The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking South America
This week’s blog post is by Jen Ciesielski, the author of Dabbling in Jet Lag, an adventure travel and photography blog. She enjoys the outdoors and loves traveling to off-the-beaten-path destinations. In this guest post, she shares her tips and advice for traveling around South America!
South America has everything. From the Amazon rain forest to the Andes Mountains, it’s a destination that doesn’t do small. And despite their proximity, each country on the continent has a fascinating and unique story to tell.
For those who have the luxury of time, South America beckons to be explored with a long trip. Granted, its sheer size can be intimidating, especially for travelers on a budget. But with a little research and planning, it can be an experience of a lifetime.
I spent four months backpacking from Argentina to Colombia, and it was one of my most memorable trips. Here’s a list of my favorite things to see and do in several countries to help you get inspired and plan your trip!
Located on the border of Argentina and Brazil, this spectacular series of waterfalls is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in South America. There are 275 waterfalls to be exact, surrounded by an impressive array of flora, fauna, and wildlife. A series of footbridges leads you through the dense tropical rain forest to spectacular vantage points.
Salta is a colonial-style town that lies at the foot of the Andes. With its colorful churches, outstanding museums, and mouthwatering empanadas, it’s easy to see why it’s becoming a popular destination. Sign-up for the free walking tour for a complete history of Salta, as well as some insider tips on cool things to do!
This little town is home to 1,070 people and is rarely visited by tourists. It offers pristine trails and beautiful landscapes in complete solitude — a true hiker’s paradise. The three most popular trails are to San Isidro, Mirador de la Cruz, and Mirador el Condor. If you are looking to meet other travelers or talk with locals, this is not the place for you.
Looking for more things to do in Argentina? Check out Matt’s guide here.
Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, spanning nearly 11,000 square kilometers (6,800 square miles). Here the pure white salt stretches to an empty horizon, leaving you completely mesmerized. It’s a dream destination for any travel photographer. There are day tours from Uyuni, but I would recommend a four-day tour that takes you deep into southwestern Bolivia.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this colonial city (one of Bolivia’s two capitals) boasts beautifully manicured parks surrounded by immaculate whitewashed buildings. While it’s not as well-known as some other urban centers in Bolivia, there are endless things to do in Sucre. And it’s one of the cheapest and safest cities in South America, making it an ideal stop for any traveler. For the best panoramic views, head up to Recoleta or Cerro Churuquella.
La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, sits at a staggering elevation of 3,640 meters (11,942 feet). Travelers flock here for its many adventure activities, such as cycling its “Death Road” and climbing Huayna Potosí. My favorites were glacier training, hiking up to Chacaltaya Mountain, and wandering through the Valley of the Moon. If you want to enjoy all La Paz has to offer, plan for at least three days here.
Looking for more tips on visiting the Amazon in Bolivia? Check out a guide here.
Machu Picchu is the most iconic archeological site in South America, attracting tourists from all over the world. This Incan citadel lies on the slopes of the Andes, with magnificent stone carvings amid massive agricultural terraces. While there are several ways to reach Machu Picchu, including direct trains from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, I would recommend a multiday trek. Options include the Lares Trek, the Salkantay Trek, or the famous Inca Trail.
Framed by three towering volcanoes, Arequipa is by far the most beautiful city in Peru. This colonial city is filled with white buildings constructed from sillar (a white volcanic stone), the most impressive being the 17th-century Basilica Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. Other highlights include the Santa Catalina Monastery and the Santuarios Andinos Museum. And if you are up for an adventure, try climbing Chachani, Peru’s 6000-meter (19,700-foot) volcano.
Located five hours south of Lima, Huacachina is an oasis in the middle of the largest sand dunes in South America. Since this was my first stop after climbing Chachani, I chose to spend a few days relaxing poolside. Of course, there are several adventure activities, including sandboarding and dunebuggying. I would recommend doing both activities in the evening so you can watch the sunset over the dunes.
Looking for more things to do in Peru? Check out Matt’s guide here.
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is the second largest reserve in Ecuador. It’s home to a vast array of birds, caymans, anacondas, pink dolphins, and many more species. In fact, the reserve is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, and, by far the most accessible. If you are looking for an unforgettable experience, then Cuyabeno is for you. Tours can be booked in Quito with a typical four-day expedition starting at $270.
Quilotoa Lagoon is a water-filled crater lake in Cotopaxi Province. Formed after the collapse of a now-extinct volcano, this caldera’s most distinct feature is its bright turquoise lagoon. The impressive color comes from the dissolved minerals in the water.
Hike around the crater for panoramic views, or walk down to the lagoon, where you can also kayak. You can visit as a day trip from Quito or spend the night in one of the nearby towns.
Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park is commonly referred to as “the Lake District,” and rightly so! It has over two hundred lakes and lagoons and serves as the water reservoir for the region. It lies at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above the continuous forest line, but below the permanent snowline. This unique location creates an ecosystem called páramo. You can visit as a day trip from Cuenca or spend the night in the park. Either way, come prepared with a rain jacket and warm clothes.
Located in Canar Province, Ingapirca has the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador and can be done as a day trip from Cuenca. The Temple of the Sun is the most significant structure, which is not too surprising given that the sun god, Inti, was one of the most important gods. A guided tour is mandatory to visit the ruins.
Looking for more things to do in Ecuador? Check out Matt’s guide here.
Lost City Trek
Trekking to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) was on top of my bucket list. This ancient archaeological wonder was founded in the eighth century by the indigenous Tayronas, 650 years before Machu Picchu. It’s buried deep in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and can only be reached on foot. It’s a long four- to six-day hike, but if you are up for the challenge, you won’t be disappointed.
Palomino is Colombia’s backpacker beach town. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, but after a short stroll, you will be greeted with the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean coast. If you are looking for a place to relax after the Lost City trek, then Palomino is the ideal place.
Medellín’s well-known tumultuous past is long gone, and its transformation has been remarkable. This innovative and modern city is now one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Colombia. From museums to restaurants and bars, this metropolis is jam-packed with activities. My favorite was the Comuna 13 graffiti tour, which shows off some of the best street art in South America.
Looking for more things to do in Colombia? Check out Matt’s guide here.
How to Save Money in South America
Despite being popular with backpackers, South America can be an expensive destination. Here are my top tips to keep your budget in check.
- Be prepared – Do your research and find the destinations that you want to experience. Popular cities like Cusco are more expensive than places like Sucre. And if you plan on traveling for a few months, consider spending more time in cheaper countries, like Bolivia.
- Prepare food – Buy ingredients from markets and cook your own food. And if you bring your own tupperware, you can make extra for the road.
- Free walking tours – Every city I visited had a free walking tour. It was a great way to explore, meet other travelers, and learn about the history and culture.
- Travel during low or shoulder season – Traveling outside high season will save you A LOT of money. Not only will everything be cheaper, but there will also be fewer people.
- Consider flying – In some countries, like Argentina and Colombia, it can be cheaper to fly than to take the bus.
- Travel apps – Use applications like Busbud to find and compare cheap bus tickets. Uber is also very popular in countries like Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
- Digital banking – Consider using digital banking applications to avoid unwanted fees. These are particularly useful when handling multiple currencies. There are several options available, and it’s only a matter of finding what works for you.
- Slow travel – Travel slower and incorporate more free days on the beach or exploring neighborhoods.
Safety Tips for South America
Is South America safe? That’s one of the first questions travelers ask themselves before embarking on a trip there. The simple answer is, yes. However, there are several precautions you can take to mitigate risks and ensure an enjoyable trip.
- Be informed – Every country has certain areas tourists should avoid, and South America is no different. Do your research and know the safety situation in the areas you plan to visit. It’s also important to be aware of common scams and how to avoid them.
- Beware of altitude sickness – Altitude sickness occurs when you go from sea level to elevations over 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) in a short period of time. Symptoms can range from a throbbing headache to severe nausea. Since many popular destinations, such as Cusco and La Paz, are at high elevations, you should travel more slowly so your body can acclimatize. It’s not worth missing out on a bucket-list adventure because you are sick from the altitude!
- Drink in moderation – This is one of the most common mistakes. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the nightlife, keep in mind that overindulging in alcohol will make you generally more vulnerable. Additionally, it’s not recommended to drink alcohol if you plan on hiking at high elevations as alcohol makes it harder for your body to acclimate.
- Dress modestly – Avoid flashing expensive gadgets and dressing to impress. If you look expensive, you will automatically attract the wrong kind of attention.
- Let others know where you are – While spontaneous adventures are a lot of fun, it’s important to be safe. Email your itinerary to your family and/or friends, so if they don’t hear from you, they can contact the local authorities.
- Spend extra to be safe – In general, buses and roads in South America are often not in the best condition. It’s worth it to spend a little extra to take a bus with a notable safety reputation than one that does not.
- Copy all essential documents – Make sure to have a copy (paper and digital) of your passport, driver’s license, and any other form of ID, so if anything gets stolen, you’ll have some form of ID. It’s also common, especially in La Paz, to be stopped by fake police, so never reveal your real documents; only ever show a copy.
- Learn Spanish – While it’s not mandatory to be fluent in Spanish to travel in South America, it will help. You will be able to interact more with the locals, and, if you need help, a little Spanish will go a long way. I would also recommend downloading Google Translate and a Spanish dictionary.
- Avoid traveling at night – While taking an overnight bus can save time and money, it’s also more dangerous. Try to travel during the day when possible, or break up a long journey with a stopover. If a route has poor road conditions or known safety problems, consider flying.
***With a myriad of cultures and landscapes, backpacking in South America is an experience you won’t forget. Whether you plan on traveling for a week or a year, there is no shortage of things to do. Use this guide to organize your next trip and take advantage of all this magnificent continent has to offer!
Jen Ciesielski is an avid traveler, hiker, adventure seeker, and photographer. She is also the founder of Dabbling in Jet Lag, an adventure travel and photography blog. While originally from Chicago, Jen, now lives in Strasbourg, France. She blogs about her adventures around the world and travel photography, her two passions. You can connect with her on TNN, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.
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