South America is officially a pain in the ass. The more you see, the more you have to see. I’ve been here almost two years now and my ‘To Do’ list is growing by the day: Go to the Guyanas, Uruguay, Paraguay; see more of Bolivia, more of Venezuela; explore more of Argentina, Brazil; go to random bits of Ecuador. I even need to see more of Colombia, for heaven’s sake. Addictive is not the word.
The good news is, I’ve learned a lot about this continent – lessons I wish I could send back to myself in 2010, when I first filled that backpack and hoisted it onto my shoulders.
With that in mind – and given that blogs should occasionally do something for the greater good rather than acting solely as therapy for their authors – here is my advice for when you finally give in and decide to travel around South America.
(Yes, it’s written for girls. The lucky boys need half this stuff)
I love walking and from Venezuela’s Roraima down to Chile’s Torres del Paine, South America is the place to do it. Take hiking boots if you don’t want to be the girl walking to Machu Picchu in flip flops. Don’t forget decent hiking socks – at least three pairs. A waterproof jacket is essential, as is at least one breathable, long-sleeved hiking top. Some people hike in proper fancy trousers, that’s up to you – ordinary cotton leggings have always worked for me. They dry quicker than you might think and are much more multi-purpose. A decent day pack is also essential for those hikes when you don’t need to carry the full load. If you are a cold mortal like me, you’ll probably need gloves, a hat and scarf but local knitwear (think Peru and Ecuador) is so cheap and jolly, it’s a lot more fun to buy it here.
The rule of hiking is three layers and you do get warm whatever the temperature. Along with your waterproof and hiking top, the third layer is a decent, lightweight but warm, fleece. You can often hire a tent, sleeping bag and roll mat in the places where you really need them, but it is obviously easier and cheaper to carry your own (I never have though, it’s too much effort). The same goes for a camping stove and other technical stuff; I’ve carried a bowl, cup and spork but never bothered with a proper water bottle and annoyingly have never needed my fancy water purifying tablets (on Colombia’s Lost City hike – the likeliest suspect – the water tablets were provided. You can’t hike there independently)
From Rio to Cartagena, South America dances on its cities. Flip flops can be a pain in the ass here too, so if you have some lightweight trainers (I have some Nike ones that are lighter than a feather) they might be a good idea for daytime wandering. Similarly, you might feel the need to jog away your excesses – I’ve jogged in every city I’ve visited – so it’s worth chucking in shorts and two pairs of trainer socks for that. I like light summer dresses for exploring cities, so always pack two, plus the inevitable combo of leggings and denim shorts. Take a couple of tops, sunglasses and a hat if you get sunstroke – although you can buy your ‘travelling hat’ out here, my trilby collection is now almost in the double figures. You may also like to consider a zip-up, cross body shoulder bag for your valuables. Choose one that makes life difficult for pick pockets.
Given the name of this blog, you might think it’s funny that I seem so against flip flops, but again, you might want to bring something better for nights out – like well-fitting ballet pumps. They are much easier to dance in; there is nothing more annoying than being crammed into a sweaty, underground dance hall and losing your flip flops in an energetic twirl. That happened to me in Rio. You can’t salsa or tango in flip flops either. And ballet pumps are hardly heavy. I always take two light dresses for nights out, chucking on the inevitable leggings when it’s cold. Oh and carrying a small bag for my little camera and cash.
South America has amazing beaches so don’t forget your bikini (I always take two) and finally, flip flops come into their own. A sarong is always useful but you can buy nice ones here.
Now I know you won’t forget your underwear (don’t forget a sports bra if you do think you’ll run) Lots of travellers are against jeans, but mine were life saving for lolling around in Patagonia and sailing through the fjords on Chile’s Navimag – as was my hoodie, especially on Colombia’s ice cold night buses. Think carefully about your pyjamas too – dormitories are hardly private.
I don’t listen when Lonely Planet implies South America is the most dangerous place on the planet; I like writing and playing with photographs so I’m taking my laptop (plus cable and adaptor) My nice camera and my little one for nights out are going too. If I’m in the mood I’ll take my Kindle and stuff it, I might need my iPod for the bus. If you love toys too, don’t forget to take a padlock for your locker – someone else might like your toys more than you do. A memory stick for backing up photographs is always a smart move. If you’re not taking a phone, take a cheap watch and something with an alarm.
You will need to replace your shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, deodorant, sun cream and moisturiser – but you might as well start with stuff you like. I always take contact lenses and as many sanitary towels and tampons as I can (plus the inevitable beautifying razors, tweezers etc). Lots of girls don’t bother with make-up but I always take mascara, eye liner, eye shadow and lip gloss; Latin girls always look lovely, why shouldn’t you?
Definitely take a head torch – you will find yourself sleeping outdoors, whether it’s a hammock or a tent. Bug spray isn’t a bad shout (don’t forget to check if you need malaria pills too) You are obviously going to take your passport, insurance, any necessary visas and vaccination records. I would never travel without a notebook and pen either. A first aid kit may, er, save your life. Hikers shouldn’t forget blister plasters. Seriously consider a travel towel – the ordinary ones make everything so damp.
Before you go
I’m not a huge fan of travel guides; I always buy one but only seem to open it on the plane. I can’t be bothered trying to organise my trip in advance – I prefer to ask around or, if I have to, I read the guide book in a cafe when I arrive. But I definitely recommend reading a few appropriate books before you go. Think Gabriel García Márquez for Colombia, Mario Vargas Llosa for Peru, Julio Cortázar for Argentina – and others speak highly of Pablo Neruda and Isabel Allende (Chile) and Paulo Coelho (Brazil) too. Plus I think everyone should read something about Che, to have an informed-ish opinion at least. Similarly, learn something about the history or politics, it only takes a quick search on The Economist. Don’t be like me. The day I arrived in Colombia in 2010 – dazed and confused after four months in Ecuador – I found myself asking: “Who’s Uribe?” Embarrassing.
(Oh and learn as much Spanish as you possibly can, plus a handful of basic Portuguese)
If this list seems long to you, it really isn’t – to me, packing is about quality not quantity. I need a hiking top, but I don’t need three (I wore the same one for eight days in Torres del Paine) I can wash my two pairs of leggings until they cry out in pain – the same goes for one pair of denim shorts and one set of pyjamas (I can sleep in, er, leggings if needed). I can also wash underwear in the sink every week and if a hoodie and a fleece is excessive, I don’t need the hoodie. Similarly, you may think taking a day pack, a city bag and a night out bag is madness but trust me, if you don’t you’ll end up buying them as you go. Cash in your bra is a definite fail when it comes to an energetic night on the tiles.
Good luck and enjoy and please remember, that ‘To Do’ list is only going to get longer.