Backpacking · Travel

4 Months in South America: Itinerary and Budget

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).

The Route

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.

The Budget

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).

The Itinerary

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.

Brazil:

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.

rio

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.

ilha-grande

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.

trindade

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.

sao-paulo

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.

Argentina/Chile:

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.

iguazu

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).

buenos-aires

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…

torres-del-paine

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.

glacier

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.

DCIM101GOPRO

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.

mendoza

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.

santiago

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.

DCIM101GOPRO

Bolivia:

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.

uyuni

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.

sucre

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.

la-paz

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.

isla-del-sol

Peru:

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.

cusco

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.

macchu-picchu

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.

lima

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. 

mancora

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.

Colombia

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.

medellin

 

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.

DCIM101GOPRO

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:

lonely-planet

 

 

 

 

 

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19 thoughts on “4 Months in South America: Itinerary and Budget

  1. Thanks for the great review of all the places you visited, sounds like an amazing trip! Myself and my girlfriend are planning to do a very similar itinerary and also have 4 months to do it in. I was wondering if you could tell me how many days you spent in each country? And do you think its possible to include a week or so in Ecuador in the same time frame? Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Glad you liked it! Can’t remember exactly but something along these lines: 3 weeks in Brazil (but that’s 10 days in Rio over carnival), a month in Argentina, 10 days in Chile, 3 weeks in Peru, 3 weeks in Bolivia and 2 weeks in Colombia. You could definitely do Ecuador – we actually did go through and spent just a night in Quito on our way up to Colombia but would have loved to spend a week or so we just ran out of time! You could take time away from Rio and Argentina and spend that time in Ecuador instead? Really hope you have a great trip and thanks for commenting – anything else don’t hesitate to ask! Happy travels!

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  2. This is incredibly, incredibly helpful! Thanks so much for putting this together. I’m planning on travelling SA and so clueless as to where to start etc, so thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. So glad you found it helpful! It’s actually super easy to travel around once you’re there but good to have an idea of a route and a budget before you set off. Happy travels … you’ll have the BEST time!

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  3. Hi! I found this SO helpful, so thank you! I am a British female traveller (21) who is planning on doing a similar route but solo. I just wondered if you found it easy to meet people in these areas, and whether you felt safe? I am currently learning some Spanish which should hopefully help. Any advice is welcome, thanks again for such a good post!

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    1. Hey Abi – yeah for sure! Lots of people do the same/a similar route so you often end up meeting and then seeing the same people over and again. There’s a big backpacker scene in South America so in any of the hostels you’ll meet lots of people. The tours are also really good cos you’re with the same group for the activity (some like the salt flats or Macchu picchu will last a few days). In terms of safety I never really felt unsafe but you also still need to use your common sense with some things, like not walking alone at night in some places but most places are super safe, super friendly and will make you feel so welcome! Spanish will definitely help as well with meeting locals and non English speaking travellers. Jealous you’ve got it all to look forward to – you’ll have a blast!!

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  4. This sounds like an amazing trip and there is some really useful information here, thank you! My girlfriend and I are looking to do pretty much this exact itinerary. We only have 3.5 months (16 weeks) though, do you think this is enough time? We are flying in and out of Patagonia (fly from BA and then fly back to Santiago) to save time. Where would you advise to cut short if you were trying to save some time?

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    1. Yeah definitely enough time! You could do the exact same itinerary no problems since we spent about 10 nights each in Rio and Buenos Aires which you could do in a little less. I’d say that’s definitely do-able in 16 weeks. Happy travels!

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  5. Loved reading this so much, thank you! Hope you’re having fun in NZ. Did you bus straight to Buenos Aires from Sao Paolo? What was your reason for missing out Uruguay? Time/money or just didn’t seem that fun?

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    1. Hey Jen, no we went from Sรฃo Paulo to Iguassu on the night bus, and then another night bus from Iguassu to BA. I definitely recommend night buses to save money on accommodation and free up your days for the fun stuff! Just time and money for Uruguay so if you’ve got both of these then definitely go! Enjoy!

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  6. Hello! Thanks so much for this; looks insane. My husband and I are pretty much replicating the itinerary but I wondered if you could tell me more about the season/weather during your time. We can either go January – May or July – December. Out of the two which timeframe would be more suitable? July-Dec means missing carnival but would we be luckier with the weather in general? Thank you so so much. Harriet

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    1. We went February – May and, although not blazing sunshine everywhere we went, couldn’t really complain at all about the weather. I can’t speak from experience for the other months but my personal opinion would be choosing carnival over potentially better weather. It really is a once in a lifetime experience. Have a wonderful trip!

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  7. Hey! Thanks for posting this, its helped me so much with planning my trip! In terms of buses, are they available to catch from all the places mentioned on this page? and did you have to book any in advance? Just wondering if they become infrequent/unreliable in southern Argentina/Chile? for example was it a direct bus from Puerto Madryn to Puerto Natales?. Lastly, did you not have time/money to visit Ushuaia or was it a case of you didn’t think it’d be worth it? Thank you so much!

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  8. Hi Lottie, thanks for the great information! I’m currently in Santiago and had to show proof of onwards travel before they let me board the plane which I didn’t have so booked a bus from Chile to Argentina as proof. Just wondering if I need proof again if following your route back and forwards between Chile and Argentina going south by bus and if you ran into any problems? Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

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  9. This is a great post! I’ve been thinking of going to South America for some time and have been overwhelmed with how much there is to do and where to start! I’ve finally started to put a trip down on paper (very similar to yours) from January to around March/April and am interested to know if you took buses everywhere, or if you took any flights? Did you book transport as you went, or did you book anything in advance? Thanks in advance!

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    1. Hi Jennifer – I’m glad you liked it! So jealous you’re jetting off soon you will have the most amazing time. We didn’t fly anywhere because we had plenty of time so decided to take cheap (but long) bus journeys over more expensive (but much less time consuming) flight. But I’d suggest if you’re more time-poor and can spare the money flights might sometimes be your best options, especially for the really long journeys. We didn’t book any transport in advance, just as we went. We mostly booked our bus back out of each place for a few days later once we arrived to the bus station on our way in. We did this because on one occasion we went to book a bus for that day and it was full, but I’d say apart from that time we could have actually just bought on each day, it’s all very relaxed. Hope that helps!

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  10. This breakdown is just what I needed! Thank you so much for sharing your tips. Definitely very helpful. My question is about clothing. The weather obviously varies widely in Patagonia and S. Argentina to the rest of South America. What did you do about outerwear? Did you bring any thick coats (therefore taking up loads of space). How did you dress for Patagonia and the icebergs?

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