Georgina Lawton | Contributing Writer | Saturday, 28 March 2015

How To Survive Backpacking Around South America

How To Survive Backpacking Around South America With No Money And Only A Little Bit Of Sense

The Debrief: Haggling, nightbussing and pretending to be a priest. Obviously

There’s something about South America that retains a unique appeal for so many British backpackers. Maybe it’s the cheap, cheerful and chilled lifestyle where the cities crawl at a leisurely pace and beers cost £1, or the breathtakingly diverse landscapes where you can scale glaciers, jungle, mountains and desert in the same week (Peru/Ecuador). Or maybe it’s the vibrant fiesta culture that boasts music and dance completely different to the Western club scene. I’ve been convinced for some time that I should have been born in a carnival country, so I’ve been backpacking around Colombia for the past few months trying to find my inner ‘chica’ and I’ve picked up many a tip along the way.

Pretend to be a priest to protect your post
During my first week in Colombia I met John and Katie, both 25 and from the US, who were touring South America after three years of volunteering in the Peace Corps in Peru. They gave me the Backpacker’s 411 and I almost choked on my cheese pancake in ‘Crepes and Waffles’ (a chain across Peru and Colombia which will become your staple) when John told me that a religious alias is a must to protect your post. ‘If you want to get a package from home, tell whoever is posting it to address you as a priest or nun’ he told me. ‘South American countries are super-religious and very superstitious so I had my post addressed to ‘Brother John’ and covered it in religious stickers and no-one ever touched it.’ Katie added: ‘When I needed a new bank card sent to me from the US, I got my Mum to send it in a Bible.’ Blasphemy or blessing? Either way it’s a win.

travelling around south america

Not being able to dance salsa is akin to having some sort of genetic deformity in South America, and you will be treated as such. Three months ago, the only salsa I knew was the house-building soundtrack on The Sims, but after some lessons and some serious shadowing in bars and clubs, I can now safely confirm that my hips do not lie (well, not as much as they did a few weeks ago) and that I can allow myself to be led around a dancefloor, hand-in-hand with a stranger (there is no personal space with salsa) without squirming away in a fit of giggles. Progress indeed.

Night buses are ok (if you plan ahead)
Before travelling, I’d heard horror stories about night-buses in South America getting held up at gunpoint and tourist’s bags being slashed for valuables -and it does still happen -but not across the entire continent. There’s also generally more hassle when crossing country borders, so check the government website Know Before You Go for updated travel advice before buying that bus ticket. Katie told me that as a solo female traveller in Peru, she would catch a night-bus only if she knew where she was headed upon arrival. She said: ‘You should always pay for the most expensive buses where possible and only get a night-buses if you know the country well like I did, or if you’re getting dropped off directly to your hostel. What you don’t want to be doing is hanging around the streets at night trying to catch a cab because that is when shit will go down.

Rise above the catcalls
My Colombian language teacher once told me that flirtation in Colombia is laced with sexual innuendo, and she wasn’t half wrong, but walking down the street in some parts of the country you can get a whole lot more than a wink and whistle. In Cartagena the catcalling was full-on; there were guys hissing, shouting and commenting on my clothes in Spanish whenever I walked anywhere alone. Although I learned a few choice phrases that I could have fired back, I chose to stay silent. Why? Because I noticed that other Colombian women did the same. As sad as it is, many women in South America have become immune to the everyday sexism. Although staying silent pissed me off, I couldn’t see the point in making myself stand out even more by mouthing off in broken Spanish. As a foreigner it’s not worth the risk, so when in Rome…stay silent.

travelling around south america

Learn the lingo
English isn’t widely spoken throughout South America - in Colombia it was rare to chat to locals in anything other than Spanish - so it’s the perfect place to brush up on your language skills -VidaLingua (an offline Spanish dictionary) and Duolingo (the best language learning game) are two apps that can help you learn as you go. Even if you think you have no interest in getting fluent, some basic phrases can get you out (or in, if you want to learn via flirting) all sorts of sticky situations. After a few weeks and some lessons topping up what I covered in my first year at University, I was able to haggle with taxi drivers and street vendors and avoid being ripped off (I mean, I think).

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Follow Georgina on Twitter @georginalawton

Pictures: Kevin Tadge

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