First off, we should congratulate you on taking the decision to go on your maiden backpacking voyage, and also for choosing Latin America as your destination.
You’re about to embark upon an exciting journey which is all but certain to be one of the best experiences of your life. No doubt, it will spark in you a lifelong love of traveling – a habit you'll never be able to shake off, even if you wanted to (which you won’t).
Before you get to the region, though, you’ve probably still got plenty of dull things to sort out and lots of decisions to make. And with so much going on, it’s easy to take a wrong step, which will limit (a bit) the fun you'll be able to have on your trip later.
The LatinTravelGuide team well know what this is like. From minor irritations to huge disasters, we have all made one or two decisions before our first backpacking trips that we later cursed ourselves for.
The last thing we’d want is for you to repeat our mistakes. So, we’ve asked around in the office and compiled our top bits of advice on what you should consider when planning your first backpacking trip in Latin America.
1. Streamline your itinerary
One of the best parts of your pre-trip preparations is reading up about all the weird and wonderful places you could visit. The more you read about fun places and exciting activities, the more you’ll find yourself wanting to experience them all.
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Anyone planning this sort of extended trip knows the temptation to continually make your proposed route longer and longer in order to fit in all these extra destinations.
Do your best to resist.
The most fun bit about traveling is not actually traveling. At least, not in the ‘spending-endless-days-on-cramped-buses’ sense of the word.
Scale down your ambitions, see fewer places, but see them properly
The best experiences come from seeing / doing / eating new things and meeting new people. If you’re constantly hurrying off to the next destination just to tick it off your list, you’ll spend more time on transport and less enjoying life.
Much better, we think, to scale down your ambitions slightly; to see fewer places, but see them properly. Spending a couple of extra days here and there will you allow to fully enjoy the places you visit and, ultimately, to build better memories of your trip.
In sum, when it comes to route planning, sometimes less can be more.
2. Learn at least some Spanish
Yes, it can be a bit of a pain at first to learn some Spanish especially if you don’t consider yourself a natural linguist.
But we guarantee you that once you’re out in Latin America, you will really wish you knew at least a few words of the language. Most of your fellow backpackers will.
Latin Americans feel that as you’re on their turf, it’s up to you to learn their language
Perhaps this is because backpacking in Latin America is not like visiting most other parts of the world -- where locals feel obliged to speak to you in English and are almost apologetic if they can’t.
In Latin America, by contrast, the general feeling among locals is that you have decided to enter their world; a world of Spanish speakers. And, as you’re on their turf, it’s up to you to learn their language.
Admittedly, you can travel around fine without any Spanish (people at hostels and who run tours generally speak English), but you will miss out on plenty if you decide to go down this route.
You won’t be able to meet and chat to locals so easily, and will be largely left out of conversations involving other, more linguistically proficient, backpackers. If you who know absolutely no Spanish you might well feel a little foolish in such circumstances.
To get the most out of your trip, it’s definitely a good idea to get going with some Spanish learning. Ideally, you’d start this before leaving for Latin America - there are plenty of online tools available to help you learn - but if you don’t get the chance at this stage, try to work in a couple of weeks of classes towards the beginning of your trip.
Study a few hours a day for just two or three weeks and you’ll be able to ask any (simple) question you want, and will be able to chat a bit with the locals. At the very least, this will give you a very solid basis to start the rest of your trip with. As you move around and interact more with people, you’ll continue to improve.
This way, not only will you be having an amazing time while away, but you’ll also be picking up a whole new language too – never a bad skill to have.
3. Keep your route flexible
Returning to the theme of itineraries, we recommend that you build in plenty of flexibility to any travel plans you put together before arriving. However much you’ve read up and planned out your ideal route, things are certain to change when you actually begin your journey.
Some countries or places you never expected to spend any time in might be much more fun than you expected. Others might be less good than you'd hoped, encouraging you to zip through them quickly.
However much you’ve read up, things are certain to change when you actually begin your journey.
Alternatively, you might get really ill somewhere along the line, or meet a cool group of people who you want to keep traveling with for a while longer.
Suffice to say that there are any number of things that can throw off even the best laid plans of a backpacker. Being able to adapt to these changes is an important aspect of your new found freedom and is a big part of the beauty of getting away.
Make sure you factor this into your planning and avoid booking a load of non-refundable accommodation, internal flights or trips which you later become hostage to, when your plans change.
The exception is for a couple of specific activities, namely the Inca Trail in Peru or the boat trip to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, which do require a bit of prior organisation as they get booked up well in advance.
However, aside from these two, we’d advise keeping your commitments to a minimum. Book your return flights, and maybe also your accommodation for the first night of your arrival, but apart from this, try and leave your trip calendar completely free.
4. Keep an eye on your bank balance
In an ideal world, you’d budget properly and know exactly how much you were able to spend each day in order to be able to travel comfortably throughout the trip.
But we know that nobody wants to think about financial planning when they are just embarking on the trip of a lifetime.
And, indeed, the standard thing for backpackers do is to splurge in the first half of their trip, then, in the second part, realize they’ve hugely overspent and have to cut back dramatically.
Nobody wants to think about financial planning when they are just embarking on the trip of a lifetime
We know that telling you this now won’t make much difference. And that’s fair enough – we’ve been in your shoes and ignored such advice from those that preceded us.
So maybe the best we can do is just to encourage you to make some calculations within a few weeks of starting your trip, just to have a rough idea of how much money you have left per day. This should stop you from having to hitchhike and sleep rough at least.
The reason this is important is that, once you're away, making money is not always a straightforward business. Once your funds are gone, it’s difficult to replenish them.
UK residents aren't in too bad a position. If they want to earn some extra pocket money, they can always raise more funds online by indulging in some matched betting (a way to play two bookmakers off against each other in order to convert promotional free bets into hard cash).
For everyone else, though, the options for making a quick buck when on the road are more limited. So, if it won't kill your buzz too much, try and keep an eye on how much you're spending early on.
5. Don’t scrimp when buying a backpack
With all the other millions of expenses – flights, travel insurance, clothes and equipment – that you’re faced with before going away, you might think that luggage is one area where you can save a few pennies. Do so at your peril.
Depending on what luggage you opt for, your backpack can end up being your best friend or worst enemy. You’ll be spending a hell of a lot of time together so it's best to choose wisely.
Buying a cheap backpack is always a false economy
Buying a cheap backpack is always a false economy. Remember that you’re going to put that thing through a lot of stress when you’re away. The poor little guy is going to suffer extreme changes of temperature, will get smashed about on buses, scuffed on hostel floors and soaking wet on boat trips.
Plump for a bargain-basement backpack and within weeks a side handle, zip, or strap is bound to break. And when you unexpectedly get kicked off a bus into a hot, dusty town in the middle of nowhere -- as will inevitably happen at some point on your trip -- you don’t want have to contend with the additional stress of backpack that sheds your possessions at every step.
Similarly, and while we’re on the subject of backpacks, we’d also like to advise against buying one of those top loading ones like this), and encourage you instead to choose one with a zip the edge (like this).
If you buy one of the top loaders, you’ll inevitably find that whatever item of clothing you’re looking for is always right at the bottom of your backpack. The only way to get to it is to unpack and repack everything you’ve brought with you.
It’s only a mild irritation at first, but, trust us, by the 100th time it happens you’ll be ready to tear your backpack apart.
6. Pack light
In preparing for your trip, it’s tempting to over-pack. A fear of forgetting some vital piece of equipment and suffering months of regret, drives us to shove more into our backpacks than we really need.
In particular, you’d do well to leave behind bulking items like sleeping bags and clunky walking shoes if you can avoid it. You’ll find that you will probably won’t use these items much when you get away (unless you do some serious trekking expeditions, that is).
Lugging around a load of stuff you don’t need for months on end isn’t much fun. Do your best, then, to keep your luggage to an absolute minimum – a few clothes, a couple of key bits of adventure kit, and not much else.
Packing light means that you’ll still have plenty of room to bring back a few souvenirs – especially handy as friends and family will probably be expecting a gift or two on your return.
And, if all else fails, you can always pick up anything you need at the huge shopping malls found in pretty much every large Latin American city.
Go for the minimalist approach at first, and then top-up as and when required. That’ll leave your luggage light enough for you to continue to skip, carefree, into the Latin America sunset.