South America is an epic undertaking for backpackers – a challenging, varied but quite spectacular experience. CheapAir.com has compiled a list of useful tips and suggestions to make the most of your backpacking journey across the continent.
A General Itinerary Will Keep You On Course
South America is a vast and diverse place – and there are a vast number of international travelers there throughout the year, all of who have opinions about where you should go (and spend your dollars). One of the great joys of backpacking is the general ability to change plans on a dime and go where the wind takes you. This is a fantastic byproduct of traveling light and cheap. But you can also quickly get bogged down in extra travel expenses you hadn’t planned for that can quickly deplete your budget.
We recommend, therefore, that you plan a general itinerary – must-see places along that course – and then stick to it. There are many resources online to help you plan those itineraries. Two of our favorites include the “Gringo Trail,” the classic itinerary that weaves through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
The one drawback to the Gringo Trail is that it leaves out Brazil completely. We like the “Super Loop” itinerary that draws a broad circle around the continent and allows you to include Rio de Janeiro and start your trip in any major metropolitan area. On the Super Loop you’ll potentially visit places like Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela. You can draw a wider or narrow circle, depending on your available time and budget.
If you’re an adventure-travel enthusiast, you might consider a less logical and affordable route that takes in places like Easter Island, or if you’re a city and culture fanatic you might want to linger in places like Buenos Aires and Bogota. The key is keeping a general idea of where you want to go and not straying too far afield (which can be brutal on the budget).
Make a Budget and Stick to It
Speaking of budgets – if you want to make sure you’re on budget – make one before you go. You can build in places where you might ease up a bit and spend a little more (if you tend to do that), but you’ll have a much less stressful trip if you plan in advance.
South America can be “done” on a backpacker’s budget quite easily. Plan to spend about $1,000 a month with backpacker-grade accommodations (hostels and 2* properties) and meals (no fancy Michelin stars for you!) Before you leave, research the costs on the must-do activities and build that into the overall plan. It’s not necessary to pre-book accommodations or the most part, even in high season. Having said that, if you’re a single woman traveling alone, we always recommend booking accommodation prior to arriving late night into any city or town on the itinerary. Better yet? Travel in groups to avoid safety conundrums.
Bring a Book
…Or a tablet or podcast collection, or letter/postcard-writing supplies. It’s the nature of the beast. When backpacking in South America, you will be spending time on some long, sometimes overnight bus rides. You might think you’ll be sleeping through the night, but you’ll be happy you brought some activities to divert yourself on some particularly grueling long journeys.
Strategize Your Dining Plans
Some destinations along your journey will be crazy affordable (you can generally get a 3-course meal for just a couple of bucks in places like Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru). In more expensive destinations like Argentina, Brazil and Chile, you can cut costs by picnic dining or cooking with new friends in your hostel.
Real Money Talk
Perhaps the most challenging task when backpacking South America is just staying on top of your cash flow situation. Every country has a different currency, and ATMs outside the main cities can run out of cash. It’s a good idea to travel with a combination of US dollars, credit cards, debit cards and local currencies. Because pick pockets are a problem in most places in South America, you’d logically want to keep your cash supplies low, but because you might not have access to ATMs, you’ve got to strike a tricky balance. Make sure you are in communication with your bank prior to departure and that they are aware of your travel plans. Should any emergencies arise, it may be that they can intervene and offer troubleshooting suggestions.
Finally – a Word on Wardrobe
The key to a stellar backpacking wardrobe in South America is versatility. Backpacker Steve has a solid list for men, while Rosanna Bird offers similar for women. Virtually every hostel will have laundry facilities of some sort, and you want to make sure not to over pack in a place where you’ll feel the overwhelming need to “prepare for any scenario.”
If Europe is more your style, check out our posts on backpacking destinations for you!