Our first big trip together, besides a couple of weekends away, was to South America. We planned our 3 month South America travel route together, something I’d been wanting to do for years but was saving until after graduation. If you’re hoping to spend some time backpacking South America, I’ve put together our South America itinerary for 3 months below. We visited Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay (well, we got the stamp!), Ecuador and the Galapagos Island. We had an amazing time have since then taken other big trips together including a 3-month cross-USA road trip route in our self-converted campervan, and have moved to Canada. OurSouth America travels are perfect for first-time backpackers to South America hoping to see the main bucket list South America sites but also do some unique activities too.
Whilst I wouldn’t change much of our South American itinerary, I’d look to add Colombia onto the end of our trip. Before we went to South America I’d not heard much about this country (& what I had heard wasn’t exactly positive). However, once we landed in Peru many of the backpackers we met told us how much fun they’d had there. Just an excuse for us to go back, hey?
Our South America Travel Route – A 3-month South American Itinerary
When you start planning your South America trip and looking up how long it takes to get between places, you’ll quickly notice just how MASSIVE South America is. After all, it is a continent and each of the countries within that continent is pretty big! Deciding on where to go, which country to start in and how to get from place to place can be a tricky task. You’re probably going to want to do everything but in most cases, time and money (let’s be real) won’t allow for absolutely everything.
That’s the situation we were in. Though we’d graduated and were doing some part-time jobs to save up for our trip, our overall budget was pretty modest. It was also the first time either of us had done such a long trip. My longest before then was a month spent visiting Australia’s East Coast.
This South America travel blog post will help you decide where to go and how to get there, what to do and give you an idea of how much money you’ll need. If you’ve still got questions, feel free to leave them in the comments at the end and I’ll get back to you!
About backpacking in South America
Often referred to as one of the most diverse continents on Earth, South America is home to hundreds of beautiful natural sites and history. This continent is where you’ll find the 2nd highest mountain range in the world, the largest rainforest and the world’s driest desert. No matter how long you have to visit South America, you’re sure to come across something that truly takes your breath away. Each country is unique and offers different history, culture and natural sights. You’re set to have a fantastic time!
Backpacking in South America is favoured since it’s a pretty cheap place to travel when compared to North America or Europe in particular. Whilst not as cheap as South East Asia, you’ll still be okay with a relatively modest budget to cover your food, accommodation, travel and activities.
Our 3 months in South America, including the return flights there and back to the UK, cost us around £3500/$3800US in 2014. This included a couple of internal flights that could be avoided and we didn’t stay in shared hostel dorms much either. There’s more information about budgeting below.
How much does it cost to backpack South America?
Our South America travel budget: £3500/£4000
Our budget for this South America travel itinerary was roughly £3500 for 3 months travel in South America including flights to and from the UK and a couple of internal flights (Brazil to Peru, Peru to Galapagos Islands). It doesn’t include the cost of travel insurance, gear or vaccinations.
This is based on staying in cheap private rooms in hostels and hotels. Hotels in South America are often cheaper than hostels if you’re splitting the cost between two since you split the price of one room rather than paying for two beds. Ie. this was the cost to travel South America on a budget.
We also opted for overnight bus journeys since that saved on the cost of hotels and we’d have to pay for the transport anyway.
It also included the cost of activities such as our Salkantay trek, day excursions during our stay on the Galapagos Islands and others.
However, we’re not big drinkers, and are more than happy to save on food; either cooking for ourselves or eating cheaply when eating out.
While we were travelling we stuck to a budget of about £35 a day ($45US). Some days we spent more, some days less, but overall it was around this amount a day.
How long to spend backpacking South America?
This itinerary for South America is based on spending three months on a South America travel route. We moved pretty quickly and fit a lot into a short amount of time but it was totally worth it.
If you have longer to spend (/more money to spend!) then anywhere between 4-6 months will allow you to see places more slowly and visit additional countries such as Colombia and Chile.
To plan or not to plan?
If this is your first big trip you maybe someone (like me) who’s tempted to plan EVERYTHING.
I’d advise you not to.
Hear me out. Some places you’re going to love and want to stay longer exploring. Other places you’re going to just not gel with and want to get away from as quickly as possible. If you’ve booked 1 night in the former and 4 nights in the latter you’re not going to be happy OR you’re going to lose money on non-refundable deposits.
Having said all that some things you’re just going to have to book, or should book to have a much more relaxing backpacking trip in South America.
Things we booked before travelling to South America
We booked our flights to Lima, Peru from the UK and then left fro Quito in Ecuador (via Lima) back to the UK.
We also booked our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail was already booked up (we booked at least 3 months in advance), but I’m actually so glad we took this trek instead!
We also won tickets in the lottery for World Cup football games in Brazil which meant we had to be in Brazil by a certain point.
And, since we knew we wanted to visit the Galapagos, we booked a flight from Argentina to Peru (to get us back on the west coast after Brazil) and to the Galapagos Islands and back from Quito.
Our itinerary was a bit back and forth, but it worked for us.
The best time to go to South America
If you live in the northern hemisphere, then remember that South America’s seasons are the opposite to what you’re used to. The northern countries are best visited May-September and the southern ones from October-April.
Our trip was from May-August.
Do I need travel vaccinations for South America travel destinations?
It’s likely you will need some South America travel vaccines. The requirements change from time to time so it’s worth checking at least 3 months before you go.
The Fit For Travel website by the NHS is full of useful advice.
When we travelled we made sure to get our Yellow Fever vaccination since countries such as Brazil said they’d check your certificate at the border.
We also got Malaria tablets to take with us since we were spending time in the Amazon Rainforest.
Additionally, if you’re worried about altitude, you may want to take Diamox, or a similar drug to help mitigate the effects you can get from altitude sickness. While I took this in the Himalayas, we didn’t take it during our trip to South America.
What visas do you need to backpack South America?
If you’re from the EU, chances are you won’t need to get any visa in advance. Most countries in South America will give you a 90-day visa upon entry.
Check each country’s government travel advice pages to see what the visa requirements are before you travel to South America.
How to get around South America?
With such a big continent, how will you know how to get around? Here are the methods we used!
Buses in South America
You’ll likely be spending A LOT of time on overnight buses as you backpack South America. It’s by far the cheapest and easiest way to travel across the continent and you’ll be pleased to know that the buses in South America are actually pretty luxurious. I think the longest stint we did on back-to-back buses was 26 hours!
Depending on what class seat you book, you can enjoy fully-reclining seats, meal service (like aeroplane meals) and onboard entertainment! However, I would recommend packing a blanket or plenty of warm clothes as some of the buses, especially in Bolivia and other high altitude areas, do get VERY cold overnight.
In Peru, we used PeruHop which had just started as a company a few months before we used it. It’s a bit like the Oz Experience for road tripping on Australia’s east coast. While it is a hop on hop off bus, typically you’re travelling with the same group of people for a week or so since people move places at roughly the same speed. If this is your first extended travelling experience, I’d recommend doing Peru Hop as they’ll organise hotels for you too but it’s not a bus tour in the sense that they’re then guiding you around each of the cities and stops you make. You also have the option to book your own accommodation.
When we travelled in South America back in 2014, Peru Hop only went from Lima to Cusco but I believe they’ve expanded their service to include many other stops (& other countries too).
Buses throughout South America tend to go from one big bus station in the town or city you’re in. This station will be pretty hectic with people shouting out the name of the town their bus company is going to next. There’ll be several different bus companies going to the same place and their prices will vary. Sometimes not by much, but sometimes by a lot. Some buses will also take longer. At first, this experience may be a little stressful, but you’ll get the hang of it! Oh, and don’t forget to haggle, chances are you can get the price down much lower than they’ll tell you to begin with.
Flights in South America
While you can do some internal flights as we did, they’re more expensive and honestly travelling by bus between places is actually pretty fun. You’ll meet other travellers and get to see the scenery as you drive past it.
If you do need to book flights, I’d recommend using Skyscanner to find the cheapest deals.
Getting around cities in South America
You’ll likely use these three forms of transport when getting around the larger cities in South America.
Collectivos are likely doing Uber Pool but without the Uber app. They’re typically a standard car that will drive faster, and make less stops than a bus. They’ll only go when they’re full, so this may mean the driver won’t leave the station for a while until they’ve drummed up enough customers to fill the car. OR, they’ll drive slow through the city shouting out the destination hoping someone will hop in.
We only used these in areas where there were no buses going where we needed to go. This was mostly in northern Peru as we tried to navigate from Mancora to Iquitos.
While some of the larger cities in South America likely have Uber now (it didn’t exist when we travelled there!), more often you’ll be using local taxi companies. Once the drivers realise you’re a foreigner they’ll likely up the price that a local would pay.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to agree on a price before you get in the taxi. Sometimes they’ll insist on using the metre but the metre will be set to a higher rate or perhaps you insist on using the metre but then they turn it off and tell you it’s not working and just make up a (usually very high) price you now need to pay.
Smaller city buses
Cities also have smaller minivan style buses that work much like a bus system anywhere in the world. We used these city buses in Lima to get between museums and around the city. The ticket is usually a flat fee so you just need to remember where to get off.
3 month South America itinerary
This South America backpacking route starts in Lima, Peru. Peru was our favourite country in our whole South America trip. The food was great, the people were friendly, the country has everything from beaches to mountains, rainforest to deserts AND it was one of the cheaper countries too.
We’ll then head from Peru down into Bolivia, across to Brazil, into Argentina and down to Uruguay then back into Argentina, across to Peru and north to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
I’ve linked to other South America travel guides where relevant so you can find more information about some of the most popular destinations to visit in South America.
A South America map of our travel route and the places we visited.
Here are the places we visited in Peru and some links to more detailed posts about them. Make sure to add these activities to your Peru bucket list for your South America travel route!
Lima is the capital of Peru and sits on the coast. It’s full of beautiful buildings and has plenty of museums to explore too so that you can get to know more about the fascinating ancient history of Peru. The best area to stay in Lima is Miraflores which is the more touristy area, but also the safest and one with the most restaurants and things to do.
For more things to do in Lima check out this post.
A few hours down the coast from Lima is Paracas. Paracas is often called ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’ as it’s a great place to do some nature watching. It’s home to blue-footed boobies (a type of bird) and many more animals that are best viewed by taking a boat ride out to the islands.
Not a city or really even much of a town, but a VERY fun place to spend a day or two. Huacachina is super popular with backpackers in South America due to the sand dunes which surround the little oasis that is Huacachina.
Here you can go sandboarding, or take a dune buggy ride both of which I recommend!
You may have heard of the Nazca lines before, if you’re taking PeruHop you’ll stop off here and have the chance to climb a tower to view these mysetrious lines from above. However, the only true way to see them is by taking a flight above them which is pretty expensive! Honeslty, I’d save your money for something else and wouldn’t make a special trip to stop here unless you were nearby.
Arequipa is a city with beautiful architecture and the place to stop off at if you wish to visit the Colca Canyon.
One of the world’s deepest canyons, the Colca Canyon is a well-known trekking destination. It’s a habitat for the giant Andean condor which is the largest flying bird in the world!
Cusco is one of the most popular stops for travellers to South America as it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu. This town is at 3,339m above sea level so it’s a good idea to spend the best part of a week here to acclimatise to the altitude before heading off to Machu Picchu.
If you didn’t book a trekking tour in advance you may be able to find a last-minute opening by walking around the tourist companies.
Otherwise, you can take trips to the Lost City, or head up to Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) another Inca city within walkable distance from Cusco centre.
Machu Picchu & Aguas Calientes
Whether you hike or get the bus or train, Machu Picchu is an absolute MUST see in Peru. This famous Lost City of the Incas is absolutely stunning. It’s one of those places that lives up to your expectations, even when your expectations are ridiculously high. We took the Salkantay trek to get here.
Lake Titicaca & Puno
From Cusco, we headed to Lake Titicaca and the town of Puno. There’s not a whole lot to see in Puno, it’s basically where people stay the night before getting an early bus to Bolivia or north into Peru. Lake Titicaca, however, is worth seeing. This high-altitude lake is home to a community who make their houses and the islands they live on our of reeds.
Once we flew from Buenos Aires back to Lima, we headed north up the coast to Mancora. This beach town was entirely unexpected by us during out backpacking South America trip. I never realised Peru has such beautiful beaches! Pocitas Beach just outside the town was our favourite.
While this town has grown hugely in popularity, we loved spending a relaxing week at the beach, drinking Mancora milkshakes and relaxing.
Iquitos & the Amazon Rainforest
From Mancora, we took the long route to Iquitos in the Amazon rainforest. Most visitors to Iquitos fly there from Lima, but we floated down the Amazon river on a cargo ship and this is perhaps one of the most memorable experiences of our entire trip. Sure, it took a long time but it was such a cool thing to do.
Bolivia was our least favourite country during our backpack in South America. Probably because we both got very ill. But, it was by far the cheapest (a 3-course meal for £3!) and we still had some very cool experiences here.
If you’re travelling from Peru, Copacabana is the first town you’ll get to as it’s right across the border. There’s not a whole lot to do here other than wait for the next bus out.
La Paz is one of the highest altitude capital cities in the world and it’s a bustling city. There are tonnes of street markets (including the Witches’ Market) which are fun to explore. It’s home of super cheap lunch menus (look for “menu del dia”) and nowadays there’s a cable car that will take you to the top of the mountain walls that surround the city.
You can also get tours from La Paz to cycle down Death Road. Less scary these days than it used to be, but still an exhilarating experience you’ll cycle down this notoriously dangerous road on (pretty old) mountain bikes.
Salar de Uyuni
The largest salt flat in the world, and one of the top places to visit for any Bolivia backpacker, the Salar de Uyuni is an amazing place. The best way to visit is to book a tour. You can book one that drops you off in Northern Chile if that’s your next stop, or you can book a circular route.
From Bolivia, we worked our way across land via Santa Cruz in Bolivia to Corumba in Brazil to Campo Grande and the Pantals (a wetland home to jaguars and many, many species of wildlife) and then to the Brazilian coast and inwards again to Iguassu Falls.
The Pantanals were an unexpected surprise. We hadn’t planned to go here but had a great few days chilling out and taking trips out to see wildlife.
Amazing waterfalls and the meeting point of three countries (Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay). Worth visiting from both the Brazilian and Argentinan sides to get the full experience. Also, if you’re looking to get another stamp in your passport, you can cross the bridge into Paraguay from the Brazilian side (just don’t do it at dark!).
We loved visiting Ilhabela. It was our first ever Airbnb experience and our hosts took us with them to their friends to watch Brazil play in the World Cup, to a local school fundraiser and for ice cream. It was such a nice way to get to know the island.
Ilha Grande is a small island (don’t let the name fool you), that’s home to beautiful beaches and forest. Take walks, swim and hang out in a hammock. There are no cars on the island here making it even more chilled out!
This beautiful town is extremely photogenic and has plenty of beaches and islands to explore.
A huge Brazilian city, Sao Paulo is full of skyscrapers and museums. There are also cool places like Batman Alley to explore too.
Rio de Janeiro
You’ve definitely heard of Rio before and you can’t go backpacking to South America without visiting Rio!
This party city has plenty to see and do including Christ the Redeemer; the giant statue of Christ that looks over the city.
Though it was cold and very wet during our visit, I enjoyed exploring Uruguay a little. It was a country I’d never really heard much about but thoroughly enjoyed. To get to Argentina we took the ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires.
The capital of Montevideo is home to over a 1/3 of the country’s population. This coastal city is home to the 10 mile Rambla, a walkway between beach and city, and some great food markets too.
Tacuarembó – Cowboy camp
Another of our more unique backpacking experiences in South America was spending time on a cowboy ranch. We rode horses, saw armadillos and skunks and had a great time despite the pouring rain!
Our first steps in Argentina were at Iguassu Falls where we viewed the falls from the Argentinan side. We then skirted down the eastern side of the country all the way to Uruguay before crossing back into Argentina from Uruguay and spending a few days in Buenos Aires. If you have more time, consider visiting Mendoza and Argentina wine country.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city. Though it’s probably the most expensive one on this South America backpacker route, it’s still worth visiting.
From Argentina, we flew back to Lima, went north to Iquitos then flew to Quito.
We didn’t spend a huge amount of time in Ecuador; just a couple of days in Quito and then off to the Galapagos Islands where we stayed for a week. I’ve listed a couple of other Ecuador destinations that are popular with backpackers and worth visiting.
The capital city of Ecuador, near Quito, is where you can find the equator at Mitad del Mundo, explore historic buildings and take the teleferico (cable car) up to the high point of the city.
Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
This beautiful national park is home to the 5,900 m high volcano, Cotopaxi. If you’re a keen hiker taking a tour to the volcano is well worth it.
A popular backpacking town, Baños is famous for its beautiful natural surroundings, the swing on the edge of a cliff and for being a base for outdoor adventures!
Popular Ecuadorian riverside town which is full of beautiful colonial buildings and hipster cafes.
The Galapagos Islands aren’t cheap but you can still visit the Galapagos Islands on a budget. You don’t need to book a cruise (in fact I’d advise against it), to see the wildlife. It’s truely everywhere, and day excursions will get you out into the sea for diving and snorkelling opportunities.
Ideas for a longer backpacking route in South America
There are obviously ways to shorten the route by just visiting one of two countries from the itinerary above. You could also lengthen the route by visiting countries like Columbia and Chile, or spending more time in Argentina and Ecuador. When we travelled to South America, Columbia was only just becoming a popular destination for backpackers and I’d love to go back one year and see what it’s like.