Travel Information for the Andes
This section contains some general information about flights, hotels etc., for planning a trip to the Andes. For more specific information on each country in South America please see our Andes Trip Guide index page. For information on when and where to travel see our Where and When page. For more specific information on planning trekking or climbing trip see our Andes Trek Planner. For Rock Climbing information see that page.
At present visas are not needed by UK, Canadian, Australian, NZ and US citizens for short stays (up to 60 days) in any of the Andean nations or Brazil. Several countries now charge citizens of Canada, the US etc., a "reciprocity fee" that can be as much as $100 on entry. Citizens of other countries may need visas, though most from western Europe don't. The requirements may change so it is best to check with your tour operator or the relevant embassy a few months before your holiday.
Flights to South America from the UK start at £600 for a return to Caracas in Venezuela. Returns to Rio de Janeiro and Lima in Peru also cost from about £600, Buenos Aires and Santiago start from about £700-£900, La Paz in Bolivia from about £1000 and Patagonia from £1200. In high season (Christmas, July and August) expect to pay up to £200-£300 more than these prices. You should book very early, up to six months in advance to get the best choice of dates and fares. By October it will be very hard to get a flight at Christmas for a reasonable price.
For the cheapest tickets try the following London agencies - We recommend Journey Latin America 0208 747 3108, who we have been using without any problems at all for twenty years now. Other well established companies include South American Experience, 0207 976 5511 or Trailfinders 0207 938 3366, or look through the many adverts in the Sunday papers.
From Britain there are three main options for getting to South America:-
1. Fly with a European airline via a European capital e.g. Air France via Paris, KLM via Amsterdam, Iberia via Madrid, or British Airways from London. This is often the best option in terms of service and economy and you can usually get connections from Scotland, Manchester, etc. to Paris or Amsterdam at no extra cost.
2. Fly with either Delta or American Airlines via the USA. This is usually more expensive than the other options, and the hassles of transferring are making it a less good option, but you will often get a good two piece, 46kg luggage allowance.
3. Fly with a South American airline - LAN of Chile and TAM of Brazil are the two who operate good quality and reliable services. London is served directly only by TAM of Brazil.
BUDGET AND MONEY
South America is not particularly cheap and you should expect to pay prices only a bit less than those at home for most services, particularly in the more expensive countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Patagonia is particularly expensive. Public transport everywhere is usually a bargain. If you need to save money you can use budget hotels and eat from street stalls, but it can be counter-productive in the long term if you end up ill or have equipment stolen.
An average trip staying in clean and secure hotels, eating in reasonable restaurants and using some hired transport and mule services will work out at about $40-$60 per person per day, noticeably more for trips to Patagonia where the cost of living is higher, slightly less in Ecuador and Bolivia. Budgeting carefully and always using public transport you could easily half this figure and still have a great time.
Take your money in a mixture of an ATM card, some US$ cash and credit cards. Cash dollars can be used directly in some countries. They are preferred by most tour agencies and they can almost always be used somewhere if you're stuck for the local currency. Credit cards are accepted widely by larger businesses in all cities and are widely used in most South American countries now with two exceptions :- they can be hard to use in rural Argentina and in Venezuela.
HEALTH AND HYGIENE
Chile and Argentina are quite clean and hygienic but in all other countries things can be a bit dodgy. It is a good idea to avoid tap water, ice, unwashed fruit and all seafood.
Vaccinations for tetanus, typhoid, polio and hepatitis are needed for all countries. There is some cholera in Peru and Bolivia so you should consider this vaccination and rabies might be an idea if you will be away from medical help for several days. Malaria and yellow fever precautions are necessary if you plan to visit areas of tropical forest below about 2,500m i.e. Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and the Amazon lowlands of Peru and Bolivia.
Biting insects are very common in the tropical lowlands but very rare in the mountains above 2500m. Shepherds dogs can be a nuisance up in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia - most dogs will back off if you throw a stone or even just pretend to throw a stone!
A basic medical kit should be carried with plasters, blister kit, needle and thread, spare lip salve, scissors, strong safety pins and some pills for diarrhoea, headaches, coughs, purifying water and perhaps altitude sickness. On more remote trips consider antibiotics (but don't use them for diarrhoea!), antihistamine, strong painkillers, eye drops and an anti-inflammatory. Carry some bits and pieces for general repairs to non-body parts, e.g. string, wire, strong tape and super glue.
ACCLIMATISATION AND ALTITUDE
Anyone travelling to the Andes must make themselves aware of the symptoms and treatment of altitude sickness, because it can be fatal. More people die from altitude illnesses on relatively low level treks than on Everest, so read and absorb a good textbook such as 'Medical Handbook for Mountaineers' by Steele, or better still read one specifically on Altitude Illness such as 'High Altitude Medicine Handbook' by Pollard and Murdoch. Generally speaking a week should be spent over 3000m before trekking over a 5000m pass. Many towns and cities in the Andes are around 3000m so while your body gets used to the altitude you can enjoy the cultural and archaeological sights that are numerous in the Andean nations or just relax and enjoy a few beers.
Experience suggests that the best method to avoid problems at altitude is to be fit before arrival and then do considerably less at altitude than you would do near sea level at home.
There's more information on our Altitude and Acclimatisation page
Spanish is the main language spoken in most areas of the Andes. The native languages, Quechua and Aymarį, are spoken by many people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Spanish is an easy language to learn and anyone travelling to South America independently should learn the basics. The more Spanish you speak the easier your holiday in South America will be.
Only in Cuzco and a few other tourist centres is much English spoken. Out in the mountains there is no chance of finding anyone who speaks English. If your Spanish is poor you are more likely to be taken advantage of by muleteers, jeep drivers etc. You need to be able to negotiate and make yourself understood to get good prices and good service from the locals.
If you don't speak much Spanish it is definitely better to make any arrangements with a big agency in a town or even book a package holiday from the UK.
In Brazil the main language is Portuguese. So jush shlur yo shpanish n mish a few conshonansh !!
Hotel accommodation varies enormously in price and you don't always get what you pay for, particularly when you start paying more. In most areas you'll get a comfortable bed, with private bathroom for about $30-$40 for two sharing. Accommodation down to about $20 per person can still be very reasonable, but really budget accommodation tends to be just that - shabby, insecure and with poor service. Camping is not a practical option in South American cities.
CAMPING AND HUTS
Out in the mountains and on treks you'll mostly be camping. It is usually very easy to find a nice pitch with some running water nearby. If camping near a highland village you should ask in the village for permission and be prepared to pay a small fee. There are mountain huts in only a few areas of South America such as on the volcanoes of Ecuador and in the Catedral range near Bariloche in Argentina.
Restaurants in South America are dependable but not exciting. You can buy chicken and chips in every town in South America and sometimes not a lot else. Pizzas, pasties and hot sandwiches make great lunch snacks. Soups, known as cazuelas, are very common and always good value. Steaks in Argentina and Chile can be superb. Chinese food is also common in many places. Guinea pig is a local speciality in rural Peru, but it is not to everyone's taste!
TRAVEL AND TRANSPORT IN SOUTH AMERICA
Domestic air travel is reasonably cheap and may be the best way to get around within South America if you are short of time or travelling a long way. Buses between cities will always be much cheaper but distances are huge everywhere and in Peru and Bolivia, long bus journeys can be slow and very tiring. In Chile, Argentina and Brazil overnight sleeper buses (Salon Cama) are very comfortable and day buses are at least fast and efficient.
Most treks and areas featured on this website can be reached easily using public transport. In rural areas this can be forty year-old buses, lorries, minibuses or shared taxis. Train services are much slower and only worth doing if you are a railway romantic. Particularly good areas to go to if you'll only be using public transport are Ecuador, the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash in Peru, parts of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia and the Lake District of Chile. For details of transport connections and prices use a guide like the Rough Guide series, but remember things change frequently in South America
In more remote area you may need to hire a taxi or 4x4 jeep from the nearest town to get to the start of your trek. This is expensive and good bargaining skills are essential. Expect to pay about $100-$150 for a drop-off 100km away (and another $100-$150 to get picked up again). With a brief written contract and a written record of collection dates and times almost all drivers/agencies are very reliable. To find a driver in an unfamiliar town try either tourist agencies, car hire companies or trekking agencies. For short journeys on good roads just use the local taxi drivers but make sure you agree the price first.
Car hire is usually expensive. It is unlikely to be economical if you are spending long periods away from your vehicle in the mountains but can be very useful if you want the flexibility to do day walks in many different areas, e.g. the Chilean Lake District.
SAFETY AND SECURITY
South America is safer than its reputation.
Only parts of Colombia are really dangerous at the moment and travel to some areas in Colombia is not recommended. You should also be careful in parts of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia where pick-pocketing and bag snatching are by far the most common crimes. Violence against people is very rare, probably less likely than at home. In all areas thieves steal from the easiest targets so stay alert and sober. Don't walk down dark streets at night or through poor suburbs alone and keep valuables such as jewellery and cameras well concealed, or in your hotel safe. Be especially alert and very careful in busy public areas such as markets and bus stations and also anywhere there are lots of tourists. Never put a bag down in the street.
Armed robbery and banditry, including "express" kidnappings, often linked to the drug trade, does occur occasionally in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Banditry is not a problem that should stop anyone going to South America but always seek local advice about the current situation.
Good sources of up to date security information are the UK government FCO travel advice website, not nearly as paranoid as the US Government equivalent. For more specific and up to date on-the-ground info have a look at the South American Explorers Club website at www.samexplo.org