As our amazing five month long adventure around South America is coming to an end, I feel it is the right time to share with you my experience of it so that if anyone out there is thinking of visiting this magnificent continent, for shorter or longer stays, you will be able to refer to this article for resources on what to expect out of your trip. This is not an article to badmouth South America or any given country, it is rather an objective transcript of our journey, including the good, the bad and the uglier aspects of traveling around Sur America 😉.
Over the course of our five month journey, we got to visit Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and finally Chile. We started off in Lima and worked our way down all the way to Ushuaia before heading back north to Santiago. We got to see a plethora of amazing places, magnificent landscapes and got to meet some wonderful people, both locals and fellow travelers.
There is absolutely no doubt regarding the fact that South American landscapes are as varied as they are breathtaking, from Atlantic to Pacific and travelling through the Andes, we got to experience the harsh cold of very high altitudes as well as the burning heat of Rio de Janeiro in the summer.
Going to south America during the summer was, in my opinion, a very good call as going all the way down to Ushuaia and patagonia was cold enough as it was. In January-February, which are our equivalent of July-August, the temperatures rarely reached more than 18 degrees in the height of the afternoon when it was completely sunny. It is important to bear that factor in mind. Going down to Ushuaia in the winter (July – August) will mean you can go skiing but hiking will become more of a challenge. Your call! 😊
Traveling to south America for Europeans and probably Westerners in general, means accepting that the cultures you are faced with will be different from what you are used to. While it is a great experience to open yourself up to what the world has to offer, it can also be hard to put up with at times. First of all, South Americans for the most do not speak English – with the exception of some Chileans in the most touristic areas. For the rest, you will need to have some basics in Spanish if you don’t want to have to rely only on body language and taking the risk of not being understood.
Each country is very culturally different from the next: in Peru, people are quite open and starting to embrace globalisation, which is great! On the contrary, in Bolivia people are still very grounded in their indigenous roots (their current president is the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia), which makes them quite shy and private. As Westerners, we tend to translate their behaviour as being unfriendly and rude, but it isn’t actually the case: it’s a difference in culture! Each country has its share of cultural differences which make the continent both amazingly rich and quite difficult to adapt to sometimes.
Another interesting aspect is the food. Every country has its culinary traditions but none of them are even remotely related. My best experience by far was in Peru. The country has real knowledge of their available resources and know extremely well how to mix them in order to create perfectly balanced dishes. Some of their foods are just as surprising as the French frogs legs or the Chinese dogs, (both of which I can’t bring myself to try) such as their unique guinea pig based dishes. My other half promised me it was very tasty so I guess if you’re into trying new things, then go for it! Of course there is also the world famous Ceviche, the delicious Quinoa and many other tasty and amazingly fine national dishes. The best part for me though, was the variety of vegetarian options. Most of the Peruvian soil is set in the Andes, which are high and arid mountains so you don’t breed much except for lamas and guinea pigs. Therefore, the Peruvian people grow a lot of vegetables and seeds and have learned to live a lot off a vegetarian lifestyle. So spending a whole month there was a pure delight for me! I wish I had known to enjoy it more than I did because what came up next after we crossed over to Bolivia and the rest would prove much less choicy.
The hardest country food wise was Argentina. You may be aware that they are renowned for their beef meat, which I admit is on another level. The problem is, that’s all they have… Their fruit and vegetable choices were extremely poor and I guess nobody in Argentina is gluten or lactose intolerant… Or The ones that are must have a very hard time living there. We spent most of our south American trip in Argentina so for me it was very hard to cope food wise, but more on that in a future post. Chile came as a relief as they have a lot of choice, but sadly they don’t really have any national dishes; everything we ate was cooked with fresh and qualitative ingredients but all the ideas were imported which was a shame.
I will finish this article with probably the number one factor to take into account: the money aspect of things. While South America may be known to be cheaper than western countries, this is only partly true. Staying around the northern part of South America definitely is. Peru and Bolivia were cheap and I hear Colombia, Venezuela and all countries north of Peru are cheap. But Brazil, Argentina and Chile are most certainly NOT 💶💷💵
And while that isn’t necessarily a problem if you’ve thought your budget through, it can become one when your Western expectations of “quality of service” come into play. We live in Great Britain and while it is an expensive country, generally speaking the quality of service is impeccable wherever you go. And the more money you spend, the more impeccable it is. When we arrived in South America, we had no expectations regarding the quality of service because we knew that the countries we were visiting were mostly fairly poor and still quite new to tourism compared to Europe or the US (oddly, we had much better service in poorer Peru than in richer Argentina).
The first thing that shocked me a bit is that wherever you go and no matter the country, everything you do and I mean EVERYTHING is subject to local v.s tourist or “extranjeros” (understand “strangers”) prices. And the tourist prices can go up to X5 the local prices. While I understand that local people don’t have a lot of money and it’s normal that they pay less, after a while you just feel like a cash cow that’s being milked until it is left raw.
The second thing that shocked me is the quality of service. When you stay in Peru or Bolivia and then cross over to Argentina or Chile, you can really see a difference in culture and financial means. Argentinians and Chileans are much closer to Westerner cultures. Therefore, you expect a more Western behaviour. But fool yourself not, especially when you reach Patagonia. Expect your breath to be taken away by the amazingness of nature but also by the very expensive prices and very poor way in which you get treated in return.
My worst experience was between Puerto Natales and Los Antiguos. The two to three weeks that we spent there were not only almost more expensive than the rest of the trip put together, we also got insulted by our own hosts, kicked out of a hostel on the grounds of “overbooking”, told that we could “Walk the 8km to cross over to Chile” because they had randomly decided not to allow buses to cross over anymore, sold some “fully reclinable seats” on 12 hour long bus rides that actually weren’t reclinable at all, and generally speaking never – ever – helped out when we needed it, except when it came to suggesting to throw some more money at the problems that we were facing in exchange for some less than impressive solutions. And this all happened in the most expensive region of the whole of South America!!!
The good thing about all of the above is this: we learned so much more about ourselves, our ability to cope with one another’s shortcoming but also with different cultures and sometimes stressful situations. We met some great (and less great 🤔) people along the way and above all we got to experience the amazing wonder that is our mother nature. If I had to do it all over again exactly the same way, I would a thousand times do it again. And I would really advise anyone who is thinking of doing it to take the plunge and use this article to hopefully help you prepare for it even better than I was. 💓
I want to thank my other half for taking me on this wonderful adventure and for putting up with me 24/7 for the last 6 months. I really look forward to our next adventure, whatever it will be. 🦋💜 For now, it’s back to London town!