South America, perhaps more than any other continent, genuinely does offer a taste of pretty much every natural phenomenon: from the harsh frigid landscapes of Patagonia, to the world’s largest tropical rainforest – and taking in deserts and record-breaking waterfalls along the way. South America really does have it all.
But it’s not just the physical that draws backpackers to the continent – South America has a cultural depth and historical significance that sets it apart as well. From the contemporary wonders of the markets of Ecuador and the carnivals of Brazil, to the other worldly historical wonders of Machu Picchu, South America has more than its fair share of blow-your-mind ‘must-do’s’ for backpackers too.
Backpackers do have some concerns about the safety of some parts of the continent and, although these are not necessarily misplaced, providing you are sensible and leave your Rolex and ‘I’m a rich tourist’ t-shirt at home you should be fine.
In terms of where to go: South America is massive. To genuinely experience the entire continent would take much longer than most backpackers are able to commit. The best advice is to ensure you allow enough time in the places you elect to visit. Spending three weeks trying to cover 6 countries will leave you travel weary and, well, probably quite unfulfilled. Have a read through the destination guides, work out where you most want to spend time and plan accordingly.
There is something of a ‘recognised route’ for backpackers that takes in many of the highlights of the continent, and there are plenty of hostels and like-minded backpackers around these areas. The great thing about South America, however, is that you can easily get away from this ‘well trodden’ path if you want to get a bit further under the skin of the continent.
Where is it and what’s there?
South America is attached to the rest of the Americas by the narrow southerly point of Panama. The continent is only about one-fifth smaller than the whole of North America. South America lies across the equator – with Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil all being equatorial.
There are two significant geographical features of the continent. The first of these is the Andes mountain range. The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world (4,300 miles), and run along the western coast of the entire continent. They are a major feature of all countries along this coast and have a significant climactic as well as geographic impact. The almost equatorial Venezuelan capital of Caracas, for example, is elevated by the Andes and has a pleasant year round temperature in the mid 20s: more Mediterranean than equatorial.
The second major feature of the continent is the Amazon Rainforest. The largest in the world, the rainforest takes up most of the River Amazon’s basin, which covers 1.7 billion acres. One of the most important ecological environments on the planet, the effect of deforestation is well documented. In terms of where it lies, 60% of the rainforest is in the northern half of Brazil (the 5th largest country in the world), 17% in Peru, and the rest shared by the 7 other countries which border it.
Aside from these monumental features, the continent also has the Salar de Uyani – the largest salt flat in the world, some amazing skiing and mountainous regions, and some perfect Caribbean beaches.
Countries of South America:-
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Falkland Islands (UK), French Guiana (France, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay,Venezuela,
The size and nature of the topography does mean, of course, that it is impossible to generalise about South America’s climate. A good indication of the nature of the climate throughout the continent is that one country – Argentina – holds the record for the highest (48.9°C) and the lowest (-33°C) temperatures on the continent!
This said, if you always bear in mind that the Andes are mountainous, hence colder the higher up you go, and that the continent – although equatorial in the north – does go a long way south (so becomes very much seasonal (and cold!) as you head south), then you can get a broad understanding of what the climate is likely to be like. Have a look at the individual country guides for a more detailed explanation for specific countries.
Getting there and visas
Nowadays South America is very well served by international air carriers, and you can get to at least one main airport from most European and North American cities. Getting to the larger hubs is straightforward, and then it is generally pretty easy to arrange an internal flight if you want to begin your travels elsewhere.
You may be arriving from Central America for your backpacking South America trip. If this is the case then you can catch a boat from Colon (Panama) to Cartagena or Barranquilla in Colombia, or from Panama City to Buenaventura (Colombia) or Guayaquil (Ecuador).
There are no direct rail or road links into the continent.
In terms of visas, if you have a European or North American passport, then you don’t have to worry about sorting out any visas in advance. Pretty much all countries offer a free visa on arrival, with the option to extend if you’ve found your perfect spot. This said, do check advice for individual countries as some require you to have a certain amount of time left on your passport.
If you know anyone who has been backpacking South America to sum up their memories of the continent, one word would be sure to crop up: buses! Buses are the primary mode of transport for (by South American standards) short/medium journeys. They are a good way to get around and – assuming you’re on a backpacking budget – the only way to get around a lot of time, but they can become something of a ‘groundog day’ curse. Although you can’t generalise completely as there are exceptions, as a rule: don’t expect highly efficient, on time buses, don’t expect the most direct route, and do allow yourself some leeway if you’ve got anything important lined up at the other end! ? Too find ou t why a hiking watch click here
You will almost certainly undertake some long (probably very long) journeys by bus too, so it’s very much a case of finding your inner ‘Zen’, having a good book on the go, and just going with it! And there are some very good bus and road networks in the more developed parts of the continent: so savour these when you have the chance!
If you’re planning on seeing a lot of the continent, or are short on time, then you’ll need to make use of the internal air network. This is generally excellent, and a great way to get around (especially as you look down on the buses below!). There are now several low-cost carriers too, so it needn’t be too expensive. Websites generally have an English language option, so it’s worth going direct for the best prices.
Rail travel is a non-starter. There are some lines, but these are generally aimed at tourist trails (such as getting to Macchu Picchu), and not at travelling longer distances.
Things to do when backpacking South America
It’s impossible not to continue mentioning South America’s size in relation to any backpacking South American experience there (it is over twice the size of the entire European continent). Consequently any trip will need to be very carefully planned if there are certain activities that you have at the top of your backpacking South America ‘must do’ list. If you want to chill out on a Brazilian beach waiting for carnival season and you want to do cycle Death Road in Bolivia, then you’ll need to work out the best way of getting from east to west, for example. Sticking to Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia is a popular option and there are plenty of amazing experiences to be had in that area, but equally heading up to Venezuela or down to Chile offer plenty of more unique rewards. A combination of the ‘must do’s’ which are – of course – pretty touristy, and trying to get yourself well off the beaten track seems to be the best way of getting a true sense of both the history, and the modern reality of the continent.
The Amazon Rainforest. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the statistics relating to the rainforest and the Amazonian basin, but to get an understanding of the sheer magnitude of this remarkable environment you really do need to spend some time there. You can enter the rainforest from several South American countries and by several means – trekking and canoeing being the most popular. Suffice to say that the longer you can allow the better – you need a week or so to really get a sense of ‘jungle life’.
Machu Picchu. World renowned for a reason, the staggering complexity and beauty of the ruins really will stay with you. The region is quite strictly regulated nowadays – which is essentially a good thing – but does mean that it may take a while to sort your trek out. For the most solitary and magical experience, try to get there for sunrise.
Rio de Janeiro. An impossibly manic city, with a truly unique atmosphere, staggeringly beautiful beaches (populated by staggeringly beautiful people!) and a world renowned nightlife. And, of course, home to the most famous carnival – or even the most famous party – on the entire planet. Although it may not be worth planning your entire trip around, definitely worth tweaking your itinerary to try and get there if you can.
Death Road. Maybe one to tell your parents about afterwards, death road was officially the world’s most dangerous road (graded on the number of vehicles not to make it…). It is now closed to everyday traffic, but is open to backpackers on mountain bikes. Although it sounds like it may be a 400ft drop too far, it is ridden daily by avid mountain bikers, and by those who want to go at a more sedate pace just to say they’ve done it. There have been a few fatalities, but none have been with the larger and more reputable companies who will organise everything for you (and give you a lift back up!).
Galapagos Islands. Unless you’ve spent a long time saving up, heading to the Galapagos may be one of those trips that you have to weigh up against others – as it isn’t cheap. But if you have even a passing interest in nature and want to feel like you genuinely have stepped back in time (think Jurassic Park) then a trip is money very well spent. There are various ways of getting to the islands more cheaply too (see the Ecuador page), so it needn’t mean flying home straight afterwards because you’ve run out of cash.
Colombia. With a bad reputation, Colombia’s not the kind of place to be taken lightly – but if you’re sensible and follow travel advice then it is a unique destination, and truly will repay you. Try a coffee plantation, or skateboarding around the highways in the capital on a Sunday: when cars are banned from the roads.
Skiing in Chile. You may think your travels are all about perfect beaches and not having to pack much more than a bikini or boardies, but for more intrepid backpackers, there is some of the best skiing and snowboarding on the planet in Chile. With several resorts within an hour or two of the capital too, and plenty of places to hire kit, you could maybe think about treating yourself…!
Venezuelan beaches. They’re on the Caribbean Sea – what more do you need to know! Plus you could head over to Margarita Island, home of – you’ve guessed it – The Margarita. Definitely a cool place to watch the sun go down, and plenty of options for watersports too.
Salur de Uyuni. Chile’s epic salt flight is about as off-the-planet as you can get without leaving terra firma. It truly is a remarkable place with a thick crust of completely smooth salt that varies in altitude by only one meter over the entire 4000 square mile area! Definitely a spot to 1) get some amazing pictures, and 2) sit back, take a few deep breath and take it all in. Awesome.
However long you commit to backpacking South America, it won’t be long enough to ‘see it all’ (unless you’re working in years rather than months). So be sensible when planning your backpacking itinerary. What do you really want to do – see how the Inca’s lived, or live it up in Buenos Aires? Don’t take too much on and give yourself a chance to get a real sense of the continent. In reality, you’ll probably enjoy it so much that you’ll be back with your backpack before too long anyway..! Happy Hiking Adventure