Six Tips For Getting the Most Out of South America

Know this before you go.

For some, the most stressful thing about traveling is the desire to transmute time and distance into neatly packaged life-affirming experiences at the most efficient rate possible—all while letting loose and unwinding. I dealt with this conflict on my recent whirlwind tour of South America (six cities, three countries, 20 days) by basically not dealing with it at all.

I didn’t want to worry about whether I was getting the most out of my vacation, I just wanted to do something different—even if that meant not doing anything at all. In the process, I unlocked many unforgettable moments. Here are my six tips.

1. Rio de Janeiro is really fun to explore on foot.

Rio’s reputation dictates that the wary traveler take taxis to and from the tourist spots to minimize chances of being mugged. Taxis, however, require cash, and the only thing that scares me more than being mugged on the ground is being figuratively robbed via foreign transaction fees. Thankfully, Rio’s subway system is clean, safe, and easy to navigate (the Bay Area native in me cringed with envy).

It’s a great way to get from the northern nightlife spots to the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema in the south. You can also walk—although the way isn’t exactly marked—from Rio Sul shopping center to Sugarloaf Mountain. The taxi fare is a ripoff, so why not explore the streets in between? They are residential and quiet—a nice change of pace from the party atmosphere of the praias.

2. Monkeys will totally steal from your mini-bar at Iguazu Falls.

Any destination that featured as a plot point in a Wong Kar Wai movie (Happy Together in this case) is a must-see in my book. The Sheraton, located inside the park, within shouting distance of the falls themselves (pictured above), was plastered with warning signs about the importance of keeping the balcony doors closed, and I soon found out why: Small pods of capuchins emerged from the jungle and swarmed the hotel terraces. Some of the monkeys carried beer cans and chocolates, and looking over, I noticed my next-door neighbor had disregarded the hotel’s warning and had left his balcony door welcomingly ajar. If a mysterious mini-bar charge shows up on your hotel tab, this might be why.

3. Take advantage of the unofficial black market for U.S. dollars when paying for your tango lesson (and everything else) in Buenos Aires.

Argentina is experiencing inflation to the tune of 40 percent per year (all real estate transactions are already conducted in U.S. dollars) and at the time of writing this, the official exchange rate is 9.33 Argentinian Pesos to 1 U.S. dollar—unless you pay with U.S. dollars (cash, not a credit card), which many retail stores, vendors, or hotels are so eager to acquire that they will happily offer you exchange rates of 14 to 1. You may recognize this as a significant discount. This comes in handy if you were looking to experience Argentinian tango from the source by taking a lesson—I recommend Tango y Tango in Recoleta.

4. Eat literally anything in Lima.

At this point in the trip, I was, unbelievably, tired of steak. Luckily for me, I was in Lima, and the Larcomar shopping center was within walking distance of our hotel in Miraflores. “You went to a shopping center on vacation,” you sniff? Well, yeah. I had a cold. I wanted a Pinkberry. And Larcomar is built into the seaside cliffs and all the restaurants overlook the beach, which on a rare sunny day in Lima in winter, was gorgeous. I sat in the sun by the shore and ate ceviche and drank Inca Colas all afternoon, and it was glorious. I regret nothing.

5. Nothing cures altitude sickness better than coca leaf tea and “Ibuprofeno.”

You know what sucks more than altitude sickness? Having altitude sickness and a cold at the same time. Cuzco is 11,000 feet above sea level and its hotels, in preparation for sickly travelers, offer unlimited supplies of coca leaf tea. Its actual curative properties are debatable, but it certainly is tasty, and you should enjoy it while you can since you definitively cannot bring it back to the States. And if the tea doesn’t do it for your illness, 600 mg of Ibuprofen slamming down on your pain receptors definitely will. Drugstores in Peru don’t sell Tylenol over the counter—you’re supposed to go to the pharmacist and explain your symptoms to him, but fortunately most will understand if you simply request ibuprofeno or pseudafedrina.

6. Skip Machu Picchu at dawn, save your energy for Wayna Picchu instead.

There are various ways to see Machu Picchu at dawn, from arduous backpacking trips to climbing a mountain in total darkness to spending exorbitant sums of money to stay at the adjoining resort, but the actual event is likely to be shrouded in fog and, thus, anticlimactic.

On the other hand, climbing Wayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu, is completely worth it despite requiring a equivalent amount of planning, since they now limit the amount of people who can go up to two batches of 200 a day. Not willing to rush and worry about whether I would make the 7 a.m. time slot, I opted for the more leisurely 10 a.m. one, and found the whole experience to be superlative in all ways—a fitting capstone to a long and action-packed vacation.

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