Backpacking Guide to South America

– Written by Victoria Philpott

Backpacking around all the countries in South America will take you some time. The continent is made up of 12 nations, the biggest rainforest in the world, more than 371million people and 17,840,000sq km of land.

The train service is very limited in South America, and as for your kit list you need to take clothes suitable for all weathers as although it might be hot on the ground, climb up a mountain and you’ll soon feel the cold bite.

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of the best things to see and do in each country in South America, how to get there, how to get around, some advice on safety and visas and how much you can expect to pay for accommodation. Now pay attention, there’s a lot to take in…

Venezuela | Colombia | Ecuador | Peru | Bolivia | Chile

Part two coming soon: featuring Argentina | Uruguay | Paraguay | Brazil | Cayenne | Guyana

Venezuela

Beautiful landscapes, tropical beaches, huge wetlands and idyllic colonial towns make Venezuela a top backpacking destination. Adventure junkies and beach bums will find plenty to busy themselves with, while culture lovers can explore the indigenous, African and Spanish contributions that make Venezuela as great as it is.

Highlights

  • Visit Angel Falls – the tallest waterfall in the world!
  • Hang out in the vibrant capital city Caracas and check out the crazy nightlife.
  • Go deep-sea fishing off La Guaira for blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish.
  • Visit the Parque Nacional Morrocoy to see pink flamingos and scarlet ibis.
  • Relax at the coastal resort of Isla de Margarita for the tasty seafood and beautiful beaches.

Getting around: The main roads are generally good and around a third are paved – 4×4 hire is recommended if you plan to visit the more rural Venezuela and gas is cheap here. The capital Caracas has a 48-station metro. Ferries connect Margarita Island with the mainland.

Venezuela to Guyana

  • Bus: No road links; you have to go through Brazil.
  • Flight: No direct flights; you need to fly via Port of Spain in Trinidad with BWIA | €190+ one way

Venezuela to Brazil

  • Bus: No direct bus.
  • Flight: Caracas to Rio de Janeiro €250

Venezuela to Colombia

  • Bus: Santa Marta, Colombia to Maracaibo, Venezuela | €7
  • Flight: Bogota to Caracas | one way €283 | 2hrs

Visas: Australians, Brits, Canadians, Americans and other EU residents (except for Latvians and Cypriots) don’t require a visa to enter the country. They’ll be issued with a free Tourist Entry Card allowing stays of up to 90 days.

Weather: Like much of South America, Venezuelan weather changes according to altitude, not the season. Lowlands are tropical and mountains regions are considerably cooler. Rainy season runs May to December.

Accommodation: hostels in Venezuela start from €6pppn.

Colombia

As the only country in South America with coastlines on both the North Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Colombia has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, including the incredible Tayrona National Park. Some areas of Colombia are still considered dangerous to tourists, although the major cities are generally deemed safe as long as you take the normal precautions.

Highlights

  • The capital Bogota and Cali, the epicentre of the sugar and coffee industry.
  • Exotic jungles – take a boat trip down the Amazon River.
  • Visit ‘The Lost City’ in Tayrona National Park. Take in the cloud forests, incredible waterfalls, exotic wildlife and illegal coca farms as you pass through.
  • Learn to scuba dive in the beautiful waters of  Taganga.
  • Visit author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s charming hometown of  Cartagena. It’s a Caribbean paradise with colourful buildings and horse-drawn carriages on the cobbled streets.

Getting around: The train service in Colombia is limited. Colombia has a well-maintained network of roads so renting a car is also a good idea.

Colombia to Venezuela

Colombia to Ecuador

  • Bus: From Ecuador travel to Tulcan to get a taxi over the border. Get your stamps and then take another taxi to Ipiales, from here you can travel to anywhere in Colombia.
  • Flight: Bogota to Quito one way €246 | 5hrs 45

Colombia to Peru

  • Bus: You will have to go via Ecuador.
  • Flight: Bogota to Cusco one way €483 | 15hrs 5

Colombia to Brazil

  • Bus: Takes about three days.
  • Flight: Bogota to Rio de Janeiro €600 | 9 hrs

Visas: Most Western countries, South American and South East Asian countries can stay for up to 60 days with an on-arrival visa free of charge, which is printed onto your passport. Immigration officers will ask you to show all the tickets of your route for it.

Weather: Colombia is on the equator so there are no seasons although locals refer to the rainy season as winter. The temperature changes with altitude, rather than the seasons. The most pleasant time to visit Colombia is in the dry season, between December and March or in July and August.

Accommodation: hostels in Colombia start from €4.77pppn.

Ecuador

Colourful Ecuador is the second smallest country in South America – great if you want a country to explore on a short time frame. Surviving many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions Quito’s 500-year-old buildings will wow you, while you won’t be able to put your camera down around the lush national parks and tropical birdsong in the Andes.

  • Climb Cotapaxi, the world’s highest active volcano.
  • Splash the cash at the Otavalo Market filled with goods from the best artisans in South America.
  • Visit the equator line and hop over to the southern/northern hemisphere to check if the water really does spin the opposite way when you flush the toilet.
  • Swim with penguins around the Galapagos Islands.
  • Ride on the roof of the Devil’s Nose Railway between Riobamba and Sibambe – the line descends 1,000m down a steep slope.

Getting around: Although the roads can be rough and the drivers slow, at least the bus network in Ecuador is comprehensive. Rentals are available, but there aren’t many signposts or even lights at night. To reach the Galapagos Islands you’ll need to fly to either Isla Baltra or San Cristobal from the mainland, the flight takes 1hr 50 mins and will cost around €185.

Ecuador to Peru

  • Bus:  The easiest route is the (Transportes Loja) bus from Loja, Ecuador, to Piura, Peru | 3 times daily | US$10 | 8-9 hours
  • Flight: Cuzco to Quito one-way £350 | 4hr 50

Ecuador to Colombia

Weather: Ecuador is a top year-round destination, but it’s best to visit the highland areas during the dry season, which is June to September.

Accommodation: hostels in Ecuador start from €3.75pppn.

Peru

Peru is well-known as a place of pilgrimage – whether that’s to Machu Pichu, the incredible snow-capped mountains, the giant sand dunes or to see the unique and plentiful wildlife. Peru is a deceptively large country and with many natural barriers on the ground flying is usually the best way to get around.

Highlights: 

  • Obviously Machu Piccu – there’s a good reason it’s Peru’s top tourist attraction and one of the Seven Wonders of the World!
  • Explore the Amazon Jungle and listen to the chant of the Howler monkeys.
  • Check out the floating islands on Lake Titicaca – made from reeds, people actually live on them!
  • Photograph the wildlife of the Ballestas Islands – you’ll see rare birds like Peruvian boobies, pelicans, penguins and cormorants.
  • Partying in electric Lima after indulging in the local traditional Peruvian cuisine.

Getting around: Be very wary when using taxis (carros), there’s no law in Peru regulating them so make sure you agree on a price before you get in the car. Combis are like private bus services – the bus goes from one end of town to the other with the fare collector shouting the route out of the window. Colectivos are similar but will always run on the same route and go when they’re full. Keep an eye on your belongings on these buses. Coaches are widely used for long distance travel, but if you want to keep things quick and easy, fly. It is essential to reconfirm your flight 72 hours in advance though or you will get bumped off the flight.

Peru to Ecuador

Peru to Brazil

  • Bus: This would take a ridiculously long time!
  • Flight: Lima to Rio de Janeiro €550 | 7hrs 40

Peru to Bolivia

  • Bus: Lima to La Paz (via Desaguedero) €50 | 26hrs
  • Flight: Lima to La Paz €400 | 4hrs 40

Peru to Colombia

Peru to Chile

Visa: Make sure the immigration officer has stamped enough days into your passport, sometimes they only stamp 30 when you can have up to 90. You will need a return flight to get through immigration but then it is relatively simple.

Weather: The tropical Amazon jungle to the east usually rains; the arid coastal desert to the west; and the Andean mountains and highlands in the middle of the country 10°C (50°F) overnight it can easily fall to freezing. December to March the highlands are very wet but the Arid Coast is hot and great for the beaches.

Bolivia

Landlocked Bolivia is a backpackers paradise – the cost of accommodation, food and entertainment here is much cheaper than the rest of South America. It’s also one of the most interesting and indigenous countries, although it’s also estimated that 64% of the population live below the poverty line.

Highlights:

  • The Amazon jungle
  • The hallucinogenic salt flats of Uyuni.
  • The Inca Trails
  • Sucre, Potosi, Sucre, La Paz or Cochabamba
  • Altiplano, but make sure you explore the tropical east too.

Getting around: Bolivia’s infrastructure is not built for tourists, getting around on the ground can be pricey. During wet season the roads can be difficult and the trains at night are usually considered worse than the buses. Opt for flights if you’re travelling long distances, and the bus network in Bolivia is cheap and plentiful.

Bolivia to Brazil

  • Bus: Too far, unless you have a few days to spare!
  • Flight: La Paz to Rio de Janeiro €417 | 16hr 15

Bolivia to Paraguay

  • Bus: La Paz to Santa Cruz to Asuncion 36hrs+
  • Flight: La Paz to Asuncion €323 | 13 hr 10

Bolivia to Argentina

  • Bus: You need to go Sucre-Potosi, Bolivia, 3 hrs €3, then Potosi-Villazon, Bolivia, 12 hrs €8.40, then La Quiaca-Salta 8 hrs €8.
  • Flight: La Paz to Buenos Aires €300 | 6hr 29

Bolivia to Chile

  • Bus: You need to go Santiago- Arica, then Arica-La Paz 30hrs+
  • Flight: La Paz to Santiago €566 | 8hrs

Bolivia to Peru

Visas: Free visa at the border or the airport for most nationalities – Japan and EU countries can stay for 90 days without paying and Canada, Australia and New Zealand can stay 90. USA citizens must pay US$135 it takes 24hrs to issue and is valid for 5 years – you can use it up to 3 times per year – 90 days max. Other nationalities need to get a visa in advance – which normally lasts for a 30-day stay.

Kit list essentials: Warm clothes | hat | cool clothes | insect repellent | waterproof jacket

Weather: You’ll get the extremes of weathers if you hit the cusp of summer going into winter. Mosquitos, heat and humidity in jungle areas where the swampy landscape. It’s busiest during June to early September, which is Bolivia’s major fiesta season. It can get pretty cold at night in Bolivia, especially on the higher plains. Be prepared if you’re visiting in winter, which in the Southern Hemipshere is May to October. Try to avoid visiting the jungle areas just after the summer wet season – it’s not pleasant. If it’s the tropical lowlands you’re heading for be prepares for mud, steamy heat, bugs and downpours.

Accommodation: hostels in Bolivia start from €3.77pppn.

Chile

The ability to see a range of landscapes in one country keeps backpackers coming to Chile. You can wallow in the rain-starved desert in the north, be wowed by the ice glaciers in the south or hike the incredible Andes of the eastern border. Copper and tourism bring the country money, with visitors flocking to the colonial architecture and nightlife of the capital, Santiago.

Highlights

  • Go star gazing at the hugely powerful Collowara Observatory on the 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope.
  • Hike to the Virgin Mary on top of the Cerro San Cristobal for an incredible view over Santiago.
  • Indulge in a few Chilean wines at the Rapel Valley 60km from Santiago.
  • Enjoy a glacier cruise through Chile’s Inside Passage, the Beagle Channel and around Cape Horn.
  • The 300 famous statues on Easter Island, built in the 1600s.

Getting around:

The roads are generally good in Chile, especially around Santiago. The capital Santiago also has an excellent metro and colectivo service too. Rail services within the country are scarce, but long distance buses are plentiful.

Chile to Peru

  • Bus: Santiago-Arica = 31 hrs | €53, Arica-Tacna 35mins, Tacna-anywhere in Peru
  • Flight: Santiago to Lima £464 | 13hr

Chile to Bolivia

Chile to Argentina

  • Bus: Buenos Aires-Santiago de Chile €68 | 19hrs
  • Flight: Santiago to Buenos Aires £231 | 1hr 55

Weather: South Chile is best visited in the Chilean summer (December through March) as some activities are impossible to do in the winter. The Chilean winter however is perfect for skiing, the hordes arrive from July through September. The centre of Chile is best in spring (September through November) or during the autumn harvest (late February into April).

Accommodation: hostels in Chile start from €5.25pppn.

Flights

Here are some guideline prices of flights. As you can see, if you’re going on a tour it can make up to €370 of sense to tailor the start of your tour with the cheapest arrival airport.

From London three months in advance:

  • €600+ Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | Bogota, Colombia | Lima, Peru
  • €700+ Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • €875+ La Paz, Bolivia | Caracas, Venezuela | Quito, Ecuador
  • €970+ Asuncion, Paraguay

All prices correct 7/12/11 from travelsupermarket.com

From Sydney return three months in advance:

  • €1550+ Bogota, Colombia | Quito, Ecuador
  • €1710+ Lima, Peru | Buenos Aires, Argentina | Santiago, Chile | Caracas, Venezuela
  • €1870+ La Paz, Bolivia | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | Montevideo, Uruguay

All prices correct 7/12/11 from bestflights.com.au

From New York City return three months in advance:

  • €420+ Quito, Ecuador | Lima, Peru
  • €510+ Bogota, Colombia
  • €670+ Buenos Aires, Argentina | Santiago, Chile | Montevideo, Uruguay | La Paz, Bolivia
  • €710+ Asuncion, Paraguay | Caracas, Venezuela
  • €881+ Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

All prices correct 7/12/11 from Expedia.com

For all flights I used Expedia.co.uk unless otherwise stated. You might be able to find cheaper flights using local search engines. Please shop around before you commit to get the best deal. All costs listed are meant as a guide price for bookings in three months time and were correct at the time of posting. They will change with the exchange rate along with many other factors.

Thanksto M@rshallPhillieCasablancaszekecliff1066™prilfishNeilsPhotography,
szekeNdecam for the excellent images from Flickr. Please note all images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.

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