South America is a vast, diverse continent that’s a drawcard for adventurous travellers who come for the food in Lima, the elegance of Buenos Aires, the incredible Incan ruins at Machu Picchu and much more besides. We’ve put together some tips on what not to do in South America – from avoiding tourist traps to dealing with altitude – and what to do instead to make it a trip to remember.
Don’t assume the Inca Trail (or Camino Inca) is the be-all and end-all of Inca treks. The five-day hike, departing from outside Cuzco to the glorious Machu Picchu, is a fabulous experience, culminating in arrival at the Sun Gate (along with sundry other trekkers and tourists) as the sun rises. However, as Peru’s most popular trek, the vast numbers of tourists treading its paths have resulted in erosion that’s led to the Peruvian government putting a strict 200-hiker per day limit plus guides and porters (bringing the total up to 500 people per day). That’s pushed prices way up and the trail books out quick-sticks during high season.
It's an easy train ride to the majestic Machu Picchu...
Instead, consider one of the lesser-known hikes. If the Inca Trail is prohibitively expensive or booked out, all is not lost. Embark on the three-day Lares Trek, which departs from just outside Cuzco. The scenery is just as incredible as its more famous counterpart – think cloud forest and alpine tundra – and it reaches an even higher altitude than the Inca Trail at 4,750 metres. It also passes through indigenous Quechua villages, providing a fascinating glimpse into local life, something Inca Trailers miss out on. The more challenging Choquequirao Trek is an eight-day route that takes in the incredible mountainside Choquequirao complex, a remote Incan city dating back to the 15th century. The hike finishes at Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu, at which point you can make your way to Macchu Pichu, smug in the knowledge you’ve explored the path less travelled.
... but it's only possible to see the Choquequirao complex after a trek that takes two days - or up to eight
Don’t be laissez-faire about altitude sickness. It’s a risk when you’re travelling in areas above 2,400 metres – and many parts of Andean countries rise significantly higher than that. The effect can range from unpleasant to dangerous and it affects the young and fit just as often as it does the elderly or unfit. Symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and fatigue.
Historic Arequipa in Peru is 2328 metres above sea level
Instead, take measure to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness. Ascend to higher elevations slowly; spend a day or two to allow your body to become accustomed to the thinner air and don’t move higher until any altitude sickness symptoms have passed. Avoid alcohol, drink plenty of water and try the local remedy: coca leaves. You’ll notice all the locals have a cheek full of the things. You can do the same or infuse the leaves in boiling water to make tea.
A vendor sells bags of coca leaves at a market in Bolivia
Don’t be offended if a young local, unprovoked, dumps a bucket of water all over you sometime shortly before the beginning of Lent in Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela or Bolivia.
A typical scene during carnival: a small boy coated in coloured foam
Instead, get him back. It’s Carnival – you’re only lucky you didn’t get decorated in shaving cream or hit with a balloon full of flour. It can be upsetting for the unprepared to be attacked in such a way, but the best way to deal with it is cheerful nonchalance. It’s all in good fun.
Don’t get taken in by swindlers in Buenos Aires’ La Boca. The El Caminito area is a well-known tourist trap, with its colourful riverside buildings and tango shows. However, it’s devolved into a bit of a tourist circus with hawkers and hustlers selling cheesy souvenirs, pushy restaurateurs trying to lure visitors in with overpriced menus and tango performances that are most definitely not free.
El Caminito in Buenos Aires is a well-known tourist trap - but definitely worth a visit
Instead, take an organised daytime tour of the area. Parts of La Boca, located in the city’s southeast near the old port, are unsafe but it’s also a fascinating place full of history and culture. Home of the Boca Juniors football club and decidedly down-at-heel, La Boca has witnessed Buenos Aires’ tumultuous past, from the emergence of the tango, the Peron era, the military junta that resulted in atrocities against civilians and of course, Boca Juniors’ most famous son, Diego Maradona.
Soccer, or futbol, is a religion in La Boca
Don’t drink the water unless you are several thousand per cent positive it’s safe. Trust us. You don’t want a horde of bacteria to attack your gut while you’re en route to some distant locale via an 18-hour bus ride.
Instead, invest in a Steri-Pen to avoid plastic waste, or bring water purification tablets. If necessary, buy bottles – just make sure the bottle is properly sealed.
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Don’t assume that because your train is scheduled to depart at 8:30am in Bolivia it will.
Instead, be prepared for delays, expect the unexpected and switch over to South American time. You won’t see the locals getting angry or demanding to know when the train will depart. Patience is a virtue here.
Don’t take photos of locals without permission. The sight of a Peruvian woman dressed in the traditional pollera and lliclla sitting side-by-side with her gaudily decorated llama by can be enchanting Instagram fodder, but it’s extremely bad manners to take someone’s picture without asking.
Instead, request permission. If you do ask, your chosen subject will acquiesce – for a small fee.
This Peruvian woman's smile indicates the photographer asked her for permission to take this snap...
Don’t overlook some of the local foodstuffs. South America is where so much of the modern Western diet originated: tomatoes, potatoes, chillis, peanuts, CHOCOLATE.
Instead, eat like the locals do. Guinea pig? Tastes like chicken. Llama steaks? Truly delicious. Pisco? Mother’s milk. Other, less challenging dishes you really must try: empanadas, bife de chorizo and choripan in Argentina, arepas in Colombia and Venezuela, ceviche in Peru, feijoada in Brazil and dulce de leche anywhere you can find it. A great option in many South American countries is the menu del dia (also called the menu ejecutivo): a cheap, wholesome set lunch that generally involves a soup (sopa), a protein served with side such as rice, plantain and beans, a dessert and a drink. Mains vary – in the north of Colombia it might be fried fish and coconut rice; in Cuzco it could be lomo saltado: strips of beef cooked with onion, tomato, capsicum and occasionally French fries.
Don’t play Russian roulette with your digestive tract.
Instead, be smart when it comes to food. Gastro, or Montezuma’s revenge, as it’s sometimes called in these parts, happens when you eat food that’s been contaminated with bacteria or parasites such as E.coli, salmonella or giardia. Choose freshly cooked meals that are served hot, avoid fruits and salads that have been washed in tap water (peel-able fruits such as bananas are an excellent option), request your drinks “sin hielo” (without ice) and don’t eat any unpasteurised or non-refrigerated dairy. And when it comes to street meat: avoid.
Fresh, peel-able fruit and vegetables, readily available at markets like this one in Cuzco, are your friends
Don’t assume there will be toilet paper in public toilets.
Instead, BYO – and remember, toilet paper goes in the bin next to the toilet, not in the bowl. If you ignore this, the plumbing will pay the price.
Don’t try to visit too many places.
The Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia
Instead, focus on a couple of countries. Yes, it’s very tempting to tick off Rio, Patagonia, Machu Picchu, the Salar de Uyuni and the Galapagos in one trip, but we’re talking a continent with an area of 17,840,000 square kilometres. You’ll need months to traverse the country from bottom to top – or a hell of a lot of airfares.
The Galapagos in Ecuador: very far from Patagonia
Don’t be afraid to bare parts of your body previously unfamiliar with sunlight on the beach in Rio.
Instead, do as the locals do and let it all hang out. The stereotype of the perfectly bronzed, curvy-in-the-right-places Brazilian beach-goer is just that – locals don’t let any self-consciousness about their size or shape get in the way of an all-over tan.
Swim trunks or bikini not itty bitty enough? Just buy another set beachside at Ipanema
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Don’t flash your expensive camera/iPhone/jewellery. It’s like announcing, “I’m a gringo, rob me!”
Instead, leave them at home. Remember, many countries in South America are considered developing countries. Outward displays of wealth aren’t just unwise, they’re in poor taste.
Don’t plan to cross into Brazil from Argentina at Iguazu Falls without a visa. Many tourists want to see the falls from the viewpoint of both countries, but Brazil requires a visa and obtaining it can be time-consuming.
Instead, either stick to the Argentina side, or, if you’re planning to travel further in Brazil, apply for the visa well in advance of your departure from Australia. The visa costs $52 approx (US$40) for Australian passport holders.
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