South America is a fascinating continent to visit, here you can see remarkable ancient cultures, enjoy the atmosphere of the worlds best carnivals or relax on tropical beaches. Our South America travel guide features hundreds of packages, backpacking ideas and activities in destinations throughout the continent. Travelling in South America will be one of the most amazing experiences of your life, get inspired to visit today!
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There are so many highlights of South America, here are some of our top recommendations:
Travelling around South America is becoming easier and easier due to its increase in popularity for backpack toting travellers wanting a slice of Latin America. Affectionately coined the ‘gringo trail,’ backpackers have an easy go-to route through each country, following the most popular sites and cities.
From the fabulously flamboyant Rio de Janeiro, the urban hipster central of Medellin, the (literally) breath-taking La Paz, the vino central of Mendoza to tango town Buenos Aires, South America is jam packed with really cool places to go and things to do. Although the Gringo Trail is well-trodden, I encourage you to seek out other less visited places to really make your experience worthwhile. Machu Picchu is an obvious when in Peru; it would be foolish to miss out this Incan city in the clouds. However, a visit to lesser known Ciudad Perdida in Colombia will, I promise, be on another level. Hidden well within the depths of the jungle, Ciudad Perdida really is the Lost City, as the name translates. It’s a hard, hard slog to get there but it’s an experience like no other and you won’t regret it!
Being a continent as enormous as South America is, it comes with oodles of diversity. We’re talking different languages, cultures, cuisines, traditions… and let’s not forget the indigenous tribal people still living in remote far flung corners of the steaming Amazon rainforest. Cultural sensitivity is key when travelling from one country to the next. And with borders so lax as they are here, it is easy to slip between one and the next. (I actually hopped back and forth across the Brazil/Colombia border four times without seeing a trace of border control!) One example of this is please don’t try and speak Spanish to Brazilians. It’s Portuguese or nothing!
One piece of advice when considering backpacking around South America is give yourself time. It is HUGE and the last thing you want to do is tear yourself away from your new favourite spot because the bus is calling to the next stop on the way. Oh, and there’s another tip, don’t book things too far in advance. Thanks to a general laid-back feeling across the continent it is easy to find somewhere to stay. South America is full of hostels, some of which are super cool, so don’t worry that you won’t have a bed to sleep in after one too many Caipirinhas!
Speaking of buses, be prepared to reacquaint yourself with public transport if you’re thinking of going to South America. Covering some of the distances are a feat in themselves – from the Amazonian gateway city of Manaus in the north of Brazil to the concrete jungle of Sao Paolo in the south, you’re thinking of 2000+ miles! Air travel is entirely possible but working on a backpacker budget, buses will be your go to. They can be a little hair-raising at times but being crammed into an old bus with locals, children, chicken, sheep and some really naff curtains is a ‘can’t help but smile’ moment. So, don’t sit back in your seat in defeat. It is Well. Worth. It.
Paying for all these experiences is another thing. An idea of the different currencies will also serve you well when border hopping. Knowing the exchange rate from pounds to Bolivia’s Boliviano, Brazilian Real and the difference between Chilean Peso (£1 = $846.6200) and Argentinian Peso (£1 = $20.2638) might seem confusing when you just want to live the dream, but it will save your hard-earned cash in the long run. Download an app like XE Currency Converter and let that do the maths so you’re clued up with your cash.
Also take a minute to consider the vaccinations you may need in order to enter certain countries. Whilst most don’t require it, it is recommended all travellers have a yellow fever vaccination for countries such as Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. Malaria is prevalent within Amazonian areas so well worth investing in tablets just be sure to check the side-affects - doxycycline can make your skin feel prickly under the sun and leave you with some serious trippy dreams! Travel Pharm offer tablets at competitive prices).
Now, there’s no denying some countries in South America has had a colourful past when it comes to drugs, cartels and gangs. In the last decade Colombia has blossomed as a benefit of increased tourism and is rapidly becoming one of the most desirable destinations (it recently made Lonely Planet’s list of top countries to travel in 2017). Gone are the days of innocent civilians being caught up in the feud between the drug cartels that made Pablo Escobar famous however Colombia is still a producer of coca leaves, the key ingredient of cocaine. With this in mind it is highly recommended to bear in mind personal safety after dark and in certain areas wherever you might be. But as potentially experienced travellers that you are that common-sense thinking should be second to none as you venture around the world!
Backpacking to South America has never been easier before with the ever-increasing popularity driving hostel numbers and implementing better infrastructure. If you’re anything like me, booking a trip South America will evoke emotions ranging from excited to apprehensive but trust me, you will only be left with delightful, fond memories.
There are lots of horror stories which make you be put off by travelling in this continent but don't let these hold you back. Every country in the world has risks and South America doesn't have any specific risks to put you off. Always research countries to get informed about local customs and traditions, we hghly recommend trying to meet other people by chatting in hostels for example. Its safer, easier and usually more fun to travel in a group. Here are some other recommendations:
Our South America travel guide was contributed to by Lana Elway.