Juliana is a Geography major who loves learning about the physical and social environment in which we live through her area of study. She is an avid supporter of environmental causes and an adventurous traveler. She recently traveled around South America - alone. We ask her to tell us more about her epic Latin experience.
What kind of traveler are you?
It depends on where I go - if I'm in a city, especially one that I've never been to before and am unlikely to return to, I will probably pack in as many activities as possible. It can be quite tiring! But... it's definitely rewarding and I would hate to return home and say "I wish I saw that or visited that museum instead of getting more sleep!"
If I'm at a more relaxing/beach destination, I definitely would turn it down a notch and spend more time relaxing. So I guess it really depends on the destination or the point of the trip.
I love trying local food and going to local hotspot. Also, I like talking to locals wherever I am and it's always interesting because I love to hear what they have to say about their own cities!
Tell us about your trip in South America
I was in Lima, Peru for a conference on climate change. After which, I extended my trip for about 10 days to explore South America. There wasn't enough time to explore each country because there is just so much to see!
Before the conference, I flew into South America via Sao Paulo, so I spent 2 days there. And after the conference ended, I flew out the very next morning and I spent a day in Cusco, Peru. I visited the small villages there - Chinchero, Salinas de Maras and Moray. For me, this was the perfect way to spend my day since all 3 sites are have Incan roots. Also, since I had visited Cusco previously, I didn't want to sit around the city (which is great, especially by night)!
On that same night, I made my way to Copacabana, Bolivia. It's a small town by the Peru-Bolivian border and it was a great place for me to relax especially after my long bus ride and busy conference days. I really appreciate the time I had in Copacabana, just chilling at Lake Titicaca.
After Copacabana, I went to La Paz, another city in Bolivia - but much busier and way more populated than Copacabana. I spent 2 nights in La Paz visiting the main tourist attractions and also took a day trip out to Mount Chacaltaya and Moon Valley. Then, I made my way to Uyuni for the famous salt flats! I was on a salt flat (Salar de Uyuni) tour for 3 days and 2 nights.
I crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile, staying in San Pedro de Atacama for a night before heading to Iquique, Chile (only for a few hours though, unfortunately!) to take my flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where I spent 2 nights there.
Pictured above: Small little town on the way to Chinchero. These Inca women practise traditional weaving and gave a short presentation on how they dye the threads, Salinas de Maras
Why did you decide to do this trip alone?
Actually, a friend whom I attended the conference with, was on the same itinerary as me. But because he holds an Indonesian passport, it was much more difficult for him to get a Bolivian visa while we were in Peru. So, he had to change his itinerary and I decided to make a few changes to mine too. But I definitely could not skip Bolivia (because the salt flats are just SO amazing!) and I was happy travelling solo anyway!
What do you enjoy about traveling solo?
It's fuss-free for sure. I can do anything I want, whenever I want. I also get to meet more people, speak to them, learn more about their cultures, hear their travel stories and gain invaluable tips! Personally, it's really enriching to listen to people speak about their lives. I realise that there is so much more out there for me to learn from others and also to experience myself! It also forces me to be more responsible and decisive because I don't have anyone to count on or to help me plan my day. If I don't do it, no one else is going to. And I'm not going to laze around in bed all day while I'm in beautiful South America!
What tips do you have for other female travellers to keep safe when traveling alone?
Always be wary of your surroundings. Never do anything you're not comfortable with, even if you're in the safest city possible. When picking a place to stay, I usually do some thorough research and check out the reviews and its location because I don't want to be walking for half an hour alone at night just to get back to my hostel.
Research definitely helps, and always remain alert! If you're on your first solo trip and have a limited amount of time to travel, I recommend pre-booking accommodation, bus tickets, plane tickets and etc so you won't be panicky when you can't get something you need or want. By doing this, it may cost a little more, but if you're tight on time and don't have experience with for example, the bus system, it won't hurt buying tickets in advance and showing up 15-30 minutes in advance.
What are the top 3 favourite places you've visited on this trip?
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
These are the famous salt flats that almost everyone visits when they go to Bolivia! Everyone goes on a tour in Uyuni because it's a national park, and I don't think you can drive your own vehicle there. There are so many different tours - 1 or 2 day tours, but I think the most common one is to do a 3D2N tour (like I did). The tour operators provide food as well because there are only small shops at certain stops where you can buy snacks but no proper meals.
For me, this city was super chill. You can take boat rides out to smaller islands which offer good hiking opportunities and a beautiful scenery. I didn't do this as it was cloudy on that day and I was happy staying on mainland anyway (since I had a limited amount of time).
There is a long stretch of stalls offering reasonably-priced local food which I recommend. If not, there are tons of cafés catered to the locals which serve similar food - but I do recommend having some trout as they're really fresh!
While you're in Copacabana, visit The Basilico and also take a short hike up to Cerro Calvario - a catholic site atop a hill which offers a great view of Lake Titicaca. It's also a good alternative if you don't want to take boat rides to the other islands nearby to hike.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
As Rio de Janeiro is well-known for its beaches, you're probably going to have a difficult time deciding which beach to stay closest to or which to spend the day at. My favourite beach was the Ipanema beach, followed by the Copacabana beach. However, I recommend staying closer to Copacabana (I think the prices are lower there too) because it's quite easy to use the public transport system in Rio and get your way around.
There are tons of eateries around Copacabana. Do try out the Caranguejo Restaurant which was recommended to me by a local friend. It's popular amongst the locals and it serves fresh and good seafood. If you don't have time for a meal, they have seafood pastries too (they're really good and affordable)! When you're at the beach in Rio, have a coconut! There were many small shops selling pastries. They also sell juice sold in cups for around 1 USD - many locals have this as a snack.
Besides the beaches, 2 things which you must do when you're in Rio is to pay a visit to Sugarloaf mountain and Christ the Redeemer.
What was the craziest thing you did on this trip?
The long bus rides I took to cross the borders were quite crazy. I didn't expect to survive 11 to 12 hour bus rides so comfortably but somehow, I managed to get some sleep during those rides and also made new friends.
On the bus ride from Cusco, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia, we had to alight from the bus to cross the border by foot, and my American friend had issues getting a Bolivian visa at the immigration. When he was stuck there trying to get his papers our bus started moving off without him! It was a crazy experience for me because it was my first bus ride and this travelling alone thing was still new to me!
I started shouting in the bus for someone to help me communicate with the bus driver and get him to stop so that my American friend would not be left behind. A young lady helped me and we managed to get him to stop the bus. The poor American probably realised that the bus had already moved off without him so he sprinted towards us. When he got on the bus, he threw me a hug while catching his breath. I'm so glad the bus stopped and he managed to get back on otherwise the hassle he'd have to go through would have been unimaginable.
What would be some advice that you would give to other people who want to travel alone?
Do it! It seems scary at first because you'll imagine yourself being lonely, bored or lost but you will manage! It's not that difficult or scary as long as you're aware of your surroundings and don't go looking for trouble. If you find something that makes you uncomfortable, don't do it.
Plan ahead and you'll be fine. If things don't go according to plan (and it probably won't somewhere along the way), don't worry! I find that people are often much more helpful and friendly than they seem. You just need to be brave enough to approach them. Also, try to stay in touch with your family/friends and check in with them at the end of every day just so they know you're safe and that they don't have to worry too much about you.
What are some of your must do's when you travel?
Have local street food, especially the local burgers in La Paz, Bolivia.
What are your 5 travel essentials?
- Digital camera (I take photos of EVERYTHING!)
- A jacket
- My handphone
- A small tote/bag
- A book
How did you keep your trip affordable? Do share any tips and tricks you've learned as an avid traveler!
Due to the limited time I had on this trip, I pre-booked my flights and buses. It was essential that I got to a specific place by a certain time because of the short amount of time I had. Pre-booking tickets definitely restricts you and you'll have less freedom, but it was necessary for me. If you have more time/no fixed itinerary, I suggest buying bus tickets etc. on the day you want to travel at the local bus station and not online. Prices online can be more than twice the amount you would pay at the local bus station.
I stayed in hostels that were near to where I wanted to go to - this helped save on accommodation and transport costs. I walked a lot as well and only took taxis where necessary. I enjoyed the free hostel breakfasts so that saved me some money too, and instead of flying into places which would save me a lot of time, I opted for overnight buses which helped me save on accommodation for a night and was a cheaper option to flying.
Tell us something fun that happened on your trip?
I stayed with a local in Rio de Janeiro and he didn't speak English. I was surprised that he didn't speak any English because we had been communicating in English prior to this but it turns out he was relying on Google Translate!
We got to his apartment - which was in a favela. But because it was a much longer walk than I had expected (my research failed me this time!), I was really scared at first and the whole place wasn't what I imagined. I was scared at the beginning but it turned out to be awesome and my host is such a nice and warm guy whom I would love to see again! Also, staying in a favela in Rio gave me a local experience.
Places to stay in Rio de Janeiro and Cusco
This modern duplex penthouse is located near the famous Copacabana beach.
This cosy apartment is just stone's throw away from downtown Cusco.