Planning a trip to South America can be SO exciting! It’s a continent rich in diversity and culture, one that has so much to offer. I had the pleasure of booking a trip to both Ecuador and Peru and I was PUMPED to visit South America for the first time! I had no idea what to expect: what type of people I would encounter, what type of language barriers I’d have to hurdle, and what type of food I would enjoy (or avoid!).
During the trip, I started a little memo in my phone listing helpful tips I wish I had before our journey – which I will share with you here! I do my best to be prepared when I travel (I packed 4 disposable ponchos…none of which I needed) but somethings are just waiting to surprise you.
Of course, I have not been to all of South America (yet!) but what I’ve learned in just two countries I believe can save a lot of headache for most people – and are just good tips in general! 🙂
1) Bring LOTS of small bills!
I booked our trip through a travel agency which seems obvious since I am a travel agent. However, in Europe I mostly wing everything. In South America I was a little more hesitant as I did not know what to expect with public transportation, language, safety, etc. THIS WAS IMPORTANT & NECESSARY. Upon arrival into Quito, we had a private transfer arranged. This was crucial as the taxi drivers are pretty aggressive with offering rides, the city of Quito is about an hour away from the airport, and we landed really late at night. The tipping culture in both Ecuador and Peru was not necessarily expected, but certainly encouraged. The currency in Ecuador is the US Dollar, so no converting. Our vacation included tours, transfers, lovely hotels, and flights. I tried to find guidelines online and was pretty unsuccessful. Here is what we did (not knowing if this is completely correct):
-Private transfers – $5 each ride
-Half day tours – $10 for 2 people
-Maids – $3 per day
-Luggage handlers at hotels – $1 per bag
-Servers at restaurants – 10% extra, as they usually included a service fee
We usually left a few bucks on the table for our free breakfasts as well, because we found everyone so accommodating and friendly – even though James and my Spanish was atrocious at best…
Special note for Peru: those cute little ladies with the llamas…yeah they charge for you to take their picture. Make sure you have plenty of coins on you which are about 1 sole each. That translates to about 35 cents in USD, but they’ll accept that for a picture. We generally tipped less in Peru since their customs are a little different.
-Private transfers – 20 soles for 2 people
-All day tours – 50 soles for 2 people to the guide, 10-20 soles for the driver
-Luggage handlers at hotels – 1 sole per bag
-Servers at restaurants – 10% extra, as they usually included a service fee
If I were to do it again, I think I’d bring at least $100 in singles for one week per person. Better be safe than sorry!
2) Bring Dramamine, Pepto-bismol
So, the people in South America drive a little bit crazy. It is one of those drive-wherever-you-fit type situations. The interesting thing is that everyone seems perfectly happy. They’re not flipping each other off or yelling, they’re just smiling while driving very aggressively — and fast. I kind of liked it! However, I do not get car sick at all. For my dear friends that do, please don’t forget Dramamine or whatever type of medication you like to take for car sickness. The buses, trains, cars, anything that moves will probably trigger something deep within you – don’t risk it.
I usually have thoughts while I’m abroad that bring me back to conversations I either overhear from my coworkers, or have had with clients directly. While in Ecuador, I was thinking about a lady who called one of my coworkers and was planning on taking a bus while in South America. Hey, if this is not your first time in South America and you are very adventurous – go for it. But I will say, from what I witnessed with my own eyes I don’t think I have the guts. The buses slow down just enough to have a passenger fling from its insides, the door not even fully open, before it closes the door back up while it continues along the route. I saw this on several occasions and smiled every time.
Ohhh South America–you gem! ❤
3) Bring a lot of snacks!
At high altitude, your body digests food slower. Brooke and I (even being Colorado natives) didn’t know this? But the bottom line is they don’t really eat much in Peru. While I usually travel with snacks (since we are picky eaters) I didn’t think this would be a problem but, as is the theme of this blog, I was wrong.
A typical day for us would consist of waking up pretty early at the hotel, having breakfast there (which consisted of meat, cheese, sometimes eggs, toast, a lot of fruit, and delicious orange juice), we would be picked up around 8-9am, tour some sights, and then somehow people would forget about lunch, continue the touring, and then basically Brooke would be starving to death by then. When we toured Rainbow Mountain that was possibly the worst planned day – although we brought several snacks! We had breakfast at the hotel around 8am and then they dropped us off for “lunch” at 5pm….
It is certainly something to get used to.
4) Stay fully covered at Machu Picchu — no matter the weather!
So, full transparency here, I was warned about this. I toted bug spray around for almost a week and a half for this very reason. Do you think I remembered that reason by the time we arrived at Machu Picchu? Nope.
Brooke and I decided we were going to wear cute coordinating sweaters upon arrival, because pictures. I decided to be a rebel (or stupid) and did not wear a shirt under my sweater. The sweater was pretty thin, so I just hoped for the best. We honestly thought we’d be cold, and being too hot never crossed our minds. We arrived and started our tour of the ruins while the sun beamed down on the ancient citadel, and us. I had on sunscreen (I ain’t no fool!) but man was I wishing I was like Brooke and put on a short-sleeved shirt under my sweater–I was stuck in this sauna that I created for myself, dang it. Brooke was able to take hers off, and get some relief from the heat. This ended up being her fatal demise.
Back in the hotel we noticed tiny blood-blister-looking bites on her arms. They were everywhere. “Oh shit”, I thought “the bugspray…shit…you knew about this, Brynn! Sarah warned you!”
Well, I came out unscathed with just one (very annoying) mosquito bite on my ankle bone. So, staying fully covered, no matter the temperature, is KEY at Machu Picchu or you shall feel the ancient Inca revenge…
5) Bring your own toilet paper…
Throughout Ecuador (specifically the Galapagos) and Peru, toilet paper is not to be flushed down the toilet, they prefer that you throw it in the garbage can. Due to this custom, it seems they were wary to provide toilet paper, and in some cases did not provide it at all (mostly in public restrooms). I, personally, got caught in a bind several times – left high and (not) dry if you catch my drift. We also learned that perhaps it is better to use the “Inca Toilet” rather than any porta-potty available. I’m not the outdoorsy type (this may shock some of you…) and I apparently have a weak stomach, so I struggled through these situations for two whole weeks. Bring. Your. Own. Toilet. Paper.
On the last day in Lima, I finally came to my senses and stole napkins from Starbucks in case an emergency arose. Be prepared. You’ve been warned.
South America is a wonderful place. I’ve never experienced such warm people in every single interaction – even when we didn’t understand each other. Let me know what tips or tricks you’ve put in your note book for South America!
As Rick Steves says: “Keep on Travelin!”