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Tips For Traveling Solo Through South America

By Jody Hanson
January 24, 2014
Plaza Bolivar in Bogota, Colombia.
Courtesy <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosz/5770632336/in/photostream/" target="_blank"> szeke/flickr</a>

This article was written by Jody Hanson, an insufferable travel junkie who has visit 107 countries—67 on her own—lived in nine, and holds passports in three. She has visited all the countries in North, Central, and South America except for Venezuela, Guyana, Surname and French Guinea. She wrote this article on behalf of Tucan Travel, a travel company that offers personalized and packaged South America tours.

It was about 2 a.m. when my legs started going spastic, jerking out in various directions. My head felt as though I'd been hit between the eyes with a brick and my breathing was reduced to short, somewhat wheezy gasps. Sit up? Forget it. Ah ha, so this is what altitude sickness is all about. I'd arrived in La Paz - the highest capital in the world at 10,500 to 13,500 feet (3,200 to 4,100 m) in the mid-afternoon and your body's reaction to the height generally sets in within eight to 24 hours. And as long as I didn't seriously need help I would be fine.

I'd booked a home-stay online that was supposed to be a mother-daughter operation. As it turned out, the mother had died and the daughter—who was staying elsewhere with family—had come back to Bolivia to sort out the estate. The mother had owned all the houses in the run-down deserted compound. So there I was, somewhere in downtown La Paz. No mobile, no Internet and, no, my mother didn't know where I was. If I was able to crawl to the telephone would it still be connected? The only thing to do was ride it out and hope for the best. Dawn came and my condition stabilized.

Why do South America solo? Such are the stories you collected when you travel alone. This sort of challenge just doesn't happen on a bus tour when there are 39 other people who look just like you in close proximity. And that is why I choose to go it on my own. As I see it, solo travel is the ultimate responsibility. And when things stuff up—as they will at some point—there is only one person to blame: yourself. Suck it up, learn from the experience and carry on. You will be a better traveler for it.

South America is a bit of a cake-walk for solo-types when compared with, say, West Africa or parts of Asia. Chile, for instance, is an easy place to travel on your own. The infrastructure is in place, quite a few people speak English, and you can saunter into the Don Rodrigo bar in Santiago and order a pisco sour. The capital is also a good base for day trips.

Argentina is ripe for the solo person as you can eat, drink, be merry, and take a tango lesson without a partner in sight. Buenos Aires may have the most sophisticated cafe culture on the planet and the cafe notables will have you imbibing history along with your coffee. And the hip-swiveling, lip-pouting, hair-poofing habits of the portenas—as people who live in the Federal Capital call themselves—will keep you amused for days at a time. For spectacular fine dining, check out the puerta cerrada, restaurants operated out of chef's homes.

Want to disappear off the face of the earth? Some of us figure Uruguay is the place to do it. The banking system is so liberal that a considerable number of people from neighboring Argentina run their bank accounts there to avoid having to pay black market prices for USD. Montevideo is an easy place to get around in on your own. Relatively tourist free, the air is fresh and the locals still promenade. Charming.

Do you long for the Leave it to Beaver days of the 1950s? Head for Paraguay and pull up a stool at The Libo Bar. The waitresses there wear pillbox hats kept in place by bobby-pins. Sweet. Foreigners are still a bit of a novelty; and if you are on your own people are more likely to speak to you. 

Brazil is massive so figure out what you want to do on your own and it is likely on offer. Check out an excursion to the Amazon. Really, why would you want to go to the Carnival with someone? Chances are you would get separated anyway and for some it would cramp their inclination to be decadent.

Nature types love Peru and, yes, you can go to Machu Picchu on your own. Lima has some of the best restaurants in the world—hen making a reservation, insist that you want a good table for one to avoid getting slammed somewhere in the back between the men's loo and the kitchen.

Ecuador is a country of contrasts. Besides the eternal spring of Quito and the constant heat and humidity of Guayaquil, Ecuador uses American greenbacks as their currency. And any country that gives Julian Assange asylum—which has cost the British tax payers about three million pounds for round-the-clock security—must have a sense of humor. When going out for lunch on your own, order the guinea pig. Although it has a reputation as being a rich person's retreat, the Galápagos Islands can be done cheaply on your own—with a bit of planning.

Colombia is coming into its own as "the" new place to go. You don't need to be hand-cuffed to someone to wander around La Candelaria—the historical and cultural heart of Bogotá—or lay on the beach at Medellín. Want some eco-lessons? Check out an innovative home-stay.

Venezuela is off the radar screen for travelers, solo or in a group. Until things stabilize there, it is a good idea to spend your time in other countries in South America. I was once kidnapped in Pakistan and can attest to the fact that it isn't any fun.

My tips for going solo:

• Just go; expect the best, but prepare for the worst.

• Pack light.

• Scan your passport and tickets to an internet address and email them to yourself as back up.

• Set up a check-in system with someone you trust to act in your best interest if you are worried about it.

• Relish your freedom and the sense of independence that encourages you to collect amazing travel stories.

 • And if you are landing in Quito or La Paz or Bogotá, don't forget to pick up some mate de coca for altitude sickness.

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Inspiration

Visiting Myanmar's Golden Shwedagon Pagoda

No trip to Myanmar is complete without a visit to the legendary golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The huge 110-meter tall gilded pagoda, which lies to the west of the Kandagyi Lake on Singuttara Hill, dominates the city skyline. Its warm, golden glow and its intricately encrusted dome and stupa will leave you absolutely gobsmacked. According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda is over 2,600 years old, making it the oldest historical pagoda in the world, and is Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist Pagoda. It is covered with gold plates, making it a spectacular sight when it catches the sun, and the top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds—there's even a 72-carat diamond up there! The magnificent Pagoda contains relics from the past four Buddhas: the staff of Kakusanha, the water filter of Konagamma, a piece of Kassapa's robe, and eight strands of Guatama's hair. It started out at only 8.2 meters high, but now is a golden giant that will leave you standing there, mouth open, and eyes wide in wonder. The Pagoda was originally created to house the eight hairs of Prince Siddartha who had just attained Buddhahood. Two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Bhalhika from Asitanjana came across the new Buddha who sat under a tree revelling in his newfound emancipation. They gave him honey cakes and asked for a gift in return. The Buddha took eight hairs from his head and gave them to the brothers, who gave half of the sacred hairs away to two kings they met on their way home. They then put the hairs on a pile of pearls shaped like a Pagoda and King Ukkalapa came to see them, vowing to return the hairs to their original eight. They took the hairs back to Asitanjana to add to the other relics they had, and built the Pagoda on Singuttara Hill, where it stands today. As well as a place of worship and a focal part of the city's skyline, the Swedagon Pagoda is a place to keep and display art, history, and architecture. You can find out more in the Shwedagon Pagoda exhibit, a photo exhibit showing the history and symbolism of the Pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda plays hosts to religious festivals almost every month, during which time it is full of people from dawn until midnight. Some of these festivals are celebrated all over the country and all the pagodas are busy, but some are specific to the Shwedgon Pagoda. The Tabaung festival is especially important, as it commemorates the Full Moon Day of Tabaung that King Ukkalapa and the two brothers enshrined the sacred hairs. Opening timesThe Pagoda is open 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except for the important religious festivals of Waxing Day of Tabaung (around March) and Waxing Day of Wakhuang (around June), when it is open 24 hours. Dress codeYou'll need to dress modestly. This means, trousers or at least a knee-length skirt or shorts, and enter barefoot. This article was written by Hannah Vickers, who has lived in Lima, Peru, for a year and a half and is the editor of Peru this Week. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Inspiration

Hiking Peru's Colca Canyon

This article was written by Hannah Vickers, who has lived in Lima, Peru, for a year and a half and is the editor of Peru this Week.You can read more of her work on her blog. She wrote this article on behalf of the Tambo Blanquillo, a family-owned lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, the perfect place for an outdoor adventure in Peru. Peru's majestic Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world. Close to the city Arequipa in the south of Peru, Colca Canyon is popular for both the massive condors that circle above and magnificent views it offers visitors. It's easy to find a tour company in the nearby city of Arequipa to take you on a hiking trip into the canyon—most will pick you up from and return you to Arequipa, and the cost often includes the rather hefty entrance fee into the canyon, meals and, if you stay overnight, accommodations. Another option is to do it on your own, which is what we did. Buses to and from the canyon are not very frequent—we got into Arequipa mid-morning and had already missed the last bus, so we took another bus to a midway town instead, which turned out to be a much better plan. We stayed in an almost empty hotel, then wandered around the seemingly almost empty town looking for somewhere to eat and get a drink. While wandering around the town, we found a rather sinister statue of 'Juanita, the Ice Maiden,' the frozen remains of a young Inca girl who was sacrificed way-back-when and discovered in 1995 by Johan Reinhard. A larger-than-life statue of the mummy of a dead girl doesn't seem like the most apt thing to adorn your main square with, and was certainly a creepy thing to come across in the drawing dusk.   The next morning, we got up with the dawn (somewhat reluctantly) and began the next part of our journey. We found ourselves at the mouth of the canyon, a meandering path through long grass that headed lazily downwards at a very gentle angle, and immediately inherited a dog, who stayed with us the three days we spent wandering around the canyon. We called him Bob. The sky was pale blue and the sun was strong, making the trip down hard going—the brook we encountered at the bottom was a welcome friend. It took us all day to get to our destination, as each meter drop in height was several in zigzags. We arrived at the lonely Llahuar lodge, balanced just barely on the side of the canyon, close to the base. It was almost dark by the time we got there, and we had spent an hour or so gradually losing hope of getting there by nightfall. Detailed maps of the canyon are not easily accessed—possibly because they would discourage people from joining a tour group—and the vague lines with one or two landmarks between them were not much to go by. Eventually we found and climbed up to the lodge, and then down to the campground through the gathering dusk. The evening was beautiful and the sudden cool air was a welcome relief after a day of sweaty walking. We camped close to the fast-flowing river with our new canine friend, Bob (who, annoyingly, didn't seem at all affected by the day's hiking). The only electrical lights were high up in the lodge. The stars above us looked like they were the only things left in the world, apart from us. We dragged our aching bodies down one last stretch to the long-awaited thermal baths. There were three—two cooler ones and, down a ladder and right next to the river, a much hotter one. We wincingly lowered ourselves into the water, opened (with something of a flourish) the bottle of red wine we had carried with love and care all the way down the canyon, and lay back in the hot water, staring up at the unfeasibly bright stars. All that walking was suddenly very worthwhile.

Inspiration

Foodie Alert: Peru's Best Buffets

If you're visiting Peru for the food, you're bound to leave disappointed. Not by the cuisine itself, mind you, which is every bit as spectacular as its reputation, but by the time constraints of your trip. Peruvian food is so varied, so complex in its fusion of different regional and ethnic traditions, that there's simply no way to experience everything, even in a month-long stay, let alone in the seven-to-ten days allotted by the average traveler. This is a real problem, since 40 percent of Peru's tourists visit specifically for the gastronomic experience, according to El Comercio, Peru's chief newspaper. That means a total of 1.2 million foodies come and go each year having only scratched the surface of a cuisine widely regarded as Latin America's best. For this situation, buffets are made to order. With their aim of regaling diners with the greatest number of dishes in the shortest possible time, they're a perfect introduction to Peru's seemingly endless bounty. Moreover, the best of them offer lunchtime specials that are exceptional values. Here are some of the buffets widely recommended by locals in the know. Some are upscale, others down-home. All feature top-notch preparation and offbeat dishes hard to find in other eateries. Hours are generally from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.; go early for the best selection and to avoid crowds. ¡Buen provecho! Puro PeruAv. República de Panamá 258 (Barranco); 477-1111; Cost: S/.70With its $28 price tag, Puro Peru is one of the more expensive buffets in Lima, but it's also one of the biggest and best. The sheer range of dishes available is staggering: in addition to a broad array of entrees and the usual salad bar, there are stations dedicated to ceviche, sushi, hot and cold appetizers, grilled meats, pastas, and chifa (Peru's version of Chinese food), as well as desserts. Best of all, the preparation of many of the dishes is first rate: the seco de cabrito (goat stew) is one of the best in Lima, and the pastel de papa (potato soufflé) is heavenly. It's no exaggeration to say that lunch at Puro Peru is an event unto itself. Skip breakfast the day you go, and don't plan on eating anything all afternoon. KasamamaJr. Huancayo 186 (Lima Centro); 431-0322; and Jr. Manuel Segura 268 (Lince); 266-0219; Cost: S/.22Kasamama is hands down one of the best restaurant values not only in Lima, but in all of Peru. For less than $10, you can sample excellent versions of Peruvian staples that taste like they came right out of a pot on grandma's stove, as well as dishes typical of the sierra that are hard to come by in Peru's capital (the owner, Miguel Ángel Cisneros, grew up in a small town near Ayacucho). This is a great place to try sopa seca, pasta in cilantro sauce traditionally served with carapulcra, the traditional Peruvian potato stew. The appetizers and ceviches are also unusual in their variety and quality. And since the clientele represents a broad cross-section from all walks of Peruvian society, you know the experience here is something special. VivaldiAv. Camino Real 415 (San Isidro); 221-3418; Cost: S/.53Three details distinguish this European-looking San Isidro mainstay. First, the range of ceviches is unusually large: during a recent visit, a long central bar showcased no less than four varieties. Second, the main buffet features an unusually good lomo saltado. Ordinarily this Peruvian classic, made from stir-fried beef mixed with french fries and onions, isn't well-suited to the steam table, but the staff here separates the fries from the other ingredients to prevent sogginess. Third, and best of all, every buffet meal comes with a parrilla, a sizzling mixed grill brought directly to your table on a hot plate. Combine all that with service that is friendly and attentive, and it's no wonder this place fills up very fast. Go early, and go hungry. This article was written by Mike Gasparovic, a freelance writer, editor, and translator who devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Peru for Less, a leading provider of Peru tours, including destinations such as Lima and much more.

Inspiration

Yes, You CAN Afford the South Pacific!

This may be an awful thing for a travel editor to confess, but the islands of the South Pacific have always seemed a little intimidat­ing to me. Thousands of miles from my home in suburban New York, and perhaps even farther away in terms of lifestyle, ease of transportation, and sheer cost, I have to admit I haven't even given them a spot on my bucket list until recently. But I began to notice that luxe locales like the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, and sometimes even chi-chi Moorea were turning up in Budget Travel's Real Deals. Hmm. Turns out, if you choose the right destination—an island that enjoys a modest standard of living without catering to the ultra-wealthy—and pick the right resort or book a package deal, some of these warm, alluring destinations can and should be on your travel list. WHAT IS THE "SOUTH PACIFIC" ANYWAY? Let's get this out of the way up front: It's impossible to adequately summarize the history, culture, and geograph­ical diversity of the islands that stretch across thousands of miles in the southern hemisphere smack in the middle of the world's largest ocean. From French Polynesia (including Tahiti and Moorea) in the east, across the Cook Islands, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands in the west, what we refer to as the islands of the South Pacific are a rich stew of jungles, coral reefs, beaches, volcanoes, native cultures, and European colonial influences. The good news is, English is spoken just about everywhere, and an afford­able—and unforgettable—experience is possible for what we like to call "real people." WHAT ISLAND IS RIGHT FOR YOU? To get started, I turned to someone whose great reporting always inspires me, Mark Kahler, who is an expert on frugal traveling for About.com. He notes that package tours can often be a good way to see the South Pacific on a budget. "Packages that include flight plus hotel are the most popular, because those are the two largest expenses you will encounter on a trip to the South Pacific," he says. "Shop in the vacation sections of airline websites that serve this part of the world. Airlines will bundle dates and destina­tions based on how many seats they need to fill on various flights. They can also negotiate better deals with the resorts at certain times of the year." Kahler suggests, though, that if you research package deals, you need to be careful that a package doesn't confine you to the grounds of one resort—unless that's the kind of isolated experience you are looking for. "Travelers who are willing to look for smaller, locally owned properties might get a better glimpse of the local culture, and it's entirely possible they'll find rates that are as good or better than the package tours." He also notes that, unlike many other parts of the world, where oceanfront property is reserved for high-end rooms, the South Pacific often offers budget accommodations that are right on the beach. "The notion of staying right on the ocean in a bungalow with a thatched roof might seem romantic or luxurious, but many times these places are very basic in terms of amenities. You may not find air conditioning, or designer shampoos and bed sheets, but stylish? Yes!" WHAT'S YOUR BUDGET? Emma Woodward, of Goway.com, suggests that you first determine what your budget is, then conduct your research—or work with a travel company—to find the combination of lodging category and island that's right for you. "If you combine two islands, start with a lower room category, then splurge on the second island," Woodward suggests, noting that, as with many destinations, being flexible with your travel dates can help you find deals on flights, and that a package deal will not only save you money on your airfare from the U.S. but also on inter-island airfares KEEP THE ISLANDS BEAUTIFUL! The South Pacific islands are lovely—and fragile. Easily damaged coral reefs fringe many islands, and as we've seen in areas such as the Caribbean, tourist dollars can also bring havoc to the environment. Woodward points out that you can visit the South Pacific in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. "A lot of resorts use ocean water for air conditioning, purify ocean water for drinking, and bottle water in reusable glass containers rather than plastic." COOK ISLANDS The Cook Islands top the list of affordable South Pacific destinations, with a comfortable but not out-of-reach standard of living, New Zealand-in­fluenced culture, and an inviting array of natural wonders like coral lagoons, caves, and lush forests. The islands themselves are distinct from one another, with opportu­nities for you to soak up a luxe resort experience, forest hiking, and even some deserted islands. Rarotonga's Muri Lagoon is a must, as is snorkeling on the Aitutuaki atoll. For a taste of the islands' village life, tour the pretty gardens of Ma'uke. And for a literal taste of Polynesian cuisine, enjoy one of the islands' classic pork-based feasts along with a performance of local traditional dance. Feeling more adventurous? Explore the caves of Mangaia, including the burial chamber of the ruler Te Rua Rere. Resorts here are within reach: Palm Grove Resort Rarotonga offers individual bungalows on a five-acre beachfront property that also includes beautiful gardens filled with local flowers; the resort's calm, shallow lagoon is great for beginner and advanced snorkelers (palmgrove.net, from $185). Edgewater Resort &amp; Spa allows you to enjoy beach and garden views, a lagoon, swimming pool, and two restaurants just a short distance from downtown Avarua (edgewater.co.ck, from $189). Find a deal to the Cook Islands: PleasantHoli­days.com offers package deals to the Cook Islands, often starting at less than $1,700, including airfare and lodging, from Los Angeles. FIJI Well, the first thing you need to know about Fiji is that it's not just one island, as many travelers assume by its name. This string of islands attracts more than 600,000 visitors each year, making it the most popular South Pacific destination—and that's largely because it combines a reasonable price tag with extreme sights, flavors, and experiences unlike anything you'll find anywhere else. Plant yourself in Nadi and you'll be immersed in a heady city experiences, including Indian cuisine and a bustling street life. Sign on for a jungle cruise and you'll experience an entirely different Fiji, including some of the world's most colorful and entertaining bird-watching. Sonaisali Island Resort is an upscale splurge (sonaisali.com, from $330). Radisson Blu Resort Fiji Denarau Island is an everything-you-could-want property on the beach (radissonblu.com, from $135). Crusoe's Retreat bills itself as "Fiji's best-kept secret" and lives up to its name with affordable beachfront bures (crusoesretreat.com, from $125). Find a deal to Fiji: Goway.com offers package deals to Fiji, often starting at less than $2,000, including airfare and lodging, from Los Angeles. TAHITI Here, you'll find a rarity among French Polyne­sian destinations. In the company of pricier places, Tahiti offers some stylish steals. Start in Papeete to get a sense of Tahiti's cultural juxtapositions at the Gaugin Museum, which documents the years the French artist spent here capturing local colors and personalities on canvas. Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti is set along a half-mile of pristine beach and includes an infinity pool and spa (radisson.com, from $242). Taaroa Lodge is a lovely no-frills option that gets you a room with private bath for a steal (taaroalodge.com, from $69). Find a deal to Tahiti: TravelScene.com offers package deals to Tahiti, often starting at less than $1,800, including airfare and lodging, from Los Angeles. HUAHINE Are you a budget traveler who relishes something a bit rougher around the edges? You may find that Huahine is the kind of place you'd love to be stranded on. Two islands joined by a bridge, Huahine packs a lot of potential into its 9x8-mile area and is ideal for hitting the waves and backpacking. Hotel Maitai Lapita Village Huahine is a pleasant oasis with garden bungalows (huahine.hotelmaitai.com, from $245). Find a deal to Huahine: Huahine is sometimes included in tours and cruises to other islands in French Polynesia.

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