How to Prepare for Six Months in South America

iktsuarpok (Inuit) n. The feeling of antitpation when you’re waiting for someone to show up.

So you’ve decided that you want to take a long-term trip.  What now?  How does one possibility prepare for months of backpacking in a foreign country?  Having planned for two such trips now, here are some of the things to think about and do.

PLANE TICKETS

This is always the first step that makes any trip seem real: actually forking over the money to book something official.  It’s also not something to be left to the last minute, as prices increase dramatically the closer one gets to the trip.  There is very narrow window in which prices are best to book.  I ended up booking my tickets about three months in advanced based on the recommendations of an amazing little app called Hopper. 

Hopper allows you to search flights, which it will then tell you the current ticket prices, offer tips about cheaper ways to fly (such as travel dates and airports), and offer advice about when to book.  It will tell you whether the prices are expected to go up or down in a certain time period.  While it isn’t perfectly accurate, it had saved me hundreds of dollars on flights.  For instance, Chris and I flew to Central America from Montana for $471 total.  That included two Allegiant air flights from Kalispell, MT to Las Vegas, NV at about $60 each and two Spirit Air flights from Las Vegas, NV to San Pedro Sula, Honduras at about ($173 each).  While you can book directly through the app, which can be a pain because they only give you a Hopper confirmation code and you need to call to get the airline confirmation code, I recommend using them as a price predictor then going directly to the airline’s website to book the tickets themselves.  Student Universe is a very cheap place to purchase flights as well.

ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Even though travel feels like you are freeing yourself from a lot of bureaucratic bullshit, you still have to jump through hoops.

  • Passport: This should be painfully obvious.  You can’t travel without a passport, and you need to apply for one months in advance, because they take months to process.  A passport is not something you can apply for a few weeks before the trip.
  • Visas: Every country has different entry requirements for people of different place.  Coming from the U.S. I am remarkably lucky in that many places allow U.S. citizens to enter on a free visa of a limited time.  For this trip, for instance, Central America is on a pack similar to the Schengen Zone of Europe.  I can remain in all Central American countries as a whole for a total of 90 days on a free visa.  By the time I hit South America, however, each country is an entity in and of itself.  For Peru and Ecuador, the two main places I am going, the Visa is free for 90 days.  For others, like Brazil, it can be quite costly.  Make sure to look into whether you need to apply for a visa ahead of time or if one can be issued upon arrival.
  • Proof of onward travel: Some countries require you to be able to prove you are leaving in order to enter.  This can be a return plane ticket, a bus ticket to another country, etc.  Many times it is a tossup as to whether a country will ask you to show this, but it’s best to be prepared if they do. I recommend using this website to double check entry requirements of everywhere you want to go.
  • Proof of funds: Along a similar vain, many countries require you to show sufficient funds before you can enter.  This is essentially so they know you’re not a refuge coming to bum off their country.  For U.S. citizens, a credit card will generally suffice.
  • Travel insurance:  This isn’t anything necessary, but a lot of travelers use it to protect them should they get sick, something happen to they miss a flight, or if their stuff gets stolen.  I live on the edge and opt to not use travel insurance, as it can get quite expensive for a long-term trip.  However, if you opt to not, definitely call your health insurance provider and inquire about their foreign medical coverage.  I am lucky enough to have any emergency care covered no matter where in the world I am, though they will not cover the cost to fly me home for a medical emergency.

South American Visa Requirements

VACCINES

This isn’t something o worry about for Western cultures, like the U.S., Europe, and Australia, but for pretty much everywhere else in the world, you are required to get some vaccine or another.  And don’t think this is the sort of thing where you can decide to “risk it” or not.  Some countries actually won’t let you in without proof of vaccination.  Ecuador, for instance, will not let in anyone traveling from a Yellow Fever country in without the vaccine. 

Trust me, I know how much of a pain (and an expensive one at that) vaccines are, but they are a necessity.  My vaccines cost a total of over $300, not covered by my insurance.  Chris’ vaccines were an entirely different debacle in which his insurance company told him one thing then another so we didn’t know whether they were covered or not.  We ended up at Walgreens to get the vaccines and, after about five phone calls with his insurance company, he got them covered under RX insurance because they were administered by a pharmacy.  Pro tip if you’re looking to save some money.  Pharmacies also don’t charge a consultation fee of $100 like I was, where they sit down with you and tell you the dangers of where you are going, information you could find yourself online. 

A general map of what diseases pose risk in what areas of the world.

The two necessary vaccines are Yellow Fever and Typhoid, which are the only two Chris got, but I got a few more:

  • Tetanus: $50
  •  Yellow Fever: $180 (good for 10 years)
  • Typhoid: $58 (I got the oral dose of this vaccine, which is good for 5 years, while the injection is only good for 3)
  • Hepatitis A: $60

When you go to get a vaccine, they will try to sell you on rabies, which costs a small fee of $300.  To me, it wasn’t worth it, so I decided to just stay away from bats and animals foaming at the mouth.

Additionally, they will recommend that you take anti-malarial pills.  This isn’t something required and it is entirely up to you whether you want to risk it as a traveler.  Personally, I’m risking the disease, and here’s why.  There’s a ton of different anti-malarials out there, most of them ending in “ine”.  Two major ones are used:

  • Mefloquine: This more expensive medicine only needs to be taken weekly in a malaria risk area, two week before entering, and a month after leaving,  However each pill costs about $6.
  • Doxycycline: This is the cheaper of the two medications, costing about $1 per day.  The catch is that you need to take it daily for every day you are in a malaria risk area, a week prior, and 18 days after.  It also includes more side effects.  You get what you pay for.

Given how long I am traveling which amount to an insane cost and the unwanted side effects of these drugs, I opted to not take medication.  Instead I’m taking precautions.

  • Long shirts and pants and mosquito head nets
  • Mosquito tent net for camping
  • Insect repellent: Make sure you get 40-50% deet for it to be effective.  Also note that the effectiveness of deet plateaus at 50% so buying that 98% deet isn’t gong to do anything but possibly eat through any nylon fiber clothes you’re wearing.
  • Being inside at night:  Malaria mosquitos only come out at night.  The other disease carrying mosquitoes, including yellow fever and dengue fever, are out during the day.  Granted, you’re always at risk for something, but the daytime ones are the less severe.
  • Staying in highlands: Malaria risk areas tend to be those of lower elevation and warmer climate.  The Amazon basin, for instance, is malaria heaven.  However, the mountainous areas of South America are relatively malaria free.

TRIP PLANNING

I include this step because a lot of people, especially first time travelers, like to plan out their trip, every step of the way.  This includes booking hostels, train, and bus tickets, and figuring out what it is you want to see and do in each place you want to go.  This step, however, is optional,  The great thing about travel is that you can plan as much or as little as you would like.  When I traveled four months in Europe, I planned out every step of the way.  There wasn’t a single night where I didn’t know where I was sleeping and or how I was getting from one place to the next.  In some ways, that was a comfort, but in others, it was limiting.  It made changing plans incredibly difficult and change is a necessary part of travel.  You will have to adapt, and how much you’ve planned ahead will determine how easy that is to do.

Now, for this trip to South America, I haven’t planned anything beyond the flight down there and a couple of work aways I will be doing in later months.  Other than that, I’m completely winging.  It is scary to think of getting into a foreign city with absolutely no plans whatsoever, but on the other hand it is incredibly liberating. 

It is also worth considering that how much planning you are able to do is hugely dependent on where it is you’re traveling.  In western cultures, like the U.S. and Europe, it’s easy to plan everything online ahead of time.  In more developing countries, like those of Central and South America, however, it is much more difficult.  Many hostels do not have websites nor do they put their information on hostel booking websites like Hostelsclub and Hostel World, two of my favorites.  Transportation is a lot more chaotic.  Rather than book fancy charters online, you show up at a bus terminal and shout where it is you are trying to go until someone ushers you onto a bus.

CUTTING TIES

This is one of the hardest stages, and ironically the one that people most often forget about.  When living a traditional lifestyle, there are inevitable things and expenses that bind us to the real world.  It’s not uncommon for travelers, a week before their trip, to realize they have no idea what they’re doing about their car insurance, cell phone bill, etc.  Long term traveling is not so much about leaving reality as putting it on hold.  Here are some of the things that I needed to take care of before my trip.

  • Car insurance: I pay a ridiculous $98 a month to keep just the legal requirement of liability on my car.  Since I wouldn’t be driving it, I obviously didn’t want to keep paying that.  However, it wasn’t as simple as canceling my insurance altogether, because then when I need to one day get insurance back on my car, my rates will be as high as ever.  Instead, I talked with my agent and dropped my insurance down to simple comprehensive coverage, to maintain the status of insurance for a mere $18 a month.
  • Cell phone: Again, something I wouldn’t be using while away but something I didn’t want to entirely cancel as that would require losing my number.  While different phone companies differ, Verizon offers a maximum 6-month suspension that you can activate either by calling or going online.  It essentially suspends your phone line for a maximum of six months (though the suspension needs to be reactivated every 2 months online) and it subtracts a little bit form your bill.  Since my mother and I are still on a family plan, this way works out best for us.
  • Bills: If you’re like me and still lived in the Stone Age for a long time, it might take travel to bring you into the 21st century.  For a long time, I paid all my bills using good old fashion checks. For travel, however, I upgraded to online banking and bill payment for everything.  I use handy dandy little apps for each of my credit cards and to review all my bank statements.  I recommend setting up a similar system before you travel so you can always keep track of your funds while out having some fun.
  • Travel notifications: If you don’t tell your bank and credit card companies that you’re traveling, the minute you try to withdraw cash or make a charge in a foreign country, they’ll lock your card.  The next time you try to access funds, well, you’ll be out of luck.  With no way to contact your companies, this can be a huge issue.  Save yourself a lot of headache and tell all your card companies beforehand, even if you don’t think you’ll be using that card.  I use my Capital One Quicksilver card because it charges no foreign transaction fees, though I still keep my Citi Visa card as a back-up just in case.
  • Storing your stuff: For me, this one is easier, considering I have a mother nice enough to still let me keep everything in my old room.  However, when I lived in Philadelphia, I had to pay $50 per month to keep all my things in a storage unit, and that was just a small one.  Depending on how much stuff you have, this can be more or less difficult.
  • Saying goodbyes: This part is usually a lot harder for the people you’re leaving behind, the people that say, “You’re going where?”  Everyone else will act as though it’s goodbye forever and you’re excitement over the trip will make it a lot easier for them.  Just suffer through it, promise them you’ll be careful and that you’ll stay in touch.

PACKING

Chris' 50L Osprey and my North Face MG45

You’ve bought your tickets, got your vaccines (hopefully sooner than two days prior to your trip), and finally gotten everything ready to go…. except everything that will actually be going with you.  Packing is a daunting stage of the process, and most often the one left to last.  It’s easy to put it off, but when it comes down to figuring out how you can possibly fit everything you need in one pack.  And trust me, no matter how much your narrow down your pile, it still won’t all fit and you’ll end up tossing half of it out.  Even though it seems scary picking out the things you’re going to live on for six months, or however long, it’s a liberating experience to live on only a few outfits, to pick your clothes in the morning based on what smells the least bad rather than what looks good. 

When packing, just remember that it’s not about how you look; it’s about the utility.  Ask yourself with each and every item: How often will I really wear/use this?  If the answer is, “Well, if I decide to maybe to do this…” toss it.  In end, pack half as much as you think you’ll need and you’ll still have too much.  I learned a lot about the dos and don’ts of packing on my trip through Europe, and I still make mistakes.  Below, I’ve included a list of everything I packed for my trip to Central and South America.  Keep in mind, that I packed these items knowing that I would be there for the South American summer, and thus my clothing choices reflect that.

  • Northface MG 45 pack (aka Nellie after the journalist Nellie Bly)- Honestly, all my stuff is a tight fit in a 45 liter, but I like ho the smaller pack limits how much I can pack.  Even if I bought a 70 liter, I know I would just fill it to the brim with more useless stuff.
  • Black Diamond Primrose Harness
  • Red Chili Spirit Lady VCR climbing shoes
  • Leather journal given to me by a very dear professor
  • A small assortment of pens and markers
  • Matches
  • Headphones
  • Bandaids
  • 5 SD memory cards
  • Eye glasses and case
  • Eyeglasses screwdriver
  • Cheap $1 sunglasses
  • Pendant of my grandpa’s ashes
  • Luggage lock
  • USB drive
  • Hydaway collapsible water bottle
  • Tampons and pads
  • Luci inflatable solar light (a seriously lightweight yet high lumen lantern great for any outdoor activity)
  • Bluefield pack raincover
  • Sunland Microfiber Compact Fast Drying Travel Bath Towel
  • 3 disposable razors
  • Chalk bag (used to store extra contacts)
  • ENO Double Nest Hammock
  • Klymit Static V Luxe sleeping pad (perfect for two people who like to sleep a little close together!)
  • Eureka! Solitaire tent
  • 2 pillow cases
  • Marmot Hydrogen 850 down fill sleeping bag
  • Tent mosquito net
  • Beanie
  • 2 head mosquito nets
  • Tru-spec boonie hat
  • 3 neck gators
  • 1 pair Cool Mud work gloves
  • 1 lightweight Columbia belt
  • 6 pairs of pants (1 running shorts, 2 cargo shorts, 2 convertible hiking pants, 2 Columbia sport leggings)
  • 4 button up hiking shirts
  • 4 t shirts
  • 5 tank tops
  • 1 black cotton dress
  • 6 pairs socks
  • 10 pairs underwear
  • Helly Hansen base layer pullover
  • REI light black pullover
  • Columbia mid-weight pullover
  • Columbia rainjacket
  • Ultralight packable day pack
  • Timberland Women’s White Ledge Mid-Ankle hiking boots- A quick note on footwear: This is honestly one of the most difficult items of gear to get right.  Even if you’re not planning on doing as much hiking as I do, travel demands a lot of walking.  In Europe, where I was mostly seeing cities, I estimate that I averaged10-15km a day,  You need a good reliable pair of shoes and I’ve tried a whole bunch.  For much of my life, I’ve been a fan of Merrill.  But lately, their quality had been beginning to decline, as I noticed with the wear on the heel in my latest pair.  I wanted something heavier duty that would last.  I tried Vasques, but found myself disappointed, and eventually settled on these Timberlands, a sturdy, supportive boot.  They’re heavier than the boots I’m accustomed to and pull waterproof leather makes them hotter on my feet, but they’re incredibly comfortable and well made.  When buying shoes, I recommend looking closing at what you think you’ll be doing on the trip and finding the shoe that fits best.
  • Rafters sandals – They’re just like Chacos, but about 1/5 of the price.
  • Sewing kit
  • Canon Rebel t3i (with charger and extra battery)
  • Mini tripod
  • Macbook Pro (with external hard drive and charger)
  • Spanish phrasebook
  • Sawyer Mini water filter (honestly, this thing is possibly the greatest $20 I’ve ever spent)
  • Neosporin
  • Contact solution
  • Repel Max 40% feet insect repellant
  • Benadryl
  • Shampoo
  • Soap
  • Campsuds concentrated laundry soap
  • Clear Eyes drops
  • Superglue
  • Lighter
  • 4 chapsticks
  • Deodorant

All in all, it sounds like a lot.  It sounds overwhelming.  And it should be.  Half the fun of travel is uprooting your entire existence merely to prove to yourself that you can.  Just remember, as Julie Garrison says, “Maybe most of us habitually stay home simply because a body at rest stays at rest.  For better or worse, the reverse is also true.  If you can create the momentum necessary to begin a journey, you might find it hard to stop.”