10 things I learned about global tech usage while in South America

A visit to South America shows that computing and communications work differently in developing nations.

041415 machu picchu
Credit: Martin St-Amant (S23678) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Here in the United States and other fully developed countries, it's easy to get accustomed to always-available computing infrastructure. In other parts of the world, that's not always the case.

That's why on a recent excursion to Peru, including visits to Lima, the Amazonian rain forest, and (of course) Machu Picchu, I was particularly interested in the local computing infrastructure and how people used it. So I paid close attention to the technology around me. Some of these facts may seem obvious to veteran travelers, but I thought they were worth noting.

See also: 5 things I learned living with just a smartphone for 2 weeks

Almost everyone has a mobile phone

Even people with low incomes seem to be willing to spend what they have on mobile phones and service—and there are stores selling minutes of service in even the poorest, most out-of-the way places.

Inexpensive phones rule

But while everyone may have a phone, few are the latest and greatest models beloved by technophiles. I saw a lot of ancient feature phones and cheap Android devices. iPhones were as scarce as potable water, except in the hands of tourists. There are no Apple Stores in Lima, though I did see an authorized reseller called an iStore, which made an obvious attempt to mimic them mothership.

Cell service is available in the most surprising places

Three hours up the Tambopata river in the Amazon Basin, there was decent cell service along the river itself, if not deep in the actual rain forest. The cell towers were often the only obvious sign of human activity for miles around. Plus, in a sweet collision of old and new, I got a solid 4 bars in Machu Picchu!

Pay phones still exist!

For those few who don't have phones, there are still pay phones in many public areas. You don't see many of those in the U.S. anymore.

Fast, reliable cellular data service is a lot harder to find

And it's expensive, too. So many people tend to rely on Wi-Fi for data connections. Home wireless was advertised widely, at rates as low as $15 month. But even then, the speed and reliability can be spotty, at least on the networks I tried.

When you need Wi-Fi, just ask

You may assume that because an establishment has a password on Wi-Fi, it's only for the employees. Nope. Lots of places that have password-protected Wi-Fi are happy to share the password with anyone—or at least any customer—who asks. In many cases, they'll pass out cards with the password (not always identified as such), or even type in long, hard-to-remember passwords for you!.

Internet cafes still exist

While restaurants and other locations in affluent areas almost always offer Wi-Fi, that's not so true in other areas. The poorer a neighborhood looked, the more likely it was to have Internet cafes lining the major streets.

Tablets are not relevant

I saw plenty of laptops being used by local Peruvians, but the only tablets I observed the whole trip were in the hands of tourists.

Credit card readers are overwhelmingly wireless

Restaurant waiters bring the devices right to your table rather than taking your credit off to the counter.

There's plenty of interest in technology

041415 bill gates book store peru Fredric Paul

In Lima, I drove past the Bill Gates bookstore. It didn't look like much, and I doubt the owners paid royalties to their business's namesake, but it says something that they chose the name in the first place.

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