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!

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