Let me start this post off by saying no amount of time travelling around South America is enough. However long you stay, you'll wish you could stay more. It's the most amazing continent. That said, we're all restricted by time and/or money (sigh) so here's the lowdown if you've got some money in the bank, a couple of months spare and want to have the trip of a lifetime.
We were lucky in that we had no time restrictions – we quit our jobs and wouldn't return to the UK after our travels but would fly to New Zealand to start a new working holiday adventure there – our main restriction was money. If you find yourself in the opposite category and want to do South America a lot quicker, just swap out the long overnight buses and catch more flights. We had all the time in the world and the buses were a lot cheaper than flying so this made sense for us, but they are long (many coming in at 24 hours +) so if you're cramming in the trip into your annual leave entitlement they make zero sense. If you're like most backpackers and fall into 'broke AF and need to get back home in time for uni/job' then it's probably best to still get the buses and maybe cut out some destinations (not what you want to hear, but internal flights in SA will quickly eat into your budget).
Before we set off on our trip, we did a bit of research into routes that made sense. Since we had the time, we knew we wanted to try and see as much as possible so the standard 'down one side and up the other' route worked for us. We started in Brazil and traveled down the East coast of the continent through Argentina and then back up the other side back and forth from Argentina and Chile, through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador (briefly) and finished in Colombia. This is the most common route and we met a lot more people doing it this way round than in reverse. If you've not got time to do the whole thing, you can skip going as far South as we did and shoot across the country to head back up the other side some time around Buenos Aires (although this does mean missing out Patagonia… not a decision to take lightly). Got more time? Add on a visit to The Amazon or The Galápagos Islands if you've got cash to burn.
We also had a little look into how long this kind of route would take and how much it was likely to set us back. Most people echoed my opening remarks that you couldn't easily put the perfect amount of time onto the route but somewhere between 3 and 6 months seemed common. In terms of budget, most sites I visited said that £1,000 a month per person (about $2,000 NZD), not including flights. In general, this isn't a bad estimate if you're staying in dorms and going to be fairly sensible with your money while you're there. We knew we'd mostly be sticking with budget options but didn't want to stay in dorms so knew we'd need a little more double rooms. With this in mind, we decided to aim for 4-5 months and to save £5,000 for the trip; we figured that would hopefully have enough for 4 and anything longer would be a bonus.
The result? A 4 month trip coming in probably just a teeny bit over £5,000 each (there may have been a few impromptu dips into the overdraft along the way).
Warning: This is a long post – a beast really – but a few people have asked for a breakdown of where we went and what we did in each place so feel free to stop here or just skip to wherever interests you.
Rio: A wonderful place to kick off your South American adventure, especially if you can time it with Carnival like we did. It's vibrant, busy and filled with amazing cuisine, culture and activities. If Carnival falls at some point during your trip (it starts at the end of February in 2017) but not at the beginning, I strongly recommend re-jigging this itinerary a little so that you can include it; it's not to be missed. Stay in Lapa (BananaZ hostel is a great choice) where most of the action happens in terms of street parties and festivities and book ahead if you're going to be there for Carnival. Even with booking ahead, most accommodation prices double for Carnival week. Spend your days wandering around the centre, heading to the beaches and visiting the sights. My top tip here would be to hike up to the top of Corcovado rather than getting a bus to Christ the Redeemer. It's so worth it.
Ilha Grande: A short (by South American standards) bus and boat away from Rio is beautiful Ilha Grande. After the craziness of Rio, you'll relish the lack of wifi and a few lazy days spent on the beach with barely anyone around. If lazing on the beach isn't your thing, there are plenty of hikes across the island. Most spots have a marked route to Lopes Mendes, an absolutely stunning beach. Tip: all those backpackers in Rio for carnival? Yep, they're heading to Ilha Grande too. Book ahead and be prepared for inflated prices.
Paraty: A picturesque town with cobbled streets, Paraty brings the South American buzz back after the R&R in Ilha Grande. Spend hours roaming around the town, sampling Cachaça and eating on the cheap. Take the bus out of town for a day in Trindade, another gorgeous beach with beautiful natural pools.
São Paulo: 'Don't bother with São Paulo', 'it's just a generic city', 'there's nothing to do'. We heard this from a few people before we left. We decided we still wanted to check it out and I'm so glad we did. Maybe it's because we went during the weekend or because our expectations were low, but São Paulo was fun, vibrant and kept us well entertained for our stay. Sure, you don't need to spend ages there, but a couple of days to explore Ibirapuera Park, the Football Museum and, of course, check out the Sushi (São Paulo has a high Japanese population = great sushi) definitely won't go amiss in your itinerary.
Wish we didn't skip: Florianopolis: We were told to check the weather before planning this into our route and, unfortunately, the forecast was all rain, rain, rain. From what I understand this place is a-ma-zing if the weather's good so it's definitely worth looking in to.
Geographically, it doesn't make sense to do all your stops in Argentina and then all your stops in Chile. You'll need to zig-zag in and out a few times as you work your way back up the West Coast of the Continent. Luckily, you're able to do this on the standard tourist visa so no worries about crossing borders here.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina (and Brazil): Iguazu falls are an absolute must for your South American adventure. No description I could give here could do them justice, just promise me you'll go. You can see them from both the Argentinian side and the Brazilian side, do both. The Brazilian side gives you the awesome panoramic, wide-lens view of the whole spectacle, whilst the Argentinian side lets you get up close and personal with the falls. You will get wet.
Buenos Aires. Argentina: Oh, Buenos Aires, you will always have my heart. I absolutely loved it. Steak, wine, tango, gorgeous architecture, beautiful people, markets, more steak, more wine… it's got all the best things and more. If you're after the buzzing nightlife scene, stay at either of the Millhouse hostels in the centre (it's a bit heavy on the 'organised fun' but you can be sure you'll know the best places to go each night), otherwise, stay in Palermo for a more chic experience. You could spend weeks here, but if you've only got a few days spend them exploring each of the different zones, paying close attention to La Recoleta cemetary and the seriously cool bar scene in Soho. Make sure to go to a tango and dinner show, you will be amazed by the dancing (and the wine is unlimited).
Could have skipped: Puerto Madryn, Argentina: To be honest, a bit of a let-down after Buenos Aires. The town itself doesn't have much to offer at all but the real attraction is Peninsula Valdes, a UNESCO world heritage site where you can spot penguins, seals, sea lions, whales and, if you're really lucky, orcas. I think we were just unlucky; it wasn't the right season for whales so we knew that was out of the equation but guess we scared off all the penguins and orcas too. I'm pretty sure if we'd seen what we really wanted to see I'd be raving about it but really there's not much else there so if you have your heart set on spotting some beautiful orcas (like I did), read up on when they were last spotted and if it's at all likely.
Puerto Natales, Chile: Now we're talking. This felt like real Patagonia. Just so breathtakingly beautiful. Here's where all the towns start to feel like Swiss ski resorts and there's more chocolate and fondue than in your wildest dreams. The real star of the show is Torres Del Paine national park, a hiker's heaven. If you've got time, spend a few days hiking the 'W' trek, otherwise you can do a one-day version that just goes to the base. I know I'm prone to exaggeration, but it really is one of the most awesome things I've ever seen. After a steep climb at the top, you reach a glistening lagoon against the most striking backdrop. I'm gonna shut up and just leave this picture here…
El Calafate, Argetina: Another one where the town itself doesn't offer up a whole load of entertainment, but just a bus ride away is the magnificent Perito Moreno, a spectacular glacier that you could literally stand and watch for hours. You probably will. Huge chunks of ice periodically crash to the water below and the sound is absolutely deafening. You can't help but stand and stare waiting for the next one.
Bariloche, Argentina: The charming Swiss ski-resort feel takes a little bit of a kitsch nose-dive here, but if you just embrace it and enjoy the view you'll be fine. Definitely advise renting a car and driving round the Circuito Chico, a scenic drive with one jaw-dropping view after another. You can also rent bikes and cycle it but that seems like a lot of effort when you could spend that time sampling the ice-cream and blasting some Pitbull on the radio.
Mendoza, Argentina: SO. GOOD. SOOOOO X 1000 GOOD. The wine region. Spend a few days solely drinking wine; good wine, bad wine, cheap wine, fancy wine, red wine, white wine, rose wine, any wine. Take the bus out to Maipú, head over to one of the many places renting bikes and winery maps, and spend a sunny day cycling to winery after winery. It's as fun as it sounds.
Santiago, Chile: Another one to spend a few days just soaking up the culture (and sunshine if you're lucky) and wandering the streets. Take a walk up Cerro Santa Lucía for a break from the city and, if that whets your appetite for a bigger climb, head up to Cerro San Cristóbal for some sweet city views. Take the funicular up if you're feeling lazy (or had too many Pisco Sours the night before). The views from the top are crazy; the city skyline against the backdrop of the Andes isn't something you'll forget in a hurry.
Could have skipped: Salta, Argentina: I'm not sure we really did Salta right because everyone we spoke to before said it was cool but seemed a bit nothing-y to me. We spent a few days recharging, drinking Pisco and sleeping but that was about it. That said, there are some cool day trips you can do from Salta we were just saving our money for the activity-fest that is San Pedro.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: The Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth and boy do you feel it. Mix in the altitude and you definitely need some time to adjust. There's a whole heap of cool stuff to do here; geysers, mountains, sand boarding, star gazing (it's one of the best places on Earth to see the stars) and more. The town is chock-a-block with tour companies so just pick one and book a few. It's always been a dream of mine to really see the milky way so the stargazing would be my top pick. Unfortunately, you need a boss camera to take decent photos so just Google it and then imagine actually being there; dreamy. From San Pedro, book your 3 day/2 night Salar de Uyuni tour. If you've got time, it's worth doing the 3 day tour over the shorter options. The tour starts in San Pedro and finishes up in Uyuni, Bolivia. You can do the same tour starting from Uyuni and finishing in San Pedro if you're doing the route in reverse.
Uyuni: Oh. My. God. The Uyuni salt flats. You've seen all the pictures, you've heard about it before, but nothing can prepare you for looking out onto miles and miles (and miles and miles) of pure white. Breathtaking. The tour will put you with a group of about 6 and you'll be cooped up in a tiny, rickety 4×4 for 3 days but you'll probably laugh more than you've ever done and you'll definitely see things you'll never forget; geysers, stunning rock formations, lagoons, flamingos, the famous Salar de Uyuni and even a train cemetery (yes, that's a thing). Pack warm layers for the night… and maybe some booze for good measure.
Could have skipped: Potosi: Not much to report on. We only went as it was the only option that worked timing-wise. There's a silver-mine tour you can do but it all seems a bit strange as the workers have to endure famously bad conditions and deaths are common. Give it a miss.
Sucre: Plenty of side streets to explore and, more importantly, plenty of cheap eats to devour. You'll be wrecked after your Uyuni tour (5am starts most days) so just chill out here for a couple of days. Walking around the city is fascinating and you get a real sense of Bolivian culture. There's also a dinosaur museum nearby with fossilised dinosaur footprints and a so-bad-it's-good karaoke scene.
La Paz: The international food scene is awesome here, and not in a pretentious way. Obviously one of the best things about travelling is the local cuisine (and no one likes a backpacker who travels half way around the world only to hit up McDs every meal), but treat yourself to a break from South American fare and see La Paz as a little culinary round-the-world. I'm not talking expensive here, just lots of cool little bars and restaurants serving up Indian, Mexican, Dutch, Italian and more. The tourist scene is a little gimmicky; they really push the whole 'highest capital'/'most dangerous city' thing but just roll with it as there are some really great things to do if you look beyond these 'accolades' (neither of which are really true anyway as technically Sucre is the capital and it doesn't even make the top 50 most dangerous cities these days). Do the Red Cap Walking Tour one afternoon (it's free), spend a day cycling down Death Road, and definitely check out the food markets for the best avocado sandwiches EVER.
Copacabana and Isla Del Sol: We arrived in Copacabana with monster hangovers from our time in La Paz and went from bus to bed without even a second glance. It was only when we woke up (very late) the next day that we realised our room had an awesome view of the highest navigable lake in the world (I still don't know what navigable means), Lake Titicaca. It's gorgeous. Copacabana is a cute little spot for a little recharge after La Paz. Catch the boat to Isla Del Sol for a few days cut off from the world eating the most delicious 'trucha' (trout) you've ever had. The North end of the island is more basic but you can walk to the Chincana Ruins, whilst the Southern end has some stunning little rooms. We saw one of the most unbelievable things of our whole trip during our night at the Northern end; the moon rising over the lake in the most beautiful light imaginable. It was truly stunning.
Cusco: A really cool little intro to Peru, Cusco is more than just your gateway to Macchu Picchu. You don't need too long here, but a day or so to wander around, explore the city and try your first taste of Peruvian food (so good) is certainly a good idea.
Macchu Picchu: You really don't need me to tell you how worth it this is. It's magnificent. There are a few options here:
- The Inca Trail: The original 4 day trek to Macchu Picchu and definitely worth it if it fits with your plans. The reason I say this is that it has to be booked in advance (only a certain number of people can set off each day) and costs a bomb (we're talking up to $2000 NZD), two criteria that don't fit with your average backpacker
- The Salkantay Trek: I can't say much as we didn't do it but from what I gather it's a cheaper and more flexible version of the Inca Trail. Just as gruelling, just as tough, and I'm sure just as worth it in the end
- The Jungle Trek: A multi-activity adrenaline fueled 4 day tour which involves zip lining, rafting, mountain biking and hiking your way to Machhu Picchu. We went for this option after loads of recommendations from fellow travellers and did not regret. One of the best bits of our trip. So much fun. You can book from tons of different places in Cusco; we went for Loki Travel and I would definitely recommend.
Lima: Bright, colourful and another one for some great cheap eats (and some fancier options too if you're feeling a bit posh). Stay in Miraflores and take a walking tour of the city to get the best of both worlds.
Huanchacho: Huanchaco is a seriously cool little beach town where you can spend a few lazy days catching some rays or try your hand at surfing. The place is dotted with vibrant cafes and little spots to enjoy a glass of wine and some of Peru's famous Ceviche or Arroz de Mariscos (seafood rice). I blame the copious volume of Pisco consumed for the lack of photos.
Mancora: First up I've got to say that the Loki hostel in Mancora has got to be one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in. I say hostel, but it feels more like a resort. For next to nothing, we had a simple enough room but the real treats were the private balcony overlooking the beach, the massive pool, the buzzing bar and the hammocks. Treat Mancora as your holiday from your holiday and just soak up the sun for a couple of days. Absolutely stay at Loki.
Wish we didn't skip: Ecuador
Fortunately for us we found some super cheap flights from Bogotá to New Zealand while we were in Lima. Unfortunately for us that only left us with 3 weeks to finish up Peru and do Ecuador and Colombia. We made the executive decision to skip through Ecuador and focus on Colombia rather than trying to squeeze both in. I'm glad we did this as I loved Colombia, but being the greedy girl I am I just wish we could have done both. One day.
Wish we didn't skip: Cali: Being so rushed, we also decided to skip Cali too. We didn't meet many people that had been there but those who had only had good things to say.
Medellin: Ah, Medellin, the city of eternal spring. It's just the most wonderful place to visit. Gone are the days when backpackers have anything to worry about safety wise, Medellin is a traveller's paradise. Locals will approach you with utmost sincerity thanking you for believing in their city and helping to rebuild its reputation. For a great day learning about the history and culture behind the city, the Real City Walking Tour is consistently voted amongst the top things to do in the city. You'll also want to book onto a Pablo Escobar tour to learn a little more than Narcos teaches you and take the cable car up to Parque Arví. More great food, more lovely people and more great weather. South America really does have it all.
Cartagena: One of the most colourful places I've ever been. It's boiling hot, the nightlife is buzzing and the locals are super friendly. Another place to just kick back and have a little explore. Why I don't have any photos of this stunning place I do not know, too busy admiring the view I guess!
Taganga: If you thought Cartagena was hot get ready for Taganga. Step out the shower and you'll be covered in sweat within 5 seconds… nice. The diving here is insane and the seafood is sublime. It's an awesome spot for diving by day and sipping some cocktails on the beach at night.
Bogotá: Bogotá itself is a little bit of an anticlimax (it's not like some of the other towns where just wandering around is an enjoyable enough way to spend the day), but it's definitely worth at least a day. The bike tour came recommended to us by loads of people and I can see why; it's a novel way to explore the city and learn some more about its fascinating history.
Phew, we made it to the end. Told you it was a beast of a post but if it makes just one of you book those flights and embark on your own South American adventure, it's worth it.
PS shout out to this lifesaver: