A Solo Backpacker’s Hacks for Travelling in South America

Flying solo for five months in South America, the writer returned with lifelong friendships, unforgettable experiences and a repository of travel wisdom.  
Flying Solo in South America
Private boats zip in and out of the coast of Brazil’s Ilha Grande, an ecotourism paradise with no vehicles and a languid pace. Photo by: ambaPhoto/CassioVasconcellos/SambaPhoto/Getty Images

Having worked for a decade with very few vacations, I decided to take a break from the routine on my 28th birthday. My plan of a 40-day South America trip raised a few eyebrows, but no one, including me, knew then that this modest plan would eventually transmogrify into a five-month-long trip. Most surprising, however, was that this deviation from previous plans ended up teaching me lessons and languages, and helped me gain some wisdom, otherwise known as “hacks.”

 

São Paulo, Brazil

After careful research that involved scouting websites such as Skyscanner and Kayak as well as those of individual airlines, it was clear thatSão Paulo was my best option as a port of entry into the continent. Being flexible about dates and location opened up a whole world of possibilities in airline travel, I soon learned.

Tickets sorted, I still had some things to deal with: no familiar people and no familiar language. It’s been a few years since my trip, and without the option of soaking up movies, books and language digitally through Netflix or a Kindle, I reached out to a local by sending a message to Bebeto, the ambassador of the São Paulo community on Couchsurfing, a not-for-profit hospitality website which connects travellers with locals.

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São Paulo, called Sampa by locals, is an eclectic, LGBTQ-friendly city. Photo by: Maremagnum/Photolibrary/Getty Images

One message changed everything, and the transition from host to friend was a quick one. Bebeto took me under his wing and offered to host me for an entire month so I could “do justice to what his city had to offer.” More than the idea of not having to pay for my stay, I was sold on his passion and love for São Paulo, a city I soon fell in love with.

At the behest of Bebeto, I changed my flight tickets and my 40-day Brazil trip became three months long. Armed with a Portuguese phrasebook (now you can also try translation or language learning apps like Duolingo and Beelinguapp) and a local SIM card, I set about exploring.

I spent my first few days in the city at a hostel where I met Husam, who’d come from Syria, and his friends. Hostels are perhaps the best way to make friends from around the world on your travels. Husam had been in the city for a while, and I joined him and the other hostellers for a karaoke session one night. Of course, that soon became one of our regular activities.

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Street performances including yoga sessions are a common sight in São Paulo. Photo by: Paulo Fridman/Contributor/Corbis News/Getty Images

The time I spent alone, I would often hop on the metro. São Paulo, or Sampa as locals call it, has an efficient metro network which makes navigating easy. Sometimes, I took a metro ride just to observe the city and people and soak in the vibe. Walking to places and rides on the metro became my favourite way to explore Sampa. A few years later, cycling was added to the list when I returned to the city and discovered the free bicycle rentals on Sundays at AvenidaPaulista or Paulista Avenue, the buzzing heart of Sampa. Now, there is a bicycle sharing network spread through the city.

Smart Hacks:

Packing light is perhaps one of the most liberating and money-saving hacks when done right. You need an optimal cabin size bag and the willingness to do your own laundry or pay for it. Carry a foldable bag to bring back your shopping. Having only carry-ons also means better deals on low-cost airlines. YouTube can impart some wisdom on this as well.

Almost every country today offers special SIM cards for travellers. For a long solo trip, get yourself one to easily access maps, messaging services, and transport and translation apps.

 

Quito, Ecuador

My next stop was a country I knew very little about, and the language changed from Portuguese to Spanish. I picked up a second phrasebook.

It was in this Andean capital set amidst misty mountains that I truly discovered the joys of hostels. Thanks to hostels having their own communal kitchens, I tried my hand at cooking, and even attempted to pick up Spanish phrases from fellow boarders. The hostel vibe kept me in Quito for longer than planned. The city is a great base for day trips, and soon we were making plans over shared meals.

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The Iglesia de San Francisco was Quito’s first church, built a month after the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500s. It still receives close to a million visitors every year. Photo by: Philip Lee Harvey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

One day trip took me to MitaddelMundo or “Middle of the World”, a spot I’d otherwise forego for being too touristy. There is a monument and a photo-op against the backdrop of a yellow line marking the path of the equator. Soon after getting our passports stamped here (yes, it actually happens) and taking goofy, look-I’m-in-both-hemispheres-at-the-same-time photos, we found out that a geological discrepancy meant that the actual path of the equator lies less than 800 feet north of that line. Many of these trips made for fun and pocket-friendly experiences with buses and cabs costing between $2-15.

I spent almost a month in Quito and to my surprise I’d spent only about $150 (Rs10,000) for my stay, including laundry. While the rates at some establishments have doubled now, $250-300 for a month’s stay in Quito still is a pretty good deal. In Quito I realised that long-term stays turn out cheaper and life was never going to be the same again!

Smart Hacks:

Travelling with a local is a great way to explore. They know lesser-known haunts and the dos and don’ts. Consider Couchsurfing, B&Bs, Airbnb and monthly rentals like Homeaway for slow travellers. Always try and make friends. Sign up for local tours or experiences on Airbnb Experiences or Facebook, meet fellow travellers on TravBuddy and visit a local bar or café. If you are feeling up to it, dating apps might be an interesting idea.

While I prefer phrasebooks, learning a new language is now much easier thanks to translation apps. If you learn new phrases, try saying them exactly as locals would—the effort will be appreciated. As Indian travellers we have the advantage of knowing a second language and often writing down phrases in your mother tongue or Hindi can help with phonetics. Joining a class—cooking or salsa if you are in Quito—at your destination can also help you learn the local language and meet residents.

 

Colombia

Throughout my stay in Quito, I met people travelling to and from Colombia who had wonderful things to say about the country. (One of the perks of hostel life is swapping travel stories.) So, while it wasn’t part of the plan, I decided to get a visa to Colombia from their consulate in Quito. The process was simple enough that with my rudimentary Spanish and some help from Google, I wrote my cover letter in Spanish. A stamp, a smile, and “bienvenidos en Colombia!” (welcome to Colombia!) from the visa officer set me on my way.

The five-hour bus ride from Quito to the border town, Tulcan, was a cultural experience of its own with local songs blaring throughout the journey. For the next month, I took buses from the south of the country all the way to Cartagena in the north and back.

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In Cartagena, evenings are a heady mix of music, alfresco dining and painting-pretty frames. Photo by: Dan Herrick/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

I went from Ipiales and Popayan in the south to Cali, Armenia and Salento in the central coffee region and Cartagena, Santa Marta in the north before heading to Bogotá and Medellín and then back to Taganga in Santa Marta. Plans for stays were made on the go and in the end I’d stayed at spartan guesthouses for as low as $4 and a private room in Santa Marta for about 50,000 pesos (Rs1,200) without much trouble.

While Cali had me underwhelmed, Bogota spooked me out at first with gloomy skies, political rallies and deserted streets after sundown. However, when I returned a few years later, I spent an entire month in Bogota, this time staying in a ‘poshtel,’ a boutique hostel, in the Chapinero neighbourhood. During my first trip I’d lived in the heritage area of Candelaria where vehicular traffic is cut off after dark. My second trip became a lesson in second chances—sometimes just a different setting or neighbourhood can change your views. Medellín turned out to be a wonderful cosmopolitan city with an upbeat young population thanks to the universities. An excellent public transport that included the metro line being connected to cable cars, and a temperate weather meant I spent a long time exploring the city’s thriving epicurean and nightlife scene. My favourite, however, was ‘ZonaCafetera,’ the coffee plantation zone of Armenia and Salento. The ethereal landscape has palm trees as tall as 200 feet, along with a relaxed vibe and the world’s best coffee.

A month in Colombia and I was sold on the country’s brand tagline, “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

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Colourful chivas or local buses and people in bright traditional wear are a common sight on the streets of Popayan. Photo by: Kaushal Karkhanis

Smart Hacks:

Any city’s central area, or the city centre, is often a good place to start when looking for last-minute accommodations. You can also book your entire stay online on very short notice. Websites like Booking.com allow you to book a stay without upfront payment and more often than not have free cancellations.

‘Power visas’ like U.S.A., U.K., and Schengen open up more of the world to Indian passport holders.I was able to apply for a Colombian visa from Quito, Ecuador. Some countries allow foreign nationals to apply for visas in the destined country’s consulate. Ensure that you do some research if you are considering changing plans during your trip. Check www.visahq.in for details.

 

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Samba, sass and all that jazz—Rio more than lives up to its hype as a haven for hedonists and pilgrims alike. Choosing to stay away from the tourist zone of Copacabana, I perched myself closer to its fancier cousin, Leblon, which had fewer tourists and classier locals.

When in Rio, a Couchsurfing event seemed like a great idea to get in touch with locals, and I met Valerie, a Dutch lady who was raving about her beach-facing stay, an unmissable luxury here. Curious, I signed up and also struck a deal for another long term stay, paying an equivalent of about Rs10,000 for an entire month. Even today, especially considering Brazil’s economy, it is not difficult to negotiate a similar deal.

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Rio is synonymous with samba and on weekends the action spills on to the streets of bohemian neighbourhood Lapa. Photo by: Mario Tama/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

During my stay here, one of my closest friends decided to drop by from the U.S. Meeting your best friend away from both your homes on the other side of the planet is immeasurably rewarding. We spent a little over a week jetsetting across São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Curitiba, and visited the Foz do Iguaçu waterfalls.

The rest of the month I spent my time much the same way as I had in São Paulo—walking, taking the metro and shared taxis to explore parts of the city. Rio is also a good base for weekend trips and I travelled to the historic postcard-town of Paraty, the island of Ilha Grande, the green mountains of Petrópolis and Conceição de Jacareí’s pristine beaches.

The month in Rio flew by too soon and I returned to São Paulo and Bebeto just before Christmas. Bebeto wanted to take me to his family home in Campo Grande to celebrate. The city, a seven-hour bus ride away, is the gateway to the wetlands of Pantanal, a biodiversity hotspot which often gets shadowed by the popularity of the Amazon.

After a family Christmas, the new year was brought in at Rio just the way the residents of the city, the cariocas, do: dressed in white on Copacabana beach. Many argue that Reveillon, or New Year’s Eve in Rio, is as much—if not more—fun than the annual Carnaval. December is also the time for tremdo samba or the samba train. As the name suggests, this train, running from Central do Brasil in the heart of the city to the suburban neighbourhood of Oswaldo Cruz, is one joyride full of revellers grooving to samba beats.

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Though banned, many a local and visitor will still try rock surfing at Paraty. Photo by: Kaushal Karkhanis

I ended my trip on a high, and returned home after five months of travelling with friendships and experiences worth cherishing all my life. There was also the added bonus of becoming fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, and a repository of travel hacks that I knew would serve me well in future.

Smart Hacks:

There are no direct flights between India and South America. Consider a long layover in Europe, South Africa, Dubai or U.S.A. This would help break a long journey, and could be another holiday if time and budget permit. When travelling to Colombia a second time, a layover in New York allowed me to explore the city. With better planning, a long layover can become a neat holiday.

  • Kaushal Karkhanis is a creative analyst and travel blogger who has spent over 12 months travelling the world. He travels to discover cultures and gain new perspective while making friends along the way.

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