South American SIM Cards

How to Buy a SIM Card in South America

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Staying connected is not only convenient, but can also make travel safer. Wi-Fi is not always available so having a local SIM card or ‘chip’ is your best option. What most people don’t know is that buying a local SIM card in each country is usually much easier and cheaper than using an international service from your home country. 

This article is based on my experience using local SIM cards in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

Why Buy a SIM Card in South America?

Safety

Uber, Bogotá, Colombia
Uber, Bogotá, Colombia

So why should you buy a SIM card in South America? Why not just use wi-fi?

There are many reasons and the first is safety. If you’re out on the street or trying to get home from somewhere late at night and you have no signal, you’re left at the mercy of taxis. Depending on the country, this can be risky. Whereas if you have mobile connectivity, you can call an Uber which is much safer.

You will also get lost a lot when you are travelling, which is part of the fun of course! However, having access to google maps is really helpful. But I can just use ‘Maps.Me’ right? Yes you can, but being connected means that you have real time public transport information and you can google things on the go that you might want to find out about.

Having directions and being able to search new information when you need it reduces the amount of time that you are lost out on the street, and this keeps you safer.

Making Plans & Meeting People

Have you organised to meet someone at a specific place at a specific time? Arrived on time and no sign of your tour guide, your friend or your date… struggling to find a local place with wi-fi to check if they’re on the way or if you’re in the right place… only receive a message saying “sorry, que pena contigo, can’t make it” an hour later when you get back to your wi-fi zone… welcome to South America without a SIM card!

South America is like the ‘Anti-Europe’ in terms of reliability… last minute cancellations are common. For example in Colombia, it is part of their culture to be as polite as possible. A Colombian friend of mine told me that there’s a social cost to saying “no” and explained that it was an immature part of their culture.

This means that people almost always agree to plans, without even without even thinking about it and this can sometimes lead to them cancelling at the last minute! For someone from another culture this can be very hard to understand and can be really frustrating. 

In Brazil, I was waiting around on the beach to meet someone for about 45 minutes. After they arrived, they explained that arranging to meet at 8pm, doesn’t actually mean 8pm. It means sometime after. I can understand this as a cultural quirke if there’s some sort of rule where you add on say, 30 minutes, or 1 hour.

However, with no set rules, sometimes it’s just a complete guessing game. For someone from a culture with decent timekeeping, it makes no sense at all and can even feel disrespectful. But this is all part of trying to understand different cultures and is sometimes simplified into a simple phrase like ‘culture shock’, so try not to take these things personally.

It might seem like I’m rambling on but I’m just trying to save you a lot of time and frustration! Having a local SIM card won’t change culture but it will make it a bit easier and help you to deal with the last minute changes that are so common in South America.

Where to Buy a SIM Card in South America

You’ve just arrived in a new country and you don’t know anything. The easiest way to buy a SIM card is just to ask! In South America, a SIM card is called a ‘chip’ and in Brazil, it’s pronounced as ‘chipi’. Talk to the staff at your hotel or hostel and they should be able to point you in the right direction.

The biggest cell network service providers in South America are Claro and Movistar. I mostly used Claro although in Brazil I used TIM and in Bolivia I used Viva (after my Entel SIM didn’t seem to work!).

In some countries you can buy a SIM card on the street from official cell network vendors. In other countries you can buy a SIM card in a shop or a pharmacy whereas sometimes you need to go to a network provider’s official store. Below is a table showing where to buy a SIM card in each country in South America.

CountryWhere to Buy a SIM Card
BrazilCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / Pharmacy
ParaguayCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk
UruguayCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk
ArgentinaCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk / Pharmacy
ChileCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Street Kiosk Supermarket / Pharmacy
BoliviaCell Network Provider Store
PeruCell Network Provider Store
EcuadorCell Network Provider Store
ColombiaCell Network Provider Store / Convenience Store / Supermarket / On Street Kiosk / Pharmacy

How Much Does a SIM Card Cost in South America

SIM Cards in South America cost between €1-5 ($1-5) to buy. The cost to top up a SIM Card with data is about €10 ($11) per month. For someone coming from Europe or the USA, this is good value for the convenience that it gives you. The table below shows the cost of buying a SIM card in countries across South America.

CountryCost of a SIM Card
Brazil10 BRL (€2 / $2.50)
Paraguay10,000 PYG (€1 / $1.50)
Uruguay50 UYU (€1 / $1.50)
Argentina130 ARS (€2 / $2.50)
Chile2,000 CLP (€2 / $2.50)
Bolivia10 CLP (€1.50 / $1.50)
Peru5 PEN (€1.50 / $1.50)
Ecuador5 USD (€4.50)
Colombia5,000 COP (€1.50 / $1.50)

How to Activate a SIM Card in South America

IMEI Registration, Cell Phone, Colombia
IMEI Registration, Cell Phone, Colombia

Sometimes you buy a SIM card in a shop and all you have to do is top up and go. However, in a few countries you need to provide an identity or passport number. Activation might need to be done in store, by text message or by phone. In Chile, you might need to provide a RUT (Chilean Identity Number)… I asked the owner of my hostel for help registering and he just entered his RUT number. In Colombia, your phone’s IMEI number needs to be registered although your network provider should do this for you automatically.

In Brazil, you might be asked for a CPF (Brazilian Identity Number) but as a tourist you won’t have this so you need to provide your passport number (I have read that only TIM and Claro can be set up without a CPF). I did this over the phone although I have no idea how I found an English speaking customer service agent on the TIM helpline… I guess that if you just keep speaking in poor quality Portuguese or in English, they’ll find the English speaking guy who deals with foreigners!

If you don’t speak any Portuguese, it’s probably easier to buy a SIM in an official network provider store and get it registered there at the same time. It’s always easier to get things done in person rather than by phone because you can point at things!

How to Top Up a Pre-Paid SIM Card in South America

MMI Message, Top Up, Cell Phone, Colombia
MMI Message, Top Up, Cell Phone, Colombia

Generally, you purchase an amount in any store and then you activate this top up amount by typing an MMI code into your phone. An MMI code is when you dial a series of symbols and numbers (for example, *611) and then receive options on screen. All SIM Cards that I used in South America were topped up by using MMI code. So just remember that even if you’ve paid for the top up, you might still need to activate a ‘plan’.

With pay as you go top ups, you might have a choice of several different plans, some with talk time and data together and some only with talk time or solely data, depending on what you need. In most cases, the big network providers provide free WhatsApp messaging (not including data for images and video) which is really great value. I always bought data only plans and just used WhatsApp to call people.

So if you are in a country for a month or less and you have free WhatsApp with your plan, you might only need to top up once! Generally, I only used data for things like Google Maps, Tripadvisor and Uber when I was out and about and these apps don’t use up too much data. So unless you’re streaming audio or video, you probably won’t need to top up too often.

How to Insert a South American SIM Card in your Cellphone

SIM Card Adapter Kit
SIM Card Adapter Kit

SIM cards come in different sizes; SIM, MicroSIM and NanoSIM. Don’t worry though, because an adapter can be used if your SIM card slot is too big. For example if you have a Micro SIM slot but the cell provider has given you a Nano SIM, you can use an adapter which is a Micro SIM shaped card with a slot to insert your Nano SIM. The photo above shows a SIM Card Adapter Kit which can be useful although SIM cards usually come in Nano size with a Micro adapter included.

All you need is a small object like a paperclip to open your SIM card slot and somewhere to store your other SIM card. You can buy SIM card kits and storage cases online and these are handy for keeping organised. You can also buy a dual SIM phone to have both your home SIM card and your local SIM card at once.

Although I had a dual SIM phone, I always left my home SIM card packed safely away in my bag because I didn’t want to lose it if my phone was lost or got stolen. If you use WhatsApp, you probably don’t need your home SIM card to keep in touch with friends and family at home. You can use your original WhatsApp number from home with your new SIM card.

The only times that I needed my home SIM card was when I had to receive a code for two factor authentication where my home phone number was registered as the contact number for my account. So for example, if you need to reset an online password for your home bank account, you might have difficulties if you don’t have your home SIM card available. These situations are rare, but very important, so that’s why I keep my home SIM in a safe place rather than in my phone at all times.

Unlock your Cellphone Before you Leave

Before you leave for your South American trip, make sure that you have an unlocked cellphone. If it’s not unlocked, it might be difficult to unlock it abroad and it might void your phone manufacturer’s warranty depending on the terms and conditions.

Summiting Bolivia’s 6,088 Meter Mountain: Guide to Climbing Huayna Potosí

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Huayna Potosí is a mountain just outside La Paz, Bolivia. With a summit at 6,088 meters, it is probably the highest place on Earth that my feet will ever touch ground. It’s not the most technical or difficult mountain to climb in terms of the terrain but the altitude is what makes this climb a challenge. I had already spent several months travelling in Chile and Bolivia at reasonably high altitude and although I was more aclimbatised than most, I still found this climb difficult! 

This article is based on my experience climbing Huayna Potosí in the month of July. This isn’t a step by step guide… the fun, frustration and surprise of finding your own way is what makes an adventure and I wouldn’t want to ruin the best part of travel for you. All of the photography and videography in this article is either my own or was shared with me by my climbing partner Andras – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What is Huayna Potosí?

Me with Huayna Potosí Mountain in the Background, La Paz, Bolivia
Me with Huayna Potosí Mountain in the Background, La Paz, Bolivia

Huayna Potosí is a mountain in the Bolivian Andes. The name is of the Aymara language and translates to English as ‘The Thunderous Youth’.

It has an elevation of 6,088 m above sea level and a prominence of 1,128 m. Categorised as a ‘Basic Snow/Ice Climb’, it’s not the most technical or difficult mountain to climb but the climb takes place at a very high altitude. To put this in context, the summit of Huayna Potosí is 724 m above the level of Everest Base Camp in Tibet (5,364 m).

So it’s not not one of the tallest or most difficult mountains to climb in the world, but it’s definitely high and can be a tough battle with altitude. You don’t need to be a climbing expert or incredibly athletic, but a reasonable level of fitness is needed and It makes for a great challenge for a casual climber.

The Best Tour Operator for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Tour Guide, Descending to Rock Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Tour Guide, Descending to Rock Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

I’ve read that this mountain can be climbed without a tour operator but for most people, the only way to climb it is with a tour operator. A guide is essential because in a lot of parts there isn’t any signage or visible trail due to the snow. Also, I’ve walked by the deep crevasses with parts covered by snow so I know that a wrong step could result in a fatal fall!

There are various tour operators and some have better reviews than others. However, whether your experience is a good one or not, will most likely depend on who your guide is. If you have a good guide, it will be a great experience, whereas if you have a bad guide, it could be a disaster!

I climbed Huayna Potosí with High Camp Lodge. I wasn’t totally happy with the quality of some of the equipment and the rushed boot fitting process on the morning of the first day. However, our guide, Eucebio, was really great which was the most important thing.

So try to do some research using TripAdvisor and even better, listen to word of mouth recommendations from other travellers that you’ve met. However, like most tour operators around South America, tour guides seem to work independently across several tour operators and even promised guides are subject to last minute change… so it’s sometimes just down to luck.

How Much Does It Cost to Climb Huayna Potosí?

It should cost about 1,000 BOB (€131 / $145) for a guided 3 day / 2 night tour. There is also a 2 day / 1 night tour which should be cheaper but the 3 day tour is recommended so that you have one day at Base Camp to acclimatise and get some practice done with the equipment. This will include most things including the essential equipment, meals, transport and accommodation.

Some tour operators include more than others, and some will offer extra items to rent. You might also want to tip your guide at the end. Either way, you will probably need to rent or buy some other things to bring with you which I’ve listed below in the next section.

What You Need to Pack for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Myself & my Climbing Partner Andras on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Myself & my Climbing Partner Andras on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

The essential gear and equipment is provided by the tour operator but you will also have to rent or buy some other items if you don’t already have them.

ItemProvided by Tour Operator?
CramponsYes
HarnessYes
Ice AxeYes
Snow BootsYes
Windproof JacketYes
Windproof PantsYes
Fleece JacketYes
Fleece PantsYes
GaitersYes
HelmetYes
GlovesYes
BalaclavaYes
Sleeping Bag (-5°C)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
Head Lamp (3 u. Batteries AAA)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
Backpack (50 Litres Minimum)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
LeggingsNo – Bring It Yourself
Additional Fleece JacketNo – Bring It Yourself
Socks (3 Pairs, 1 Thick)No – Bring It Yourself
Snack for Summit AttemptNo – Bring It Yourself
Cash (20 BOB for Mountain Entrance & Tip for the Guide)No – Bring It Yourself
SunglassesNo – Bring It Yourself
SunblockNo – Bring It Yourself
Water (2 Litres)No – Bring It Yourself
Personal MedicationNo – Bring It Yourself
Glove LinerNo – Bring It Yourself
Beanie / Wool HatNo – Bring It Yourself
Toilet PaperNo – Bring It Yourself
Hiking ShoesNo – Bring It Yourself
Wind Proof / Down JacketNo – Bring It Yourself
Thermal Underwear (Top & Bottom)No – Bring It Yourself
Small Backpack (for Summit Attempt)No – Bring It Yourself

How to Get to Huayna Potosí

Where is Huayna Potosí?

Huayna Potosí is located in the Cordillera Real mountain range in the La Paz region of Bolivia. It is 40km and about 1 hours drive from the city of La Paz.

Getting to Huayna Potosí

Your tour operator should provide transport from La Paz to Base Camp at Zongo Pass, most likely by minibus.

Tour Schedule for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Mining Complex & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Mining Complex & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

Each guide takes a pair of climbers so if you’re alone, you’ll probably be matched up with someone. Just be aware that because you’re sharing a guide, if yourself or your partner can’t make it to the top, due to altitude sickness or any other reason, both of you will have to go down together. Just imagine how disappointing it would be to pay for the tour and go to all of the effort of climbing halfway to the top only to have to turn back because of another person on your tour. I met my partner, Andras, at the tour operator office the day before our ascent.

Although we had just met, I was happy to be his partner because as a Swiss man, he most likely had excellent mountaineering skills! Although I’m not sure if he was fully confident in my climbing ability! To avoid any risk in the event that one of us couldn’t make it, we had talked about getting a second guide for a slight increase in the price. However on the day, we only got one… so the stakes were high. Any quitting would be letting down your partner!

Day 1: Training at Base Camp

  • Altitude Gain: 1,060 m from La Paz (3,640 m) to Base Camp (4,700 m) by Bus
  • Duration: 1-2 Hours (Bus from La Paz) & 2-3 Hours (Training)

On the morning of the first day, you meet at the tour operator’s office where they take you to another location to fit boots before leaving La Paz for the mountain. The minibus will take you to Base Camp at Zongo Pass, at 4,700 meters above sea level, where you will meet your guide and maybe also some other groups who are climbing the mountain. Lunch will be served and then you’ll go to try out the boots with crampons to practice walking and climbing techniques on a little glacier.

Apart from trying to climb an ice wall with ice axes, which was really hard, there wasn’t much else challenging on this day but it was good to get acclimatised and get used to the equipment. The training day is optional and you won’t do this if you choose a 2 day / 1 night trip but I’d definitely recommend doing it unless you’re experienced with this type of mountain and altitude. The more time that you spend at high altitude in the lead up to the ascent, the better.

Day 2: Ascent to Rock Camp

  • Altitude Gain: 430 m from Base Camp (4,700 m) to Rock Camp (5,130 m)
  • Activity: Climbing (on rock, snow and ice)
  • Duration: 2-3 Hours

After breakfast on the morning of the second day, the ascent from Base Camp to High Camp (Rock Camp) begins. This is only about 2-3 hours but I thought that it was quite difficult, and maybe even the most painful part of the whole climb, just because of the incredibly heavy backpack full of climbing equipment. I’d consider myself a ‘seasoned backpacker’ but maybe it’s because I’m used to travelling light! Anyway, it’s tough but it’s only for a few hours. At about halfway, there’s a little building where you have to pay a park entrance fee and switch from hiking shoes to climbing boots and crampons.

Base Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Base Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

At 5,130 meters above sea level, you’ll arrive at Rock Camp where you’ll have dinner. You can drink some coca tea to help with the high altitude and get ready for the next day’s climb to the summit. Our guide told us to get to sleep at 6 pm because we’d be waking up at 12 am (midnight) to prepare for our early start at 1 am… this is early I know! However, to get to the summit for sunrise between 5:30-6 am, it’s standard for all tours to leave at this time.

Day 3: Climbing the Summit

  • Altitude Gain: 958 m from Rock Camp (5,130 m) to Summit (6,088 m)
  • Activity: Climbing (on rock, snow and ice)
  • Duration: 5-6 Hours (Rock Camp to Summit), 1-2 Hours (Summit to Base Camp), 1-2 Hours (Bus to La Paz)

After waking up at midnight, I didn’t really remember sleeping at all. I think that I got 1 hour of sleep at most. A mix of excitement and the altitude having strange effects on the body made it hard to sleep. Anyway, we were here to climb a mountain, so we went out into the cold snowy wind and pitch black darkness of the Andes to begin our climb to the top.

It was a long, hard slog and a test of endurance to take each little step for hours on end. My headlamp was shining on our guide ahead and just watching his slow steps, along with the surrounding darkness, helped me to focus on the task of timing my breathing and steps. I remember thinking “I want him to tell us that we’re taking a break…” but I didn’t want to ask for it. We took a few breaks on the way but we kept a good pace.

The worst parts were a few sections where you walk up along the top of a steep ridge. I remember one part in particular where I was finding it hard to find the strength, or at least I lacked technique, to properly dig the crampons’ spikes into the steep slope of ice and compressed snow.

Finding it hard to keep my footing was making me think that I might not make it to the top and I even heard the guide mention to another guide that he was worried about me. I just had to focus on my getting my technique with the crampons right. Looking back on it now, I had already gotten past the most difficult part, although it didn’t know that at the time. At least the darkness made it a bit easier because being able to see over a meter’s distance might have made the death defying drops a bit scarier!

Andras & I at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Andras & I at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

As we got higher on the mountain, the sun began to rise which I think helped to lift our spirits and keep us going. There were some very steep drops along the ridges on the lead up to the summit but I didn’t feel unsafe at that stage and I felt more in control. Finally, we made it to the summit which was a huge relief! We were under complete cloud cover at that stage and although I was a little bit disappointed that we couldn’t see any views of the lights of the El Alto neighbourhood of La Paz… I was just grateful that we made it to the top!

We stayed at the top but only for about 15 minutes because there wasn’t much to see with the cloud. So we started our descent.

Sure enough, on the way down, just below the summit at about 6,000 meters the higher clouds at our altitude began to clear.

Me at Sunrise on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at Sunrise on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

So we had an amazing view above a sheet of clouds that stretched across the horizon. It was really a great surprise after thinking that we wouldn’t get any view at all!

Walking down large wide slopes and along crevasses, we got down the mountain to Rock Camp very fast. There we took off some layers and changed our boots and crampons for hiking shoes. From there, it didn’t take much longer to get all the way down to Base Camp, probably because I paid one of the other guides who was cleaning up Rock Camp to take my big backpack down for me… lazy I know but the best decision I ever made!

Accommodation: Where to Stay at Huayna Potosí

There’s no choosing with accommodation if you take a tour. It’ll all depend on the tour operator that you go with. For the first night you’ll stay at Base Camp (only one building for all tours as far as I know). The accommodation is basic with no heating but there’s electricity to charge phones and cameras.

On the second night you’ll stay at one of the high camps. There are several camps and some are slightly further up than others. Which one you’ll stay at will depend on the tour operator you choose. 

The bathrooms at both Base Camp and Rock Camp are in outhouses so you have to go outside to get to them… not so nice if you need to go to the bathroom late at night!

Seasons: When to Climb Huayna Potosí

The Sun Rising at Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
The Sun Rising at Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

The best time of the year to climb Huayna Potosí is in peak climbing season from May to September when the weather is predictable and there’s little chance of rain which can make conditions dangerous.

Things to Watch Out For when Climbing Huayna Potosí

Miner's Graveyard & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Miner's Graveyard & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

Remember that Altitude Sickness can kill. The first record of people that tried to summit Huayna Potosí was back in 1877 where a group of 6 Germans all died, probably from altitude sickness or low temperatures. So just be aware of this and make sure to turn back and get to lower altitude if you are feeling any serious effects.

Altitude medication prescribed by your doctor can help to mitigate the risk but it has to be taken in advance of the climb. Medication won’t remedy Altitude Sickness if it has already started, it will only prevent it from happening if taken in advance. I’m not a doctor so don’t rely on this article and always get medical advice from a doctor before you go on your trip!

Anyway, if you’re climbing Huayna Potosí… even if it’s tough, try to enjoy it!

View of Mountains at Sunset, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

From the Desert to the Stars: Guide to the Atacama Desert, Chile

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The Atacama Desert is the driest nonpolar place on earth and is one of the best places in the world for stargazing and astronomy. It’s probably the closest experience to visiting Mars or the Moon that you can find on this planet and has lots of interesting rock formations, lakes and amazing views. The highlight of the Atacama Desert is the opportunity to see the stars so clearly with your own eyes, which believe me, you’ve probably never experienced before!

This article is based on my visit to the Atacama Desert in the month of May. This isn’t a step by step guide… the fun, frustration and surprise of finding your own way is what makes an adventure and I wouldn’t want to ruin the best part of travel for you. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What to Do in the Atacama Desert

Rent a 4x4 & Explore the Desert

Car, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile
Car, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

There are lots of organised tours to take you to the sites around the desert however I recommend seeing the desert yourself without a tour operator. All you need is a car and a map. Renting a car would be very expensive to do on your own but it’s actually cheaper than doing a guided tour if you are travelling with friends or if you are lucky enough to find 4 other like minded travellers like I did! You can also rent a bicycle but the weather is quite extreme so unless you are a serious cyclist, this option will limit you to the sights immediately surrounding the town.

Map, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile
Map, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

The cost to rent a car (including the cost of gas/petrol) is about 25,000 CLP (€30 / $34) per person per day with 5 people. We saw (or at least drove by) most of the sights in the area around San Pedro de Atacama and this took us 2 full days and only 1 refill of petrol.

We planned our route out on the map and went South to Piedras Rojas on the first day and North to Geysers del Tatio on the second day. We were able to see several places each day and these are marked with a pen on the map above. It was really amazing to have the freedom to plan our own route and spend as much time as we wanted at each place.

The main roads around San Pedro de Atacama are very good but if you want to go off road you will need a 4×4! We went off road a few times and it’s pretty rough terrain. We thought we were stuck at one point when we couldn’t get enough traction to get over a bit of a rough patch… but luckily my friend Kim who had served in the Swedish Armed Forces had the experience and technical know how to think of switching on the 4WD button! So step 1; rent a 4×4 and step 2; turn on 4WD!

Watch the Flamingos at Salar de Atacama

Our route for the first day was to go from the town to Piedras Rojas and back, with a few stops in between. So the first stop on our Atacama Desert road trip was Laguna Chaxa which is one of 2 lakes that you can visit in Salar de Atacama. This is a salt lake with strange rock and salt formations around it.

It is home to hundreds of flamingos and some other bird species, the residents of Los Flamencos National Reserve, and you can see them loitering around the lake. We planned to visit the other lake, Laguna Tebinquinche, for sunset as our last stop on the way back to the town but didn’t have time as it was already dark at that stage. The altitude of Salar de Atacama is 2,300 meters which is slightly lower than the town. 

Road, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile
Road, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

Climb Up to the View of Lagunas Miscanti & Miñiques

To get an amazing view of Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques, you need to go to the top of the hill between the main road and the 2 lakes. We drove off road for a while and then left the car when the hill started to get really steep. It took about 15 minutes to walk up to the top of the hill but remember to take your time because you can really feel the altitude here! On the hill, you are looking over the lakes which sit at 4,120 meters, so at the top of the hill you are at about 4,150 meters.

Drive Out to Piedras Rojas

As the day neared its end we arrived at Piedras Rojas at Salar de Talar. We only spent a few moments here but it was really nice to drive out to and the experience of driving along roads winding around the mountains was actually just as good as seeing the destination at the end.

You can walk out to the red rocks right where they meet the water but we didn’t do this because without a tour guide we weren’t exactly sure where we were going! However, even at a distance, it was great to get a view of the salt lake with red rocks and landscape around it.

Even better than the drive out to Piedras Rojas was the drive back as the sun was setting. The mountains cast their shadows over the desert and coming from higher to lower ground, we had incredible views over the desert flats.

Get Up Early to See Geyser del Tatio

On the morning of the second day, we got up early to make it to Geysers del Tatio for Sunrise as recommended by locals. This is the main attraction in the Atacama area and is really cool to see, especially if you’ve never seen an active geyser before.

Ice, Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile
Ice, Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

Mornings in the desert are very cold so make sure to wrap up!

Bathe in the Hot Springs of El Tatio

Hot Springs, Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile
Hot Springs, Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

Although its cold, don’t forget your swimming shorts! There’s a Hot Springs at El Tatio geyser field that you can basque in if you can handle getting in and out in the near zero temperatures! Changing rooms are right beside the pool.

We then drove towards our next stop while taking in the views of more stunning landscapes, and even herds of llamas, from the road.

Navigate Valle del Arcoiris

Valle del Arcoiris translates to English as Rainbow Valley. The valley has strange rock formations with different shades of colour and the terrain feels almost moon-like. We were the only visitors in the valley, apart from the local llamas, so it was incredibly quiet and it felt somewhat surreal in a way.

Watch the Sunset over Valle de Marte

One of the best places to see the sunset over the desert is at Valle de Marte. This translates to English as Mars Valley due to its resemblance of the faraway planet. It isn’t easy to spot the dirt road to get up to the viewpoint so you’ll have to ask for directions or follow tour busses to the top.

Do a Walking Tour of the Town

The town is small but has an interesting history which you can learn about by doing a walking tour. There are several operators offering walking tours of San Pedro de Atacama and you can find these via your hostel or TripAdvisor.

Go Stargazing

Stargazing, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile
Stargazing, Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Chile

There are lots of tour operators in the town that offer stargazing tours. I did a tour with ‘Una Noche con Las Estrellas’ and it was amazing! They took us by bus to a location on just a few minutes outside the town where we were given an introduction to astronomy to educate us about what we were going to be seeing. After that, we went outside (with blankets provided!) and the guide pointed out stars and even planets that we could see with the naked eye!

There as also a variety of telescopes set up so that we could view specific planets with a bit more focus. However, the overall view of the clear night sky full of stars and the Milky Way galaxy was the most impressive part. It was one of the highlights of Chile and my whole trip in South America… the photos really don’t do it justice!

You can also visit ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), an array of 66 radio telescopes laid out across the desert on the Chajnantor plateau. It is the largest space observatory in the world and is the result of scientific collaboration across 3 continents (Aisa, Europe & North America), and the host country of Chile.

I would have liked to have visited this if there was more time and it’s only about an hour and a half’s drive from San Pedro de Atacama. The radio telescopes are very large at 7-12 meters in diameter and can be moved closer together or be as far as 16 kilometers apart! They resemble satellites and you can view them from the road.

How to Get to the Atacama Desert

Where is the Atacama Desert?

The Atacama Desert is located in the Antofagasta region in the North of Chile. It covers an area of 105,000 km2 and is in a territory that’s ownership has been long disputed between Bolivia and Chile.

Getting Between San Pedro de Atacama and Santiago, Uyuni (Bolivia)

Busses run from the bus terminal in Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama, the city of Antofagasta and Calama. Coming from Santiago, the best route to take is direct to San Pedro de Atacama, which takes about 20 hours and is relatively cheap at around 8,000 CLP (€10 / $11) . If you are travelling between Bolivia and Chile, you can get a bus from Uyuni direct to San Pedro de Atacama. There are also tours that operate between San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Uyuni in Bolivia where you can see the sights along the way including Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats).

Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Atacama Desert

The town of San Pedro de Atacama is most likely where you will be staying in the Atacama Desert. This is a small town but is the main hub for tourism in the desert so there are lots of accommodation options from value hostels to more upmarket hotels.

I stayed at Hostel Atacama Tatais, a value hostel with a cool (I mean this in both senses of the word) outdoor courtyard to chill out in (again, a double meaning here). It’s a basic hostel and is good value for money but at night it gets very cold (in the desert) and the hostel doesn’t have heating, or many showers with much hot water. This is however, part of life in the desert and is to be expected, especially for the price.

Seasons: When to Visit the Atacama Desert

If you visit during the Summer (December – February), the temperatures will be a bit warmer which means that you won’t need as many layers in bed at night. However, this is high season and there might be more tourists at this time. September – November and March – May are good times to visit because temperatures are ok and there will be less tourists.

Things to Watch out For in the Atacama Desert

Be careful with the altitude. Walking up a hill in the Atacama Desert was the first time that I felt slightly light headed from the altitude and you just need to be conscious of this and slow down if you feel tired. The effect of the sun is also very strong at high altitude so remember to use sun protection.

There can also be extreme variations in temperature in deserts, especially this one. Temperatures can go from 40 degrees celsius in the day to close to 0 degrees celsius at night. You might also want to bring some chapstick or moisturizer because the Atacama Desert is dry, really dry… to put this in context, the Atacama Desert is fifty, yes… fifty, times drier than Death Valley. If your skin starts to crack on your hands, face and lips, this is completely normal… so drink lots of water!

Because San Pedro de Atacama is a relatively small and isolated town, there aren’t many ATMs. Make sure to bring cash just in case the few ATMs that are there are out of service.

Sunset, Skyline & Horizon, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Argentina’s Capital City: Guide to Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires is known as the Paris of South America due to its Parisian style architecture and its European vibe.  It’s a huge city with lots to do and see whether you want to have a steak and wine dinner, experience tango or just explore the streets and appreciate the architecture.

This article is based on my visit to Buenos Aires in the month of March. All of the photography (except for 1 photo of me from MundoLingo.org) and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What to Do in Buenos Aires

Walk Around the City Centre

Buenos Aires is a huge city that you can spend lots of time walking around and exploring. To give you an idea of scale, it has a population of over 13 million making it one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world and it is home to 9 de Julio Avenue, the widest avenue in the world.

Classy Street Seating, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Classy Street Seating, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The city has some of the classiest street seating I’ve seen and is generally quite clean and pleasant to stroll around.

Piano, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Piano, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina
New Buildings, Buenos Aires, Argentina
New Buildings, Buenos Aires, Argentina

It is a city where old European architecture meets modern glass facades. You can appreciate the architecture from the street or take a tour of the Teatro Colón, an opera house known as one of the best performance venues in the world in terms of acoustics.

Visit the Palacio Barolo for a View of the Buenos Aires Skyline

Sunset & Skyline, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sunset & Skyline, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Palacio Barolo is a 22 storey gothic style building that is nearly 100 years old and looks over Plaza del Congreso. You can take a tour of the building and climb the winding stairs to the top, where you can enjoy some amazing 360 degree views of Buenos Aires. I did one of the last tours of the day which was a great time to do it as the sun was setting.

Avenue & Skyline, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Avenue & Skyline, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Dine Argentinian Style

Steak & Wine, Parilla Peña, Buenos Aires Argentina
Steak & Wine, Parilla Peña, Buenos Aires Argentina

Eat at a steakhouse restaurant like Parrilla Peña. The service, steak and wine were good and the restaurant had a local casual feel to it. Don’t worry, if you’re not a meat eater there are lots of other options and Lotos Vegetarian Restaurant offers a delicious buffet style service.

Steak, Gran Parrilla del Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Steak, Gran Parrilla del Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I also ate at Gran Parrilla del Plata and whilst the food was decent, the service was terrible. It wasn’t even busy at the restaurant. Although there were locals there, this place felt like a bit of a tourist trap because of the way the staff acted. The waiter only said two things to me during my whole visit. The first was a rehearsed “on the house” as a complementary limoncello was put in front of me (I know that it was rehearsed because I saw the same act being carried out with another customer). The second thing he said to me was “tips cash only” at the end. Needless to say, I didn’t tip on this occasion.

See the El Ateneo Grand Splendid

Bookshelves, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Bookshelves, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Ateneo is a bookshop with a café housed in a theatre building. It is perfectly maintained and could easily host a show if a few chairs were put in. It’s the most interesting bookshop setting that I’ve ever seen and is nice to walk around, especially if you like books!

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina
El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Go to a Real Tango Show

See real tango in action on the street. I came across a live tango class just outside the Teatro Colón. It was really cool to see this display of Argentinian culture happening in front of me in such an authentic way.

See Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Aisle, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Aisle, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Recoleta Cemetery is famous for its large memorial structures that are almost like houses for the dead. Its interesting to walk around this cemetery because, depending on where you’re from, it’s probably very different to what you would find at your local cemetery at home.

Go to La Boca

La Bombonera, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina
La Bombonera, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Bombonera is the stadium that is home to Boca Juniors, one of the 2 famous Buenos Aires football teams, the other one being River Plate. The stadium has an interesting museum and you can see the stadium on a guided tour although, if there’s a game on that would definitely be the best way to see it!

Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Caminito, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Just 2 minutes walk from the stadium is Caminito, an area that has been made into a ‘street museum’ that is a bit too tacky for my liking. Fake plastic characters stand on the balconies of the colourful painted buildings and souvenir sellers line the streets. It’s all based around the history of tango as it was the birthplace of the music, but in its state today, I just can’t bring myself to understand why there is anything special about this place. It’s not really worth seeing in my opinion, especially because its located in a notoriously dangerous area. A quick look through the reviews on TripAdvisor or Google Maps will give you an idea of how many people get robbed here.

Visit the City's Parks

Pedalo, 3 de Febrero Park, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Pedalo, 3 de Febrero Park, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take a stroll around Parque 3 de Febrero which has countless gardens surrounding a central lake. There are also cafes, bars and restaurants under the arches of the railway tracks at the west side of the park.

Sea, Tree & Ship, Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sea, Tree & Ship, Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

A nature reserve, Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, sits on an island across the Río Dique. It has walking and cycling trails. The island is just beside the city centre so it’s quite a peaceful getaway considering that it’s so close to the city.

Hugo Porta, Rugby Player, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Hugo Porta, Rugby Player, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Lionel Messi, Football Player, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Lionel Messi, Football Player, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Just across the river from the reserve, statues of famous Argentinian sports stars such and footballer Lionel Messi and rugby player Hugo Porta line the promenade.

Puente de la Mujer, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Puente de la Mujer, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Further up the river is Puente de La Mujer (woman’s bridge), an iconic bridge by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Practice Your Spanish at a Language Exchange

Mundo Lingo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Mundo Lingo, Buenos Aires, Argentina (Photo from MundoLingo.org)

Go to the Mundo Lingo language exchange to meet both locals and other travellers that want to practice different languages. Everyone has a flag sticker on their chest to show their native language and it’s a great way to meet people who share an interest in languages and culture. I had a great time at the event in Palermo but the event also takes place at several venues across the city on different nights.

Experience Nightlife in Buenos Aires

La Tevez, Burger Joint, Buenos Aires, Argentina
La Tevez, Burger Joint, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Start off your night with one of the highest rated burgers in the world at Burger Joint. At this Palermo eatery you can enjoy a burger named ‘The Tevez’, after the famous Argentinian footballer, Carlos Tevez.

Patio, Burger Joint, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Patio, Burger Joint, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Go on a pub crawl. You will probably meet both locals and other travellers and it’s a great way to see the city at night. I took part in 2 pub crawls, one touring bars in the Palermo area and another which crawled around the San Telmo area. Although pub crawls are great fun, you don’t need a group tour to experience the nightlife in Buenos Aires. Have a drink at La Puerta Roja, a cool secret bar on Chacabuco street in San Telmo or explore the city’s bars yourself.

Visit the Museums of Buenos Aires

The Cabildo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Cabildo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
CCK, Buenos Aires, Argentina
CCK, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Visit the Cabildo, a former colonial government building at Plaza de Mayo, to learn about the history of Buenos Aires and the formation of Argentina. Or just a short walk away across the square, see what art exhibitions are on at the CCK (Centro Cultural Kirchner), an impressive old building with a futuristic exhibition space at the centre that you can walk through. There are many more museums around the city so there are lots to explore depending on what your interests are.

How to Get to Buenos Aires

Where is Buenos Aires?

Buenos Aires is located in the North West of Argentina. It is the capital city only 213km across the River Plate (Río de la Plata) estuary from the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.

Getting Between Buenos Aires and Uruguay, Paraguay

Coming from Uruguay, I took a ferry from Colonia del Sacramento. You can book tickets online or at the ferry terminal. There are also ferry routes directly from Montevideo to Buenos Aires although it is generally cheaper to get a bus from Montevideo to Colonia del Sacramento and then take a ferry from there on to Buenos Aires. I couldn’t find any bus route options from Uruguay to Buenos Aires although a few probably exist.

Other than by car, ferry seemed to be the most popular mode of transport between the two countries and the trip across the Río de Plata should cost about 3,000 ARS (€46 / $52). Buquebus and Colonia Express both offer good value for ferry trips across the Río de Plata between Argentina and Uruguay.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Buenos Aires

At about 475 ARS (€7 / $8) per night, Art Factory Beer Garden Hostel in Palermo is a good choice if you’re looking for somewhere on a budget. It also has a cool beer garden with great burgers and beer.

If you’re looking for a good value hotel, try Gran Hotel Atlantic where you can get a double room for under 1,500 ARS (€22 / $25) per night. As it’s a big city, there are a huge amount of options so always check booking.com for the best deals at the time of your trip.

Seasons: When to Visit Buenos Aires

Skyscrapers & Trees, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Skyscrapers & Trees, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is best visited in Spring but has good weather all year around.

Things to Watch Out For in Buenos Aires

Don’t forget that you’ll need to buy a SUBE card to use the city busses and Metro system.

Also, when paying for hotels, sometimes they will charge you an extra tax if you don’t have a copy of your passport stamp page. So keep a few copies in your bag just in case you need them.

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay’s Capital City: Guide to Montevideo

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Montevideo is a South American city with a relaxed vibe. It has a nice seafront promenade which stretches all around the city, well kept plazas and parks, and several small beaches to spend a sunny day on. The Museo Andes 1972 is a highlight and is a boutique museum that shouldn’t be missed.

This article is based on my visit to Montevideo in the month of March. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What to Do in Montevideo

Visit the Museo Andes 1972

Rugby Positions, Museo Andes 1972, Montevideo, Uruguay
Rugby Positions, Museo Andes 1972, Montevideo, Uruguay

This boutique museum tells the story of a flight, with most passengers being players for a Uruguayan rugby club team, who had to survive without food or water for months after their plane crashed high up in the snow-covered Andes between Chile and Argentina.

Old Christians Club Rugby Jersey, Museo Andes 1972, Montevideo, Uruguay
Old Christians Club Rugby Jersey, Museo Andes 1972, Montevideo, Uruguay

The story is well known, was a huge international news story at the time and even had a movie made about it titled ‘Alive’. The museum was a highlight of Montevideo just because of the sheer amount of information and detail which told a sad but amazing story of disaster, resilience and motivation. Even personal letters from survivors, and the dead, are displayed which make for emotional reading and an experience rarely captivated in any museum.

Improvised Sunglasses, Museo Andes 1972, Montevideo, Uruguay
Improvised Sunglasses, Museo Andes 1972, Montevideo, Uruguay

The museum contains lots of original items from the event and has a huge amount of narratives for each of the 72 days of this event. All information is displayed in both Spanish and English, and the Founder and Director of the museum, Jörg Thomsen, is really friendly and helpful. He gave me a quick tour through the museum in English which was great. The location of the Museo Andes 1972 is shown in the map below.

Later that year, I was climbing a mountain of 6,088 meters in the Bolivian Andes, further north but in the same mountain range as the crash. It was really tough and when I was feeling a bit sluggish and had thoughts of not being able to make it to the top, I thought of the Andes plane crash story and this very quickly put things in perspective.

I had food, water, cold weather clothes, equipment, sun protection, a guide, the excursion was only 3 days and I had certainty about getting back down… the survivors of the plane crash had none of these things, suffered extreme trauma and hardship, and 16 of them survived 72 days!

So although my climb was tough, it was nothing compared to what other people have experienced. This was yet another reminder that if something feels hard, just remember that someone has probably been through much worse, and anything is possible, both good and bad.

Walk Around the City Centre & Seafront

Hemp Store, Montevideo, Uruguay
Hemp Store, Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay is probably the most progressive country in South America. It has legalised same-sex marriage, marijuana and it even has ‘open prisons’ where inmates can feel as if they are part of a village rather than in a jail cell.

Street & Sea View, Montevideo, Uruguay
Street & Sea View, Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo is a city that feels smaller than it probably is. At least when I was there, at the end of March, it was really quiet and felt quite laid back. Uruguay is probably the safest country in South America and I never felt unsafe at any point. The city centre isn’t that big so it’s easy to walk around. As it’s situated on a small peninsula, the sea is visible from 3 sides and there’s a lot of seafront, with the longest continuous sidewalk in the world at 22km long, to walk along where people are fishing and relaxing.

Seafront, Montevideo, Uruguay

As you can see, the people here are so laid back that they drive backwards! Just kidding, I think that they were shooting a scene for a movie. Anyway, from walking around Uruguay’s capital, it was clear that this was a really chilled out place and was a bit different from most other places in South America.

European Architecture, Montevideo, Uruguay
European Architecture, Montevideo, Uruguay

It is still South America though and some parts have that rugged feel and colour that you can see all around the continent. There’s a good mix of well preserved European architecture and more modern street art covered surfaces.

Go to Playa Ramírez

The city has a little beach and although I didn’t go in for a swim myself, it looked really nice and people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Playa Ramírez, Montevideo, Uruguay
Playa Ramírez, Montevideo, Uruguay
Seafront View, Montevideo, Uruguay
Seafront View, Montevideo, Uruguay

Visit the City's Parks

Big Lake, Parque José Enrique Rodó, Montevideo, Uruguay
Big Lake, Parque José Enrique Rodó, Montevideo, Uruguay
Small Lake, Parque José Enrique Rodó, Montevideo, Uruguay
Small Lake, Parque José Enrique Rodó, Montevideo, Uruguay

There’s a really nice park, Parque José Enrique Rodó, just across the road from the beach. It has a few little lakes if you want to rent a pedalo. There are also football pitches along the seafront if you want to join in, although you should be up to standard because the Uruguayans are pretty good and have an incredible football record for such a small country. The city centre is full of nice plazas that almost feel Parisian. So this city is a nice place to be.

Plaza Matriz, Montevideo, Uruguay
Plaza Matriz, Montevideo, Uruguay

How to Get to Montevideo

Where is Montevideo?

Montevideo is located in the Montevideo Department (state), Uruguay. It is the capital city only 213km across the River Plate (Río de la Plata) estuary from the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires.

Getting Between Montevideo and Buenos Aires (Argentina), Colonia del Sacramento, Punta del Este

I travelled by bus to Montevideo from Colonia del Sacramento to the east which took only 2.5 hours. Punta del Este is only 2 hours away to the west and Punta del Diablo is a bit further from Montevideo and takes about 4 hours. Buses in Uruguay for these distances should cost about 375 UYU (€9 / $10).

Coming from Argentina, I took a ferry to Colonia del Sacramento. You can book tickets online or at the ferry terminal. There are also ferry routes directly from Buenos Aires to Montevideo although it is generally cheaper to get a ferry to Colonia del Sacramento and then get a bus from there to Montevideo. I did look for a bus for the way back from Montevideo to Argentina but to my surprise I couldn’t find anything.

Other than by car, ferry seemed to be the most popular mode of transport between the two countries although I found that by South American standards, at 3,682 UYU (€90 / $99) it was incredibly expensive, especially for a journey of only 3 hours. However, I think that it was a bank holiday weekend at the time, so prices may have just doubled just for this weekend.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Montevideo

I stayed at Club & Bar Hostel which was is in a lovely European style building. It’s about 40 minutes walk from the city centre but it’s in a nice area with a local feel. As a capital city, there are lots of options and I wouldn’t be worried about finding accommodation in Montevideo.

Seasons: When to Visit Montevideo

Dog on Table, Montevideo, Uruguay
Dog on Table, Montevideo, Uruguay

There Summer months of November to February are high season for tourism in Uruguay. When I visited Uruguay in late March, Montevideo felt like a ghost town but Punta del Este was packed, probably because it was a bank holiday weekend and everyone in Buenos Aires and Montevideo had flocked to the beach resorts for the weekend. So it depends what you’re looking for.

If you prefer peace and quiet over busy noise, go to Montevideo in the Summer months of November to February when everyone is away, although I don’t think that Montevideo is an incredibly crazy place even when it is at its most active. If you just want to relax and chill on the beach, April may be the best time for you to visit Uruguay.

City Street & Sea View, Montevideo, Uruguay
City Street & Sea View, Montevideo, Uruguay
Beach, Encarnación, Paraguay & View of Posadas, Argentina

Paraguay’s Riverside Beach Town with a View of Argentina: Guide to Encarnación

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Encarnación has a modern riverfront or ‘costanera’ beach vibe in a small city. Unfortunately, the low town (zona baja) that once was has been demolished after it was vacated to make way for a dam and its resultant rising water levels, which after being built, turned out to be wildly overestimated. However, you can find 2 historical ruins (UNESCO World Heritage Sites) nearby. Located on the Paraná river at the border with Argentina, this small city is equidistant from Iguazu Falls and the Paraguayan capital of Asunción.

 This article is based on my visit to Encarnación in the month of March. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What to Do in Encarnación

Visit the Ruins of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná

Ruins & Palm Trees, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay
Ruins & Palm Trees, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay
Tower, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay
Tower, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay

These ruins are what is left of the Jesuit missions of the 17th and 18th centuries when the Christian group was spreading it’s religious beliefs to the indigenous population of South America. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are interesting to explore for an hour or so and are accessible by taking a bus from the Encarnación bus terminal along Route 6 to the town of Trinidad (10,000 PYG / €1.50 / $1.50 each way).

There is a bus stop on Route 6 and the ruins are just a few minutes walk from the main road. You can easily find the location of the ruins on Google Maps. The cost of entrance is 25,000 PYG (€3.50 / $4) although we walked straight in as there was no one around at first but after a few minutes, a member of staff appeared and asked us to come over to the office (that we hadn’t seen) and pay there.

Tower & Ruins, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay
Tower & Ruins, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay
Stairway, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay
Stairway, La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay

Visit the Ruins of Jesús de Tavarangüé

Palm Trees & Ruins, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Palm Trees & Ruins, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Interior of Ruins, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Interior of Ruins, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay

To get the ruins of Jesús de Tavarangüé, it is about 12 kilometers from the bus stop at Trinidad and Route 6 so you will have to take a taxi to get there. We found a taxi at the service station on Route 6 to bring us there.

Taxi Exterior, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Taxi Exterior, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Taxi Interior, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Taxi Interior, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay

It was an impressive vehicle that had vinyl graphics such as animals and flames, which I can only assume were for the purposes of speed enhancement. Both the paint and the door panels had been stripped down which probably made the car lighter and more fuel efficient as a result. The taxi driver waited for 30-60 minutes and then brought us back to Route 6 where we took a bus back to Encarnación. Again, Google Maps will show you the location of the ruins if you want to be aware of the route.

Although less expansive than the ruins at Trinidad, these ruins are more intact and have great views over the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside.

View of Countryside & Pillars, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
View of Countryside & Pillars, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Side of the Ruins, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay
Side of the Ruins, Jesús de Tavarangüé, Paraguay

Go to San José Beach

Volleyball, Playa San José, Encarnación, Paraguay
Volleyball, Playa San José, Encarnación, Paraguay

Playa San José is a nice beach along the river. It was clean and good for swimming. There were groups of locals playing volleyball until sunset and several bars and restaurants along the beach. Although the riverside, or ‘costanera’, is nice for a walk, with fast food restaurants like Burger King right on the beach, it feels a bit ‘commercial’ and isn’t really the atmosphere that I look for or enjoy at a beach spot. However, from the beach of San José, you can see the city skyline of Posadas in Argentina which is nice against the backdrop of the sunset.

View of Posadas, Argentina from Playa San José, Encarnación, Paraguay
View of Posadas, Argentina from Playa San José, Encarnación, Paraguay

It turns out that this is because it is actually an artificial beach. The beach and the costanera although only a few minutes walk, feel slightly isolated from the city with a large vacant green space, as wide as a few football pitches, between them and the city. This desolate area is where the low town (zona baja) that once was, has been demolished. It was vacated to make way for a dam upriver and its resultant rising water levels which were expected to flood that part of the city. Although after being built, it turned out that the rise in water level was wildly overestimated. So the old part of the city that had been vacated to avoid disaster, was never actually flooded, and in the end it was demolished after it’s vacant buildings began to attract antisocial behaviour (link to that story here).

Go to the Fun Fair

The fun fair is at the edge of the city and does well to occupy some of the open space that I spoke about above. Ride the bumper cars or take a ride on the ferris wheel. At the time of my visit, I’m guessing that it was low season because we were the only people in the whole place… I don’t even know why they even bothered opening the place! Anyway, it’s good fun from time to time to get in touch with your inner child and enjoy these types of things, and no harm to have a beer in hand.

How to Get to Encarnación

Where is Encarnación?

Encarnación is located in the Itapúa Department (state), Paraguay. It is a small city just 4km from the neighbouring city of Posadas in Argentina which can be seen just across the river.

Getting Between Encarnación and Asunción or Ciudad del Este

Bus is the best way to get between all of these cities. The bus from Ciudad del Este to Encarnación took about 4 and a half hours and cost about 60,000 PYG (€8.50 / $9.50). You can go by bus between Encarnación and Asunción although on the day that myself and another guy were travelling there, one of the hostel staff just happened to be driving to Asunción, so the two of us took a lift with him for 50,000 PYG (€7 / $8) each.

The journey took about 6 hours and although it was probably cheaper (bus usually costs 70,000 PYG / €10 / $11), I regret not getting a bus. A bus coach wouldn’t have cost too much more, would have been more comfortable in terms of space and most importantly would have had fresher air than the guy’s car, which had an incredible amount of fuel fumes for the whole 6 hour journey. Anyway, at least it was good to get picked up and dropped off door to door.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Encarnación

I stayed at Maui Waui International Hostel and it was a nice little place, located between the beach and the main street of the town, and not too far a walk from the bus terminal. A traveller’s phone and wallet was stolen from my dorm room while everyone was out in the front yard having a drink but I suppose that this wasn’t really the fault of the hostel because there were lockers provided.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the cuprite was a member of hostel staff or a guest staying in the dorm. Unfortunately his things were out in the open on the bed side table and not secured in a locker. This is just another situation that serves as a reminder to always keep your things locked away in a locker, even if you are in a small hostel and only out of the room for a few minutes!

Seasons: When to Visit Encarnación

Beach Bar on the Costanera, Playa San José, Encarnación, Paraguay
Beach Bar on the Costanera, Playa San José, Encarnación, Paraguay

Paraguay’s high season for tourism is from April to September. The main exception to this, and especially for Encarnación, is Carnaval, which takes place from the end of January to the end of February.

I visited in early March and there weren’t many tourists which was great because I don’t like places that are overcrowded… although maybe ‘high season’ isn’t too much to worry about in a place like Paraguay. There are always a few backpackers but I’m guessing that not too many tourists come here. Myself and another guy from my hostel were the only visitors at the two UNESCO World Heritage sites during our few hours exploring them! I guess that this is not a surprise as they are some of the least visited UNESCO sites in the world.

Ilha do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil

Beach Paradise in the Amazon: Guide to Alter do Chão, Brazil

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Alter do Chão is home to Ilha do Amor, the most beautiful freshwater beach in the Amazon which sits on the bank of the Tapajós river. Don’t worry, there are no piranhas here, just clear water and white sandy beaches. This is an amazing place to chill out and experience the Amazon’s chilled out beach vibe. It is accessible from the nearby city of Santarém and is a great way to break up a long 3-5 day Amazon boat trip. Before you go, just make sure to check that it’s not rainy season as the beach might be completely covered by water.

This article is based on my visit to Alter do Chão and Santarém in the month of November with two friends that I met along the way. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What to Do in Alter do Chão

Ilha do Amor: The Beach in the Amazon

Ilha do Amor, the beach in the Amazon, sits in a lagoon on the bank of the Tapajós river just before it meets the Amazon River and is the main attraction of Alter do Chão. It is one of the most beautiful freshwater beaches in the world and has been called ‘the best beach in Brazil’. After stumbling across it on a trip down the Amazon, I agree that it is absolutely stunning!

View From Town Plaza, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil
View From Town Plaza, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil

The beach is overlooked by the town and can be viewed from the main plaza. Depending on the time of year, you get to the beach by wading through some water (as I did when I visited), swimming or boat. Don’t worry about piranhas, sea creatures or any other wild animals – it’s a small but relatively popular beach spot for locals and tourists visiting the Amazon region and if there were piranhas, no one would be swimming there! Also, because it is so isolated from the rest of the world, and even other parts of Brazil, it’s unlikely to become overcrowded any time soon.

Explore the Lagoon or Climb the Hill

View of Morro da Piroca & Kayaks on the Beach, Ihla do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil
View of Morro da Piroca & Kayaks on the Beach, Ihla do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil

There are a few activities to do here although there aren’t too many options. Some guys on the beach are offering kayaking and paddleboarding equipment for rent if you want to paddle around the beach and explore the surrounding lagoon. For the less athletically minded, you can also pay one of the locals to bring you around the lagoon in a boat.

Also, if you feel like a hike, take a stroll down the beach to Morro da Piroca. It’s the only thing visible on the tree lined horizon so there’s no missing it! At the end of the beach there’s a marked trail to the top where you can get a panoramic view of the area. I’ve read that the hike should take about 45 minutes although when we were there, the hill looked really far and considering the hot sun, we were very happy to just stay put and spend the afternoon chilling out on the beach!

Chill Out in the Water

Chilling out on the beach…but in the water at the same time…this is the main ‘activity’ to enjoy at Ilha do Amor and is what we spent most of our time doing here! Notice that no one is laid out sunbathing on a beach towel…you’ll probably want a table for the umbrella to provide some shade and protect you from the sun. There are beach table and chairs sitting where the sand meets the water.

You’ll probably be thinking…’are the bar guys gonna move these tables and chairs back a bit before they float away?’… but remember, you’re in Brazil where people don’t usually think more than one step ahead, and that’s what makes for such a great laid back beach vibe. From your table, chair or as you float in the warm water of the Amazon, you can order food, snacks, ice-cream, beer or a coconut to drink from. The kebab-style cheese sticks were delicious!

Have Lunch on the Beach

Lunch, Ilha do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil
Lunch, Ilha do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil

There are several ‘beach huts’ along the beach serving food. I don’t remember the exact price but for the three of us, we got a huge amount of food for a great price. Unless you live in the region, it’s not too often that you have the opportunity to try Amazonian fish so enjoy it while you can!

How to Get to Alter do Chão

Where is Alter do Chão?

Alter do Chão is located in the Amazonian state of Pará, Brazil. It is a small town 37km from the closest city, Santarém. As it is situated in the Amazon region, it is not accessible by road, so the only options are to get there by boat or by air.

Travelling by Boat Between Belém & Manaus

Boats, Riverfront, Santarém, Pará, Brazil
Boats, Riverfront, Santarém, Pará, Brazil

You will most likely be visiting Alter do Chão if you are stopping off at the city of Santarém which is located about half way between the two of the largest cities in the Amazon basin Belém and Manaus. Alter do Chão is 30-45 minutes drive from Santarém. It’s a great way to spend a few days on the beach and break up the long 3-5 day boat journey along the Amazon.

Flying to Santarém International Airport

There is an International Airport in Santarém but because Alter do Chão it is so remote, especially for foreign travellers, it is probably more a place to see if you are passing by rather than going out of your way just to visit it. But don’t get me wrong, it is well worth seeing! For travellers already based in Brazil, flying in to Santarém just to visit Alter do Chão could be a great weekend getaway!

Getting from Santarém to Alter do Chão

It’s really easy to get from Santarém to Alter do Chão. The best way is to take a public bus from Santarém. The hotel reception staff were able to point us in the right direction and the bus stopped just a block from our hotel (Hotel Mato Grosso) on Av. São Sebastião (stop on the south side of the street) & Tv. Silva Jardim. The bus should cost about 3.5 Reais (€0.75 / $0.85) and the journey takes about 30-45 minutes. You can also take a taxi but this will be more expensive.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Alter do Chão

Street & View of Ihla do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil
Street & View of Ihla do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil

You can stay in either Alter do Chão or Santarem. Both have a variety of accommodation options. We stayed in Santarem but if I was to go back, I would have gone straight to Alter do Chão and stayed there for the whole time. Santarém does have a long riverfront lined with with a good few ‘pier bars’ which are good for a few beers in the evening but other than that there’s not much to do in the city.

Seasons: When to Visit Alter do Chão

Plaza, Ihla do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil
Plaza, Ihla do Amor, Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil

The Amazon’s rainy season is from January to June and because of this, water levels can rise up to 9-12 metres! This is why you’ll see a lot of houses built on stilts! With the rise in water levels, the beach of Ilha do Amor may be completely covered by water from January to June. July to September is the best time to visit because the water levels are not too high or too low.

Sunday is the busiest day with day trippers flocking from nearby Santarém and weekend visitors flying in from further afield. Bank holidays and holiday events such as Carnaval are probably very busy and might make it difficult to find accommodation but other than that, normal weekends are not too overcrowded. I visited on a Sunday and while there were a good few people there, it didn’t feel overcrowded.

What to Watch Out for in Alter do Chão

I didn’t have any issues with money because I brought enough cash with me on the day but I have read that there aren’t many ATMs in the town. As it’s a very small and remote town, I wouldn’t depend on ATMs because sometimes they can be out of service in places like this.

I’ve also read that stingrays are common on the beaches in this area and can be found lying in the sand under the water. I didn’t hear anything about this in my short time there nor did I have such an unfortunate experience but it’s best to be careful! I didn’t notice any mosquitoes during my visit.

Itaú Bank, São Paulo, Brazil

How to Use an ATM in South America: A Guide to Fees & How to Avoid Them

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As you can see from the table in this article showing ATM withdrawal limits and fees, the cost of using ATMs in South America can really rack up, especially if you are travelling long-term. To avoid ATM fees, educate yourself on how to manage your banking, use more than one bank or prepaid debit card product so that you have the widest range of options possible and use the information in this article to learn how to use these cards to your advantage and save money.

This article is based on my visit to 9 countries across South America over a period of nearly 2 years. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

ATM Cash Withdrawal Limits & Fees in South America

Firstly, let’s look at why overseas ATM withdrawal fees are something that you should know about. Below is a list of average ATM withdrawal fees for each country in South America. These are ordered from the most expensive to the least expensive based on a cash spending of €30 per day (€210 per week). For example, in the case of Argentina, spending of €210 per week with a withdrawal limit of €63 means that you would have to make 4 withdrawals per week. This would result in 4 ATM withdrawal fees of €6 equating to a cost of €24 per week, or €96 per month, just to withdraw cash. I have rounded these figures and exchange rates are constantly changing so this is only a snapshot of one point in time but it should be useful as a general guide and provide a good basis for you to do your own research.

Country / CurrencyATM Cash Withdrawal FeeATM Cash Withdrawal LimitFee as a % of the Maximum WithdrawalWeekly ATM Fees Based on Spending of €30 per Day (€210)Monthly ATM Fees Based on Spending of €30 per Day (€210)
Argentina
(Peso: ARS)
400 ARS
€6 / $7
4,000 AR
€63 / $70
10%1,200 ARS
€24 / $28
4,800 ARS
€96 / $112
Uruguay
(Peso: UYU)
173 UYU
€4 / $5
4,000 UYU
€98 / $107
4.3%519 UYU
€12 / $15
2,076 UYU
€48 / $60
Peru
(Sol: PEN)
20 PEN
€5 / $6
700 PEN
€189 / $207
2.85%40 PEN
€10 / $12
160 PEN
€40 / $48
Suriname
(Dollar: SRD)
38.50 SRD
€4.50 / $5.50
1,000 SRD
€122 / $134
3.85%77 SRD
€9 / $11
308 SRD
€36 / $44
Chile
(Peso: CLP)
5,000 CLP
€6 / $7
200,000 CLP
€250 / $280
2.5%5,000 CLP
€6 / $7
20,000 CLP
€24 / $28
Guyana
(Dollar: GYD)
1,000 GYD
€4.50 / $5
75,000 GYD
€327 / $360
1.33%1,000 GYD
€4.50 / $5
4,000 GYD
€18 / $20
Brazil
(Real – BRL)
16 BRL
€3.5 / $4
1,000 BRL
€225 / $246
1.6%16 BRL
€3.5 / $4
64 BRL
€14 / $16
Colombia
(Peso: COP)
14,500 COP
€3.5 / $4
1,200,000 COP
€319 / $350
1.2%14,500 COP
€3.5 / $4
58,000 COP
€14 / $16
Paraguay
(Guarani: PYG)
25,000 PYG
€3.50 / $4
1,500,000 PYG
€214 / $235
1.7%25,000 PYG
€3.50 / $4
100,000 PYG
€14 / $16
Ecuador
(Dollar: USD)
4 USD
€3.5
500 USD
€455
0.8%4 USD
€3.5
16 USD
€14
Bolivia (Boliviano: BOB)12 BOB
€1.50 / $1.75
2,000 BOB
€263 / $289
0.6%12 BOB
€1.50 / $1.75
48 BOB
€6 / $7
Venezuela
(Bolivar: VEF)
French Guiana (Euro: EUR)Part of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / EurozonePart of France / EU / Eurozone

How the Banks Take Advantage of You

The combination of extremely low cash withdrawal limits and very high withdrawal fees means that you have to make more withdrawals and this results in a higher number of already expensive transaction fees. For example, in Argentina, with a very low transaction limit of €63, if you spent €30 per day in cash, you would need to pay €24 per week to sustain this. Some other countries like Chile also have similar ATM withdrawal fees but with a higher withdrawal limit that lets you take out a larger amount of cash in one transaction and with a lower number of withdrawals, this brings down the cost significantly. You can pay by card to avoid using cash as much as possible and minimise the costs but with a lot of vendors accepting only VISA or mastercard, or not accepting any payments by card, you may be left with no option but to pay in cash. The system in Argentina is the most frustrating of all of the countries in the world that I have visited and for budget travellers, it isn’t something that encourages tourists to spend more time in the country.

How to Avoid Fees

So, by now it should be clear that ATM cash withdrawal fees can cost you a lot of money if you are not careful. Thankfully, there are several ways to significantly reduce the cost of withdrawing cash from overseas ATMs and this article will help you to become more informed and chose the best banking options for your own situation. First, keep reading to understand the fees involved when using ATMs overseas. The last section will give you some guidance on choosing a bank or currency card product.

Understanding Overseas ATM Cash Withdrawal Fees

Itaú Bank, São Paulo, Brazil
Itaú Bank, São Paulo, Brazil

Avoid Double Fees

Most people might not realise it, but every time you use an ATM overseas both the ATM’s bank and your home bank will charge you a fee. Let’s look at each of these separately.

Fees Charged by the Overseas Bank

The overseas bank (the ATM that you are using) will probably charge you a set fee or charge you a fee based on the percentage value of the transaction, with set fees being more common. I found that set fees for ATM withdrawals in South America usually amounted to around €4-5 per cash withdrawal, no matter what amount you withdraw. This can really add up over time if you make 1 or 2 withdrawals per week. This is especially expensive in countries like Argentina that limit each transaction to about €63, so in this case there’s no avoiding ATM fees by taking out less frequent but larger withdrawal amounts. The overseas bank will always tell you that it is charging a fee and ask you if you want to continue to proceed with the transaction, so if you want to cancel and try another bank, you have the option to shop around.

Fees Charged by Your Home Bank

Your home bank will most likely charge you a fee based on the percentage value of the transaction. The simplest way to avoid this is to use a bank account or currency card service which allows you to make unlimited overseas ATM withdrawals without any fees. You will most likely have to pay for this privilege but considering the ATM fees that you would avoid, it might well be worth paying for this premium feature.

Understanding Overseas ATM Cash Withdrawal Exchange Rates

Banco de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
Banco de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

Exchange Rates Used by Your Home Bank

Most of the big banks in the country you are visiting will charge you in the local currency. So if you are in Brazil, you will be charged the amount of Brazilian Reals that you chose to withdraw (plus any ATM fee that the Brazilian bank charges) and your home bank will use a standard exchange rate (mid-market rate) as displayed on XE.com or google). This is where banks aimed at travellers such as N26 will guarantee you the best rates, although there shouldn’t be too much difference compared to the rates of traditional banks.

Exchange Rates Used by a Foreign Bank or Non-Bank ATM

However sometimes, especially with non-bank ATMs, you will be offered an option to withdraw an amount in your home currency (Euro, Dollars etc.) which the foreign bank will convert for you, at their own rate. This is called dynamic currency conversion (DCC). They will be fully upfront and display their conversion rate to you but in most cases this is not a good option as they can charge very high rates and if you are not informed, you will go with this and pay a much higher rate than needed.

How I Avoid ATM Withdrawal Fees in South America

Even The Beach Bar Accepts Cards
Even The Beach Bar Accepts Cards

The Cards that I Travel with

I travel with the following cards:

– Traditional Bank – VISA – Debit Card

– Traditional Bank – Mastercard – Credit Card

– Modern Bank (N26) – Mastercard – Debit Card

– Prepaid Card Service (Revolut) – Mastercard – Prepaid Debit Card 

– Prepaid Card Service (Revolut) – Mastercard – Prepaid Debit Card (Spare)

The Waterfall Card Method

My method, let’s coin it the ‘Waterfall Card Method’, is quite simply about keeping your money in different places to let you have the most safety but always allow you to be flexible and have a card with you at the same time. Here are the steps to the Waterfall Card Method with a budget of €12,000 for 1 year of travel (€1,000 per month):

Level 1: At the beginning, all of your money (€12,000) is sitting safely in a traditional bank account (Traditional Bank VISA Debit Card). You have this card with you on your trip but it always stays in a safe place like a locker. This is because as it’s a traditional bank card, the overseas rates and fees are not great and you won’t use it at ATMs or for POS (Point of Sale) transactions. Also, if you lose this card it will probably be a nightmare to get another one shipped out to whatever remote place you might be in.

Level 2: For the first month, do an online transfer of your money for that month (€1,000) to your ‘Modern Bank’ account (N26 Mastercard Debit Card). This is the card that you will use for taking money out of the ATM because this bank card will give you the best foreign exchange rate and won’t charge you ATM withdrawal fees. You still won’t carry this card around all the time though because it might also be an issue to get a quick replacement and it might have up to €1,000 on it. That could be a lot of free almuerzos for a cheeky mugger!

Level 3: So you’ve used your second card to get cash but you only need to do this once every week or so. For everyday transactions, you only need to carry one card and that’s your Non-Bank Prepaid Debit Card. Daily or as often as you like, from your mobile app, transfer €50-100 from your Modern Bank to your Revolut account. And if you do happen to get mugged or lose your Prepaid Debit Card, don’t worry. You can disable the lost card from the mobile app. Also, before you leave on your trip, you can request a second card for under €10 and have 2 cards for the same account, which means that you always have a back up. Also, as you will use this day to day, you can track all of your expenses in the app and easily manage your budget!

So I travelled with 5 cards: 3 for separate bank accounts and 2 linked to the same Revolut account. It might sound a bit crazy to travel with so many cards but this will give you the most options to avoid ATM transaction fees as much as possible. Also, in Argentina, a lot of vendors like restaurants only accepted either VISA or Mastercard, and rarely accepted both, so on these occasions I carried both VISA and Mastercard cards to cover myself. It also really makes travel less stressful knowing that you have 4 back ups!

How I Avoided ATM Cash Withdrawal Fees in Most Countries in South America

Below is a table showing the banks in each country that didn’t charge me a fee for using my N26 card to withdraw cash from ATMs.

CountryBank
ArgentinaNone
BoliviaBanco Mercantil Santa Cruz
BrazilItaú
ChileNone
ColombiaBanco Pichincha
EcuadorBanco Pichincha
French GuianaPart of France / EU / Eurozone
GuyanaSorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
ParaguaySorry, I only used an ATM once and forgot which bank it was!
PeruBCP (Banco de Crédito del Perú)
SurinameSorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
UruguayNone
VenezuelaSorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!

    What to Look for in a Bank Account for Travel

    Even The Cell Phone Accessories Guy Accepts Cards
    Even The Cell Phone Accessories Guy Accepts Cards

    The Competition: Which Bank or Prepaid Debit Card is Best for Travel

    There are limited banking options in a small country like Ireland but in Europe and large countries like the USA, there are a larger range of options that are available. So it really depends where you are coming from and what options you have in your home country’s market. In this article, I haven’t focused on specific banks in any market because there are just too many moving variables as bank account products and rates change regularly. This article has used examples from the Irish/European market and although these might not apply to you, the methodology should be the same all around the world so you can apply the same principles when deciding what bank account options are best for you and your travels.

    A Bank, Not a Financial Services Provider

    There are lots of financial services and tools out there such as currency cards and transfer services – remember that these are not necessarily banks. For security reasons (as outlined in this article), a registered bank that has a banking licence is generally a much better option than a financial services provider or currency card service. Revolut is one example of a non-bank card that I have used and although it worked very well for me most of the time, I did have issues with incorrect information being displayed in my app. I spotted one transaction where the amount was completely incorrect. I raised the problem with Revolut’s support and they fixed the issue although there were several other incorrect transactions that they corrected that I didn’t even spot. For me and probably for most people, banking is not a service where you want to see any mistakes! This is worrying and I have lost a lot of trust in the service so as a general rule I would never put huge sums of money onto these types of cards. However, these types of services still have their uses for the savvy traveller and it’s always good to have an extra option, especially if it’s a free service that’s not costing you anything.

    A Modern, Mobile Bank

    There are traditional banks and modern banks. In Ireland, the traditional banks such as Bank of Ireland and AIB do have mobile friendly Apps but still lack the functionality, services and value that a modern bank provides. N26 is a modern bank and brands itself as a ‘Mobile Bank’. It’s ‘N26 You’ (previously ‘N26 Black’) service has a monthly fee but allows for free unlimited overseas ATM withdrawals. I paid for this service and found it to be great value on my travels.

    Street Art, Bogotá, Colombia

    South America: Why this Continent is the Best Place in the World to Travel

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    South America is the best continent to travel because of its incredible diversity of geography, climate, nature, culture, food and people. It is a unique region as it’s the only place in the world where the equator, the largest rainforest in the world and one of the highest mountain ranges in the world all meet. It’s a region with great value for money, it’s accessible, not too crowded and has a great variety of destinations to visit with lots to see and do! Also, the ability to travel around a whole continent with only two languages (Portuguese and Spanish) makes it just that bit easier to get to know the people!

    This article is based on my visit to 9 countries across South America over a period of nearly 2 years. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

    Geographical Diversity

    Plaza, Palm Trees & Snow Capped Mountains, Arequipa, Peru
    Plaza, Palm Trees & Snow Capped Mountains, Arequipa, Peru

    The Equator

    90% of South America is located south of the equator but the equator runs through three of the continent’s countries; Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. With a total length of 40,075 km, 3,380km or 8.43% of the equator runs through the continent of South America.

    The Andes Mountain Range

    Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
    Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

    At 7,000 km long, the Andes is the the longest mountain range in the world and stretches from the most southern point in the world at the bottom tip of Argentina all the way past the equator and up to the Caribbean Sea in Venezuela. It is the highest mountain range in the world outside Asia.

    The Amazon Basin

    The Amazon Basin is an area of 6.3 million km² that is drained by the Amazon river and covers about 40% of the South American continent. The Amazon covers parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana (so technically, the Amazon covers part of France!). Although the Nile in Africa is longer, the Amazon River is the largest river in the world by volume and has over a thousand tributaries. Most importantly, the region contains 10% of the world’s biodiversity and 15% of the world’s fresh water.

    Meeting of Equator, Andes & Amazon

    So what makes this continent so special and unique is that it’s the only place in the world where the equator, the largest rainforest in the world and one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, all meet. The highest point on the equator is situated at Volcán Cayambe in Ecuador and there are lots of other places throughout the continent where you can go from snow capped mountains to lush tropical rainforest in just a matter of hours, which is an incredible experience.

    South America is Big

    South America makes up 12% of the surface area of the earth and is bigger than most people realise. Historically, it’s been greatly misrepresented on maps, and even in modern maps the sizes of countries further away from the equator are overemphasised. When talking about travel destinations I sometimes hear people comparing South America with continents like Europe or regions like South-East Asia. I don’t believe that this is a fair comparison. To put this is perspective, South America has an area of 17.8 million km² with Brazil alone counting for 8.5 million km² of this. Europe has an area of 10.1 million km² (including the Russian part!) and South-East Asia has an area of 4.5 million km². Size matters in the context of travel because there is generally going to be more to see and do in a larger area and distances may also be longer which means that you will need to think about taking more time for this type of trip.

    Climate Diversity

    Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
    Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
    Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, Maranhão, Brazil
    Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses, Maranhão, Brazil

    Between Oceans

    Located between the two largest oceans on earth, this has a huge affect on climate, although Colombia and Chile are the only countries that have the pleasure of a coastline on both oceans. Some of the climate factors that are affected by the oceans are rainfall variability and ocean current temperatures. Generally, the sea on the Pacific coast to the west is cooler while the sea on the Atlantic coast to the east is warmer. The Andes Mountain range also acts as a rain barrier to the Pacific side of the continent in large areas of Chile and Peru, resulting in some of the driest areas on earth.

    Microclimates

    A huge number of microclimates are created by the meeting of the equator, the two largest oceans on earth, the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest. For example, Peru has 90 microclimates throughout the country and 30 of the world’s 32 climates. South America is home to the Atacama Desert in Chile which is the driest place in the world (after Antarctica’s Dry Valleys), and Tutunendo in Colombia which is the third wettest place on earth.

    Balanced Climates

    Whilst some areas in South America clearly have extreme climate conditions, this is not the case across the entire continent. In International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index, South American countries claimed positions 1 (Ecuador), 3 (Colombia) and 4 (Peru) for ‘Best Climate in the World’. This is because these places have a well balanced climate with lots of hours of natural sunlight each day and temperatures that are not too hot nor too cold. All of these countries are situated close to the equator and each country has a coastline, parts of the Andes, and sections of the Amazon within their borders.

    Nature & Biodiversity

    Tree, Amazon, Loreto, Peru
    Tree, Amazon, Loreto, Peru

    World's Most Biodiverse Regions

    South America is home to many of the most biodiverse regions in the world and the most biodiverse place on earth (I’ve seen various articles sighting different locations to claim this accolade but most are in and around the Amazon region). There is a wealth of life here with thousands of species of plants and animals.

    Plants

    Several countries in South America contain more than 5,000 endemic plant species each. These unique plants provide us with food like Açaí, materials like rubber and are the basis for many forms of modern medicines.

    Animals

    Capybara & Caiman, las Pampas, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia
    Capybara & Caiman, las Pampas, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

    South America is known as the ‘bird continent’ with over 3,000 species of birds and many insects, spiders and crabs are found nowhere else on earth. The continent has a wide variety of animals and new species, mostly types of insects, are still being found in the Amazon region.

    Cultural Diversity

    Street Art, Bogotá, Colombia
    Street Art, Bogotá, Colombia

    Indigenous Population

    There are large populations of indigenous people in the South American countries of Bolivia (62% of the population identify as indigenous), Peru (45% of the population identify as indigenous) and Ecuador amongst others.

    Colonisation: Europeans & Africans

    In 1492, Europeans arrived in South America. Many of the indiginous population died after the arrival of Europeans due to disease and war. Unlike many other instances of colonisation around the world, intercultural marriage was tolerated and sometimes even encouraged during the colonisation of South America. Africans were also brought to South America during the times of slavery.

    Immigration

    The Japanese in Brazil and Mennonites in Bolivia are just some of the examples of cultures that have chosen to call South America home and this makes for a great cultural melting pot with some of the most friendly people in the world.

    Languages

    Languages, Hostel, São Luis, Brazil
    Languages, Hostel, São Luis, Brazil

    Travel with Only 2 Languages

    The most spoken languages are Portuguese and Spanish so if you can speak a little bit of both of these languages, you can have a great experience travelling. Portuguese is the most spoken language in South America but only by a tiny margin so it’s pretty much 50/50 between them. English, French and Dutch are also official languages of countries in South America and languages like German are also spoken in some parts of Brazil.

    Native Languages

    There are many native languages in South America, the most spoken ones being Quecua (8.9m), Guaraní (4.9m) and Aymara (2.8m). Generally, most speakers of these languages will also speak Spanish.

    Food

    Best Tropical Fruit in the World

    Market, Arequipa, Peru
    Market, Arequipa, Peru

    Latin America has the best variety of tropical fruit in the world due to its incredible biodiversity so it is reasonable to assume that South America has an incredible variety to choose from. My personal favorites are Açaí and Guanábana. After spending almost 2 years in South America, I realised that I had never before enjoyed a real tropical fruit juice experience until I tasted the fresh ‘jugos naturales’!

    Some of the Best Food in the World

    Ceviche, Lima, Peru
    Ceviche, Lima, Peru

    Look no further than the Venezuelan Arepa, one of the best foods in the world in my opinion. Many foods known across the globe have originated in South America such as potatoes which were first cultivated in Peru by the incas. Peru also has famous dishes such as Ceviche (raw fish) and Cuyo (guinea pig). Also, coming from the Andean highlands, Quinoa is just one of many examples of a ‘superfood’ that originates in South America. Drink Coca tea to ease the effects of high altitude, or try Tacacá in Pará, Brazil, to experience your mouth going numb!

    Value for Money

    Guaranies, Paraguay
    Guaranies, Paraguay

    Good Value for Money

    Only Uruguay (45th) and Chile (60th) are ranked in the top half of Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index of 136 countries around the world. All other South American countries feature in the lower half of the index. So most South American countries are relatively good value for money. Also, if you are travelling to South American countries and spending money earned in a country with a strong economy and currency, you will most likely benefit greatly from the exchange rate.

    Accessible & Not Overcrowded

    Relatively Low Visa Restrictions

    Volleyball, La Balsa, Peru-Ecuador Border Crossing, Peru
    Volleyball, La Balsa, Peru-Ecuador Border Crossing, Peru

    In my case for Irish citizens (European Union), only Suriname requires a Visa and all other countries in South America can be explored without a visa for up to 90 days. Peru provides for up to 180 days without a visa. Other nationalities such as US and Canadian citizens may face higher visa restrictions and have to pay fees and go through timely visa application processes.

    Big Airport Hubs

    Skyline, Edifício Itália, São Paulo, Brazil
    Skyline, Edifício Itália, São Paulo, Brazil

    Although South America has a lot of incredibly inaccessible areas, there are many big cities that are large air transport hubs such as São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogotá and Santiago. Even if you haven’t been to South America before, you may have already used a flight route with a connection in one of these city airports.

    Low Population Density

    South America is ranked 4th out of the 6 inhabited continents in terms of population density. Also, as the second most urbanised region in the world, it has a very low population density outside cities and this means that there are huge areas of the continent with relatively low levels of population. This might sound contradictory, especially if you are reading this in a city like São Paulo, but once you leave the cities you will find masses of land and not many people around.

    Not Many Tourists

    With only 2.6% of the world’s international tourist visits, South America is still widely considered an ‘off the beaten track’ tourist destination. Only Africa has less tourists when all of the continents are compared in terms of the number of tourists per square kilometer. Europe has 30 times more tourists per square kilometer compared to South America!

    Variety of Destinations

    Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil
    Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil

    Incredible Natural Wonders

    The Amazon Basin needs to be experienced first hand and is accessible from several countries including Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname & French Guyana. This region is home to Salto Ángel, the world’s tallest waterfall (yes, that wonderful place from the move ‘Up’ actually exists!), and Mt. Roraima in Venezuela. Further out, both Machu Picchu in Peru and The Death Road in Bolivia sit where the Andes mountain range meets the Amazon Basin.

    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

    A high altitude plain called the Altiplano covering Bolivia, Peru and Chile, sits high in the Andes at 3,750 meters. If you can handle the high altitude, you can find Lake Titicaca, the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Atacama Desert. At lower levels in the Andes mountain range Colca Canyon close to Arequipa, Peru, and the Cocora Valley in Colombia are just some of the places within the Andes that enjoy beautiful landscapes.

    Glacier Perito Moreno, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina
    Glacier Perito Moreno, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

    At the southern end of the Andes is Patagonia. This is made up of Argentinian Patagonia and Chilean Patagonia. In this region you can see gigantic chunks of ice break off Glacier Perito Moreno and you can hike around national parks to see Los Torres Del Paine and Mt. Fitz Roy. A 3 day ferry through the Chilean fjords may also give you an opportunity to see whales and other forms of sea life.

    Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil
    Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil

    South of the Amazon, the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands, sits at the centre of the continent. Iguazu Falls is situated just a bit further to the South East. To the East of the Amazon and the Pantanal lies the savanna of Brazil. Between the savanna and the coast you can hike in the scenic Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina. Further east you will find the Atlantic Forest which stretches along the coastal region from Natal in the North to Porto Alegre in the South.

    Rafting, Villa Tunari, Bolivia
    Rafting, Villa Tunari, Bolivia

    Sandy dunes and some of the world’s best kitesurfing spots can be found in the north of Brazil at Jericoacoara and Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. Sand dune boarding can also be done at Huacachina in Peru or at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. If you like rafting, you can do this in Baños, Ecuador or Villa Tunari, Bolivia. The beaches of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona in Colombia are overlooked by the highest coastal mountains in the world at Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

    Prainha, Itacaré, Brazil
    Prainha, Itacaré, Brazil

    For a chilled out beach vibe, check out the North-East of Brazil such as Praia dos Carneiros in the state of Pernambuco or Morro de Sao Paulo and Itacaré in the state of Bahia. You can even find a beach paradise in the middle of the Amazon (read more about that here). Some of the world’s most famous islands skirt the continent with the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Easter Island in Chile. Other islands like Fernando de Noronha in Brazil and Los Roques in Venezuela are home to some of the best beaches in the world.

    Iconic Man-Made Landmarks

    The Lost City, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia
    The Lost City, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

    Discover what remains of ancient cultures from Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines in Peru to the Lost City in Colombia. Many more ruins and ancient burial sites are scattered throughout the Andes. See where nature meets man with cultivation of grapes for wine in Argentina and Chile to the growing of coffee beans in Brazil and Colombia.

    Churches & Hills, Ouro Preto, Brazil
    Churches & Hills, Ouro Preto, Brazil

    There is no shortage of colonial era architecture, churches and plazas throughout South America. These can be found all over the continent from Ouro Preto in Brazil to the Centros Historicos in Quito and Cusco. Other monuments and buildings have also been built such as the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro to the lesser known but fairy-tale-like Santuario de Las Lajas in Colombia.

    Vibrant Cities

    Sunset, Buenos Aires, Argentina
    Sunset, Buenos Aires, Argentina

    Climb the steep peaks that look over Rio de Janeiro for some of the most incredible city views in the world or take a cable car to an altitude of 4,000 meters in La Paz. If you like big cities, São Paulo, Brazil, with a metro area population of 21.5 million, is one of the largest cities in the world and has a great mix of cultures and things to do. There are also many other great cities such as Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogotá, Santiago, Cuzco and Medellín that are there to be explored. The cities of the Amazon like Manaus, Iquitos and Belém also have something special about them in their urban wildness.

    The People & the Culture

    Carnaval, Ouro Preto, Brazil
    Carnaval, Ouro Preto, Brazil

    A Culture of Enjoying Life

    Most cultures across the continent like to be social and enjoy life. People are chatty, have a good sense of humour and are probably some of the most ‘touchy’ in the world, expressing themselves with more physical contact compared to most other cultures. They also have a very family orientated culture and spend a lot of time with family and at family events. I found South Americans to be very friendly and interesting people. If you want to get out and meet the people, there is no shortage of cultural events, the most famous being Carnaval.

    A Culture of Dance

    Tango, Buenos Aires, Argentina
    Tango, Buenos Aires, Argentina

    Dancing is something that nearly everyone in South America does whether at a family event, a barbeque or at a bar. Where I’m from in Europe the question is “Do you dance?” whereas in South America the question is “What do you dance?”. There are lots of types of dance from Salsa to Samba to Merengue amongst others and you will have a great time trying to master them!

    Reflecting on My Trip

    Home » Archives for John

    This article is based on my visit to 9 countries across South America over a period of nearly 2 years. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

    Better Late Than Never

    Two years ago to the day, I left Ireland to travel around South America. I was 31 at the time.

    I had always liked travelling and seeing different places but I never really thought of the possibility of going to South America. Looking back now, I think that it’s because I just didn’t know any better. Meeting so many younger people travelling around South America or doing University exchanges between Europe and places like Brazil made me think…why didn’t I do that?!… or why didn’t I do a big trip when I was in my early twenties?! Anyway, we are where we are and I’m happy that I did it later rather than never. 

    Travel Inspiration

    In 2010 myself and some friends went on a 2 week trip through Eastern Europe starting in The Czech Republic, going through Austria, visiting Slovakia and ending up in Hungary. I had been away before and had spent one Summer in Canada (2007) and another one in the USA (2008) but it was my first real backpacking trip where I experienced the feeling of moving from place to place in such a short period of time. It was just so much fun and really got me thinking about doing more travelling.

    I also visited other countries outside Europe such as México (2012), Brazil (2013 & 2015) and Indonesia (2016) and had amazing experiences on these trips. I think that my experiences across all of these places was what inspired me the most to go travelling long term.

    The Urge to Travel

    Over the years, reading blogs and watching YouTube vlogs of long-term travellers steadily fed my urge to travel. One of my favourite things to watch was ‘Departures’, a Canadian Documentary Series which follows the travels of two guys visiting ‘off the beaten track’ places all over the world.

    Taking the Jump

    Only after years of thinking about it did I decide to make the jump. It probably took me about 7 years from fist thoughts in 2010 to final decision in 2017 but I think that I only really started to think seriously about it a year or two before I left.

    Reflecting on My Trip

    So reflecting on the actual trip itself, it’s hard to sum it up in just a few words. I visited a lot of faraway places, saw incredible landscapes, met lots of amazing people, had an immersive language experience, tried lots of tasty food, experienced lots of different cultures and became a more independent person.

    A lot of people don’t choose to do what I’ve done and because of that, I feel that I’ve done something really special and it’s motivating to know that you can achieve anything you want if you really want to. Also, I’m aware that most people don’t have the opportunity to do what I’ve done, and for that, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity and I’m grateful to my family and friends for helping me to get to this point.