. Sometimes places would open thirty minutes to an hour after they were supposed to. In San Pedro de Atacama, a highly-rated sandwich shop was scheduled to open at 11am; the doors were open at this time but the server told us to come back thirty minutes later. We did so and she turned us away again despite her previous information so we went elsewhere. Frustrating!
- If you like wine then Chile will be like heaven to you. Decent quality wines available in England for around £12 can be picked up here for about £2. Some brands such as Gato (which really isn’t too bad!) can be purchased in 1.5 litre bottles for as little as £2.50.
- If you pack a type A US flat pronged plug adapter you should be fine for Argentina and most countries on the west side of the continent. This should be much cheaper than buying an expensive universal adapter, especially when you consider that a lot of places (but not everywhere) are installing sockets that will take all plug types. If you do take a US adapter, you should preferably find one with movable prongs that allow you to alter from straight to angled as some countries will take one but not the other. Chile is the exception to this rule, using the rounded type C adapter common to Europe.
- Don’t get caught short! Carry toilet paper and make sure you have some small change on you. You will have to pay to use most toilets (unless you are in Starbucks or a large supermarket or mall) and not all toilet attendants will accept large bills. Try and carry a small bag of toilet paper at all times as not all public lavatories provide free toilet paper.
- There are wild dogs abound in South America so watch your step! One of the abiding memories I have of the continent is of their being dog turds everywhere. While poorer countries such as Bolivia and Peru can be forgiven somewhat for not staying on top of cleaning up this mess, the fact that swanky Buenos Aires was the worst city for this problem was unforgiveable. The stench of dog mess tinged the air of BA with alarming regularity and we saw plenty of dog walkers allow their pets to defecate in the street without cleaning it up. Disgusting.
- If you read up on the internet about one place or another you will find loads of horror stories about scams. While I am always vigilant with my belongings when abroad I used to take these tales with a pinch of salt. However, we almost fell victim to the ‘bird poop’ scam in Chile where we were sprayed with a foul substance that resembles bird droppings. A ‘helpful’ local then approached us and offered us water and tissues but the whole time she was trying to persuade my travel companion to put her handbag on the ground. Alarm bells started ringing then, but my friend refused to do so until the woman lost interest and wandered off. Pickpockets are rife around South America too, so try and stay aware of your belongings. Only take what money you need, leave bank cards in a safe at your accommodation unless you intend to use them, keep a hand on your wallet or purse at all times and, if you have a camera, make sure you attach it to your wrist to deter any would-be thieves.
If you have any questions about any aspect of my travels around South America or would like me to elaborate on any of the above points then please do not hesitate to ask in the comments section below. Additionally, if you would like to contribute anything to the above sections, pop your suggestions in the comments section.