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
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!
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, best places to visit

Hotspots

With the soaring number of tourists, Colombia is one of the hottest destinations to visit. Tourism to Colombia has grown more than 250% since 2006 when 1 million foreigners visited the country. Both Forbes and The Guardian have featured Colombia in their Top Destination 2017 lists. Unfortunately, few visitors have the luxury of having weeks and months to cover the vast and varied regions of Colombia, so here are the hotspots that are not to be missed! If you are looking for something more adventurous, check out our posts on the Guajira and watch this space… 

 

CARTAGENA DE INDIAS

THE CARIBBEAN COAST

colombia cartagena

Cartagena is a colonial gem. Nestled on the Caribbean coast, its old walls guard its colonial past, its vibrantly painted houses and flower-draped balconies hold a nostalgic charm that gives you the illusion of being stuck in time as you wander through its narrow streets. A walk along the wall offers a coastal breeze to ease the unforgiving humidity and the the hustle-and-bustle the city’s street vendors. Getsmani, one of the most traditional neighbourhoods, is shedding its seedy, drug-dealing past. The developing cultural scene of this barrio popular is evident in its graffiti art, bars and hip hostels. Its restaurants are more reasonly priced than within the walled city. You can enjoy a beer in the main square, day or night, and soak-up the lively atmosphere. But most people go to Cartagena for its beautiful, if overcrowded, beaches; the islands of Barú and Rosario is true Caribbean bliss.

 

PARQUE TAYRONA

SANTA  MARTA

colombia tayrona beach cabo san juan

Tayrona National Park is where the dense rainforest of the Sierra Nevada mountains magically unfurls into rows of coconut palms dotted along sandy bays and the crashing waves of the Caribbean coast. The transformation of the landscape as you weave in and out of the leafy jungle canopies and climb over giant boulders is no less than breathtaking! It is a leisurely but humid 45-minute hike to the first beach, Cañaveral, where the luxury eco-habs are located, followed by Arrecifes, the first campsite. Further along you will reach La Piscina and Arenilla, both great for swimming and popular with Colombian families. The furthest, most picturesque beach is Cabo San Juan (around 40 minutes’ walk from the first beach). Unfortunately it’s also the most crowded, so avoid during high-season! All offer simple hammocks and tents, with basic amenities and hearty, local food at reasonable prices. Along from Cabo San Juan, there are several virgin beaches – great for a romantic stroll! If you want to do more than laze on the beach, you can hike to the ruins of Pueblito. Tayrona is also home to lots of wildlife, so look out for the crabs, lizards and caimans!  

 

VALLE DE COCORA Y SALENTO

EJE CAFETERO (THE COFFEE REGION)

colombia valle de cocora wax palms

Valle de Cocora is home to the tallest palms in the world. The wax palms are scattered across the rolling hills of the valley, their spindly trunks soaring up to 60m and splaying leaves cast a shadow in the sky. A 5-6 hour hike will take you through the stunning valley of wax palms and into the cloud forest of muddy trails and rickety wooden suspension bridges. In Acaima, you can experience the magic of hummingbirds in their natural habitat up-close. Jeeps “willy” run regularly from the quaint, traditional town of Salento, 10km away, where most travellers tend to stay during their visit. Salento is one of the oldest town of the coffee region, full of traditional colourful houses and artisanal shops. You can enjoy a the stunning mountain views of the mirador, take a local coffee tour and enjoy a game of tejo.

 

VILLA DE LEYVA

BOYACÁ

colombia villa de leyva

Nestled in the Andean mountain-valley a few hours north of Bogotá sits the quiet, colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Unlike Cartagena’s sea of colours, Villa de Leyva is known for its forest green doors set against single-storey whitewashed walls and terracotta-tiled roofs. The large and uneven cobblestone streets congregate in the immense expanse of the main square, harmonious with the majesty of the surrounding mountains. You can enjoy a variety of antique and handicraft stores, as well as some fine restaurants at a fraction of Bogotá prices. You can take a scenic hike to the Pozos Azules or around the Parque Ecológico de Periquera. For adrenaline junkies, GroupOn offers great deals on days of extreme sport such as quad-biking and rappelling down a waterfall. Most people tend to stay in the town itself, however, if you really love the mountains, hotels a few kilometres out boast breathtaking views!

 

MEDELLIN

ANTIOQUIA

colombia medellin comuna 13

The vibrant nightlife of Poblado and beautiful women have been the main attraction for many visitors for the last 20 years. However, Netflix’s Narcos has put Medellín on the world map and its popularity has skyrocketed in the last few years, with everyone flocking to Medellín to visit the famed home of the most notorious drug-trafficker in history. However, Medellín is more than the controversial glorification of Pablo Escobar. The local government has invested a lot of money in redeveloping public spaces and ultimately its image. It not only boasts the only metro system in the country, but you can even take a cable car up the mountains and out of Medellin to Park Arvi. The Museo de Memoria is an incredible testament to the city and indeed, the country’s history and it’s definitely worth visitng to get a deeper insight into the conflict. Go to Comuna 13, and learn about the social transformation this notorious neighbourhood, now a canvas for graffiti art and communal space for social development. I’d also recommend a free walking tour with Real City Tours – the tour is not only informative and thorough but our guide gave an impartial yet very poignant explanation of the city’s history and the current situation. Lastly, a visit to Guatapé is a must! Climb up the peñol for the best view of this picturesque reservoir, wander around the narrow streets of the tiny, colourful town