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The Grand Tour of South America - 2023

Updated: Jul 6

Jun 13 - July 20

Maybe you want to create your own Grand Tour of South America that includes stops in Santiago, Rapa Nui, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, and São Paulo. If you do, I've made some notes.

The Airport

Whether it's a domestic or an international flight, I generally get to the airport two hours early. I know for an international flight it's supposed to be three hours, but I feel like if I give in to that nonsense, then pretty soon I'll have to start showing up the night before.

Well in South America, showing up three hours early might make good sense. In the U.S. of A. I'm proud to say once you clear TSA, you can immediately proceed to a cold beer while waiting for your flight to take off. In Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, if it's an international flight, right after clearing security you now have to clear inmigración/imigração. I assume it has to do with "Hermano Grande" wanting to keep an eye on you, but maybe it's a jobs program. Who knows?

While the flight from Santiago, Chile to Rapa Nui, Chile is a domestic flight, some sort of immigration still needs to be cleared, though now with the addition of having to fill out an online form. I have no idea why.

In South America when you get off the plane, before you proceed to customs/inmigración/imigração, make sure you have your flight number and hotel's name & address handy, because if you don't speak a lick of Spanish or Portuguese this is what the agent is asking about.

The Uber

Plentiful and relatively cheap in Santiago, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Foz do Iguaçu, and São Paulo, though unavailable in Puerto Iguazú and Rapa Nui (I'm not sure why). Generally, I avoid taxis due to fear of the unknown (cost), but due to exigent circumstances, I had to use one in Santiago and Montevideo, both without incident. In those two cases after waiting 10 or so minutes, Uber refused to accept my trip, so a taxi was hailed. I think the shortness of the journey is what deterred Uber drivers from accepting my ride request.

In the Santiago (SCL) and Montevideo (MVD) airports, Uber picks you up at Departures, which isn't mentioned in the app. Either way it's always a good idea to confirm the exact location with the driver.

There is no Uber on Rapa Nui. Taxis appeared to be plentiful, but I never needed to use one as Hanga Roa is pretty small and to see the sights on the balance of the island the government requires you to use a guide which generally comes with its own transportation.

The Breakfast

At every hotel, the included breakfast buffet ranged from merely sumptuous to "WTF!" And with the exception of the Belmond (at Iguaçu Falls), all the hotels I stayed at were reasonably priced ($60 - $150/night).

The included breakfast that most US hotels serve usually means some sort of DIY waffle station, some gruel, and prepackaged muffins, with me hoping that there at least will be unlimited cranberry juice (and don't even get me started on the bagels). In many of these hotels I know I should probably just skip breakfast and just get coffee and a nosh out in town, but since I already paid for it, I feel trapped. I just can't help myself.

Well in South America it is the exact opposite, with the buffet being filled with fresh breads, fresh cheeses, fresh cold cuts, and . . . well fresh everything (and more than once that included unlimited . . . fresh raspberry juice).

On a couple of occasions when I compared the room rate of a hotel on vs. Expedia, one site would have a cheaper price but not have an included breakfast.

The Money

When paying via credit card (Spanish: "tarjeta de crédito", Portuguese: "cartão de crédito"), if offered the option on the credit card gizmo that will very likely be brought to your table¹, always select "Local Currency" (and not USD), as you want your credit card company determining the exchange rate. Credit cards were widely accepted in every city visited.

Remember "cash is king," and by that I mean U.S. cash. So whenever you travel internationally, always have a hundred or so U.S. dollars with you (with some singles). It can be quite useful for tips if you haven't been able to exchange currency yet, to bribe a member of law enforcement, or to pay your Airbnb host directly to extend your stay without allowing Airbnb to wet its beak.

Except in Argentina I always used an ATM to get ~$100 dollars in local currency, which I then spent judiciously, using my credit card as much as possible. In Argentina, ATMs dispense pesos at the government-determined "official" exchange rate, a rate that some may call a "screwjob." (Spanish "trabajo de tornillo"). So I obtained pesos via Western Union at a substantially better exchange rate (see my Buenos Aires Report for details).

The Flight

I began my tour open ended by taking a one way flight to Santiago, Chile (LATAM @ $370), not knowing when, where or if I would return. When I landed with the exception of a round trip to Rapa Nui, I had no follow on flights booked. The idea was to wait for inspiration (and cheap airfare) before making further travel arrangements. I only booked my tickets to Rapa Nui ahead of time, as travel there is only possible certain days of the week making it all just a little bit more complicated.

This technique worked fine on my Grand Tour of Europe, though on this Tour it started to get a little stressful at times. It may have to do with Europe offering numerous transportation options (airplane, train, bus, and ferry) and South America offering quite a bit fewer. If I did it again I might plan ahead a little bit more.

Use Expedia, Kayak, etc. to determine the flight you want to book, but before pulling the trigger, check the cost of the specific flight you are interested in on the airlines local language website to see how much the flight is in local currency. A bargain may be in the offing, as it was for me, twice.

Note: I stayed on Rapa Nui for seven days, which was just about right. You could do it in five days, but not anything less. Remember, you are coming a long way to see this place, there are only a few flights a week, it's a six hour flight and what if your flight is delayed?

The Water

The water in Santiago, Rapa Nui, Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls (Brazil & Argentina), and São Paulo is drinkable, though Santiago's tastes a little chalky (though you will be getting your minerals). In Montevideo, it was undrinkable due to a water emergency that somehow affected the chemistry of the water.

I'm not sure why I mentioned this, as those of you that drink bottled water back home will insist on drinking bottled water on the road and those of you that don't, won't.

The Spirits

Chile is known for its pisco and Brazil for its cachaca. The former is a brandy and the latter a rum. Obviously, you need to sample these spirits, most likely via a Pisco sour and a caipirinha. And they're both quite palatable, but let's get ahold of ourselves, we're not talking about unique-tasting spirits, like Port, Belgian beer, or Irish whisky.

Wine, on the other hand, is a different story, with Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina all serving up some very drinkable stuff. I'm partial to the Malbec from Argentina as its eponymous grape grows well in the country's mountainous Mendoza region. My affection though could have less to do with the country's altitude and more to do with its exchange rate.

The Beer

After a 10 hour flight from São Paolo to JFK, and then crashing for eight hours at the Floral Park Motor Lodge, I celebrated the return to the U.S. the same way I always do, with fajitas and a beer, this time at a place called El Napon, that unfortunately serves beer that is less than icy cold. Why is it that Amazon can deliver me a 98-inch TV the next day, but most American bars can't deliver an icy cold beer to my lips on a consistent basis? I get it if you are drinking a hoppy, hazy IPA, then this might not be an issue. Though I want that Bud Light or more recently that Modelo Especial to be hovering ever so slightly above 0° C, as I like my beer like I like my women; "blonde and cold."

While Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil may have a variety of social, economic, and political issues - many of which I found quite familiar, the beer is always dangerously cold. They don't have the "benefit" of having access to over 10,000 labels, so they tend to focus on ice-cold pilsners, which they tend to serve in gigundo 750 ml bottles via ice-filled champagne buckets.

If you could assure me this was the way beer was served in heaven, I'd start going back to church.

Heaven in a Bucket

The Global Entry

Global Entry is a program that allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to receive expedited clearance upon arrival into the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports

My Global Entry expired a few years back, and I only renewed it prior to departing for this Tour, at the insistent insistence of Mrs. AAR. For me, the application process was seamless and did not require an in-person interview prior to my almost immediate approval. Most likely due to my obvious patriotism.

Well, the Missus' insistence paid off: After deplaning at JFK after a ten-hour flight from São Paulo, we separated from the hoards and followed signs to a vacant Global Entry area. Then as I was still approaching the automatic kiosk, my photo was taken and displayed on the screen. I was then immediately prompted to proceed to the exit. Since I hadn't even placed my passport on the scanner I was a little confused . . . then I heard a voice from above that said "Michael, come here." For a second I thought "Is that you God? Are you welcoming me back home?" . . . until I realized it was the Customs and Border Protection Officer sitting way over there. I walked over to him and he asked if I had anything to declare, I said "No," exited and rejoined the hoards.

Don't want to shell out $100 for the benefit of not having to re-enter the U.S. with the riff-raff? Then maybe the Mobile Passport Control (MPC) app can be an option. It's free and it allows you to submit travel documentation beforehand to streamline the entry process into the United States by reducing passport control inspection time and overall wait time.

The Propina (thuh prō pēnă)

All the servers are tipped 10%. In Chile and Uruguay, you can generally charge it via the credit card gizmo that is brought to your table. If you are unsure, just point to your card or the gizmo and say "Propina?"

In Argentina, the servers won't give you the option as they want their propina in cash. In Brazil it's mixed (and is called "servico").

The Safety

We always lodged in fairly safe neighborhoods, but you always need to be careful, as just like cities in the U.S. the difference between a safe neighborhood and "ohhh no!!" can be as narrow as "the path to salvation." Though it can sometimes just be the difference between night and day.

In Montevideo we exited a restaurant at 10:00 pm that was located in the Ciudad Vieja neighborhood and the streets were completely empty. Now I don't care if you are in the middle of the safest city in the world, when the Sun has set and there is nary a soul to be seen, you get a little nervous. Especially when the restaurant's employees start pulling down the steel shutters just behind you. A taxi was promptly called, after my Uber request went unanswered.

Be careful when looking at your cell phone out in public. A number of times when out and about, a complete stranger warned me not to hold my cell phone in front of me, as thieves on foot and scooters, liked to snatch cell phones from the hands of unsuspecting travelers.

The Electricity

To be honest, I couldn't give a crap how the electricity works in South America, is it 50 Hz, 60 Hz, 220 volts, 221, or whatever it takes? In the end who really cares? What I do care about is how my iPhone charging cord plugs into the wall. In Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil you need two adapters: The two-pronged one and the three-pronged one.

Sometimes you will use just the two pronged one, other times you will plug the two pronged one into the three pronged one.

It ain't rocket science, but is a little more complicated than you might think.

In the pilot episode of possibly the greatest police show ever televised, Adam-12, the older wiser cop (Malloy) explains to his rookie partner (Reed) that "This black and white patrol car has an overhead valve V8 engine. It develops 325 horsepower at 4800 RPMs. It accelerates from 0 to 60 in seven seconds; it has a top speed of 120 miles an hour . . . The automobile has two shotgun racks, one attached to the bottom portion of the front seat, one in the vehicle trunk. Attached to the middle of the dash, illuminated by a single bulb is a hot sheet desk. Fastened to which you will always make sure is the latest one off the teletype before you ever roll . . . It's your life insurance and mine. You take care of it and it'll take care of you."

Well in a foreign country that is exactly what your cell phone is. Keep it charged, and don't drain the battery on foolishness. You will need to use it to take photos, follow directions, book an Uber, and conduct some research, but save checking Facebook every 10 minutes, watching the latest episode of The Bachelor, and staying abreast of the Kardashians for the hotel room. Remember you take care of it, and it'll take care of you².

The Cell Phone Plan

T-Mobile offered me unlimited text and data in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil (two phones, $70/mo.). It also came with 25 cents/minute voice, which in Santiago came in especially handy while waiting at the curb at Arrivals while The Uber was waiting directly above me in Departures.

If you are going to Easter Island, review your plan, as the wi-fi there is as spotty as it is temperamental.

The Language

While Spanish is the official language of most of Latin America, it is not the official language of Brazil. Please do know that this did not come as a surprise to me.

After traveling through Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina my Spanish language skills had increased immeasurably (which isn't really saying that much), so when I touched down in São Paulo³ I was hopeful that some of these improved skills would transfer to the Portuguese language. And I was quickly disabused of that notion.

While Spanish and Portuguese rate reasonably high on mutual intelligibility, I found that none of the intelligibility extended to me. Quite simply my ability to understand what Brazilians were saying to me was similar to if they had been speaking Slovak. I mean there was nothing.

While much of this issue is on me, I think Brazilians as evidenced by the phrase "Bom dia" bear some of the responsibility. From the little Spanish, I picked up, you would think this means "Good day", and while this is what it means literally, it really means "Good morning". And if to make it just that much more confusing, it's pronounced "Bom gia".

Santiago, Rapa Nui, Iguaçu Falls, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, São Paulo (clockwise from upper left)

The Endnotes

I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.

¹ The credit card gizmo wasn't brought to my table as consistently in Brazil as it was in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.

² If you find that while viewing a moai on Rapa Nui, or watching tango, that you absolutely need to take a preening selfie, check up on Donald Trump's latest indictment, or "Like " a colleague's repost of another colleague's LinkedIn post about a trite and apocryphal motivational quote, then the Anker PowerCore Portable Cell Phone Charger, may be just the ticket.

³ Prior to arriving in São Paulo, my first night in Brazil was spent at the Hotel das Cataratas, A Belmond Hotel located in Foz do Iguaçu. Staying at the premier hotel in South America does not help one's Portuguese, as the entire staff spoke fluent English, in some cases better than me.

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john deam
john deam
Oct 19, 2023

Malbec is our go to wine and we're heading for Mendoza in '24. I was lucky enough to fly the Embassy Run in C-130s for a few months way back when. So I'm very familiar with Montevideo, BA, and Santiago. You made no comment about the Argentina exchange rate w/their 130% inflation rate. I'm somewhat concerned. I was in Santiago a couple of months before President Allende was assassinated and the official exchange rate was 43 to $1, but the black market was 125 to 1. A guy from the embassy exchanged the crew's money at the black market rate in order to avoid an "international incident" if we had been caught downtown exchanging currency at the black market…

Replying to

john deam, You cannot go wrong drinking Malbec. I detailed the whole Argentina exchange rate craziness in my BA Report. I think you'll find Santiago a little different than your last visit back in the early 70s. Oh yeah, Fly . . . Navy!


Richard Disney
Richard Disney
Oct 17, 2023

”Blonde and cold”—are you listening Mrs. AAR???

Replying to

Admittedly, I’m immune😉

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