It's a continent that can be intimidating and other-worldly, but it's never, ever dull, writes Steve McKenna.
EXCITEMENT and anxiety came together as I mapped out my maiden South American journey. I'd been fascinated by this continent since my teens but a drip-feed of terrifying news stories had convinced me that, while I might have fun, I was destined to be robbed, shot, carjacked or kidnapped at some point. I had nightmares about earthquakes and Andean bus crashes.
I shouldn't have fretted. In eight memorable months, I travelled, virtually incident-free, from the frigid southern tip of Argentina to the steamy Caribbean coast of Colombia, passing through Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and Ecuador. I marvelled at diverse landscapes, cultures and customs and the riveting history. I ate sublime steaks and seafood, quaffed magnificent wine and local spirits and mingled with some unforgettable characters. It was the best trip of my life. Here's some advice on how to enjoy a continent that gets under your skin – in a good way.
Learn the language
OK – it sounds obvious, boring even. But if you're going for more than a week and would like to order food, haggle for room rates and taxi fares, chat with the locals and generally feel immersed in your surroundings, try to learn at least a smattering of Spanish.
It's not as daunting as it sounds. I landed at Santiago Airport with only "hola" (hello) and "gracias" (thanks) in my locker. By the time I left Colombia, I could hold a conversation in basic Spanish.
Before setting off, buy a phrase book and mini dictionary, along with, say, a collection of "Teach Yourself Latin American Spanish" CDs, which you can load onto your iPod (note – Latin American Spanish dialects are different to Castilian Spanish).
When you're there, expand your vocabulary – both formal and slang – by reading local newspapers, magazines and blogs, watching TV and eavesdropping.
Even better, sign up for Spanish lessons. Buenos Aires and Santiago are popular places to learn, crash-course style, while Medellin (Colombia) and Cuenca (Ecuador) are among the quieter spots to swot up on your vocabulary.
Class rates tend to vary from $US5-$US15 ($4.80-$14.40) an hour. Don't be shy to practise your new-found lingo with locals, either. They'll appreciate your efforts.
If you're only going to Brazil, however, forget Spanish. They speak Portuguese. The same rules apply. Pack a sense of adventure
Hike around the so-beautiful-it-seems-almost-computer-generated Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Appreciate the majesty of Argentina's mammoth Perito Moreno glacier and the thunderous Iguazu Falls. Scale Peru's legendary ruined Inca city of Machu Picchu or trek through tropical jungle to Colombia's Ciudad Perdida. Cycle down the "World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia, plunge down the dark, dastardly silver mines of Potosi, or dice with anacondas, piranhas and cayman in the Amazon.
An adventure lover's paradise, South America caters for travellers lusting after extreme adrenalin rushes, those content with an easy-going pulse raiser – and others in between.
For many, the most captivating – and elusive, considering it costs thousands of bucks – is a cruise around the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador. Unable to afford that, I soothed my wanderlust by sailing across the Straits of Magellan – the windswept passage of water in southern Patagonia that Portuguese explorers first crossed in 1520. I also explored the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), whose blustery capital Ushuaia is the southern-most city in the world. A cruise terminal for Antarctic voyages, it's also the launchpad for walks across ruggedly picturesque land gnarled by snow-capped peaks, beech forests and mirror lakes.
Find time to chillax
I'll never forget dashing around Rio de Janeiro, taking the cable cars up to Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer, strolling the length of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, partying all night to samba music in the raunchy Lapa district, then getting up, fuzzy-headed, to watch a football game at the iconic Maracana stadium.
Equally, gallivanting round the Atacama Desert, treading Bolivia's epic salt flats and pounding Valparaiso's steep, artistic graffiti-riddled streets were highlights of a continent crammed with must-see – and must-do – sights.
When I look back, however, some of my fondest moments came in places where I pitched up for a few days (or more) and didn't do very much at all, apart from eat, drink, sip cafe con leche, wander and watch people going about their daily lives – usually against a backdrop of cobbled streets and colonial buildings and occasionally with a gorgeous beach on the doorstep. I also found it easier to chum up with the locals if I hung around for longer.
Salta (Argentina), Arequipa (Peru), Sucre (Bolivia), Cartagena (Colombia), Colonia del Sacramento (Uruguay) and Paraty (Brazil) were wonderful chill-out spots. They had plenty on their outskirts, too; wineries near Salta, for instance, and the awesome Colca Canyon outside Arequipa.
Don't stretch yourself
People make the mistake of trying to cram too much in. South America is huge (two and a half times the size of Australia and more than 7000 kilometres from tip to toe) and internal flights are usually expensive; though Brazil's Gol (voegol.com.br), Chile's LAN (lan.com) and Sky (skyairline.cl) and Colombia's Aires (aires.aero) can have good deals. Most people travel overland but getting from A to B takes longer than you'd expect, especially in the Andean region, where hair-spiking switchbacks and narrow, winding mountain roads are par for the course. I was in Bolivia for a month but its challenging topography meant I only saw its south-western region.
South America's rail network is poor and sparse but long-distance buses are, by and large, smart, efficient and excellent value for money. The super deluxe "cama" buses have wind-back, bed-like seats and serve onboard meals (sometimes with wine). The best coaches in Argentina and Peru are a big step up from the Greyhounds back home, while those in Chile, Brazil and, increasingly, Colombia are catching up. Ticket prices are sometimes fixed; occasionally negotiable. This is where your Spanish comes in handy. Cruz del Sur (www.cruzdelsur.com.pe) and Via Bariloche (viabariloche.com.ar) are recommended companies.
My advice – go slow, be flexible and realistic. There's nothing worse than spending all day (or night) travelling, arriving at your destination shattered, rushing around ticking off the "sights", then moving on because you have an itinerary to stick to. You'll soon become ratty, miserable and blase at truly extraordinary scenery.
I know. Hostels. They can conjure feelings of dread. And there are many dreadful hostels. But, unless you're super-loaded, if you're on the road for a while you can't always stay in five-star spa resorts. And if you venture off the beaten track, you won't find any anyway. Luckily, South America has a new wave of very respectable, at times sleek and stylish, "boutique" hostels, which attract a range of travellers; from teen Brits pilfering daddy's hedge fund to 30-something "flashpackers" on honeymoons and pensioners on their much-postponed trip of a lifetime.
The best hostels have private en suite rooms (as well as dorms) and offer perks such as complimentary breakfast, Wi-Fi, home cinemas and swimming pools – plus bilingual staff who reserve bus tickets, arrange tours and recommend the best places to tuck in to good, affordable local food and drink.
Hostels in Argentina ushered me towards the finest steaks (served with Malbec) I've ever had.
My favourite hostel was the friendly, hammock-infested Tucano House (tucanohouse.com) on the beautiful Brazilian island of Santa Catarina. B&B Rio Amazonas-Plaza Italia in Santiago and eco-friendly La Casa Verde in Banos, Ecuador, have won awards from Hostelbookers, the website for budget accommodation, including backpacker joints, eco-lodges, cheap hotels, apartments and posadas (family-run, bed-and-breakfast inns).
Tripadvisor is another good source for accommodation. Volunteering – whether working on nature projects or teaching English to kids – often comes with free accommodation. See volunteersouthamerica.net.
Don't worry, be happy
There's no question, crime blights parts of South America. It's not helped by the vast, glaring chasms between rich and poor – especially in the cities, where gated mansions sit cheek by jowl with drug-riddled slums. In the countryside, and in smaller cities, it tends to be safer and more laid-back. But not visiting South America because something might happen is a bit like avoiding coming to Australia because of the sharks, snakes, spiders, crocodiles and jellyfish.
Fortunately, I only had a couple of dodgy experiences. In Chile, a drugged-up ruffian grabbed my tatty old mobile phone. No biggie. In Rio de Janeiro, my Visa card was cloned when I put it into a tampered-with ATM. Luckily, my bank reimbursed the stolen funds and posted me a new card (it took two weeks to arrive). Consider having a back-up bank account (with card) – plus a back-up wad of US dollars, just in case. I was pleasantly surprised to make it through South America without losing my laptop or camera – or my health. I know other travellers who had no problems and some who did.
Usually it's a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time but you can reduce risk by not walking down dark alleyways with all your belongings or with a wallet full of cash. Take official taxis, not unmarked cars. Don't flash expensive jewellery about. Wise up on the local scams. In Buenos Aires, a barman told me that thieves were slyly splashing tourists in gunk and pretending it was bird muck. While one "helpful" person offered to clean it off with a tissue, their accomplice would steal the distracted victim's belongings.
When I was "gunked" near the famous Recoleta Cemetery – Eva Peron's resting place – I quickly let them know I knew their game. They scarpered. It's worth checking Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum (lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) for tips and warnings from fellow travellers. Also, if you're not signed up already, consider joining Twitter. Type the name of the city you're staying in to the search engine and a slew of random tit-bits – from restaurant tips to travel advice – should appear amid plenty of useless information.
The blogosphere is another booming source of information. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, try gringo-rio.com.
Basically, be careful. Be watchful. Be streetwise. But don't be unduly paranoid. Savour the sights, smells and sounds, laugh, smile and be prepared, from time to time, to wallow in the unexpected. If you don't, you may as well stay at home. And you don't want to do that. Because South America is a magnificent place to visit.