Learn from the South American backpackers
In my journey around South America, I was absolutely shocked to discover that the majority of backpackers (mochileros) are travelling without any substantial funds in their bank accounts. Before then, I had the idea that the only recipe for long-term travel is working as a digital nomad, or saving tons of money ahead. In fact, all of the European/Australian/American travelers I had met in South East Asia had been living and travelling off their savings, which makes sense given that their currencies are strong and a month’s salary can go a long way in cheaper countries.
However, South Americans don’t have that privilege as their salaries can barely cover them for the month, let alone save up for long-term travel. Yet that doesn’t seem to be an obstacle…
So what is the secret, then?
Making pocket money on the road. Yes, it’s that simple.
While they won’t make as much money as their Western counterparts in the ‘developed world’, they do make enough to wander around this giant continent for years, with some even crossing to Europe and Asia.
How do they make their pocket money?
This all depends on each traveler’s imagination, but the most common tricks are juggling in traffic lights, selling handicrafts, food, and playing music.
The Argentinians seem to reign over this field, followed by Chileans, Colombians, and Brazilians and to a lesser extent, Peruvians. People from Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela rarely backpack with the majority leaving their country in search of better work opportunities, rather than adventure.
The mochileros live off their daily earnings which often requires only a few hours of work/day, and the rest of their time is free to explore. Surprisingly, people do give enough change to street entertainers and artists.
Some have even left their homes without any skills that could be useful, but have learnt on the road how to juggle, make bracelets, truffles, empanadas, pizzas, postcards, and whatever idea they come up with to earn enough to pay their accommodation, food and other travel expenses.
How do they move around?
Traveling a dedo (hitchhiking) is very popular, even among female solo travelers. However, in Bolivia this concept doesn’t seem to stick with drivers from a long time ago. Even Che Guevara recounted in his book The Motorcycle Diaries that Bolivian drivers required them to pay…
In other South American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, passing-by drivers on the highways have picked up hundreds of travelers, excepting nothing in return.
The only logistical issue is that if you’re in a city, you would need to take a bus to reach the nearest highway in direction to your next destination. The rest is just waiting with your thumb up…
In Argentina, the gas stations have showers and places to put up your tent, if you need to spend the night on the road and camp there until daytime. It is recommendable that you start your hitchhiking journey early in the morning, because at nighttime the cars won’t see you well enough on the side of the road, and also for the obvious security reasons.
All you need to pay is your gratitude and an entertaining conversation with the driver!
Some travelers choose to stay a few months in one place and work in a bar, restaurant or hostel. That way, they can save up to pay for a plane ticket or any other expensive expenses. Usually business owners turn a blind eye to immigration laws, partly because it also benefits them not paying their employees’ social benefits. Ecuador is particularly popular because it uses USD currency.
Volunteering for a few hours a day can save you accommodation and food. Hostels often require extra staff to keep the hostel running, like serving breakfast, bar shifts, or keeping the reception area clean. If you would rather plan in advance, check out Workaway and Helpex which provide you with a lists of potential hosts, in exchange for a 20$ yearly subscription fee to their websites. It can also be arranged on the spot. Artists can offer to paint the walls of the hostel in exchange for a dorm bed.
Travelling with your tent gives you the flexibility and freedom to camp out in nature for free (note that some national parks require a small fee). In cities, some hostels could let you camp out in their gardens or roof and charge you less than the price of a dorm bed while using all the hostel facilities.
An even better way is through the Couchsurfing community, which is an amazing invention that not only helps you stay for free all over the world, but also get to know local people, share your cultures and end up with lots of friends in every place you pass by.
So what are you waiting for?
While it is always good to have some funds in your back account, you don’t need to be spending them, but rather keep them for an emergency and earn your pocket money on the road.
As hundreds of mochileros, if not more, continue to travel around South America, you can’t just dismiss it as a “phenomenon of some crazy hippies”.
It is in fact a viable way of exploring the world before you turn 65 and retire. If you can learn to live with little while still enjoying all the perks of travelling, and don’t mind trading off economic stability for adventure, then the South American tricks could be all what you need.
If you liked this article, you could also like the list of useful resources I use to plan my travels.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org