Here are some things to help you prepare…
1. People on the ground are your best resource.
I was admittedly a bit nervous when I first went to Bogotá. After all, I was going abroad for the first time, I was going solo, and my Spanish wasn’t that good. On top of this, Colombia still has the perception of being dangerous (which it is, to a degree), so I felt like I was really taking a plunge.
Being greeted by a familiar face when I walked out of the airport was a big relief, and the ensuing first week would have been overwhelming if I hadn’t had somebody to walk me through where to go in the giant city.
So, it’s great to know someone on the ground ahead of time, and there are lots of ways you can accomplish this. Many people who end up living in a place start a blog or participate in a forum online that you can find if you search hard enough. You can make friends with them online via Skype chats. Then they might meet you at the airport, or you could pay them a few bucks for the trouble.
2. The web is your friend.
The internet is the best invention in the last 500 years, and Google and Facebook are insanely helpful tools when you are deciding to move somewhere.
Often times you can type your question into Google, like “Where can I find a dentist in Medellin?” and an article will pop up which exactly answers your question. In Facebook, you can do a search for groups related to your city. So if you type in “Rio de Janeiro” and select “Groups” from the left hand menu, you’ll be shown a list of groups in Rio. There are all sorts of groups you can join, from dance and hobby clubs, to expat groups, to language exchanges.
So, rather than thinking of the web as a dictionary or encyclopedia, think of it as a way to connect yourself with people who are reliable sources of information.
As a side note, I really can’t imagine how people traveled before the internet… they must have been far more daring than I am!
3. Things move slowly.
When you move to a new place, especially to South America, you can’t expect things to move at the pace of your home country. And I’m not just talking about the mañana timetable that things run on… I’m talking about the fact that you are starting a new life, and you are simply operating with a lot less knowledge than you are use to back in your home country.
Most likely, for example, you won’t have a car when you arrive. So, to handle getting around, you’ll have to get some maps, figure out where you need to go, and ask people for directions, and figure out bus stops and metro stations. These will all be in a foreign language, which DEFINITELY slows things down.
And then on top of this take your dietary needs… Back home you knew exactly where to get all your food for prices you want to pay, including the special gluten-free noodles you like or the protein powder that actually tastes good. You also know where to get a delicious home-cooked meal or decent fast food on the cheap.
Abroad, your knowledge base are starting all over again. You don’t know where all those things are and you have to slowly build up your local know-how. You might spend literally months looking for the protein you like or anything gluten-free within a mile radius of your accommodations.
Things just move slowly when you move to a foreign land, and this is true of South America.
4. All Latinos are not the same.
I think it’s easy to assume that the people in Latin America are all the same, simply because they speak the same language (except Brazil), and we refer to them as “Latinos”, but the reality is that the people are different from country to country and even from city to city.
** Of course I’d say each individual is different if this were a philosophy article. 😉 **
But the fact remains that people are different from place to place. Once you get to know Colombians from the Caribbean coast, for example, you will understand how they are a bit different from the Colombians further inland.
Now, exactly howww are they different? You’ll have to see for yourself… Just try not to assume too many things about people before you get to know them, or jump to conclusions.
5. A lot of what you read or hear is not true or complete.
All travelers operate from limited information, and this can be good or bad.
Once I met a traveler to Colombia who had stayed in Medellin. I asked him what he thought about it and he said “I haaaate Medellin. It’s sooo dangerous there.”
After inquiring a little bit, I found out that he had been robbed twice in the 4-day span he had been there.
Now, anyone who has this happen to them can be forgiven for having that perspective of Medellin, but the fact of the matter is that he went to some wrong areas of the city, including walking through a very dangerous neighborhood.
I have no doubt that he told similar story to his friends back home who may have inquired about Medellin.
You just have to not rely too heavily on any one source of information when you come to South America. You may not know how much or what kind of experience the source of the information has.
…Of course, the flip-side of this is that if you find a reliable, trustworthy source of information, bookmark it! (see #1)
6. The beaten path is often good.
For as much as people talk about “going off the beaten path”, if you’re coming to South America for the first time, it’s probably a good idea to follow it, rather than avoid it. Beaten paths mean something, it usually means there are reliable and predictable places to go… perhaps even safer places.
If a hostel knows about a great restaurant, for example, it probably is a good restaurant. Sure it may be full of foreigners, but you can expect a good meal.
Or if a hotel recommends you stay within 2 or 3 neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, it probably means that those neighborhoods are really good places for activity. Yes, there are other neighborhoods, but you can get to those later.
Once you’ve got the lay of the land, and hopefully a good command of the language, you can venture out to the lesser-known spots. But when you first arrive to a South American city, check out the beaten path. It tends to be smoother sailing.
7. Hostels are your friend.
Related to the point above, I have found hostels to be great launchpads for a city. They are often located near centers of activity in the city (nightlife, restaurants, beaches, etc), and they are the cheapest accommodation you can find (outside of couchsurfing). They also have great info on the city and usually will give you a free map of the area.
I’ve said in the past that I have a love-hate relationship with hostels. I really get sick of them if I have to stay in them too long. But, they are great starting points for any city, and provide you with a good space to consider your longer-term plans.
Plus, if you stay in hotel, you won’t have nearly the social experience you would have in a hostel. You’ll often meet locals in the hostel and not just foreigners, so it even gives you a way to start making friends and get a foothold in the city.
8. The biggest thing holding you back is if you don’t know the language.
Sooo many more opportunities open up to you when you know the language. You can finally speak comfortably with locals, you can finally read the classified ads, you can finally watch the news. You can finally partner with people to pursue business, financial, or personal goals. You can find great deals on apartments and a señora who will cook for you.
As long as you don’t know the language, you will feel lonely and insulated in your own world. Life is incredibly difficult if you can’t communicate with the people around you.
So this should be your absolute top priority if you’re moving to South America.
9. Frustration is normal.
If you take into account the fact that you are learning a new language, and the fact that you are working from limited knowledge, there are bound to be times when you get frustrated.
I’ve been frustrated lots of times in my travel through the continent, by big things as well as small things. Just a few weeks ago, I got really frustrated in Colombia when the ATM gave me my money in 50.000 COP notes (a rather large denomination), and then no one in 4 different stores wanted to give me change for them. Plus, the 50.000 notes are notoriously counterfeited.
So why would anyone make an ATM that gives you denominations that people don’t want to accept and that are frequently counterfeited? It literally would take 5 minutes of programming to force the ATM deal out 20.000 COP notes instead. Not in South America, I guess!
It may sound like a small thing, but it was VERY frustrating, and I didn’t want my day to be so unnecessarily hassled.
So, what I mean here is that there will be loads of times when you feel frustrated. It’s best just to accept it, not get too worked up, and keep going. (And remember which other ATMs will give you 20.000s.)
10. Falling in love is a real possibility
One of the reasons I keep returning to Colombia is that nowadays I prefer to live there over living in the USA. It’s remarkable, really… it’s not even a close call.
You can really fall in love with South America in a bunch of different ways. Maybe you find that perfect house that is within your price range. Maybe you find a special someone you want to spend your life with. Maybe you just feel so happy when you’re hanging out with locals you couldn’t imagine yourself anywhere else.
I’ve met a lot of people who are tickled to death that they get to live in South America– whether it’s Colombia, Chile, Brazil, or somewhere else. And some of these people have been there for more than 15 years.
The possibility of love is really exciting, and many people find it here.
The only thing standing between you and South America is a plane ride.