South America is a fantastic continent to explore with kids- from vast mountain ranges to jungles and amazing rivers, this content has it all. After five months of traveling through South America with our kids, here are our best South America tips to help you make the most of your travels. From family-style rooms to tips to keep safe, here’s everything you need to know before starting your journey through South America.
We visited Columbia, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, including visiting two of the “New Wonders of the World” (hello Family Bucket List!), and learned a lot of essential family travel tips along the way.
You can see all our posts about South America in one place.
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At the bottom of this post, download a free guide: 6 Safety Tips for Traveling with Kids: What You Should Know Before You Travel.
Is it Safe to Travel in South America with Kids?
Yes, South America is safe to travel with kids, as long as you take normal precautions. We spent five months traveling South America with our kids, from Columbia to Brazil, and never felt unsafe, or had any scary encounters. Of course, we tend to tuck the kids into bed by 8 pm and are not out wandering the street at bizarre hours.
Practice street smarts as you would in any large city, trust your gut instincts, and you should be fine. Most crime against tourists is minor- such as pickpocketing your wallet or stealing your phone.
We wrote a full guide with all of our best safety tips and the strategies we use to keep our kids safe around the world.
Keep in mind that the seasons in South America are reversed- so summer in North America is winter in South America. Don’t count out a visit during this time! There are lots of fun activities in winter, here are a few of our favorites in Argentina in winter.
Tips for Making the Most of Your Family Trip to South America
1. Work on your Spanish
South America is a great place for adults and kids to work on their Spanish skills. Our kids take turns asking for the restaurant bill in Spanish and have gotten more confident communicating and playing with other kids who don’t speak English.
Before we traveled to any Spanish-speaking countries, learning Spanish seemed like an abstraction, and the kids weren’t very interested. Once we started traveling through South America, they realized how important it is to their daily interactions, and have been soaking it up ever since.
A few kind words in Spanish, however bad your accent is, will do a lot to garner goodwill from those around you. Locals especially love when they hear kids making an effort to communicate in Spanish. A few phrases go a long way!
2. Family Rooms are Common
Unlike in the US, queen-sized beds are hard to find in most of South America. What you will find, are family rooms with multiple beds.
We’ve often been able to get hotel rooms with one double bed and two (or three) twin beds so the kids can each have their own bed. This has been great for the kids, if not so great for Waker’s 6 foot+ frame!
Take advantage of the plentiful family rooms, and be prepared for hard mattresses! The concept of a soft, flexible mattress seems to have eluded much of South America.
3. Order “Para Compartir”
In many parts of South America, if you order something to share or “para compartir”, they will split it for you in the kitchen at no extra charge. This works really well for things like large lemonades that the kids are sharing.
Take advantage of this and have the kitchen split anything the kids are sharing. We also found that unlike American restaurants that often have “plate charges”, no one seems to care if you order 2 or 3 dishes to share among 4 people. Don’t feel pressured to order more food than you need.
4. Families Get Preferred Treatment
At airports in South America, you’ll often see a “Preferred” line which is usually shorter than the regular line. This line is reserved for the elderly, disabled, pregnant, and any family with kids. In some places, they specify that it applies to kids under 8 years of age.
We’ve also been rushed to the front of the line in restaurants, as people just don’t expect families with kids to wait in line. Enjoy this perk of being a family in South America!
5. Kids May Get Extra Attention
If your kids are pale or have light-colored hair they may get a lot of extra attention in South America, from people touching their hair to wanting a picture with them.
This occasionally translates into them getting odd gifts as well. We’ve had several older women fawn over how they look “like dolls”. Overall, everyone is friendly and means well, and the kids don’t seem to mind.
One of our favorite destinations in South America is Cartagena, Colombia– there’s so much energy and art all around the Old Town and Getsemani, plus there are many family-friendly day trips from Cartagena, including the amazing Rosario Islands.
6. Learn About Altitude Sickness
Altitude Sickness can get serious, quickly. When visiting South American countries with high altitudes, be sure to know the signs of Altitude Sickness, and plan time to acclimate at a lower elevation.
This is particularly common when arriving in Cusco to climb Machu Picchu, but can apply in the mountains of Chile and other South American countries as well. The first signs of minor altitude sickness are shortness of breath and fatigue. Plan time to rest and adjust to your altitude.
For minor cases of Altitude Sickness, rest and hydration can be all that is needed, for more serious cases, you’ll need to get quickly to a lower elevation.
7. Pack Sun Protection
Whether you prefer a sun hat or a baseball hat, we found the sun in many parts of South America stronger than our pale skin could handle, even with sunscreen. Hats keep the sun off of your face and save your skin.
Even on cloudy days, it’s easy to get too much sun in South America, where the sun is intense and can burn you easily.
It’s not just your imagination- because of the hole in the ozone, UV exposure in the Southern Hemisphere is greater than in the North. You need to more actively protect yourself.
8. Watch a Soccer Game
Soccer (futbol) is extremely popular in South America, and it’s a lot of fun for the whole family to soak up the excitement and team spirit. Watching a World Cup qualifying game was one of our favorite things to do in Lima, Peru- the crowd was so loud and passionate, the kids will never forget it!
We weren’t in the actual stadium- but at a local outdoor food court with a huge screen. The crowds were wild, with team gear and air horns going through the game. The kids loved being somewhere they could be as loud as they wanted!
Be aware that the crowds can get out of control- at that particular game, the partying continued on the streets of Lima until after 3 am, and police in riot gear eventually had to clear the streets. Be smart, and be aware as you exit the crowds.
9. Pack for Three Seasons
Whether in Medellin, Columbia or Ollantaytambo, Peru the weather in South America can change quickly, and dramatically. Be prepared for cool evenings in higher locations, and sudden rainstorms in others.
Be sure to carry rain jackets, and light sweaters even in tropical climates.
Because you will be largely in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from the Northern Hemisphere. So when the United States is entering Summer, much of South America is entering winter. June is Fall in South America, so plan your travel accordingly.
10. Try Lots of Exotic Fruit
One of the best things about South America is all the fruits we had never heard of! From lulo and mamey in Colombia to lucuma in Peru, there are many new fruit flavors to try across South America!
An exotic fruit tour was one of our favorite things to do in Medellin, we also found that an afternoon ice cream break was often a great opportunity to try a new flavor.
11. Agree on Prices Beforehand
Ok, so this one seems straightforward for most seasoned travelers, but when you are traveling with kids- sometimes you forget.
My kids still tease me about the time I bought them a virgin pina colada on the street without first asking the price.
Of course, once I passed the giant pineapple-housed concoction to the kids, the price immediately shot up to something absolutely ridiculous. But I was stuck, I hadn’t asked ahead of time!
Whatever you are considering buying, ask the price before you agree to buy it and before the kids loudly exclaim how badly they want it!
12. Distances are Huge and Planes are Inexpensive
We were surprised by how many times it made more sense to fly domestically in South America rather than take the bus. The distances between cities are often surprisingly large, and domestic flights are often inexpensive.
Don’t kill yourself trying to bus your way across this massive continent, take advantage of the inexpensive flights.
13. Use Uber When you Can
Local taxis can be expensive- more so for tourists as you’ll rarely see a working taxi meter. When you can, opt for Uber or other ride-hailing apps such as Cabify. They take the “foreign tax” out of the price, and also eliminates the need to communicate your location directly to your driver.
As a bonus, these apps allow you to pay with credit cards (hello travel points!) instead of trying to have the ride amount of cash in small bills.
In a few countries, we found that Uber took too long to come. In those cases, the Uber app gave us a fair price to aim for when negotiating a fare to our destination. We expect to pay a bit more for a local taxi, but it’s reassuring to know that we haven’t been massively overcharged.
14. Get a Yellow Fever Vaccine
Of course, talk to your doctor, but the Yellow Fever Vaccine is required for some destinations in South America.
This one-time shot comes with a special yellow form, which is good for your lifetime. Other countries may require you to show this form if they see that you have traveled to a country where you may have been exposed to Yellow Fever.
This vaccine is highly recommended for all of South America with the exception of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Check out the CDC Map for details.
15. Don’t Skip Travel Insurance
Don’t skip travel insurance! From lost baggage to sudden trips to the emergency room, travel insurance is super important.
We like SafetyWing– it renews automatically each month until we turn it off, and covers us no matter where we travel (without us updating them on our travel plans). The only countries excluded are Iran, Cuba, and North Korea.
Check Rates: SafetyWing Travel Insurance
FAQ: South America Travel Tips
You protect yourself the same way you would in any other city- be aware of your surroundings, don’t carry more cash than you need, and don’t flash expensive gear. Keep your belongings in sight and stick to well-lit areas at night.
Also, be aware of any political unrest and avoid countries or areas that may be unstable. Protests and strikes are common in South America, and nothing to be worried about, but it’s best to keep your distance. During our time in Cusco we experienced a bus strike that involved tires and debris in the road to stop traffic.
South America is a vast, varied continent- the 4th largest to be exact! It contains everything from the Amazon River to the Andes Mountains and a lot of different cultures and languages. From coffee plantations to alpacas and rainforests and glaciers, there’s a ton to explore in South America.
Depending on the distance you are traveling, there are low-cost flights across much of the continent.
You can also travel shorter distances by bus. Many buses are quite comfortable with air conditioning and bathrooms on the bus. There are also luxury overnight buses where the seats lay flat.
Other families choose to overland using their own vehicle or RV. You can also opt to rent a car in a particular country, though crossing borders with a rental is complicated (and often not allowed). We use DiscoverCars.com and highly recommend them.
Statistically, Uruguay is the safest country in South America, followed by Chile. This is according to the 2021 Global Peace Index.
There You Have It: South America Travel Tips
Our best South America travel tips for exploring this amazing continent with kids! From the beaches of Columbia to the wildlife of Patagonia, there’s more in South America than you can fit into one trip. We hope these essential travel tips will help you enjoy your visit as you travel South America.