So… what is South America really like? (Part 2 – For Tourists)

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Transportation

Travelling involves a lot of… well, travelling!  On our 36 day tour we took 11 planes, 2 trains, 5 boats, 11 long-distance buses, and a whole lots of mini-buses or cars to/from airports, ports, bus stations, and day trips.  Definitely bring books, music, and lots of snacks!  Also, if you run out of English books on your trip it is hard to find bookstores, but most western bar/restaurants/pubs have a small shelf of English books that you can either buy or trade old books for, a very handy resource (some hostels also have this).

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 The long distance buses are both good and bad.  On the positive side, they’re very affordable and have lots of leg room (try to get the front seat on the second level of a double-decker for great views!).  However, they have no national system so the bus terminal has about 30 different companies going to the same places at different times and different prices, very complicated… I’m glad we were with our guide.  They also claim to have food, movies, and WiFi but the access to these services is sporadic at best.  The buses in Peru and Chile all have washrooms but in Bolivia they don’t, even on a 5 hour ride.  Often they don’t make official stops in any towns, but will stop randomly to let people on and off in the middle of crowded streets Getting the bags on and off is a hassle, with lots of people and little room, so try to pack light (if possible).  Also, NEVER put your bag on the shelf above your head!  We were told this from the beginning but one lady didn’t listen and by the end of the trip it was gone, along with her passport, camera, and everything else of value.  There’s plenty of room under the seats, so put your stuff there.  There tends to be lots of construction, and the roads are often on the edge of cliffs, but the views are nice.  There’s also a large amount of toll stations to be found, where you have to stop, but they’re usually pretty fast, I just didn’t expect them.

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 The airports are slow but simple enough.  Don’t worry about liquids, they don’t seem to care, especially on domestic flights.  The boats can vary a great deal, but bring something for motion sickness if you’re not sure how you’ll feel, especially on smaller boats and in open waters.  If you’re into mountain biking, you should check out Death Road in La Paz, according to Steve (and everyone else who’s tried it) it’s an exciting (and slightly terrifying) experience that you don’t want to miss.

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 The men here walk slowly, and the women walk even slower!  This is fine with my short legs but seems a bit of a hassle for Steve.  The sidewalks are also very narrow, so it is difficult to pass someone, and a lot of people tend to walk on the side of the street beside the cars, which is pretty scary until you get used to it!  The drivers are maniacs, and don’t follow the signage on the road, so be careful, and you may have to run across the street.  There are also many minibuses that local people use for transport in the cities.  You will find they drive by slowly, with the door open and a person hanging out, shouting the various locations they are heading to.  Sometimes they come to a full stop, but often passengers have to hop on and close the door while they are moving.  Some towns also have tricycle taxis and motorcycles (due to the high gas prices) or a type of motorized rickshaw taxi that is built around a motorcycle cut in half.

Services

Most places have indoor running water, but it’s not potable, so don’t drink it.  Even though it’s illegal to charge for bathrooms in Bolivia, most places will charge 1 Bs (less than 20₵) to use a public bathroom, so bring change.  These restrooms will have a cleaning lady and provide you with toilet paper.  For others, there is generally no paper, so be sure to bring your own.  Also, the sewage system in most countries is very old, so you must throw all paper in the garbage or risk clogging it up!

A lot of hotels and restaurants have WiFi, but it may or may not be working, generally poorly… enough to check email but good luck uploading pictures or downloading anything.  The outlets are a combination of UK and North American plugs, so in most places either will work, which is nice.  Since most rooms are old, there may only be 1 plug per room, so the TV and lamp are unplugged and you have to choose… an interesting predicament.

The winters are cold (which I’m used to) but the buildings aren’t heated.  It can be very hot during the day (shorts, tank top, and wear sunscreen or you’ll get burned weather) but as soon as the sun sets you need pants and a hoodie at least.  I generally wear a spring jacket, toque, and scarf to stay comfortable outdoors.  However, once you get inside it’s not much warmer (unless your hotel provides an electric heater), so bundle up and make sure there’s lots of blankets (or you have someone to cuddle up with!).

Entertainment

This really depends where you are.  In the big cities a lot of places have movie theaters (in Spanish), pubs with live music, and central plazas where celebrations take place or people congregate. In rural areas, people often go to bed early, but the stars are beautiful, and very relaxing.  Most hotels have TVs, but most shows will either be dubbed in Spanish or have Spanish sub-titles.  Some tourist sites aren’t open on certain days or only open mornings, afternoons, or closed during siesta, so be sure to check the hours before going.

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Landscape and Environment

This varies a ton from city to city!  You can find tall mountains, arid desserts, lush rain forests, coastal fishing villages, and many more. I would recommend bringing clothes for every climate, and wearing layers you can take off throughout the day… because you never know what you’re going to experience. Also, sunscreen and bug spray are a good idea in some places. In terms of the altitude, some people have a more difficult time than others.  They advise no rigorous exercise, and take breaks as you need it.  There are pills that can help, but most people here just drink coca tea, which tastes a bit minty and is served everywhere.  However, don’t try to bring the leaves across the border, as you will definitely be stopped trying to bring plants back to Canada!

So those are my thoughts on this new continent I’m exploring.  Obviously they are generalities, but you should be aware of some of these things before visiting.  Feel free to leave any additional comments below, and I hope this helps you plan your future trip to South America! 🙂

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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