Hiking the W or O trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is at the top of many an …
Welcome to South America
A vast continent, full of possibilities. From the snow-capped peaks of the Andes to the silvery-sand beaches of Bahia in Brazil, it’s a continent brimming with cultures, adventures, not to mention those landscapes.
One of my formative trips was to Rio when I was eighteen. In two short weeks, I fell in love with the beaches, the sights, the food… oh and the caipirinhas and samba.
You could say I’ve been hooked on South America ever since, returning countless times to what I have to admit is my favourite continent.
However you travel and whatever you love, It’s time to visit South America. Check out this South America travel guide to help you plan your trip.
The Best Places to Travel in South America
Picking the best places to visit in South America is tough – no doubt about it. But really, there are some places that you just shouldn’t miss. Here are the top places to visit in South America that made the cut.
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
Sure it’s arguably the biggest sight in South America, and the chances of you having it to yourself are a big fat zero, but seeing the sunrise over Machu Picchu is an experience to remember.
Read more: Planning Your Trip to Machu Picchu
Buenos Aires: The Enchanting Capital
A South American city with a European vibe, whenever I think that I’ve seen most of what Buenos Aires has to offer, there’s always another surprise around the corner to reel me in for more.
Read more: The Perfect Buenos Aires Itinerary
Rio de Janeiro: The Most Beautiful City?
Oh Rio, where do I start? With the eye-popping beaches? With the larger than life sights? The carnival? The parties? The samba. Wherever you start, it always ends with you wanting to extend your stay.
Iguazu Falls, Thundering Waterfalls
Get up, close and personal with the largest system of waterfalls in the world. The Brazilian side offers wide panoramas, while the Argentinean a chance to get close to the falls. Visit both.
The Galapagos Islands
Walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and explore these remote islands – along with the abundance of wildlife and striking natural sceneries for which they are famed. Hands up who wants to go to the Galapagos.
La Paz: The City in the Sky
It might not be Bolivia’s capital but La Paz captures visitors’ attention with its heady mix of colonial buildings, ancient traditions and high-speed modernity – all at a breathtaking 3,500m above sea level.
Tierra Del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego National Park – filled with forests, lakes and, of course, mountains galore is nature’s way of showing off her charms. The ultimate outdoor adventure playground. Prepare to be wowed – big time.
Bolivia Salt Flats
Visit in the rainy season, when a thin layer of water sits atop the flats and turns them into a giant mirror, or in the dry season when you’re dazzled by the unending gleaming white.
Perito Moreno Glacier
So, you think you’ve seen it all.. And then you see Perito Moreno – a vast expanse of torturous peaks, gleaming white and blue – thundering as chunks break off and fall into the water. Worth the trip to Patagonia alone.
Mindo Cloud Forest
Expect 100 square miles of cloud forest with endless hiking trails meandering through the clouds. What’s more, you get to explore one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world.
Cusco: Inca Meets Colonial
Cusco boasts an unrivalled combination of Incan and Colonial-era buildings and architecture. Spend time visiting Inca ruins such as Sachsayhuaman and, if you can time your visit to coincide with the ancient Inti Rayman festival, do.
Read more: Cusco: Travelling to Peru’s Ancient City
Lake Titicaca: Peru + Bolivia
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, the largest in South America and sits at an altitude of over 3,800 metres. What does that mean for you? A lot of opportunities for exploration and adventure.
The largest rainforest on the planet. Sounds impressive right? Wait until you see it.
One of the most biodiverse regions on Earth and home to 10% of all known species, the Amazon is the place to go for wildlife-spotting and jungle adventures. Just don’t forget your mozzie spray. They’re pretty brutal.
South America: Country by Country
Ask what the best countries to visit in South America are to 100 different people and I guarantee you will get 100 different answers.
The real answer is there’s pretty much something to appeal to everyone, no matter what kind of traveller or adventurer you are. That’s why I love it so much.
Vast. If you only have one word to describe Argentina, that would be it. From the dramatic vistas of the Tierra del Fuego to arid beauty of the altiplano region, with almost everything else in between, Argentina is an assault on the senses.
Ride with the gauchos, feast on some of the best steak you’ll ever taste from an asado and hike in the Fitzroy range. You’re going to have a blast.
Landlocked Bolivia is a land of superlatives – the largest salt flat in the world (the Salar de Uyuni) and the highest capital in the world (La Paz), among them. Blistering hot days, freezing cold nights in the Altiplano.
Red lakes, green lakes, white lakes, The Amazon. You haven’t seen it until you’ve seen it in Bolivia.
Everything here is an adventure. Plan yours.
The biggest country in South America, Brazil is a destination that’s large in size and impact. Spend a night partying in the streets in Rio and you’ll see what I mean.
But it is much more than just crazy caipirinha-fuelled parties. One of the most diverse countries in the world, you can venture into the great unknown with jungle treks in the Amazon, get soaked trying to get up close and personal with Iguazu falls or just settle down onto one Brazil’s absolutely incredible beaches.
Chile’s the long and skinny country perched on the southwest of the continent. But it’s got a lot more to offer you than its rather bizarre appearance on the map.
Driving around the Atacama in a campervan has to go down as one of the most ridiculously awesome experiences of my life.
Where else can you stargaze at some of the clearest night skies in the world every night, then visit geysers, volcanoes and salt lakes by day?
Not to be outdone, the rest of the country won’t disappoint. Hike in the Torres del Paine National Park, indulge in the country’s first-rate wines, paraglide over the beach or party hard in underrated Santiago. It’s up to you.
For a long time Colombia had a bit of a reputation as mad, bad and dangerous to know thanks to the civil war and drug trade that plagued its history. These days though, it’s quite rightly emerged as one of the best places to visit in Latin America – not to mention one of the coolest too.
What’s so special? An enchanting mix of quaint colonial towns like Villa de Leyva, all out Caribbean charm in Cartagena and the laid-back cosmopolitan cool of Bogota go some way towards Colombia’s charm.
But that’s not all. Digital nomads have started flocking to Medellin, while backpackers revel in the pristine beaches along the Caribbean coast and on Colombia’s several picture-perfect islands.
Oh, and there’s cloud forest, salsa, an ancient lost city trek in the middle of the jungle and the Amazon. Not much then.
Offering travellers the chance to travel from beach to jungle in one day, Ecuador is a small country (well, by South American terms anyway) that packs a big punch.
Start your Ecuadorian adventure in Quito, the country’s capital. Tempting as it is to hare off into the wilds, spend some time in the city and it will reward you with a unique culture, beautiful architecture and a laid-back vibe that you can’t help but love.
Hikers will want to tackle the Quilotoa loop, one of South America’s great hikes around the lake of a now-extinct volcano, whilst nature lovers shouldn’t skip the awesome Oriente – Ecuador’s section of the Amazon.
You’ll meet a lot of people who have travelled to South America. People who’ve ventured as far as the Guianas? Not so much.
The Guianas are made up of English-speaking Guyana, Dutch-speaking Suriname and (I’ll leave you to guess the language of the last country) French Guiana.
Diverse and offbeat, all three have a relaxed atmosphere and a tropical climate. The beaches aren’t as incredible as you might think, but the rainforest really is – and is what most people venture here to explore.
Slowly gaining a reputation as South America’s not-so-hidden secret, Paraguay is one of the continent’s lesser-known wildlife hotspots.
Split into two by the Rio Paraguay, there’s not much to see in the capital, Ascuncion. Instead, head out into the dry wilderness of the Chaco or the pristine rainforests in the country’s east. While other travellers skip around Paraguay, you’re free to explore its remote beauty in peace and quiet.
People. Can we talk straight here? Peru is more than just Cusco and Machu Picchu. On my first trip to Peru, I made the mistake of making a beeline for the country’s two biggest draws, blithely ignoring the country’s many, many other draws along the way. Don’t make the same mistake.
Lima might not make many lists of the best cities in South America, but that’s a shame. Filled with cool street art, absolutely awesome cevicherias and a spectacular coastal walk, you should spend at least a couple of days soaking up its charms.
The Amazon makes up almost two-thirds of Peru, so it should come as no surprise that Amazonian adventures are another big draw. Peru’s one of the easiest countries in South America to venture into the Amazon – but that doesn’t make it any less of an experience.
Of course, you have to swing by Machu Picchu – it’s one of the new wonders of the world after all and hands down one of the top places to visit in South America.
Sure the Inca Trail gets a lot of attention, but with the ever-rising cost and worries about sustainability, consider taking one of the alternative hikes – Salkantay is my favourite but Lares takes in a lot of the local culture.
Uruguay is the beautiful girl at the party you’re a little scared of speaking to but find out she’s a real darling when you do.
Glitzy Punta del Este is where South America comes to party during the summer months, while smaller Punta del Diablo is the place where hippy meets hip.
Cutesy Colonia de Sacremento is an easy day trip from Buenos Aires, but you should spend at least a night to get the most out of its somewhat sleepy appeal.
Move on to Montevideo – where fin-de-siecle architecture, chic eateries and liberal attitudes reign supreme.
Away from the towns, remote surfer beaches and gorgeous wine country (yes, they make wine, they just keep it for themselves) lure you into the same happy-go-lucky, cheerful attitude of the locals. And that is no bad thing.
In the northeast of South America, Venezuela is a stunner – one that most travellers don’t see thanks to high crime rates and security concerns. Let’s just say it’s sitting pretty low on the Global Peace Index right now.
It’s a shame: the country boasts a coastline with beaches that could have been plucked straight out of paradise, not to mention natural wonders like Angel Falls.
It’s probably worth noting that the FCO advise against all but essential travel to most of the country, and no travel at all to the section bordering Colombia. That’s warning enough for me – but the decision is yours.
South America Itineraries
With a continent this big, you’re never going to see it all. Luckily, I’ve written a series of itineraries to help you to plan your trip.
The Best Time to Travel to South America
Let’s get this straight. There is no best time to travel to South America. The sheer size and difference in climates and altitude means that the weather is always good somewhere in South America and dreadful somewhere else.
It’s not just about temperature either – a bad rainy season can put a real damper on your trip: they vary from country to country so you will need to check before you go.
Southern Hemisphere winter (June to August) is pretty much a no-go for large parts of Patagonia – by contrast, it’s a great time to go to the north of Argentina (which can be unbearably hot in the summer), or to set off on the Inca Trail or around the Galapagos.
If you want to play it safe, spring and autumn – from March to May and September to November are good bets.
South America Packing List
Packing for a South America trip can be difficult. On the one hand, you want to go hiking in the mountains, on the other, sunning yourself on the beach and partying in the streets don’t sound like bad options either.
Ultimately, what you pack for South America will depend on the type of trip you are planning. Here are some general travel items you should make sure that you have…
- Steripen – Sterilizes water, killing harmful bacteria to ensure that it is safe to drink. Diarrhoea is not fun. Not fun at all.
- Hiking boots – You’d have to be insane to come all this way and not go on at least one of South America’s incredible hikes. Bring your boots – you’ll need them.
- Camera / Drone – You’re going to want pictures. It’s not the same as being back when you come home but checking out your kick-ass pictures will help you feel less sad.
- A Good Backpack – Even if you don’t consider yourself as a backpacker (I’ll be the first to say my true budget backpacking days are behind me), they’re the most portable and easiest option for moving between destinations and withstanding the rather rough handling of the joy that is South American transportation. Go for a wheeled one for maximum flexibility.
- Packing Cubes – Particularly handy if you are travelling to lots of different destinations with different climates as you can separate items into different cubes. I never travel without them anymore as I think they make life so much easier.
- Headlamp – Because you get to light your own path and wear a torch on your head at the same time: a combination that is commonly referred to as living the dream.
- Comfortable walking sandals – You don’t want to be stomping around in your hiking boots all the time. A pair of comfortable walking sandals will help you put your best foot forward (sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist).
- Collapsible Water Bottle – Combine this with the Steripen for a much more sustainable way to stay hydrated during your travels.
- Universal Travel Adapter – Honestly, you’ll come across plug configurations in South America you had no idea even existed (hello Brazil, what’s that weird three pin one about) and getting adapters for each one is, quite frankly, both a nightmare and a colossal waste of time. Get a universal travel adapter and save yourself a world of headache.
South America Travel Tips
There’s no such thing as South American culture. This is one of the most diverse areas in the world, with a combined population of around 385 million people. To seek to stereotype them using a series of broad brush statements would not do anyone any justice so I’m not going to try.
Varies from country to country: here they are at a glance. You can see that Brazil makes it difficult by spanning an impressive four time zones, but hey it is the biggest country in South America after all.
|UTC-6||Easter Island (Chile) and the Galapagos (Ecuador)|
|UTC -5||(Part of) Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru|
|UTC -4||Bolivia, (part of) Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay|
|UTC-3||Argentina, (part of) Brazil and Uruguay|
|UTC -2||Fernando de Noronha and other Brazilian islands|
Spanish is the dominant language in terms of the number of countries in South America that use it. It is spoken in every country apart from Brazil (Portuguese), Suriname (Dutch) Guyana and the Falkland Islands (English) and French Guiana (err, French).
Brazil’s sheer size and population means that Portuguese is actually the dominant language in terms of number of speakers. Don’t you learn something new every day.
Electricity + Adapters
220V, 50Hz is the standard. One that has almost endless exceptions though. Bring an external battery pack to power your devices or get by on a wing and a prayer. I’ve never had a long trip in South America that hasn’t screwed up my phone battery yet. Small price to pay though.
I talked about the importance of a universal travel adapter above so I won’t bore you with all that again. Just get one.
Exercise caution when it comes to food hygiene and what you eat and drink.
Ceviche from a roadside stall in Paracas = not recommended (don’t ask me how I know, I just know alright).
Protect yourself from the sun and take it slow when it comes to altitude.
Malaria is widespread across some regions of South America – if you’re travelling to a malarial area, wear (insect repellent) and wear insect repellent with DEET (a minimum of 30% DEET is recommended).
Once you’re in South America, the easiest way to get around is by bus. The bus system is huge – there’s not a destination that I’ve ever tried to get to that I couldn’t get to by bus.
If you pay a little more for your bus you can nab yourself a super-comfortable reclining sleep and spend the journey having a doze and watching the scenery roll by.
Some bus journeys are bum-numbingly-long, in which case you should consider flying. Same if you need to cover large distances on a limited timescale.
Flying in South America used to be prohibitively expensive, but a recent crop of low-cost airlines and airfares has made it a much more feasible option. Domestic flights tend to be significantly cheaper than international ones though.
Unless you are planning on doing a big South America road trip and turning it into a big adventure, it’s not really worth the hassle of driving. Buses go everywhere and see previous reference to dozing.
The first time I set off for South America my parents were basically convinced that I was going to my certain death.
People will talk about the safest countries in South America and ask about the safest places to travel in South America – my answer would be most places. Of course there are some caveats and you should always use your common sense.
Ask around, check for each country and don’t flash expensive belongings.
Take copies of all of your important documents and save them on a cloud server before you go in case they’re lost or stolen.
If you are the victim of a crime – make sure you report it to the police as you will need the police report to file any insurance claim.
There are more crimes in cities – Buenos Aires, Rio, Cusco, Lima and Salvador particularly – but that’s not to say they are inherently unsafe.
Costs and Budgeting
Costs vary significantly from country to country.
On my first backpacking trip around South America I found myself living like a king in countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, and like a pauper in Brazil and Argentina.
On the Cheap
If you’re on a tight budget i.e. less than £20 per day, your money will go a lot further in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela, which are the cheapest countries in South America. Though it’s worth repeating that travel to Venezuela is not recommended at the moment.
Hostels are abundant across all of South America, so you’re never going to be stuck for a low-cost place to bed down.
Those of you with a bigger budget can travel relatively easily across the continent.
Prices in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru can sometimes be on a par with those at home. A budget of £20 to £70 means private rooms, eat out in restaurants, take excursions and get around with some planning.
At the higher end of the market, a budget of more than £70 per day means that you can afford to splash out more on accommodation, internal flights. You can also take some of the pricier multi-day organised excursions such as hiking the Inca trail and a sailing trip to the Galapagos Islands.
How to Book Your South America Travels
Most of my flight searches start and end with Skyscanner. I know there are lots of people who swear by Google Flights but I find Skyscanner much easier to use and have never found it’s made a difference to the price of the flight when I’ve compared them.
Of course, if you’ve read my Introduction to Travel Hacking, there’s a good chance that you will have air miles to use for the trip anyway.
Tripadvisor to read reviews (watch out for the raving maniacs) and also to compare prices from different booking engines. Saves you from having to check each one individually – you would be surprised about how big the price differences for the same place can be depending on which booking engine you use.
Airbnb for some destinations. Pretty sure I don’t need to tell you about Airbnb.
Booking.com for my South America hotel or hostel bookings.
You can always go old-school and contact / go to the website to book your accommodation direct – this can actually be cheaper sometimes so worth giving it a go.
The dreaded I word. Get it and hope that you don’t need it.
Tours and Excursions
Of the two, Viator has the biggest range but Get Your Guide often has some quirkier options so it’s worth checking both.
G Adventures are the best tour operators I’ve found for trips to South America. They create interesting tours, with a big focus on experiences and local culture and there’s a wide variety to choose from when it comes to South America. You can pick your tour based on what kind of activities, destination, age group or type of travel you like.
South America Map
So there we are – your South America travel guide. I’ve written a tonne about South America, so be sure to check my other articles out.
Need more South America travel inspiration? Here’s the ultimate South America Bucket List.
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