backpacking south america guide

Backpacking Around South America

backpacking south america guide

As you might know, Alberto and I met in Brazil while travelling around South America, so we thought we would shared our combined knowledge and experiences to give some general advice on how to go about tackling this incredible, if slightly disorganised continent. This blog will give you a quick guide to backpacking South America, including the best places visit and potential routes to help you with your own itinerary.

I had my first taste of Latino life living in Mexico City in 2014, after graduating university. I fell in love with the country, the culture and after teaching English for a year there, I spent two months travelling around South America, one month with a friend and another month alone. After working for a year in London to save money, I decided to go and teach in Colombia, where I was reunited with Alberto.

Alberto’s first taste of backpacking was a month in Peru and Bolivia, after which he was thirsting for more. After saving a year and quitting his job, he spent six months travelling South America (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil) with a few friends from home.

Below shows general routes for South America that we took and other possible routes. You should allow at the very least two weeks for each country – and even that can feel a little rushed. It’s definitely better to take your time, do not try to “do” South America in two weeks – South America deserves more love and attention.

suramerica backpacking routes map

Border crossings

Border crossings always take a while, everybody has to get off the bus and get passports stamped. It depends on the border, some can take not too long (less than an hour) and others have very strict security checks, airport style and take several hours (Bolivia-Chile border). Sometimes they will make you pay a “border tax”, enforced by corrupt officials – but it just depends on your luck.

Food.

While each country has their typical dishes, the South American diet is very heavy on meat and carbs, so manage your expectations, especially if you are a health freak. And if you are vegetarian, expect to eat a lot of fried eggs (your meat substitute). Having said that in main cities there is usually more international or western cuisines available. Luckily, you will have access to kitchens in most hostels and it is easy to find vegetables and pasta in local stores.

Punctuality.

Time is elastic. It is better at all you have no concept of time. You will hear “ahorita” a lot – “ahora” means now, -ita is the diminutive. But it is used to mean “later” (i.e. Not now) – and could mean in 2 hours, tomorrow or never.

Buses

The Andean mountains that run down the middle of South America means that journeys are long and altitudes are high.

  • Give yourself time to acclimatise – with cities like La Paz and Cusco over 3500m high, you do not want to arriving one day and going on a hike the next without allowing your body time to adjust.
  • Bus journeys are usually minimum 8 hours long – take overnight buses to save money on accommodation. Bus quality varies between country to country, but it is usually it’s worth paying a bit more for comfort! (I made the mistake of being stingy for an 18 hour bus in Peru and I certainly paid the price).
  • Buses are cold! For some reason, they blast the aircon all journey – bring a blanket or layers to keep warm.
  • Keep valuables on you at all times. Never put anything valuable in the hold and do not use overhead baggage. there are always unsuspecting thieves on buses, you can look away for a second and your bag is gone. The best thing is to hug it or keep your bag hooked onto your foot.

Buying bus tickets

  • Many vendors will tell you what you want to hear in order to sell you a ticket. They may lie about times, directions and distances – even if the bus does not stop at your desired destination or that it takes 2 hours more than they claim. So don’t trust the first person you ask and verify information you are told.
  • They may also claim it is a big bus when it’s a microbús, or that there’s aircon when there’s not, or that you are guaranteed a seat but they double book it and you end up standing (not often, but this happened to me once!)
  • “Directo” does not mean that the bus is direct. Unless it is one of the huge, bus companies (and even then), the buses will always have stops. Just be happy it takes you where you want and doesn’t ditch you when it decides it won’t go any further. (This has actually happened to us.)
  • Do not be afraid to ask locals for information – it is better to ask locals or shop owners – or basically someone who does not have anything to gain by lying.
  • Sometimes they simply do not know the answer and do not want to disappoint you by admitting this, so they just tell you what they think you want to hear. Which is very counterproductive, but not malicious!
  • Ask around for prices. In South America you buy directly from the company, of which there are dozens, who will have different prices and different types of buses for the same route. Many will often claim that they are the only ones who has a bus for that route or at a particular time, and this is rarely the case.
  • Information you will find on the internet about buses that run and bus times is scarce. Generally only the big, established and most expensive buses will have a running website and publish timetables – there will always be much more availability at the station itself, because lots of tiny companies run routes without the internet! Some will display timetables at the window, and sometimes, the bus station website itself publishes bus times. But the best thing to do is to go to bus terminal and ask. When you first arrive to a place, make a habit of asking bus times for your departing bus and noting down your options.
  • Generally you can buy tickets just before travelling and there is no need to buy in advance, unless it is a long weekend or holidays.
    Bus Bud is a useful website allows you to search bus times and buy tickets – again this is definitely not exhaustive and shows only the more established companies but it’s definitely very helpful to give you an idea of available buses.

Last word of advice…

The key to travelling Latin America is patience and a smile! Latin America is a fantastic continent to travel, don’t stress yourself out with little details. This may be difficult, especially coming from a country where we live by the clock, but an essential lesson learned about the value of time and the importance of just going with the flow. If you start to stress, just have a beer and ask a local – the Latinos are so open and friendly, there will always be somebody willing to help!

backpacking argentina guide

Routes Around Argentina

backpacking argentina guide

Argentina is the second largest country in Latin America, home of Maradona and Messi, the Gods of football, and some of the best steak in the world. Argentina had a huge influx of immigrants during the eighties, as the government wanted to boost its dwindling population size, welcoming those fleeing religious and political persecution with open arms. There came Italians – hence the delicious pizza and exaggerated hand gestures, and there is even a Welsh community in Patagonia. Argentinians extremely well-travelled and cultured, you undoubtedly come across many all over Latin America.

The most important thing you need for Argentina is time. Argentina is no place for whistle-stop tours; it is not an easy country to travel around in the sense that most places of interest are days away from each other. Fortunately, Argentina has arguably the best buses in Latin America in terms of comfort, although not the most economical.

argentina backpacking routes map

As you can see from the map above, there is no straight-forward backpacking route for Argentina, and Patagonia itself can be almost treated as another country! This post gives an overview and guide of the top destinations that Argentina has to offer: Buenos Aires, the “European capital”; Iguazú Falls on the border with Brazil; Mendoza, across the border from Chilean capital of Santiago, the wine country, the snowy scapes of Southern Patagonia, and the often overlooked but incredible Northern region of Salta and Jujuy.

IGUAZU FALLS

argentina iguazu falls
argentina iguazu falls

It is advertised online as a tour from Buenos Aires, but in reality it is around 20 hours away by bus. It is 100% worth the journey, but make sure you allow at least 4-5 days for the trip. It does not really work as a part of a wider route as it is in the middle of nowhere. I did a strange trip, going from Salta to Asunción, Paraguay, and then to Iguazú on the Brazilian side.

Iguazú falls straddles the border of Brazil and Argentina and there is always much debate about which side is better. We have been to both sides, and both give you a different perspective on the falls, but are equally incredible and neither is superior. The Brazilian side shows you the bigger picture, you are observing and contemplating the immensity of the falls; on the Argentinian side you are part of the falls, you are in it, enveloped and surrounded by them. The border runs through the middle of the falls, so it just depends on where you are coming from and which is more convenient.

 

MENDOZA

Mendoza is vineyards. There are wine tours left, right and centre that will take you to several vineyards, show you how wine is produced, and of course, taste various wines. Some tours are offered on bikes, if you are up for cycling under the influence. To be honest, if you are more interested in drinking than the production of wine, you can save some money, buy wine cheap at the supermarket, rent a bike and tour the city yourself. It’s a city full of parks and plaza, easy to navigate and ride around by bike.

Mendoza to Santiago

The journey between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina is absolutely stunning, crossing the snowy peaks of the Andes, and you can see Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 6500m high. The journey takes around 10 hours, and it the most gorgeous border crossing ever (albeit cold!). However, the crossing often closes during winter when snow is too heavy, so be careful if you are under any time constraints.

 

SOUTHERN ARGENTINA

Bariloche, San Martin de Los Andes and El Bolsón

For many, Patagonia is a trip in itself and it is deemed too far and expensive for many to fit into their plans. This was certainly the case for us. However, it is still worth visiting the gateway city of Bariloche and its nearby towns of San Martin de Los Andes and El Bolsón for a glimpse of Patagonia. 

Bariloche is a large town built on the shores of Nahuel Huapi, largest lake in the area, surrounded by snowy mountains, where you can enjoy skiing, trekking and water sports. It is the main commercial town in the region and can be reached directly by bus from Mendoza (8 hours).

 

argentina bariloche wooden statues nahuel huapi lake
argentina bariloche wooden statues nahuel huapi lake

For a quieter, more authentic experience of a small winter town in Patagonia, head to the charming town of San Martin de Los Andes, surrounded by lakes and araucaria forests. It is much less touristy than Bariloche, although fairly expensive in general, even for groceries. It is also a great place to ski in South America, as Chapelco Ski Resort is less busy than Bariloche and cheaper than Chile. There is not much to do, but wander around the tranquil streets of wooden houses and well-mannered locals. It is about an hour north of Bariloche, you can stop off en route from Mendoza to Bariloche.

The route between San Martin de Los Andes and Bariloche, known as Cruce de Lagos, is absolutely stunning. The route runs alongside the Andes mountains, and the region is full of lakes formed by the mountain thaw. There are seven lakes of every hue from sky blue, turquoise to jade and emerald green. It very picturesque. You can take the a tour from both towns, or the normal buses take the same route but without the chance to stop a viewpoints and photos.

argentina bariloche seven lakes route
argentina bariloche seven lakes route

Many people head to Bariloche and believe it is not worth heading any further South if not planning to head to the Deep South. However, El Bolsón is an enchanting town hidden in the mountain valley, just two hours from Bariloche. In the morning, when the sun starts to rise, the clouds hang low and waft through the valley like a gentle stream. There is also a forest of sculptures, El Bosque Tallado, where fallen trees have been turned into sculptures of animals, people, faces. There are many walking trails which will take you through fairytale forests, especially magical in the snowy winter. Also El Bolsón has arguably the most delicious choripan in Argentina.

It is possible to arrive by bus between Bariloche, San Martin and El Bolsón. Another equally inexpensive option is to arrive first to Bariloche, and rent a car to go to both San Martin de Los Andes and El Bolsón, and enjoy them in your own time.

NORTHERN ARGENTINA

JUJUY

argentina jujuy humahuaca mountain of 14 colours
argentina jujuy humahuaca mountain of 14 colours

Jujuy region attracts few foreign visitors, with most people taking day tours from Salta to the Jujuy region – however, this way, you end up spending 5-6 round trip and they are often pretty overpriced. From San Pedro de Atacama, you can a get bus across the border to Northern Argentina and visit the Jujuy using local transport.

Purmamarca is a small town in Jujuy, where you will find the Mountain of Seven Colours. A couple of hours will do, but if you arrive in the evening, there is one hostel, but also there are many families that offer cheap rooms. Tilcara is the next village up, about an hour away, which is a nice, traditional… but not a huge amount to do. Otherwise, you can head directly to Humahuaca, another hour north, which is a little gem of a town tucked in the mountains of the Jujuy region.

Humahuaca is a short trip away from the Hornacal mountain range, where you can see the impressive Mountain of Fourteen Colours, so-called for its zigzagged rubric.. or reds, browns, greens and yellows, a result of of the accumulation of different sedimentary rocks when this area used to be under water millions of years ago. Humahuaca is also a gorgeous little town to wander around, selling artensal Andean products (llama jumpers etc), has some delicious food. You can also visit the immense Monument to the Heroes of Independence and a colourful little cemetery. Locals are modest, farm folk who look to Pachamama to bless their harvests – if you are lucky you may come across a traditional Pachamama festival.

Iruya is a tiny little village hidden in the mountain valleys, which absolutely stunning. You can go hiking in the surrounding mountains and see condors. If you are up for a challenge you head even further north, San Isidro, where no roads lead and you can only reach by walking.

SALTA

 

Salta is the capital of the North of Argentina, a typical Latino city, full of colonial churches. It is a definitely a contrast to the little villages of Jujuy. It is a good place to just chill and recharge, there is no sight particularly outstanding, but, as previously mentioned, many travellers use Salta as the departure point for trips to Cafayate and Cachi, which are more difficult to read by public bus. However there is one incredible museum that is unmissable – High Altitude Museum, where you will find the mummies of the Children of Llullailaco Volcano. These children were buried alive over 500 years ago in a sacred ritual, and due to the specific climatic conditions (extremely low temperatures combined with high altitude, lack of oxygen… ) the children were found barely changed – skin, hair, hands, clothes in-tact everything.

It is also worth spending an evening in a peña, a traditional bar typical of Northern Argentina where they have traditional folkloric music. In the restaurant penas, performers dance onstage, and members of the audience are also welcome to go and dance too. Other where people bring their own instruments and play and sing and anybody in the bar can join on, traditional folk songs.

argentina el bolson sunset clouds
argentina el bolson sunset clouds
backpacking chile guide

A Glimpse into Chile

Chile has the strongest economy in Latin America and by far the most expensive. They have surprisingly high standards of organisation and cleanliness. Its long Pacific coast and largely flat terrain makes it accessible for trade, and is also easy to govern, especially as most of the population is concentrated in the middle. Chile is very tourist-friendly, however, it is not the most popular country amongst other Latinos. There is often hostility between Chile and other Latino countries, perhaps for its past behaviour; geographically cutting off Bolivia from the sea and supporting the British over Argentina in the Falklands War (Malvinas) are still wounds which still have not been forgiven.

We will not feign to be experts on Chile, but what we have seen is certainly worth talking about. San Pedro de Atacama is Northern desert region, close to the Bolivian and Argentinian border; and Valparaiso is a little piece of heaven just outside of Santiago.

chile backpacking routes map

VALPARAÍSO

Valparaíso is a quirky, colourful alternative to the mechanical capital of Santiago. Valparaiso is unique in its set up; most Latino cities, thanks to the Spanish, are composed of neat, uniform blocks of perpendicular roads leading out from a central main plaza and church. However, you will find no right-angles in Valparaíso. Valparaíso is made up of rolling hills where roads organically follow the topography of the land, curving and zigzagging up and down, with pedestrian paths and steep funiculars connected like snakes and ladders. Traditional, painted wooden houses line the green hills with a kaleidoscope of colours. Graffiti art and murals can be found everywhere, no wall is left uncovered; Valparaíso is an open air gallery, where you will be graced with stunning views at every level, of the streets, against the sea and sky. Valparaiso is a heaven for hippies, lovers of the shabby-chic and home to the nicest Chilenos in the country!

If you are more into the high life, Viña del Mar is probably more your cup of tea. Home to the most famous Cinema Festival in South America, the Latino equivalent of Cannes, Viña del Mar is a modern beach city, with high-end restaurants, bar and hotels. It is just 15 minutes by train or 1 hour from Valparaíso. Whichever you prefer, it is definitely worth visiting both for such a striking contrast and poetic juxaposition of neighbouring cities.

 

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

San Pedro de Atacama is the most arid non-polar region in the world. Many choose to finish the Uyuni salt flats tour across the Chilean border in this small desert village, where you can visit some unique natural phenomena by day and stargaze by night.

Valley of the Moon & Valley of Death
The two valleys are so called for their strange rock and sand formations. Wind and water erosion has left pockets of volcanic depressions across the area, in combination with crystallised salt drying on its surface created the lunar landscape effect of Valle de la Luna.

Rumour has it that it was originally called Valle de Marte (Marte), but a Belgian priest mistakenly baptised it Valle de la Muerte (Death), and so became known as such thereafter. You can visit these with various tour agencies, although some nutters decide to cycle there in the desert heat!

chile san pedro de atacama death valley
chile san pedro de atacama death valley

Garganta del Diablo – Devil’s Throat Gorge
You can rent bikes to explore the Garganta del Diablo, which you can easily reach from the village. This lovely route follows the river, and will take you to a dry desert canyon through a labyrinth of fun twists and turns between strange rock formations. At the end, you can climb a small hill for a breathtaking 360 view of the surrounding desert landscape. There are one or two shallow river crossings so be prepared! If you are not into cycling, you can do the same route walking.

Floating On Water
Laguna Cejar is a salt lake with the second highest concentration of salt after the Dead Sea, making the water very dense and consequently you float to the top. The water is freezing cold, an extremely refreshing dip in the heat of the desert sun. It is also a natural spa, as you get out of the lake and the your skin dries, leaving a layer of salt – the perfect exfoliator! There are similar lakes you can go to, such as the Lagunas Escondidas, a smaller version of the Laguna Cejar, which is a cheaper option and actually better in a way because it is much less busy.

Astronomy Tour
San Pedro is home to the most important observatory in South America. It geographical isolation makes it an incredible place for stargazing and the astronomy tour is extremely interesting. The stars are always out, and depending on the time of the year, you can see the moon and the planets too. The tour lasts around half an hour, and you will be taught about the constellations and the solar system, viewing the night sky through a giant telescope. Don’t expect to be able to see the planets like in the movies, but be amazed by how we can actually witness what goes on outside of our planet, millions of light years away.

Geysers del Tatio
El Tatio, from the Quechua word for ‘oven’, is a geyser field in the Andes at over 4000m above sea level. It has over 80 active geysers, which can be observed at sunrise. Steam rises from boiling hot pools of water, which are around 2000m deep, on hot rocks heated by magma – a phenomenon that exists in only a few places on Earth! Furthermore the journey takes you through stunning mountain landscapes where you can see llamas, vicuñas and other wild animals. Tours also include a visit to Machucha Village, good for a little empanada snack and a peruse of an old church. There is also the possibility to swim in geothermal pools, depending on the tour agency. Temperatures in the early morning are sub-zero, so wrap up warm if you don’t want to catch hypothermia.

Wandering around San Pedro itself lovely, with its unpaved streets and mud houses, peruse the handicraft shops. One observation that is worth mentioning is that San Pedro de Atacama is expensive – expect European prices. Everything from transport, hostels, restaurants and even groceries are costly in Latin American terms. It is no surprise, therefore, that you will find many Europeans and very few Latinos. If you are financially constrained, it is best to spend just one or two nights.

chile san pedro de atacama church
chile san pedro de atacama church
chile san pedro de atacama moon valley
chile san pedro de atacama moon valley
colombia, amazon, tours

Colombia Amazon Tours: Secrets of the Amazon Rainforest

 
colombia, amazon, tours
colombia, amazon, tours

Discovering the incredible Amazon rainforest as an independent budget backpacker can prove a challenge, but the Amazon rainforest in Colombia is accessible and affordable, if you know where to go! Most travellers will look to their hotels and hostels in Leticia to organise their Amazon jungle tours. However, I would recommend skipping Leticia altogether, and hopping on an Amazon boat that will take you to the local river communities and experience authentic Amazon life! There are several Colombia Amazon tours that offer this, but the best thing is – you can do this with or without a tour!

The beauty of the unknown is rare in a world where modern civilisation has dominated and destroyed much of our planet, but the incredible Amazon rainforest remains an impenetrable mystery. We read about the existence of uncontacted tribes who live in the depths of the Amazon, the plethora of plants with medicinal qualities and potential cure for cancer and the constant discovery of new species. To the local communities that live on the river, the Amazon is their back garden. And it is to these local communities where you should go to discover the secrets of the Amazon.

There is very little information about the Amazon online, since internet barely reaches the dense, isolated jungle region. I spent ages searching online and finally came across somebody who could help me organise my trip to Amazon rainforest in Colombia!

colombia, amazon river

WHERE TO STAY & WHAT TO DO

Mocagua – An Amazon River Community

From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua. The community of Mocagua, 60km from Leticia along the river, is a wonderful community of around 400 people which is only just starting to attract tourists, or rather, it is opening itself up to the possibility of tourism. There are three lodgings in Mocagua, along with a few “restaurants” (family homes where they serve you food) and several señoras who make and sell artisanal crafts from their homes.

Tomacache is a beautiful lodge with raised wooden huts with thatched roofs right on the riverfront. It is run by Henry, who is a lovely, shy but friendly father-like figure, through whom you can organise activities which are led by local members of the community. There are a host of activities you can do, such as dolphin watching, pirana fishing, night canoe trip, camping in the deep jungle, jungle walks, buying artesanal crafts and visiting the monkey rehabilitation centre.

Jungle Activities

The night canoe trip will take you to the depths of the jungle, with nothing but torches to guide the way. When you can barel see anything you are forced to really listen to the sounds of the jungle, the wild calls of animals in the night. If you’re lucky you might even spot frogs, tarantulas, monkeys, caimans, and snakes!

You can go fishing the old-fashioned way (with a glorified stick). Our guide caught about ten fish, our outdoorsy New Zealand companions also managed to catch a few, but obviously, us city kids from London caught nothing, instead we got our bait caught in the plants several times. It’s a good test of your survival skills. I know I would definitely die in the jungle.

For the more adventurous, overnight camping is a must – you will be taken along the tributaries of the Amazon and taken deep into the jungle, where you must set up camp with hammocks under a plastic sheet and cook your own dinner on a fire. Enjoy a night jungle walk to see caimans and sleep to the sounds of roaring jaguars (rare, but I heard them!). In the morning, enjoy a walk getting to know the plants and trees that could be vital to your survival in the jungle.

Visit the unmissable Maikuchiga monkey foundation* and rehabilitation centre. This centre aims to protect monkeys from being poached and sold on the black market. Those who are endangered or, often, babies who are orphaned are taken to the foundation to be looked after until they are ready to be re-released into the wild. The monkeys are absolutely adorable – they are playful and curious and really nosy. They will run around, climb all over you, open your zips and look inside your bags. There were about seven baby monkeys, and one older one who was ready to be re-released into the wild. You know they are old enough when they stop becoming playful, but instead become lazy, violent and territorial.

*Not to be mistaken for monkey island! Please do not go to monkey island!! It is not the natural habitat of the monkeys, but a “reserve” created by Decameron as a business venture. They were brought especially to the island for tourists. Like a zoo – it is a tourist trap which does not prioritise the wellbeing of the monkeys, they are stuck on the island, semi-domesticated and will not be released into the wild.

colombia, amazon lodge mocagua
colombia, amazon lodge mocagua

The Indigenous Tikuna Tribe & The Close of National Park Amacayacu

Traditionally the Tikuna indigenous tribe has always lived off the jungle; fishing and hunting for food and felling wood to build houses. However, in the 70s, the government created the National Park Amacayacu and conversation project to protect the land. They approached the tribe as they wanted them to stop felling trees and hunting animals, and the tribe agreed to the project on the condition that they would be given jobs. They came to an agreement, hiring workers from the surrounding indigenous communities to work at Amacayacu. They were given training in gastronomy, hospitality and tourism and the National Park flourished for many years. After ten years studies showed that the jungle was recovering well and so they decided to continue the project. However in 1985, Uribe came to presidency and privatised the PNN, selling it to Decameron, a large, corporate tourism firm. Decameron brought in their own workers, wanting to keep 80% of the profits for themselves and gave only 20% to the local community. Consequently, there was high unemployment in the surrounding communities and people started to leave, seeking opportunities elsewhere. However, Decameron did not last as their infrastructure could not withstand the natural floods of the Amazon, which destroyed everything. It was left destitute. Now surrounding communities such as Mocagua are trying to recover tourism business, using their initiative, and to open their own lodgings and restaurants. Because internet has not reached these communities, they rely on word of mouth to bring in tourists. Most work with local guides in Leticia, not large tour companies, and this way business/profit goes directly to the local community.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

Amazon Jungle Tours

There is very little information about the Amazon online, since internet barely reaches the dense, isolated jungle region. As previously mentioned, people tend to organise tours from their lodgings in Leticia – these are usually pretty cheap but I have heard very mixed reviews about the quality of these tours and how much you get to know the jungle. I spent ages searching online and only found fantastic-sounding tours catered for rich foreigners and way out of my price range. After much research, I found Tomamazon tours, based in Leticia, who work with Henry the owner of Tomacache and the small community of Mocagua.

Costs

$900,000 per person for 2 people, 4 days and 3 nights, including airport transportation, boats to lodgings, all activities, meals, an English speaking guide and rubber boots. Prices can be negotiated, especially if you are a group, you have more leverage to haggle.

TOUR VS DO-IT-YOURSELF

As a budget backpacker, I am never keen on organised tours and insist on doing everything independently. However, the lack of information online can make this difficult, especially if you have limited time. It is definitely feasible to take the public boat from Leticia and stop at any local community, however weighing up the costs of accommodation, transport, meals and activities, it was definitely more economical to organise this particular trip with Tomamazon Tours rather than independently. As an individual, you will be charged per activity (ranging from $100,000-$250,000COP), in addition to each meal and night of accommodation. If you prefer to maybe only do one activity and laze around by the river, going with a tour probably is not worth it. However, if you want to experience the deep jungle, go canoeing, fishing, see rescued monkeys and dolphins at sunset, such tours are definitely value for money. They also support local communites! The tours are tailored to your needs – for example, because our flight landed after the last boat to Leticia left, we had a private boat that took us Mocagua (which noramlly costs $400,000COP!). If you have any questions about our experience, feel free e-mail or comment below and we will do our best to help you!

colombia amazon maikuchiga monkey
colombia amazon maikuchiga monkey

How to get to the Amazon in Colombia

1) Fly from Bogota to Leticia

There is no way to get to Leticia by land, the only option is to flight from Bogota to Leticia. There are flights every day from Bogotá to Leticia with LATAM or Avianca

colombia amazon leticia puerto nariño map

 

2) Get a boat from Leticia to Puerto Nariño

From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua.

Transportation to and from Leticia are usually included in Amazon jungle tours, otherwise it costs $30,000COP per journey and it is recommended to reserve in advance.

     Leticia to Puerto Nariño
    8:00, 10:00, 14:00
Puerto Nariño to Leticia
7:30, 11:00, 16:00

The trip takes around 2 hours. Mocagua is 60km away

Your tour will organise the return for you. If travelling individually, buy your tickets in advance in Leticia as they can get fully booked. For the return journey, speak to your host about reserving a place as they only stop at the local communities on request.

Things to note

$30,000 tourist tax at the airport

There are a three banks in Leticia – BBVA, Bancolombia and Banco Agrario, but it is better to get cash in Bogotá before, especially if you are not planning on spending time in Leticia.

PNN Amacayacu is closed to the public indefinitely (officially because of floods). Local communities such as San Martín and Mocagua offer eco-touristic services.

WHAT TO PACK

The key is to pack light!

Loose clothes – it very muggy and hot!

Long-sleeved tops for the deep jungles (you will be bitten alive)

Insect repellent

Sunblock

Sunhat

Torch

Flip-flops or sandals

Trainers if you wish, although you will be given rubber boots for going into the deep  jungle

Malaria tablets if you feel they are necessary. I didn’t take them but most foreigner travellers are more cautious (locals will just laugh at you)

Battery packs and portable chargers (there is only electricity for a few hours a day)

colombia amazon sunset
colombia amazon sunset
Photo credits: Yoanne’s sister Jon Tong
backpacking bolivia guide

Routes Around Bolivia

backpacking bolivia guide

Among the highest summits of the of the Andean cordillera and the Amazon rainforest, you will find Bolivia, a landlocked country that is not usually a visitor’s first choice when visiting Latin America – but it is by no means less beautiful! The high mountain plateaus conceal absolutely stunning landscapes that are not to be missed.

Unlike Peru, who has fully capitalised on its potential for tourism, Bolivia is slow to catch on; characterised by appalling infrastructure and a certain indifference (and / or diffidence – it’s difficult to tell) when it comes to foreigners, Bolivia can be a difficult country to travel compared with the rest of the continent. However, hopefully you would have been in Latin America long enough by this point and learned to embrace the chaos. With some patience, you can uncover the country’s treasures and truly appreciate what it has to offer.

bolivia backpacking routes map

Arriving from the northern border with Peru by Lake Titicaca, the first stop you’ll reach is Copacabana, a small port town where boats leave from towards Isla del Sol, the largest and most stunning island on the lake. Unlike the Peruvian islands, Isla del Sol is more populated, with local residents and tourists alike. You can hike around the island for some spectacular views and some pre-Inca ruins. You can do this as a day tip, or many decide to stay on the island. There are many hostels available – you can camp as well, but the altitude of the lake means it can get to subzero temperatures at night, so unless you have the right equipment, this is not a good idea.

 

bolivia lake titicaca sunrise
bolivia lake titicaca sunrise

After heading back to Copacabana, you can take a 4-hour bus to La Paz, the Bolivian capital. The bus journey cuts across Lake Titicaca at “Tiquina” so you be prepared to get off the bus and shuffled onto a tiny boat, while the bus is ferried across separately. We were not told this by the bus company at any point, we only knew because a lady in a bakery mentioned it – something you probably want to bear in mind, especially if you are travelling at night!

At an altitude of 3,500m, La Paz is the highest city in the world. It is a chaotic city surrounded by beautiful mountains. La Paz is home to the “subway in the sky”, the world’s highest, longest urban cable car system – a wonderful way to take in the city views. Around Plaza Murillo you will find typical colonical landmarks such as the San Francisco Church and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Calle Jaén is a colourful alley of museums and shops, and the Witches’ Market cannot be missed – here you will find baby llama foetus and magic love potions.

The absolute highlight of La Paz for us was not the city itself, but Death Road. Unpaved, with few road signs, frequent rain and mist and little more than 3 metres wide, Death Road is one of the most dangerous roads in the world – and until 2009 it was the only link between La Paz and Los Yungas region. Now, drivers who value their lives take the safer, alternative road, and Death Road is left for cyclists who love to live life on the edge. A 3 hour descent of nearly 70km, which starts at 4700m and finishes at 1200m, comes with incredible landscapes and a sheer drops of up to 800m – definitely one of the most exhilarating experiences in Bolivia – for those who dare.

bolivia la paz cable car mountain view
bolivia la paz cable car mountain view

Many who go to Bolivia go directly from La Paz to Uyuni, but given the time it is worth checking out a few places on the way. Heading 6 hours southeast from La Paz lies Cochabamba, the third most important city in Bolivia, significantly smaller than La Paz, lower and a much lighter climate. It is the perfect place to get to know daily Bolivian life without the chaos of La Paz, it is much less touristic, much more authentic. Its market, called La Cancha, is one of the largest in Latin America. With over 100,000 stalls dotted around in a labyrinth of little streets, you can find everything from fruit and vegetables to phones and computers.

Around 9 hours south from Cochabamba lies Potosí, where you will find the world’s largest silver deposit – and the harsh reality of Latin American history. Thousands of indigenous people and African slaves were forced to work in the mines of Cerro Rico, making the Spanish Empire one of the richest in the world. It is still a working mine today, a little has changed – without modern machinery or safety equipment, it is still terribly dangerous. Potosí is a raw, unedited testament to oppression and slavery under colonisation which can still be felt today.

Uyuni lies around 8 hours from Potosí and La Paz. It is a small town in the middle of nowhere, and serves as the departure point for tours to Salar de Uyuni (salt flats). Uyuni live off these tours, the streets are lined with agencies who work with local drivers. Unless you specifically want an English tour (and pay the premium for it with Red Planet), you do not need to book in advance – all the agencies work together so don’t agonise over who to go with- and don’t expect them to speak any English! If you are lucky, you might find somebody who can speak Spanish and translate for you. There are various tour length options ranging from 2 to 5 days, which include beautiful mirror-like and coloured lakes, geysers and strange rock formations as well as the salt flats. Beware Uyuni is really high up and absolutely freezing – bring lots of layers and it is definitely worth renting the sleeping bags. 

bolivia uyuni laguna hedionda flamingos
bolivia uyuni salt flats isla del pescado cactus
bolivia uyuni laguna hedionda flamingos
bolivia uyuni salt flats isla del pescado cactus

The Salar de Uyuni tour finishes not far from the border between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. On the last day, you have the option of returning to Uyuni (and back to La Paz), or be dropped off in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

backpacking peru guide

Routes Around Peru

backpacking peru guide

Peru is the third largest country in South America after Brazil and Argentina. It’s five times larger than the UK, and its Amazon region alone is twice the size of Germany! Like Ecuador, Peru is divided into three geographic zones; the arid desert which makes up the Pacific coastal strip in the West; the vast Amazon rainforest which covers 50% of the country bordering Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia; divided by the central Andean cordillera, altiplano mountain range with an average of 3,000 m.a.s.l and snow-capped peaks of up to 6,500m.

peru backpacking routes map

Arriving from Ecuador in the north, your first stop is Mancora, a small town on the Pacific coast located just at the point where the exuberant vegetation of the Ecuadorian pacific starts to transform into the arid Peruvian desert. Mancora is perfect for spending a few days on the beach, go swimming with marine turtles and beginning your love affair with Peruvian food. Continuing south around 6 hours, you will reach Chiclayo, a small colonial city just half an hour away from the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, which holds one of the most important archeological discoveries in Latin America – the only indigenous tombs that were unlooted.

A few hours along the south coast, you will reach Trujillo, the most important city in Northern Peru, famous for its colourful architecture and nearby pre-Inca ruins. Next, you will find the Peruvian capital of Lima, a beautiful coast city of almost 10 million inhabitants, where you can easily spend 4 or 5 days. The historical centre is well preserved, there is a lovely esplanade, a park that has a light show and incredible food, making Lima a fun city with much to offer.

 

peru lima main plaza
peru lima main plaza

If you are short on time, you can head straight from Lima to Cusco. However, given the opportunity, you should definitely make stop in Paracas, where you can take a short boat ride to see sea lions and penguins hanging out on the incredible Ballester Islands; and the little desert oasis of Huacachina, about an hour from Ica, where you can go sand-buggying. From Ica, you could stop in Nazca to see the Nazca Lines – if you can afford the flight ride. Otherwise, continue to Cusco – be warned it is an 18 hour bus journey that twists and turns up through the Andes.

peru islas ballestas paracas sealions
peru islas ballestas paracas sealions

Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, sits proudly in the Andean cordillera, over 3000 m.a.s.l. Its architecture tells the combined history two worlds; the impeccable Incan walls served as a based for the development of the Spanish city – houses, convents and churches were constructed upon the remains of what was once the most important city in Latin America. Cusco, is a beautiful city, and is a base not only for Machu Picchu, but for many spectacular sites in the Sacred Valley such as Vinicuna, the Mountain of Seven Colours, the incredible terraced valleys of Maras and Mora, the Inca Temple of Coricancha, the Inca ruins of Saqsaywaman and Pisac.

peru cuzco cusco indigenous women
peru cuzco cusco indigenous women

The surrounding areas of Cusco serve as a perfect build up to the breathtaking Machu Picchu. It is definitely worth doing a trek where you will hike for days, as the Incas did, and experience incredible landscapes away from modern civilisation and people. Many people choose to do the Inca Trail, but the Salkantay and Lares treks are also amazing  – and significantly less busy! Salkantay is a longer trek, typically 5D/4N and is considered the most difficult but most beautiful, reaching the highest point at 4630msnm. Lares is the shortest trek at 33km, and is typically a 4D/3N trip. There are many different combinations and types of treks available depending on your level of fitness and what activities you want to do. Although booking in advance is recommended, there are plenty of agencies that don’t have websites where you can rock up and enquire about and will be significantly cheaper than more established businesses Sam Travel Peru is a local tour operator that is completely locally run and limits group sizes to 9 people. I had a fantastic experience with them, and we did not see any other tour groups during our entire trek! 

 

peru machu picchu lares trek
peru machu picchu lares trek

If you decide to do a trek, arriving at Machu Picchu will feel like a much deserved reward for your aching body – there are no words to describe how spectacular Machu Picchu is! With around 4,000 visitors a day, be sure to get there before sunrise to make the most of the morning before it gets too hot and crowded. Visiting Machu Picchu is seriously expensive, especially for foreigners and expect to spend at least $150USD on transport and entrance ticket alone – so make sure you do your research beforehand if you are not doing a trek or tour. Don’t underestimate its size either – there is plenty of see, with options to climb up Montaña Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu for the best views over the ancient city. You can also walk to the sun gate, the original entrance from the Inca Trail. Take your time to explore the magnificence of this ruin – no photo can capture quite how breathtaking it is! 

peru machu picchu inca ruins
peru machu picchu inca ruins

After Cusco, you can dip down to Arequipa, the White City, whose buildings were constructed with white volcanic stone. You can hike the Misti volcano, which stands at 5825m and lies between

Chachani mountain and another volcano Pichu Pichu. You can see Juanita the indreibly well preserved ice-maiden in the Andean Sanctuary Museum. You can go white-water rafting. You can take a tour to Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon. From Arequipa city, is it 3 hours to the nearest village of Cabanaconde via Cruz del Condor.

Around 6 hours from Cusco, also on the Andean cordillera, you’ll find another Peruvian paradise – Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca was formed by the thaw of the snowy summits. It is the largest lake in Latin America and the high navegable lake in the world, sacred to the Incas and central to their cosmology – they believed their founders emerged from its waters. Puno is the closest city to to the lake.

Amantaní and Taquile are two Inca islands where you can find Inca ruins and beautiful views of the surrounding lake – there is little trade and tourism, there are no hotels or hostels, but you can arrange to stay with an indigenous host family. These islands are perfect for disconnecting from everything and experiencing pure tranquility. Whilst Amantaní and Taquile are natural islands, the Floating Islands of the Uros are artificial islands made of reeds, constructed by the indigenous Uros. The Uros community, under the threat of the Incas, abandoned firm, rooted land and created the floating islands. A new layer of reeds must be added every two weeks! Today, the islands are anchored and static, but many continue to live on the island.

Lake Titicaca is geographically spread across both Peru and Bolivia. Puno is just two hours from the border of Bolivia where you can continue your journey through South America.

peru los uros floating islands
peru los uros floating island

Tips

  • Peruvian buses are really comfortable, however, the topography makes the distances large and journeys long – be prepared to spend many hours on the bus. It’s probably worth spending a little extra for the most comfortable buses – the extra legroom and reclinibility make all the difference in the world.
  • The bus journey from Ica – Cusco is 18 hours, winding through the mountains. If you get travel sick, this is awful, so be prepared and take travel sickness tablets with you!
  • The food is Peru is incredible (arguably the best in South America!), not only in fancy restaurants but you will find great homemade local food. Marketplaces are a great option to eat delicious and cheap.
  • Peru is so much more than Machu Picchu. Although, it is clearly the star of the show, don’t let it steal the show completely – Peru has much more to offer and it’s worth taking the opportunity to explore the country.
  • Cusco and Lake Titicaca are 3000 m.a.s.l so it is better to take your time and allow your body to acclimatise. Cocoa tea is said to help with altitude sickness!
colombia, valle de cocora hike, salento

Valle de Cocora Hike Salento

Valle de Cocora is home to the tallest wax palms in the world, and one of the most breathtaking landscapes you will find in Colombia. The palms grow up to 60m high, their spindly trunks soar into the sky like the stroke of a paintbrush against a beautiful backdrop of trim green fields. Valle de Cocora is a cloud forest nestled in the Coffee Region, between the Andean and Central cordillera and about half an hour away from Salento, the closest town and where most people stay and do a day-trip in Cocora. The Valle de Cocora hike takes you through the stunning valley of wax palms to the Finca la Montaña viewpoint, then through the muddy trails and rickety wooden suspension bridges. In the hummingbird sanctuary of Acaime, you can experience the magic of hummingbirds in their natural habitat up-close.

THE VALLE DE COCORA HIKE

The short hike is to go directly to the Cocora Valley and loop back the same way you came, which you can do in a leisurely 1-2 hours, either by foot or by horse. For the active adventurer and nature lover, the long hike takes around 5-6 hours, a long, satisfying, tiring full-day hike. But the secret to making the most of Valle de Cocora hike is to do it clockwise rather than anti-clockwise!

Most guides will tell you to take the path through the blue gate on the right, as marked by the signpost (above). DO NOT DO THIS. Instead, do it the opposite way around and start at Cocora Valley (this way, you will finish at the blue gate). This way is a much more gradual climb up to Finca la Montaña, and a pleasant mostly downhill stroll. Otherwise, it is an uphill struggle up the steep side of the mountain and you’ll be beyond exhausted by the time you finally reach the main palms. Also, it tends to be clear and sunny in the mornings – the best time for photos in the main valley – and the afternoon clouds over (and can rain pretty heavily if you’re unlucky).

colombia valle de cocora hike map

Valle de Cocora to Finca la Montaña

(2,860m) approx. 1 hour

Go directly to the Valle de Cocora on the muddy path. After about ten minutes you will see a gate on your right with a sign saying “sendero turisticó $3.000”, enter through the gate (it looks like a farm, there might be some cows grazing on the field) and take the path that crosses the valley. Do not follow the sign towards Parque Nacional los Nevados, which takes you by the river and is a much longer, several-day hike. A leisurely 1-hour hike will take you up to Finca la Montaña (2,860m). Don’t forget to poke your head through the shrubbery on the way up – there are some breathtaking but hidden viewpoints!

colombia valle de cocora wax palms
colombia valle de cocora wax palms

Finca la Montaña to Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary

approx. 40 mins

From Finca la Montaña, you can hike to Acaime Casa de Colibris in about 40 minutes (1.8km), which involves climbing down and then up again. Casa de Colibri is well worth the extra hike, and for a measly $5,000COP (includes a drink) you can get up, close and personal with the hummingbirds!

The owners of Acaime put out sugar water for the hummingbirds, of which there are around fourteen species inhabiting the cloud forest. The hummingbirds come and go, flying around your head – they are accustomed to human presence. It is a great photo opportunity – if you can catch one as they are very speedy!

The most common one you’ll see is the buff-tailed coronet, which is green with bronze tailfeathers. We also spotted the long-tailed sylph, with its long blue-Jasmin tail; the gorgeous collared inca, with its snow-white chest or the small, round and fluffy Cuban emerald zunzun. The guides there are very knowledgeable and can tell you all about the species and their habits.

colombia valle de cocora hummingbird acaime
colombia valle de cocora hummingbird acaime

Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary to the Green Gate

Approx. 2 hours

After enjoying the hummingbird sanctuary, you can back head down the same path you climbed up. You will pass the desvío where you came down from Finca la Montaña, keep heading down – there is only one path. It will take you by the river, which you’ll cross several times over some rickety wooden suspension bridges. You can smugly greet people you meet on their way up, huffing and puffing away up the mountain.

This will eventually take you out of the dense cloud forest into the valley clearing, and once again you’ll see the wax palms silhouetted on the mountain. You might notice there will appear a parallel path beside the one you’re on – don’t worry, both go the same way. The left (the one you come out on) is for the horses, and the right is the path you want to walk on. You’ll pass fincas and a trout farm onto the other side of the valley and eventually come out by through the green gate which you passed at the start of the hike. From Acaime to the green gate takes about 2 hours at a leisurely pace.

After your hike, you can head to one of the cafes or restaurants for a cup of coffee or some lunch before heading back to Salento.

colombia valle de cocora palms silhouette
colombia valle de cocora palms silhouette

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

How to get from Salento to Valle de Cocora

Aim to leave as early as possible from Salento, ideally for the first jeep but otherwise before 9am – especially if you go during the weekend or a holiday. The cloud forest climate means that mist and even rain often takes over during the afternoon, so you want to start hiking early to see the wax palms while the sun is still shining.

Willy jeeps run from Salento’s main plaza to Valle de Cocora every day starting from 6.30am. They run every hour (or as soon as they are full). During public holidays and weekends they may run more frequently due to high demand. For the more adventurous, you can choose to stand at the back of the jeep and clutch onto the rooftop – you will be windswept, but you will enjoy the best views! For the return journey from Valle de Cocora to Salento, they run every hour until 6.30pm.

Salento to Cocora
06:30-17:30
every hour
Cocora to Salento
07:30-18.30
every hour

During public holidays they will run more regularly.

The cost for each trip is $3,800COP ($1.3USD / €1.06 / £0.94)

colombia valle de cocora willy jeep
colombia valle de cocora willy jeep

 
What to pack

  • Water – Bring enough water for the day’s hike!
  • Food – some sandwiches or bread and fruit. Don’t make the same mistake that we did! There isn’t anywhere that serves food during the hike so be prepared. If, like us, you brought nothing but a banana, you might be able to plead the family that lives at Finca la Montaña to sell you some breakfast!
  • A waterproof rain jacket – the weather in the cloud forest is very changeable, and is often misty or rainy in the afternoon.
  • Sturdy walking shoes- hiking boots are ideal, but decent trainers are fine too, the paths can get muddy if rains.

Post-Hike Lunch

If you are looking for a nice, filling meal post-hike, Restaurante Los Orillos (next to the blue gate) sells a delicious corrientazo style menu for around $15,000. Everything is served on a big and crispy patacón – you can choose between trout, chicken or beef with or without a creamy mushroom sauce, served with rice and a delicious coleslaw.

Costs

There might a local, fairly official looking guy with a clipboard asking you to pay a kind of “insurance” for around $5,000. This is not compulsory, and personally I think it is a kind of scam for tourists. They will act like it is compulsory, but explain that you do not want to pay it and they will ask you to write your name and sign that they won’t be responsible for any accidents.

Day budget $15,600COP$5.50/€4.50/£4

Willy from Salento to Cocora
$3,800COP
$1USD/€1/£1
Willy from Cocora to Salento
$3,800COP
$1USD/€1/£1
Entrance to Acaime
$5,000COP
$2/€1.5/£1.5
Hike on the path
$3,000COP
$1USD/€1/£1

With lunch +$15,000

= $30,600 $10.50/ €8.50/£7.50

 

SALENTO

It is possible to stay in Valle de Cocora itself, with rooms or camping options in local fincas. However, this option is more expensive than staying in the nearby town of Salento. Not only is it a convenient and easy day-trip, but the town itself is worth visiting – full of colours, quirky shops and cute little cafes – not to mention breathtaking mountain views.

Read our post about top things to do in Salento.

colombia valle de cocora salento
colombia valle de cocora salento
backpacking ecuador guide

Routes around Ecuador

backpacking ecuador guide

Ecuador, as the name suggests, is located on the equator, the invisible latitudinal line that divides the earth into two equal parts. Like Colombia, Ecuador has no seasons; the sun rises and sets at the same time every day. Its enviable tropical climate enables flora and fauna to flourish in abundance. Indeed it boasts the 7th most biodiverse country in the world, despite its modest size of just 200,000km² – that’s ⅕ of Colombia or ⅓ of France. Its impenetrable jungle, tropical snow-capped mountains and idyllic beaches, hosted by friendly and helpful people make Ecuador a first-class destination for travellers. Check out our our overview of potential backpacking routes around Ecuador, including a personalised map, a guide to all the key places and travel tips.

ecuador backpacking routes map

The imposing Andes cordillera slices down the middle of Ecuador from North to South, splitting it into three distinct regions; La Oriente (East), the relatively small but dense portion of the Amazon basin; the La Costa, bordering the pacific ocean, where you’ll find the Ruta del Sol; and the Sierra, the monumental Andean cordillera, reaching up to 6200m at its highest point.

It is upon the Sierra where the Ecuadorian capital sits at 2800m above sea level. Quito, like Bogotá, does not correspond with your stereotypical image of Latin America. It is a mountainous, cold and chaotic city, far from the sea and abundant nature. A few days here is sufficient to see everything. Quito has a well-preserved, colonial historical centre, and numerous cathedrals with fantastic viewpoints.

A short trip from Quito, there are two unmissable places. An hour’s bus journey south from the capital will take you to the Cotopaxi Volcano, a perfect destination for hiking lovers – it is worth the almost 5000m climb for the the incredible peace and calm that only exists in the alpine mountains. Even further south, around 3.5 hours from Quito, you will find the Baños de Agua Santa, a small city surrounded by exuberant vegetation with dozens of hidden waterfalls, rivers and hot springs – great for both extreme sports and a casual hike.

 

ecuador quito
ecuador quito

On the other side of the cordillera, you will find the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun), a well-beaten track that connects a series of tropical beaches upon which the sun radiates nearly every single day of the year. The route starts in Mompiche, a spectacular place where the lush jungle reveals  a thin strip of beach – a picturesque landscape that has been little altered by humans. This tranquility contrasts with the forceful waves crashing against the black sand that separates the green of the mountains and the blue of the infinite ocean.

Following the Ruta del Sol south, you’ll find Montañita, a little coastal town primarily known for its nightlife, and where you’ll undoubtedly want to stay for at least a few days. Aside from partying, Montañita is also the point of departure to get to Frailes. Frailes is a nature reserve which has some of the best beaches on the Pacific coast in South America; you won’t find any houses, hostels or shops or restaurants – only the jungle, the sea and golden sand. The park opens at 8am and closes at 4.30pm, so be sure to arrive early to make the most of the morning light and the time of day when it isn’t too hot – there are few shady spots! If you are lucky, you will be able to spot different animals also enjoying the beautiful beaches before flocks of tourists arrive and scare them away.

The Ruta del Sol continues south, connecting more beaches and towns of all shapes and sizes, each with its own particular charm. Finally you will reach Salinas, a touristy coastal town, which is quite popular among the locals, mainly due to its proximity to Guayaquil, the most populated city in Ecuador. You may choose to skip these altogether and head to the UNESCO heritage site of Cuenca. It‘s a charming, colonial town that seems as though it is stuck in time – a truly beautiful final stop with spectacular landscapes and friendly people. From here, it is easy to cross the border into Peru to continue your Latin American adventure.

ecuador montañita beach wave
ecuador montañita beach wave

TIPS

  • Quito and other destinations on the Andean cordillera are over 2,500m above sea-level, so take your time to allow yourself to acclimatise – I wouldn’t go for a run or try to climb any stairs too quickly!
  • The Ecuadorian sun as incredible as it is dangerous, most people are not used to so many hours of sun nor such a powerful one and do not fully comprehend the risks – buy sunblock that is sufficiently strong (60+!)
  • The seafood is fresh, delicious and an absolute bargain!
  • Mosquitos! Unfortunately, Ecuador’s biodiversity is not limited to mammals, reptiles and plants, but these horrific, blood-sucking insects as well… In our experience Ecuador is worse than any other country in South America, so be sure to bring plenty of strong repellent, especially since most hostels don’t tend to give you mosquito nets!
ecuador nature lizard
ecuador nature lizard
colombia, things to do in salento

Salento

colombia, things to do in salento
colombia, things to do in salento

Salento, Quindio is a quaint little town in the heart of the coffee region where most travellers heading to Valle de Cocora will stay. But Valle de Cocora is not the only reason why people come flocking to Salento. Tucked between the rolling hills of the Western and Central Andean cordilleras, it is renowned for its breathtaking 360° views and colourful, painted traditional houses.

It’s very small, you probably only really need a day to wander about the town. I’d recommend 2 days for a Salento-Cocora trip, with 3 days being perfect for a more relaxed trip and giving you a day to recover from the hike, wander the surrounding hills or have a day in Filandia.

THINGS TO DO IN SALENTO

Main Plaza

Like all traditional plazas in Latin America. Small, church, restaurants. Park in the centre, at the weekends surrounded by stalls selling fruit, coffee, and traditional Colombian food. V lively at the weekend, people drinking beer, playing music and dancing. Always lots of 4×4 Willys parked. Looks like a step back in time!

Calle Real

Although all the houses in Salento are traditionally painted, Calle Real is perhaps the most striking. The colourfully painted doors match perfectly with equally vibrant balconies which overhang onto the bustling street below, which is dotted with wooden park benches and old-fashioned street lamps. It is a street of artisanal shops selling local handicrafts and cafés. Calle Real connects the the main plaza with the steep steps that lead to the mirador Alto de la Cruz.

colombia salento calle real

Alto de la Cruz

There are two main viewpoints, one that looks out onto the valley and another over the town. Most people take the horribly steep 250 steps at the end of Camino Real. Save yourself the pain and take the scenic route with a more gentle incline. Take a short walk up Carrera 4, which takes you to the viewpoint “Ecoparque el Mirador”. Enjoy the views from there, and then take a concrete path by the fence on the right of the viewpoint, which will take you up to the other mirador which looks out of the town. It’s a bit gritty to be honest. Then you can take the steps down to Camino Real.

Coffee Tour

In the coffee region you can find coffee tours left, right and centre, walking around town you’ll see posters and most accommodation will also have recommendations. Here are the most popular Salento coffee tours:

  • Finca Don Eduardo Coffee Farm 3 hours $30,000COP ($10.50/£7.50/€8.50)
    Family run, Don Eduardo does the tours himself. A Brit who has lived there for over 13 years.
  • Finca las Brisas (Cafe Don Elias) 1 hour $8,000COP ($3/£2/€2)
    Small and organic coffee farm
  • Finca Ocaso 1.5 hours. $15,000 ($5/£4/€4)
    Big production with regular tours in English
  •  

Filandia Day Trip from Salento

Filandia is a smaller, less touristy version of Salento. Similar to Salento, it has many colourfully painted houses, but it is a more authentic town that is less commercial and little geared towards tourists, especially foreigners. Just 10 minutes walk from the Plaza you will find the Mirador Colina Iluminada del Quindio, a 27-metre-high wooden structure with 360 views of the Coffee Region. There is also the natural reserve Barbas-Bremen 680 hectares of forest with hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Filandia has many lovely restaurant, we would particularly recommend the beautiful Helena Adentro which serves delicious Colombian-inspired tapas in a stunning glass patio. The maranitas pork, choriopan de chorizo santarrosano (restaurant version of a typical regional hotdog-like street food) and berenjena de finca (aubergine with goats cheese).

colombia filandia

WHERE TO STAY IN SALENTO

Salento has a range of accommodation both in the town itself and in nearby coffee farms (fincas). In the fincas, you can enjoy the tranquility of the surrounding mountains and truly be in the nature and many offer pick-up and drop-off service from the centre of Salento. However, staying in the town is more convenient if you want to be able to wander the streets and go out for meals. Both are great options, and Salento is so small that nothing it too much effort or too inconvenient.

For solo, social backpackers, Tralala and El Viajero are popular options. Many people choose to stay as close as possible to the main Plaza or Calle Real (Calle 6), but I would recommend staying on the outer edges to get the best of both worlds – convenient location and mountain views.

  • Dorms from $20,000COP ($7 / £5 / €6)
  • Privates from $65,000COP ($23 / £16 / €18)

We stayed at Luciernagas Hostel, just 5-10 minutes’ walk from the main plaza with breathtaking mountain views with spacious rooms. The dorms have real beds, and all the private rooms have a balcony. The private rooms are small but perfectly sized.

  • Dorm from $25,000COP ($9 / £6 / €7)
  • Double $95,000COP ($33 / £24 / €27)
  •  

WHERE TO EAT 

Patacón (Main Plaza)
Salento is locally renown for its delicious patacón, that is giant smashed plantain that has toppings of your choice, much like a pizza. The Main Plaza has many street stalls offering patacon from about $10,000COP.

Luciérnaga
Luciérnaga is also a restaurant bar with glass walls, outdoor seating and a fantastic view. We went for breakfast but the lunch menu also looked delicious.

Meals from around $15,000

Meraki
Meraki offers a range of international-style meals which are locally sourced. You can sit outside – nicely lit and lovely atmosphere. We a vegetarian hotdog with teriyaki fried vegetables and crispy plantain, and parcels of chicken in soft pastry. I wasn’t a huge fan of the vegetarian protein used for the hotdog, but the rest was delicious – especially the chicken parcels. But my favourite was definitely dessert – their homemade chocolate cake with crushed peanuts and strawberries is absolutely divine.

 
 
HOW TO GET TO SALENTO

colombia salento eje cafetero map

You cannot get directly to Salento. To get to Salento, you must first get to Armenia or Pereira. Then you can get a bus to Salento.

1) Go to Armenia or Pereira

A: Fly to Armenia or Pereira

You can fly to Armenia or Pereira from any main city, then get a bus to Salento. Avianca has 4 flights a day Bogota to Armenia. Vivacolombia has flights to Pereira from Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin, (as well as Santa Marta and Barranquilla)

OR

B: Bus to Armenia or Pereira

The easiest way to get to Salento is to go to Armenia or Pereira, as there are few direct buses to Salento from the big cities. You could also go to Pereira, but there are more buses that go from Armenia.

Bus from Bogota to Armenia (9 hours)

Buses go from Terminal Salitre and run every hour or so from midnight until 5pm, for around $50,000COP ($17USD/£13/€14)

Bus times from Bogota to Armenia:

Bolivariano
$53,0000COP
01:30, 04:00, 05:30, 07:00, 11:00, 13:00, 16:00, 18:00
Magdalena
$50,000COP
00:30, 01:30, 02:30, 05:00, 06:00, 08:45, 12:00
Velotax
$47,000COP
04:00, 06:00, 08:00, 10:00, 12:00, 14:00, 17:00 


Bus from Medellin to Armenia (7 hours)
From Terminal Sur

Aracua
$40,0000COP
04:30, 06:30, 08:45, 09:45, 11:15, 13:00, 15:00, 18:00
Flota Accidental
$47,000COP
Every hour from 00:30 to 23:30

There are also direct buses from Medellin to Salento four times a day with Flota Occidental leaving at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm. The journey
lasts 6.5 hours and costs $45,000COP

 
Bus from Cali to Armenia (3 hours)

Buses run every 20 minutes between 4am-9pm. Cost $22,00COP

Companies Expreso Treso, Palmira, Tax Belalcazar, Velotax, Transa

 

2) BUS TO SALENTO

colombia salento eje cafetero map

Bus from Armenia to Salento

Once you are in Armenia, buses run frequently to Salento and takes around 45 minutes.

Cootracir
$3,600
every 20 minutes 05:20-20:00
Alcala
$3,400
every 20 minutes 05:40-20:00

Bus from Pereira to Salento

Expreso Alcala
$7,000
Weekdays
06:30, 08:40,10:00, 11:40, 13:40,15:00,16:40 and 18:40
Weekends
06:30-18:40 every hour

From Pereira after 7pm (but before 9pm)

If you are coming from Pereira, be sure to go early as possible as it will be difficult to get to Salento after 9pm. If you miss the last bus from Pereira, you can get a bus to Armenia but ask the driver to drop you off on the vía a Salento. Here, the bus that comes from Armenia to Salento will pick you up on its way. You will see a turn off the main road on the left which goes to Salento. When you get off the bus, you just need to cross the road and you will see a bus stop. You shouldn’t have to wait long for the next bus!

From Pereira – vía Salento – Salento $6,500COP + $2,800COP


Direct bus from Medellin to Salento

There are a few options that will take you directly between Medelllin and Salento. You need to go from Terminal Sur in Medellin.

LEAVING SALENTO

Buses leave from Carrera 2 between 4&5, next to a school.

Buses from Salento to Armenia
Every 20 minutes from 6.00am to 9.00pm

Buses from Salento to Pereira
07:50, 10:00, 12:50, 14:50,17:50, 20:00
(more frequent at the weekend)

Direct bus from Salento to Medellin
8:00, 10:00, 12:00, 16:00
$45,000COP

There are regular bus from Armenia and Perieira to Bogota, Cali and Medellin.

colombia salento colours
colombia backpacking routes

Colombia Backpacking Routes

colombia backpacking routes

 

Much of the Latin America continent remains unexplored, but if there’s any country with undiscovered magic, it’s Colombia. Until recent years, Colombia was an unthinkable destination for many travellers, deemed too dangerous; ruled by crime and drug-traffickers. Of course, Netflix’s Narcos has very much put Colombia on the map (for better or for worse) and last year’s Peace Agreement has catapulted Colombia to new-found fame, landing top spots on Conde Nast Traveler, NY Times, and The Telegraph. Of course, having lived in Colombia for a year with my Colombian boyfriend – I don’t need any convincing! We have travelled all over to come up with the ultimate guide and complete Colombia backpacking route – with itinerary ideas, bespoke maps and recommendations to suit your backpacker needs.

For those who have ventured to Colombia, they are likely to have discovered beautiful beaches, colourful colonials towns and some of the friendliest people in the world! However, the main mistake foreigners make is believing that the the tropical climes of the Caribbean coast is the best that Colombia has to offer when in reality, Colombia’s true charm lies in its incredibly varied topography and ecosystems. Colombia is 60% rainforest with jungles that open onto large stretches of coastline and snow-capped mountains Xkm from the sea. Altiplanos, cloud forests and paramos spread across the extensive Andean mountains, which traverse the country in three parts. It is the second most biodiverse country in the world whose ecological diversity makes Colombia a heaven for hikers, wildlife-lovers and adventurers.

Colombia is our home, and even though we have travelled around most of it – there is always more to see! We would recommend spending one or two months in Colombia, but even then it’s always difficult to squeeze everywhere in. Check out our Colombia hotspots for the best places to visit in Colombia.

TWO MONTHS IN COLOMBIA

Colombia Backpacking Routes 2 months map

THE ‘INTERIOR’ (4-5 weeks)

Bogota – Tatacoa – San Agustin – Pasto – Cali – Salento – Medellin

Let’s start in the sprawling mountains of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, which geographically, is also the heart of the country. Head south towards Neiva and enjoy the starry sky of Tatacoa Desert. Keep heading south and wonder at ancient statues of San Agustin. Next, the southwestern corner of Colombia will take you to Pasto, whose traditional country folk are more Andean than Colombian. Visit the fairytale church of Las Lajas and Laguna Verde near Ipiales, by the Ecuadorian border.

Heading back up the West side of the interior, you will reach the colonial White City of Popayán. Next, dance all night in Calí, salsa capital. Heading up towards the centre again, and you will reach the rolling hills of the Coffee region where you will find the colourful town of Salento and the wax palms of Cocora Valley. Then, keep heading north to the once notorious city of Medellín. Here, you have the option to detour to the wild beaches of Chocó (Nuqui or Bahía Solano) and back. Alternatively you can head to the northwestern border with Panamá to the Darien jungle-beach paradise that is Sapzurro, perhaps stopping in Capurganá (where San Blas boats to Panama).

The interior region is often overlooked, but no less magical – particularly forkeen hikers!

THE CARIBBEAN COAST (2 WEEKS)

Cartagena – Santa Marta – Tayrona – Palomino – Cabo de la Vela – Punta Gallinas

Now you can make your way along the Caribbean coast, starting in the walled city of Cartagena, and the bustling beaches nearby. Moving northeast you will find the mountains of Santa Marta and its surrounding beaches (Taganga, Costeno Beach). A 4-day detour south from Santa Marta take you to the incredible Lost City, or head straight to the famous National Park Tayrona, navigating the leafy, dense jungle to reach the sea. Another hour and you will reach Palomino, where you can experience real-life Lazy River tubing down the gentle Magdalena river, immersed in the sounds of the jungle. If you are feeling adventurous, venture to the arid, desert region of the Guajira; witness the beautiful sunsets of Cabo de la Vela and brave the rough seas to Punta Gallinas, the northern tip of South America where desert meets the sea.

SANTANDER AND BOYACÁ(1-2 WEEKS)

Mompox – Barichara – San Gil – Villa de Leyva – Bogotá

Heading back down south, you can cross the departamento of Cesar, stopping in Valledupar, where Vallenato originates from, or Mompós (Bolivar), allegedly the most beautiful city of Colombia. Further south is the department of Santander where you will find Canon de Chicamocha (apparently deeper than the Grand Canyon!); Barichara, one of the most beautiful, colonial towns of Colombia; and San Gil, for the adrenaline-junkies, where you can do extreme sports. On route back to Bogotá lie the little explored towns of Boyacá, apart from the colonial Villa de Leyva. Boyacá also boasts the incredibly ecologically important páramos of Cocuy and Oceta. Finally pop to underground salt cathedral of Zipaquira on the way back to Bogotá.

COLOMBIA ITINERARY: ONE MONTH

Colombia Backpacking Routes 1 month map

Bogota – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta – The Guajira – Mompox – Barichara – San Gil – Villa de Leyva – Bogota

Bogota – Tatacoa – San Agustin – Pasto – Popayan – Cali – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta

COLOMBIA ITINERARY: TWO OR THREE WEEKS 

Colombia Backpacking Routes 2 weeks map

Bogota – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta – The Guajira – Mompox – Barichara – San Gil – Villa de Leyva – Bogota

Bogota – Tatacoa – San Agustin – Pasto – Popayan – Cali – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta

COLOMBIA ITINERARY: FROM PANAMA TO ECUADOR

Colombia Backpacking Routes from Panama to Ecuador

EXTRA TIME OR MONEY?

If you have plenty of time and no financial constraints, consider heading to some places which are off-route and may be difficult to get to – but totlly worth the effort!

THE AMAZON

No matter how long you are willing to sit on a bus for, The Amazon rainforest is not a destination that can be reached by road. You must fly from Bogota to Leticia (there are no flights from any other city!) which is served by LATAM or Avianca. Although it is a costly detour, discovering in the local communities of the Amazon river is an unforgettable experience!

THE LOST CITY

The Lost City, or La Ciudad Perdida are pre-Inca ruins 600 years older than Machu Picchu! However, unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to get the Lost City is a sweaty but rewarding 4-day trek through the humid Santa Marta Jungle.

SAN ANDRES

San Andrés is the Caribbean island paradise of your dreams – incredible turquoise blue seas and fine soft sands – with prices to match! San Andres may belong to Colombia but its prices are sky high and is dominated by luxury resorts, not unlike Cancun in Mexico. If you’re looking for a break from backpacker life, this may be the answer!

ISLA GORGONA

While San Andres is a Caribbean paradise streaming with tourists, Gorgona is a Pacific Island with untouched beaches on the edge of dense jungle which has only recently opened up to tourism. It’s biological diversity makes it heaven for wildlife lovers and keen divers!