Category Archives: Guides & Hints for South America

Guides & hints for your travelling pleasure.

Souvenir buying guide – Backpacking Edition

Various souvenirs in Peru, South America

Buying souvenirs in South America is great. They are cheap, they look great and usually of decent quality.
Thus, when you come around the first major shop or souvenir market, you are probably inclined to buy a bunch of them, but wait, here you will learn why.

Why not to buy souvenirs on the first occasion

Souvenir buying guide - backpacking edition south america
There is one simple reason, the souvenirs are basically all the same across Peru, Bolivia and some parts of Argentina. At first I was amazed and a bit confused. Later on, in my travels I got the answer from a French NGO “worker”. She worked previously in Africa and told me how the souvenir industry works. Basically, the produce all the souvenirs in the country with the lowest wages in the area. From that country the ship to all major cities around and provide their products. Thus, you can buy almost the same souvenirs in Arequipa, Cusco, Sucre and Salta. There are usually slight variations, but after visiting two or three markets/shops in different areas you will spot those. Also check out the Lonely Planet or other Tourist guides if a local market offers unique items. In my experience carpets and other woven products are usually locally produced. Also the witch-craft markets are limited to certain areas, in case you want to buy dried animal corpses (PIC). But be careful when taking pictures like those shown here, they usually don’t like that as far as I remember…

Souvenir buying guide - backpacking edition south america

Get the best prices

Although the prices are quite cheap (at least for US/European standards) there can be major price differences for the same product at the same market. Take your time and ask prices for certain products you are interested in. Usually every product is available in most stores or at several traders at a market. I noticed major price differences every time. Also try haggling, in my experience it worked best buying several items and once with a discount. Here are some tips for bargaining and haggling. And don’t forget nearly nothing is unique there, thus you can always walk away and try again in another area.

Cat playing with souvenirs

Some great examples of what you can get

Alpaca scarves. I don’t use scarves, but most people do. So I got a bunch of them. They are of great quality. Make great presents and you can easily put them anywhere in your backpack. They are also great to protect some of your more fragile items.

The famous Inca vs. Spaniard chess. These chessboards with their little figurines are great. They look amazing, are usually built to be portable (fold em and put the figurines inside). And even non-chess players think they look great or at least cute. I got a few of those too.

inca_vs_spanish_chess_board_souvenir_south_america_1

Inva vs Spanish - Chess Board from Peru, South America

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Further Information on where you can find great markets for souvenirs

The following books all contain special information for specific countries. The list great markets and shops for every major city and village. They are organized and written especially for backpacking and traveling. Thus, you can easily read them while you sit on the plane, bus, train, etc.

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5 Fundamental Safety Tips for Backpacking in South America and Beyond

Here are some basic rules I followed – most of the time – during my eleven (3 + 3 + 5) months traveling and living in various South American countries (Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile). These rules are guidelines and are not set in stone. I have deviated from the quite a few times, especially the one about not traveling alone. But one thing is for sure, don’t get too cocky. I got only scammed once in my eleven months and guess what it was in 10th or 11th in South America, when my Spanish was at its best and was pretty confident that this would just be another border crossing like the twenty or something I had before wrong… the land border between Ecuador and Perú wasn’t just another border…

Don’t paint a bullseye on your back

What do I mean by that? Don’t make yourself a(n easy) target. Don’t flash your mp3player, credit card, camera, etc. around in certain areas. Better don’t take them with you, if you don’t need them. I met people who went out in Arequipa (Peru) for drinks with their credit cards, you can only pay in cash there anyway. There were hard metal lockers in the Hostel.
I personally have the theory that a lot of stuff that “got stolen” was actually lost in a drunken stupor by many people.

You are not at home, don’t leave your wallet/cell phone on the table

This seems so obvious, but it happened quite often to wide range of different people. When I stayed in Tena (Ecuador) it was quite “amusing” how many friends of mine – who stayed their for years or were even born there – got their cell phones stolen repeatedly. Usually they put it on a table or the bar and suddenly their stuff is gone. Maybe I am paranoid control freak, but even in secure countries like Austria and Germany, when I put my wallet on the table I put my fucking hand on it or at least my Mark I eyeballs.

If you go into an unknown area be alert, awake and sober or bring someone along

People see if you are alert or just an easy target stumbling down the road. Usually every city has some pretty safe places for going out and living connected with safe and less safe means of transportation. If you plan into venturing into an abandoned train yard, it is probably better to be sober and look around, because people could live there. The same goes for going out, usually most backpackers go out in groups anyway and look out for themselves.

Don’t travel alone on long rides, border crossings and in dangerous areas

Most people would advise you that you shouldn’t do anything alone in South America anyways, except going for a piss. Well, even that can be quite complicated if you have a large backpack on your back and a small one in your hand in a fucking small toilet stall in the middle of nowhere. But back on the track. If you are going on a long bus ride, like twelve or more hours it is better to find someone to help you out just in case, usually you won’t be alone a such a long bus ride anyway. Changing seats isn’t that much of a deal and if it is, it is usually a quite safe place anyway. (Usually the more organized and control freaky people are, the more safe the place is.) I strongly advise anyone to group up in border crossings, because these are usually hectic, irritating as fuck (even after my 20 crossings or something) and annoying. Usually, you have to leave your transport several times and the transport itself are usually group taxis, make sure that at least one other person in this taxi is a “gringo/a” (“dude/gal who isn’t from South America”).

Don’t get too cocky

Yeah, this one is for me. I was my third time in South America and it was my longest trip so far, my Spanish was pretty decent at that time and I had ventured around in Ecuador for about 4 months. I was on my way from Ecuador to Perú and I thought “well, just another border crossing what could go wrong, I have seen it all”… wrong I hadn’t. The land border between Ecuador and Perú is a fucking mess. The actual border line goes right through a fucking city, which was pretty irritating to me, because usually the crossing is in no-mans-land. If I had done my homework or brought some backup – there were plenty of other backpackers at the border station to team up with – I guess I could have saved me quite some trouble.
Afterwards a friend of mine, who has a Masters in Math, told me that was the only border he got ripped off too with a fake calculator when he wanted to change some money… that only made me feel slightly better.

Further Information

Every country is a bit different, I would highly recommend you to get some further information about traveling in South America in general or even better for each specific country you will visit. I recommend the following books for your backpack. They are very well organized and catered to the backpacker, while you sit on the plane, bus, train, etc. you can read about the city you are going next.

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Slideshow & Video for: 7 Things Every Backpacker should have in his Backpack

Due to the wide success and great resonance on my post 7 Things Every Backpacker should have in his Backpack, I put together a video and a slideshow. Enjoy! Feedback welcome!

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Dogs in South America

In South America dogs live nearly everywhere and are mostly on their own. Well, this sounds a bit dangerous, yet the dogs I have seen in South America were all very well behaved, mostly clean and really friendly. I can’t even remember one uncomfortable situation with a dog in 6 months! (Whereas in Europe, I had quite a few uncomfortable situations from dogs barking at me like crazy to other annoying things, even (or especially?) when they were with their owners.)

As you can see in the video below, I took some pictures of them and mostly from close range (I only have 4x zoom). Nevertheless, be careful, but most dogs will just ignore you or will be really cute to get some food.

I was really amazed to discover such a wide range of different dog breeds in South America, especially the number of Huskies and German Shepards.

Video: Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile

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6 Useful Tips for Travelling with a Bus in South America

Introduction

Travelling by bus is the common way to travel in South America. I travelled only by bus and once by plane. Here are some general tips and hints. Yet, there is sometimes a huge difference between the buses in different countries depening on their development stage and/or tourism level. Thus, I added an additional post about the different countries, we know about: Travelling by Bus in South America – Different Countries

Know what you need on the ride and get it beforehand

Usually a bus ride takes about 5-15 hours, so it is good to know what you need beforehand. I always bring some food and water. Most trips include a breakfast, food and drinks, but this could be a cookie with a small cup of tea, which might not be enough. Check out the package list for convenience and safety, about what you should definitely bring.

The travelling outfit

Usually, when I board a bus I put my most practical and worst clothes on. First, practical means good and many pockets (deep, ideally with zippers or another way to close them) on my trousers and comfortable. I have a special trouser in greenish, with many pockets and I can detach the legs of with zippers to make it medium or very short. Second, worst clothes, well usually you are rich compared to the locals, thus I prefer to look more like a poor traveller than a rich one.

Should you keep your valuables with you or in the cargo bay – short checklist

First of all, in South America it is quite common that you need your passport / ID card even within the borders of one and the same country. Thus, when travelling with a bus I recommend to keep your passport always with you.

-Do you travel alone? Yes, 1 point for the cargo bay.
-Do you travel with another person or a group that you trust and keeps an eye on your stuff too? Yes, 2 points for keeping it with you in the bus.
-Is it a long ride? Yes, 1 point for the cargoy bay.
-Are you tired or do you fall fast asleep? Yes, 2 points for the cargo bay.

-Do you have the possibility to really secure your stuff in the bus, e.g., small backpack with lock and a chain to mount it to your place? Yes, 3 points for keeping it with you in the bus.
-Do you travel with a secure bus company with strong regulations special staff, vouchers, etc.? (Like the first class of the Cruz del Sur fleet in Peru? Yes, 5 points for the cargo bay.
-You like peace of mind, while sitting in the bus and tired of watching your stuff? Yes, 3 points for the cargo bay.

In my case, I nearly always put a vast amount of my valuables in the backpack that was stored in the cargo bay.

Know what you should take with you in the bus

Well, check what you need, then what you want and then what you could need.
My list is as follows:
-Something to drink
-Something to eat
-Hygenie stuff
-Something to entertain me (book(s), mp3player)
-My Camera

To get some ideas about what you should have with you, check out: The package list for convenience and safety and 7 Things every Backpacker should have in his Backpack.

Check and/or determine where they put your backpack

This is necessary if you are travelling with a bus that carries liquids or stuff that can run out. If they put your backpack below a bag of eggs and these eggs break, well bad luck. I heard from some travellers that insisted that their backpacks are put on the top of the bus to avoid such situations. Personally I think this is only necessary in a very few occassions. If you want to be on the safe side you can always put your rain gear around your backpack everytime it is stored in the bus.

Watch your stuff

Watch your stuff before it it stored in the bus.
Watch your stuff while you are in the bus.

Depending on the security level also watch it after it was stored in the bus AND everytime the bus stops. (I only did this in Bolivia). In Peru, Chile and Argentina I always got vouchers for my stuff and they bus stops and service was quite organized, thus after I gave them my backpack I was pretty sure that it is safe and it was always. In Argentina I once forgot my hat, while changing a bus and then they asked who forgot it. Wow, I was pretty amazed about that.
Yet, in Bolivia the service and security is quite different – also depening on the bus company – there I always watched my stuff, right before the moment we took off and at every stop we took a look at the cargo bay. Sometimes even leaving the bus.

Further information for your pocket

I would highly recommend you to get some books about traveling in South America for your trip that you can read while on the bus. I prefer the Lonely Planet, cause it’s structured to get the most important information fast. It is ideal to skim or read in the bus or whatever vehicle you are traveling.

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