South America Travel and Backpacking Guide
South America is a fascinating continent where you can see ancient ruins, vibrant cultures, spectacular beaches and enjoy the atmosphere of the worlds best carnivals. Get information, advice and inspiration for the best things to do if you would like to travel in South America.
South America Travel Ideas
Travel to South America
Our South America destination guide aims to give you all the information you need to have an amazing experience in this amazing country. Find affordable travel and backpacking ideas with advice for amazing things to do and how you can be more than just your average traveller.
You can also get recommendations for budget travel tips, tips for places to stay and advice how to stay safe. Get inspired to visit South America today!
At a glance:
- Number of countries in South America - 12
- Largest city in South America - São Paulo (11,500,000 approx)
- Continent area - 18,000,000 km2 (approx)
- Population - 400,000,000 (approx)
Top Reasons to Travel to South America
Visiting South America will be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. If you need some convincing that this continent is for you here are some top reasons to go:
- Experience new cultures and destinations
- There are so many different experiences available
- Incredible world famous tourist sights like Machu Picchu waiting to be explored
- South America is a relatively cheap compared to other travel destinations
- Mix with friendly locals and practise your language skills
- Make new friends with other travellers from all over the world
Best Things to See & Do in South America
There are so many highlights of South America, here are some of our top recommendations:
- Exploring cities like Rio de Janerio, Cusco, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Cartagena
- Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru - possibly the best travel experience you can do in the world
- Visiting the spectacular Galapagos Islands and getting close to exotic wildlife
- Heading South to Patagonia for breathtaking scenery
- Going to the Foz do Iguaçu on the Argentina and Brazil border where you can see spectacular waterfalls which are now one of the New Severn Natural World Wonders
- Exploring the Pantanal in Brazil which is one of the most diverse wetland watersystem in the world
- Seeing the worlds biggest salt flat Salar de Uyuni located in Bolivia where the earth and skyline seem to merge into one
- Venture off the beaten track to the Canaima National Park in Venezuela, you will get to witness up close the worlds tallest waterfall - Angel Falls
- Visiting Easter Island, Chile which has stunning scenery and famous headstones
- Going off the beaten track to see the Kaieteur Falls in Guyana
- Going trekking in the beautiful Amazon Jungle
What to Know Before You Go
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).
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!
Travelling 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.
South America Travel Tips
Getting to South America
The importance of finding discount flights to destinations is of paramount importance where if you get to save money you will get to do as much as possible within a tight budget.
Fortunately, there are plenty of flight operators around the globe offering low-cost alternatives to the expensive flights advertised by major airlines allowing you get to destinations in the continent for a low cost. Flights to South America can vary in price and we recommend booking well in advance to get the best deal.
You can find cheap hotels, hostels and guest houses throughout the continent.
There is an established air, rail and bus transport system connecting the whole of South America, thousands of travellers visit this continent annually.
To get the best value travel by bus and make sure you haggle at bus stations for the cheapest tickets, there are usually lots of companies competing and all will be willing to do business with you and offer you a discount to book with them. Also be wary of people approaching you at bus stations, this might sound pretty obvious but be wary if someone is close to your belongings or asks you to carry something.
Some bus journeys are really long to be prepared, you might want to buy a blanket, pillow, food and drink. You might also want to wear a comfy pair of trousers instead of jeans, also carry valuables on you like your passport as you might need regular access on border crossing for example.
Costs & Suggested Daily Budget
If you are going travelling in South America then finance is always going to be a prime consideration. Your budget is likely to have a big influence on what you do and where you visit and what you do.
You will need to research all destinations as some countries you can budget for around £10 (US$25) per day whilst in other places like Brazil might a lot higher around £25 per day (US$40). Food and accommodation will be the biggest cost.
Before arrival ensure you have sufficient funds for your trip. Brazil is very expensive whilst other countries offer better value for money. For an average month you will need to budget for around £500 (US$800) but this depends on where you go and what you want to do.
Check that your credit and ATM cards are working and don’t forget to notify your bank about your upcoming adventure. Additionally obtain as much information as possible regarding bank charges and make sure an emergency fund is available for any unforeseen circumstances.