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Overland Travel in South America

One of the inevitable consequences of long journeys abroad is the period of adjustment afterwards. Everything that’s been put off or ignored while you’ve been off exploring must be dealt with on your return. I’ve done these kind of trips so often that I can mitigate the worst of it, but even so it took about two weeks after my return from South America before I felt that I’d caught up with the life I left behind.

Delivering write ups of my travels was part of that catching up, and that element of the checklist was ticked off about a week ago. Still, there are a few thoughts that never quite fit into the posts that I’ve already put up. So for the sake of completeness, here follow a few suggestions for anyone who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps.


Bring a Guidebook: First off, don’t rely on my words. Get yourself a guidebook. Lonely Planet usually serves me well, but your mileage may vary. Even though the Internet has usurped many of their functions, a collection of suggestions about places to stay, sights to see, and culinary delights to sample will serve as good bus or train reading in the space between places. Lonely Planet’s guidebook for South America added a hefty lump to my baggage, but it did what I needed (except perhaps in Rio, where its broad approach was spread a little too thin).

Pack According to Your Needs: This will depend heavily upon your habits and plans, but it’s possible to minimise what you’re carrying on a long overland trip. I generally go for a daily bag containing everything vital to the trip (passport, electronics, medicine, etc.) and a larger backpack containing clothes and anything I don’t need immediate access to. Judicious trimming of what you bring will make this even more functional: I only needed to use a laundry once during my three-week-plus trip, and I kept dirty clothes separated in waterproof internal bags.

Stray Dogs Everywhere: Start in the west and travel east and you’ll notice a change from canine to feline. Chile and Argentina both have stray dogs aplenty, though most of them look as though they’re well fed, and I didn’t come across any who were unfriendly. It wasn’t until I hit Buenos Aires’ main cemetery that I saw cats in the open. By the time you reach Rio, balance has been restored, though the marmosets on the Sugarloaf are surely an outlier.

Don’t Rely on WiFi: I did without buying a traveller’s SIM card for my phone, figuring that a bit of disconnection would be good for me, and that WiFi would fill any gaps that there were. Which was more or less true: wandering around cities is better if the world doesn’t intrude on your thoughts, and there’s WiFi aplenty in public spaces. However, be aware that most of these WiFi networks are unsecured, and even in hotels, where the networks are more secure, the strength of the signal may not be the best. In short, accept the disconnection and know what you’re going to need before you go online. (And don’t use data roaming except in an emergency—the 30 seconds that mine was active before I remembered to turn it off cost me about €20.)

The Roads are Pretty Good—Mostly: After driving north and south through Chile, my ambition to some day traverse the entire Panamerican Highway is stronger than ever. Probably not all of it will be as nice as the route between Santiago and La Serena, but what I experienced was exceptional in terms of quality and views available. I didn’t have much to complain about when it came to the main roads in Argentina and Uruguay either, so renting a car for travel is a definite possibility.

Don’t be a Competitive Driver: This is more of a general rule, as opposed to something specific to South America. Drivers who overtake at high speed, dive into the tightest of gaps between cars, and are allergic to the use of indicators, are best left to their own devices. Especially when you’re a foreign driver. If there’s going to be any consequences to that kind of behaviour, the further away you are from it, the better.

Carry Cash…: Many places will allow you to use debit and credit cards, especially in and around the major tourist sites, but it’s always handy to have some cash if you’re planning on exploring further afield or if the tourist stuff holds little interest. Of course, if you’re country hopping, that means you’ll need to make use of currency exchanges, either in banks or the smaller cambios. Also, the usual rules for travellers apply: don’t keep it all in one place, and don’t flash it around either. As always, be safe.

…but Beware of ATMs: If you need cash, you’ll likely need to turn to ATMs, of which there are plenty. Most of these will be in indoor lobbies, so they’re safe enough to use, though take the usual care. The major issue is that the fees for using them are not small. Limit your usage accordingly, because those fees do add up.

Trains are good, but buses are your friend: I’m as big a fan of train travel as you’re likely to find, but buses are the better option in South America. The passenger train network is disconnected, and the one I did take was a good bit slower than the bus alternative would have been. Buses go pretty much everywhere, and the major cities are connected by coaches run by multiple companies. Do your research and you can get where you need to go cheaply.

Go for comfort…: On the coach routes, you’ll often have the option to opt for “cama” or “semi-cama” seats. These will be on the lower tier of double decker coaches, and they’ll provide you with well-upholstered seats with lots of legroom and an ability to recline far enough to provide you with an opportunity for snoozing. Pick the right coach provider and you may even be offered snacks.

…but mind the view: The one problem with those cama or semi-cama seats is that since they’re on the lower deck of the coach, you’re going to lose out on some viewing opportunities. You can mitigate these problems a bit by selecting the right seat when booking your trip. For example, when crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, sit by the right window for the best views, and sit on the left when going the other way.

Avail of “las verduras” where you can: Especially in Argentina and Uruguay, meat is a way of life. Vegetarians are going to have to put a bit of extra effort in, and vegans might find themselves restricted in terms of their dietary choices. (Well … more restricted.) That said, there are some really good verduras and frutas to be had, and if you’re not aiming to pursue a purely carnivorous diet, you should grab them whenever you can.

Brazil is different: There’s a lot of commonality across the three Spanish-speaking nations I visited, but once I landed in Rio, there was enough of a change to inflict just a little culture shock. Whatever preparation I’d done for the start of the trip went out of the window, and I was more or less starting again. Language was a particular issue, with Spanish and Portuguese far enough apart that there was little knowledge to transfer, and few people speaking much or any English. In short, put the effort in to learn a little about the country that you’re visiting. But isn’t that always the way?

It’s absolutely worth it: Sticking to road and rail to cross a continent is something that I’ve done four times now. Seeing the landscape close up is a massive improvement over staring at it out of a tiny plane window. Getting outside of the big cities, or just walking around a city from dawn to dusk and knowing that just a week or two ago you were sat by a different ocean is an amazing feeling. Every trip generates thoughts of things that you could have done or moments that you might have missed, but focus on the good memories. Trips like this will generate plenty of them.

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