Booking our tickets on a utter whim after spotting sales fares on Facebook, my partner and I packed our bags a few months later and set off across the Pacific for Chile. Both first time travellers to South America we really had no idea what to expect.
Brushing up on our non-existent Spanish and arming ourselves with Google Translate we begun traversing Chile, a diverse country with few English-speaking locals. We set out to discover some of the country’s hidden gems as we traveled North to South by car, boat and bus.
Everyone has preferences when they travel. Me? I like my food scrumptious and authentic, my towns and cities eclectic and enigmatic (perhaps with a hint of danger), my markets and fishing ports energetic and buzzing and my accommodation clean but not necessarily fancy.
Unlike other South American countries Argentina and Chile can be a little more on the expensive side. We learnt how to maximize our dollar and make the most of free or low cost options while not sacrificing our overseas experiences. Here are my Top 10 practical travel tips for making the most of uncharted territory and for helping to stretch your dollar further while not scrimping on the good stuff.
1. The Lonely Planet is NOT Gospel
While useful, along with TripAdvisor, repying on these sources can mean that you’re at the whim of other tourists’ opinions and sometimes miss the best options right in front of you. If you enjoy a meal or a drink somewhere chat to the owner or waiter and ask what is similar or what you shouldn’t miss while in their town. Most people want you to love their town or city and will tell you the best places to grab a cheap eat or the best local drops to try. You’ll often find that the restaurants recommended on TripAdvisor and in the Lonely Planet are teeming with tourists and have lost some of the charm that made them special in the first place. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule so mix it up!
2. Love lunch and cook!
Eat like the Queen at lunch. Usually the meal where you can get the most for your money, lunch is often the best for street eating or cheap market eats too. Choose where the locals eat and snoop their orders before ordering yourself. If everyone is smashing some delicious chicken-y broth thing… chances are you’ll want to be scoffing it down yourself!
In Chile, many places do set 2-3 course lunches at mains prices. They are usually a selection dishes which are always tasty and fresh, good value and a great way to sample local fare.
Figure out where you might want to eat, and when it might be a good idea to cook. Not many people consider cooking while on holiday but it can be a tasty cash saver. Cooking is a great way to experience some of the local flavours at a fraction of the cost and try cooking with things you don’t have at home, it’s also a great excuse to hit the fresh produce markets.
3. Uber it
Uber. Still cheap. Still safe. Still easy - especially when your Spanish isn’t too flash. Enter your exact destination and trust you won’t be taken in loops around the city.
4. Learn the lingo
Hey, don’t be a jerk, learn the lingo! At the very least learn how to order (even if it’s just ‘two beers please’) and use your ‘por favors’ and ‘gracias’. A little effort goes a long way, as does a smile.
Google translate is probably the greatest gift from the Internet. It works offline and even has a camera function that’ll translate in real time as you scroll menus. It’s magical and I love it.
5. Don't over plan
This works for me anyway. Often you’ll stumble across a fellow traveler who’ll have their own lists of dos and don’ts, which can help guide your travels. Nearly everyone I met in South America had a ‘loose’ to ‘no plan’ plan. We often decided midway through our day to check out of our accommodation and venture on. It helped us to make the most of our time and allowed us to hang and chill if there was somewhere particularly awesome we were enjoying.
6. Consider Airbnb Private Room Options
As cheap as a hostel without the hostel vibe, and more authentic than hotels. I really enjoyed some of our AirBnb stays. A lot of people run them similar to a hostel but attract a more mature, eclectic crowd. You still get your privacy while getting to experience local living with a warmth that is both personal and welcoming in some cities. Mix it up, choose AirBnb in towns that do it well, hotels when you might want the convenience and comfort and hostels if you’re watching your budget or up for making some new friends.
7. Avoid the soul-less tourist traps
There are often amazing free tours or tours for tips through out South America. Aside from pisco distilleries, wineries or galleries/museums there are sometimes town or city tours too. The guides are usually super passionate and can give you great tips on where to eat and what to order, cool bars and good tour companies.
You get what you pay for with tours. My advice is to avoid tours that are offered by every man and his dog. You’d be better off hiring a car or utilising public transport in some cases and seeing sights yourself. Otherwise consider paying a little extra for unique small tours that don’t cram a billion sites into a one-day trip.
8. Hire a Car
Yes driving on the wrong side of the road is pretty crazy, and totally worth the potential heart attack. For $40 you can get an international drivers license (before heading overseas – it only takes 10 minutes), then the world is at your fingertips. We drove pretty much the length of Chile and saw so many great spots along the way. You miss a lot flying or by bus so if you have time I highly recommend getting off the beaten track and checking out the smaller towns by car.
9. Book return flights for one-way trips and SAAAAVE
Check if return flights are cheaper. Often a return trip is 25% cheaper than a one-way flight – an incredible saving as internal flights are so damn expensive! Yes it’s crazy, and yes it makes NO sense. Simply just don’t show up for your return leg and save a bunch of cash.
10. Watch your stuff
Pick-pocketing is a thing. Thieves will distract you while they rob you. Watch out for elderly people dropping money, children handing you things (like puppies or toys to hold) and if you get sprayed with something like mud or hot sauce keep walking and don’t react – these are quite a common pick-pocket tactics and thieves often work in pairs. We were targeted in Santiago, and while it was pretty gross being covered in a muddy hot sauce, it would’ve been worse to have had been robbed.
With that being said, aside from dodgy parts of town and bus stations we felt 100% safe. Just keep your wits about you and know where your belongings are and don’t leave bags at your feet.