South America is one of the most amazing continents in the world, but if you’re thinking about going, you’ll need to do some planning. Budget, paperwork, when to go, what to pack, vaccinations, which countries to visit, and how to get around… we’ve got all this covered
This is Kiwi.com’s guide to South America, and it’s in two parts. Firstly, we’ll look at some of the most common questions asked about backpacking around South America, and then we’re going to talk to someone who’s actually done a lot of the things you’ll want to do. Let’s explore!
How much money do you need to backpack around South America?
A typical budget is probably around €1,000 a month, but will, of course, vary depending on where you stay, which country you’re in, and what you decide to do. Use €1,000 as an estimate and adjust accordingly.
What are the best countries to visit in South America?
‘Best’ is, of course, very subjective. What do you want to do? Let’s take the five most popular countries and see why people go there.
Buenos Aires, the capital, is one of the most colorful and cultured cities in South America, with tango rhythms and passionate people. The scenery is spectacular as well, giving you a little bit of everything: rainforests in the subtropical north, the great plains that are home to the gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) and vineyards, and the mountains and ice fields of Patagonia.
The country with a reputation as the place for a party comes in second. No wonder, with cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to explore. Spend your days on the beach, your nights in the bars, and when you’re exhausted from city life, explore the jungles of the interior. The Amazon is one of the great natural wonders of the world, and ethical/ecotourism is a great way to see it for yourself.
A narrow strip along the edge of the continent, Chile includes the wonderful city of Santiago, from which you can explore further. Skiing in the Andes, exploring the almost martian landscape of the Atacama Desert, or heading to the end of the world in southern Patagonia, Chile is almost South America in a nutshell.
Many people visit Peru because it’s home to Machu Picchu, one of the most-visited sights in South America, but stay to explore the colorful towns and other places that hark back to the Incan civilization, such as the city of Cusco.
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For years a bit of a no-go spot, Colombia is now immensely popular. Cities like Bogotá, the capital, and Medellín, attract visitors for their lively arts scenes and bouncing nightlife. There’s history in places like Cartagena, and beaches that rival any of those on the islands of the Caribbean.
When’s the best time to travel?
As with what you want to see, this will depend on what you define as ‘best’. The one key thing you have to remember if you’re coming from the northern hemisphere, the seasons are the opposite. However, it’s also, as mentioned, a vast continent, so if you’re planning to spend time in the north (Colombia, Venezuela, and so forth), try May to September. The very south — Chile, Argentina and the like — are best between October and April.
Things to book before traveling to South America
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If you’re a planner, this sort of trip might not be for you! Of course, you’ll have places you’d like to go, but aside from flights onto the continent and back again, the best thing to do is decide when you’re there. Internal travel is pretty easy (and great value, and popular, as we’ll see), and while there are things that need booking (the Inca Trail or an Amazonian trek, for example), the best thing to do is use your judgment. After all, in most cities, there’s such a wide variety of places to stay that if you’re booked in advance for five nights somewhere that turns out to be a bit grim, that’ll either dampen your enthusiasm, or cost more again if you decide to move somewhere else.
Do you need a visa to travel to South America?
Visa requirements will depend on your nationality, naturally, but if you’re an EU citizen, it’s unlikely you’ll need one before you go. Most countries will grant tourists a 90-day travel visa upon entry, and this is also true for US, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian (and a whole bunch of other) travelers. You will need a passport that’s valid for at least six months from your entry date, but to be absolutely 100% sure, check each country’s individual guidelines before you go.
Do you need vaccinations for a trip to South America?
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The coronavirus pandemic made vaccination restrictions one of the most-searched topics around, and people quickly realized that things could change very quickly. The same applies here. Check each individual country you’re planning to visit at least three months before you travel, but you’ll probably need a vaccination against yellow fever at the very least. Brazil, for one, will need a yellow fever vaccination certificate to grant you a tourist visa at the border.
You might also consider malaria tablets if you’re thinking of traveling into the rainforests, and if you’re heading into the mountains, there are also pills you can take to combat altitude sickness. This all depends on your itinerary of course, but it’s still good to keep in mind.
With the basic questions answered, we talked to Bára Vrzáková, an adventurous traveler who spent six weeks backpacking through Chile, about her experiences
“It’s not exactly the same, but what I experienced in Chile gave me a pretty good idea of what traveling in South America is about.” That’s true, and we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking the whole continent is one homogenous place, but talking to Bára gives a vivid impression of many common aspects of such an adventure.
“Overall, prices were comparable to, say, a small town in Spain. A bit more [than the Czech Republic, where Bára is based], but not much. What did surprise me was the fact that you could pay by card pretty much everywhere — a couple of people I met in a rural area took me to a bar that was basically a wooden hut, but even there you could pay by card. Oh, and the beer is great in Chile! Maybe it’s something to do with German settlers coming there, I don’t know!”
Bára is a graphic designer, and one of the ways she funded her trip was by working on a farm. “It was like a farm with a restaurant attached. Or a restaurant with a farm attached, I don’t know which!” Having looked on workaway.info for something suitable, she found this project.
“It was in northwest Patagonia. You just find a project you like, message them, and see what happens. This particular project wanted people who could bring something extra, so I was doing the basics like picking and washing carrots, you know, but also doing graphic design. They wanted illustrations of the flora and fauna of the farm and surroundings, so when people walked around the farm and gardens, they’d see my illustrations and read a small explainer. Guests would know what flower or herb they were looking at and, therefore, what they were eating. In exchange, I got free accommodation and free food.”
Exploring the region was easy as well. “Buses are super comfortable, and probably the most common way to get anywhere, particularly long-distance overnight buses. On those long journeys, you get a blanket and a snack, which was a nice surprise. Everything is easily bookable online; I’d like parts of Europe to reach the comfort and ease of some parts of South America!
“Hitchhiking is common too, and seems generally safe in rural areas, if you’re traveling between small towns or villages. Stick your thumb out and either the first or second car will stop.
“People were generally just really nice. Even when I got a bit lost in Santiago, the absolute first person I asked for directions was happy to help. The second person even gave me their map!
“You do need to speak at least a little bit of Spanish, ‘survival Spanish’, let’s say. ‘Where is the…?’ ‘Can you take me to…?’ and so on, but communication is easy, and when people find out you’re a foreigner, they love to try and chat.”
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It seems that one of the perks of traveling like this is that you meet a lot of like-minded people. “I’m still in touch with a couple of the people I met” says Bára, but she also told me that one of the disadvantages — if you see it that way — is that hostels are full of (generally European) tourists, all trying to do the same, to create their own adventure. Couchsurfing is still a big thing though, and she found this was one of the very best ways to meet the locals and discover things she’d never have found by herself.
A South American adventure just for you
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