Backpacking in South America: 50+ Must-knows & travel tips for an unbeatable trip
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Backpacking in South America is a lifelong dream for many avid travellers. It’s a huge region with a lot more diversity than people tend to realise, so there’s a lot you need to know before you set off on your once-in-a-lifetime trip (just kidding, you’ll definitely be back again one day). This is a comprehensive guide spitting all the knowledge of South America I absorbed into this way-too-detail-orientated brain of mine from the 19 months I spent there before chilling in Central America for un rato.
In this South America essentials guide, I’ll go through visas, maps, language, money, food, the Gringo Trail, and more. Don’t miss the quickfire round of miscellaneous useful tips at the end!
After you’ve read this essential knowledge for backpacking in South America, don’t miss:
Mostly! Lots of people find this confusing; why do we have all these different region names around the same chunk of Earth? Well, let me break down all your map-related questions. South America, Central America and North America describe geographical divides, whereas Latin America better explains the cultural divide.
Hopefully these fairly crude maps makes things easier to remember:
The easiest way to tell if a country or island is in Latin America is if the predominant language is a romance language – i.e. Spanish, Portuguese or French. This means that while Guyana and Suriname are in South America, they are the only countries on the continent that are not also in Latin America. Belize is also technically excluded from this definition, but it’s too great of a country not to write about in this blog 😉
To nip a common misconception in the bud, Mexico doesn’t actually sit in Central America, just North. Central America consists of 7 countries: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, and is not a continent. The only continents here are South America and North America.
And just to play with your brain even more, North America is different to Northern America. North America includes the USA, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean, and that is a continent. Northern America is used to refer to the USA and Canada, and is not a continent. Honestly, I thought the UK, Great Britain and our individual nations were tricky for people to get their heads around but the Americas kinda take the biscuit (sorry, cookie).
What is the Gringo Trail?
The Gringo Trail is a loving name given to the tried-and-tested beaten path of South America; the road well-travelled by gringos year upon year. For some, it’s a blemish, for others, a safety net. There’s a reason tourists tend to flock to certain hotspots; the Gringo Trail includes some of the most fascinating and easily accessible attractions on the continent, so by following it you’ll be able to tick off the typical South America backpacking bucketlist pretty efficiently. It’s also a great way to find friends, seek comfort in backpacker hang-outs, and get word of some crazy parties.
The Gringo Trail is not set in stone in terms of the actual route order, but every now and then you’ll realise that everyone just gravitates towards eachother eventually, so be nice to the people you see at the beginning of your trip; the likelihood is you’ll see them again and again and again! The Gringo Trail generally hits the following popular places:
This feels like a good place to start my ultimate guide. Backpacking in South America is actually incredibly easy for the majority of travellers in terms of visa requirements. As of 2020, here’s what the visa situation looks like for the most common nationalities of backpacker, with all costs in USD (turn to the side if you’re viewing this using a phone):
Tourist visa needed in advance
E-visa needed in advance
Tourist visa obtained upon arrival
Suriname (cost $54)
Bolivia (only for MT, BG, CY, RO. Free in advance, $95 and 24 hours processing at the border)
Guyana (for all except AT, BE, DK, FI, FR, DE, GR, IT, IE, LU, NL, PT, ES or SE. Cost $25)
Remember that each country is going to have their own stipulations for entry after the pandemic, so make sure you’ve checked beforehand whether you need to get a test and/or self-isolate.
Proving onward travel in South America
Many countries you’ll backpack in South America – even those with no visa requirements – request that you show proof of onward travel at check-in. However, this is almost exclusively necessary for air travel. If you really don’t know which date or by which transport method you’ll be leaving a country, online book a cheapo bus across the border, or book one of Expedia’s flights that allows cancellation within 24 hours (check the Ts&Cs!).
Medical Requirements for backpacking in South America
Each government has different stipulations for travellers entering the country, and it can sometimes depend not on the nationality of the backpacker but where they’ve been recently. If you’re planning to skip to lots of different parts of the continent when backpacking in South America, it’s recommended that you sort out your Yellow Fever (you’ll need to bring the original certificate), Hep A, Hep B, Typhoid and Rabies vaccinations as a minimum. Most are fairly standard for world travel.
If going into the Amazon rainforest or similar, you’ll probably also need to sort out a dose of malaria tablets, too. You can buy them in most pharmacies in South America, but you have to plan ahead as some need to be started a few weeks before exposure.
Climate in South America
This is a big ole region, so the climates swing wildly from sub-zero to tropical. But the position of mountain ranges such as the Andes mean that it’s not as simple as north vs south; altitude in certain parts of the continent mean you can go from 30 degrees Celsius to 10 with an hour’s bus ride. I’m afraid you’re going to have to pack for all weathers when backpacking in South America, so bring things that are easy to layer up.
– Altitude Sickness
South America is home to some of the world’s highest cities. Hotspots for altitude sickness include La Paz, Cusco and some of the more strenuous mountain hikes. Altitude sickness generally kicks in at around 2,500m above sea level. Some people are completely unaffected, others experience nausea, headaches, breathlessness, vomiting and other symptoms. Seek medical advice if it’s acute, otherwise your body should adjust itself back to feeling normal (if not just a little out of breath) within a few days.
You can be prepared with anti-altitude sickness tablets from a pharmacy, or follow the locals’ lead and chew on cocoa leaves (just don’t try and take them through an airport!).
Safety in South America
Now, I’ve written a full guide to safe travel in South America, with no fewer than 32 safety tips and 6 scams to know about, but if you learn anything from me today, I hope you at least take away these key snippets:
Be alert to stay safe. Generally, you’re going to be fine, but just keep your wits about you, and ask the hostel in any new destination to let you know of any scams or areas you should avoid.
Muggings aren’t crazy-common, but if it happens just give up everything. Yes, even your passport. Your life is worth more, and there’s really nothing your embassy and insurance can’t sort out.
Protests happen, steer clear. There’s a fair bit of political unrest in various pockets of South America at the moment, so it’s not unusual to find yourself in and amongst a protest or two. These rarely turn violent, but it’s always best to stay away.
Healthcare can be cheap, but insurance is still a must. Accidents happen, even to the most healthy of backpackers, and you really want to be prepared for any wallops that come your way. Mine and Andy’s long-term backpacking travel insurance saved us about £1200 in the first year of backpacking in South America alone.
Must-haves for backpacking in South America
Universal travel adaptor: Plugs are not one-size-fits-all across South America, so you’ll want something that can change your mains plugs into any type. An additional USB slot is a bonus!
Portable Charger: For all those long night buses! Some night buses provide entertainment, but you’ll probably want to make sure you’ve got enough juice for your phone when you get to your new city after a few hours of Netflixing.
Metal straws: Lots of countries in South America have no guidelines around straws, and the social pressure to be sustainable is not as tangible as in the USA or Europe. These straws help you cut down on plastic you use.
Rappi: A bit like Deliveroo but on steroids, Rappi is an app that’s available around much of South America, and can allow you to have everything from medicine to food to a hairdresser delivered to your door. Make sure you give your driver a little tip to top up their earnings!
These hand luggage essentials:Your trip is bound to involve flying at some point, so make sure you’re up to date with this list of hand luggage must-haves.
Reef-safe sunscreen: Obviously you need to protect yourself from the sun, but in certain areas you need to protect aquatic life from your sunscreen, too. Reef-safe sunscreen does just that.
Best transport options for backpacking in South America
There are all sorts of ways to get across the continent when you’re backpacking in South America. Let’s take a look:
Air: International flights aren’t too economical around South America, but in some countries you can find really cost-effective air travel (Colombia probably the cheapest, Brazil or Argentina the most expensive). Avianca is a pretty good place to start for good price-to-quality ratio. Just remember that while it seems like you’re saving time, you still have to get to the airport, check in and then find your way out at the other side.
Bus: The cheapest transport option, and a really great way to see the more rural parts of the country between big cities. Bus meal stops are always interesting! Night buses are a fantastic way to traverse large sections of the region whilst saving money. Don’t miss my guide to keeping safe and comfortable on night buses.
Colectivo: These are usually minivans that go to more local places (but they can also be bigger buses, cars or just trucks), but rather than departing according to a timetable, they only leave once full. This can of course make it difficult to plan your journey (if in doubt, get there early!), but it also has its advantages, as you never have to wait on a packed bus for 30 minutes until the timetabled departure. Colectivos are often plentiful, and tend to be very well-supplied to meet demand.
Taking an extra seat up with your bag obviously takes away revenue from the driver, so expect to pay for the bag as if it were a passenger, and if you’ve been waiting for ages and its obvious there are no other people coming, there is always the option to buy the remaining seats to get things going. Colectivos are cheap, but always check the price before you get on. It’s normal to not have to pay the assistant until the journey has begun, but some more official colectivo companies will have you buy a ticket from a kiosk beforehand.
Car hire: Can be cost-effective, but not great for border-crossing. Lots of larger companies will offer you the opportunity to pick a hire car up from city X and drop it off in city Y. Make sure you check all the small print about extra charges, additional insurance and minimum driver ages. The best place to find car hire bargains in South America by far is Priceline.com.
Tourist group: These are becoming more and more popular as South America becomes a more mainstream destination for all types of travellers. Popular group options for those backpacking in South America are Peru Hop (also available in Ecuador and Bolivia!) and G Adventures.
Taxi: Yellow taxis (or the equivalent colour) are usually fine to use. Always ask for them to turn the meter on, get a rough estimate of price before you get in, and in Argentina make sure you’re actually getting into an official taxi as there are some scammers out there with extortionate rates.
Uber, Cabify and Beat are used in many countries, though there are some of the usual legal disputes over these peer-driven services. It’s quite common when using a peer-to-peer taxi app that the driver will decide they either don’t like the risk of police catching them using an app (at airports, etc.), or that they don’t want to go that far, so cancellations happen a lot. You need to factor in extra time to use a taxi app in South America.
TukTuk: You won’t see these a huge amount when backpacking in South America, but they pop up here and there. Make sure you negotiate the price before getting in.
Mototaxi: These are motorbikes than allow for one (or more!) passenger on the back. You don’t always get a helmet, and it’s a lot riskier than a typical car taxi in South America, so this isn’t really recommended. Definitely not to be done with a big rucksack on your back (tried it, think I almost died).
Boat: Since most of the countries in South America have a coastline, you can expect at some point to find yourself floating on water. Unless you’re paying out of your arse for the sailboats of the Galapagos or a yacht in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the quality of boats for transport rather than tourism in South America is generally quite low. Some, such as the boat that goes up Colombia’s Chocó coast or from Manaus to Leticia, require you to sleep in hammocks or on the boat deck (some don’t even supply the hammock!).
Note: If you’re prone to travel sickness, I recommend carrying anti-sickness tablets for any mountain-winding bus rides or smaller boats.
South American food
Hope ya like rice! South American food may not be known as the most flavoursome of cuisines (with an exception of the internationally-renowned Argentinian beef), but it’s hearty as hell so at least you’re never going to feel hungry! Expect lots of meat + beans/lentils/corn + rice, not a lot of salad or veg, and just generally lots of stodge.
Down South, dishes feel more European, so you’ll see a lot of empanada-style wheaty items, breads and of course tons of red meat steaks; in the centre of the continent things get more basic, with a focus on unseasoned but hot-and-filling meats, quinoa, corn and yucca, and then up north you’re more likely to find lentils, plantain, corn-based products, pulled meats and fried things that you never knew could be fried.
Seafood-lovers are going to want to try coconut red snapper along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, ceviche in Lima, Peru, and any traditional dish from Bahia, North-East Brazil. Check out my fave typical foods in South America here.
– The beauty of the menú del día
The menú del día is found across the region, and is almost always the most economic choice for a full meal. It’s essentially the set menu at lunch, though sometimes on offer at breakfast (below) and dinner. Even though it’s a set menu, quite often there will be a long list of dish options to choose from.
A menu del dia is usually a soft drink, soup for starter and big local dish for your main – think a slab of meat, lentils/beans and rice, maybe fried plantain, etc. Some even offer a dessert of fruit, baked goods, or ice cream. Depending on where you are, prices can range from $1 (Bolivia) to about $10 (Chile).
Note: When you go to a restaurant and ask for the ‘menu’, they will assume you want this set meal. If you want to read what’s available, ask for ‘la carta’.
– Backpacking in South America with dietary restrictions
Possible? Yes. Easy? Not always. The sad part is that you might just have to miss out on the more traditional foods of the region. The more developed parts of South America – like Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Medellín – will have shops, cafés and restaurants that can cater to different dietary requirements such as being gluten-free or vegan. However, once you get further out of cities and off the Gringo Trail, locals might not even be able to fathom why someone might not be able to eat something.
But the good news is that South American food isn’t as dependent on butter as in Europe, rice or corn often replace wheat, and nuts aren’t half as prevalent here as in other regions such as Asia.
Vegans and vegetarians might be met with giggles and a complete lack of understanding – ethical ingredient choices aren’t a consideration for those who don’t always have the guarantee of food on the table in the first place.
Note: While the Spanish-English translation of ‘carne’ is technically ‘meat’, it is more commonly used by restaurants to describe ‘beef’, so if you ask simply for ‘sin carne’ you may still end up with a plate of chicken.
South American currencies
There are currently 12 currencies in use in South America, some far more volatile than others (hi, Venezuela). Most countries will still accept US dollars, but don’t expect a favourable exchange rate, nor exact change.
Argentina: Argentine Peso
Brazil: Real (pronounced hey-al or hey-ice for the plural)
Chile: Chilean Peso
Colombia: Colombian Peso
Ecuador: US Dollar
Guyana: Guyanese Dollar
Suriname: Surinamese Dollar
Uruguay: Uruguayan Peso
Venezuela: Bolivar (though USD is often preferred for its stability/the fact that you don’t have to have a wheelbarrow of it to buy a loaf of bread)
Believe it or not, there were several things I had to learn very quickly in order to survive the bathrooms when backpacking in South America. In general, most toilets here are at least bearable, and in my experience far more likely to be survived than some parts of Asia, but you will find your occasional literal shitshow. In over 2 years, I only came across one hole-in-the-ground, which was in a hut on a Bolivian mountainside, so….
Toilet paper does not go down the toilet. You need to put it in the bins provided. Ignoring this will create some pretty horrendous blockages. To be honest, even without paper going down there, the pipes are so small that blockages still happen an awful lot.
Check the paper sitch before you sit down. It’s common for public toilets to provide paper outside the stalls, so make sure you’re armed before getting down to business.
Almost all showers are electric. This means pressure will be lower, but the higher you turn up the flow of water, the colder the water will be. There’s a sweet spot in the middle, just where the sound of the pump kicks in!
Bring hand sanitiser and tissue with you. Sometimes, you just can’t guarantee there will be running water or a healthy stock of toilet paper that day. To avoid disasters, just bring your own!
Can you get by with just English in South America?
If you really want to put yourself out there and get to more off-the-beaten-track spots for backpacking in South America, an experienced traveller will be able to find a way, but there will probably be a few struggles. Outside of metropolitan areas and big tourism hotspots, it can often be hard to find people who are able to communicate in English.
I’d recommend at least learning some basics in Spanish or Portuguese to get you by across most of the continent. Certain destinations have built a reputation for being great places to study; these are the best spots in Latin America for learning Spanish.
But of course, South America isn’t just Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking, you’ll also find Dutch (Suriname), French (French Guyana), English (Guyana), Quechua (all across the Andes), Guarani (Paraguay) and hundreds more indigenous languages plus some creoles thrown in for good measure. Spanish is still your best bet for being widely understood, though!
Other useful things to know
Get used to Whatsapp voice notes. Americans, as seemingly the only citizens of the world who don’t religiously use Whatsapp, I strongly suggest you download it before backpacking South America! Many locals buy phone packages that only allow Whatsapp as the messaging app rather than SMS. They also love to use voice notes instead of typing, so get in the habit of that.
Hold your ground in queues. Brits are known for their strict attitude to queueing, but it’s not always the case in other parts of the world. You pretty quickly get used to taking your space to make sure no one can weasel their way in front of you in the line – and stick up for yourself when somebody verbally jumps ahead to grab someone’s attention.
You may need ID to use a credit card. It’s very normal for shop keepers to reject credit or debit cards without photo ID, or even for them to call your bank to confirm (especially in Argentina). This is to reduce fraud.
Print a few copies of your passport. You’re not likely to need it often, but some border control people like to ask for it, seemingly willy-nilly.
And that’s my brain-dump after 19 months backpacking in South America! I’m sure I’ll think of some additional things to add in the future, so watch this space!
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