Step #1 Learn the Language
South America is a mecca of Latin cultural destinations. With popular locations like Quito - Ecuador, Cusco - Perú, Sucre - Bolivia, and Buenos Aires - Argentina, South America is a country immersed in the Spanish language. Therefore it would be vital to learn the basics of Spanish. Rio De Janeiro, Brazil is also an amazing South American destination to backpack through where the language of Portuguese is commonly spoken. Obtaining knowledge of Portuguese would come in handy while traveling within Rio and Brazil's surrounding cities. There are several applications like Rosetta Stone or Duolingo that are inexpensive and make learning a new language fun. Additionally, living with a host family is another great way to learn a new language and become familiar with an area's culture.
Step #2 Always Remember to Utilize Common Sense
Unfortunately, South America is still somewhat a third world country that is currently suffering from high levels of poverty. So keep in mind that its cities are just as dangerous, if not more, than its rural areas. While South America is safe to visit you will want to utilize your common sense and avoid 'no - go' areas such as the big cities working class barrios and marginal areas close to them. Plus, Caracas has recently been reported to have an upsurge in violent crime. Do not let these factors hold you back but rather let them be a warning to you to utilize your nous and not to step out of bars drunk at 3am or be dumbfounded in an area you have not fully researched.
Step #3 Research
Do your research, especially when it comes to accommodations. It will not take you long to notice that $15 US dollars may buy you a night stay in Ecuador but will not even stretch to a quarter of a stay in the French Guiana. It is a basic known fact that Andean Countries are the less expensive than most. A decent residencial (room) will cost you $15 while a dorm will only cost you $8. An additional option for travel accommodation is the traditional backpacker hotel also know as a 'party hostel'. Keep in mind that these places are usually located atop a throbbing bar that will be open all hours of the night. Thus, it is best to do your research on where and when to stay during your trip in order to stay safe as well as reap a bang for your buck.
Step #4 Locate Transportation
South America utilizes buses as their main form of transportation and they will take some getting used too. The short distance buses are nicknamed 'chicken' due to the fact that locals are allowed to bring practically anything onto the bus including farm animals. Not to mention, these refurbished school buses are adorned with a variety of decorations such as bling, cartoonishly painted religious images, Tasmanian Devils, and warrior queens. The continents long distance buses are a little nicer but will definitely cost you more. In short, it is ideal to plan your travel routes prior to departure in order to ensure you have definitive means of transportation available in each region.
Step #5 Pay Attention to the Timing of Your Trip
Keep in mind that nearly 2/3 of South America are located close to either the tropic of Capricorn or the World's equator. At most destinations one can expect to experience year round tropical or subtropical climate conditions. It is extremely rare for temperatures to drop below twenty degrees celsius and typically averages around thirty degrees celsius. Furthermore, do not forget that the southern hemisphere's seasons are in reverse from the Northern Hemisphere. They experience Winter from June through August and Summer between December and February. However, the Southern Hemisphere's coldest months are during April to October. It is vital that you plan around the rainiest part of the seasons because rain will make travel plans hairy and hold the potential to cause many set backs.
Step #6 Check Out the Local Festivals
One noteworthy festival worth the extra travel expensive is Brazil's legendary Carnaval Festival located in Rio De Janeiro. It is a lively festival of dancing, drinking, and cultural celebration. On the other hand, if you are looking for something a little more on the spiritual side the Cusco, Peru's week long festival named Inti Raymi would be a good place for you. Thousands of travelers come from all across the globe annually to honour the sun god. Alternatively, it is important to follow the festivals when planning your trip because some villages and towns celebrate local holidays like saints' day in which several business shut down causing travel to become rather difficult.
Step #7 Take Care of Your Health
There are several tropical diseases located within South America that can pose as potential threats to your health. However, with proper precautions these deadly diseases can be avoided completely. The worst thing you are then likely to experience is a mild case of 'Montezuma's Revenge' otherwise known as 'traveler's diarrhoea' which is basically your digestive system adjusting itself to the foreign cuisine. Plan to procure a check up with your doctor to discuss the necessary vaccinations you should receive prior to your trip, at least ten weeks in advance. One should also prepare for common risks like heat stroke or bug bites with the current outbreak of malaria in several regions. It is of paramount importance to obtain thorough medical coverage as well.
Step #8 Do Not Hold Back
It is a once in a lifetime experience to visit the Amazon or see the largest wetland in the world. Take the Galapagos Islands for example, it is home to countless rare species of wildlife such as marine iguanas and giant tortoises that can not be viewed just anywhere. So do not hold back and make sure to take advantage of opportunities like Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, a day long boat trip that takes you around the Beagle Channel where you will view whales and several species of penguins. You will only regret what you do not do.
Step #9 Try Everything Once
Although the local cuisine may seem daunting, you will never know what it truly tastes like unless you try it. Each destination will offer an entirely different set of culinary delights. Additionally, countries also rival against one another as they fight for whom creates what best like the traditional Pisco Sour cocktail - Peru swears it's version is the tastiest while Chile completely disagrees and claims it's version takes the cake. Nevertheless, it is best to try both countries versions and make the decision for yourself! Ask locals what restaurants they suggest as well. Locals will typically know best as they eat at these locations daily and will have knowledge of cheap yet delicious meals. Trying each and every food presented to you is a great way to experience a culture and get the most out of your backpacking trip.