DISCLAIMER: I have not visited every country in South America—not even close. However, having spent the last 49 days exploring Ecuador and Peru, and, previously, a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires and Uruguay, as well as a 15-hour layover gasping around Bogotá, I feel borderline qualified to provide you, Beautiful Reader, with the following rules for making the most of your time in South America.
A lot of these are transportation and food related. (Because you still have to eat and move about after you get here.) Some are safety related. (Because I don’t want you coming down here, doing something stupid, getting hurt, and then you/your family ranting about what a dangerous place South America is.) Others are just common sense. (Because some of you—you likely do not know who you are—just need more of it.)
Admittedly, many of these may sound like complaints or reasons not to visit South America. Please don't take them as such. I am only trying to make sure you understand, before you get here, that this isn’t the Domain, Uptown, West 7th, LoDo, SoCo, or SoHo. Things are just different here. (And certainly for the better compared to most of the neighborhoods I just named.) South America is absolutely beautiful, as are the people (especially in the LATAM airlines ticket offices), the cultures, and the geographies.
You should come here. It’s amazing.
So, without further adieu and in no particular order:
1) When crossing the street, you do not have the right of way, no matter what. Even if there happens to be a pedestrian-crossing signal telling you it’s okay to cross the street, don’t even think about thinking that un-marked taxi or colectivo is going to yield to you. It will not. Even if you are crossing the street with a group of nuns carrying orphaned babies surrounded by police, you do not have the right of way.
3) Breakfast is… different. You will be hard pressed to find the breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, that I have been—er… you may be craving. In larger cities, you’ll be able to find restaurants serving desayuno Americano, and that will at least get you coffee, eggs, and a biscuit-ish bread; but, I promise you: it ain’t gonna be as Americano as you want it to be.
In many restaurants, meals, especially breakfasts, are not made to order, and you might have only one option. Don’t be surprised, especially when you’re in a small town/small restaurant, if that one option is a serving of a simple soup, baked chicken, and a disturbingly large side of plain, white rice (see infra No. 4).
However, "different" doesn't always mean "bad." Cafe Colibrí, in Baños, Ecuador was like walking into a garden oasis (virtually every morning for the two weeks I was in town), in which I would be served coffees, juices, fruits, and tostadas created for the saints after which the city was named. Oh, and this delicious breaky was around $4.00, depending on how many coffees I chugged.
4) Learn to love white rice. You'll be eating a lot of it.
5) Speaking of desayunos, this ain’t Mexico: if you’re coming for any length of time, learn some Spanish first. Seriously. If you come to South America thinking you’re going to an all-inclusive resort in [insert generic Mexican resort city here], thinking the locals will know enough English to help your gringo ass get around, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
6) The fruit is delicious, abundant, and unique. Fruit carts are seemingly ubiquitous down here, and you’ll also find plenty of markets stocked full of fruits you’ve likely never tasted, nor seen.
One time, on a bus from Saquisilí to Insinliví, I traded an apple to the woman sitting next me, for one of the fruits she was eating. I bit into it and it had a somewhat thick, sour outside, but a delicious, juicy, sensuous inside.
“¿!Que es esto!?” I inquired.
“Es mango,” she replied.
Okay, apparently, I’d only had mango in juice form before—sue me, you litigious so-and-so. My ignorance of fresh fruits aside, I promise you can, and very much should, try the unique and delicious fruits you’ll encounter.
7) When dining out, go about two hours before you’re hungry, and be patient. (Or, just do what I do: eat; go back to the Airbnb to use the facilities; then immediately go back out for your next meal.) If you’re in a rush, don’t go to a restaurant thinking you’re going to be in and out like you’re getting a to-go order of Arby’s beef-and-cheddar, with curly fries and delicious Arby’s Sauce.
More than one South American I’ve met has joked about folks down here doing everything on their own time. So, I’m comfortable telling you that many things just run slower. This holds true in restaurants and virtually every other aspect of life here. So, tranquilo. (Spanish for “chill the fuck o*ut.”)
That said, don’t be shy about approaching the waiter and asking for your check (or another beer). They won’t take offense.
8) Everything is under construction, all the time. It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about—roads, buildings, cars, the plane you’re about to board and fly into a terrifying storm over the Andes—nothing is finished being built and/or repaired. It’s like living on I-35 between Waco and Austin, but much, much prettier, and without the road rage.
9) DO NOT WALK AND TEXT. You will fall into a hole, a construction site (see id), or a bizarrely deep drainage ditch, or off of a bizarrely high, beautiful mountain. You’re probably walking around on your phone right now, reading this awesomeness. Stop it. God knows I’ve been guilty of it myself, but South America quickly broke me of this bad habit. There is something dangerous (albeit possibly very pretty) to fall into or off of, everywhere you go.
10) The Galapagos are fucking exp*ensive. They’re also insanely beautiful, and not to be missed under any circumstances. Traveling on limited funds? Too bad. Bust your budget. Inherit some money. Rob a few dozen colectivos. I don’t care what you do: just don’t miss this incredible place.
Being the ginger that I am, I’m not particularly drawn to tropical regions, even gorgeous ones. Heat and humidity are always miserable—I don’t care where you are. And, as we all know, the sun is the devil (see infra No. 11). Those facts notwithstanding, the beauty of this place amazed me.
Diving with sharks, sea turtles, and manta rays? Check. Seeing Red-Listed Blue-Footed Boobies nesting eggs on the ground because they have no natural predators in the Galapagos? Check. Watching penguins chill on volcanic up crops in middle of the ocean? Check.
Just shut up; fork over your money; go.
11) The sun is the devil, so lather up. And, it’s not just gringo gingers who feel this way. When your native-born freediving or climbing instructor with the mocha-toned skin hits you up for some of your sunblock, you know the sun here is not something with which you should trifle.
Remember: Ecuador is thusly named because it’s on the damned equator. When you’re in those parts, and/or on the side of a 5,000-plus-meter volcano, you’re literally closer to the sun.
Don’t be stupid: shell out twenty-three dollars—literally what I paid in Puerto Ayora—for high-quality sunblock. I recommend something between SPF 50, SPF 24 million, and SPF Ginger (available only by prescription issued by physicians who are also gingers; ergo, generally not available in South America).
12) You’re getting dogs, so bring good earplugs. Yes. You read that correctly. No matter which city, region, or country you visit, upon arrival you will immediately be issued several dogs (as they like to travel in packs). What’s that? You’re a cat person, you say? Allergic to dogs, are you? Too damned bad. You’re getting some dogs.
There is no central authority to explain which dogs are yours, but the dogs will let you know. They will be lounging just outside the airport, in the middle of the street, inside bars and restaurants, and, always—always—immediately outside your window, barking their heads off while you’re trying to sleep at night. Don’t forget those earplugs.
In general, your dogs will be stray if not outright feral, mangy, apathetic to your presence, yet simultaneously unpredictable.
Pro tip: pick out good names for your dogs—it makes them much cuter when they steal food off of the table in the restaurant you’re eating in, lunge at you from the shadows when you’re walking home at night, and bark all damned night long. I’ve named all of my S.A. (pronounced “ese”) dogs “Cállate el Bitey” for the sake of accuracy and not having to remember a new dog name every town I go to.
13) Don’t drink directly from the big beer bottles and take them back to the bodega when you're finished. Several breweries here still re-bottle. And, at least in Peru, when you return them, you'll get back 1 sole (about 33 cents) and the bodega owner's gratitude.
14) “Just Say No” to giardia: buy a Sawyer water filter (or similar device) before you come. Unless your guts are already lined with lead from the paint chips you ate as a child, drinking water from the tap and the vast majority of natural water sources is not safe. Not only will a water filter save you from spending your entire trip in the restroom, you will avoid using plastic bottles that will end up in a landfill, on the side of a road, in a water source, in an animal’s stomach or yours.
15) The Andes are insanely, outrageously beautiful… And altitude sickness sucks. (Ask me how I know). Read this and sort by “Elevation.” (Or Google “Um, tell me again how high that city is???” before you leave home.) If the city you’re flying into is in the top twenty or thirty, and you’re a sea-level dweller, as I was, be prepared to be tranquilo for a few days while your body and brain acclimate to the altitude. The odds are slim that you will suffer from sever AMS as soon as you hit the ground in Quito, Bogotá, or La Paz; but minimize strenuous activities for a while, drink as many fluids as you can stand (cold beer doesn’t count), and get plenty to eat.
16) The beef is amazing. (At least Buenos Aires.) If you’re flying into, say, Buenos Aires, you’ll be at seal-level and won’t have to waste time “acclimating” or fighting “altitude sickness.” Accordingly, upon arrival following your insanely long, multi-connection, 17-plus-hour fight from not-Buenos Aires, I advise you skip going to your hotel/Airbnb/business meeting, and sprint to Steaks by Luis (but be sure to make your reservations at least a few weeks in advance).
As with the Galapagos, by all means: shut up; fork over your money; go. I don’t care if you’re vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, or an outright freedom-hater. I ain’t trying to hear that. It’s going to be the best wine, cheese, pork, and cow you ever put in your mouth. Go.
17) Transportation is… not great. So, if you suffer from motion sickness, bring drugs. I’m sorry, South America—I really do love you, but it’s true: your transportation infrastructure sucks.
Get used to: shitty roa*ds; taxies with shot struts; sweltering buses and colectivos packed like gingers fighting for spots of shade on the equator; and, perhaps the worst, an alarming lack of German-made autos. (I know, I know, I know—that's terrible. I’ve already spoken to the authorities and they’re now working on implementing a Yugo-Porsche exchange program. So, ¡tranquilo, por favor!)
More importantly, if you’re an unfortunate soul, like me—you see how terrible my life is—and you suffer from motion sickness, I strongly advise you stock up on dimenhydrinate (a.k.a., Dramamine) and/or scopolamine patches. I’ve been fortunate enough to find dimenhydrinate in the couple of pharmacies I’ve searched in Buenos Aires and Guayquil; but, for patches, unless you have a “doctor” supplying you “prescriptions” somewhere in S.A., you’ll need to go to your PCP before you leave the States for a script. Both medicines have side effects and I’ve experienced them from both.
(You wear scopolamine patches for up to 72 hours—I had blurry vision up close and my equilibrium was definitely a bit off when on dry land, both being common side effects. The day after I made the boat ride to Puerto Villamil from Puerto Ayora, before I realized I was having side effects, I woke up, tried to walk into the bathroom, but instead did a face-plant into the doorjamb—not joking.)
18) Walk through dark alleys in unfamiliar neighborhoods, alone, at night. That was a test. If you read that and thought, “Okay, cool. Will do,” you should stay at home, forever.
Thus far, I’ve yet to feel unsafe at any point in South America (except crossing streets); but I also always remain aware of my surroundings, sure as hell avoid dark alleys, and generally keep my head on a swivel. If you wouldn’t do something back home, don’t do it here.
19) Learn to love fireworks and explosions (assuming you don’t already). The first time I heard “fireworks” go off in Ecuador, which happened to be right around Christmas time, I thought, perhaps, someone was doing a reenactment of the Tet Offensive. It turned out just to be a Tuesday.
Folks love them some fireworks down here. They have all kinds, set them off at all times of day and night, for any or no reason.
Be advised: many of them are not so much “fireworks” as much as they are “loud, airborne explosions.” As it happens, those filmed below were being set off as I wrote this. At first I thought, “Good grief, it’s Monday morning, people.” Then I thought, “You know, I hate Mondays, too. Monday mornings are a perfectly valid time to explode things.”
[Incidentally, I think today also happens to be near the end of Carnival, but, mostly, I think people just like to blow shit up and make loud noises.]
20) Come prepared to live life to the fullest and fall in love. Despite only having seen a small fraction of South America, I absolutely love this continent. I can’t fully explain how or why. But, come on down. You’ll find out for yourself.
From Huaraz, with Love,