Friday, 19 Jul 2019

The ultimate guide to backpacking South America

As backpacking destinations go, South America is King and Queen of the Jungle. It’s a place that doesn’t do small. Within its 12 nations lie many of earth’s most impressive historical sites and natural features, from the Amazon Rainforest to the Andes mountains. Each country has a fascinating history and unique culture to be explored. It’s a place to challenge yourself, learn new skills and have the time of your life at some of the world’s best parties. There’s truly something for every backpacker on this incredible continent. Read on for the ultimate backpacking South America guide.

Jump straight to:

  1. Best time to visit South America
  2. Visas for South America
  3. Travelling around South America
  4. Hostels in South America
  5. Backpacking South America on a budget
  6. Places to visit in South America
  7. Things to do in South America
  8. South America backpacking itineraries
  9. South American food
  10. South American culture and customs
  11. Is South America safe?
  12. South America travel advice

backpacking south america - sunset rio

? Hope Warren

 

Best time to visit South America

Establishing the best time to visit South America isn’t as easy as picking summer, packing your speedos and hopping on a flight. Given its size and mountainous terrain, South American weather can vary wildly, even between neighbouring cities. At sea level you might be risking sunburn, while 100km away you’ll need long-johns and an Arctic sleeping bag to stave off frostbite. In this instance, it’s important to listen to your mum when she bangs on about ‘packing layers’.

South America seasons

In the Southern hemisphere, summer falls from November to February and winter from June to August. If you visit during the peak summer months, book tours (particularly the Inca Trail), well in advance. It can be a great idea to visit in April and May or September and October, when it’s more serene and prices haven’t been hiked up to capture that tourist dollar.

Best time for specific locations

If you’re visiting South America for a specific activity, it’s much easier to determine the best time of year to travel. For example, if you want to party on down at Rio Carnival, the best time to visit Brazil is February/March. If you can’t get the image of those murderous snakes from Planet Earth out of your head, the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands is April to May, when the sun is shining and the animals are out in force.

It’s tricky to determine the best time to visit Patagonia given its size and how changeable its climate is. Some insist on summer (November to February) but if you can’t hack wind, avoid this time of year as gusts can reach 120km per hour. If you plan to ski in Patagonia, visit in September. December to February is ideal for trekking, but the whole world and their gran know that… so budget for higher accommodation prices to accompany the higher temperatures.

If the Inca Trail is top of your to-do list, bear in mind it’s closed for the month of February.

Machu Picchu however is open 365 days a year. During July and August, the site can welcome up to 5,000 visitors every day, so the best time to visit Machu Picchu is when those tourists have gone home. Peak season on the Inca Trail is May to September. This is one activity in South America that you must book in advance, especially if visiting during high season. $500 is the standard price.

backpacking south america - peru - machu picchu

? @bratpackerss

Visas for South America

You don’t need a visa for any South American country if you’re visiting as a tourist, but there are some limitations. For example, you won’t need a Peru visa or a Chile visa unless you plan on sticking around for more than 90 days. Brazil asks that passports be valid for six months, you have a ticket out of the country, and occasionally proof of sufficient funds.

Keep documentation presented to you at the border safe and ready to show upon departure. Also, renew your passport before leaving home if you’re coming close to its expiry date. That way, you’ll be free to extend your trip if you fall madly in love with your jungle guide and decide to move to the Amazon.

Make sure you’re up to speed with all your travel vaccines, as some countries will ask to see a vaccination card on arrival, depending where you’re coming from. For example, you won’t get in to Colombia from Brazil unless you can show proof of a yellow fever vaccination.

backpacking south america - visas

? @_littlectravelbird

Travelling around South America

Planes

Cheap domestic airlines in South America sometimes offer flights for the same price as bus tickets. For longer journeys, check to see what’s best value. Try FlyBondi in Argentina, VivaColombia in Colombia, and sign up to LAN’s newsletter to be sent monthly deals.

Trains

Trains are rare in South America unless you’re travelling within a city, on Ecuador’s Devil’s Nose train, or you want to visit Machu Picchu but don’t fancy the walk. Inca Rail and Peru Rail trains have panoramic windows allowing you to take in views of the Urubamba River as you snake through Peru’s Sacred Valley. Both company’s trains arrive into Aguas Calientes, a charming town packed full of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants packed to the rafters with stinking hikers fresh off the Inca Trail. From here, it’s a 20-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu.

backpacking south america -  Fernando Tapia

? Fernando Tapia

Automobiles

Unless you’ve got a baller’s budget, you’ll be catching a lot of buses in South America. The average cost of bus travel ranges from $1-2 (80p-£1.50) per hour in Bolivia and Ecuador, $3 (£2.40) per hour in Peru and $5-6 (£4-5) per hour in Brazil and Argentina. Some buses are luxurious – reclining seats, Wi-Fi, wine, meals and movies. The snazziest buses are in Argentina, Chile and Peru…which is fortunate given the seriously long distances. Buses in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia can be a little more touch and go and tend to reflect the price of the ticket, so pay a little more for a smoother ride.

To make yourself comfortable bring water, snacks, warm clothes and a sleeping bag. Sometimes buses provide blankets, but you don’t want to be stuck without, especially when travelling overnight at altitude as temperatures really plummet. It’s also sensible to factor in a little delay time. Keep things really cheap by travelling in collectivos – mini-buses that travel popular urban and local routes.

South America tours

Tours are a great way to see South America’s attractions and are excellent for making friends. Prices vary, so always compare a few quotes to ensure you get a competitive rate. While it may be tempting to go for the cheapest tour, you’ll get what you pay for. When it comes to activities that require equipment, like Bolivia’s Death Road, pay the going rate to guarantee your safety.

Hostels in South America

The love affair between world backpackers and South America has been going on for a long time, which means there are more than a few amazing hostels along this continent!

In Argentina one of my favourites was Milhouse Hostel, set in an old colonial building in Buenos Aires with beautiful balconies and an awesome cocktail bar that’s amazing for solo travellers. I also loved Gorilla Hostel Mendoza with its sunny outdoor social areas complete with swimming pool, BBQs and table tennis!

I found paradise in Colombia at Costeno Beach hostel on the Caribbean coast. Casa Kiwi is a super cool place to stay in Medellin (with a rooftop pool!) and Casa Elemento in Minca is legendary for its giant hammocks overlooking the Sierra Nevada. Find out more about the best hostels in Colombia.

backpacking south america - views over valley - netting

? @maloupts 

In Chile it was all about the funky Aji Verde Hostel – their terrace has the best views over La Serena – or the amazing vibes of Planeta Lindo in Valparaiso, where drinks on the roof are the start of many crazy nights!

In Peru I loved The Point, Lima. It’s the perfect balance between party and laid back, which means it’s great for meeting people. Why not read more about the best hostels in Peru?

My Ecuador highlights included the laid-back surfer’s hostel Esperanto, located right on the beach in Montanita, as well as The Secret Garden Quito which has rooftop hammocks overlooking the city.

In Bolivia, don’t miss Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz, which houses the highest Irish pub in the world at 3600m above sea level! In Sucre I loved the fun themed nights at KulturBerlin and the warm, community vibes of The Beehive.

The Hoscar winning O De Casa in Sao Paulo is the perfect hostel to start your adventures in Brazil. Lemon Spirit Hostel is the place to get the party started in Rio while Che Lagarto Paraty provides cosy privates and comfy dorms, as well as a pool to escape the sweltering heat!

backpacking south america - eating and food outside

Check out more South America hostels! 

Backpacking South America on a budget

Travelling South America on a shoestring is possible if you’re savvy with your savings. Before you go, work out your must-dos and put money aside in advance so they aren’t included in your daily spend. A decent monthly budget is £800-£1000 per month. Daily budgets to use as guidelines are: Bolivia (£15-30), Ecuador (£20-£30), Argentina (£25-40), Peru and Colombia (£30-40), Brazil (£30-£50) and Chile (£40-£55).

Tips for saving that dollar

  • Stay in dorms – or even hammocks if you’re willing (and able).
  • Eat menus del dia and top yourself up with street food or supermarket snacks.
  • Download apps like TrabeePocket or Spendee to monitor your spending.
  • Limit time in expensive countries and cities.
  • Save money on accommodation by travelling overnight.
  • Enjoy free activities – museums, walking tours, unguided hikes.

backpacking south america - hammock in colombia

? Hope Warren @ Casa Loma, Minca, Colombia

Pricey destinations on the cheap

Even the most expensive attractions can be made cheap if you switch up how you do things. For example, Patagonia is pricey, but if you’re happy to hitch (safety in numbers people!) you can save cash.

There’s no need to splash $1000+ on a Galapagos cruise. Instead, fly from Guayaquil (cheaper than Quito) directly to one of the islands it’s possible to stay on, which include San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. Stay in a hostel (from £15 per night) and enjoy free activities. Loiter around the port where the cruises depart from to secure serious discounts. Volunteering in the Galapagos allows you to experience its magic without paying a fortune. In fact, volunteering is a great way to make your money go further in South America. Check out Workaway and Helpx for options, or ask if hostels need an extra pair of hands.

 

Places to visit in South America

The South America backpacking route, tried and tested by backpackers, is affectionately known as the Gringo Trail. While there is enough to do in South America to keep you occupied for many moons, here’s a breakdown of some of its highlights…

Best natural wonders

No trip to South America is complete without a journey into the Amazon Rainforest. You can enter via several countries, but Bolivia is the cheapest. There are a number of ways to experience the jungle, from survival skills tours to boat journeys. If you don’t fancy hiking in the heat, enjoy a boat tour around Las Pampas in Bolivia, or The Pantanal in Brazil.

Iguazu Falls, at the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, is home to 275 waterfalls and is the nearest you’re going to get to the Garden of Eden.

backpacking south america - waterfall

? Hope Warren

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt lake, and an otherworldly destination not to be missed.

Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, is one of the best locations in the world for stargazing.

Patagonia is a nature lovers’ playground – head to Bariloche, Torres del Paine National Park, Tierra del Fuego (the ‘End of the World’) Cape Horn, Pucon and don’t miss the Perito Moreno glacier.

backpacking south america - ice cave

? @koalatravelstheworld

Lake Titicaca, shared by Bolivia and Peru, is the world’s highest body of water. Enjoy exploring and camp overnight on Isla del Sol or Isla de la Luna.

Best for learning new skills

If you want to learn Spanish (highly recommended) there are Spanish schools in most cities, or in popular hangouts like Sucre in Bolivia and Montañita in Ecuador. In Argentina, you can learn the dance of love at Tango school, and in Cali, Colombia, learn to salsa dance with the best of them. We also recommend ‘learning’ about wine in Mendoza, Argentina by hiring a bike and touring the region’s wineries.

Best for extreme sports

For adrenaline-fuelled action swing by Baños in Ecuador and San Gil in Colombia where you can go caving and whitewater rafting. Chile’s Rio Futaleufu is also one of the best rivers in the world for the latter. Paraglide in Medellin, Lima or Iquique in Chile; skydive in the Chilean Andes; go sandboarding in the Atacama Desert and learn to kite surf in Cabo de la Vela, a windswept town at the very northern tip of Colombia. If you like ice climbing (you might be crazy, but) you can climb Huayna Potosi in Bolivia or Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

backpacking south america - sand dunes

? @bratpackerss

Best trekking

While most of South America is a hiker’s paradise, highlights are basically all of Patagonia. Peru has Huaraz and Machu Picchu, where you’ll find the Salkantay and the Lares treks. Peru’s Colca Canyon is also impressive, and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Colombia has the Lost City trek and the Valle de Corcora, and Ecuador’s Quilotoa Loop is fantastic.

Best beaches

Some of the best beaches in South America are in Brazil. Rio alone has more than a dozen: Urca, Copacabana and Ipanema being highlights. Ilha Grande is paradise, particularly Lopes Mendes Beach. Jericoacoara might suck you in for weeks – especially if you want to learn to windsurf. No true beach bum should miss Florianopolis.

backpacking south america - beach

? Luz Alvarado

Peru’s best beaches are Máncora and Huanchaco. In Ecuador, head to Montañita, a serious party town, or Mompiche, Canoa and Playa Escondida.

Backpacking Santa Marta, Colombia should involve a trip out to Tayrona National Park and its beaches. The hike into the park takes around four hours, but the beaches you get to enjoy at the end are more than worth the effort. You can camp in the park overnight. Palomino is a gorgeous spot a little further down the coast from Tayrona. The beaches are unspoilt and you can also enjoy a spot of river tubing. Escape the heat of Cartagena with a couple of nights at Playa Blanca – a tropical island just off the mainland.

 

Things to do in South America

Best things to do in Colombia

  • Best trekking in Colombia

If you’re looking for a similar challenge to the Inca Trail, Colombia’s top choice is the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) Trek. This 4-6 day trek takes you along the Buritaca River to Kogi villages and through coffee plantations. The grand finale is a sweaty climb up 1,200 moss-covered steps to Tomb Raider-esque ruins dating back to 800AD.

If a day hike is more your schtick, the nearby hike into Tayrona National Park takes 2-3 hours. Once you get to Cabo San Juan – the most popular place to stay overnight – there are further hikes to take from there. The Nine Stones hike guides you along beaches and deeper into the park and El Pueblito. Another 1-2 hour hike takes in ancient archaeological sites not dissimilar to the Lost City.

backpacking south america - best trekking in colombia

?@ljmoss87

  • Best beaches in Colombia

The best beaches in Colombia are found along the Caribbean coastline. From Santa Marta, hop on a local bus out to Palomino. All the beaches en route, including the unmissable beaches of Tayrona, are sensational. Surfers will enjoy some decent waves on this coastline, and if you get as far as Cabo de la Vela you can learn how to kite surf.

From Cartagena enjoy a day trip or a night or two at Playa Blanca. Alternatively, the Rosario Islands archipelago is a national park that offers superb scuba diving and gorgeous beaches. For a slice of Caribbean island life, see if you can snap up a bargain plane ticket (£150) to San Andrés Island.

For the best waves, you need to head to Nuqui or El Valle on Colombia’s Pacific Coast.

  • Best nightlife in Colombia

Colombia is famous for its parties, and you won’t have to look very hard to find one. In the northern cities of Santa Marta, Taganga and Cartagena you can expect mayhem every night. For an exceptionally wild time, time your trip to Barranquilla to coincide with carnival in March.

Medellin is another epicentre of after dark fun, particularly around the El Poblado neighbourhood. But for the best salsa clubs in the city, head to the Laureles district.

  • Other best bits of Colombia

Guatape is a colourful town a couple of hours drive from Medellin, and is well worth a day trip. Climb up El Peñon for the best photo ops. If you’re a coffee fanatic, the plantations around Minca and Salento are unmissable, both also offering great hiking opportunities. In Salento you can hike or take a horse ride through the Corcora Valley, with its green rolling hills and sky-high palm trees. Be sure to play a game of tejo, which involves flinging metal discs at gunpowder – while drinking beer. San Gil is the best spot in Colombia for extreme sports, and if you have time visit Caño Cristales, Colombia’s rainbow-coloured river.

backpacking south america - colombia

 ? @maloupts

Check out hostels in Colombia

Best things to do in Ecuador

  • Best trekking in Ecuador

To access the best hiking in Ecuador, base yourself in Latacunga. From here you can explore the

Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador’s most famous trek, which takes 2-3 days if you want to do it in full. If you fancy something more serene, you can enjoy a number of self-guided hikes around the loop, but whatever you do, make sure you end up at the Quilotoa crater lake!

Also close to Latacunga is Cotopaxi National Park. Take on Cotopaxi itself, which stands at 5,897m, or enjoy more serene hikes in the surrounding national park.

If you make it out to the Galapagos, do the Tortuga Bay hike on Santa Cruz island to get up close and personal with marine iguanas.

  • Best nightlife in Ecuador

While Quito and Cuenca have lots of bars and clubs, Montañita is Ecuador’s major party destination. Once a sleepy fishing village, the town now has a Thai-island kind of vibe, and is popular with surfers, backpackers studying Spanish, and those fond of dancing in the street every night of the week.

  • Other best bits of Ecuador

Don’t miss Baños if you enjoy the adrenaline rush of flinging yourself off bridges, rappelling waterfalls, white water rafting and more. The town is home to hot springs and The Swing at the End of the World, which you’ll recognise from a million Instagram posts. Vilcabamba is Ecuador’s major hippy town, so expect yoga, vegetarian fare, and lots of opportunities to enjoy nature.

backpacking south america - Other best bits of Ecuador

?@conorgough_

Check out hostels in Ecuador

Best things to do in Peru

  • Best beaches in Peru

Surfers rejoice – Peru is a dream come true! Lobitos is probably the best surf spot in the country, followed by Chicama, which boasts the longest surfable left break in the world. Cabo Blanco and Huanchaco are also worth a visit.

Go whale watching at Los Organos, surf by day, party by night in Mancora and hop down to Los Pocitas for a peaceful tropical beach surrounded by palm trees.

  • Best trekking in Peru

If you’ve packed your hiking poles and you mean business, let’s hope you’ve scheduled a few weeks in Peru. There are a lot of hikes going on. Of course you have the Inca Trail – which lives up to the hype and is worth the price tag. The hike takes three days culminating at Machu Picchu, one of the Ancient Wonders of the World. The Salkantay Trek is an Inca Trail alternative that’s worth a crack if you want to swerve the crowds. You’ll walk 70km in five days over snowy mountain passes and through jungle before arriving at Machu Picchu.

backpacking south america - Best trekking in Peru

Huaraz is a beautiful town 8-9 hours from Lima that’s surrounded by the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra mountain ranges. The Laguna 69 trek is unmissable. For something more substantial in the region, check out the Santa Cruz trek, which is often listed as one of the most beautiful hikes in the world due to the alpine scenery, mountain passes and peaks and photo-worthy turquoise lagoons. The Colca Canyon outside Arequipa and El Misti are also excellent options for toning those calves.

  • Best nightlife in Peru

There is no better Peruvian party than Mancora, and the bar at Loki Del Mar hostel is the top spot for debauchery. Cusco is also rather raucous given folk are either returning from or heading out on hikes, and are therefore thirsty for beer – especially those staying at Wild Rover Hostel. Lima’s best areas for nightlife are Miraflores and Barranco, where you’ll be spoilt for choice for bars and all-night clubs.

  • Other best bits of Peru

There are two options for visiting the Peruvian Amazon – Puerto Maldonado or Iquitos. Out of the two, Iquitos is harder to access (you either fly in or arrive by boat) but there’s much more going on. It’s the largest city within the Amazon – expect parties, jungle tours, retreats and if you fancy visiting a shaman, this is the best place to try Ayahuasca in South America.

Further south, base yourself in Paracas for a few days and from here you can visit Huacachina – a tropical oasis in the middle of nowhere where you can sand board and ride in a dune buggy. The Nazca Lines are nearby, as are the Ballesetas Islands – Peru’s version of the Galapagos. Puno is the popular base for exploring Peru’s side of Lake Titicaca. Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, is lovely to explore, particularly its historic centre and the Santa Catalina Monastery.

backpacking south america - other best bits of Peru

?@karen.miles.161

Check out hostels in Peru

Best things to do in Bolivia

  • Best hikes in Bolivia

From La Paz, you can head for a day’s leisurely hiking through the other-worldly landscapes of either the Valle de Luna (Moon Valley) or Valle de Animas (Spirit Valley). If you’re considering tackling Huayna Potosi (6,088m), spend a few days acclimatising to the altitude in La Paz beforehand, and get your eye in by climbing Chacaltaya. Isla del Sol is an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, which you can easily hike from coast to coast in one day. Enjoy views of the lake and of the snow-capped Andes, as well as a visit to Puma Rock – the birthplace of Manco Capac, founder of the Incas.

  • Best nightlife in Bolivia

It’s hard to top La Paz in terms of Bolivian party destinations, but Sucre comes a close second.

backpacking south america - view over valley - bolivia

? @getlostwithflow

  • Other best bits of Bolivia

A trip to South America is not complete without a trip to the Salar de Uyuni. If you’ve got nerves of steel, the Death Road Cycle is also a backpacker favourite. As is a trip into the Potosi Silver Mine.

If you need a bit of a break from living life at altitude, Coroico is a subtropical town a couple of hours from La Paz, where you can splash around in waterfalls or enjoy Bolivia’s longest zip-line.

Check out hostels in Bolivia

Best things to do in Argentina

  • Best trekking in Argentina

When the time comes to work off some of that red meat with a hike or two, Argentina doesn’t disappoint. Bariloche in the insanely photogenic Patagonian Lake District is home to treks that take you around lakes (Refugio Laguna Negra) up to incredible lookouts (Cerro Campanario), through forest (The Myrtle Forest), or all three (Refugio Frey). Los Glaciares National Park is best known for the Perito Marino Glacier and the Fitzroy Loop.

backpacking south america - lake

? @wsumech

  • Best nightlife in Argentina

Don’t be surprised if you lose a few days in Buenos Aires – the parties here are world class and many of the clubs open late and don’t close until 7am. Palermo is the city’s nightlife hotspot. BA is also great for live music lovers, especially if you’re into rock. Keep your eye out for concerts – some of the world’s biggest names pass-by on their tours. Definitely check out La Bomba del Tiempo, an incredible live drumming concert.

  • Other best bits of Argentina

In Buenos Aires, aim to spend some time in La Boca – take in a tango show or a football game at Boca Juniors stadium. Puerto Madero, San Telmo, Palermo and Recoleta are great suburbs to explore. Be sure to pay a visit to Cementerio de Recoleta, the final resting place of Evita Peron. From Buenos Aires you can also hop across the border for a day in Montevideo.

backpacking south america - shopping

? @flylike.butterfly

Elsewhere, go horse riding in the Andes surrounding the arty town of Córdoba. Head to Mendoza to sample some of Argentina’s best wines on a self-guided wine tour. The Iguazu Falls National Park is a sight to behold.

Check out hostels in Argentina

Best things to do in Chile

  • Best trekking in Chile

Chile’s most famous trek is the ‘The W’ – a 5-7 day bad boy around the delights of the Torres del Paine National Park. If that sounds too easy for you, you can enjoy ‘The O’ trek, which lasts a couple of days longer, takes you around more of the park and allows you to dodge the tourists. The Grey Glacier Hike is also an excellent (but challenging) option. All the towns in Chile’s Lake District are beautiful, with hiking trails galore. Near Pucón you can hike the (active) Volcán Villarica.

backpacking south america - trekking chile

? @henrygrayson

  • Best beaches in Chile

If you’ve ever looked at Chile on a map you’ll know it has a whole lot of coastline – 4,270km to be exact. In the south, the coastline is spectacular and the beaches untouched, but the water can be a little nippy. In the north, you’re in for a real treat. Bahía Inglesa boasts warm water and lots of water sports options. Iquique is a fun town where you can also paraglide. The beaches around Zapallar (Playa Grande and Aguas Blancas) are great for surfing. The best scuba diving in Chile is around La Serena.

  • Other best bits of Chile

Enjoy days spent sand-boarding and nights star-gazing in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which has the clearest skies in the Southern Hemisphere. If you’re keen to get in some time on the slopes, head to Portillo, Valle Nevado or Termas de Chillán. Go on an adventure to Easter Island – the world’s most remote – to experience phenomenal scuba diving, untouched beaches, Polynesian culture and to get a selfie with those famous statues. Around Pucón, Chile’s adventure capital, you can kayak, white water raft, cycle, or soothe your weary bones with a dip in the hot springs. Base yourself in Valparaiso for a few days and enjoy exploring the colourful city’s art, food, nightlife and live music scene.

backpacking south america - coloured houses

? @pink_bunny_traveldiary

Check out hostels in Chile

Best things to do in Brazil

  • Best trekking in Brazil

There aren’t many adventures greater than trekking through the world’s largest rainforest! The city of Manaus is a great base for exploring the Amazon. From here you can embark on multi-day jungle treks with the opportunity to spot rare and diverse wildlife, from spider monkeys to ginormous rodents and pink dolphins!

  • Best beaches in Brazil

Beach bums rejoice – Brazil has over 4,000 miles of white, sandy coastline and turquoise sea. The most perfect beaches are found in the south, with the beautiful city of Florianopolis being a highlight, especially for surfers. Jericoacoara in the north is nothing short of paradise; while away the days soaking up the sun in a hammock by the ocean. And of course, the world-famous beaches of Rio De Janeiro are every bit as amazing as they look – sip a caipirinha and watch the world go by on the always lively Copacabana or hop on a boat to the pristine Isla Grande.

  • Best nightlife in Brazil

There’s always a party to be had in Brazil! The liveliest nights are in the big cities, with no nightlife scene as vibrant as Rio’s. Head to the neighbourhood of Lapa where the streets are lined with people every night, spilling out of bars and dancing in the roads to music from makeshift sound systems. Sao Paulo’s colourful Vila Madalena is always packed with locals and backpackers, with botecos (local bars) on every street corner buzzing with atmosphere.

backpacking south america - nightlife in Brazil - steps

? Hope Warren

  • Other best bits of Brazil

Catch the Serra Verde express from Curitiba to Morretes for Brazil’s most scenic railway journey, with unspoilt views of lush, green forest. The colonial town of Paraty in Rio De Janeiro state has charming cobbled streets, curious tamarin monkeys and a natural waterslide in the jungle. One of Brazil’s greatest wonders, the Iguacu Falls, really have to be seen to be believed and are best appreciated by splashing out on a boat trip.

 

South America backpacking itineraries

The big hitter route – 6 months +

From tropical beaches to icy lakes; mega metropolis’ to ancient civilisations – if you want to discover the top highlights of South America, this is the route for you. You’ll need at least six months to fully appreciate all of these destinations, but if time is no object then take longer to explore. Time travelling is never time wasted!

Brazil – 6 weeks+

  • Salvador: start your journey in this scorching north-eastern city, known for its colonial architecture, carnival spirit and Afro-Caribbean culture.
  • Rio De Janeiro & Isla Grande: sip caipirinhas on the Copacabana under the watch of Christ the Redeemer, before escaping the city for the peaceful beaches of Isla Grande.
  • Paraty: wander the cobbled colonial streets of one of Brazil’s most charming towns.
  • Sao Paulo: get lost in Latin America’s biggest city, admiring street art and enjoying the wild nightlife of Vila Madalena.
  • Florianopolis: grab a board and catch some waves, or simply sip coconuts on the postcard-perfect beaches of the south.
  • Foz Do Iguacu: witness one of earth’s most amazing phenomenons as all 275 waterfalls thunder around you!

backpacking south america - cobbled street

? Hope Warren

Argentina – 4 weeks+

  • Puerto Iguazu: observe the falls from the Argentinian side and finally settle the debate over which is better!
  • Cordoba: party with the city’s young student population and enjoy a laid-back pace of life.
  • Buenos Aires: grab a dance partner – you’re in the home of tango! This city doesn’t sleep, so be ready to go all night.
  • Bariloche: enjoy the fresh air and breathtaking mountains and lakes surrounding this southern tourist town.
  • Mendoza: welcome to wine country – get ready to taste the best Malbec of your life at a backpacker friendly price!

backpacking south america - trekking in mountains

? @sararamanzaloo

Chile – 4 weeks+

  • Santiago: begin your Chilean adventure in its cosmopolitan capital city and enjoy lively bars, world-class museums and incredible architecture.
  • Valparaiso: the colourful city of Valparaiso provides the Instagram backdrop of dreams, with vibrant street art decorating every quirky corner.
  • La Serena & Elqui Valley: explore this pretty colonial city with its grand churches and bustling marketplaces, before heading out to the beautiful wineries of Elqui Valley.
  • Head North towards the desert and take your pick of stunning beaches along the way across Norte Chico and Bahia Inglesa.
  • Atacama Desert: roam the other-worldly landscapes of the driest desert on earth.

backpacking south america - coloured houses

? Loïc Mermilliod

Bolivia – 2 weeks+

  • Uyuni: use this city as a base to explore the mesmerising salt flat of Salar De Uyuni and meet its flamingo inhabitants!
  • Sucre: Bolivia’s gorgeous capital city benefits from a wonderful climate year-round, and is often (unjustly) overlooked for the unofficial capital La Paz.
  • La Paz: at 3650 metres above sea level, La Paz will leave you gasping for breath in more ways than one. Don’t miss the exhilarating cycle down Bolivia’s Death Road!
  • Lake Titicaca: spend some time around the majestic lake before crossing into Peru.

backpacking south america - salt flat

? @kalissatravels 

Peru – 4 weeks +

  • Cusco: no trip to Peru would be complete without a visit to Machu Picchu. Take the tourist train or set aside enough money and time to complete the trek.
  • Nazca: marvel at the mysterious Nazca lines at the UNESCO world heritage site.
  • Pisco: get tipsy on Pisco sours, but not before you’ve encountered the wildlife of Paracas Nature Reserve.
  • Lima: eat your bodyweight in ceviche in Peru’s exciting capital.
  • Huaraz: explore the many hiking trails around the city, and don’t miss the icy azure waters of Laguna 69.

backpacking south america - peru - mountain - ruins

? @realengus

Ecuador – 5 weeks+

  • Vilcabamba: join plenty of other backpackers in chilling out for a few days in this quiet hippy town.
  • Cuenca: take things slow in this peaceful colonial city, enjoying its old monasteries and cobbled streets.
  • Banos: turn things up a notch with some hiking, horse riding and white water rafting!
  • Montanita: surf all day and dance all night in Ecuador’s premier party destination.
  • Quito: make time to get lost among the winding alleyways of the capital.
  • The Galapagos Islands: if your budget can stretch to it, you’ll find the magical Galapagos like nowhere else on earth.

backpacking south america - waterfall - ecuador

? @jennifermledbetter

Colombia – 4 weeks +

  • Bogota: take the cable car to the top of Monserrate and look down on the Colombian capital from the gates of a 3000m+ high church.
  • Salento: taste some of the world’s best coffee and explore the iconic Cocora Valley on horseback.
  • Medellin: the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ has Colombia’s craziest nightlife, best museums and sweetest cafes.
  • Cartagena: romance is in the air in this colourful, historic city on the scorching Caribbean coast!
  • Santa Marta: base yourself in any of the incredible hostels here before venturing to explore the backpacker hubs of Palomino and Minca.

backpacking south america - colombia - coloured houses

? @kwinterhof

Environmental explorers route – 2-3 months (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia)

Quito ? Latacunga ? Guayaquil ? The Galapagos Islands ? Guayaquil ? Iquitos ? Huaraz ? Cusco ? Titicaca ? Parcue Nacional Madidi ? La Paz ? Uyuni

This is the South American backpacking itinerary for eco-conscious travellers who love to come face to face with nature! The route starts in Ecuador, stopping in the capital before covering Latacunga’s ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ and the incredible biodiversity of the world-famous Galapagos islands.

It then crosses over to Peru with a flight into the jungle city of Iquitos, the best point from which to navigate the Amazon. Next it heads to the hiking paradise of Huaraz, where jaw-dropping trails wind through snowy peaks and sapphire blue lakes, before continuing to Cusco, home of the trek to end all treks: Machu Picchu. After completing, rest up on the sparkling shores of Lake Titicaca.

The route finishes in Bolivia, visiting the diverse animal life of Parque Nacional Madidi, cycling the Death Road from La Paz and encountering the salt flats and pink flamingos of Salar De Uyuni.

 

Picture-perfect Patagonia route – 4 weeks (Chile & Argentina)

Buenos Aires ? (flight) Ushuaia ? (flight) El Calafate?El Chalten ? Torres Del Paine National Park ? Puerto Natales ? Punto Arenas ? (flight) Santiago

Pack your cold weather gear for this Patagonian adventure! The route starts in Argentina’s colourful capital before heading down south to discover penguin colonies, the icy plains of the Tierra Del Fuego, the breathtaking Perito Moreno Glacier and the world’s most southernmost city, Ushuaia.

In Chilean Patagonia highlights include out-of-this-world ice caves and the iconic granite peaks of Torres Del Paine National Park, before finishing up in the lively city of Santiago. Grab an empanada and pull up a seat at the hostel bar – you’ve earned it!

 

Best of Brazil and Colombia route – 2-3 months  

Cartagena ? Santa Marta ?Minca ? Palomino ? Cartagena ?Medellin ?Guatape ? Salento ? Cali ? Bogota ? Sao Paulo ? Florianopolis ? Foz Do Iguacu ? Rio De Janeiro ? Salvador ? Manaus ? Sao Paulo

This route flies through the highlights of ginormous Brazil and current backpacker fave, Colombia. It starts along Colombia’s scorching hot Caribbean coast, before heading further south to dynamic cities, colourful colonial towns and coffee plantations.

Hop on a flight to Brazil for world-famous cities, white-sand beaches and legit wonders of the world, wrapping up your trip in Manaus, a city located deep within the Amazon!

 

South American food

South American cuisine rarely gets the applause it deserves, but foodies start licking those lips – there are all kinds of South American dishes that will leave you happily rubbing your belly.

Sit-down meals

In Argentina meat is the name of the game, and boy is it delicious. Order it smothered in Chimichurri Sauce and wash it down with a bottle of Malbec that would be triple the price back home. Argentina’s national dish is the asado – a platter of meat cooked on a parillo (grill) consisting of ribs, sweetbreads and a lot of sausages.

If red meat isn’t your thing and carbs are your mortal enemy, ceviche could be your new favourite dish. It’s fresh seafood ‘cooked’ by the acidity of its marinade of chilli and lime. Lima, Peru has the best ceviche in the world. For the freshest catch head to Playa Pescadores in the Chorrillos district.

backpacking south america - food

? @tkoutandabout

The more unusual

Up for trying something different? Cuy, or guinea pig, is an Andean delicacy particularly popular in Peru. Surprise, surprise – it tastes a bit like chicken! Llama and alpaca also feature regularly on menus…if you can get their adorable fluffy faces out of your head.

Snacks

Empanadas are South America’s (more delicious) version of the Cornish pasty. They are typically filled with minced meat, onions, potatoes and peas, but there are cheesy and veggie options available too. In Colombia they’re crispier and made from plantain. In Bolivia they’re named Salteñas and in Brazil, the pastel de quiejo is the closest equivalent. Eat yours with lashings of aji picante – a salsa made from onions, tomatoes and coriander. When in Colombia and Venezuela you can (and should) gobble down your own body weight in arepas – corn flat breads perfect for breakfast or a snack, served with cheese, eggs and lashings of guacamole. In Brazil, try Coxinhas – deep fried creamy balls of shredded chicken served with tomato salsa.

Sweet tooth

South American desserts tend to be deep fried and covered in sugar. Also, the only thing Argentinians (and Uruguayans) love with equal passion to meat and football is dulce de leche – a sweet milk treat they spread on their breakfast, cram between their biscuits (alfajores) and pipe into churros. They’re onto something – it’s delicious.

Healthy options

To counterbalance the beer, fill your boots with fresh fruit. While old favourites like watermelon, papaya, bananas and pineapple are everywhere, sample the locally-grown tropical fruits that don’t make it to UK supermarkets – lulo, maracuya, guanabana, gulupa and guavasteen (which tastes like an alcoholic apple pie) are just some of the tastiest.

Drinks

Don’t let the sickly colour put you off – Inca Cola is bubble-gum-flavoured and tasty. Caffeine lovers should fill their boots in Colombia – particularly around Salento and Minca, or with yerba maté tea in Argentina. Booze-wise – try fernet and coke in Argentina, terremotos in Chile, which are made from sweet wine and pineapple ice cream, caipirinhas in Brazil, Pisco sours in Peru and aguardiente in Colombia – which, at between 30-70% alcohol can really put hairs on your chest.

backpacking south america - drinks

? Hope Warren

South American culture and customs

South America is home to 385 million people, making for an incredibly diverse population. In addition to its indigenous peoples, many Latin Americans hail from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Africa, Syria, Lebanon, Japan – all over the shop really!

The main religion in South America is Catholicism, which harks back to the days of Spanish colonisation.

There’s no company South Americans enjoy more than that of their family, and they spend a lot of time together socialising, eating and dancing… which is also a huge part of South American culture.

 

Is South America safe?

While Venezuela isn’t looking rosy right now, South America is safer than its reputation depicts. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are considered very safe. Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia require more caution. Personal safety should always be top priority. Some regions and border crossings are riskier than others, and some bus routes should only be taken during the day. Do your research and ask for safety advice from hostel owners, locals and fellow backpackers.

General tips

There are a few simple things you can do to improve personal safety:

  • Don’t wander around late at night in unfamiliar neighbourhoods.
  • Drink with friends or in the safety of your hostel.
  • Take registered taxis from official ranks at stations or airports, or get your hostel to book one for you rather than hail one down. Use Uber or Lyft in the cities offering it. Never ride in a taxi with a passenger already in it.
  • Avoid wearing expensive jewellery or flaunting electronics.
  • Walk with purpose – even if you haven’t a clue where you’re going.
  • Carry only the required amount of cash in a money belt under your clothes.
  • Keep your credit cards separate.
  • Lock up your belongings in the locker provided by your hostel.
  • Pop a padlock on your backpack as an extra deterrent.
  • Never leave your bags unattended, particularly in bus stations.
  • When travelling on buses, keep all of your valuables in a money belt or in a bag held on your lap, rather than in the hold or overhead.

backpacking south america - chilling

?@conniponnyontour

Drugs

Drugs are illegal in South America. If you’re caught with anything you could risk jail. Avoid people offering to sell you drugs on the street. They could be trying to get you alone so they can strong arm you into emptying your bank account. If you’ve been enjoying the altitude alleviating effects of coca leaves or coca tea, don’t even think about trying to take them across international borders.

Natural hazards

South America is located on a fault line and has its fair share of active volcanoes. If a volcano is set to blow, there are warnings systems in place and you will receive fair warning. Earthquakes can occur – the most recent was in 2016 and registered 7.8 on the Richter Scale. Should you find yourself in an earthquake, shelter under a table or in a doorway rather than rushing outside.

Zika

Zika virus is a risk in all South American countries bar Chile and Uruguay. If contracted, Zika will make you feel under the weather, but it’s only something to be really concerned about if you’re planning to get pregnant.

South America travel advice

Vaccinations for South America should be sorted at least eight weeks prior to take off at your GP or a travel clinic. Some vaccinations, rabies for example, require three spaced-out doses. Recommended vaccinations for short term visitors are hepatitis A, typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria and polio. If you’re planning a long trip or are heading into rural areas, hepatitis B and rabies are recommended also. Yellow fever is required if you plan on travelling to jungle regions. Once administered, you will receive a certificate, which you may be asked to present at borders. Brazil is particularly strict on this.

You will be spending a lot of time at altitude, and there’s no predicting the effect this will have on your body. Any nausea or headaches usually level themselves out after a couple of days. Until you know how your body responds, schedule in days to acclimatise.

backpacking south america - flowers along street

? @sf_travels

So, are you ready to grab that backpack and head off around South America? Or have you still got any questions? Let us know in the comments below!

Keep reading ?

? The ultimate guide to backpacking Peru ?

? The ultimate guide to backpacking Colombia ?

? Backpacking South America with a disability ?

 

About the author

Amy Baker is the author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America, and founder of The Riff Raff, a writers’ community that supports aspiring writers and champions debut authors. You can follow Amy on Twitter here.

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