I’m usually an impulsive person, a habit that has gotten me into more unforgettable memories than regrets. For the most part, I get these foreign surges to live in the moment, live my best life, live like there is no tomorrow. There were moments during my planning, where I wanted to throw the towel in and leave right then and there. But alas, I planned for a year and here I am, nine months later in a hostel in Buenos Aires, nearing the end of my trip.
Before I left, I scoured the internet for valuable information on solo female backpackers in South America. As expected, 1) There weren’t many posts and 2) It seemed the dangers and tales of Latin America has infiltrated to novice backpackers. SO! Here, I will contribute my grain of sand on traveling tips and essentials that I have greatly needed and highly recommend:
Here’s a quick profile on who I am, perhaps relatable. I graduated uni, worked for a year, lived with my parents, saved my money. Why did I travel? Because for most of my young life, I have lived in the United States, endured comments of being “exotic, spicy food, salsa.” I wanted to truly understand if these stereotypes really applied for most of South America. And if you are part of any minority in the United States, you will understand that regardless of where you are truly from you are categorized into being Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino/Hispanic, Black, or White, that’s it. Being a Latin American in the US means you are to know about all of the cuisine, Bolivian, Peruvian, Colombian, you must dance merengue and bachata, otherwise you are “too white.” Tough right? My second reason is much simpler, I wanted to improve my Spanish.
Lil more: I’m not much of hiking or any sort of physical activity kind of person. I was a bit concerned about my physical state pre-trip, but there’s sooo much else to see it wasn’t a problem, most of the time.
I have been to: Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
Latin America is often painted as a tropical fruity terrain with an abundance of colors and sounds. Half of that stereotype is correct, the heat… not so much. Keep in mind the South American continent has a large backbone running from Colombia all the way down to Chile. The Andes. A breathtaking mountain range that is accompanied with stifling cold temperatures and absolutely no heating systems anywhere in the countries that border it (or so it seemed). Also, contrary to very basic popular belief, there are seasons down south. There are scorching summers, breezy autumns, and cold winters. Be prepared for any temperature. I packed:
- Two dresses, light and colorful (both cotton)
- One pair of jeans (nothing sexy, flexible for my constant bloating tummy)
- One pair of leggings
- Three t-shirts, and two sleeveless shirts (cotton)
- A turtleneck and two long sleeve shirts (cotton)
- Two sweaters: hoodie and fleece
- Rain jacket (Northface jacket I’ve had since I was in middle school)
- Uniqlo jacket (super useful and extremely light/compact)
- Two pairs of shorts: jeans and Jcrew
- 9 pairs of underwear and three bras (no wire, I barely wear them anyway)
- A cami
- Two pairs of short socks, long warm socks, and breathable socks
- One black dress
- Hiking boots (super lightweight, great grip, and warm, thanks REI), Birkenstocks, and Stan Smiths (which were stolen so now Nike’s)
- A one-piece, which later converted into a tanga bikini in Brazil.
and of course:
My bag. As mentioned before, I was very new to this whole backpacking thing. There’s a HUGE difference between backpacking and vacationing, you’ll see. I went to REI, explained to the employee my plans and asked for what I needed. This bag was recommended to me based on my needs, basically sightseeing versus mostly camping/hiking etc. The bag is fantastic, a bit small, although ideal for my frame, I wouldn’t have wanted another one.
Each piece has been essential for any occasion. I selected colorful pieces as well as lots of blacks and whites.
I don’t carry any special gear, apart from my camera, laptop, binoculars, and hiking boots. I haven’t needed anything, which is the best part. As for essentials such as floss, sanitary products etc. you can purchase here, don’t fret.
Also! Travel light! You will regret being bogged down by unnecessary supplies and of course, you will buy things along the way.
- Packing cubes, these are so so useful in separating your clothes. You might think you’ll keep everything organized by tossing and mixing pieces in your bag, but don’t be too confident. You can get messy fast, especially when you’re sharing a room with 12 other people and the space is limited.
- A lock! People steal! Travelers steal! Everybody steals! I’ve only had one pair of shoes stolen and that’s just because I was drunk on the beach and wanted to “liberate” my feet, my fault. But nothing else I’ve lost because of my lock!
- Lenovo Yoga laptop. Best little laptop ever, absolutely efficient, light and if you work remotely, this is your companion. Also great for editing pictures and watching Netflix. I bought it for much cheaper than the original price, Best Buy discounts!
- Sleeping mask and earplugs. Many people in one room, in a bus, everywhere. Enough said.
- Downloading a map of the place before you arrive, Google Maps or Maps.me
Random useful tips:
- There’s a lot of harassment, and unlike many Westernized countries, it’s widely accepted here. A few bloggers and articles recommended wearing a ring, dressing less revealing, but honestly, these tips didn’t help me. So I took a different approach. I cut my hair, very short. Not only did men reduce their stares and whistling, but they thought I was a lesbian. Which I didn’t mind at all.
- Try to befriend people from the respective country so you aren’t ripped off. Even I, with my Colombian accent and tanned skin would stand out as a foreigner. There are special prices for natives of the country, Latin Americans, and gringos (everyone who is white is a gringo, don’t be offended).
- Ex. When I was in Peru, I traveled with a friend. There was an issue with flights from Lima to Cusco and she ended up arriving first. I had befriended a Peruvian dentist who tipped me off on catching a taxi outside of the airport rather than inside, it’s cheaper, he said. And cheaper it was, he hailed me a cab that cost me 7 soles. When I arrived to the hostel, my friend commented she paid 60 soles for a ride!
- If you still have a working Student ID, bring it! You get all sorts of discounts in unexpected places like Machu Picchu. I’m not a student anymore, but conveniently my ID doesn’t expire until 2019.
- Blablacar, it’s useful, check it out.
- SPIbelt. Everything fits, it can be concealed easily, and reduces your traveler profile.
Hardest things about backpacking:
- You will miss home at some point, about 2 or three months in when certain things don’t work, but you quickly move on.
- Internet, I will never complain again about not having service back home. Never. And you might think, oh I don’t need Instagram or social media, I’ll be fine. But you won’t be, because the internet matters when you’ve had a shitty day of traveling for 13 hours, you can’t find the hostel, it starts raining and you bag seem heavier than ever and all you want to do is talk to your mom but the internet is spotty. It happens. That’s why it’s essential to download your maps beforehand! Always prepare yourself for anything, because if you don’t, the worse will happen. The universe has a way of teaching you lessons the hard way.
- Clothes. This is more personal. I absolutely love clothes and expressing myself through clothes. Style can be empowering, no matter how vapid you might think it is. And my mother especially, brought me up to always look presentable, because you never know who you will encounter.
That’s about it. Overall, backpacking isn’t for everyone, and it can be tough at moments, but it’s important to realize that it can also be routine. And even if you plan on traveling for 6 months and tire yourself, it’s okay to go back home. South America will be here during your lifetime, just come back!
Eventually, you accustom yourself to plan before moving from point A to point B. It’s always best to surround yourself with people and trust me, even if you are traveling alone, you rarely have any privacy. So technically! You won’t be lonely. And if you’re thinking about doing it, do it. It is the most rewarding, beautiful experience. You meet incredible people and see landscapes that even you’re craziest dreams couldn’t conjure.
Ps. Before my trip, I read many comments of concerned backpackers on traveling alone, because of the solitude. I promise you, if anything, you’ll WANT privacy. Mainly in hostels, you are constantly surrounded by marvelous people you can’t stop chatting up. Friendships are born in a day. And generally humans are more open when they’re traveling, so don’t worry, you won’t be alone.
Embrace it, baby, it’s one hell of a ride.
Questions? Concerns? Ask me anything.