Cultural Guide to Traveling to South America: 20 Things You Need to Know
With its stunning mountain ranges, exotic rainforests, sun-soaked beaches, cultural diversity, and affordability it’s no wonder that South America has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Travelers here encounter a fascinating mix of traditional cultures, awe-inspiring nature, bustling nightlife, world-class cuisine, and the tiered ruins of ancient civilizations.
But as exciting as exploring these countries can be, first-time visitors might feel overwhelmed by the demands of the culture and climate.
If you're not sure about how to make the most of your trip to this enchanting region, follow this guide to learn about the do’s and don’ts of planning, packing, and traveling through South America!
1. Be Informed
Before planning your trip to South America, it’s a good idea to conduct some research to learn about the safety of the countries you’d like to visit. Understanding the risk of petty theft, food poisoning, or mosquito-borne illnesses will help you make informed decisions throughout your travels.
2. Don’t Over-Travel
Every country in South America is unique. From Colombia to Peru, you’ll find vast differences in culture, art, cuisine, climate, and nature. While it can be tempting to visit as many countries as you can, you may find that you’ll enjoy your adventure more if you cover a little less distance. Traveling slowly through one country will enable you to adapt to the community’s pace of life and fully experience all that an area has to offer!
3. Get Vaccinated
Well before your visit, check in with your doctor to make sure your vaccinations line up with current travel health requirements.
4. Learn Some Spanish or Portuguese
While many people in South America know plenty of English, it can be helpful to know some common Spanish and Portuguese phrases, especially if you will be traveling through smaller villages. Even knowing a few key phrases such as “thank you” or “please” can help your journey go a little more smoothly!
5. Understand Local Currencies
There are a variety of types of South American currencies that are used across the continent. Almost every independent country has its own currency, which all have different exchange rates. It’s a good idea to be familiar with the currencies and rates before you travel!
6. Be Mindful of Seasons
If you’re traveling to South America from anywhere in the northern hemisphere, be prepared for a climate shift! The seasons in the southern hemisphere are opposite of those in the north. You’ll find peak temperatures in December and January and colder weather in July and August.
7. Leave Valuables Behind
Many regions of South America are very safe. However, some destinations may have a high risk of theft. Because you may be traveling in and out of safe areas, it’s a good idea to pack light on cash and valuables, which can make you a target for petty theft. Only carry the cash you need, leave jewelry and valuables behind, and plan to dress down a bit during your travels.
8. Purchase a Paper Map
While most bigger cities have fairly good WiFi, your smartphone may not have Internet access in many of the smaller villages. Keeping a paper map on hand can be very handy!
9. Bring a First Aid Kit
Between exploring the beautiful hiking destinations, enjoying sunny beaches, and sampling tantalizing South American cuisine, it’s very possible that you’ll come across some cuts, bruises, and digestive issues during your travel. Having a first-aid kit on hand with bandages, ibuprofen, and digestive aids will save you the trouble of tracking down a pharmacy.
10. Pack Some Snacks
You may not always be able to find foods you are familiar with at local markets. Especially if you have food sensitivities, it can be a good idea to pack along some snacks!
11. Don’t Drink Tap Water
While South America is becoming increasingly sanitary, you should always play it safe when it comes to food and drink. Check with the proprietor of your accommodations to confirm that the water is good before drinking. If it isn’t safe, you can usually find bottled water for sale at hotels or markets, or bring along a travel filter to cleanse your own water!
12. Don’t Expect WiFi
Many South American countries and communities don’t have good access to internet connections. Plan ahead for this, and be ready to disconnect from your devices at some points during your travels!
13. Remember to Tip
More likely than not, you’ll receive help from travel guides, translators, and drivers during your travels. Tipping is a customary part of South American culture and many of the locals support themselves this way. Be sure to offer something to your guides as a thank-you for their help!
14. Ask Permission for Photographs
A photo of a local dressed in beautiful traditional garments makes a wonderful memento of your trip. But remember that in many areas, locals earn a living by posing for tourists. Offer them a tip before or after you take the photo. You’ll support local community and gain a priceless souvenir!
15. Plan for “Siesta”
Remember that many South American countries observe afternoon “Siesta.” Oftentimes, people take off work from around 2pm to 5pm, and this can mean shops, banks or restaurants are closed. If you have shopping to do, plan to do it in the morning or evening.
16. Barter on Prices
Bartering on purchase prices is an expected part of South American culture. Don’t be afraid to give it a try! But always be respectful as you negotiate a price—remember that the salesman will be much more affected by a reduced amount than you will be.
17. Try Local Cuisine
South America offers a wide array of delicious cuisine. Don’t be afraid to try out the street food, where you can experience authentic local favorites. Follow the crowd, and your nose, to find the best places. Food poisoning is common in parts of South America, so be alert to make sure all your dishes look and smell right before enjoying.
18. Protect Your Valuables
It’s best to travel with as few valuables as you can. Stow your essential items, like a passport, wallet, or cash, in a secure money belt. Keep it safely stored or on your person at all times, and don’t leave your valuables unguarded at the beach!
19. Avoid Hand Gestures
While hand gestures, claps, and whistles may seem like a good way to get the attention of a local whose language you don’t speak, many hand gestures can be considered rude in many countries of South America. Instead, try using Spanish or Portuguese phrases to get attention.
20. Check Your Taxi
Taxi scams are fairly common in South America, so take precautions to avoid them. Only take licensed cabs, locate an Uber driver, or book transportation with your hotel. It can also be a good idea to ask the hotel for a sense of travel time and cost, which will help you gauge whether or not your taxi driver is being honest with you.