6 Things Every First Time Traveler to South America Should Know

Traveling with my fiance, boyfriend at the time, to South America was an adventure for many reasons. I was born into a traveling family. My parents took me on my first international trip when I was less than six months old. This trip was followed up every few years by a visit to a new country and culture.  In my teen years, my crazy parents moved onto a boat and we spent the next couple of years sailing through the Caribbean living in different countries for days or months at a time. Suffice it to say that Central and South American culture rarely surprises me anymore. For my fiance, however, this was his first time out of the United States (neither of us counts the 4 day cruise we took that allowed us one day in the Bahamas).

As my Nana would say, he was “baptized by fire” on this trip as I dragged him through the cities, fields, and jungles of Ecuador and Colombia. No plan and no reservations. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill me along the way.

So, here is my list of 6 Things Every First Time Traveler to South America Should Know…. also known as the list of things I should have told my boyfriend before we left the country.

1) DON’T FLUSH YOUR TOILET PAPER! 

This is what Roland’s face looked like when I delivered this little gem…

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He still feels that way after the trip. To further emphasize this point, however, here is a sign from the airport (where plumbing is apparently better) informing you that it is ok to flush the paper. In newer parts of the cities, it seems that being able to flush toilet paper is becoming more common. When in doubt, throw it out! It’s much better to have put it in a closed trash can than to find out the hard way that the toilet can’t handle it.

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2) BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER

This is good travel advice regardless of your destination (My mom always stuffs at least 6 travel tissue packs in my stocking at Christmas). It is true for many places that I have traveled, including those in the US. I would say though that you are more likely to be caught without paper in South America. In some cases, you’ll be lucky to score a bathroom with a toilet seat (a tank cover is a bonus)!

3) ROAD SIGNS AND SPEEDOMETERS WILL READ IN KILOMETERS, NOT MILES

I wish I had a picture of Roland’s face from the moment he looked down at the speedometer and exclaimed we were going 120 miles per hour! I have to admit that I laughed for a bit too long before I was able to explain that it was kilometers and we were really going closer to 75.

4) C DOES NOT MEAN COLD

This particular piece of advice only relates to Spanish-speaking countries and refers to the markings on the faucet delineating hot (H) and cold (C). In Spanish-speaking countries you will find F and C, but C does NOT mean cold. It stands for caliente which means HOT! Roland’s Spanish was good enough that this particular piece of advise was unnecessary, but I have been on several work and witness trips in the past when screams from the shower demonstrated the dilemma 🙂

5) DON’T EXPECT OTHERS TO OBEY TRAFFIC LAWS

The first time a bus passed us on an uphill curve in the fog… this is something you never get used to, but is an important warning for anyone planning to drive here. Initially this point was going to say “Traffic Laws Are Optional,” but I decided that was not actually a wise suggestion even though it is generally the accepted attitude. I read in the guidebook that Bogota is one of the most dangerous cities in the world to drive in and that traffic accidents are one of the highest causes of death in the country. This is true of Ecuador as well. It can be a lot of fun to drive in this countries and DEFINITELY and adventure, just be aware. These are pictures I took while Roland was driving like a Ninja through the fog, saving us from more than one close call.

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6) ALWAYS NEGOTIATE BEFORE YOU ACCEPT A SERVICE

This applies to many areas of travel in many countries. I added it to this list following this trip for one reason: Bogotá cabs! No matter what the meter said, we were asked for more money. If you have not established a set price or agreed to the meter reading before you get in the cab, you have very little to go on. My Spanish is good enough to put up a fight, but if I didn’t have exact change for the driver I lost more than once before this expensive lesson was learned. The same rule holds for local buses.

These are just a part of the adventure of travel, so don’t be discouraged! This is not a comprehensive list because I wouldn’t want to take all of the fun out of it 😉 Just a few necessities to get you by. My final piece of advice is this: TRAVEL and do it often! Not everyone is out to get you and there are many kind souls to meet along the way. There is so much world to see and so little time to do it.

For the travelers out there, feel free to add any suggestions or comments!

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