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South America Tips: 21 Essential Travel Tips [The Family Edition]

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Last Updated on September 13, 2023 by Ariana Svenson

Looking for the best South America tips? A trip to South America is an adventure filled with breathtaking landscapes, vibrant cultures, and unforgettable experiences. However, travelling to a foreign country or continent also comes with its set of challenges and considerations. From planning your itinerary to understanding the local customs, there are several aspects to keep in mind before and during your trip.

South America is a great place to travel with kids. South American people, in general, value family, and kids are loved. Unlike many Western cultures, which focus on time and personal comfort, South American cultures are much more relaxed.

They live more in the moment, and so if they see a cute kid, they will genuinely stop to have a chat or a play. They are generally likely to offer you a hand or try to help if they can.

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The author and her kids at Machu Picchu

This post may contain affiliate links, from which we would earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. More info in my disclaimer.​


South America Tips: 21 Essential Travel Tips [The Family Edition], Bogota Airport

Waiting for a flight at Bogota’s El Dorado airport.

South America Tips


Here are our essential South America tips to make your holiday as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

1. Planning Your Route and Itinerary


It’s advisable to have a general route planned, as travel between locations can be time-consuming. South America is a massive continent, after all. If you’re visiting somewhere like the Galapagos Islands or a trip across the Andes mountains, your route should be completely planned in advance due to limited flights and logistical considerations. If you are planning to take the bus; be profoundly honest with yourself: how will your child or children cope with a 9 or 10 hour bus ride. (Some kids will be ok – some not!)

A flexible itinerary across the amazing continent, with must-see destinations and a rough timeline, but leaving room for impromptu trips and local recommendations, is key. For example, plan to visit Machu Picchu and the Galapagos but leave space for unexpected discoveries. Read more about having the best family vacation in South America here.

Another thing that needs advance planning is definitely the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which pre-pandemic would sell out six months in advance. In Peru in 2023, Machu Picchu tickets (e.g., even if you weren’t hiking) were selling out 4 – 6 weeks in advance – unheard of!

Make sure you also consider altitude sickness in areas of high altitude. Read about acclimating to altitude with kids here or discover what it’s like to visit Machu Picchu with kids here.

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2. Travel Tip: Make a Child-Friendly Holiday Plan


Making an itinerary that has plenty of downtime where you can play with your kids should mean that everyone is happy and relaxed, and the kids have the chance to let off some steam.

One of my favorite cultural places of interaction is playgrounds where kids can see or experience different languages; and culture. If you really want your kids to learn about other cultures – take them to a playground. I firmly believe that young ones will learn way more there than in any museum!

My kids love to swim, so having a pool at the hotel is ALWAYS considered a treat for them. So, even if we’ve had a long, tiring travel day, they go and jump in the pool in the dark and their humor improves.

In short, you may not want to visit playgrounds or hang around the pool; but If everyone is happy and relaxed, then things will flow much better. In addition, from a safety perspective, if parents are not wrangling screaming kids and taking their eyes off the luggage is a win!

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3. Vaccinations for South American Countries


Before heading to South America, ensuring you are up-to-date with routine vaccinations is important.

Some countries require specific vaccinations, like the Yellow Fever vaccine, before entry. Recommendations vary by country, but common vaccines include Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and sometimes Rabies, especially if you plan on spending time outdoors or with animals. Malaria prevention medication might also be advised for certain areas.

Here are the recommended sites to look at what vaccines you need:

4. Take Out a Copy of Everyone’s Passport


It is always recommended to take a copy of your passport while travelling. Your passport is the most important document you’ll carry while travelling abroad. Losing it can lead to a lot of hassles and delays. Hence, it’s always advisable to carry a photocopy of your passport and also a digital copy stored securely online or on a device you carry with you.

Carry the photocopy separately from your original passport so you still have a copy if you lose your bag (or it gets stolen). Showing a photocopy of your passport can be useful for identification purposes in non-official contexts, and the digital copy can be a lifesaver in case you lose your original and need to get a replacement from your embassy.

Remember: Also to leave a copy with a trusted person back home.

5. Only Take 1 Credit Card Out with You – But Bring 2


Make sure you have at least two debit/credit/travel cards, keeping one as a backup in case the other is stolen or lost

This way, you won’t find yourself stranded without any money.

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6. Make Sure You Have Good Travel Insurance When Visiting South America


Although travel insurance is an initial expense, it can save you from incurring massive debts in case of unforeseen events. Medical emergencies are not the only reason to get insured; good insurance can protect you against things like flight delays, lost baggage or a stolen phone.

Ensure your insurance covers what you plan on doing during your trip. Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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7. Check Your Government Travel Advice


Travel advisories provide up-to-date information on safety and security, local laws and customs, entry requirements, health conditions, and other important details that might affect your travel plans. Governments regularly update travel advisories based on the current situation in a country, including political instability, natural disasters, or outbreaks of diseases.

Advisories will help you make informed decisions about your travel plans and also help you prepare for any potential risks or challenges that you may encounter during your trip. If you can, sign up for email alerts for the country you’re travelling to.

You can read our guide to the safest countries in South America here.

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8. Tourist Visas for Your South America Trip


Getting the correct tourist visa or visa for your South American trip is essential for a smooth experience. When you travel to South America, the requirements for visas vary from country to country and also depend on your nationality. Some other countries also offer visa-on-arrival or do not require a visa for certain nationalities, while others necessitate applying in advance – don’t wait until the last minute to find this out.

Check the requirements for each country you plan to visit well ahead of your trip, ESPECIALLY if you plan to visit multiple countries. Some countries, like Brazil, have started offering e-visas, which can be applied online.

9. ATM’s, Withdrawal Fees and Exchange Rates


ATM fees can add up quickly when you’re abroad for an extended period. Most banks in South America charge withdrawal fees, even if you have a travel card.

Here are some essential tips:

  • Research Banks: Before you travel, research the banks in the area you’ll be visiting. Find out which ones allow the amounts when withdrawing money and charge the lowest fees.
  • Maximize Each Withdrawal: Unless you’re absolutely certain you won’t need the money, withdraw the maximum amount allowed each time to minimize the number of transactions and, therefore, the total fees. I didn’t do this on my last trip and was paying $10 – $15 in fees every time I made a withdrawal. What a newbie mistake that I paid for dearly.
  • Check Exchange Rates: Always check the exchange rate earlier in the day to avoid being ripped off when exchanging leftover currency at land borders.
  • Use Reputable ATMs: Stick to ATMs located inside banks or in well-lit, busy areas to minimize the risk of card skimming or other fraud.
  • Notify Your Bank: Let your bank know you’ll be travelling abroad to avoid having your card blocked for suspicious activity. This is especially important if you plan to make large withdrawals.

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10. Tip for Travelling South America: Learn the Language


Learning even a few phrases in the local language can make a big difference to your trip. Most countries in South America are Spanish-speaking countries, except for Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language. Learning the basics is important. Knowing a few phrases will also help you to connect with the locals better.

Learning a new language before a trip is a great way for kids to learn about a new culture. It also helps them interact with locals during the trip, boosting their confidence.

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In Bogota after our taxi mess up .

11. One of the Best South America Tips: Try Not to Let Your Kids Get Into a Taxi Before You


In South America, you should know that a taxi could drive off. When I was last in Bogota, Colombia, a taxi drove off with my 4.5-year-old and 9-year-old ALONE in the taxi. My eldest daughter was with me in another taxi, and my scream of horror was so high-pitched I pierced her ears. Taxi A did call Taxi B and it turns out it was must a miscommunication and I was reunited with my kids within 4 minutes!

After I posted on Instagram about the experience other parents living or travelling in South America shared that they try not to let their kids get into a taxi before them!

12. Only Get Official Taxis


Using only official taxis reduces the risk of overcharging, theft, or other potentially dangerous situations. Unofficial taxis might offer lower rates but often need proper licensing and insurance and might have tampered meters.

Official taxis in major cities are usually registered with the city, have visible identification, and often can be booked via a hotel, restaurant, or a reliable app. With the likes of Uber these days, you are going to be much safer in general. We used Uber a lot in Lima, and the taxis came quickly and for a reasonable price.

I am familiar with Cusco, and taxis are everywhere. You can pick one up in a minute, so we didn’t use Uber.

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13. Backup Your Photos


Losing your photos can be heartbreaking, whether it’s due to a technical error or theft. Make a habit of backing up your photos daily on a cloud service or an external device to ensure you have a safe copy of your memories.

Whether you have insurance or not, this is one of the precautions you should take to minimize the impact of loss or theft.

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14. Be Aware, Not Paranoid


If you have ever done a defensive driving course, then you will know that you are recommended to be constantly on the lookout for potential problems by scanning the road ahead. In a way, that’s my main recommendation when travelling to South America.

When you are at transition points, like arriving at airports or hotels, be aware of what you are doing and scanning for issues. My partner Norman grew up in a barrio (neighborhood) in Nicaragua, and he always looked out for potential problems like it was ingrained into his way of looking at the world.

This is the kind of vigilance you need when on holiday – and also a lot of common sense. Don’t leave your handbag hanging over a chair or your phone sitting on a table in plain sight. Pack them away.

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Downtown Bogota – always be aware of your surroundings, but not paranoid.

15. Important South America Tips: Be Aware of Scams


Scams do exist… and it’s being alert to them that matters. There are a lot of scams in South America, and the majority of them work around “weird things happening” that divert your attention from your belongings.

This is when your intuition comes into play. If something feels off or odd – don’t hang around to see what happens – get out of there.

One popular scam is when one person splatters a liquid resembling bird droppings on tourists, and another person offers to help clean it, using the distraction to pickpocket the victim. If something lands on you, it’s best to ignore it and walk away without accepting help from strangers.

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Lomo Saltado, one of my favourite Peruvian lunches
🙂


16. Eat From the “Menu del Día” at Lunchtime


Looking out for the ‘Menu del Dia’ is definitely one of the best South America travel tips. Eating cheaply is one of the best ways to save money while travelling. In South America, many restaurants offer a “menu del dia”, translating to “menu of the day” or “lunchtime menu”. This will get you a large portion for a value price.

In Peru, it consists of a soup, main course and dessert, and a drink for about $2 – $4 … (back in the day, it used to be just $1).

17. Toilet Paper Goes in the Trash, Not in the Toilet


Another essential South America tip is that the plumbing systems are not equipped to handle toilet paper. The pipes are narrower, and flushing paper can lead to blockages. This is why you will often find a small trash bin next to the toilet intended for your used toilet paper.

It is important to respect this practice, even if it feels odd at first. Not only is it crucial for maintaining the plumbing, but it is also a part of the local culture and customs. You’ll find signs in many places telling you NOT to put toilet paper down the toilet.

Don’t forget you have to tell kids a million times. We had toilet blockages in our hotel in Lima (twice) and our Airbnb in Cusco (twice) due to one kid or another forgetting and putting paper in. Toilets in South America are Super temperamental and do not cope at all … be warned!

Tip for Travelling in South America, Bogota Columbia

At our hotel in Bogota

18. Tip for Travelling in South America: Paying for Public Toilets is Normal


In many South American countries, it’s normal to have to pay a small fee to a bathroom attendant to use public toilets. These fees usually go towards maintenance and cleaning.

The charge is usually minimal, often less than a dollar, but it is a customary practice expected from locals and tourists.

Be Warned: Don’t expect to find toilet paper even once you’ve paid to use the toilet. You can get some from the bathroom attendant or near the sinks, but there might not be any. It’s a good idea to always carry a small pack of tissues with you. Also, consider carrying hand sanitizer around with you, as there may be no soap.

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19. Don’t Drink the Tap Water


Avoid the tap water across South America, or you could end up getting ill. This also applies to brushing your teeth or using ice in your drinks. However, bottled water is available everywhere.

Many hotels and reputable travel companies now carry water dispensers in cars or in foyers. Or – simply ask for more water. That way, we were able to refill our bottles most of the time and avoid buying plastic (most of the time).

20. Showers Can Be Unpredictable


Whether it’s scalding hot or icy cold, the water temperature can fluctuate drastically.

A steady flow of hot water can feel like a luxury, as it’s not always guaranteed. This is because water pressure tends to be low in many areas, which can make showering challenging. Make sure you keep an eye on the temperature when the kids are showering.

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21. Things are Always Changing, So Make Sure You Check Things Out Yourself


Don’t rely on my advice for knowing what there is to see and do … things open, things close.

I arrived in Lima in 2023 with a loose plan in my mind about what we would be doing based on other trips. Guess what? Three of my main things were either closed on the days we were there OR permanently closed because of the pandemic. So I can strongly recommend always checking opening times yourself or asking the front desk at your hotel to do it.

For example, I was out in Lima with my god-daughter, chatting about what we might do that afternoon. Because she is an amazingly organized young lady, she picked up her phone and called the museum we were talking about to make sure they were, in fact, open and what the entry fees were.

Read more great tips about visiting Lima with kids here.

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The Verdict – South America Travel Tips


Hopefully, this South America guide has given you lots of good tips! By planning ahead when you visit South America, being aware of potential challenges, and staying flexible, you can have a memorable adventure everyone will remember for years to come.

Take the advice you read with a grain of salt and use it as a starting point for your own research. What worked for our family may not work for yours. South America has incredible diversity, and things vary from country to country. So, make sure you relook at these tips when crossing borders.

The situation in any given location can change rapidly due to various factors like political instability, natural disasters, or even the opening and closing of tourist attractions. Always double-check information and make decisions based on the most current data available. Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to change your plans if necessary.

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