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Samuel Turner

The continent of South America is truly amazing. It boasts a huge wealth of cultures, cuisine, rich history, natural wonders and unique experiences. Its seductive attributes coerced me a long time ago and through six months of careful preparation I felt completely ready to conquer it. How wrong I was.

After hundreds of conversations, personal lessons, experiences and dollars I learnt the imperative things you need whilst backpacking through South America – physically, financially and culturally.


The local language

This definitely pays to learn. I can tell you this from experience, by not knowing a lick of Spanish and trying to negotiate my way through some unpleasant ordeals. The basics and fundamentals should be sufficient, but you will find it significantly easier when problems occur by knowing the local tongue. Un cerveza por favor!

Multiple bank cards

Having multiple bank cards is probably the most important thing on my list. The inability to access your own money is frightening and infuriating – especially in a foreign country. When I reached Argentina it cost me $17.50 to withdraw $100, with a daily limit of $200. Along with a 10% surcharge if you used card, it left me in a ridiculously expensive predicament. Having multiple bank cards ensures you will be able to access enough money, compare costs and of course have a back up source of funds. With only one access card I learnt this lesson the hard way and had to wait for another bank to send me a new card from Australia. 


Cash is king wherever you go in South America. Specifically, US dollars are very handy to bring with you before leaving. Argentina for example exchanges US dollars at a wonderful rate and countries such as Ecuador exclusively use US currency. It is also a good fail safe back up option of funds and at some border crossings you will need USD for entry.

Offline maps service (maps.me)

An offline maps service is imperative when navigating your way around a new place. Of course you can use a physical map, but being able to navigate where you are from the palm of your hand is a wonderful ability. The application ‘maps.me’ allows you to download the map of any location (usually done before you arrive). By using the GPS in your phone you can easily navigate where you are in real time – at no cost. The other incentive to this system is you won’t be wandering around with a map in your hand looking like a lost tourist.

Backpacking phone maps

Universal travel adaptor

The power sockets throughout South America change in every country, and even vary in some states. Having a universal travel adaptor means you won’t have to keep buying different plugs and worrying about what fits and what doesn’t. Make sure you buy one with built in USB ports, as most cameras and phones only require a USB charging mechanism.

Travel adaptor

Quality winter gear

South America is closer to Antarctica than Australia is to New Zealand. So yes, it gets very cold, especially in Patagonia and the more southern parts. Having quality winter gear is invaluable in these situations. I personally recommend buying a face warmer (neck and face coverage all in one) as well as a good quality insulating jacket. I also purchased thermals pants, shirt and socks, which were less necessary but nevertheless comfortable. Temperatures can drop to -15c, so it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. When traversing across a glacier the last thing you want to worry about is your cold chest!

Winter gear

Don’t forget when you’re in South America:

  • You are a visitor in a foreign country, respect their culture and customs
  • An unfortunate reality, petty crime is quite commonplace. Be cautious but not afraid
  • Diversify your risk! Don’t keep all your bank cards or money in one place, stash some away and keep it safe
  • Prepare for the worst and hope for the best – planning will help you save money and time

Sam drink

Samuel Turner is an Australian journalist with a passion for adventure, travel and food. Follow him on Instagram @turnernator and Facebook Samuel Turner.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy