South America is a rewarding travel destination for families because it offers a diverse range of experiences. On one hand, it’s a cultural treasure of colonial architecture, indigenous communities and natural beauty. On the other, it feels far outside of most families’ comfort zone, with the challenges inherent in visiting developing countries.
The following tips and guidelines come from my years of travel throughout Latin America, with and without kids. The trip suggestions toward the end of the post can be done independently or with a tour operator.
After living in Ecuador for two years and traveling for work to Central and South America for 10 years, I realized that each country has its own character and rules — what applies in one country may not in another. However, there are a few basic tips and guidelines that can help families prepare for a trip anywhere in the region. I followed these when I traveled for business and on my last family vacation in Ecuador, where I traveled solo with my kids for part of the time.
Safety in today’s world is challenging to qualify and it’s one of the biggest barriers to South America travel. There is a perception that all of South America is dangerous. Like everywhere, there are parts of countries and cities that are less safe than others, but in the last 20 years there has been a big tourism push throughout South America and an increased police presence in touristy areas. The best advice for every traveler is to be aware of your surroundings and pay attention. Try not to make yourself a target. For specific information on conditions within a country, check the U.S. State Department for travel advisories.
The first question I ask when traveling anywhere is, “Is it safe to use the taxis?” In South America, the response will be immediate. In some countries locals will even qualify which taxis are better, or if a car from the hotel is best. Unlike in Europe, don’t expect all of the taxi drivers to speak English. Depending on the South America destination, flights from the U.S. arrive very late at night, and with kids, it’s essential to have a plan for how you’ll get to the hotel.
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In some countries, like Ecuador, the insurance rules are so complicated that it’s not recommended to rent a car, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. In other countries, the mountainous terrain makes driving unattractive. In these places, transfer companies and drivers abound for travelers crisscrossing the country.
The main issue in large cities is pickpocketing, which is universal, and camera/backpack theft. Leave passports in the hotel safe (carry a copy); put the camera away when it’s not being used; and carry your backpack in front versus on your back in crowded areas. Many travelers use a money belt to hide cash, which is needed for small purchases in stores that don’t accept credit cards.
Make life simple and leave good jewelry at home. Gold has a much higher perceived value than silver and draws more attention. Wear silver or conservative jewelry and watches to avoid attracting attention.
Even in colonial Quito, which has a large police presence, we never walked down deserted streets. We contemplated taking shortcuts more than once, but always went back to the larger streets full of pedestrians. Hotel staff are very helpful with maps and will let tourists know if there are areas to avoid.
In South America, long pants or skirts, not shorts, are worn in the cities. Granted, it’s tough to get kids to wear long pants when it’s 70 degrees, but the short-shorts in fashion today draw constant unwanted stares and attention. However, there are always exceptions to this, as in large beach cities like Rio de Janeiro where shorts are common.
Mastercard and Visa are not always interchangeable in South America and many vendors will not take American Express. Carry a couple of different credit card brands to ensure that you can pay the bill.
This advice came from one of the high school groups we volunteered with in Ecuador, and it’s very practical. Broken glass can be an issue on sidewalks; no one wants a trip to the doctor on vacation.
As mentioned, English is not as widely spoken throughout South America as it is in Europe. Learning basic language etiquette is always appreciated by locals and helpful for simple purchases in a grocery store or restaurant. Kids in particular love to show off their language skills, no matter how limited.
My husband and I both speak Spanish fluently, but I still hired a private guide for a Quito city tour rather than navigate city streets that are not so familiar to me. Guides are reasonably priced and extremely helpful if visitors don’t speak the language.
• Quito and the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Experience a cultural immersion in Quito and the surrounding highlands before flying to the Galapagos Islands for a weeklong wildlife cruise.
• Argentina highlights tour. Argentina is an easy first trip to South America, as it feels more familiar than some of its neighbor countries. The capital of Buenos Aires at times evokes Paris; the food is legendary; kids and adults can learn to tango together; and the mix of nature and soft adventure in Patagonia and the Lakes District is made for families.
• Machu Picchu or a jungle cruise/lodge in Peru. It’s hard to decide where to start in Peru because there’s so much to see and do. The Incan capital of Machu Picchu can be reached by a mild to strenuous hike or by train. Visit Peru’s jungle via a luxury lodge or a family-friendly Amazon cruise, or make it a two-country visit with a combination of Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.
• Quick break in Cartagena, Colombia. Direct flights from the East Coast make Cartagena an option for a quick trip to the Caribbean. Stay in a luxuriously converted convent, take a trip to a Spanish fort or offshore island, or scour bookstores for little-known works from Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you’re learning Spanish, Colombia is widely regarded to have the best spoken Spanish in South America.
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