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Backpacking Tips for South America


Whether walking the streets of London or the streets of Lima, there are certain precautions you must take to aid your chances of an incident free vacation. South American countries tend to have unfounded negative characterizations of safety and security, when in fact many countries in the region are no more dangerous than many first world countries. Physical assaults and violent crime is rare in South America, and if crime exists it is mainly petty theft. The key is not to put yourself in positions which could attract crime or incident.

Remember that in the first world, traveling with a backpack means you are poor, in the third world, it means you are loaded.


Before you leave

Research the country you are going to. Many country governments, such as Australia and the U.S provide a travel warning website for their citizens. Leave as much information as you can about where you will be traveling, what you will be doing and what hostels you will be staying at, with someone at home.

Upload all personal info (banking details, passwords, scans of passports) to your webmail. Password protecting the documents is not a bad idea.


 Seek information locally

When you arrive at your destination it is advisable to consult local, taxi drivers, hostel staff, and other tourists about the safest ways to move around and if there are areas in which you may wish to stay clear of. They may also be able to offer advice on recently publicized street scams.


Seek safe accommodation

Knowing that you are staying at a hotel with rigid safety standards is a must. The hotel or hostel you stay at should at least be able to provide you with access to a safety box, and it is even better if you are able to keep the key or set your own security code. If backpacking take along your own lock and key, as some hostels will provide lockers but not always the locks to secure them.


When Travelling

Wearing or carrying items which may identify you as an affluent tourist can be a mistake. You shouldn't pack anything that you would be too upset to loose. Leave expensive jewelry, watches and other items of value at home and only carry what you need. That goes for credit cards and other documents as well; if you have no need for them leave them behind locked up in the hostel, only take what money you are likely to spend with you.

You should always keep a copy of your passport on your person; the original is better off in the hostel locked away. Utilizing a money-belt or sowing pockets into under clothing is great for concealing money and documents when traveling. Just remember temptation is best prevented by never flaunting your wealth in public and keeping valuables out of site even in your hostel rooms. Always keep your belongings attached to you, a handbag over the back of a chair in a restaurant is an invitation for it to be stolen. Best to keep it on your lap or put your foot through the handle or strap of your bag.

On public transport, never have any of your valuables in your big backpack which is stalled out of sight under the bus, put them in your day bag. Never leave your daybag in the overhead storage, just keep it between your legs and looped to one leg.


The bottom line

Your instincts are your best form of crime prevention, avoid dark and isolated areas, take taxis home at night and keep in groups. Be wary of people acting suspicious or paying particular attention to you especially in crowded areas. Pickpockets are especially skilled at distracting your attention away from your valuables and many work in groups.

Over worrying about your security can distract from your vacation. It is important to take the precautions as well as realizing that the vast majority of people who visit South America enjoy incident free travel.

South America Money


Organize a variety of ways of accessing your money overseas, such as credit cards, debit cards and cash. Travelex offer a cash passport which works as a debit and credit card.

Check with your bank whether your ATM card will work overseas.

 Travel with some American Dollars in South America as it is the easiest to change. You can pay in US$ for many things in Peru and Bolivia.


  Always keep an emergency stash of cash somewhere in your backpack. Sometimes you?ll find yourself in a town without a bank, or the ATM isn't working.

 Call the credit card companies and authorize your cards to be used in foreign countries.

 Set up a Skype account, save by calling home at Internet Cafes (Skypeout lets you call landlines for pennies a minute!).

 Budget for airport departure taxes.

 Don't rely on travelers cheques, they're more hassle than they're worth and bank cards do fine.

 Brazil and Chile are the most expensive countries, while Argentina and Peru are middle, but the real bargains are found in Bolivia.



Minor cases of stomach troubles are the only ailment most people suffer while on vacation in South America. It is important though to consult a doctor before you leave about the current situation of the area you are visiting, get any inoculations needed and to take care of what food you are ingesting while away.



Drinking lots of purified water is important to ensuring a healthy vacation. Tap water in most Latin American countries should not be consumed and care must be taken in ensuring fruit, vegetables and even ice are not contaminated with dirty water. Drinking regularly is important especially in the hotter climates and bottled water is usually readily available and cheap.


The most dramatic effect of altitude sickness may occur at altitudes of over 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). These altitudes are usually found in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and parts of the Andes that run through Argentina and Chile. At altitude the body can experience a lack of oxygen causing shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, nausea and possible insomnia. To lessen the effects, when you reach your high altitude destination rest for 24hrs, consume a lot of water, eat less and reframe from drinking alcohol for a day or two. But most of all take it easy while your body gets used to it!


Toilets are not always as readily available as what you may be used to in your own country, so take advantage of places where they are such as museums and restaurants. In many cases toilet paper will not be provided so it is best not to be caught short and carry your own. Water to wash hands is not always available so carrying antiseptic hand gel is a good idea. Trash cans are provided in all toilets for the disposal of toilet paper because the sewage systems in Latin America cannot cope with it. Take your own toilet paper everywhere!


Be advised to bring your own prescribed medicines, and enough to last the duration of your journey as it may not be obtainable in the areas you are traveling. If traveling with large quantities of prescribed medicine to avoid problems with local authorities have your doctor write a signed declaration that you will need this amount. Bringing a medical kit on your trip is not a bad idea, and if worried about the cleanliness of medical facilities, it is an idea to have your kit equipped with your own syringes.


Having a case of diarrhea is normal for those not used to South American environments and it is usually a result of your body reacting to a change in food, water, climate and altitude variations. Certain precautions can be taken to reduce the risk of incurring diarrhea. Although tasting the local cuisine is part of the experience of travel, take care not eat uncooked meat, seafood or vegetables and only eat fruit that you peel yourself. Washing your hands regularly or using antiseptic hand gel especially before eating will help prevent infection and drinking only sealed bottle water and being cautious of ice in drinks is the rule in many South American countries. If diarrhea occurs then make sure you keep hydrated by drinking lots of water and perhaps taking with you re-hydration satchels which help keep up salt and sugar levels in your body. Heavy meals should be avoided and the rule-of-thumb is to eat light bland food like crackers or rice. There are anti-diarrhea drugs that help slow down visits to the bathroom but do not cure diarrhea; it is best not use these drugs and let the ailment take its cause unless you are on a long travel day. If it continues for more than two days or you are seeing blood or mucus in your stools then it is advisable to see a medical professional.



It is recommended that you possess a passport that will be valid for several months after your return from your trip. Having at least one blank page for every country you visit is also important as some countries have tourist visas that take up a full page and exit and entry stamp sizes vary from country to country. In South America your passport is sometimes necessary for reasons other than entering and leaving countries. Sometimes you will need it to check into hostels, purchase or receive airline tickets, at police check points and for changing money. It is important that at times when it is not needed that you leave it locked up in your hostel, though a copy should always be with you. Never leave it in luggage when traveling, conceal it in a money belt or other secure location on your person. In the event that it is lost or stolen then report it to local police, and then your embassy or consulate as soon as possible. 



All South American countries have their own requirements for visas; these can change within short notice so it is advisable to check with the embassy or consulate in your home country about the very latest requirements for countries you wish to travel to. 


Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is always a good idea when going abroad, so make sure you are covered for medical emergencies, curtailment or cancellations plus lost or stolen belongings. You should have adequate coverage for all activities you foresee yourself doing while in South America. Leave or email a copy of your policy with someone back home, and have a copy and epecially the emergency contact details with you!

  • When traveling in high season, plan ahead
  • Try learn a little of the language in each country
  • Bring hand sanitizer
  • Don't believe the bad stories
  • Keep an open mind
  • Don't always believe the advice or directions of the locals, sometimes they'd rather give the wrong information than admit they don't know.
  • Don't be embarrassed about doing an organized tour.
  • For long distance travel take a night bus and save on accommodation.
  • Take a lock and key
  • String comes in handy

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