When people think of South America, they think of the tango, exciting nightlife, and the Amazon. People fail to realize that South America is the last great, unexplored continent.
If you want a once in a lifetime experience, then consider backpacking South America.
With a unique range of cultures, South America combines countless opportunities to backpack. There are dozens of notable cities, hundreds of landmarks, and thousands of must-see natural landscapes.
Breathtaking in its beauty, South America is worth every minute you spend carefully planning out your trip.
You should also consider buying the Lonely Planet’s Backpacker Guide to South America
Having a fun backpacking trip in South America is possible. However, it will require some planning on your part. The following guide is put together to make it easier for you to backpack South America. Basic information is provided first.
The middle of this guide includes details on traveling by yourself and with groups. The end of this guide has information on a number of different cities you can use to start your adventure. With this in mind, let’s get started!
Jump to section
- Visa Information
- Best time to go
- Language & Classes
- Per day costs
- Independent Backpacking
- Backpacking Tours
- Cities to start from
Understanding The Basics
South America is 17,840,000 km squared (or nearly 7 million square miles.) It is impossible to take it all in with a single trip. It is also home to 385 million people and an incredible range of cultures.
Transportation to South America is easy. There are a number of commercial flights that go to major cities in South America. Consider booking these flights first to save money. We recommend using Skyscanner to get the best flight deals.
Once in South America, there are buses, trains, boats, and planes that will help you get between the cities. Backpacking in the wilderness may require chartering special trips with local businesses. Be sure to work this out before you begin your backpacking trip.
South America is made up of 12 different countries and 2 non-sovereign areas. You will need to know visa requirements before going to any of these countries. Thankfully, the process is straightforward.
If you are coming from the United States, Canada, or European countries, then you will not require a Visa for entry to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. You will need a valid passport. Expect to pay a reciprocity fee when you enter the country.
A reciprocity fee is money you have to pay when entering a county. Almost every South American country has a fee. Fees can range from around $30 USD to $150 USD depending on what country you come from.
If you are not sure whether or not you need a visa, then contact your government or look online. There are countless resources you can use to plan your trip. Be sure to also look at how many days you can stay in each place.
Good question! In South America, the seasons are reversed compared to the Northern Hemisphere. So, summer in the north means winter in the south.
Understand that South America is incredibly large. Peru, and areas of northern South America like Brazil, and Venezuela can be enjoyed all year round. Be aware of the rainy season from December through March however.
Further south, September through April becomes the right time to travel. When getting to Patagonia on the southern tip of the continent, be sure to arrive during their summer, around November to February. Try to hit the Amazon during times when it is less wet.
There are two last things you should consider. There are big crowds on July and August around the Galapagos and Inca Trails. Also, Easter is a massive holiday, and you should be aware of travel delays during this time.
If you want an ideal time to visit, then go in October and November. Often thought of as the best time to see the country, there is a lot you can take in during your stay. If you are interested in a particular part of the continent, then research the weather for that place when planning.
There are hotels, and hostels in all cities in South America. There are countless places to camp in and around major cities as well as in nature. There are apartments you can also rent for a month or two if you plan to stay longer.
The level of accommodation depends on the amount you want to spend. Most countries in South America can pamper you if you have the money. However, if you want to spend less, then be ready to accept fewer accommodations.
From electronic stores to Starbucks, larger cities will have it all. Smaller towns may not have anything more than basic supplies. Be sure to stock up before leaving any city.
Accommodations can be arranged ahead of time. From a personalized tour to a camping site, be sure to research where you want to backpack. Confirm these plans before you leave.
You can take a number of courses to make your backpacking experience better. Local institutes and colleges have language learning courses. There are many options to learn languages online as well.
You can read up and take courses on other skills as well. For example, backpacking South America will require knowing how to cook. A cooking class can be just what you need.
Ultimately, the type of classes you take should reflect your trip. For example, if you are going to be in Brazil, then classes in Portuguese will be important. If you are backpacking South America in Argentina, then classes in cooking and in Spanish may be helpful.
In major cities, you can find foods from all around the world. Cuisine in every country is different. It reflects both the unique things grown in South America, as well as influences from the countries that colonized them.
For example, Peru has elements of Chinese, Japanese, African, Amazonian, and Spanish in their food. Either way, prepare for spice and strong flavors. In South America, spices go a long way.
Also, prepare for unusual cuisine. Things typically not eaten in other countries, including dogs and cats, may be found in South America. Be sure you ask what meat is before you eat it when out of major cities.
The USD, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Pounds, and Euro all have fantastic exchange rates with South America. For less money, you will get more. However, there are a lot of smaller costs per day you will need to consider.
Some of the basic services you take for granted may not be available. Instead, they will cost you. Expect to pay a normal price at any western business.
Do not forget the importance of haggling! When given a quoted price, you can attempt to reduce the price through negotiation. Remember that this can be a great way to save money over time.
Every country will have its own currency. You will need to exchange your currency to the currency of the country as soon as possible. Many places do not accept foreign credit cards.
In the United States, Type A & B power plugs are used. In the UK, Type G is used while Australia uses Type I. Europe uses Type C, E, & G.
Brazil uses Type C, E, F, and N. Argentina only uses type I. If you are not sure what adaptor to bring, then outside of Venezuela and Argentina, consider bringing the Type C, E, & F.
If you do not have the right adaptor, you can find a converter in every electronic store within major cities in South America. In addition, you can get local sim cards and a local phone for when you are there. Finally, all cities and many towns will have Internet access either through Wi-Fi or through a phone.
How To Travel
You first option is independent travel. Either by yourself or with one or two other people, you set up everything yourself and make your own plans. The benefit of this approach is that you can schedule things when it is best for you.
*Incan Trails. When traveling independently, you can schedule flights to a local city, and bus travel to the towns around the trailhead. From there, you can spend days or weeks hiking along the trails.
*Patagonia. Heading to a location like Rio Gallegas, you can take a bus further west to the mountains or east to the ocean. You can spend days and weeks hiking the local trails.
*Coast Of Brazil. With easy access from countless cities, you can travel along the coasts of Brazil, hiking and taking buses between various locations.
*The Amazon. A bit more challenging, you can explore parts of the Amazon by taking boats up the Amazon River to local towns and then hiking through various well-maintained paths.
Your second option is tours. Tours are easier to set up because all the planning is done for you. Instead, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the backpacking trip.
Contiki – A small group tour agency, Contiki can take you to many places in South America, providing scheduled events along the way. A great way to remove the hassle from planning, Contiki works to schedule trips that make your life easier.
Intrepid – Another great small group tour company, Intrepid provides an even greater range of possible destinations. From major cities to beautiful landmarks, Intrepid is worth taking a look at.
GAdventures – Want a fun trip exploring the natural beauty of South America? GAdventures is for you. Offering great options for backpacking South America, GAdventures is worth taking a quick look
- Buenos Aires, Argentina
Way to the south, Buenos Aires has a lot to offer as a city. The birthplace of tango, Buenos Aires has everything you want from a city in terms of luxury and excitement. Notable hotels include the austere Alvaear Palace Hotel, the trendy Mine Hotel Boutique, and the highly rated Miravida Soho Hotel and Wine Bar.
Specialty and gourmet restaurants of note include the San Paolo Pizzeria, and the I Latina. In Buenos Aires, it is hard to go wrong with food.
Some things to see include the Teatro Colon Opera House, the very European looking Recoleta, and the beautiful gardens of the Paseo del Rosedal. With a major airport near by, getting to Buenos Aires is simple. Centrally located, there are countless bus options to help you navigate your way along the coasts or further inland.
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Located on the east coast and further to the north, Rio de Janeiro has an incredible legacy. A great place to begin or end a trip spent backpacking South America, Rio de Janeiro has many of the luxuries you would expect from an international city.
Booking.com provides several great examples of local hostels for less expensive stays. Outside of hostels, there are countless 5 star hotels if you are willing to treat yourself.
As for food, you will have a world’s worth of cuisine to choose from. Ranging from hip places like BB Lanches to high-class places like l’Atelier du Cuisinier and L’Etoilo, there is a restaurant for every palette.
It is hard to go to Rio de Janeiro without going to see the massive Christo Redentor that helps define the city. The morro da Urca provides beautiful experiences along the coasts and mountains. Combining natural beauty with 21st century amenities, Rio de Janeiro is worth checking out.
Similar to Buenos Aires, it is easy to get to Rio de Janeiro. A hub along the eastern coast, you can work your way across the country through buses.
Being A Local
So there you have it! If you are interested in learning more about backpacking South America, then consider tripadvisor.com for ideas regarding what you can do. In addition, Booking.com is great for planning places to stay that are less expensive.
Take it slow, be prepared for some delays, and make sure you pause from time to time to take in this incredible continent.