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When I graduated university back in 2015, there was only one thing I wanted to do, and that was see the world!
Since then (and as of writing this in 2019) we have visited more than 3 dozen countries all around the globe.
And it all began with our epic 4 month South America backpacking trip in 2016.
It seemed like a great place to start, seeing as the continent was so large and diverse that we knew it would be a world away form what we had experienced living in the UK.
From hot and humid rainforests in the north of Brazil right down to frozen glaciers in southern Argentina, the continent had everything to offer.
We spent weeks researching all of the best things to do in South America and planning a route that would allow us to see as much as possible.
In the end, we settled on a 4 month journey for backpacking South America that would take us through many of the most popular sites and journeying around almost the entire continent.
Below I’ve attached an image of the route we took and, although it missed out on a few countries, South America is so large that we really couldn't have squeezed much more in!
So, if you’re in the process of planning your own South America itinerary, be it for 4 weeks, 4 months or even a year, then hopefully this will help you.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again … South America really does have it all.
It caters to all kinds of travellers, right through form those who love relaxing on the beach to those looking for high octane adventures.
For me, I was really excited to discover new cultures that were completely foreign to anything I’d seen before.
I’d been to plenty of places as a kid, but nowhere as exotic as South America.
Most of all, South America appealed to me because it still has so many untouched areas of natural beauty, most notably, the Amazon rainforest.
But at the same time, I was equally excited to visit major South American cities, such as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, which I had heard so much about in the past.
But don't worry, you haven’t got to visit South America and travel quite as much as we did.
We traveled almost the entire continent and visited 6 countries along the way.
Instead, you could choose just two or three countries and spend the same amount of time, and give yourself greater chance to relax and experience each one to the fullest.
But if you’re on the fence about visiting, here are the top 3 things that I ultimately loved most of all about South America:
1. The people - All across South America, the people are so friendly and hospitable towards foreign visitors, regardless of whether you are in major cities or smaller settlements in the middle of nowhere.
2. The sites - South America is home to some of the world’s most famous sites, such as the Amazon rainforest, Perito Moreno glacier, Tijuca Falls, the Bolivian Salt Flats, Machu Picchu and many MANY more.
3. The chance for adventure - Though it is incredibly popular, the backpacking trails are by no means as developed as those in many typical Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Instead, it’s up to you to take local routes and craft your own journey. And the continent is so vast that you really can design your own adventure and uncover local towns and villages that few tourists ever go to.
OK! Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a deeper look at the 4 month South America route that we chose to follow.
We designed it this way, as we wanted to start in a major capital city that offered affordable flights in and to then end in another major city that we could fly home from.
It's worth noting that many backpackers we met were actually doing a similar route but in the opposite direction.
From our experience, I would say that the route we took is better, largely because of how expensive each country is compared to one another.
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are much much cheaper than the other 3, so it’s good to arrive at those last, so that you feel like you are slowly saving money as you go around.
It’s also easier to budget that way, once you know how much you have left to spend.
So first up we have ...
Have you ever looked at Brazil on a map?
Well, I’m sure you have and you probably realised the same thing we did at first … that it is huge!
Brazil is almost an entire continent almost on its own and seems to dominate everything around it.
As such, 1 month in Brazil is quite a lot of time to see lots of sites, but in the grand scheme of things is nowhere near enough to see it all.
I think you could go back and spend an entire 4 months just backpacking Brazil, and maybe one day we will!
The route we chose through Brazil was based off starting In Rio de Janeiro in the southwest and then finishing up near the Amazon in the north, where we could then catch a flight down to Argentina.
In the end, I was very happy with this route and we got to see so much of Brazil’s stunning coastline.
The one place in Brazil I wish we could have stopped at was Sao Paulo, but this didn't quite work out with regards to timings.
Either way, here’s the final route we followed:
We used buses to get between Rio, Vittoria and Salvador; took a flight from Recife to Belem; and then, of course, a boat from Belem to Manaus.
So all inclusive of overnight buses, we ended up spending 29 days in Brazil.
After 4 weeks travelling through hot and humid Brazil, we were surprisingly excited to get further south and find us some cooler weather.
Well, we ended up going from 1 extreme to the other, by travelling from Brazil’s northernmost point all the way to Argentina’s southernmost city in less than a week.
Ushuaia, which is at the very bottom of Argentina, happens to be the southernmost city, not just in South America, but in the whole world!
So it is a complete world away from the heat of the Amazon.
And this absolute diversity in climates is what I loved a lot about Argentina.
We started in the north in Iguazu, visiting the famous Iguazu Falls, where the temperature was still 30 degrees and above.
We then took a long overnight bus journey south to the famous city of Argentina, before then flying down to Ushuaia a few days later.
Our route was as follows.
As mentioned, we used a mixture of buses and flights to get through Argentina.
But getting to the famous Perito Moreno glacier in El Calafate ended up being quite challenging.
In the end, the best way to get there required us to head up through Chile and then cut back into Argentina for a few days and visit it.
So in total we spent 15 days in Argentina when you include overnight buses.
Once you hit Ushuaia in Argentina, there’s only one direction left to go, and that’s north!
So our route through Chile saw us gradually getting further and further north, all the way from glaciers in the south to arid, hot deserts in the far north.
Chile is such a beautiful country and it’s great heading up through the country, watching the landscape change.
We used buses to head up to Puerto Natales, where we stayed for a couple nights before heading into the Torres del Paine National Park.
This happens to be one of the world’s most famous locations for hiking, and the W-Trek is attempted by thousands of passionate hikers every year.
We were in the park for just 2 days, which was still incredibly challenging and we made our way to the famous Three Torres for sunrise.
This ended up being my favorite moment from the entire 4 month South America journey.
From there, we visited the Perito Moreno glacier, before heading back south to Punta Arenas where we could catch a flight north to Santiago.
Chile is strange in that it's nearly impossible to get a bus north and the flights actually ended up being very cheap and taking just a couple hours.
I could talk for ages about Santiago, but I’ll give you just a brief recap.
So this was our first ever experience with Couchsurfing and we ended up having the best time with our hosts Carlos and Gabi who showed us around the city and got us drunk, on more than one occasion, on Caipirinhas!
After a few days, we hired a car and drove south on what ended up being another massive highlight to the trip.
The drive south is truly beautiful as you drive for hundreds of miles down beautifully tarmacked roads, bordered on both sides by gorgeous snow-capped mountains.
We went as far as Pucon, before heading back north again to Santiago.
We also stopped in a place called Cajon del Maipo and ended up driving deep into the snowy mountains (literally through 2 feet of snow!) until we reached some hidden hot springs.
Other than a couple of workers, we were the only ones there … relaxing in hot springs, completely secluded in this wonderful place.
It was one of the best moments of the entire trip and I highly recommend you visit here if you get chance.
We used a mixture of buses, flights and hire cars to make it through Chile, with the journey north from Santiago to the Atacama being the longest and most dramatic in change.
After a few weeks spent in the cold south, we were finally ready to return somewhere warm and the Atacama desert is a world away from what you find in the south.
There, you get to visit a spot known as Moon Valley, because it literally looks like the surface of the moon!
In total we spent 22 days in Chile, including overnight buses
On our journey further north, the next logical country to stop in was Bolivia.
And the journey into Bolivia begins with one of the country’s most incredible adventures, which is a tour through the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.
Tours through this region typically range from between 1 and 3 days and you get to see some truly awe-inspiring sites.
Ranging through from pink lakes surrounded by flamingos to wide open planes covered in lush grass and wild alpacas.
We chose for the more direct 1 day route that starts early in the morning with you crossing into Bolivia and getting stamped into the country at a very dodgy looking official office.
Afterwards, you spend much of the day climbing ever higher into the mountains, stopping off at key sights along the way.
Including spots that inspired Salvador Dali in many of his most famous pieces of art.
If you have the time and can afford the added expense, then we did hear good things about the 3 day routes.
From there, you find yourself in Salar de Uyuni, which is the most popular starting point for an epic day trip out onto the infamous Bolivian salt flats.
The incredible white expanse and clear blue skies make for some truly unique photo opportunities.
Just make sure you stock up on toys and ornaments, because you get a good couple of hours to let your inner child loose, trying to capture even more remarkable shots.
Here's a few of my favourite shots from the salt flats ...
Potosi, Sucre and La Paz all offer up plenty to see and do, but do be warned that they are very high up, so you will likely suffer from altitude sickness and get tired after walking around for even short periods.
We took such a long time in La Paz for 3 key reasons:
Here's the places we stopped off in across Bolivia:
In my opinion, visiting Isla del Sol is up there as one of the top 5 things to do anywhere in South America.
This gem of an island is located about an hour from mainland Copacabana and I wish we’d stayed for more than just 1 night!
It is so peaceful and gorgeous and the island is filled with incredible hiking opportunities.
On the evening there, I chose to hike up to the highest point and it felt amazing being the only one up there, with views stretching for miles all around.
It’s worth noting that Bolivia is landlocked so it isn't ocean that surrounds Isla del Sol, but is instead a vast lake of freshwater!
Please, please, please make sure you visit Isla del Sol before you leave Bolivia; you won’t regret it.
In total we spent 21 days in Bolivia including overnight buses.
Our journey into Peru began with us crossing the border with Bolivia, to be greeted by a woman squatting in the road and peeing right next to us as we waited for our bus.
From there, it’s fair to say that our trip got better and better!
We only stopped in 2 places in Peru, so there is definitely plenty left for us to explore.
However, Cusco and Lima are by far the most popular places to stop in and there’s tonnes to see and do all around them.
In Cusco, we went for a day tour to ancient Inca ruins and settlements and mines located all around the region.
We also went for a tour that went not as far from the city and allowed us to partake in some local evening rituals that have gone on for a number of generations.
We also found Cusco itself to be a nice place to explore, filled with an array of modern shops and restaurants, as well as old school markets to pick up souvenirs and trinkets.
You’ll also find dozens of locals whispering in your ears as you pass asking if you want to buy cocaine.
We gave those offers a miss.
By far the most famous reason that people visit Cusco is to climb up Machu Picchu.
This is easily one of the top 5 most famous places to visit in South America and I’m quite annoyed we never got the chance to do it.
By this point, we had burned through far too much of our budget and we simply couldn't afford it, as climbing Machu Picchu these days costs a good few hundred dollars.
From here, we took the long overnight bus journey from to Lima on the west coast.
I turned out to be very fond of Lima, in particular the incredible sandy beaches and idyllic surfing conditions of its long coastline.
It was here that I first learned to surf after paying a local instructor about $20 for a 2 hour lesson.
As well as this, I recommend you stay at the Zig Zag hostel.
It’s a very cheap, yet modern hostel and the hosts are very friendly and welcoming.
But what makes this place to special is that every week or two the hosts visit the local slums and donate meals to the poor families living there.
As a guest you have the chance to go along and it was a wonderful experience getting to meet these locals who live in incredible poverty and to help and give something back.
We took up a few items that we no longer had use for, such as clothes and bags and donated them to the families.
In total we spent 8 days in Peru including our overnight bus ride.
Colombia was the last stop of our 4 month South America backpacking itinerary.
We had heard a lot about Colombia on our journey around the continent, as well as from older relatives and friends from back home.
After all of this, we surmised that Colombia would be a worn torn country, inundated with drug lords and gang wars.
What we found turned out to be very different.
Yes, Colombia has had a very eventful past, especially if you've seen the series Narcos on Netflix.
However, the truth is that Colombia is no longer the drug capital of the world and so much of the violence, drug trafficking and corruption has died out.
Instead, what you find is a country that is fighting it's hardest to get rid of this image and instead build into a modern and safe place to visit.
Once again, our lack of funds meant that our time in Colombia was limited somewhat and there are a few crucial places we planned on visiting and were unable to.
However, we still has a wonderful time here, in particular in Girardot and Cartagena.
As a popular seaside city, Cartagena is the most touristy of the places we visited and is quite a bit more expensive.
But it’s a great spot to visit nearby coastal towns and to even take day trips out to islands off the coast of the country in the Caribbean.
In total we spent 10 days in Colombia.
So overall, our journey across South America was just short of 4 months, allowing us to see many of the continent’s best sites and discovering almost everything we wanted to see.
But of course, they are plenty more smaller countries across South America, all of which we are very excited to return to and visit ...
With only 4 months to backpack South America, we did have to say no to visiting a few countries.
We could have easily popped into Paraguay, Uruguay and Ecuador, however, we still wanted to travel them properly so instead chose to leave them for a future adventure.
In particular, we are excited to one day visit Venezuela, but will need to give it a few years until they eventually get some sort of political stability and do away with the corruption that currently engulfs the nation.
These other countries are ...
If you are looking for a full rundown of what to get up to whilst on this continent, then check out this other post I wrote: The 22 Best Things To Do In South America
It takes you through all of the biggest highlights of our trip, and I highly recommend trying to fit in as many things as possible.
But I thought it also well worth mentioning ...
These are located on the northern end of Brazil, not too far from Belem.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time so had to skip them prior to our Belem boat cruise and I was nothing short of gutted!
The area is a large open desert filled with giant sand dunes that have then created a series of mini lakes.
These lakes are only present at certain times of the year, but are some of the most picturesque places in South America.
We met people who visited them and getting there is actually very difficult as you have to take a jeep tour for a number of hours deep into the desert.
I talked about Machu Picchu above and, once again, I was gutted to have been unable to visit.
In the words of the Terminator … “I will be back!”
Easter Island is located 2 miles off the coast of Chile.
It is most famous for the large stone carvings that have been there for hundreds of years and no one is quite sure what their purpose is.
Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, located in the deep south of Argentina.
From here, it’s possible to purchase a ticket for a multi day tour that takes you across the ocean all the way to Antarctica.
These trips are, as you’d imagine, very expensive, so we had to give them a miss.
In my ever so humble opinion, if you wish to explore as much of South America as possible and take in all of the major sites, I think you need to spend at least 12 months here.
That way, you wouldn't have to move as quickly as we did and can take more time to enjoy what they astounding continent has to offer.
That being said, this is completely impractical for most people.
So feel free to edit the journey as applicable and to add in extended stays in certain locations.
Our 4 month South America route ...
For 95% of our bookings in South America, we used Booking.com.
We use them all around the world as they always seem to offer the widest selection of accommodation, right through from budget hostels to nicer hotels and apartments.
They also always have the lowest prices as well as cool discounts and offers to Genius Members (which you become once you make a few bookings).
Other than that, we used Couchsurfing.com when staying in Santiago, and the experience was so much fun!
Our hosts, Carlos and Gabi, were 2 of the nicest people we met when backpacking South America and there was no better way to discover the local culture and nightlife.
Oh, and they were even kind enough to pick them up from the airport.
At the time of writing (more than 2 years on) we are still in touch.
I recommend trying to sort your accommodation as far in advance as possible, so ideally a week or 2 before you arrive in each location.
Otherwise, you end up paying more and will find yourself with far fewer budget places to choose from, especially in peak backpacking months.
Compared to other common backpacking regions, such as South East Asia, South America can seem quite a bit more expensive.
However, it really does depend on how fast you move through the continent.
We ended up finding that our biggest expense was travel costs associated with flights and long distance bus tickets through each country.
These can be very, very expensive, especially in places like Brazil where you need to get numerous 12+ hour bus tickets.
Food and drink in South America was cheaper than what you'd find in most western countries, however it does really depend on where you are and what you're looking to eat.
To save money, we ended up buying food from a supermarket and cooking for ourselves most nights.
I don't have an exact figure, as our entire trip ended up going well over the anticipated budget.
But all in all we each spent around £4,500-£5,000 ($5,250-$6,500) for just under 4 months in South America.
That’s roughly $45-$55 per day.
If you are looking to save some money, then I recommend travelling much more slowly than we did, and also sticking to the cheaper countries.
These are Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
Of course, you will find cheap places in Argentina, Chile and Brazil as well, however, they tend to cost a lot more to travel through.
Patagonia is one of my favourite regions anywhere in the word and is truly breathtaking. However, it is also much more expensive that other parts of the continent.
No South America travel guide would be complete without talking about how to actually get from place to place!
As mentioned a couple times, the best way to get around South America is by bus and plane.
In total we took 5 flights internally throughout South America; these were ..
As long as you book your flights a month or more in advance, then they should be pretty cheap.
And if you are travelling long distances then not only do they save you a lot of time and hassle, but they also save you a lot of money.
Unlike with flights, you can't really save much money on your bus journeys by booking them in advance.
And if you are planning on travelling the entire continent like we did, then the cost of these will soon stack up.
I can’t give a rough idea of how much each journey costs, as they really do vary depending on which country you are in as well as how far you are travelling.
They are also dependant on what quality of seat you are looking for.
In most of South America they have the following system:
Regardless of which bus you choose, I recommend buying a blanket for each journey as they can get very cold, and they often don’t provide one.
When you enter countries like Bolivia and Colombia, you will often find no choice in the matter and instead are forced to ride in uncomfortable buses and that’s just the way it is.
All in all, bus tickets ended up costing us a lot of money over the 4 months, far more than we were planning to spend.
As a heads up, if you are planning on visiting Lima and Cuzco, then book your flights way, way way in advance.
We were forced to catch a bus and the journey is long and famously perilous and uncomfortable, so if you can avoid it then do so.
When it comes to booking bus tickets, you can sometimes do these online and in other cases you have to do them in person from a local bus station.
This latter case seems to be more applicable in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.
Good sites to book online bus tickets include:
It is possible to hire cars or motorbikes in many parts of South America and they are a great way to get around.
However, if you wish to drop them off in another city, then it can be very expensive as the hire company will then charge you a large fee to have the car taken back to the original point.
We hired a car in Chile and drove south from Santiago for 4 days and had the best time! So I would highly recommend doing this if you get chance and can afford it.
Though we have no personal experience with this, I wanted to quickly mention the option you have of buying your own motorbike and driving yourself around South America.
When on our boat cruise down the Amazon, we met an Australian couple called Ben and Ainsley who were doing exactly this.
They spent more than a year driving across South America in its entirety and had nothing but great things to say about their adventure.
It's possible to take boat journeys in certain parts of South America, most notably being the Amazon rainforest which stretches from Brazil down into Peru.
We took the journey from Belem to Manaus and you can read more about this here.
Flights into South America are easy to come by and generally fairly affordable.
The major cities in every country offer international flights so you’ll find something to suit you.
All I would say is that you should try and plan your route as carefully as possible in advance so that you know which city is most practical to fly into and which one is best to fly out of.
For us, it made most sense to fly to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and eventually leave from Colombia.
As another note, I wouldn't recommend booking your return flights at the same time like we did.
This does limit your flexibility and we found it to end up being unnecessary.
Usually you save money by booking both flights together but we ended up finding that we could have booked even last minute return flights for almost the same price we had paid in the first place.
Whenever you are booking flights in, around and out of South America, I recommend using Skyscanner.
Before arriving, we had heard our fair share of scare stories about South America.
Which is almost to be expected when you consider the ongoing news headlines about political arrest in many South American countries in recent years.
However, during our time here, we never had any trouble or felt concerned about our safety.
But I credit this success to a few key rules that we followed when backpacking through South America:
All in all, I found South America to be a wonderful place to discover and the sheer variety in climates and sites really did impress me.
It was nice knowing that, no matter where we went, there would always be some unique sites to see and kind people to meet.
Another great thing to do whilst in South America is to take a genuine interest in the local people and get to learn about them, their language, their culture and their customs.
I have very fond memories of dozens of people we met and spoke to along the way and I found it fascinating to learn more about the unique stories everyone had to offer.
I hope my 4 month South America itinerary can help you in some way in planning your own route around the country.
If there’s anything you think I’ve missed and have any additional question, then don’t be afraid to ask!
Just drop me a message in the comments below ...