35 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling To Latin America
I boarded an airplane to Honduras with a thirty-pound pack and an even heavier ego. Having already spent months backpacking through 23 different European countries, I could safely say that this trip wasn’t my first rodeo. Though Chris, my boyfriend sitting in the budget seat of an already budget airline beside me, was popping his backpacking cherry, I was confident that my know-how and experience had made me a savvy enough traveler for the both of us. Oh, how I was wrong.
The first day we landed, I found myself in foreign territory, dealing with problems I hadn’t even imagined in Europe. I knew Central and South America were going to be different than Europe. I just didn’t imagine it to be quite that different. Everything I had learned while backpacking through Europe was rendered complete useless. I threw the rulebook out the window and returned to the drawing board. Even for the seasoned traveler, Latin America is an entirely different game.
- Distances are not like those in America or Europe. Mobility in South and Central America is a tricky thing, mostly because there isn’t any sort of network of high-speed trains like the ones in Europe. Instead, all your movement will be done on buses or minibuses, neither of which makes for the shortest or most comfortable journeys. Even then, distances are deceptive. Especially in Central America, nothing is particularly far apart, but it will take way longer than you expect to travel that distance. Where driving 50 miles in a America would take maybe an hour, in Central and South America, it’s an all day venture. From poor road conditions (i.e. basically dirt roads in many places) to the curvy terrain, the max speed you really reach is around 35 mph.
- The drivers are insane. Despite the fact that no long transportation seems to go very fast, cars in the city limits themselves drive like bats out of hell. And once you get out of the cities, there are no specific lanes, no designated passing zones (everything is a passing zone!), and no speed limits from what we could tell. There are no rules to the road. To top it all off, the buses don’t have any seatbelts. You’ll just need to hang on to the upper luggage racks form time to time. Surprisingly enough, however, the drivers don’t seem to get in many accidents. In fact, in the five months I was there, I think I only ever saw the aftermath of one accident.
- Weather forecasts are never accurate and you can’t plan activities around them. Weather forecasts in Central and South America pretty much always call for rain. That might mean it only rains for ten minute through the entire day. In our first month in Central America, we canceled a lot of plans because the weather forecast looked so bad, only to find that nothing happened. You simple can’t let the weather stop you from doing things, because it is rarely ever accurate.
- No one speaks English. That’s an exaggeration, of course, as you will run across the random English speaker who will surprise you with being able to understand, but do not depend on it. I actually did expect this, but it’s still worth mentioning on this list for those who don’t. If you think you can get away with traveling in South and Central America without speaking a word of Spanish, think again. Chris, who spoke no Spanish whatsoever, managed to survive in the beginning because he had me as a translator, but I honestly couldn’t even imagine doing that trip without at least a passable practical knowledge of the language. At the very lease, learn some basic phrases before going and bring a Spanish Phrase Dictionary along.
- Spanish you learned is school is virtually useless. Even though I had spent a couple years studying Spanish prior to my trip, I quickly learned that most of that information wouldn’t do me much good. I knew how to say every single item of clothing I could possibly ever wear in every color under the sun, and yet those classes had failed to teach me something as practical and necessary as, “How do I get from point A to point B?”
- “Hot” water is rarely ever hot. Pretty much every hostel will advertise hot showers, which means that maybe 10% of them actually have it. Instead, you’ll find mostly lukewarm showers that are someone even worse than ice cold ones. The ultimate fuck you occurs when the shower is tantalizingly hot for one minute, just long enough for you to lather yourself up before turning into ice. This is because most hostels in Central and South America either have small hot water heaters or use electric showers, wiring right into the nozzle that heats the water right before it sprays out. Because the capacity of this nozzle is small, it can only heat small amounts of water at a time, leading to an inevitable trade-off of heat for pressure. There always a trade-off of heat for pressure. My friend Jeffrey (of www.whocairns.com) is currently in Peru and less-than-fondly refers to such a system as a shock wire shower. I don’t know if it shocks you if you touch it, because frankly, I wasn’t dumb enough to try.
- Drinking water is rarely ever cold. Whine, whine, whine, I know, but my water was just never the right temperature! Apparently they take all that warm water missing from the showers and give it to you to drink. The drinking water, either from purified jugs or from the faucet, is never cold. The only way to get cold water is to pay double the price at a store. We got into the habit of filling a plastic water bottle with purified water and keeping that in the refrigerator of our hostel so that we could pour it into our Hydroflask once it had cooled.
- You can’t flush toilet paper. A sign in almost every bathroom will tell you so. The plumbing systems and flushing power of toilets are so bad through most of South and Central America that you aren’t allowed to flush toilet paper. That’s right; that means you get to place your shitty shit tickets in the trashcan. Just take a moment and image how that smells. It’s especially lovely if you have a private bathroom and get to sleep only feet away from said trashcan. But don’t think you can secretly flush the paper without anyone finding out. In some cases, it’s fine, but if you happen to plug the toilet, good luck explaining that to hostel staff when you sheepishly ask for the plunger. P.S.- Even if there isn’t a sign, the general rule applies. The one time we actually did plug was in a hostel in Quito that didn’t have a sign. Being our first night in Ecuador, we assumed that rule no longer applied. Oops.
- You can only be so safe in matters of hygiene. On the health and safety page of all the guidebooks, you’ll read the same thing: Don’t use unfiltered tap water to even brush your teeth. Don’t eat fruit that doesn’t come with a peel. Don’t eat street food. Boil all cooking water for at least 12 minutes. At first glance, these all seem like plausible guidelines, but in terms of practicality, they’re tedious and time consuming. All of these are attempts to prevent stomach sickness or travelers diarrhea. Sure, filter your water to avoid major illness; I can't recommend the Sawyer Mini water filter enough in terms of safety, ease, and portability. But here’s a little secret: You’re going to get it anyway, so don’t deprive yourself. Traveler’s diarrhea is all a part of traveling in any developing country, and you best make peace with that. It makes for a miserable couple of days, but it isn’t the end of the world. And once you’ve gotten it, you’ll feel a lot more free to let loose in matters of hygiene. It’s funny how shitting your brains out can lead to a feeling of invincibility.
- Always keep toilet paper on hand. Toilet paper is a shockingly rare commodity in public restrooms and even in hostels. We couldn’t count how many times our hostel restroom ran out of toilet paper and the workers just never bothered to replace it. As such, we got in the habit of stashing away and hoarding any extra toilet paper we could find. Extra rolls in hostels, huge rolls in public restrooms, you name it, we squirreled it away. It saved my butt (literally) more than once.
- Booking online is difficult and sometimes impossible. When traveling through places like Europe or America, you can depend on the internet for everything: booking hostels, buying bus tickets, and just figuring out the best way to do certain things. In Central and South America, it isn’t so simple. Many hostels don’t subscribe to booking website listings and the ones that do tend to be the more expensive ones. Showing up in a city without a reservation does, however, present some risk that you won’t find anything open, but you at least do have a lot more option if you’re willing to risk that. My recommendation is to use www.booking.com as I have found it to contain the largest number of hostels and hotels in South and Central America. Transportation presents even more of a challenge. Unless you’re riding on one of the fancy, charter services that cost about 10x more than any local bus, you won’t be able to buy your tickets online. You’ll just have to hop right on board and pay once the bus leaves. In some places, like in Peru, you’ll need to buy bus tickets at the company office in advanced to be sure they don’t sell out. This can still be the same day you plan on leaving, but make sure it’s a few hours prior.
- Do not leave open food of any kind in your room. Ants are a huge problem, in Central America specifically. Anytime we left any trash or food in our room, we came back to find a swarm of tiny ants all around it. Make no mistake: we aren’t slobs. It wasn’t as if we were leaving out half eaten sandwiches and apple cores. No, those little bastards came for bags of bread that had been coiled and tied tightly.
- Portion sizes are small. If you’re a big eater, like Chris and myself, this will be challenging to you and you might find yourself ready for second breakfast as soon as you finish the first.
- Eating out is often cheaper than buying groceries. This was surprising to me coming from Europe, where I could never afford to eat out. In South America, however, it was totally doable. Chris and I would often spend around $5 for a complete lunch combined, whereas we could hardly buy anything except a couple cans of tuna for that price in the grocery store. Forget buying anything healthy, because junk food is the cheapest thing you'll find. We got in the habit of eating the same cheap things every single day: oatmeal, toast, tuna, chicken sausages, milk, and pasta. Not great for variety, but good for the wallet.
- Pollo, pollo, and more pollo. Reintegrating meat until my diet (after five years of pescatarianism) the summer before going to Central and South America was probably the best decision I had made in planning for my trip. Everything you’ll see to eat is chicken, and as the free-range chickens cluck past you on the street in every city you visit, you won’t have to wonder why. It’s a good thing Chris’ favorite food is chicken and I hadn’t eaten it in five years, because we pretty much lived on it for five months. If you’re planning on going to these countries as a vegetarian, or worse a vegan, I might reconsider, purely from a health standpoint.
- You will shit every color and consistency known to man. A lot of things are different in Latin America, and your poop will be one of them. No matter how plainly you try to eat or how careful you are, there’s just no stopping the awful death that comes out of your bowels. If you're like me, and you use poop to judge your overall state of health, this is frightening. Too often I found myself crouched over the toilet bowl examining (“marveling” as Chris would say) my mess and fretting over the liver failure I probably had.
- Taxis mostly have flat fares. Only some have meters. Know what they are so you don’t get ripped off. You can try researching online, or you can usually ask at your hostel what a fare from A to B should cost.
- Everyone will try to rip you off. On the above note, it’s important to be aware of how much everything should cost, because locals will always try to get more out of you. If you know something shouldn’t cost as much as they say, tell them and don’t let yourself get bullied into paying the tourist price.
- Check and double-check prices and destinations. The theme of being cautious with prices is getting annoying, I’m sure, but I really can’t stress that enough. Locals will do anything for a quick buck and the second they see pale skin, you’ll see dollar signs in their eyes. Bus drivers (especially in Central America where the bus system is much more disorganized) will actually lie to you about the bus’ destination to get you on board. This happened to us once and we were lucky enough to just randomly check with a local on the bus before it pulled out of the lot. Even the old lady on the corner and the little kid on the curb selling candy can be out to get you, so be suspicious of everyone. There are some extremely nice and selfless people south of equator, but for your own safety, do not assume everyone is inherently good.
- Check ATMs for skimmers before inserting your card. ATM skimmers are a real and common concern in Latin America, and I found myself on the bad end of such a scam. Somewhere in Guatemala, my debit account information was stolen and used to withdraw $800 from my account somewhere in Jamaica (a place I never visited). Luckily, my credit union was quick to restore my funds, but the compromised card was then something I had to deal with for the rest of the trip. Being unable to receive mail, I spent four months being unable to withdraw cash, unless I previously arranged for my credit union to unlock my account for a narrow window of time. To save yourself this immense pain, double check the plastic cover around the card slot. If it’s loose, or jiggles in the slightest, there’s a good chance a skimmer has been placed over it. Use ATMs that are frequented by locals, too. If locals aren’t using it, chances are there is a reason why.
- Make sure your money is pristine. Many vendors in South America (especially Peru) won’t accept ripped or overly crinkled money. This is especially strange if you’re coming from America where a bill can literally be torn in half and, as long as both parts of fully present, can still be legally used. Don’t accept money with rips, because no one will accept it from you.
- Be careful with counterfeit bills. This is a general rule of travel, but know that in South America, if you give a counterfeit bill at a store, the vendor can legally destroy it right in front of you. Since the police are pretty much useless there, you’ll just be completely out that money. This never happened to us, but I did hear talk of it happening to others.
- Everything is loud. All the time. Americans really get an unfair rep for being the loud, obnoxious country. People in Central and South America are very boisterous and celebratory, while at the same time being very inconsiderate. They blare music at all hours of the day, as if they have no understanding of the concept that some people sleep at night. Bring earplugs. Worse, there are only two kinds of music they’ll ever blast: one that resembles some kind of brassy mariachi, and the Spanish hip-hop Reggaeton, all of which songs bear the exact same beat. You’ll start to think you’ve gone crazy when you hear the same beat everywhere you go, whether it be from Enrique Iglesias song (boy, do they love their Enrique) or a rap song about hula hoops as some tenuous but typical connection to booty shaking, I think.
- Weather can differ drastically within small areas. Altitude changes drastically in Central and South America, which leads to equally drastic weather changes. One minute, you’ll be sweating your brains out and the next, you’ll be cursing yourself for burying your pullover in the bottom of your pack. Especially when moving from one place to another, be prepared for both the weather you’re leaving and the weather you’re arriving to. Nothing is more miserable that trudging to your hostel in the cold in a t-shirt and shorts.
- Boxed milk, though unrefrigerated, can still spoil in a day in really hot areas. I think boxed milk is a genius invention and I desperately wish we had it in America. While nothing can quite replace the satisfaction of a nice cold glass of milk, boxed milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated is just so convenient. It’s absolute gold when you’re traveling. That said, it’s not infallible. It can still spoil if the temperature gets high enough (around 80°F for us). We learned the hard (or should I say lumpy) way.
- Nature is heavily restricted. For as lawless as the civilizations of South and Central America are, they are oddly strict about their nature. You can hardly climb any mountain (especially in Ecuador) without the government’s permission, which you can only get if you hire a local guide to take you up there, spending around $300 more than if you just climbed it yourself. By their logic, it looks bad on the country if outsiders die on their mountains. If they really cared about the tourism industry, one would think they would care a little more about tourists being scammed and stolen from on a daily basis. Then again, mountain accidents make international news. Thefts don’t.
- If you use travel insurance, make sure it covers gadgets. Thieves down there like shiny, electronic things. That’s what they’ll target if they get into your pack. We had our Macbook stolen out of our daypack on a bus in Ecuador and we met countless people who told us stories of their phones being pickpocketed. No matter how careful and suspicious you are, this is a very real danger in Latin America, and gadget insurance protects you from it, especially given how useless the police are. I never use travel insurance because it’s so expensive for long periods of time I travel, but I really wish I had it after the laptop incident.
- Stray dogs are typically friendly and owned dogs are mean. Many people are so wary of strays simply because they don’t know how they will act. The phrase “meaner than a junkyard dog” comes to mind. In our experience, strays are actually very nice and if you show one even the tiniest bit of attention, it’ll become your best friend. We actually had one stray follow us all the way out of the village up to the mountain where we were climbing, hang out with us all day in the rain, and return when we were done. Owned dogs, however, can be meaner than a wet panther. The only dogs I ever felt actually threatened by were those that were guarding their owner’s house. Either way, it’s a good idea to be wary around all dogs, because you never know. I for one didn’t feel like paying over $300 for a rabies vaccine prior to my trip so I was especially keen on not getting bitten. If a dog does get confrontational, speak in a firm voice and don’t make eye contact. Do not run away! The dog will misinterpret that as an invitation for a chase. Walk by calmly. It’s also never a bad idea to pick up some stones and keep them in your hand when walking through an area where you know there are mean dogs. Just acting like you’re going to throw it (and not even necessarily doing so) is often enough to scare them away.
- Environmental concerns are nonexistent among locals. If you visit Central and South America and expect to see lush green hills and perfectly idyllic landscapes untouched by modern civilization, think again. You will see all those things, but you’ll see them in the distance beyond mounds of trash piled on the sides of the road. Locals there absolutely do not care about the environment (they’re more worried about providing food for their families). Lack of emissions standards leads to cars sewing clouds of black smoke and a lack of garbage cans and sanctioned landfills lead people to solve their trash problem by burning it in the streets. Breathe in the carcinogens, folks! It was shocking, to say the least. Worst of all, there was nothing we could do about it. Even by refusing to contribute, which sometimes led us to carrying our trash for ages before finding a bin, we knew that it ultimately didn’t matter because no one else cared. Even after months, this was something I never got used to, and I cringed every time I hopped across a trashy creek on the way to what would otherwise be such a beautiful place.
- The Internet is SLOW. Don’t rely on having fast Internet to do anything, because most times, you’ll be lucky to even find a shred of connection in your room. I can’t count how many times I had to stand in the hallway, awkwardly holding my laptop up to the modem trying to get photos uploaded to this website. Bring a stash of movies and TV shows already downloaded onto your device as well, because streaming and downloading is all but impossible.
- Outlets are very loose. Unlike America, where the outlet slots are tighter and snug fitting, the electrical outlets in Central and South America are loose. Larger plug boxes, like the clunky Macbook chargers, will have difficulty staying in the outlets. We often found ourselves rigging up some ghetto prop system using our boots and other gear in order to support the charger while plugged in. This was especially frustrating considering my computer had to be plugged in in order to even stay on. It’s also a good idea to bring a converter box. While they are the same plug as American outlets, the voltages differ, and I’m almost positive charging my laptop on our first night in Honduras without the converter box was what ultimately fried my battery.
The paper slip you get with your passport stamp is important. Nearly any time you cross a border, the immigration office will give you two things: a stamp in your passport, and a little slip of paper with another stamp on it. This little piece of paper is important. Sometimes you’ll get one leaving one country and need it immediately upon entering the next. Other times, you’ll get one upon entrance and will have to hold onto that slip to present it whenever you leave. Keep the slip in a safe place in order to avoid any unnecessary trouble at the next immigration office.
Bring matches. Unlike Europe and other more developed places, hostel kitchens in Central and South America are a little…archaic. Instead of electric stoves and automatic pilot lights, nearly all hostels have propane stoves that require being physically lit. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and find a box of matches in the hostel kitchen, but more often than not, they’ll be out of matches. It’s a good idea to have a lighter or, more preferably, matches on hand for these situations. Bring them from your home country because matches sold down there are endlessly frustrating with brittle plastic sticks that break upon the slightest strike.
You will be an oddity. If you have light skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair like, or look remotely white in any way, prepare to be on constant display in South America. While Chris, with his rich Sicilian blood and skin that tans in minutes of being outside, could blend in with the locals, I stood beside him like a giant white blinking beacon. We stood out even more in placed off the beaten path that didn’t get a lot of white tourists. Over the months, it became standard to be honked at, whistled at, stared at, and pointed at by little kids yelling, “gringo!”. Gringo literally translates to mean outsider and while many backpackers have proudly taken up the name of gringo, I personally found it a little irritating. Nothing seeks to remind you that you don’t belong more than being literally called an outsider. Regardless of how you feel about the brand, it’s something you have to accept and get used to if you’re planning on traveling to Latin America. But remember, just because you’re a gringo, doesn’t mean you have to act like one, and hopefully this guide will set you off on the right foot.
Backpacking in Latin America is hard, frustrating, and disheartening. But it’s worth it. Backpacking through Latin America was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life (and I’ve studied at Oxford University). We faced so many hardships and I cried more times in the span of five months than I probably did in five years (excluding my senior year of college). We were stolen from, threatened, taken advantage of, mocked, and all around mistreated because we were gringos. I got sick with every possible illness I could imagine short of malaria and experienced some of the most painful physical states of my life. But here’s the thing: I don’t regret it in the slightest. They say you’ll never wish you didn’t travel, and as much I doubted that statement while in the thick of it, as much as I wished to just go home, being home made me realize how true it was. Yes, our trip was hard and heartbreaking, but we look back on it with, at the very least, an appreciation for how strong it made us. It’s because of Latin America that we were able to return to a tense political climate in the States with a new perspective and a new knowledge of how privileged we really are… even with President Trump. It’s because of Latin America that we see what things are really worthy of complaint and that we are willing to walk four miles to work every day because we’ve seen people who have it much worse than that. It's because of Latin America that we now have entirely new standards of comfort and hygiene (and we're better people for it). And it’s because of Latin America that I can say, “I made it through that, so I can make it through anything.”