So you are getting ready to travel to South America too eh? Great call! Backpacking through South America is like riding a bike for the first time after the training wheels have been removed. There is just the right amount of danger and curveballs present to keep you alert, focused and totally stoked on life.
With the exception of a handful of backpacker hotspots, South America is the wild west frontier of backpacking on many levels. This is the land of crazy parties, epic surfing, sprawling cities, and wild landscapes including the Andes and the Amazon jungle.
Above all else South America is stunningly beautiful, challenging to navigate at times, budget backpacker-friendly, diverse, relatively safe, and overall one hell of a travel experience…
South America is MASSIVE. Deciding where to go and how to plan a backpacking trip can be a mind-boggling task. That is where I come in my friends. This South America travel guide will provide you with EVERYTHING you need to know to prepare for your trip backpacking through South America.
We’ll give you the low-down of where to go in South America, travel itineraries and backpacking routes, tips and tricks for South America budget travel, country profiles, and much more.
Lace up your bootstraps and prepare to have your travel inspiration sky rocket: This is the ultimate South America travel guide for 2020…
Why Go Backpacking in South America?
The South American continent is one of my favorite places on earth. As a younger man, my trip backpacking South America was my first major solo journey. In South America, I learned the art of budget travel, fell in love, and had a multitude of life-changing experiences along the way.
South America attracts an older, more experience, backpacker crowd than the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit, if you want to get off the beaten track whilst still having the option to meet plenty of other backpackers, South America is the place to level up your backpacking game and head on a real adventure…
South America is arguably one of the most diverse continents on earth. It is home to the world’s second-highest mountain range in the Andes, world-class surf beaches, the Amazon basin, the world’s driest desert, huge plains of lush grassland, glaciers, and unique wildlife not found anywhere else on earth.
Each country you visit whilst backpacking South America offers up the opportunity to experience the incredible natural and cultural forces unique to that region.
Backpacking South America is generally a cheap endeavor although it’s not as cheap as Southeast Asia or India. There are some fairly expensive corners of South America that you should avoid if you’re traveling on a broke backpacker budget. This South American travel guide will arm you with all of the important information you need to in order to have a truly awesome experience without breaking the bank.
You will fall in love with South America (and maybe a person or two along the way). Let’s dive in and take a look at a few South America travel itineraries and backpacking routes to get you pumped for your trip.
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Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking South America
Finding the best South America backpacking route for yourself depends on a number of things. How much time do you have? 2 weeks? 3 weeks? 1 month? 3 months? 6 months? An eternity?
How much money do you have to spend backpacking South America? Are you going to South America on a shoestring or do you identify more as a flashpacker?
What do you like to do whilst backpacking? Surfing? Trekking? Diving? Drinking? Once you begin to answer some of those questions, most importantly your timeframe, then you can choose a South America backpacking itinerary that will work for you.
In South America, travel distances can be huge, internal flights expensive, and sometimes you end up getting stuck in a place far longer than you have previously anticipated. South America is full of what I like to call backpacker fishing hooks. Meaning you get hooked and fall in love with a place and you end up staying there far longer than anticipated. They snag you when you’re least expecting it, and any travel plans you might have had for the future go sailing up the river without you.
Point being: you shouldn’t try to plan your trip from A-Z without room for being spontaneous. The spontaneous backpacker is a happy backpacker. That said, it is a good idea to have a general South America backpacking itinerary in mind, let’s look at some of my favourite travel itineraries for South America…
South America in 2 Weeks: A Taste of South America
If you have flown halfway across the world to go backpacking for two weeks in South America, then you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to get into before you arrive. If you have visions of seeing multiple countries in a two week period, you should forget about that. Maybe you could see a bit of Bolivia around Lake Titicaca whilst visiting Peru, though just a peek. My advice is to pick a country you are interested in and devote all of your energy to exploring that one place properly.
South America 2-Week Itinerary Ideas
Perhaps the most rewarding two-week journey would be to start in Lima, Peru. Explore the city for a day or two before heading to the Nazca Lines, Arequipa, and Colca Canyon. Then head to Cusco in the Andes. Take a few days getting used to the altitude before setting off on a multi-day trek like the Salkantay Trail to Macchu Picchu.
You’ll have to keep moving to make this itinerary happen, but I believe in you! If you really want time in the Andes you could head directly to Cuzco and explore the Sacred Valley by motorbike before hiking to Machu Picchu.
Alternatively, you could start in Buenos Aires before heading south to do some trekking in Patagonia in southern Argentina and Chile or do the world-famous Torres del Paine circuit. A trek there would be cutting it close for time though but if you hustle you could pull it off.
It is certainly doable to go to either Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, or Bolivia and get a good taste of the country in two weeks but with only two weeks (don’t miss the Salt Flats), I recommend sticking to the backpacker favourite introduction country of Peru.
For Colombia start your trip by staying in Cartagena, perhaps fresh off the boat from Panama? After a few days, head to Santa Marta, the jump-off point for Minca – a charming mountain town – and Tayrona National Park.
Get a bit off the beaten path, and head east to Cabo de la Vela (where the desert meets the sea) and Punta Galinas, where you can feast on fresh seafood amongst the Caribbean and sand dunes.
Doubling back to Cartagena, head to nearby Playa Blanca and Tolú (mangrove) before heading to Islas de San Bernardo (white-sanded islands).
South America in 3 Weeks: A Bit More to Explore
With three weeks you have more flexibility and can travel further distances. I still recommend sticking to one country but you could swing a second if you are efficient and plan logically. Having three weeks makes it entirely possible for you to explore a few cool cities, chill out in the mountains, and go for an extended trek, including travel time on either end of the hike. Also, you could experience the three climatical highlights of South America: the coast, the mountains, and the jungle.
Brazil is a good choice for a three-week itinerary as well since on account of its size you wouldn’t want to attempt the whole country anyway. Within this timeframe, I firmly believe you can see the highlights of one country without having to rush. Remember, you are on a backpacking trip, not an official deadline.
It is important not to try and cram in too much, whilst still making the most of your time backpacking South America. It is a sweet, sweet balance amigos!
South America 3-Week Itinerary Ideas
For three weeks in Ecuador, fly into Guayaquil. Grab a bed at one of our favorite hostels to rest up before heading to Montanita. In Montanita you can party and surf until your heart is content. Head North towards Bahia de Caraquez and Canoa for surf towns that are more off the beaten path.
Next head to the mountains stopping first in either Quito or Banos. There are some excellent treks to be had in the Ecuadorian Andes. If you have time, definitely hit up the Volcano Loop trail on the outskirts of Cotopaxi National Park. A trip to the jungle around Puyo is recommended as well.
Southeast Brazil is also doable in 3 weeks. One could conceivably travel from Rio de Janeiro all the way south to Florianopolis and hit up everything in between with plenty of time. Bear in mind that you’ll probably spend a good chunk of time in Rio as well as Floripa.
Highlights of this route include exploring the megapolis of Sao Paulo, idyllic getaways of Ilha Grande or Paraty, eco-friendly and laidback Curitiba, and the crazy nightclubs of Balneario Camboriu.
South America in 1 Month: A Proper Backpacking Trip
Depending on where you begin your journey, a month really gives you some time to work with. You can focus all of your energy on one country or you could split your time between several. For example, two weeks of surfing in Ecuador followed by two weeks of trekking and motorcycling in Venezuela or Colombia. Or alternatively, two weeks in Argentina followed by two weeks of hiking in Chilean Patagonia.
You can really explore a good chunk of Brazil in a month as well. Again it is all about your interests! If you are a dedicated surf bum, you could easily spend a month heading beach to beach from Southern Peru all the way to Colombia.
Something to keep in mind: If it were me, I would save the larger countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil for a trip when I had more time than a month (and a camper van!). I must emphasize that you can see a whole hell of a lot in one month, though you will spend much of that time riding buses instead of exploring. Whatever you choose, there are some epic South America backpacking routes you can blast through with 1 month to play with.
South America 1-Month Itinerary Ideas
With a month to spare the shorter itineraries listed above can be expanded upon in greater detail. Let’s take a look at a lesser-known 1-month itinerary…
Venezuela: After spending some (careful) days in Caracas, head to Merida. The student capital of Venezuela and a real party town, Merida is a great place to spend a few weeks if you have the time. It is extremely cheap here too!
No backpacking trip to Venezuela is complete without a trip to Los Llanos. Known as the Serengeti of South America; any wildlife lover will be in their element here. It takes pretty much a whole day to get to Los Llanos and most folks stay for two days.
One of the most incredible moments whilst backpacking Venezuela was getting to witness the Catatumbo lightning, also called the “Lighthouse of Maracaibo”. In the delta of Catatumbo River, for 140 – 160 days/nights a year there is a continuous powerful lightning storm but eerily no sound of thunder. Santa Elena is probably the most horrible town in all of Venezuela but nonetheless an important destination; this is the place to book treks to Roraima or the Gran Sabana or to cross into Brazil.
Last but not least Hike Mount Roraima. At 2,810 meters, climbing Mount Roraima (the highest tabletop mountain in the world) is an epic hike. Mount Roraima stands on the border of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil but to climb this tabletop, you have to be on the Venezuelan side.
South America in 3 Months: The Great South America Circuit
3 months backpacking South America eh? Hell yes. I recommend flying into Lima, Peru unless you know you want to start in the north (Venezuela, Brazil or Colombia) or further south (Argentina or Chile). Explore Lima and the coast before heading to the Andes. There Machu Picchu awaits in all of its glory.
Definitely, do a trek to the famous Inca city! (More on hiking in South America later in the post). From here, you can either drop down on the other side of the Andes and explore the Amazon basin or you can head south to Bolivia and eventually Argentina and Patagonia.
Alternatively, you can slowly start making your way north via the Coast. You could spend a month (or more) in Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, or Brazil respectively.
Personally, I started off in Buenos Aires, went all the way to the southern tip of Patagonia, and made my way north en route to Ecuador and Colombia from there. The distances were truly massive. I’m talking 30-hour bus rides (on comfortable buses I must say). Traveling in South America is never a quick affair, so plan your itinerary accordingly.
South America in 6 Months: The Whole Damn Thing! (Almost)
Life has brought you to the fortunate crossroads of having a six-month South American odyssey eh? Good on you! With six months you have the luxury of really being able to take your damn time. If you know you want to see multiple countries, it is an easy and practical choice to begin your journey either in the north or the south to avoid backtracking.
With a six month itinerary, you can certainly dedicate your backpacking faculties to exploring multiple countries in depth. I’ll be honest with you, the itinerary shown on the map above is really fucking ambitious. You might need more like nine months to complete the whole route though it depends on the kind of traveler you are. Hopefully, it gives you some ideas of where to start and what a potential trans-continental tour would look like.
Starting your journey in Venezuela or Rio de Janerio might be a bit of a rough landing, though you will be a primed bad-ass by the time it comes to move on to another country. Another option is to begin with Argentina and Chile in the south, go on a wine-tasting and trekking rampage for a month or two before forging north.
The distances in South America are lengthy though not so much so that you can’t move about with a degree of efficiency. You can easily be surfing it up on the coast of Ecuador one day, and be in the mountains of Peru several days (and many bus rides) later. I advise taking a chunk of your time to really explore and get off the beaten path destinations like Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia.
Having six months or more to go backpacking truly means you have a total blank slate to work with. So get ready to write your own beautiful backpacking destiny!
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Best Places to Visit in South America – Country Breakdowns
Each country in South America has something unique and profoundly exciting for backpackers. The common themes between countries are that they are Spanish speaking (Portuguese in Brazil), offer up stunning natural beauty, and some of the nicest people you will ever meet whilst traveling. Finding the best places to backpack in South America has a lot to do with your own interests.
Explore the epic snow-capped peaks of Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. Soak in the surf on the stunning beaches in Ecuador. Party with the beautiful people at the famous Carnival in Brazil. Trek to the Lost City in Colombia. Get off the beaten path in Venezuela. Experience the sun-drenched deserts of Bolivia and the colourful Rainbow Mountains of Peru. Backpacking through South America truly is a life-changing journey through one of the planet’s most fascinating landmasses.
Wherever your journey backpacking in South America takes you, you can be sure that it will be some of the most fun you will have in your life.
South America is a continent on the move. The number of people traveling to South America is increasing every year. Whilst the cost of living in South America remains quite low, each country requires a different budget for travelers.
Once you begin to discover a few of the South American countries for yourself, you can be sure that you will be entranced by the jaw-dropping landscapes, fascinating history, vibrant culture, and awesome food. Feeling excited yet? Good! Let us take a look at the countries that make backpacking in South America so damn special.
Brazil is hands downs one of South America’s most dynamic and backpack-worthy countries. Backpacking in Brazil offers up the chance to experience killer surf beaches, fun-loving locals, parties like you’ve never seen, as well as landscapes that would make even the most seasoned traveler say “damn, for real?”
Brazil is a country packed with exciting things to do around every corner. Attend the legendary Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Get your mind blown at Iguaçu Falls. Go to a football match. Visit the Amazon. Drink a Caipirinha on the beach! Explore Brazil’s up-and-coming big cities, like Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, and Natale.
Don’t be mistaken either: Brazil is absolutely massive and covers nearly half (47%) of South America’s land-mass! That should give you an idea of how big it is but, more importantly, a better idea of how many different places and things there are to do here.
In fact, there’s a lot going for Brazil that you may not be aware of.
For example, trekking probably isn’t the first thing that pops into one’s mind when they plan on backpacking through Brazil. It’s a shame because Brazil has some truly gorgeous trails spread throughout the country. The best hiking opportunities are usually found in the parques nacionais (national parks). Brazil has over 70 national parks and, in terms of beauty, these can contend with any other on the continent.
What to Know Before Visiting Brazil
- Don’t miss out on…Florianopolis. This ever Brazilians favorite place to visit. It’s chilled, safe, and gorgeous. Initially, people only stay for a week or so but often get stuck for months.
- You know what’s overrated…Jair Bolsonaro – who voted for this guy anyway?
- The coolest hostel is…O de Casa Hostel Bar (Sao Paulo) – Consistently voted as one of the best hostels in Brazil. Awesome services and an even better location on Vila Madalena.
- The best food is found in…Belo Horizonte. There is an amazing energy to this place; everyone hangs out on the streets, eating and drinking at plastic tables all night long.
Venezuela is a truly incredible country. With towering mountains, steaming forests, endless beaches, and just enough danger to keep you on your toes; this is a country that should be on every budding adventurer’s list. Backpacking Venezuela has a truly terrible reputation, perhaps unjustly so.
Don’t get me wrong, backpacking Venezuela can be dangerous. This is a country where you need to keep both eyes on your gear, watch who you’re with and be on the lookout for iffy situations before they get the chance to rear their ugly head. If you are careful and lucky, you should be able to travel to Venezuela without much risk. Saying that it really helps to have friends on the ground who can help you change money.
Backpacking in Venezuela is, in my opinion, one of the last great adventures out there and it’s probably the cheapest country to explore in the whole world.
Venezuela is a mysterious country, attracting adventurers looking for a raw adventure into its lands. It’s a country yet to be polluted by heavy tourism, incredible landscapes of mountains, forest, lakes, and caves; attracting adventurers and extreme sports lovers alike.
If you are looking to really, get into the wild and feel like the old explorers, then backpacking Venezuela will not disappoint you but I hasten to add; this is veteran explorer country, unless you are an experienced traveler, don’t start with Venezuela.
What to Know Before Visiting Venezuela
- Don’t miss out on…Mt. Roraima – the highest tabletop mountain in the world and an incredible place to explore. Sometimes you feel like you’re walking on an island in the sky.
- Keep an eye out for…the seasons when visiting Angel Falls. When it’s dry, the falls are actually quite weak (more like a trickle).
- The coolest hostel is…Posada Villa Del Sol (Margarita Island) – the view of the ocean from here is incredible!
- The best food is found in…the buffet places where you pay by the weight of your plate. A little goes a long way here.
Colombia is just one of those countries that has been stuck in our imaginations ever since we heard the name Pablo Escobar. Whilst it is true that the guy had a major impact on Colombia and the South American continent in general, his reign of terror is over. Modern-day Colombia couldn’t be more different from the days when narco-traffickers ruled the country.
We’re not going to lie, Colombia is a backpackers paradise. Whilst South America has many countries that I consider to have “the full package,” Colombia is the most complete.
You have epic surf, great parties, wild jungle, fun cities, and towering mountains all rolled into a relatively small country. Cali, Cartagena, Bogota, and Medellin are a few cities in Colombia where you can really let loose. Finally, you can learn how to dance salsa (you cant go backpacking Latin America and not try salsa) and meet some locals keen to tell you about life in Colombia.
Is Colombia safe? Perhaps your mum would love to know. Hell yes, it is! Times have changed and the reality is that since the fall of the countries major drug lords has greatly improved the security situation. For example, visiting Medellin now vs 20 years ago would be COMPLETELY different experiences. The Medellin of today is much more safe and secure.
If you love outdoor activities you can find them all and more here in Colombia. The northern terminus of the Andes Mountains ends in Colombia and there are plenty of remote treks in the jungle to undertake.
What to Know Before Visiting Colombia
- Don’t miss out on…Carnival in Barranquilla. Most of the time, this industrial town is overlooked by travelers. But for one week of the year, this place goes NUTS.
- Keep an eye out for…how difficult the trek to Cuidad Perdida is. It’s long, treacherous, and hot as shit, but absolutely worth the effort in the end. The Lost City is a brilliant place.
- The coolest hostel is…Finca Carpe Diem (Minca) – A digital nomad oasis in the middle of the jungle.
- The best food is found in…the local urban lunch stalls, which offer the best bang-for-your-buck. Head to ones that serve glorious arepas.
Ecuador might be small but it certainly isn’t lacking in diversity or awesome things to do. I spent nearly three months backpacking in Ecuador and absolutely loved it. If you are traveling south from Colombia then a trip to the Andes in Ecuador might be your first encounter with Andean Highland culture.
The people who live in the Andes have a distinct and ancient culture rooted in mountain life. They even speak another language called Quechua. In addition to spending time in colonial cities like Quito, Ecuador’s natural landscape are the biggest draw. In addition to volcanoes, waterfalls, and massive snow-capped mountains, and the related trekking opportunities, Ecuador has a stunning coastline.
Surfing reigns supreme on the Ecuadorian coast, and if you are a beginner it is a great place to learn how to surf. Towns like Montañita and Canoa are famous surf beaches and party hotspots.
You can spend weeks or months exploring the coast before heading to the mountains and vice versa. If you have some extra cash in your budget, you can head to The Galápagos Islands for some diving. This is not a cheap endeavor so prepare yourself to shell out some cash! If you’re looking for the best Galapagos tour, check our guide here.
Then there is the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. The Amazon region is what helps make Ecuador one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. The Amazon is best explored by boat and with a local guide and is bound to be the adventure of a lifetime!
What to Know Before Visiting Ecuador
- Don’t miss out on…Exploring the highlands and Cotopaxi National Park. Easily accessed from Quito and totally epic.
- Keep an eye out for…Montanita. It’s not all it use to be and is mostly catered to foreigners who want to get wasted and high. If you want real Ecuadorian culture, there are better places nearby.
- The coolest hostel is…Rio Muchado – this is pretty far off the beaten path but worth the journey. Relaxed, peaceful, and an amazing organic cafe. A restful spot away from the party!
- The best food is found in…the small almuerzo cafes found across the country. These are popular at lunchtime.
Ah Peru. Backpacking Peru is the essence of traveling in South America. Though tourism has spiked in Peru in recent years, there is still plenty of magic to be found here. The cost of travel in Peru is a little higher than you might expect. Expect to pay between $30-40 USD a day whilst traveling here. (More about South American backpacking costs later in the post.)
Peru has a super long coastline dotted with prime surf beaches and scuba diving sites. In the Andes lies a whole other form of beauty. Perhaps all you have previously heard of Peru is about Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. There is much much more to the Peruvian Andes than Machu Picchu, however, you should still absolutely go there!
Peru has some truly fascinating colonial cities as well including Cuenca and Cuzco, which is the gateway city to Machu Picchu. The off the beaten path potential in Peru is enormous. Check out the Rainbow Mountains for a look at nature at its most colorful. Hike the majestic Cordillera Huayhuash. Explore Colca Canyon and sleep out under the stars. If you want a truly magical experience, there are many eco-lodges in Peru that are nestled in the best nature spots, from the Amazon jungle to the Andes mountain range.
Wherever you decide to travel in Peru, be sure that it will be a highlight of your South America backpacking adventure.
What to Know Before Visiting Peru
- Don’t miss out on…a motorcycle journey through the Sacred Valley outside Cuzco. Definitely worth the extra time spent in the city.
- You know what’s overrated…the Inca Trail. Go for the less-trod Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu instead.
- The coolest hostel is…Banana’s Adventure (Huacachina). Full disclosure: Peruvian hostels tend to be party hostels. If that’s what you’re looking for, this one may be the best of them all.
- The best food is found in…Lima. This city is full of cafes, local lunch spots, and street food vendors. The best are in Barranco and Miraflores. Get the ceviche!
Backpacking in Bolivia offers up a glimpse of what much of South America was like 30 years ago. Bolivia appears to be a country looking to the future in many ways whilst still having one foot firmly rooted in the tradition of the past. Expect super friendly locals, dramatic desert and mountain landscapes, and low prices. In fact, Bolivia might just be the cheapest country in South America for backpackers except of course for Venezuela.
One could easily get by on $20-25 a day here and even less if you are roughing it a bit. Bolivia is home to plenty of adrenaline-pumping activities including the Road of Death, which in essence is a road down through the mountains in which people ride bicycles to the bottom at top speed.
Aside from the high-risk adventure activities, Bolivia is safe for the most part as well.
The ride goes on for at least 30 kilometers and it is straight down and thus aptly named. World-class trekking is abundant in the Bolivian Andes if you love to hike. Bring along a good sleeping bag as temperatures can plummet at night.
La Paz is a cool city to base yourself in. Lake Titicaca is breathtaking, however, it has become far too touristy, which is a shame. I don’t blame the locals as they need to make a living too, just the way it has been done is unfortunate. The Salt Flats are also cool AF. I believe it is still worth a visit, though don’t expect a super authentic experience there.
What to Know Before Visiting Bolivia
- Don’t miss out on…the Salar de Uyuni. Yes, everyone who comes to Bolivia does this and, yes, it’s touristy. Regardless, it’s still in-fuckin-credible.
- Keep an eye out for…the altitude. Some people fly directly to La Paz from sea level and get sick almost immediately. At 3640 meters, La Paz is the highest major city in the world.
- The coolest hostel is…Greenhouse Bolivia (La Paz). This is a more laidback lodge, whereas most of the hostels in La Paz are for partiers.
- The best food is found in…La Paz. This is the epicenter of Bolivia’s newly emerging food culture.
Backpacking Chile is all about the extremes. From trekking through gorgeous glacial national parks in the south to explore the martian bone-dry Atacama desert in the north, it is one fantastic country to travel. There are 36 National Parks in Chile, all of them beautiful and unique in their own way. Chile is also home to Easter Island, one of the most mysterious places on the planet.
Like Argentina, Chilean Patagonia is fucking paradise for trekker and adventure types. It does take some effort to reach the places you will want to go trekking it. That said the journey will be well worth it. Experiencing some of the planets last truly wild places is an indescribable feeling that one can feel only by getting out and doing it.
Most backpackers will start their backpacking journey in Santiago unless one is coming to Chile from one of its borders in the South (as I did).
Oh yeah one more thing: Chilean wine is cheap and it is damn good.
What to Know Before Visiting Chile
- Don’t miss out on…Patagonia, and not just the usual spots. Chilean Patagonia is vastly unexplored, especially the fjords. Keep an eye out for whales, dolphins, penguins, and elephant seals.
- Keep an eye out for…fire bans in Torres del Paine. A lot of nature has been threatened because some irresponsible backpackers decided to use a gas burner, despite warnings.
- The coolest hostel is…Last Hope Puerto Natales – a very nice hostel that helps organize trips to Torres del Paine. Pets welcome!
- The best food is found in…Santiago. Staying here will unlock the most culinary options, including the cheap street food stalls.
Backpacking through Argentina will be one for the ages. Welcome to the land of wine, barbeque, cowboys, tango dancing, and South America’s final frontier: Patagonia.
Argentina is a big country with lots to see and do in each of its regions. Buenos Aires is arguably the cultural capital of all of South America. You can find great restaurants, interesting museums, tango shows, crazy hostels, and all-night parties and concerts.
Further south lies Patagonia: one of my favorite places on earth. Patagonia is a truly expansive, desolate wilderness area where the weather is harsh and civilization is far a few between. If you are trekking in the mountains or sea kayaking around a glacier, you could go days without seeing many (if any) backpackers.
Staying at an Argentine mountain hut (refugios) is a wonderful experience not to be missed. Few who travel to Argentina manage to make it as far as Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire). Visit one of the most dramatic places in Argentina with its long summer days and epic arctic landscapes.
Speaking of the arctic, you can arrange trips to Antarctica from Ushuaia! This would be the adventure of a lifetime but are no means cheap.
What to Know Before Visiting Argentina
- Don’t miss out on…El Chalten, which the base for seeing some of the most dramatic peaks on Earth: Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy.
- You know what’s overrated…La Boca in Buenos Aires. These much-hyped multi-colored houses are pretty rundown. The whole area feels like a tourist trap. Skip it during your time in Buenos Aries.
- The coolest hostel is…America del Sur Hostel (El Calafate) – Super chic hostel with great views and amazingly rustic architecture. Heated floors!
- The best food is found in…your neighbor’s personal asado. Nothing beats barbecuing grade-A Argentinian beef with some locals.
Not many travelers end up backpacking in Uruguay. There are a couple of reasons why:
- It’s small
- It’s out of the way
- There’s not a ton to do here
All of the above are true to some extent. Uruguay is not overflowing with adventurous activities or jawdropping sights nor is really on the way to anything else. It’s convient if you’re traveling from Buenos Aires to Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil, but not many travelers choose to do this.
But that’s kind of the great thing about Uruguay: you don’t HAVE to do anything here. Uruguay is a great place to get away from the usual South American backpacker route and to just chill out.
For one thing, there are a couple of nice beach towns worth crashing at. Punta del Diablo is the quintessential lazy surfer town. Punta del Este can be fun in the summer if you like partying with a bunch of rich Argentinians. Colonia del Sacramento is an old colonial outpost and UNESCO heritage although it is admittedly more of a day trip rather than a base.
Oh, and there’s also legalized weed. Yes, Uruguay is famous for allowing the smoking of the devil’s herb. The bud is a bit rough around the edges to smoke but still gets you high. Lots of locals keep a weed garden on their balconies; perhaps your accommodation in Montevideo will have one too?
Head to Uruguay if you want to chill out and do your own thing. Head north to Brazil when you’re done to check out the epic Aparados da Serra.
What to Know Before Visiting Uruguay
- Don’t miss out on…Punta del Diablo. This is laid-back surfer town evades most backpackers. It is arguably one of the best beach towns in South America.
- You know what’s overrated…Punta del Este. This place literally exists for the sake of Argentinians on holiday. In the off-season, it’s empty.
- The coolest hostel is…Buenas Vibras (Montevideo) – Good vibes, good people, good facilities, good location; enough said.
- The best food is found in…Montevideo. Can’t beat a giant chivito after you’ve got the munchies!
Off the Beaten Path Adventures in South America
South America is totally full of wild places, tiny villages, far-flung settlements, lonesome valleys, sparsely inhabited jungle etc… Point being, there are many places to go where other travelers do not. With a little motivation, you may well find yourself cutting your own path and writing your own backpacking destiny one off the beaten path adventure at a time.
Explore South America’s national park systems as much as you can. Investigate the little interesting looking food stalls where all the locals are queuing up. Don’t rely on a guidebook for every decision about where to go and what to do. In South America, all the makings of an epic adventure are there for taking. All you have to do is go and get it.
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Top Things To Do in South America
1. Explore Patagonia
Despite its increased popularity in recent years, Patagonia is still one the last untouched wildernesses on the planet. In addition to the usual superlative locations, like Cerro Torre and Torres del Paine, there’s heaps to discover off-trail.
2. Attend Carnival
It’s the biggest party on the planet! Grab yo’ body paint, yo’ finest feathers, whatever else you can get your hands on and join the festivities! The carnivals in Bahia, Rio, and Barranquilla are particularly good.
3. Explore the salts flats of Uyuni
It’s one of the most unique places on planet and a highlight of any backpacking trip in South America. Get ready to be wowed by endless, white salt flats, multicolored lakes, and alien rock formations.
4. Go in search of hidden beaches
It wouldn’t be a proper South American itinerary without some beach time! Every kind of beach imaginable is found on the continent. From tropical slices in Brazil to surfer’s paradises in Ecuador to even fjords in Chile, you won’t be lacking in choices.
5. Check out Medellin
Medellin is one of the most popular cities to visit in South America right now. It’s fun, safe, comfortable, and, most impressive, completely different than it was before. Medellin has shed its violent past is ready to host the next wave of backpackers.
6. Visit Machu Picchu
It is arguably the poster child of the entire continent, the place that attracts most people to visit South America. It’s touristy, yes, but totally worth seeing still. If you want to visit Machu Picchu in an alternative way, skip the Inca Trail and do the Salkantay Trek instead.
7. Hike in the Andes
The Andes are one of the greatest mountain chains in the world, known mostly for hosting the aforementioned Machu Picchu and the gargantuan Aconcagua. But there is more to these mountains than just these places: the highlands of Ecuador, Cordillera Huayhush in Peru, the Cordillera Real in Bolivia are all stunning. Even Colombia gets a slice of the pie at Cocuy National Park.
8. Get “stuck” somewhere
South America is full of what we call “honey pots”: places where you get stuck in for months on end. Florianopolis, La Paz, Medellin, Mancora…all of these locations start off as a stop on an itinerary, but eventually turn into resting places. Don’t fight it! Find your honey pot and stay a while.
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Backpacker Accommodation in South America
South America has a wide range of budget accommodation options for backpackers. When you are not passing the night from the comfort of your tent in the Andes or Couchsurfing, you’ll need to book a hostel.
Whether you just need a place to lay your head or a spot to meet fellow backpackers like yourself, hostels are clearly where it’s at…
In fact, we at the Broke Backpacker love South American hostels so much we have created a whole series of guides breaking down the best hostels to be found in cities across South America. They make it very easy to pick the right hostel for yourself in any given place!
Check out these super-detailed South American hostel guides by city:
South America Backpacking Costs
It is the common belief that backpacking in South America is dirt cheap. Whilst this is true for some things, South America is NOT as cheap as backpacking in India or Southeast Asia. That said, it is easy to travel South America on a budget.
Due to the nature of Patagonia being one of the remote regions on earth, expect to pay double if not more what you would throughout the rest of South America. Brazil is notorious as well for jacking up accommodation prices during the high season. As a country dealing with a major tourism influx, Peru also takes some navigating in order to travel as cheap as possible.
With a few travel hacks up your sleeve, you will save a ton of money and have the time of your life. Be sure to up your haggle game whilst backpacking through Latin America to ensure you get the best possible price for things, including accommodation.
Staying in hostels every single night, buying beer and drugs, taking long-distance buses, paying entrance fees to National Parks… these things add up fast. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and will have to shell out the dough in order to do the things you want. Remember to always leave a little extra wiggle room in your budget so you can go scuba diving or go on a trek that you have been dreaming about!
Daily Budgets for South America
Here is a breakdown of what you can expect to pay on a daily basis whilst backpacking South America…
|Country||Dorm Bed||Local Meal||Bus Ride (Depending on Distance)||Average Daily Cost|
|Argentina||$10-15||$5-10||$20-50+||$40 – $70+|
|Bolivia||$7-10||$2-5||$2-5||$20 – $40|
|Chile||$12-15||$4-9||$10-40+||$35 – $65+|
|Colombia||$8-10||$1-12||$5-30||$35 – $60|
|Ecuador||$8-10||$2-5||$2-8||$25 – $50|
|Peru||$8-15||$2-8||$5-45||$30 – $60|
Top Tips for Broke Backpackers in South America
- Camp: With plenty of untouched beaches, forests, stunning countryside, and far-flung jungle, South America can be a great place to pitch a tent for the night. Camping saves you money and can help you get off of the beaten path. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking.
- If you’re feeling really adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock. South America has plenty of palm trees and hammock ready beaches. A hammock is perfect for those kinds of dreamy beach scenes. If you want to bring a hammock on your adventure, this beauty is your best bet and 10% of all sales go towards the elephant conservation center in Laos.
- Cook your own food: Travel with a portable backpacking stove and cook your own food to save some serious cash whilst backpacking across South America. If you plan to do some overnight hiking trips or camping on the beach, having a backpacking stove will be a great asset.
- Haggle: Haggle as much as you can. You can always get a better price for things especially while in local markets.
- Couchsurf: South American locals are awesome. Get to know some! Check out Couchsurfing to make some real friendships and see a country from the perspective of locals. When using Couchsurfing, be sure to send personalized messages to your potential host. A generic copy and paste message are much more likely to get turned down. Make yourself stand out.
- To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.
- Pack a travel water bottle and save money every day!
Why Should You Travel to South America with a Water Bottle?
Plastic washes up on even the most pristine beaches… so do your part and keep the Big Blue beautiful!
You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you might as well be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the world’s most remote places, you come to realise the full extent of the plastic problem. And I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveller.
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Best Time to Visit South America
You know by now that we are talking about an enormous amount of land with regards to the South American continent. Countries near the equator do not experience distinct seasons. As you start to get further south you will find the seasons to be the opposite of what they are in the Northern Hemisphere ie winter in June.
Patagonia experiences bitterly cold and windy winters. I do not advise travel there during the winter unless you are a serious mountaineer and have all the right gear.
Dry season depends on the country. Generally the cooler months from June- September is the driest in the coastal areas. In the Amazon, given that it is the world’s biggest rainforest is wet pretty much all year. The Andes are the driest from April- November.
High season for all countries is without a doubt from December-February. This is due to many holidays occurring over that time, and it is also the time when many gringos and locals alike take their holidays. Backpacking in the low or shoulder seasons will definitely make for a cheaper trip, especially with regards to accommodation.
Best Time to Visit – Country Breakdown
Best Months to Travel: September-April
What’s the climate in Brazil like?
In the south, the hot, wet summer season runs from November-March. In the north, the rainy season is from April-August. In the Amazon, it rains pretty much all year.
Weather-wise, it’s six one way, half-a-dozen the other.
If you want to visit during the festival season though, September-March is best.
Best Months to Travel: December-March
What’s the climate in Venezuela like?
Venezuela is wet just about all the time. There is a pronounced rainy season from May to December when the rain is particularly strong. The dry season (January-April) is a bit more convenient but sights like Angels Falls will be less impressive.
Best Months to Travel: November-March
What’s the climate in Colombia like?
Generally speaking, travelers should visit Cartagena and the Caribbean coast between November and March when the weather is dry. The rest of the country is good year-round. Bogota, Cali, and Medellin are always pleasant weather-wise.
Best Months to Travel: March-May, September-November
What’s the climate in Ecuador and Peru like?
Lots and lots of microclimates between the two but there are some general trends:
- The highlands/Andes are dry from May-September. These are the best months for hiking and visiting Machu Picchu.
- The coast is warm and dry from December-May. This is the best time for the Galapagos.
- The Amazon is always wet.
- The south of Peru is much drier than the north, and Ecuador for that matter.
You’ll need to plan your trip carefully around what you want to see and do.
Best Months to Travel: May-October
What’s the climate in Bolivia like?
Bolivia’s winter season (May-October) is also its dry season. This means that nights can be very cold, especially when you’re at higher altitudes. Although Bolivia generally drier than its neighbors, it stills gets dumped on in the wet, summer season.
Best Months to Travel: March-April, October-November
What’s the climate in Chile like?
Summers in Chile are generally the high season. That being said, this may not be the best time to visit. Prices are at their highest, the Atacama Desert is a furnace, and the winds are VERY strong in Patagonia. The shoulder months (October-November & March-April) are better.
Best Months to Travel: October-April.
What’s the climate in Argentina and Uruguay like?
Summer for most of the country is from December-February. In the south and Patagonia, summers are dry(ish). In the north, summers are wet, albeit not tropical. A good rule of thumb is that once you reach Mendoza, the climate flips.
Festivals in South America
South America is famous worldwide for being party central. In addition to some great music festivals, South America is home to many important cultural and religious events as well. Try to catch a few during your travels!
- Cosquín Folk Festival, Argentina (January) – Argentina’s largest celebration of traditional and folk music. Takes place in the village of Cosquín near to Córdoba.
- Carnaval, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador (February/March) – The best party on the planet! Everyone is having as much fun as possible before abstaining for Lent. Rio, Salvador, and Recife host the most famous parties.The Carnival celebration in Brazil is without a doubt the wildest.
- Inti Raymi, Peru (June) – Inti Raymi, the ancient Inca Festival of the Sun, is one of the most traditional Peruvian festivals.
- Festival de las Flores, Colombia (August) – The festival takes places in Medellin, Antioquía. This festival happens every year during the first two weeks of August and lasts around 10 days. If you love having your mind blown by botanical wonders, this fest is for you.
- Rock al Parque, Colombia (August) – A firm fixture on the Bogota live music calendar, Rock al Parque is an annual festival dedicated to – you guessed it – rock music, which has taken place in Simon Bolivar Park every year since 1995.
- Mistura Culinary Festival, Peru (September) – If you like Peruvian good, street meats, and food carts, this Lima festival is for you.
- Rock in Rio, Brazil (September) – The biggest music festival in South America. Every single genre represented.
- Oktoberfest, Argentina (October) – Argentina’s own version of the great German beer festival. Takes place in Villa General Belgrano outside of Córdoba.
What to Pack for South America
Traveling through South America is a lot easier if you have the right gear. On every adventure, there are six things I never go traveling without:
Somewhere to hide your cash
Somewhere to hide your cash
Active Roots Money Belt
This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.
A travel water bottle
A travel water bottle
GRAYL Geopress Filtered Bottle
Having a filtered water bottle means you can drink from just about any source. The GRAYL Geopress is hands-down the most effective one we’ve ever used as well!
For those unexpected messes
For those unexpected messes
Active Roots Microfiber Towel
Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
When the power goes out
When the power goes out
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.
Active Roots Camping Hammock
Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks), and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere.
To stay a clean backpacker
To stay a clean backpacker
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. Well worth having as it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full South American packing list.
Staying Safe in South America
In general South America is a very safe place to go backpacking. I say that even though I was robbed at gunpoint in Ecuador. I stand by it. Robberies are rare and could happen to anyone in any country. Sometimes people in desperate circumstances are forced to do bad things. They see a foreigner and they see a chance to score some quick cash that can temporarily relieve the stress of their situation. I accept that.
South America is currently much safer for foreigners than it has been in recent decades although political wobbles never seem too far away. Due to the political situation in Venezuela right now, I would take extra care of my things and myself whilst backpacking there. It is still very likely that you could go there and experience nothing but a smooth trip, however, the situation is what it is and it is the most dangerous country in Latin America by far.
Yes, South America can be dangerous, but it’s nowhere near as bad as how the media portrays it. In recent years we’ve seen a big increase in the level of security & falling crime rates. To stay safe, every backpacker should follow the common-sense rules of backpacking.
In general being out late, drunk, and alone is a recipe for trouble anywhere in the world. There have been reports of backpackers getting held up on remote sections of a beach or late at night in big cities. Odds are you should be just fine. If ever you run into a hold-up situation give them what they want and don’t resist. Your iPhone and wallet are never worth dying over, ever!
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road. Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when traveling.
Be sure to check out our South American safety guides!
Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll in South America
South America loves to party! Whether you stick to the backpacker bars and decide to join a local block party, you will get fucked up more than a few times while backpacking around South America, guarunteed.
Of course, Carnival aka “the biggest party on the planet” is a big deal in most South American countries. Brazil is very famous for it’s Carnival but Colombia, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela throw great parties too.
The backpacker circuit is notoriously rowdy. Traveler hubs like Cusco, Buenos Aires, Montanita, Mancora, La Paz, and Medellin are legendary for their nightlife. It is very easy to meet people in these places and to stay up all night.
Also easy is finding cocaine. It’s available just about everywhere on the continent and is particularly accessible in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. All you need to do is ask a local, probably someone who works at the hostel, to help you organize some. As is usually the case when doing drugs on the road safely, don’t go out alone looking to score in strange places.
Possession of cocaine is actually LEGAL in some countries. Granted, just don’t go around carrying narco-levels of the stuff. Don’t give the cops a reason to shake you down.
Also, don’t do too much South American coke at once. This isn’t the stuff you find back home – it’s much purer. One line will be enough to keep you up all night long.
Ayahuasca is gaining popularity as well. People travel to Peru to take the herb and undergo a shamanistic experience, complete with vivid hallucinations and purging i.e. yacking your guts up. Many claim it’s purifying and helps with mental trauma. That’s all well and good, but just make sure you do Ayahuasca with someone you trust!
Staying Healthy in South America
Travelers will need to be properly vaccinated before backpacking in South America.
You should have all the usual travel vaccinations before heading out; this includes hepatitis A & B, typhoid, tetanus, etc. Rabies is also recommended particularly if you’re going to the rural areas or parts of the jungle. You don’t want to mess around with that one because it can be really nasty.
A couple of years ago, Zika was a big issue and caused a lot of people to cancel their plans. It’s not so common these days and there aren’t a lot of reports about outbreaks. Still, it’s not completely gone so check up on the situation, just in case.
Yellow fever used to be a required vaccination for entering some South American countries, particularly Brazil, though it’s not anymore. Regardless, you still consider getting one. Consult a medical professional before traveling to South America about which shots you should get. That goes for everything in addition to yellow fever.
It’s also definitely worth noting that in most places in South America, the water isn’t fit for Western constitutions. Don’t be a giardia-ridden joker, and don’t be a plastic-using ponce. Be a savvy backpacker and pick yourself up a filtered water bottle!
Travel Insurance for South America
Traveling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional, and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.
It’s good to get lost sometimes, but it’s also good not to get too lost. There are people that want you home in one piece.
There’s one travel insurance provider The Broke Backpacker trusts for all his wildest shenanigans… World Nomads!
Click the button below to get a quote on your insurance or read our in-depth review of World Nomads’ coverage. And then… let the shenanigans begin. 😉
Getting Into South America
Where you will start your trip will be determined by what backpacking route you have chosen. Obviously, if you plan to tackle a specific country, starting in the capital city of that country is the logical option.
I have noticed that in recent years it keeps getting cheaper to fly into South America, and it remains expensive to fly within it. Unless you are coming by boat to Colombia Via the San Blas Islands, then you will certainly be arriving by plane.
Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro are all major hubs for South America. Compare the prices between these destinations, and based on your South America travel itinerary you can go from there.
Entry Requirements for South America
Good news everyone! Most South American nations DO NOT require a visa to visit! This applies to those traveling from the USA, UK, EU, Australia, and most other Western nations.
This is a positive trend in the last few years. 5-6 years ago, Americans and English travelers sometimes had to apply for (expensive) visas beforehand to enter countries like Argentina and Brazil. Luckily, this no longer the case.
Once they’ve entered the country, most travelers can remain for a period of 90 days visa-free. Extensions are possible but these vary on a country-by-country basis. Most South American governments do not take kindly to people who overstay.
Venezuela is the exception. Whilst more and more countries are able to travel here visa-free, it’s not as open as the rest of the continent. Americans will need to apply for a visa beforehand.
Of course, travelers should ALWAYS double check visa policies on their own before traveling.
Traveling to South American During COVID Times
South America was hit pretty hard in the spring following the COVID-19 pandemic. Practically the entire continent locked down as a result.
Slowly but surely South America is opening again tourism. It’s not at all ready to being completely open, and many countries are either restricting tourism or banning it altogether, but there’s hope.
At the time of writing this (end of November 2020), Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are all possible to enter. Note that there may be different curfews and restrictions in place for each of these countries. Most of these countries only allow entry via air travel; most land borders are still closed.
Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay are still in partial lockdown. They are expected to open soon though.
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Getting Around South America
City Bus. Local Bus. Long-distance bus. Sleeper bus. Buses! That’s right. Buses are the most economical way of getting around South America with ease. Every major capital has buses going to the far reaches of the country. Local buses are typically super cheap.
Taxis are an option within cities though often they are unnecessary. If you do opt for a taxi ride, always make sure to set the price beforehand and haggle the shit out of the driver without going over the line of being rude.
As I mentioned before, internal flights within South America can be really expensive. I would avoid taking a flight that is not your flight home at all costs. As a general rule when backpacking cheap travel is slow travel. Buses can be slow but as you will be taking many if you are backpacking South America long term, you want to go for the cheapest option.
If you want to go full Che Guevara style you can obtain a motorbike pretty easily (and cheaply) in most places in South America. I recommend that you at least have some experience driving motorbikes before you even think about sauntering into a South American capital city or down a winding road in the Andes. If you do go the motorcycle route you can be sure that it will be the fucking ride of your life and upon completion, you will have officially obtained the life-long title of backpacking badass.
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Hitchhiking in South America
Hitchhiking is always an option. Your hitchhiking success will greatly depend on the area and the country. I would never try to hitchhike within a major city or at night.
For example, hitchhiking in Colombia isn’t that common, mainly due to paranoia about the security situation in the country. Not everyone here is a drug lord that wants to kidnap you for ransom money. You can hitchhike throughout Colombia; it’s such an awesome experience!
Rural areas of South America are especially impacted by high rates of poverty. Expecting free rides from folks with limited means might not make you feel so good. That said, even if you offer the driver a few bucks, it could very well end up being cheaper (and more rewarding) than taking the bus.
I would never assume that the ride is free initially. Always ask to avoid having an awkward scenario in which the driver who picked you up is demanding an unexpected fee.
Onwards Travel From South America
Your only options for leaving the continent are by boat or by plane. Most likely you will fly out of the country where you are finishing your trip if it makes sense and is the cheapest option. Try to book your flights in advance in order to get the best deal.
It is technically possible to cross the Darien Gap to Panama overland. Rumour has it that you can hire a guide for quite a bit of money and cross the Darien on foot. In the past, this was impossible though due to narco-terrorist/ guerrilla activity. At the time of writing FARC is active in Colombia and the Darien Gap still presents many dangers to travelers.
May the Gods of Backpacking be with you if you attempt the journey on your own without a guide.
Working in South America
South America hasn’t become a digital nomad hub, at least not yet. Despite having a generally low cost of living, relatively reliable internet (in the cities), and tons of expat communities, no one place has really erupted onto the digital nomad scene.
If and when South American becomes a digital nomad haven, Medellin may be the first in line. This city is growing at a RAPID pace, is safe, and is becoming the apple in every backpacker’s eye. Lots of people want to stay here for an extended period of time, digital nomads included.
Close behind are larger South American cities like Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, and Quito. Being big cities though, you’ll have to overcome higher prices and crime (the latter can be bad at times). Buenos Aires is safer compared to anything in Brazil though.
Note that, at the moment, most South American countries do not offer a special digital nomad visa.
Teaching English in South America
Most people who end up living or staying long term in South American do one of two things: teach English or volunteer.
Teaching English in South America is very popular. Some people make a living out of just going from one city to the next city and hitting up all the English schools in between. Some are accredited though many find success using their own merits.
If you have a TEFL license it will be much easier to score teaching gigs in South America. We suggest getting yours with MyTEFL – Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses when they enter the code BACKPKR at checkout.
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Volunteer in South America
Volunteering overseas is a great way to experience a culture whilst doing some good in the world. There are lots of different volunteer projects in South America which you can join ranging from teaching, to animal care, to agriculture to pretty much anything!
There are absolutely bloody loads of volunteering gigs in South America ranging from digging in the Amazon to teaching in the barrios of Buenos Aires. Arguably, you may need a permit in order to volunteer but in reality, the entire continent is pretty chilled and this is unlikely to ever be enforced.
I spent several months volunteering for the Planet Drum Foundation in Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador—and it was an amazing experience. I met some fantastic locals as well as other travelers. Volunteering is a great way to build community and make an impact in a place where you have just arrived.
Want to find some awesome volunteering opportunities in South America? Then signup for Worldpackers, a platform that connects local hosts with volunteer travelers. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll also get a special discount of $10. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $39.
Programs run through reputable work exchange programs, like Worldpackers, are generally very well-managed and highly reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering do stay vigilant especially when working with animals or children.
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
What to Eat in South America
Food in South America runs the gamut from just meh to fantastically delicious. The cuisine is incredibly diverse and, as is always the case, what you eat depends on where you are.
Andean countries like Peru and Bolivia have chronically underrated food scenes. In fact, Peruvian food is often regarded as some of the best in the world. A sizable portion of the world’s Michelin-star restaurants is Peruvian, which says something. Lima, often labeled as dull by backpackers, could actually be the next great foodie city.
Southerners i.e Argentinians, Urguains, and Southern Brazilians LOVE meat. They’ll grill just about everything they can get their hands and barbecues can become pretty epic. The Argentinian way of barbecuing, called asado, is a bit different from traditional grilling but is freakin’ fantastic.
If you should make it to the Amazon, you will then be treated to a whole different gastronomic world. There are ingredients that come from the Amazon that no one has seen outside the region. Expect lots of freshwater fish, fruits, and strange vegetables.
Finally, the food of Colombia and Venezuela is just ok. Much like the Caribbean and Central America, there is a lot of potential but a lackluster delivery. Stick to the buffets and the arepas.
The Best Food in South America
- Feijão (Brazil) – bean stew with meat and vegetables.
- Acai (Brazil) – dark berry that is usually served pulverized
- Empanadas – staple of the continent. Stuffed, savory pastries.
- Dulce de leche – another ubiquitous item, caramelized condensed milk
- Asado (Argentina/Urugay) – a special barbecue
- Antichucho (Bolivia) – Grilled cow heart w/ sides, a local favorite
- Ceviche (Peru) – fresh seafood salad, one of the greatest dishes in the world
- Cuy (Peru) – like a guinea pig but much bigger, bit greasy but very tasty.
- Encebollado (Ecuador) – hearty stew, great for hangovers
- Arepas (Colombia) – fried corn pocket with fillings
South American Culture
South America is a very complex continent. Whilst it was the landmass to be colonized by Western Europeans – making it the youngest member of modern civilization – saying this disregards all the history that came before the conquistadors arrived. South America has hosted many advanced civilizations, such as the Incan Empire, whose influence still lasts to this day.
Long story short: South America is an enormously diverse region, more so than anywhere else in the arguably. Yes, European culture has largely shaped the continent. But indigenous and African cultures are just as important, if not more so.
Northern Brazil is very Afrocentric, more so than European. This was the first charted part of the continent and perfect for rowing sugarcane. Consequently, it’s the place where all the slaves were brought. Slavery is over but the African customs and cultures remained.
The south, which constitutes Argentina, Chile, and Southern Brazil, is much more European. Aside from the big players – the Spanish and Portuguese – Italians, Germans, Frenchmen settled here following a huge era of migration. The people are a bit fairer, the attitudes are a bit more temperate, and there’s a huge admiration for European culture in general.
In the Andean countries of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador you see a lot of indigenous cultures. Some people still live like their ancestors, living in the highlands and tending the land. Though Spanish is still the dominant culture and language, several local languages, like Quecha and Aymara, are still commonly spoken.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all of South America is just an extension of Europe or North America. You’ll miss out on the beautiful subtleties of the region, which make backpacking in South America so wonderful.
Books to Read While Backpacking South America
These are some of my favorite travel reads and books set in South America which you should consider picking up before you begin your South America trip…
- Open Veins of Latin America – One of my favorite books about Latin America. Truly a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the South American continent. The book really helps to put things in perspective. A really great book to read whilst backpacking Ecuador and any other Latin American country really.
- The Alchemist – One of the ultimate travel novels! The author, Paulo Coelho, is one of Brazil’s most famous artists. Follows a Spanish boy’s spiritual journey through Northern Africa.
- The Cloud Garden — The epic tale of Two British explorers who end up getting kidnapped by guerrillas in the Darien Gap area of Colombia. Written with humor and suspense, this is a vivid account of their nine-month ordeal.
- The Sound of Things Falling– This book tells the story about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It takes you back to the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude– This novel tells the story of the Buendia family, and chronicles the irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love—in rich, imaginative prose that has come to define an entire genre known as “magical realism.”
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Unique Experiences in South America
Best Hikes in South America
- Lost City Hike, Colombia: This hike through the Colombian jungle will certainly be a highlight of your backpacking trip.
- Sierra Nevada de Cocuy, Colombia: Snow in Colombia? Here you can find peaks are as high as 5,330 meters above sea level. You have you your own gear and a good sleeping bag, you can probably do the hike without a guide.
- Iliniza-Norte, Ecuador. This is a fantastic 2-day trek that does not require any special gear or equipment. If you are planning to tackle Cotopaxi this is a great warm-up. A solid challenge for the dedicated hiker!
- The Salkantay trek, Peru: Hike to Machu Picchu over four days and experience the true beauty of the Andes along the way. One of my favorite South American treks for sure.
- The Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru: Truly one of the most stunning areas in Peru. A solid challenge for the dedicated hiker!
- Hut-to-Hut in Bariloche, Argentina: Spectacular hike that affords some of the best views of Nahuel Huapi National Park and its lakes. Tents are optional since backpackers can stay exclusively in the refugios.
- Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén, Chile/Argentina: One of the greatest ways to experience Patagonia. Walk from Villa O’Higgins in Chile to El Chaltén in Argentina. You’ll see some superlative mountain, forest, and lake scenery along the way.
- Torres Del Paine Circuit, Chile: The hike of all hikes in South America. This epic walk takes 9-11 days and passes through some of the most dramatic landscapes one can fathom. A must if you’ve got the time and hiking spirit!
Scuba Diving in South America
Scuba diving options abound in South America. Colombia is probably the cheapest and best place to dive and get certified in South America. There is some fantastic diving around the Galapagos Islands, but it will cost you a fortune to arrive there and go diving.
Peru and Ecuador both have some decent diving right off their coasts. In general Scuba Diving is pricier in South America than it is in other parts of the world. If it something that you really want to do, I say go for it! The diving is worth it. Money well spent in my opinion.
In Colombia, you have Providencia and Santa Catalina, a smaller island to the north, which is home to the third largest coral reef barrier on earth and includes over 40 dive sites.
If Providencia is the accessible best of Colombian diving, Malpelo is the harder to reach version: a jagged rock in the Colombian Pacific, it can only be reached by boat, and divers can only visit here as part of an organized trip on a dive boat. It’s worth the time and money for sure; Malpelo is one of the best places in the world to dive with sharks, including hammerheads, whale, and the rare sun ray shark. People have reported schools of up to 500 sharks around Malpelo. That’s right. 500.
Scuba Dive South America on a Liveaboard Trip
If you truly want to have the scuba diving adventure of a lifetime, I highly recommend joining a Liveaboard trip if you can swing it.
Liveaboard trips are great because they really take you to off the beaten path remote scuba diving sites. Plus you get to wake up on a boat every morning, take in epic sunsets every evening, and eat like a king along the way.
The Liveaboard option should be considered as well if you are planning to visit the Galapagos Islands, where the diving is world class awesome.
For more country-specific Liveaboard opportunities in South America check out these options:
Surfing in South America
Surfing is the number one sport on South America’s coast. From Peru to Brazil, backpackers and locals are coming together and shredding the surf. Peru is home to the longest left-breaking way in the world. You can literally ride a wave for five minutes!
The Pacific Coast is dotted with funky surf towns, where the main activities revolve around the waves and the nightlife. There are a plethora of surf schools in every country where surfing is popular. Often these surf schools offer Spanish classes as well if you are wanting to double down (which I highly suggest!).
It is easy to fall in love with the surfing lifestyle. be careful, you might just fall in love with the whole scene. I wouldn’t blame you for a second.
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Final Thoughts on Backpacking South America
Backpacking South America can be one hell of a party at times. Take it from me, it can be easy to get carried away. It is important to keep in mind that you are an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country.
If you visit indigenous villages or small communities in the highlands always ask before taking photos. The people who live in these villages are not exhibits in a museum. They are normal folks just living their lives. Always show them the complete respect that they deserve.
When buying a local craft, do not haggle so low that the price is unfair to the person who spent countless hours crafting it. Pay people what they are worth and contribute to the local economies as much as possible.
Avoid eating at fancy gringo-owned restaurants. I don’t care how badly you want that lasagne and red wine. You make a choice with every dollar you spend. Try to spend your money in places where the experience is mutually rewarding.
Backpacking South America or any region for that matter often illuminates some of the great socio-economic inequalities of the world. Never take it for granted that you are healthy and financially able to go traveling. Show the world around you some gratitude and help to make a positive impact on it. Most of all have the time of your life and spread the love!
How was our backpackers guide to South America?! Well amigos the time has come for me to send you on your travelin’ way. I hope this guide has given you some invaluable budget travel knowledge in addition to getting you pumped for your South America backpacking trip. I wish you the best possible journey. Have the time of your life and have a few cold ones on me eh?
Thanks for reading – that was fun! 😀
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