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From trekking through Patagonia to swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands to being mesmerized by the world wonder Iguazu Falls, the adventures are endless for those backpacking in South America. Sure, you could live it up and spend a small fortune on your southern expedition (helicopter rides over the vineyards of Mendoza, or a foray out to remote Easter Island, anyone?), yet for most travellers it’s possible to traverse the continent for months without breaking the bank, which is a major perk for backpackers.
Aside from its impressive natural attractions and variety of culture and languages, here are five more reasons South America is such a draw for those looking to ‘rough it’ and get off the beaten path during their travels.
1) It’s cheap to budget for backpacking South America
$1 for two large bottles of water. $4 for a four hour bus ride across the country. $20 for a large, hand woven Alpaca blanket. These are just some of the prices you’ll come across in places like Bolivia and Ecuador, which is why even a small budget for backpacking South America goes a long way. While high-rollers will find luxurious experiences like a $1000/night room at the base of Machu Picchu, most travellers find they can get by on less than $50 per day.
Food is one expense where you’ll save bundle compared to places like Europe. In Peru, set menus mean a three-course meal costs less than $10, and over in Colombia you can grab a tasty patacon from a street vendor for just a buck. Lodging is also affordable, with modern hotels in big cities going for about $100/night—compared to the average of $300 or more in places like New York or London.
Asia and Europe are still the envy of the world when it comes to cheap air travel, but South America has the market cornered when it comes to inexpensive buses. Companies like Cruz del Sur shuttle travellers around Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, offering meals and cushy reclining seats for cheap. Those really trying to stretch their dollars while backpacking around South America can even save on the cost of a hotel room, by hopping on one of the overnight buses to get from Point A to Point B.
2) You don’t need to dress nicely
If you remember only one tip about South America backpacking, let it be this: if you pack a bag any larger than a carry-on for your jaunt around the continent, you’ll regret it.
Even if you book an organized tour to shuttle you around, chances are you’ll find yourself somewhere like Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, which is all uphill and offers no way to get around other than your own two feet. Is that where you want to be caught hauling a large rolling suitcase over cobblestone streets?
With that in mind, don’t bring your fancy clothes down to South America, and embrace the backpacking spirit instead by only packing the essentials. Most places worth exploring require workout/outdoor clothes anyway, and unless you find yourself at some expensive restaurant there are few places you’ll actually need to dress up for and you can get by without that pair of stilettos. Another bonus: you’ll save a ton on laundry and baggage fees!
3) There are tons of other people backpacking in South America
When I spent a summer in Europe in my early 20s, it was incredibly easy to meet other travellers, mostly because I was staying in hostels. Now that my budget is a bit higher and I’m booking hotels, I’ve noticed my journeys haven’t lent themselves to as much easy interaction. Well, that changed with my first trip to South America.
I can’t remember any other time it was so easy to meet fellow travellers, many of whom were following similar itineraries and happy to trade advice. We even met another couple in the middle of the Peruvian desert who happen to live in the same city as us!
Part of the camaraderie is because nearly everyone ends up backpacking across South America at some point—whether or not they actually intended to. Simply getting to each new destination is an exercise in patience most days, making it important to become fast friends with those around you so you can help each other out. You’ll quickly find yourself asking other travellers for tips on legit tour operators in the area, commiserating with fellow passengers about the bus that’s already two hours behind schedule, or while you’re crammed together in a minivan that the driver keeps trying to squeeze random people in as he speeds down a dark highway. Even pre-arranged tours don’t always go as planned, so regardless of how much you spend it can often feel like you’re roughing it.
It’s also common to meet people who spend months at a time backpacking in South America, not only because it’s cheap to get around but because there’s so much to see. Expect to come across at least a few of them throughout your journey, and get just a bit jealous of their nomadic lifestyle.
4) It’s easy to book things as you go
I’m a Type-A when it comes to booking everything before I head out on a trip. The idea of arriving in a city with no place to sleep freaks me out, plus I don’t want to spend my vacation time trolling the internet for deals. However, even folks like me are able to relax a bit when it comes to planning a South America backpacking trip, since everything is just so darn easy to book while you’re there. In nearly every tourist-type area you might find yourself in, you’ll see rows and rows of agencies ready to turn your travel dreams into reality—for a price, of course. Need a bus ticket for tonight? No problem. A hotel room, transfer, horseback ride, last-minute airline ticket? Easy-peasy!
One caveat about waiting until you arrive to book is that certain activities do require some advance planning. For example, the permits that are required to hike Huayna Picchu or the Inca Trail often sell out months in advance, especially in the high season.
Ensure your passport is in order to meet visa requirements (most countries in South America require that it’s valid for at least three months past your departure date), and that you’re up to date with vaccines. Bolivia has been known to ask visitors to present proof that they’ve had their yellow fever immunizations, so you’ll want to check that you’ve got a record of that shot before heading down.
5) Extras are included
While some places seem to nickel and dime guests for just about everything (I’m looking at you, cruise ships charging for wi-fi and resort fees in Las Vegas resort), that’s typically not the case in South America.
Nearly every place I’ve stayed at there includes free breakfast–and not the type of ‘breakfast’ they offer in Paris that’s just a piece of bread and jam. No, there were made-to-order eggs, cereal, fresh squeezed juices, fruit, even pancakes and French toast. Also keep an eye out for lodging that offers free airport transfers, which is a common bonus in places like Cusco, Peru.
South America tours for backpackers:
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