Planning a trip to South America can be overwhelming especially if it is your first big trip! I spent three months in South America and months before planning to work out the best itinerary and ensure I had everything I needed!
In reality the backpacker route is very well established with a serious amount of adventure activities to try out along the way.
From my experience many travellers take similar routes, much of which is outlined in various travel guides, blogs and articles.
I also think it is so important to point out that you must take what you read on the internet with a pinch of salt, also especially any tour operator aka sales people. Make judgements on what you need and want from your travel based on you. Expectations and perspective are so different from person to person! It is always cheaper to book tours and activities on location, with a few exceptions (Inca Trail). Don’t be fooled into booking tours for 10x the price from UK tour operators who pay the local tour prices and make a great profit at your expense.
However, if you do want an all in one package, G adventures have a great reputation and whilst I haven’t travelled on their tours, it is probably where I would look. It will be considerably cheaper to book your own trip.
Common Routes include starting in either Rio, Lima or Santiago, partly because these have large international airports and allow for cheaper airfares.
Then a loop in the form of various routes, commonly using a mixture of Flights and Buses.
Highlights not to be missed whilst travelling in South America
Peru – Macchu Picchu, Huaccachina, Cusco, Lima, Amazon Rainforest.
Chile – Santiago, Valpairaso, Pucon, Patagonia; Torres Del Paine, Easter Island AKA Rapa Nui, San Pedro de Attacama.
Argentina – Patagonia; Ushuaia, El Calafate, El Chalten (Fitz Roy), Perito Moreno Glacier, Mendoza, Buenos Aires, Iguazu falls, Salta, Cordoba, Peurto Madryn.
Bolivia – La Paz, Sucra, Death Road, Uyuni.
Uruguay – Montevideo, Colonia del Sacramento.
Brazil – Florianópolis, Rio De Janeiro, Paraty, Ilha Grande
Colombia – Cartegena, Bogota
Equador – Quito
Top Tips for Travel in South America
- The Language spoken in south america is Spanish with the exception of Brazil where Portuguese is spoken, learning as much as you can before you arrive will really pay off. Plus it is great fun learning a new language! Duolingo is a great place to start.
- Much of South America, particularly Bolivia and Peru; have many high altitude areas, be aware of this and prepare accordingly – drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol at all costs. Also factor in acclimatisation days when thinking of your itinerary!
- Many Adventurous or off the beaten path locations may not have remotely reliable wifi, download map apps such as maps.me and google maps and the local area offline maps. Google translate also, with languages that you know you will need, then you can get practicing (top tip, once you have translated something turn your iphone side ways and the text becomes larger and on a blue background and is convenient to show someone).
- Packing – If you are planning to travel throughout South America it is likely you will encounter different seasons and will need to plan accordingly. I travelled with a bikini and thermals, its best to pack for all conditions. Travel adapters are also required.
- When to go where – Some regions operate on Rainy and Dry seasons and other use seasons. It is best to do your research and have an idea of what seasons you would like to travel to each country during, for example I personally love Shoulder seasons and making the most of quieter and cheaper visits but am not a fan of rainy seasons so try to avoid this.
- Travel – around holidays or peak seasons buses and accommodation can get really booked up, On the whole though the backpacking route around South America can be done relatively flexibly and many travellers turn up and choose accommodation where they like the look of, if you like if after the first night you usually have no trouble extending, if you don’t like it you’re not stuck there for a week. Win Win. Travel by bus in South america is great, the buses are affordable and roomy often offering Cama (Bed) or Semi-Cama (Reclining Seat). If the journey is very long I would recommend the Cama upgrade. Travel by bus is usually very reasonable and much more comfortable than any bus I have ever taken any where else, although can be in excess of 30 hours for long distances, so it does depend if time is on your side, for shorter trips I would recommend looking at flights to cover long distances.
- Shoestring – if you are travelling on a shoestring and want to make your money go a little further you can get 10% back on booking.com where most hostels can be found (I usually search accommodation on hostelworld.com but then book via booking.com using a referral code such as mine here.) Each code can only be used by an individual account once, therefore its great to swap and ask other travellers for their codes as you both get a reward. There is also a maximum reward for each account (15 codes). You can use a second or third email account for a new account if you reach the limit. Sometimes there is a minimum spend for eligibility but this is usually stated. There are also various types of rewards, some are percentages back (best for higher cost bookings – hotels and long stays, such as the one above) There are $25 back each with a medium spend around $50. Also a 10% back and £15 reward or £20 reward.
- Vaccinations – some vaccines will be required 6 weeks before travel, some are three doses over three weeks and sometimes vaccinations can be out of stock so it is best to be organised and plan ahead.
- Itinerary – A hard task is estimating how long you might want to spend where, its a near on impossible task at the best of times, add in some unpredictable patagonia weather, an earthquake in Peru and a cancelled flight or two and your itinerary is out of the window. My advice would be to stay flexible where you can, but also to embrace the unpredictable nature that is South American travel.
Money – Currency in South America
Argentina Argentine peso
Bolivia Bolivian boliviano
Brazil Brazilian real
Chile Chilean peso
Colombia Colombian peso
Ecuador United States dollar
Guyana Guyanese dollar
Paraguay Paraguayan guaraní
Peru Peruvian sol
Suriname Surinamese dollar
Uruguay Uruguayan peso
Venezuela Venezuelan bolivar
Travel Credit Card for South America Travel
If you are over 18 a travel credit card is a great idea, and can really reduce unnecasary charges and ensure you get the best exchange rate. In the UK the Halifax Clarity Card, Tandem Credit Card, Santander and Virgin all have travel specific cards. Mastercards exchange rate tends to beat the Visas rate, so it is worth considering this when comparing the available accounts. MoneySavingExpert is a great resource. If you don’t fancy a Credit Card there are also some dedicated debit accounts including Starling and Monzo.
Safety Travel Tips for South America
There are various precautions that you can take to minimise your risk whilst visiting some of the more dangerous regions within South America. These include:
- Do not walk around with expensive items in your hands, inclusive of Cameras, Phones, Money, GoPros, Hand Bags or Purses/Wallet.
- Be extra cautious by the side of the road, it is common for grab and go theft including on bicycle or moped.
- Limit opportunistic theft, always use reputable taxis, uber, and take local advice. Put your backpack on your front on public transport and even padlock your bag shut in dangerous places (there is debate around this, as it can make it look like you have something worth stealing, but will also put off petty theft/pickpocketing).
- Never carry large amounts of cash, and if you do, consider splitting it and using a money belt, some people use the inside of their shoes too. Never put cash in a checked bag on an airline, I have witnessed bags not turning up that had $500 in cash checked in, whilst the cash going missing is not great, the individual lost all of the contents of their bag a greater loss depending what is in your bag.
- Be wary at certain higher risk locations, as mentioned public transport but also banks, busy areas, city centres, late at night and deserted areas.
With all of these top tips in mind, I hope that planning an amazing trip to this incredible continent will be easy and enjoyable and help you best ensure safe and fun travels!
Love B x