Good day! So I’ve gotten quite a number of private messages (ages ago already) from my friends who were interested in visiting South America. I thought I should share my answers here:
Q. Which country would you suggest as the first travel destination?
This is a tricky question as it really depends on where you are flying from and/or your budget for the air ticket — if you have one. However, most people will opt for either flying over the Atlantic Ocean to São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or over the Pacific Ocean to Bogota, Colombia, as their first entrance to South America. For the latter, if you do not wish to visit Colombia due to time or budget constraints, then Lima, Peru, should be your choice.
To cover most of the countries, backpackers will normally undertake the journey in a clockwise direction starting from Brazil > Paraguay > Argentina > Chile > Bolivia > Peru > Ecuador > Colombia… by bus, or counterclockwise kicking off from Colombia then flying out from Brazil. Yet during my backpacking trip, I have encountered two travelers doing it in a zigzag way: Brazil > Chile > Argentina > Bolivia… all by air. Please note that air tickets in South America are astronomically expensive, so it really depends on how fat your wallet is. But usually people start from Brazil or Colombia/Peru.
Q. How about more memorable? Like Chile or Peru?
South America is composed of 13 countries, among which I have only visited six, namely Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, missing out on Ecuador and Colombia which are popular among the backpacker’s list too. To name only one of the most memorable would be difficult… but I would say Bolivia.
Like Paraguay, my country of birth, we are the only two landlocked countries in South America. Not having access to the ocean makes us difficult to flourish economically, socially and culturally. Bolivia had me stunned for proving I might be slightly wrong about it. The country is relatively more developed from what I’ve expected, without the needs to have Starbucks, McDonald’s or any other foreign chains investing in the country they can do equally impressive too. Swiss-Alps kind of dirt-less cable cars running in the densely-populated center of Lima as a form of sky subway, just like Medellin, Colombia, or Caracas, Venezuela, had put me in awe. You will also be amazed by how well-articulated the museum guides at the Casa de la Libertad a.k.a. House of Liberty Museum in Sucre are in showing their histories both in English and Spanish as well in their local language Quechua. Believe me, having a museum guide with a good command of English is not easy to find. While they are passionate in preserving their history and heritage inside the museum, outside, the cholitas keep their traditions of wearing a foot-long puffy pleated skirt with a thick shawl covering their shoulders too. How can I not love this country?
At the same time, comparing to the rest of the popular destinations, there are relatively less blogs covering on Bolivia (except for Salar de Uyuni) thus the fact of not getting much information on the country before landing and to have to discover yourself in situ, taking all the new without any judgement from the media — the experience is fascinating, and this is what I like the most. Perhaps I should stop spoiling…
Q. Is it really that dangerous? Would I get robbed?
Uhm… it is and it’s not. I can tell you though, if you stroll around the streets at late night alone or with a company you will most probably get assaulted and robbed. Does that mean it is unsafe at all? Not really… it just depends on how attentive you are and behave accordingly. Always stay away from dangers and undesired areas. For girls, don’t put on mini skirt if you don’t want to get catcalled. Of course, it is your choice to wear what you feel like, but why put yourself at risk? I understand about the human rights and so, but you would like to travel as smooth as possible without creating problems.
In terms of pick-pocketing, be extra careful. In the area with high chances to get pickpocketed, the less likely to have policeman filing the case for you. And if it is about a lost cell phone or a laptop nothing worth more than a certain amount, the policemen would politely ask you to stand on the side stop blocking the newcomers, which happened to me in the capital city of Chile, Santiago. I got my iPhone robbed from my unzipped shoulder bag whilst taking a picture of the church in broad daylight.
My friend had her camera lost in somewhere in Bolivia. My other backpack-mate had his laptop stolen from the overhead compartment at midnight on his route from Puno to Cuzco, Peru. And there’s another who had his entire backpack lost from the bus storage out of nowhere. Still, I manage to find my camera when I forgot it at one of the restaurants in Sucre, Bolivia.
Be highly aware of your personal belongings and you should be fine. Pickpocketing doesn’t only happen in South America but elsewhere in the world. And talking about dangers? Somehow traveling in South America should be safer than in Europe nowadays, if you don’t intentionally expose yourself to dangers.
Really… this shouldn’t be the reason to stop you from visiting South America. Honestly, I wouldn’t let such unpleasant yet not dangerous incidents limit what I see. I would regret having so, and A LOT.
Stay safe and happy travels! 🙂