Taste of South America in Two Weeks!

If you are not about to drop everything to travel — quit your job, pause your relationships, and rent out your apartment, etc. to pursue a nomad lifestyle — but you are lucky enough to take some time off to pursue your passion for exploring the world, this post is for you. Before I get into the details of each city and juicy stories, let me provide you with a high level overview of my trip. I will share my itinerary, tools I used to help plan my trip, things I packed in my backpack for you non-believers, and other helpful tips for people thinking about going on a similar trip.

 

The Itinerary

After my rather impulsive purchase of the nonrefundable roundtrip ticket to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was time to plan my route. I wanted to visit at least three cities. After researching online for common travel routes from Rio, talking to well traveled friends and coworkers, and looking at a lot of Google Image results for inspiration, here is the final itinerary I landed:

Day 1-5 (4.5 Days): Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Day 5-8 (3.5 Days): Iguazu Falls (Both Brazil and Argentina sides)
Day 8-13 (5 Days): Buenos Aires, Argentina + Day trip to Uruguay
Day 13-16 (2.5 Days): Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

I already came clean about being “type A” so I will share my detailed spreadsheet I developed in preparation for my trip. I saved this spreadsheet on my phone (thank you, Evernote Premium!) and also had a hard copy with me at all times — very handy, especially on travel days, when you need to take a quick glance at the flight number or the hostel address, etc. I also shared this spreadsheet with my friends, family, and coworkers so they could “keep track” of me, just in case of any emergencies.

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Aside from the cost of flights, I had two factors in mind when scheduling the inter-city trips: I wanted to spend the first weekend in Rio, and the second weekend in Buenos Aires. So I made sure my trip to Iguazu landed during the week (not much night life there!). I also wanted to make sure I can go to the Sunday market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, and also took into consideration La Bomba de Tiempo, which only happens on Monday nights in Buenos Aires.

I didn’t feel rushed at any particular point during the trip. If I could do it over, I would probably spend one less day in Buenos Aires. It was too cold for my vacation mode (winter in Brazil is very different than winter in Argentina) and it’s a big city where you either have a few days to hit the “touristy” spots or you have an extended stay to really get to know the city. 5 Days felt too long to be doing just touristy stuff, and too short to really fall in love with the city. Kind of like San Francisco. I’m glad I was able to take a day trip to Uruguay on my 4th day — more to come on that. As you can see, all of my travels were via the air. This was a conscious decision to save time — – people who are more budget conscious have ground transportation options. There are bus options for all of the routes and they are quite cheap. I hear it is most definitely worth spending a few extra bucks to upgrade to the first class bus seats, especially on overnight rides. The first class seats recline all the way and a fellow backpacker said they are “more comfortable than hostel beds!”

Some other cities I wish I had time to visit on this trip are Salvador, Buzios, Florionapolis, Mendoza, and Salta. If you have more time, I would strongly suggest incorporating Peru and Bolivia into the itinerary as I’ve heard amazing things about both places from seasoned travelers.

 

Time of Visit

When I visited South America, it was “winter,” its lowest tourist season. In general, I prefer to travel during low seasons, because I find it’s easier to have a more authentic experience without the hype of tourism. Here are some of the benefits of traveling during off-peak times:

  1. Cheaper prices — flights, hostels, and even food prices will be lower during low seasons
  2. Less crowded — easily hit up multiple “tourist attractions” in one day by avoiding long waits
  3. Cooler people — ok, this one is debatable, but high season crowds tend to attract young college students (who are cool, just not “life-time-explorer-cool”) who are restricted by the schools’ vacation timeline or those who are laser focused on big parties (think Oktoberfest, Carnaval, etc.) and getting absolutely wasted

There are definitely some drawbacks to traveling during low seasons, such as the weather. Rio and Iguazu Falls were both perfectly fine in May — warm and breezy, it was the perfect beach weather. Buenos Aires, not so much (cold and rainy). Do your research beforehand (I definitely did not!) and weigh your options!

 

Visas

Brazil requires a visa. Because it was a month before the World Cup and the earliest appointment at the consulate was after my trip, I had to go through a travel agency specializing in expedited visa orders. I ordered my visa through Travel Visa Pro and was very happy with the service I received. The website provides you with a list of things you need for the application as well. It took about 3 weeks for me to receive the visa after I submitted my application. Unfortunately, you do need to mail in your passport. I paid around $250 for a 10-year tourist visa (including agency service fees) and I am looking forward to returning to Brazil before my visa expires!

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For Argentina, U.S. citizens must pay a “reciprocity fee” (the U.S. government charges Argentinian tourists, so this seems fair) prior to entering Argentina and show the printed receipt at immigration. This is a relatively new requirement some people are not aware of, so be sure to do this if you don’t want to be held up at the border. It takes less than 10 minutes to complete online, and it cost $160. This “visa” is also good for 10 years. Here is the website for paying your fee: https://virtual.provinciapagos.com.ar/ArgentineTaxes/ and the end product looks like this (I grayed out personal information):

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Packing

I had a small backpack. I wanted to travel light and be nimble. I brought only the essentials with me and I felt I was very well prepared. I didn’t have time to pack in advance, so I spent all night packing the night before my departure. It really helped to have a solid “packing list,” which I will share here. The list is skewed towards travelers who identify as women (or maybe not).

  • Clothes (I brought: 1 jeans, 1 pants, 1 shorts, 2 leggings, 3-4 tank tops, 2 t-shirts, 1 dress, 1 sweater, 1 packable down jacket, 1 warm jacket, bras, plenty of socks and underwear) *I packed my clothes in airtight ziplock bags to reduce volume
  • Bathing suits
  • Wrist watch (get a cheap one — make sure it’s cheap-looking, too)
  • Sun screen
  • Bug repellent 
  • Shoes (Walking shoes, flip flops / sandals)
  • Quick dry towel (I got one from REI)
  • Ear plugs (SOOOO essential!)
  • Locks (bring 2 — one for a locker and one for your backpack)
  • Toiletries
  • Ibuprofen & other medicines
  • Plastic bags / ziplock bags (never know when you’ll need them!)
  • Headlamp (useful when you need to unpack / pack late in a hostel dorm room)
  • Make up
  • Camera
  • Electrical Converter / Adapter
  • Phone & Charger
  • Pen
  • Notebook / journal
  • Travel guides (I used Lonely Planet – Brazil)

 

Useful Tools

  • Hipmunk for booking flights
  • Hostelworld for booking hostels
  • Evernote Premium (for use on mobile device) for offline access to important documents (I stored copies of my itinerary, hostel confirmation, passport, IDs, visa receipts, etc.)
  • WhatsApp for communicating with people back home or with other travelers

 

Other Tips

  • Money: I used my Chase Sapphire credit card and Charles Schwab checking account to access cash out of ATMs. Chase Sapphire credit card does not charge any foreign transaction fees — in general, credit cards offer the best exchange rates. The annual fee for the credit card is $90. Charles Schwab reimburses all ATM fees and does not charge foreign transaction fees. Many banks do not reimburse ATM fees, especially when traveling abroad, so if you are a frequent international traveler Charles Schwab checking account is definitely worth looking into. There is no annual fee or minimum amount to open an account. I just got back $40 worth of ATM fees reimbursed to me from the trip! In Brazil, I used my ATM card to access Reais (Brazilian currency) and made big purchases using my credit card. In Argentina, using the “blue market” to exchange dollars to pesos is a common practice and highly recommended for its exchange rate (on average 20-30% better return). Be cautious since there are a lot of scams and potential fake exchanges (fake money!) — I had local intel and connections that brought me to a “legit” blue market exchange shop disguised as a newspaper stand. It was quite the experience on its own.
  • Cabs: I encourage solo travelers, especially women, to take cabs from and to the airport, especially in Brazil. Any hostel will call an official radio cab for you. I paid premium on official airport cabs (you pay in advance inside the airport) for added security. Remember, you are carrying ALL of your valuables on your travel day! When you are not yet familiar with the city, it’s nice to see take a “mini-tour” during the drive from the airport to your accommodation. When choosing a cab during your stay, look for ones with a company logo printed on the outside of the car. I always tried to take cabs with two logos (a tip given to me by a hostel manager) rather than one. Always make sure the meter is running!
  • Hostel picking: I had two main criteria for picking hostels — location and cleanliness. I compared scores, read reviews, looked at photos, and nearby public transportation options. I was happy with all of my hostel choices (more detailed reviews of each hostel will be included in future city posts).

 

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Young, bold, and dumb

2014 started out rough.

Work was all-consuming in a very stressful, emotional way, with tons of changes and uncertainties. My life changed in a big way when my mom immigrated to the U.S. permanently. Sure, I had been planning for the moment to come for the past 10 years and I had pictured how this was going to go down hundreds and thousands of times in my head… but this was huge. Being responsible for someone starting a new life in a completely foreign country is a big task. When we ran into unforeseen challenges — her wallet getting stolen on her second day with all of her identifications and money, needing urgent medical help when she’s without health insurance — SHIT GOT REAL. The combined weight of personal and professional responsibilities, insurmountable amount of stress, and feeling guilty for being stressed all led me to excuse myself for having no patience or compassion. Basically, I’m sorry if you had to interact with me during those times.

I wasn’t a good teammate. I wasn’t a good daughter. I wasn’t a good friend. I wasn’t a good roommate. I wasn’t a good person. I didn’t feel that way anyway and I felt frustrated feeling helpless and tired all. the. time. I desperately wanted to escape the reality and remove myself from it all. It’s unfair, I know, it’s cowardice, I know. But I wanted to do something for me — not my clients, coworkers, family, or friends. I wanted to be unknown, unfound, uninterrupted. I recognize the ability to flee is a tremendous luxury and I am very privileged to be able to do so without immediate or extreme financial hardship.

I often day dream about traveling the world but being the Type A planner that I am, international trips usually don’t happen “spontaneously.” I would require at least 3 months of planning, calculating, researching… But something came over me one day, when I randomly searched for a roundtrip ticket to Rio De Janeiro and found one for $950. Without much thought or hesitation, I bought the ticket. A nonrefundable ticket. Luckily, I have a flexible job and a cool manager (who received a desperate weekend text “Can I take two weeks off please I already booked my flight” and responded “sounds good.”) which allowed me the spontaneous escape. For you Aussies and Europeans who travel frequently for long periods of time, this may seem a bit dramatic for only a two week vacation, but for an average American with a job to keep, two weeks is not a trivial length to be away from work (back me up, fellow hard working Americans!). Also, given this was my first time traveling alone, this seemed like a much bigger deal to me than it probably would to other seasoned travelers…

I had never been to South America and Brazil seemed like a cool enough place. I hadn’t done any research. Soon I found out… 1) I need a visa to go to Brazil 2) World Cup is happening in Brazil in June, therefore all consulate appointments are full 3) It’s “winter” in Brazil 4) Rio is not recommended for solo female travelers due to the high level of violence and crime rate. OH…. great.

But where there is a will, there is a way. Actually, scratch that. Throw money at your problems and they will go away. Problems 1 & 2 were resolved by doing just that — I used a local travel visa agency to expedite my visa. Not cheap. #3? Occasional rain and upwards of 70 degree weather… survivable. #4 was the ultimate risk. To ensure I travel solo, I purposely did not announce my trip to friends or family until closer to the departure date. And when I did, most of the reactions involved worry, horror, warnings, head shakes, and face palming. They sent me terrifying articles about crimes in Rio, blog posts and travel site comments about the violence, and encouraged me to rethink my trip destination — some suggested I delay the trip until I find a travel companion. I did a fair share of research myself, and yes, it was scary. “But how bad can it really be?” I thought. “People live there.” Let’s be clear, I was fully aware of the need to be extra cautious as a woman traveling alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, where I can’t “pass” as being a local. But anywhere, San Francisco included, can be dangerous if you refuse to use common sense and caution. Ultimately, my desire to venture out outweighed the risks. I decided to play ignorant and be brave. “I’M YOUNG AND BOLD” I told myself, half the time believing in it and the other half… cursing myself and banging my head against a wall. With lots of justification and self-assurance, I prepared myself for the adventure.

Every major decision in my life that was beneficial to me in retrospect all came with a degree of uncertainty, risk, and that butterfly-in-your-stomach kind of feeling. This felt like one of those moments. So I packed my backpack and took off.

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Why not a suitcase, you ask? I wanted to be lightweight and nimble. I wanted to not need a lot of “things.” The backpack met most of the travel modes’ baggage requirements for carry-on. Plus, it’s much more romantic this way. People don’t say “I suitcased around South America,” right?

I will be posting a series of blog posts journaling my experience in South America. Not sure how long this will take, but I’m hoping my writing will provide useful information, inspire others to travel, and most importantly, help make my experience longer lasting.