10 Things You’ll Only Know If You’ve Been A Backpacker In South America

At the time of writing, I have been back in the UK for nearly a month. It may surprise you to know that during the time that I have been away, there have been no major changes to my home county. Welcome to Norfolk, the sleepiest place in Britain. 

As expected, returning to the UK after spending eight months backpacking around South America has been hard. Everything is different, from the landscapes to the people and even the language. Surprisingly, even the smallest of the tasks have proved to be obstacles. 

With Reverse Culture Shock in full swing, I thought I’d share some of the most difficult things that I have found since returning from South America. Let’s just say, readapting is hard!

Girl overlooks glacier lake in South America
I feel like I am in a constant state of grieving for South America.

1. I genuinely feel like I may never get used to flushing my toilet paper again.

It comes as a surprise to many people who have never visited South America but it is pretty much impossible to flush toilet paper anywhere you go. Knowing that this is a hard thing for us visitors to adapt to, the South Americans have helpfully put signs in every bathroom – not that it makes a difference. It is very common to go to spend a penny to be met with a blocked toilet because somebody didn’t read. 

Whilst returning to the UK and being able to flush paper again feels hugely liberating, I also can’t help but feel panicked and guilty every time I realise I haven’t binned it. I guess old habits die hard! 

2. Ceviche might well be some of my favourite food ever – and I really didn’t eat enough of it while I was in Peru. 

I had heard so much about ceviche prior to visiting South America and it is fair to say I was horribly disappointed by the Ecuadorian version. It was packed full of coriander (the devil’s herb) and I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. 

Visiting Peru (although I am of the opinion that the country itself was hugely overrated) was nothing less than a taste awakening. Their ceviche was literally out of this world and I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that I can’t eat it for every single meal like I used to. 

3. It seems strange seeing cows in fields instead of llamas.

One of my big highlights of South America was the abundance of smiley, fluffy friends that were everywhere. Coming from rural UK (where the vast majority of wildlife died centuries ago), made South America feel like an incredibly large hub for animals, which I guess it is when you consider it is home to the Amazon. 

Llamas in South America
I miss seeing llamas everywhere!

I loved llama spotting during the long bus rides through the continent and nothing to failed to brighten up a dreary tour like a few resident alpacas. Cows are far less approachable and just nowhere near as friendly! 

4. Everywhere is so flat.

South America is home to the mighty Andes Mountain Range which characterises many of the countries there. Having had no experience with altitude and mountains on this scale before, it was a bit of a shock to the system getting out of breath as I simply walked around a city.

Fast forward eight months and I am back to my ol’ Norfolk stomping ground with not a hill in sight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty county but you can’t deny a cheeky mountain range would liven things up a little!

5. I am missing my daily soup and my two-course lunch.

Aren’t set lunches the best things in the world? Seriously, a juice, a soup and a main, all for a steal of a price! Almuerzos are what got me through South America on my shoestring budget! Initially, I found it a little weird that soup was such a staple, especially when it was hot. In my family, we only ever really eat in soup in the winter.

Soup dish in Bolivia, South America
Soup is a staple all over South America.

I might have been reluctant at first but by gosh I am now a convert! Soup is filling, light, healthy and perfectly cheap, it is the ideal lunch. It took approximately eight months to realise this and now I have no choice but to embrace life in a largely soupless country.

6. It is no longer okay to travel in a car if you’re not wearing a seatbelt.

Try as I might, I keep forgetting that all cars in the UK have seatbelts. Not just that but it is actually a criminal offence to not wear one.

When I first arrived in South America, I did everything I could to be a safe passenger. I’d hop into a car and immediately start looking for my seatbelt but nine times out of ten, this was to no avail. Sometimes the seatbelt would be trapped behind the other seat and other times, someone had just decided to pull it out.

After slowly coming to accept that South America just doesn’t do seatbelts, I am struggling to readapt to the UK which most definitely does.

7. Exercising feels so effortless, it’s weird. 

There is a reason that athletes train at altitude, it requires much more strength. Altitude really is a game changer. Even the most simple of physical exertion is more difficult when you are up high.

View from Potosí church in South America
Potosí is one of the highest cities in South America!

In fact, during my horrendous ascent to Pichincha (spoiler: I didn’t make it), the altitude made the hike so difficult that I couldn’t breathe. It’s not like I was ultra running either, I was just trying to walk. It’s scary stuff. 

8. Everything has a price displayed… Was life ever this easy?

South America love their markets and as a result, the buying process gets a little more complicated. Nothing is priced and therefore you need to enter into an awkward guessing game with the vendor in order to obtain the produce. The price can change based on your perceived wealth, the way you look, how polite you are or what the weather is doing. In short, it is a complete shot in the dark. 

See my tips to haggle your way to a bargain here!

In the UK, we do not have confusing rituals such as these. I want a bag of crisps so I simply go into a shop, look at the price and pay the money required. After all these hours of haggling for alpaca wool, it all feels suspiciously simple. 

9. I have so much stuff!

As I am a firm believer in only travelling with carry on luggage, I have spent the last eight months doing exactly that. All of my worldly belongings have been crammed into a 40-litre backpack which has sufficed just fine. 

Now I’ve come back to the UK and I’m looking at all my stuff like I am crazy. How on earth have I accumulated so much pointless shit? It’s ludicrous! Operation clear out is impending…

Girl with backpack and hiking poles
I only ever travel with carry on luggage – mainly because I am too tight to pay for extra!

10. The luxury of having hand soap in the bathrooms still hasn’t worn off. 

It is a small thing but also one that drove me absolutely crazy in South America. None of the bathrooms ever provide soap. As a result, you have to carry hand sanitiser everywhere or risk contracting some type of super flu.

Even on those rare but heavenly occasions where someone has left a bar of soap behind in the bathroom, never expect to find a working hand dryer or hand towel. These things just aren’t woven into South America life like they are in Europe!

Readapting to life after backpacking South America

Despite these obstacles, I am managing to make some progress and get to grips with the way my old life worked. It is taking time but the wanderlust withdrawal is gradually fading into a dull throb, instead of a banging ache. 

As much as it is nice catching up with family and friends, my feet are already starting to itch. I am not done with South America just yet, I’m simply taking a break for now.

Have you ever suffered with reverse culture shock after travel?

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