Whether you're cramming as much as you can into just a few weeks, or you have months to enjoy yourself, there is plenty to fill your time. 

Claudia Macdonald and her friend just finished two months of exploring just four of these countries: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru.

The list is truly endless of what you can get up to and we could easily have spent two months in each of these countries, but there are certain things we tried and feel you just can't miss out on. 

Check out the essential things to do in South America and start planning a dream trip to this incredible continent.


1. Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil

One of the most stunning natural wonders of the World, Iguazu Falls sits at the border of Argentina and Brazil, and can be viewed from both countries.

We took a flight from Buenos Aires to Iguazu and were lucky enough to have our pilot's request, to redirect the flight, granted so that we flew a figure-of-eight directly about the waterfall.

If you do fly into Iguazu then it's always worth asking if this is possible. The majority of the waterfalls sit on the Argentinian side, but if you have time then it is definitely worth seeing Iguazu Falls from the Brazilian side as well.  From Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, buses frequently run every day for a cost of about $11 for a return ticket.

Make sure to take plenty of water with you, as buying it there is very expensive. You will then have to purchase your tickets to enter the park once you arrive, which cost about $30, although for young children and those with International Student ID cards it is cheaper.

I would recommend starting with the Lower Trail as it tends to be least busy in the morning. From here it is as if the waterfalls and views on the way are preparing you to witness the works of the giant that is the main waterfall.

By then taking the Upper Trail it will lead you to the Devil's Throat, a wooden platform that places you right on top of the waterfall, staring into its depths.

Your day could happily end having just enjoyed the undoubtedly stunning views, however if you are more of the thrill-seeking type then there is nothing quite like taking the boat into the heart of the waterfall and really experiencing the power of all that falling water - but be prepared, you will get soaked!

But for just $20 it is definitely worth it, and you'll dry off a lot quicker than the amazing memory will fade. 

View Argentina tours / Brazil tours.


2. Rio de Janeiro Carnival, Brazil 

Rio de Janeiro Carnival Experience

Obviously the date of this week-long party changes with every year, but if there is absolutely any chance that you can coincide your trip to Brazil with this party, then it's an absolute must.

This is one of the best carnivals in the world, a white-sand beach with a backdrop of mountains to one side, and a buzzing city to the other, the city of Rio de Janeiro really does have all the right ingredients to make it an amazing place to visit.

During the Carnival, it is like an entire new energy is adopted by the city, a time when anything goes, and no choice of fancy dress is too extreme - even if you are dressed up and ready to party before you have even had breakfast!

There are so many things to do during Carnival in Rio and every person, no matter what age, seems to take to the streets and some of the best parties can be found following the free, local Blocas, where percussion bands march through the streets for hours on end, with throngs of people dancing in tow.

At night the percussion bands are swapped for massive speakers mounted on trucks, or open-topped buses, and the dancing continues until the early hours of the morning. An absolute dream for a traveller looking for a great party, since all of this can be experienced for no cost whatsoever.

However, if you are willing to invest a little more, then a visit to the Sambadrone to see the official parade is an absolute must - a blur of every colour, sewn and moulded into some of the most impressive costumes you will ever have seen that dance and twist their way through the middle of a roaring crowd.

Tickets range in price depending on location, and there are plenty opportunities to purchase them once in Rio, so no need to rush into any commitments before you travel. 

Search Rio Carnival packages.


3. Death Road, Bolivia

Death Road Bolivia

For those seeking a thrill, this is the ultimate test and completely unmissable.

Known as the most dangerous road in the World, Death Road really does live up to standards. At parts you cycle with the mountain on one side and a 300m drop on the other, with barely more than a metre or so of road.

With the path very rocky at times, skidding is almost inevitable, but just watch yourself going through the waterfall known as the gringo-killer (your guide will point it out to you!). From La Paz, Bolivia, there are dozens of companies offering very similar trips, and essentially all will take you down the same road. But when it comes to choosing a company, I wouldn't exercise your bartering techniques.

You are much better to go for a mid-high range company like Gravity Assisted (there is a particularly good English guide that works here called Kieren), Xtreme Downhill or Mountain Madness and pay a little extra, to ensure you have all the right safety gear, good quality bikes and a guide that will really know what to do if something did go wrong - just exercise some precaution and sensibility and you'll be absolutely fine!

Having said this, all trips range in price from about $50 - $110 and tend to include all kit, transport to and from the place, snacks, lunch, a copy of the photos taken by the company, and usually a 'survivors' t-shirt. If you have a GoPro or similar camera then it's definitely worth taking it, as the views are absolutely fantastic, and almost all companies will have at least some helmets already with brackets to fit a GoPro to. 

View ideas for a Bolivia gap year,


4. Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia 

Salt Flats Bolivia

This is just something you can't avoid doing.

All tours start from a town called Uyuni but buses to there, and Salt Flat tours, can be booked from all over the country. If you are in La Paz, the 11 hour coach is best taken over night, and there is the option of fully or partially reclining chairs and having meals included or not - it's entirely up to your own preference and your budget. The amount of time you have will clearly dictate the sort of tour you opt for, as there are many options.

If you are really pushed for time, then give the sunrise or sunset tour a go. The Salt Flats look absolutely stunning under the reddish-orange light, and can provide excellent opportunities for photos.

Otherwise, a whole day tour allows you to see the ancient trains that were used to transports minerals all round Bolivia (a bit like a historical climbing frame for adults!), will give you time on the Salt Flats to snap those photos of you sat on top of an apple or being attacked by dinosaurs or climbing out of a shoe, and enjoy a typical Bolivian lunch.

If you're struggling for photo ideas then a quick search on Google will sort that out. Companies also offer the opportunity for a 3 day, 2 night tour (this is what we did).

The first part follows the same routine as the a one-day, but you are then taken further on where there are fewer people about. Do not expect luxury accommodation, it's basic but that's part of the beauty, however the food at every meal is delicious and they always make sure there is more than enough.

Over the length of the tour you visit the volcanoes, go through the national park, visit a beach full of flamingoes, relax in a natural hot spring, stand in the steam erupting from a volcano (you can actually see the lava in the ground), watch beautiful sunsets and sunrises, and come across some of the best views of lakes and natural landscapes.

However, you do spend a long time in the car, and only on the first day do you see the Salt Flats, so if you're only interested in the salt flats I would opt for one of the first options. A little tip: despite it being cold, I was really sun burnt after the first day of this trip, so don't be fooled - remember sun cream. 

Search Bolivia adventure tours.


5. Machu Picchu, Peru 

Machu Picchu Peru

Being one of the seven wonders of the World, this beautiful city gives us an insight into historical Peruvian, and Inca, traditions, and is something any traveller in South America should visit.

There are plenty of options p depending on budget and time restraints, however it does require a certain level of investment as you will struggle to find an option for less than $100 from Cusco, the closest main city.

All the information you may want to know about visiting Machu Picchu and the different ways to get there can be found on our Machu Picchu tours directory.


6. Stay at Loki Hostels

Loki Hostel South America

I can't promise it's the scene for everybody, but for most travellers it definitely is.

Loki Hostels are located in La Paz (Bolivia), Salta (Argentina), Cusco (Peru), Lima (Peru) and Mancora (Peru). You're guaranteed a clean, comfortable bed, hot and powerful showers, decent wifi, international food and a tour desk that will bend over backwards to make sure you don't miss out.

But more importantly, you're guaranteed to have an amazing time and meet tons of fellow travellers from across the world. Perfect if your planning a budget backpacking trip to gap year in South America.

With a party or an event happening every night, and pretty much every day too, you'll be best buds with everybody there in no time at all, and you'll soon agree with us in thinking that Beer Pong is a sport, and should even be considered as a future event for the Olympics....

Believe me, it gets competitive!

But don't panic, there are hammocks and table tennis for chilling out and the hostels' bars are kept far enough away from the bedrooms so that if you do fancy a quiet night, this is always possible.

The tab system is potentially dangerous for your wallet since you pay your bar bill at the end of your stay, however prices are cheap, there are several happy hours every day and if you chose not to you can always pay for everything in cash.

If you are planning on staying at one of the hostels for 2 weeks or longer you could even consider asking about working behind the bar - we did and we had an amazing time.

Only the best kind of job actively encourages you to dance on the bar and have as much fun working, as you do on your days or nights off, whilst also enjoying the perks of being staff, I.e free accommodation, a free meal a day and 40% off everything! But these are incredibly popular hostels, and to make sure you have a bed you're best to book ahead of time. 


By Claudia Macdonald


Would you like to visit South America? The following pages will help you make the most of your experience: