Searching for your next big adventure?
Europe and Australia are expensive, and tourists are making Asia a little too crowded.
So where’s left to go?
There’s one destination that offers all the excitement a young traveler could want while remaining relatively undiscovered.
From the salt flats in Bolivia to the national parks in Chile, South America is rife with untamed natural beauty.
Culture vultures will be equally entranced by its indigenous traditions and European influences. Not to mention hospitable people with an insatiable appetite to party.
Get in quickly, however, because backpackers are beginning to discover South America in droves.
To lend a helping hand, we’ve put together the optimal overland route.
What to know before you go to South America
- Six months is a rough estimate for this itinerary. Obviously, not everyone has six months to spare! If that’s the case, pick and choose the attractions that appeal to you. On the other end of things, if you have more than six months, several cities on this list can be extended into longer stays for you to deeply experience the culture.
- Bus is the preferred method of transportation for the cash-strapped backpacker. Choose between bus cama (lie-flat seat) for uninterrupted sleep, semi-cama (reclining seat) for an affordable compromise or bus normal (barely reclining) for a cheap but cramped ride.
- Do a few audio language lessons to aprovechar (take advantage) of those insanely long bus rides. Nothing’s more fun than eavesdropping in public places!
- Forty USD per day is an average backpacker budget. You’ll spend less in cheaper countries but more in the south and Brazil. To reduce costs further, stay in hostels or cheap local hospedajes (guesthouses), self-cater, travel overnight and avoid guided tours.
- Aim to visit the Andean nations in the drier months (May to September) and Patagonia during the warmer months (November to March).
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Colombia: Pristine beaches and friendly vibes (4 weeks)
Bogotá: The bohemian capital
Start your South American adventure by taking in the vibrant culture of Colombia’s capital.
Try the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) for its 55,000 pre-Hispanic treasures or the Museo de Botero (Botero Museum) for the plump portraits of Colombia’s premier painter. Take a walking tour of the city to appreciate its amazing urban art.
For city views, a cheap cable car ferries passengers to Monserrate Hill.
Santa Marta: Coastal living and trekking
Fun in the sun is the name of the game in Santa Marta, thanks to the stunning El Rodadero and Playa Blanca (White Beach) beaches.
For true Caribbean bliss, head to the idyllic Tayrona National Park, home to some of the continent’s most pristine playas (beaches).
Adventurous trekkers could tackle the demanding Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek, an epic four-day jungle hike to a thousand-year-old pre-Columbian ruin.
Cartagena: A colonial-era port
The historic port city of Cartagena brilliantly showcases the remnants of Colombia’s colonial past. Wander through the walled old town known as Amurallada before climbing the 17th-century San Felipe de Barajas Fort for an excellent view.
Beach bums love the laid-back fishing village of Taganga, while the more remote Playa Blanca is just a boat ride away.
A haven for foreign expats, Medellín is known for its balmy climate, mountainous topography and pulsing urban vibe.
The days of narco-terrorism are long gone, although curious travelers can revisit the past on a Pablo Escobar tour.
If that doesn’t sound appealing, join a free city walking tour instead to discover downtown before taking the cable car to Parque Arvi Station for a quick nature escape.
Even if you don’t like a morning brew, Colombia’s famed coffee region is worth it for the scenery alone.
Sample the good stuff at the quaint town of Salento before setting off to see the world’s tallest palm trees on the Cocora Valley hike.
Seasoned salseros (salsa dancers) and newcomers alike flock to this sweltering city to indulge in its premier pasttime: salsa.
Sign up for classes at the Sondeluz Academy before hitting a novice-friendly club like Tin Tin Deo to shimmy the night away.
Ecuador: The Andes to the Galápagos (2 weeks)
Quito: A capital among the clouds
Perched high up the Andes at well over 9,000 feet, Ecuador’s buzzing capital is the perfect regional travel hub.
Free walking tours showcase its colonial highlights, while Vulqano Park and the Virgin of El Panecillo offer sweeping panoramic views.
Mitad del Mundo: The center of the earth
The mammoth Mitad del Mundo (Center of the Earth) monument attracts camera-toting tourists eager to get a picture while simultaneously standing on both hemispheres.
The only problem? Original cartographers got it wrong. The real equator was later confirmed to be 780 feet (240 meters) to the north. But you don’t have to tell your friends back home about that, right? It’s all about the tourist experience!
Check out the newly built Intiñan Museum to watch cool equator-specific science experiments such as balancing an egg on a nail.
Otavalo Market: Rural shopping
Take a two-hour bus ride to Otavalo on Saturday or Wednesday to peruse South America’s largest market and get a taste of rural Ecuadorian life. But be warned: pickpockets run rife.
The Galápagos Islands: Marine life
The endless supply of creatures in the Galápagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. And there’s just as much aquatic life to see today.
Budget travelers should fly from Guayaquil and search for excursions on arrival. Another option is to seek out multi-day backpacker cruises sold as package deals.
Baños: Extreme adventures
The mountainous village of Baños has become a mecca for thrill-seeking backpackers.
Popular activities include cycling the lush Ruta de las Cascadas (waterfall route) and snapping a profile pic at the Swing at the End of the World.
Peru: More than Machu Picchu (4 weeks)
Máncora: A final beach break
Catch some rays or try your hand at surfing at this palm tree-lined stretch of sand. It’ll be the last chance for some sun-worshiping before an extended journey inland.
Huaraz: High altitude hiking (optional stop for trekkers)
Outdoor enthusiasts will love the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountain Range). It’s pretty much a hiker’s dream.
Acclimatize with day hikes like Laguna 69 before attempting tougher multiday treks such as Santa Cruz or Huayhuash.
Lima: Urban living
Peru’s mega-metropolis capital offers a more contemporary travel experience.
Shop in swanky Miraflores malls, get a history fix in the historic heart or sip on a craft beer at a trendy bar in the hipster haven of Barranco.
But don’t forget about the food. Ceviche is the quintessential street eat while South America’s best restaurants tempt serious foodies with more cash to splash.
Paracas: Marine life (optional alternative to the Galápagos)
Galapogas too expensive? Check out the Islas Ballestas instead, a series of wildlife-rich islands dubbed the “poor man’s Galápagos.”
Travelers can meet countless sea lions, penguins and pelicans for a fraction of the cost of its Ecuadorian cousin.
Nazca: Those mysterious lines
Get a bird’s-eye view of these ancient archaeological wonders on a surprisingly affordable joy flight. Later, learn about their history at the informative museum below.
Huacachina: A hidden desert oasis
Once the playground of Peruvian aristocrats, Huacahina is now a hub for adrenaline junkies.
Its central lagoon remains the main draw, although sandboarding escapades down the encircling dunes have become a new bucket list attraction.
Arequipa: Colonial architecture
Originally constructed from locally sourced volcanic stone, the whitewashed city of Arequipa is Peru’s colonial gem.
Meander through the technicolored streets of Santa Catalina Monastery and visit the gruesome remains of a 500-year-old Incan child at the Andean Sanctuaries Museum.
Colca Canyon: Trekking with condors
During this two- or three-day hike, you’re bound to see at least one condor, South America’s most popular bird.
Even more exciting is the deep canyon full of traditional indigenous settlements and sweeping valley views.
Cusco: The great Incan stronghold
As the epicenter of the South American tourism industry, Cusco shouldn’t be missed.
Grand colonial buildings adorn the city itself, while intriguing Incan sites grace the surrounding Sacred Valley.
The incredible Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is the obvious highlight. Thankfully, it’s reachable by public transport and a hike for backpackers who would rather not pay the extortionate Inca Rail fare.
Puno: Lake Titicaca
Puno as a city may not be much to look at, but Lake Titicaca is divine.
Book a super cheap island hopping tour, which stops at the floating community of Uros before an overnight homestay on Amantaní. The next day, haggle for textiles with the male weavers of Taquile. They’re said to be among the most skilled in Peru.
Bolivia: A taste of the Andes (3.5 weeks)
Lake Titicaca: The Bolivian side
Bolivia’s portion of the world’s highest lake is equally worthwhile.
Stop by the bizarre Blessing of the Automobiles ceremony in Copacabana before hiking up Calvario Hill to watch the sunset over the lake.
The next morning, jump on the first ferry to Isla del Sol (Sun Island) and spend the day hiking across the scenic island en route to sacred Incan sites.
La Paz: An Andean city
A mishmash of old and new, La Paz is where Andean traditions continue to thrive.
Shop for spells at the witches market, peruse the museums of Jaen Street, ride the teleférico (cable car) high in the sky or get back to nature at Tuni Condoriri. On Sundays, the labyrinth-like streets of the El Alto Fair and the gravity-defying acrobatics of Cholitas Wrestling are a must.
For the ultimate adrenaline-pumping day trip, hurtle a mountain bike down the World’s Most Dangerous Road.
Rurrenabaque: Amazon wildlife tours
Travelers can visit the Amazon from numerous sites across South America, yet none provide as much bang for your buck as the Rurrenabaque pampas tour.
This three-day adventure into a wetland region allows travelers to watch a variety of exotic animals from their dugout canoe. See if you can spot caimans, monkeys, turtles and capybaras. Book locally to secure the best rates.
Sucre: Bolivia’s colonial gem
Few cities in South America match the architectural prowess of Bolivia’s official capital.
A dinosaur park, European castle and plethora of revolution-related museums are scattered throughout these charming whitewashed streets.
Indeed, many travelers love Sucre so much they stick around to study Spanish or volunteer with an NGO.
Potosi: Cerro Rico
Backpackers venture to Potosi to delve into the continent’s most notorious mine.
Dubbed Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), these dark and damp tunnels are known for atrocious working conditions and their sinister colonial past.
The Salar de Uyuni: High altitude adventures
These salt flats are Bolivia’s most iconic attraction and a photographer’s dream. Take a jeep tour of the salt flats and nearby lagoon laden deserts. Choose an established company such as Red Planet Expedition to avoid potential safety issues and use the trip to connect onward to Chile.
Chile: National parks and art (4 weeks)
San Pedro de Atacama: Surreal desert landscapes
Although the vivid lagoons and snowcapped volcanoes in this area may remind travelers of Uyuni, they warrant exploration all the same.
Budget-conscious travelers can hire a bike to visit the nearby Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and the salty Cejar Lagoon. Other attractions such as the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flats) and El Tatio Geysers require motorized transport.
Santiago: A modern metropolis
One of the wealthiest cities in South America, modern Santiago might feel like home. But that’s not to say it’s boring.
Epic monuments such as the Metropolitan Cathedral, Royal Court Palace and Plaza de Armas are in the city center. World-renowned galleries including the Museum of Fine Art and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art lie a little further afield.
Bella Vista is the capital’s coolest hangout, behind which is a cable car to the San Cristobal Hill lookout.
Valparaiso: Amazing street art
The artistic enclave of Valparaiso may well be the continent’s most bohemian city.
Spend the day strolling its many cerros (hills) to admire the urban art on display. You can pause to take the funicular when the streets get a little too steep.
Pablo Neruda’s eccentric house is a fascinating site for poetry fans.
Pucón: An active volcano
Outdoor enthusiasts should stop in Pucón for their first taste of Patagonian splendor.
Climb to the top of the active Villarrica volcano, try your hand at whitewater rafting on level-four rapids or just kick back and relax at this laid-back lakeside town.
Chiloé: Churches and fisherman
An excellent undiscovered side trip, the island of Chiloé features authentic fishing villages and rolling hills.
The highlight for many, however, is its selection of stunning 18th century Jesuit churches.
Puerto Montt: The Navimag Cruise
A brief trip to Puerto Montt takes travelers to the embarking point of the scenic Navimag cruise.
Rather than continue your journey on the road, take this rustic cargo/passenger ferry along icy waters of Chile’s remote fjords towards Punta Arenas. You’ll pass glaciers and playful marine life along the way. That’s a much more fun way to travel, isn’t it?
Puerto Natales: Torres del Paine
No nature lover’s trip to South America would be complete without a visit to Torres del Paine. This remarkable wilderness region is ranked among the best places to hike in the world.
Form a group and rent your gear at the Erratic Rock Hostel before venturing off to trek the W or the longer O route.
Argentina: Tango and wine (5 weeks)
El Calafate: The Perito Moreno Glacier
Our first stop in Argentina is arguably the best—the aqua-colored hues of the Perito Moreno Glacier.
If you’re on a budget, take a public bus to a series of platforms overlooking the natural wonder. More affluent adventurers can pay to hike over the surface of the glacier itself.
El Chalten: Mount Fitzroy
El Chalten allows hikers to experience even more of Patagonia’s beauty.
Most come to bask in the glory of the striking Mount Fitzroy, though there are plenty of other forest trails to explore as well.
Bariloche: The lakes district
Packed full of quaint Swiss-style architecture and chocolate shops, the alpine town of Bariloche feels more European than Latino. Though its greatest assets lie beyond, with an impressive selection of forested hiking trails and glistening lakes to explore.
Rent a bike to cycle the Circuito Chico (Little Circuit), hire a car to drive the Camino de Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Road) or just strap on your boots and stomp off into the wilderness.
Mendoza: The best of Argentine wine
Among the most eminent wine growing regions on earth, Mendoza is a must for the traveling wine lover. Visit the outlying grape-lined fields on a bicycle for an idyllic afternoon of sun, booze and sweeping valley views.
Salta: The northern capital
The northern town of Salta showcases an eclectic array of neo-classical architecture with a distinct gaucho (cowboy) flair.
Sample some empanadas (pastries) at a peña (live music venue) by night. Visit the Mount San Bernardo lookout and the charming old town by day.
The northwest: A high altitude desert
Not far from the Bolivian border lie the stunning deserts of Jujuy, a high altitude marvel of rolling pastel-colored hills.
Stop off at the towns of Humahuaca, Tilcara and Purmamarca to traverse these cactus-clad landscapes. Don’t miss the world-famous Colina de Siete Colores (Seven Color Hill) along the way.
Buenos Aires: The Paris of the South
An influx of Italian migration left Argentina’s capital with an impressive assemblage of old-world architecture. As a result, some residents have dubbed their capital the “Paris of the South.”
The most impressive monuments, such as Obelisco and Casa Rosada, are in the historic heart. Neighborhoods such as the hipster San Telmo, upscale Palermo and vibrant La Boca are all worth exploring.
Be sure to visit the Colón Theatre and the melancholy Recoleta Cemetery before leaving town.
Uruguay: A short visit (4 days)
A quick ferry from Buenos Aires leads travelers to Colonia.
Charmingly laid back, this lazy town features a few sites to explore, such as the old city walls, the Plaza de Toros bullring and the El Faro Lighthouse.
Montevideo: A seaside capital
Uruguay’s relaxed capital makes for a worthwhile stopover on the way to Brazil.
Soak up the salty sea air with a walk along the Rambla of Montevideo, a sidewalk along the city’s coastline.
Mingle with locals at the bustling Mercado del Puerto (Port Market). If time allows, visit the old town highlights of the Solís Theatre and the Salvo Palace around Plaza Independencia.
Brazil: Tropical fun (2 weeks)
Florianópolis: Beaches and beer
As Brazil’s premier vacation destination, Florianópolis packs out with sun-loving revelers during holiday periods.
To mingle with the rich and famous—both on the beach and in the bars—head to the upscale Jurerê.
Foz do Iguacu: The great falls
The awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls are among the most amazing cataracts on Earth. Dedicate a full day each to both the Argentine and Brazilian side.
Cobblestone streets and colorful colonial houses define this coastal town. Its pristine beaches and tropical surroundings are icing on the cake.
Check out the historical center or catch some rays on the Barra do Corumbê beach.
Active travelers can kayak through the Jabaquara Mangroves. Or swim and snorkel on a boat trip of the outlying coves with a popular Brazilian cocktail, the caipirinha.
Rio de Janerio: Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City)
The Latin American dream destination, world-famous Rio is the ideal grand finale to your epic South American adventure.
The views from Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountain are second to none, and the atmosphere at Copacabana and Ipanema beach are unparalleled.
Let’s not forget about Lapa, where the all-night samba-infused dance-a-thons are out of this world.
Sound like a bit too much? Hop across to the island of Ilha Grande to relax and unwind.
Whew! Well, that concludes our six-month South American adventure.
This expansive itinerary showcases the best the region has to offer. Note, however, that we’ve barely touched on Brazil. Occupying about a third of the entire continent, it would take at least three more months to give it the attention it deserves.
Whether you have a week, month, six months or a year to spare, now you know the best spots in each country. Go buy your first ticket and start practicing your salsa dancing!
Harry is a South American-based freelance writer who covers travel, the arts, and culture, among many other things.
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