Visiting the Potosi Mines

Going down the Mine in Potosi, Bolivia

potosi mine trips

NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old. Some info may no longer be accurate.

The Highest City on the Planet

Believe it or not, Potosi was once one of the richest cities in the world. The mountain, popularly known as the Cerro Rico once contained vast silver reserves which were mined between the 16th and 18th century and to a large extent funded the Spanish Empire.

Potosi Mountain and townToday however there are few reminders of the cities glorious colonial past. At 4000m above sea level, it is a pretty tough environment with the sun shining brightly during the day before the sun sets and the bitterly cold night roles in. The mines are still the main source of income in the town, but all the silver was depleted long ago.

Nowadays around 28,000 miners work daily in some shockingly bad conditions to scrape out whatever ore deposits they can. In doing so each day they are inhaling dust and most of them will eventually contract silicosis. Because of this the life expectancy for the miners is shockingly only around 40 years of age, but it remains the most profitable job in town so many teenage boys and men have to work down here just to feed their families.

Visiting the Potosi Mines

Tours of the mines run every day and are very easy to arrange. There are several travel agencies in the small town centre on the roads around the main plaza. Your hostel will also most likely be able to sort you out with the tour (Koala Den definitely does). All of the tours are to some extent dangerous so you will be asked to sign a waiver should anything bad happen. There tends to be a morning and afternoon departure with tours lasting around 4-5 hours and costing in the region of B$100 (roughly US$14 or £9).

The Tours

Potosi MinesThe tours are all roughly the same. First of all you will be picked up from the agency you bought the ticket and will meet your guide, most of whom are former miners themselves so are very knowledgeable. You will then get kitted out in a fetching orange miner’s uniform, complete with helmet, torch and boots. Next stop is the miners market where you can buy gifts for the miners such as coca leaves and drinks and for under US$2 you can also buy some dynamite! (Some tours include a demonstration where you are allowed to set off the dynamite yourself although it is supposed to be bad for the mountain). Next stop is the ore refinery plant where the miners sell everything they get to companies who extract the raw materials.

Finally you will enter the mine itself, which is a co-operative so the miners work for themselves, often in teams and are free to choose their own working hours. The tunnels are small so you will find yourself creeping along and having to dodge out the way of oncoming carts. You will spend a couple of hours down the mines and depending on your tour, may go to the deepest level. There will also be an opportunity to meet and talk to some of the workers, at which point you can hand over any gifts you bought in the markets.

Coca Leaves

Coca is the main crop in many regions of Bolivia and is used most famously to make cocaine but also many other legal products such as coca-cola. The leaves are chewed by many people in Bolivia’s mountainous West to give them energy and help them deal with the altitude. The practice is especially popular with miners who almost without exception chew the leaves before heading down the mines. Coca leaves are dirt cheap and can be bought from the miners market. Your guide will probably show you how to chew correctly and you will need to get through at least 100 or so before you begin to feel any effects. (Chewing coca leaves won’t get you high!)

Are the Mines Dangerous?

Potosi minerYes, if you decide to visit be aware, you’re not visiting a museum but an active working mineshaft. Around 35 miners a year die down here mostly from gas explosions or falling rocks. Of course as with all mines there is always the risk of a deadly cave in where the whole shaft collapses trapping miners underground. It is believed that one day, probably within the next 50 years, the entire mountain will just completely cave in, such is the extent of mining that has taken place over the past 5 centuries. It gets more dangerous every year.

Now finally some good news. Tours have ran every day for many years and so far no tourists have been killed with the exception of a Japanese man who fell down a shaft around 20 years ago. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that visiting the mine for just a few hours has any long-lasting health effects.

 


Altitude sickness is another real danger as Potosi is over 4000m above sea level and just walk uphill can leave you breathless, not to mention trawling around the mines in heavy clothing. It’s best to acclimatize to the altitude for several days before attempting the tours. Also if you suffer badly from claustrophobia then it’s not advisable to go down the mines. It is reasonably physically challenging but there are plenty of travellers over 60 who go on the tours and have no problems. If in doubt ask around the different agencies as some tours are slightly more challenging than others.

Thanks to Jennifrog on flickr for most of the pics.

 


This article was published in June 2011.

UPDATE AUGUST 2014 – Some travellers have reported really bad experiences with Greengo Tours.


The World’s Weirdest Tourist Attraction: San Pedro Prison, La Paz

The World’s Weirdest Tourist Attraction: San Pedro Prison

san pedro prison bolivia

San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia and the common destination for people convicted of breaking the countries drug laws. It is found in the heart of the countries administrative capital, La Paz, which is on our South America backpacking route. Its fame amongst backpackers grew in the 1990’s when English inmate Thomas Mcfadden started offering tours of the prison. It quickly became an essential part of the backpacking scene in South America.

NOTE – This article is now over 5 years old and some of the info may no longer be accurate.

How does San Pedro differ from normal prisons?

San Pedro is not a normal prison by any stretch of the imagination. For starters prisoners must buy their cells when they enter the prison, that’s after they’ve paid the entrance fee! There are many different sections ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in 3 or 4 to a tiny cell to parts which are more like posh apartment blocks and house convicted businessmen and politicians. The wives and children of many of the inmates actually live with their husbands inside the prison. Every inmate must earn their living as nothing comes for free so many run shops, restaurants and most famously cocaine laboratories. Unlike most prisons, guards rarely enter the main part of San Pedro, so prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves.

Backpackers in San Pedro Prison

backpackers in San Pedro PrisonThousands of backpackers have entered the prison since the tours first started, intrigued by what is unquestionably one of the oddest tourist attractions in the world. Even Lonely Planet at one point included San Pedro in its South America guides. Many visitors are shocked and fascinated in equal measure by the tour which normally includes visits to the different sections, the cell of the guide and the infamous swimming pool where many inmates have been murdered. Another draw for some travellers is the opportunity to take cocaine which is ridiculously cheap and perhaps what the prison is most famous for. Many inmates are coke addicts and given that is produced onsite, the cocaine in San Pedro is amongst the purest in the world. In the 1990’s many visitors would stay overnight in the prison which hosts some pretty wild parties!

Isn’t it a Bit Dangerous?

Not really because bodyguards are employed by the guides to protect you and if anything bad ever happened to a backpacker then word would quickly get out to the hostels and people would stop coming which would be bad for the prison economy. It’s a good idea to buy something from the shops or dine in one of the prison restaurants which are often better than what you get on the outside anyway. It is rare for visitors to be allowed to stay overnight when the prison is more dangerous but some backpackers have in the past chosen to do this. As far as we are aware there have been no serious incidents involving people on the tours.

Do the San Pedro Prison Tours Still Exist?

san pedro prison cellThere are conflicting reports about the current situation with the tours. Backpackers in San Pedro Prison are certainly a less common sight than 10 years ago but like many things in Bolivia, if you’ve got money you can make things happen. There are recent reports of a total ban thanks to a Hollywood movie due to be released about San Pedro. The authorities don’t like to admit that the tours ever take place (they definitely do) so any sort of publicity like this tends to make it harder to visit.

Your best bet is to talk to fellow travellers in South America and especially La Paz and try to go as a large group if you are in any way concerned about the safety of it. Head to the San Pedro Plaza and hang around for a bit. You may well be approached about tours but be wary of conmen. If that fails head to the main gate of the prison where there is a steady flow of comings and goings and see what you can do. Tours are likely to cost in the region of $25 (which includes a bribe to the guards to get you in).


MFT RECOMMENDS – Hostel Perla Negra, La Paz 

This place is good for a few nights kip in La Paz. Near the bus terminal and excellent staff who are knowledgeable on the city.


Marching PowderRead Marching Powder by Rusty Young for a fascinating insight into life in the prison through the eyes of Thomas Mcfadden, an Englishman convicted of drug trafficking at La Paz Airport in the 1990’s.

 

Photos of San Pedro in 2009 and courtesy of Brenski on flickr.



This article was published in November 2011.

We don’t know the current state of affairs with regards to the tours but in Bolivia, where there is a will, there is usually a way. Please comment below if you have more up-to-date info.


Top 10 Latin America Travel Highlights

Top 10 Latin America Travel Highlights

Ordered geographically from North to South, these are our Latin America travel highlights.

1. Smoke cigars, drink rum and travel like it’s 1959 in Havana, Cuba.

Latin America Travel Highlights

Read our Cuba backpacking budget for more info on travel on the Caribbean island.

2. Explore colourful Central America on Chicken buses.

chicken bus in guatemala

3. Reach the summit of an active volcano in Guatemala.

volcano in guatemala

Check out our Central America backpacking route for some inspiration.

4. Discover Caribbean beach paradise beneath snow-capped peaks in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park.

tayrona national park

5. Sail deep into the vastness of the Amazon.

amazon river

6. Follow the Inca Trail up to Machu Pichhu.

machu picchu

One of several destinations on this list to make our South America backpacking route.

7. Lose yourself in a world of salt at Uyuni, Bolivia.

salt flats uyuni bolivia

8. Party hard at Carnaval in Brazil.

carnaval in brazil

9. Witness the World’s most wonderous Waterfalls.

iguace waterfall

10. Explore the incredible landscape of Patagonia.

patagonia argentina

Take on our Backpacking Route for Patagonia.


This article was published in March 2014.


How to Visit Antarctica

How to Visit Antarctica

seal in antarctica

NOTE – This post is now over 5 years old so some of the info, especially the prices may have changed.

Antarctica Basics

Anyone Live There?: No, but there are around 25 research stations, so there can be up to 5,000 people in Antarctica at any given time.

Who Owns it: Despite various claims, nobody actually controls it because of an international treaty agreement.

Visa Requirements: Visas to Antarctica are for some reason that makes no sense controlled by the UK. If visiting Antarctica, you or your tour group must have a valid permit allowing you to travel to the continent. Given that it is virtually impossible to travel there independently, chances are your tour leader will sort it out. Otherwise you just need to fulfil the entry requirements for the country you are departing from, most likely Chile or Argentina.

Climate: It’s predictably cold but contrary to popular opinion, this is one the driest places on the planet, it hardly ever snows or rains. The coastal region where you will be visiting experiences pretty much 24 hours of sunlight during the summer and temperatures can get as high as 15 °C. It isn’t possible to visit during winter as the sea is basically ice and totally inaccessible.

How to Get There?

antarticaEveryone has heard of it but not many know how to visit Antarctica. Unless you manage to get on some sort of research expedition, your best bet for getting to Antarctica is via Ushuaia, the world’s most southernmost city in Argentina. Ships depart from Ushuaia’s port during the summer months of November to March. Another option is doing a fly-over, but obviously this isn’t going to be quite as rewarding or memorable as actually setting foot on the continent.

Of course you also have to get to Ushuaia first, which is accessible by air, as is nearby Punta Arenas in Chile. Some companies run tours from Buenos Aires which include a flight to Ushuaia before setting off on the cruise. There is also an excellent bus network in both countries so it is easy to fit in if you are backpacking around South America, although it is a long journey south to somewhat chillier conditions than you’ll have grown used to.

It is also possible to do a trip to Antarctica from South Africa, Australia or New Zealand but the distance is much greater so it will work out a longer trip and more expensive.

How much does a trip to Antarctica Cost?

The cheapest option is to book your trip from one of the travel agents in Ushuaia. This will be around half the price of booking it at home and will normally set you back in the region of US$3000 for the shorter trips which are about 8 days and include several stops. There are occasionally some special offers on where you can get better deals. Some points on the itinerary are very much dependent on weather conditions which are highly changeable. It is possible to do longer cruises lasting anything up to a month. All trips include accommodation every night which will normally be in the form of a cabin on the ship, although you may spend some nights on dry land (well ice).

What is the Experience like?

penguins in antarticaThe trips are certainly an unforgettable experience. Even aboard the ship as you cut through the vast freezing cold oceans, you see some stunning sights such as the giant whales which are found in the region. There are several excursions onshore such as visits to one of the many penguin colonies, a trip to see the Southern lights or a visit to one of the research stations.

Photos courtesy of gamma><addict and Guille Avalos on flickr.

 


This article was published in July 2011.


Backpacking Budget for South America

Backpacking Budget for South America

This page aims to give you a rough idea of what a typical backpacking budget for South America might be.

south america map

(Map of South America from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

South America is on the whole, budget-friendly and certainly much cheaper than North America and Europe but that said travel costs can easily mount up. Countries like Brazil are developing quickly and as a result prices are going up. It is also a very large region so trying to see it all is both time-consuming and expensive. Even relatively short-distance airfares are high here so unless you fancy hitch-hiking, buses and coaches are pretty much the only way to get around.

There is more detailed info on this topic in our Backpackers Guide to South America (Ebook).

Daily Travel Costs in South America

$20/day or less : Bolivia

$25/day : Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay

$30/day : Colombia

$40/day : Uruguay

$45/day : Chile, Argentina

$50/day : Brazil

As you can see there’s quite a wide variety between countries so calculating a Latin America travel budget can be difficult. Over the years of running this site, we’ve had various people disagreeing with these figures. Some say Peru or Colombia are far cheaper than Ecuador but bare in mind that although the cost food/accommodation may be similar or even less, you will spend much more on transport in the bigger countries like Peru, Colombia, Argentina or Chile as the destinations are far further away from each other. Ecuador is much more compact with just a few hours on a bus and only a few US Dollars separating most of the popular travel destinations.

On a similar kind of note, prices in Uruguay are comparable to anything you’ll find in Brazil or Argentina and can soar to Western European levels in places but the country is small so again you won’t be spending any extra money on flights or expensive long-distance coaches.

French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana are on the expensive end of the scale but they are so small, visitors often go for a specific purpose rather than on a general trip around the country so we haven’t factored them in. In Venezuela, there is something like 4 different exchange rates so it can vary from being absurdly cheap to extremely expensive depending which one you can get. The country is suffering from a severe economic crisis right now with violent crime rife so it’s probably not the best time to go in any case.

Also it’s well worth noting that prices can really sky-rocket around real tourist hotspots like Rio de Janeiro, Machu Picchu and the natural wonders of Patagonia. A trip to Machu Picchu alone can easily blow your Peru budget in just a few days.

Therefore please take these figures as a guide and not as the definitive answer as everyone and every trip is different.

Monthly Backpacking budget for South America

1 month – £820,  €950, $1000

2 months – £1640, €1900, $2000

3 months – £2460, €2850, $3000

4 months – £3280, €3800, $4000

5 months – £4100, €4750, $5000

6 months – £4920, €5700, $6000

(Exchange rates are correct as of Janaury 2017. Use Dollars as a base and convert it to your currency on current exchange rates if you’re reading this much further in the future)

A figure of $1000 per month is a reasonable starting point for a shoestring budget for the region. Visit predominantly the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia and you can get by on less. Spend more time in the South of the continent or Brazil and you will probably need more than this.

As mentioned earlier actual transport costs are quite high so longer trips or ones that involve visiting only a few countries will give you better value for money. If you want to get by on a cheaper budget, it’s possible but you’ll have to consider hitch-hiking/camping/couchsurfing etc. which on the whole are viable options, especially in the more expensive countries, which is handy.

Remember there will still be extra expenses on top of this in terms of sorting out flights to/from the region. Many travellers opt to head there via USA with Miami a popular stop and home to some of the better value flights to South American countries, particularly Colombia. Read our backpacking budget for the USA to find out costs there.

The cost of vaccinations, visas and travel insurance are also not included in these figures. The last part is often quite expensive. We recommend World Nomads as they specialise in dealing with backpacker trips.

Read our South America budget travel overview for more on the region.


The Cost of Travel in Other Regions

Southeast Asia | Central America | Europe


How much did travel in South America cost you?

If you have travelled recently in South America then please use the comments section below to share with us your experiences of backpacking costs in the region. Budgets really do vary considerably amongst travellers so there will never be a definitively right figure for each country but the more people who comment, the easier it is for us to keep this page as accurate as possible. Thanks!


 This page was last updated in January 2017.


Funky 100 – 5 Things to do in Bogota

SINGAPORE | BOGOTA | MARRAKECH

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Funky 100 – Number 76

5 Funky Things to do in Bogota


Why you should Visit…

Colombia’s kicking capital is one of the most rapidly changing cities on the planet and easily one of the most exciting in South America. With warm welcoming people and one or two novel ideas for how to entertain locals and the relatively few travellers that venture here, Bogota surprises you in ways you’d never have expected. It’s very much the beating heart of the new (and pretty safe) Colombia and it’s future looks brights.


1) Watch a futbol match at El Campin, Colombia’s National Stadium

colombia football team at el campin stadium in Bogota


2) Visit the Police Museum to learn about Colombia’s violent War against the powerful Drug Cartels

Bogota Police Museum


3) Hop on a bike and explore the city during the Sunday Ciclovia

ciclovia bogota


4) Take the funicular (or teleferico) upto the top of the Cerro de Monserrate

monserrate funicular in bogota


5) Head to Avenida Septima for a Friday night street Fiesta!

friday night in bogota


BIO

This was the first Funky 100 article submitted by us to get the ball rolling! The other 99 will be by you! Send yours in to funky100(@)myfunkytravel.com.


PREVIOUS CITY | FUNKY 100 | NEXT CITY



This article was published in September 2013


Funky 100 – 5 Things to do in Rio de Janeiro

MARRAKECH | RIO DE JANEIRO

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Funky 100 – Number 91

5 Funky Things to do in Rio de Janeiro


Why you should Visit…

This is an easy one! It’s hard to think of another city in the world that has so much appeal to a traveller. The stunning setting includes tropical forests, lakes and of course fabulous beaches. Throw in beautiful people and exuberant nightlife and it becomes more a question of why wouldn’t you want to visit Rio?


1) Head East for a day of Snorkelling at Arraial do Cabo

snorkelling in rio de janeiro


2) Go to the secret Pedra do Sal Plaza for Free Samba, Music, Drinks & Food (Mon, Fri, Sat 6pm-10pm)

pedro do sal plaza samba in rio


3) Escape the Urban Jungle and head into the Tijuca National Park

national park rio de janeiro


4) Hop from Bar to Bar in the Historic Lapa district

lapa


5) Relax on Prainha Beach

prainha beach rio de janeiro


BIO

Tips from Rio couchsurfers Kellen, Yuri and Aline who also runs Free Walking Tours of Rio de Janeiro’s cultural and historical sights.


PREVIOUS CITY | FUNKY 100


This article was published in July 2013.


Backpacking Route for Brazil

latin america routes

south america | brazil | patagoniacentral america


Backpacking Route for Brazil

Backpacking in Brazil is challenging due to its sheer size and relative cost in comparison to its near neighbours. Nonetheless it is a hugely rewarding challenge. The country makes up a giant chunk of the South American continent with thousands of miles of stunning coastline, wonderful waterfalls and national parks. You can spend months alone visiting all this before even contemplating venturing into the vast Amazon Rainforest which makes up the North and West of the country. Developing rapidly it may be but Brazilians have not forgotten how to party and visiting during Carnaval season is an experience you will never forget.


TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS

If time is no object you could do a week long river trip along the Amazon to Manaus and visit a few other places but 2 months would be a decent amount of time for this route.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £2450 €2850 $3000

This is based on January 2017 prices and exchange rates. That’s just under 10,000 Reales in local currency. Brazil isn’t cheap these days and is considerably more expensive than most countries in South America. This does not include the cost of flights to/from Brazil, visas or travel insurance.

Read more on the cost of travel in Brazil or view the backpacking costs in all South American countries.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR BRAZIL

90 days visa-free for citizens of almost every country in Europe and Latin America. If you are from the USA, Canada, Japan or Australia you will need one. Find out if you need a Brazilian visa here.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend using World Nomads for backpacking trips in South America.


 Brazil Backpacking Route

SAO PAULO

Sao Paulo is South America’s biggest city and with three major international airports it is very accessible from wherever you’re coming from and a logical starting point for a trip around Brazil. Opinions of the cities are its fair to say mixed amongst travellers and Brazilians alike. To some it’s a large and dangerous crime-ridden city that’s difficult to get around and has little of interest to visitors anyway.

Others see it is a lively and diverse 21st century metropolis with great shopping and by South American standards an open-minded attitude towards issues such as homosexuality which is still considered a taboo in much of the continent. Even if it’s for just a day or two, it’s worth experiencing and if you don’t like it then move on.

More on SP: Sao Paulo is a Monster but you might like it!

CURITIBA

This cosmopolitan city in the south of the country has a great history and is home to a mixed population that descends from various parts of Europe. It boasts a lively arts and music scene and has a famous ‘old city’ district in the centre which is over 300 years old. If Sao Paulo was too much for you then Curitiba may be much more to your taste as one of the safest and cleanest cities in Brazil.

ILHA DO MEL

This island is a nice escape from the cities with pleasant beaches, no roads and some great scenery. There are plenty of other nearby islands you can get to by boat either on trips or by hiring your own vessel. The island is very quiet during the week so this is the best time to come if you want to relax. However there is much more in the way of nightlife and parties at the weekend and during holidays.

FLORIANOPOLIS

In and around this city you will find some of the country’s most stunning beaches. The city has a few decent sights such as the 18th century fort and some colourful markets but for backpackers in Brazil, it’s primarily a beach destination. There are some decent budget places to sleep, eat and drink and there is even a party bus complete with bar and DJ that takes visitors to the city’s major nightspots. During the day from the centre you can catch buses to any of Florianopolis’s 42 beaches.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Florida Surf Hostel, Florianopolis 

Budget beds, hammocks and chilled out Brazilian beach vibes. Nice place to say.


FOZ DO IGUAÇU

foz do iguace brazil

It’s a long and tiring trip out to Foz do Iguaçu and is probably best done via a night bus with two direct daily services from Florianopolis. (You may prefer to visit Florianopolis first and then backtrack to Curtiba from where there are more regular and shorter bus services to Foz do Iguaçu). The city is of a medium size but mainly serves as a base for exploring the Iguaçu Falls which are truly one of the natural wonders of the world.

The stunning waterfalls, arguably the most impressive on the face of the earth are one of the undoubted highlights of backpacking in Brazil and indeed South America. The Falls dissect three countries meaning short trips into Argentina and Paraguay are possible from this point.

BONITO

A popular eco-tourism hotspot which allows you to see more of the Pantanal than the areas around the more visited Campo Grande. The town is surrounded by waterfalls and rivers which are clean and clear enough to snorkel in and check out the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the waters in these parts. It is a long journey from the falls to Bonito, taking around 16 hours including a change of bus in the town of Dourados.

CAMPO GRANDE (For the Pantanal)

pantanal jaguarSome people opt to skip Bonito as there are regular direct buses going from Foz do Iguaçu to Campo Grande taking 12-15 hours with several companies running the route which is popular with backpackers. The Pantanal is a vast area of wetland that is home to an incredible array of wildlife including caiman, jaguars, anacondas, piranhas and much more. Various types of trips can be arranged in Campo Grande or you can use it as a base and explore the region on your own.

RIBEIRÃO PRETO

This is a nice stop to break up the long journey back to the coast. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to find a reasonably cheap flight from Campo Grande to Rio but going by bus is normally cheaper if a little more time-consuming. Ribeirão Preto is around 14 hours from Campo Grande and is served by direct night buses. It is a lively city but not really on the regular backpacker trail. This however is part of its charm and with some bustling bars and a reputation as the draft beer capital of Brazil, it can be a very enjoyable little stop.

campos do jordaoCAMPOS DO JORDÃO

This is another hidden gem that doesn’t receive much in the way of foreign travellers. The somewhat dodgy looking teleforico is worth a ride as it transports you in individual seats to the top of Morro do Elefante which at 1700m above sea level has stunning views of the town and its surroundings which you can see more of on horseback. In the town the architecture and streets are distinctly ancient and it feels somewhat like stepping back in time to a bygone era. The rickety bondinhos (streetcars) offer a unique way to take in more of this quite unusual city.

PARATY

Back on the coast and for the first time in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The coastal town was first settled upon by the Portuguese in 1667 and is one of the oldest in Brazil. It’s another place where you feel as though time has somewhat stood still and it is incomparable to the glitzy modern cities of Rio and Sao Paulo which lie a few hundred kilometers on either side of it. In town, wander around the cobbled streets and admire the churches.

There’s plenty of nature around too with hikes, boat trips, kayaking and diving all popular. It’s also famous for the Bloco de Lama (Mud Carnival) where crowds go to cover themselves in mud and chant but sadly it only happens once a year on the weekend before Carnival. It’s well worth visiting if you’re planning on doing the Rio Carnival.

ILHA GRANDE

This island 150km west of Rio de Janeiro is another of Brazil’s best beach destinations. By night locals and backpackers alike gather in the main square and drink beers in a chilled out atmosphere with local bands playing live music as the backdrop. If you get hungry there are often beachside barbeques. It also holds a dark past with a history that includes slaves, pirates and leper colonies not to mention the ruins of a jail that once housed the most dangerous criminals in Brazil. Reports of ghosts roaming the beaches are not uncommon!

PETROPOLIS

Once the summer retreat of Brazilian emperors thanks to the cooler temperatures and pleasant mountain air, it is now of more interest to day-trippers from Rio. The Museu Imperial and Palacio de Cristal are worthwhile trips that point to the town’s significant history. It’s also popular with the more energetic kind of travellers who come for hiking and rafting trips.

RIO DE JANEIRO

Rio from above

Rio is by some distance Brazil’s most iconic destination and it doesn’t fail to disappoint. The highlight is undoubtedly the famous Carnival in March when the city puts on one of the greatest parties on Earth. It’s a giant street festival with exotic samba performances and all night drinking, singing and dancing. If you can’t make it then, don’t fret as even during the rest of the year this city is easily one of the most exciting on the planet.

It is a city of great contrasts. From the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana to the violent slums than sit on the slopes of the mountains perched over the beautiful harbours and wealthy districts, this is a city that takes some time to understand. There are of course plenty of museums and sights but you will experience more just by being in Rio for a week or more and living and breathing the pulsating Brazilian way of life in the country’s liveliest city.

It is also a great sporting city with the recently renovated Maracana, which hosted the World Cup Final in 2014, one of the world’s most iconic sporting arenas. Brazilian football is world renowned and an obsession for the people in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rio with numerous clubs boasting loyal and passionate fan-bases and matches played throughout the year with the exception of a small break during the heat of summer.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Walk on the Favela Hostel, Rio de Janeiro 

Sociable hostel just up the hill from the world famous Copacabana Beach near one of the city’s lively favelas.


OURO PRETO

Literally meaning ‘black gold’ this is one of the most significant cities in the history of the Americas. In the mid 18th century over 100,000 lived here (double the population of New York City at the time) and it was very much the epicenter of the gold rush. Today numerous funky little museums give you a fascinating insight into life at that time and the city has maintained much of its architectural charm. Several of the famous gold mines can also be visited.

(If you are pushed for time or fed up of buses, you might want to consider flying from Rio to Salvador and missing out Ouro Preto as it is a long way)

SALVADOR

The city and its people are noticeably different from those in the South of the country with Salvador and indeed the whole state of Bahia renowned for being friendly and easy-going. Culturally there is a strong African influence while the city possesses arguably the finest Old Town in the country with some colourful buildings and ancient cobblestone streets. By night it is a great place to party with plenty of cool bars and nightclubs and a varied live music scene that pumps out some of the best beats in Brazil.

The coastal cities of the North East are also known for having the best carnivals in the country. They are all great fun and don’t attract anything like the hordes of tourists that head to the Rio Carnival which bumps prices up for budget travellers. The carnival in Salvador is fantastic and actually bigger than the one in Rio, claiming to be the biggest of its kind in the world.

RECIFE

It’s around 10 hours by road from Salvador to Recife and there aren’t any particularly obvious stops in between but there are long stretches of deserted beaches along the route which could be worth a visit. Just south of town is the coastal city of Maceió which is worth seeing.

Recife is famous for having some of the best urban beaches in the world. Culturally there is a Dutch influence and there are many churches, museums and interesting buildings that reflect the distinct culture of this region. It is also a culinary hotspot with great seafood and sizzling local dishes served up in local restaurants and by plenty of beach vendors. Not a huge backpacking scene though and prices are quite high in the main tourist area.

olindaOLINDA

Only 7km north of Recife is Olinda, which justifies more than just a day-trip from its near neighbour. Since the town was founded almost 500 years ago it is has changed hands several times between the Dutch and the Portuguese and the remnants are very evident in the stunning architecture. Olinda also has a fabulous Carnaval and it is this that the town is most known for. It is basically a 24 hour street party from Friday night to Wednesday morning but with a more local and distinctive small-town feel than the ones further south.

PIPA

Just south of Natal which is where you will need to head to for your onward journey is the lively beach village of Pipa. Popular with Brazilian students, it has some great parties at weekends especially. By day hit the gorgeous beaches or nearby dunes. Some of the beaches attract dolphins which come very close to shore enabling you to potentially tick the ‘swam with dolphins’ box on your bucket list.

FORTALEZA

Fortaleza is a large coastal city in the North-East of Brazil. It has vibrant music scene with various festivals throughout catering to many different genres including the local forró music. Shopping is also excellent here with the Iracema Beach market popular with visitors. The city has a seedier side but this is easily avoided. It is also a good base for exploring some fabulous nearby beaches.

The city has a fairly large international airport and is a decent spot to end your trip or extend it by flying to Manaus, the only real city in the Amazon region of Brazil. From Fortaleza there are daily flights to Lisbon with other European and North American destinations available. You can also fly to pretty much any major Brazilian city.

MANAUS (for the Amazon)

travelling in the amazon

Located right in the middle of the Amazon Jungle on the banks of the Rio Negro which flows to form the Amazon River proper just outside town. The only real way to get in is by plane or by boat. The boat trips are stunning but take around five days from Belem on the Atlantic Coast so following this route it would take around a week to reach Manaus from Fortaleza if you don’t fly.

The city is surprisingly big (Population: 2.5 million) considering its isolated location and has a few interesting sights including a pretty opera house that holds free shows. Naturally though the main attraction is exploring the surrounding rainforest and the humongous Amazon River. There are a huge number of tour operators in Manaus and it’s best to ask around before booking one. Bear in mind you need to travel at least 100km from Manaus to see real virgin rainforest and it is possible to stay for a few nights in the rainforest proper. The best time to visit is probably May to August (visiting in the dry season can be seriously hot!).

From Manaus there are flights to many destinations across South America and also some to Miami. The city also hosted games in the 2014 FIFA World Cup so the airport has been expanded to cater for more flights.


Getting Around Brazil & Accommodation

For flights avianca seem to be the cheapest of the domestic airlines. Sometimes it can be cheaper to fly than catch the bus and obviously it is much quicker between some destinations. Brazil is enormous! Otherwise just head to the bus station (often a long way from the centre) and there are usually very regular buses between most nearby cities.

Hostels in Brazil are on the expensive side in comparison to much of South America. Most of the good ones charge a minimum of US$10/night for a bed in a dorm although cheaper options can be found. The quality of hostels vary. Booking in advance is essential if you are visiting during popular times such as Carnaval and is advisable in big cities where you don’t really want to be wandering the streets with all your belongings, looking for somewhere to stay.


Carnaval

carnaval in salvador

Carnival in Brazil is in February or March. It normally begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday and carries on for at least five days, sometimes over a week. The main carnivals are in Rio and Salvador (above) but it is celebrated nationwide.

Many travellers plan there backpacking trip in Brazil around Carnaval and it is certainly a great time to visit. It won’t be possible to take in all the big ones but it is possible to take in the festivities at more than one. Consider doing two days in Salvador and two in Olinda for example.


Extending your trip

In a country the size of Brazil, you will always have to pick and choose locations, even if you spend the best part of a year in the country. We’ve tried to include the main Brazilian travel highlights but it’s not hard to get off the beaten track. Working in the country is also an option and there is a big drive to improve the standard of English so you may find work in the TEFL industry.

Ricardo Moura Idiomas in the city of Juara is one school that is actively looking for native English speakers to come and work for 1-2 months and help out with advanced students and conversation classes. The position includes accommodation, food, Portuguese lessons and a decent income.

Travel-wise, you can leave Brazil and explore other parts of South America. Some destinations in this article feature in our main South America route but the two could be combined into one massive trip if time is no object.

Nature lovers may also want to check out our Patagonia backpacking route which heads to the very South of this continent whilst taking in some of Argentina and Chile’s great sights.

There is a more detailed longer route for the entire continent including destinations in this one in our Backpackers Guide to South America (ebook).

Pictures courtesy of:
from flickr – Carnaval: JACK TWO & Rio: Fernando Stankuns
from sxc.hu –
Olinda: zeafonso , Campos do Jordao: migueias , Pantanal: boris1968 , Florianopolis: mterraza , Rio Negro: jpaulocv

 


This article was last updated in January 2017.


 

Popular Backpacking Route in Patagonia (Argentina & Chile)

latin america routes

south america | brazil | patagonia | central america


Backpacking Route in Patagonia (Argentina & Chile)

A quick look at a map doesn’t quite do justice to the enormity of South America. Heading south from the Northern tip of the continent and the warm clear waters of the Caribbean Sea you have to cut through the Amazon, cross the equator and travel thousands of kilometres southwards down the Andes before you even reach Patagonia which itself covers a gigantic area of over one million km squared.

By the time you have travelled all the way down to Ushuaia and the Southern tip of Patagonia and South America, you are as close to Antarctica as it is possible to get without actually going there yourself (which you can do from Ushuaia).

Patagonia is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest natural wonders but its isolated location hidden away in the bottom left corner of our planet as you look at a map means relatively few ever make it here. Those who do, never forget it. Our backpacking route for Patagonia covers some of the most spectacular scenery and natural adventures that anyone could wish for.


TIME NEEDED – 5 to 6 WEEKS

If you are hugely into long hikes then you could probably do it in longer but for those whose priority is to marvel at and enjoy the scenery then 5 weeks is probably sufficient. There are some pretty big distances to cover and you could do it in less by taking the odd flight or skipping a couple of destinations.


POSSIBLE SHOESTRING BUDGET

£1,650 | €1,900 | $2,000

Some destinations in Patagonia are actually really quite expensive and up there with anything you’ll find on the continent in terms of accommodation (although in many places camping is possible and this will significantly reduce your costs). Then there is the travelling which by bus is time and money consuming and roughly works out about US$5 per hour of travel of which there will be many! Then there are extras on entry into national parks and paying for hiking trips and suchlike. On the positive side, food and drinks are typically pretty cheap if you avoid the tourist options.

Budget travel in Chile and Patagonia is certainly possible though and $2,000 is a plausible basic shoestring budget not including flights in/out of the region or trips to Antarctica which will increase your costs significantly! If you decide to do more trips using travel or tour companies rather than doing your own thing then it will also be more expensive.

Avoid the peak summer months and you can probably reduce your costs.

Read more on the cost of travel in Chile.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR ARGENTINA & CHILE

Citizens of 81 countries including all EU states, all South American countries and the USA do not need a visa to enter Argentina for up to 90 days. The situation is very similar in Chile with all EU members and US citizens getting visa-free entry for 90 days. This route hops across the border several times and you just simply get a fresh 90 days each time you enter either country.

Use our visa check tool to confirm whether or not you will need a visa in Chile & Argentina.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

World Nomads are a good choice for travel insurance for trips of this nature. Healthcare is reasonably good in both countries but the remoteness of some of the locations can need you leaving lengthy transfers should you be so unfortunate to get injured or sick. Having proper cover is therefore essential.


Patagonia Backpacking Route


Getting to Santiago de Chile:

Santiago is the easiest place to start the route and as the capital city it has the best connections to other parts of South America and further afield.

  • From Canada – There are flights almost every day from Toronto with Air Canada.

From USA – American Airlines and LAN offer flights from Miami, New York, LA and Dallas. While Delta Air Lines go non-stop from Atlanta and United Airlines do likewise from Houston.

From Europe – Iberia and LAN fly to Madrid while Air France has flights to Paris. It’s pretty easy to connect to these from other cities in Europe.

  • From Oceania – You can cross the Pacific with Qantas who operate a non-stop flight from Sydney three times a week. LAN fly from Sydney via Auckland. LAN also have a route via Tahiti and the Chilean owned Easter Island which is popular with backpackers.

From Latin America – LAN has a large network linking the Chilean capital to almost all the main cities in Latin America and all the major national airlines fly here. International flights around Latin America are typically very expensive though given the relatively short distance covered. If you’re flying from other parts of Chile then have a look at Sky Airline who usually have the best fares and they do fly to some other parts of Latin America too.

Most travellers don’t come to South America just to visit Patagonia though. If you have time consider linking this in with our backpacking route for South America which includes a stop in Santiago. More details on how to fit this in can be found in the ‘extending your trip’ section at the bottom of this page.


Santiago de Chile & Around

chile flag

Santiago de Chile

The capital of Chile is one of the most beautifully located capitals in the world with the snow-capped Andes mountains providing the backdrop. They provide plenty of great trekking opportunities and you can even go skiing. The city itself is enormous and by far the biggest on this route so it’s the best place to buy anything you might need for your trip South. It’s also developing into a thriving cultural centre and there is plenty to see and do without leaving the confines of the city.


MFT RECOMMENDS – La Casa Roja, Santiago de Chile 

Cool hostel in the heart of Santiago but with a spacious garden and pool area.


Valparaiso

Just 120km or so west of Santiago you reach the Pacific Ocean and Valparaiso, a really colourful harbour city and one of the most popular backpacking destinations in Chile. It has a big bohemian feel to it and as you roam around the hilly streets you’ll never be far from something quirky. Lovers of the arts will enjoy Valpo. It’s also surrounded by excellent vineyards that you can visit and the locally produced but world famous Chilean wine is well worth a taste.

Vina del Mar

Vina del Mar is literally only 10 minutes down the coast from Valparaiso but is another essential stop on any backpacking route in Chile. It’s home to one of the most popular beaches in the country but it can be a bit chilly unless you visit in the summer (December to February). It also plays host to one of South America’s biggest music festivals each February.


Getting from Santiago de Chile to the Lake District:

From Vina del Mar or Valparaiso it’s quick and easy to get back to Santiago and will only take around 90 minutes depending on the traffic into the capital. From Santiago you can start your trip south.

It is around 750km between Santiago and Villarrica. Most travellers opt to take a night bus (buses leave daily) and this will save you a night on accommodation. It is also possible to fly to Temuco which is about 30 minutes by road from Villarrica, the first destination in the Chilean lake district.


The Chilean & Argentine Lake District

Villarrica

Villarica volcano erupts

Villarrica is surrounded by lakes, volcanoes, caves and hot springs and is a hugely popular hiking destination. In the summer it can be nice to stay in Pucon, a small beach town on the banks of Lake Villarrica. You can also explore the area by horse or go on rafting trips. The highly active Volcan Villarrica (which erupted as recently as 3rd March 2015) is a stunning sight but trips up it are very much restricted because as you might imagine it can be fairly dangerous!

Cochamó Valley

Hiking, rock-climbing, ridiculous valleys and cliffs as well as some rather wonderful natural waterslides are all the rage here. You can get to Cochamo by taking a bus from Villarrica to either Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt and then transferring onto a bus into the isolated Cochamo Valley which has limited lodging options but camping is also possible for those who like it wild.

Chiloe Island

It doesn’t really matter whether you head to Cochamo or Chiloe first as to access either you need to pass through Puerto Varas or the larger Puerto Montt. Chiloe is the largest island in Chile with more incredible scenery and treks as well as some lovely little villages and plenty of intriguing ancient myths.

Puerto Varas

A compact and unremarkable town but a decent base for more Lake District adventures. Options include the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, home of the Petrohué falls and Lake Todos los Santos. The stunning Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes are also nearby. Mount Osorno has a pretty cool chairlift which is open all year round and is used by skiers in the winter and pretty anyone who likes a view in the summer. Kayaking and rafting is also possible close to Puerto Varas and it is your best base for getting to Argentina but it’s not a simple task!


BORDER CROSSING (Chile to Argentina)

Getting from Puerto Varas to Bariloche:

As the crow flies there is little more than 100km between Puerto Varas in Chile and San Carlos Bariloche in Argentina. However with some rather large mountains and plenty of lakes in the way, crossing the Andes is not such a simple task. It takes about 6 hours by bus with daily departures at 8:50 via Cruz Del Sur. To get between the two towns it costs 18,000 Chilean Pesos (about US$30) and includes a stop at the border post known as Paso Cardenal Antonio Samoré which is one of the better organised of the Andean crossings between the two countries.

Alternatively there are some companies that offer ridiculously named but much more direct bus-boat-bus-boat-bus-boat-bus crossings (or something like that). The deal is that you cross over the Andes via three stunning lakes and take in some truly breathtaking scenery while typically stopping overnight at a village somewhere between the two.

Cruceandino are one company that offers this trip although it’s by no means cheap at US$230. You may be able to find cheaper deals in Puerto Varas.


argentina flag

San Carlos de Bariloche (& Nahuel Huapi National Park)

san carlos de bariloche travel

The long trip here will soon be worth it when you start exploring the beautiful Argentine lakes and mountains in the area. It is famous for skiing, water sports, trekking and climbing. The town itself is also one of the liveliest in Patagonia, with a swanky Swiss-like vibe and some banging bars and clubs that party on past dawn. It is certainly an essential and usually very popular stop on any Patagonia backpacking route.

Esquel (for Los Alerces National Park)

Esquel is 300km or so south of Bariloche and is used as the gateway for Los Alerces National Park. It has loads of great hiking trails and is very large going right up to the border with Chile. The park takes its name from the alerce trees which are literally everywhere. The town itself is small and growing but has nowhere near as much going for it as Bariloche.


Getting from the Lake District to the Extreme South:

There is a 24 hour bus than runs between San Carlos de Bariloche and El Chalten. One of the stops is Esquel so you can hop off and hop on the bus at Esquel where you can spend a few days. Prices vary but expect to pay around US$5 for every hour of travel. The ride is long but passes through some stunning deserted scenery. Before long you realise you really have entered the weird wilderness of the far south of this continent.


The Extreme South & Tierra del Fuego

El Chalten

This is a major hiking destination in the Southern Andes with ambitious trekkers taking on the challenge of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres, two of the biggest peaks in Patagonia. It’s busy in the summer but pretty quiet the rest of the year apart from a steady stream of travellers backpacking through Argentina and Chile.

El Calafate (for Los Glaciares National Park)

Just 2-3 hours by bus from El Chalten, this is also a major base for trekkers in Argentine Patagonia looking to explore the fabulous Glaciers National Park. Entrance to the park isn’t cheap and is only valid for a day but plenty of different trips can be arranged in El Calafate to witness the incredible giant glaciers.


BORDER CROSSING (Argentina to Chile)

Getting from El Calafate to Torres del Paine:

There are buses that take around 5-6 hours to get from El Calafate to Puerto Natales in Chile. Some tour companies advertise direct buses to Torres del Paine but it is generally cheaper to head to Puerto Natales and make your way to the parks from there. Hitchiking from El Calafate to Puerto Natales is also very possible.


chile flag

Puerto Natales

There is nothing particularly amazing about Puerto Natales but has good basic infrastructure for backpackers in Patagonia and is an excellent base for making your way to Torres del Payne and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks.

Torres del Paine National Park

torres del paine national park in chile

Daily buses run to the Park from Puerto Natales and take around two hours. You are now really approaching the chilly Southern tip of the continent and Torres del Paine National Park is home to plenty of stunning mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. It is possible to stay in the park with extortionate $50 dorm beds available in the refugios (reserve in advance) while there are many campsites, some of which are free. Camping in non-designated areas is strictly not allowed.

You will need to head back to Puerto Natales for the bus to Punto Arenas.

Punto Arenas

Punto Arenas is the most southerly city on mainland South America. The weather can make exploring the town pretty difficult but there is a surprising amount of history and sites of interest. You can also get to the Seno Otway penguin colony where each spring hundreds of Magellanic Penguins come to breed. Meanwhile there is a good view of some incredible whales from Carlos III Island.


BORDER CROSSING (Chile to Argentina)

Getting from Punto Arenas to Ushuaia

The two southernmost cities in the world are linked by frequent bus services that take around 10 hours including a short ferry ride from mainland South America onto the island of Tierra del Fuego. There are also flights but these are much more expensive and miss out on some of the dramatic scenery.


argentina flag

Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego)

ushuaia backpacking route

Ushuaia is commonly referred to as the southernmost city in the world and a thriving tourism industry has built up in recent years focused around the cruises to Antarctica. The town is now complete with nice restaurants and given its military history there are some cool museums to visit such as Museo Marítimo set in an old prison. Nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park is also an incredible place to explore and this is fast becoming a popular stop on many backpacking routes in Argentina and indeed South America.


MFT RECOMMENDS – La Posta Hostel, Ushuaia

Accommodation in Ushuaia is on the expensive side. La Posta is a pretty good option with a 24-7 front desk offering advice on all the different trips and tours you can do in the surrounding icy wilderness.


Visiting Antarctica from Ushuaia:

From Ushuaia between November and March it is possible to take a cruise to Antarctica which it goes without saying is an incredible experience that few people get to do in their lifetime.

It’s by no means cheap to do this so you need some pretty serious dosh saved up. The cruises are often advertised at around US$10,000 but can be found in town for much less (from around $3500) and there are boats leaving every day from November onwards. Typically the cruises are 7-10 days including various stops.

There’s some decent info on how to visit Antarctica on a budget from someone who did the trip here.


Getting from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires:

Given Ushuaia is the end of the world, there is only one way to go wherever you want to ultimately get to and that is north. Invariably this involves getting to Buenos Aires from where you can fly to pretty much anywhere in the world or continue your travels in South America.

It’s about 3 hours 30 minutes to the Argentine capital from Ushuaia and like most flights in this continent it is not cheap but unless you want to spend several days on a bus, there isn’t much other option. It will set you back £160 ($240) or thereabouts and there are plenty of flights.


Budget Accommodation in Patagonia

Prices and availability fluctuate in and out of peak-season. Book hostels in advance during busier times and certainly during national holidays.


Extending your trip

Not hard to extend your trip here as Santiago and Buenos Aires are well connected to the rest of the continent and both are also stops on our main South America backpacking route. You can follow that route all the way down to Santiago and then instead of crossing the Andes into Argentina, follow this route down to Patagonia and then rejoin the other route in Buenos Aires. In other words you would miss out Mendoza, Alta Gracia, Cordoba and Rosario in favour of a much longer trip but more dramatic scenery further south. You might also want to check out our Brazil itinerary if you just want to add one more country.

In terms of adding destinations to your route, a visit to the disputed British-owned Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) as well as the possible cruise to Antarctica would be the most obvious additions but both are likely to require a sizeable increase in your budget.

Further North, our Central America backpacking route, might also be one to consider if you don’t have the time or money to do a bigger trip around South America. Central America is much more compact and more budget-friendly so it’s quicker and cheaper to get around.

There is a more detailed longer route for the entire South American continent in our Backpackers Guide to South America (Ebook).


This article was published in March 2015. Some of the prices quoted in the article may have changed since but the budget at the top was updated in January 2017.


 

Backpacking Route in South America

latin america routes

south america | brazil | patagonia | central america


Backpacking Route in South America

Want to see South America? Not sure where to start? Well if you need some inspiration then look no further. This is the MFT backpacking route for the continent. There’s so much to see in South America that this trip could take as long as six to twelve months and yet still there is so much more that we had to leave out. For a more detailed guide, check out our Backpackers Guide to South America (E-book).


TIME NEEDED – 5-6 MONTHS

It could be done in less but there is plenty to see and you will be spending A LOT of time on buses so unless you fancy a six hour coach journey every other day, take your time.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £5000 €5700 $6000

These figures are based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2017. For more detailed info see our South America Backpacking Costs.

Figures don’t include cost of flights to/from S America or other important pre-trip expenses such as getting travel insurance or vaccinations. It is based on taking buses everywhere, staying in hostel dorms or cheap private rooms where prices are comparable.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR SOUTH AMERICA

Visa requirements aren’t particularly strict in South America, particularly if you are from the EU with 90 days visa-free in most countries on this route. Find out which countries you need a visa for here.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads who specialise in dealing with long backpacking trips.


South America Backpacking Route

The map below also includes our Central America itinerary.

The route starts in Colombia which has been experiencing something of a backpacking boom over the past few years and rightly so. It has evolved into a safe, friendly and exciting place to visit with a fabulous mix of big cities, stunning countryside, Caribbean coastlines and Latin American passion.

The route then follows the Andes down through Ecuador taking in historic Quito and a jaw-dropping train ride. Peru is next and for many the highlight of travel in the region: the Inca Trail and a trip to Machu Picchu. Head east into Bolivia and be shocked and inspired in equal measure by the continent’s poorest country before diving into Chile for more spectacular Andean journeys.

Some vibrant big cities await as you head from the Chilean capital of Santiago on the Pacific Coast to buzzing Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coast taking in the heart of Argentina as you go. After months on the road it’s now very much relaxation time as the beautiful beaches of Uruguay and Southern Brazil await before going out with a bang in the ultimate party city of Rio de Janeiro.


Colombia


Fly into Cartagena (possibly via a connecting flight in Bogota) or if you’re coming from Central America consider crossing the Darien Gap from Panama.

cool house in colombia

Cartagena – The old part of Cartagena is a special place with horse-drawn carriages and stylish architecture while the city is on the coast so has a Caribbean flavour. This is a good place to start as there are cheap flights to Miami which is connected to cities all over Europe and North America.

Parque Nacional Tayrona – Skip tacky Santa Marta and Taganga for the beautiful national park with deserted Caribbean beaches and snow-capped peaks.

Mompos- Totally unique town well off the beaten track, stuck in a time-warp with lots of furniture and rocking chairs!

San Gil– Adrenaline junkies paradise with cheap and excellent rafting, paragliding, hydrospeeding and waterfall abseiling.

Villa de Leyva- Colonial town near the capital with a huge square.

Bogota- Cool and much improved capital city. Cyclist’s paradise (especially on Sundays), alternative districts and great museums. Check out our 5 Funky Things to do in Bogota!

Salento – Small town, lots of travellers and some stunning surrounding countryside.

Cali – Colombia’s salsa city with some passionate Colombian nightlife at weekends.

Popayan – Perhaps the most attractive of Colombia’s old towns. Lots of churches and pretty white buildings.

Find out more in our Backpackers Guide to Colombia (a few years old now but still some relevant info).


Colombia-Ecuador


The Popayan-Otavalo leg is potentially very dangerous at night with armed bandits in Western Colombia. Set off very early and consider stopping over in Pasto or Ipiales. The journey is at least 12 hours in total and this is possibly the longest day of travelling on our South America backpacking itinerary. The border crossing is fairly quick and painless at the international bridge between Ipiales (COL) and Tulcan (ECU).

Volcan Cotopaxi Ecuador

Otavalo – Famous for its Saturday market, friendly indigenous people and lots of men sporting dresses and ponytails! Bloodthirsty backpackers may want to visit the town’s cockfighting ring.

Quito – Popular if at times unsafe capital city. The old town is large and interesting but head to the Marsical for an all action international area bursting with backpackers, loads of hostels and lively westernised clubs.

Cotopaxi (above) – Stunning National park with the giant and freezing cold 5900m Volcan Cotopaxi at the centre of it.

Banos – Touristy town but a very pleasant, safe place with its famous baths and surrounded by green mountains. Take a trip into the Amazon which starts just a few kilometers east of the town.

Riobamba – Mountain town with some random buildings and shops. Starting point of the famously steep train ride down to Sibambe.

Sibambe – End of the trainline, little to see but it’s a short trip to Cuenca.

Cuenca – Popular riverside city full of colonial buildings and cool cafes.


Ecuador-Peru


Cross at the Huaquillas border crossing. If you speak Spanish, it’s fairly easy to hitch a lift in one the many lorries that run the route down to Mancora which is about 3 hours south of the border but buses do run to Mancora from Cuenca.

Mancora – Popular beach resort full of drunk gap year students, surfers and an unfortunately high number of thieves.

Trujillo – Truth be told Northern Peru has little in comparison to the south but Trujillo is a decent stopover for a day or so.

Huaraz – Another altitude spot of natural beauty in Peru’s central Sierra. Surprisingly lively nightly entertainment including a decent choice of live music.

Lima – Coastal capital of Peru perched on huge cliffs above the Pacific. It’s okay for a few days but for a capital there’s not much to see.

Huacachina– Much fun to be had here in the giant sand dunes with options including sandboarding and bumpy buggy tours.

Nazca – Famous for its mysterious lines as featured in Indiana Jones. Unfortunately fly-overs are out of the budget of most backpackers.

Cuzco – The ancient Incan capital is still a really impressive sight and great place to hang around for a few days. It’s also the launching pad for the Inca Trail and a visit to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu – The most famous of all the Incan ruins, an incredible place up in the clouds of the Andes mountains. For many travellers this is the highlight of backpacking around South America (below).

Puno – Lively town on the Peruvian banks of Lake Titicaca.

machu picchu

Read about the cost of travel in Peru.


Peru-Bolivia


There are bus companies in Puno who run twice daily trips to Copacabana. The journey is about three hours and includes stops at both border checkpoints. There are no ATM’s in Copacabana the last we knew so make sure you have enough cash before crossing the border. US dollars can be exchanged easily in both towns.

Copacabana – The first town in Bolivia, enjoy the cheapness of the place and hop on a boat to the Isla del Sol.

Isla del Sol – This is the Inca birthplace, a beautiful island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest freshwater lake.

La Paz – One of the smallest and safest capitals on the continent. Street markets, the Coca Museum and the infamous San Pedro prison are very popular with backpackers here.

Sucre – Relaxed town known as ‘la ciudad blanca’ (White City). It is probably the most attractive city in the country.

Potosi – Take a trip down the shockingly dangerous working mines in what is the highest city in the world. A depressing but unforgettable place.

Salar de Uyuni – The world’s largest salt flat is a weirdly charming place and an increasingly popular stop on the South America backpacker trail. You will probably need to do an organised tour here, which can last several days.


Bolivia-Chile


Some travellers do 3 day tours of the salt flats and some companies may offer this as part of a trip between Uyuni, a functional town in Bolivia and San Pedro in Chile. Other options include diving into Northern Argentina via the Villazon border crossing and possibly heading to the attractive city of Salta and then crossing the Argentina-Chile border to reach San Pedro.

San Pedro de Atacama – Stunning landscape around the laid back but somewhat pricey town. See it on a horse or bicycle.

Antofagasta – Unremarkable port offers an insight into life in a non-touristy Chilean city and has good transport links going south.

Copiapo – Sleepy town which burst into the global spotlight in 2010 with the dramatic and very moving rescue of 33 trapped miners.

Vina del Mar – Best beaches in the country with awesome music festival every February.

Valparaiso – Colourful town with a vibrant bohemian culture. A real gem.

Santiago – Capital city with so much to do in and around it. Skiing in the Andes, nice beaches and interesting towns all very close to what is the beating heart of this country.

You can also extend your time in Chile & Argentina and potentially visit Antarctica by following our Backpacking Route in Patagonia.


Chile-Argentina


tango in buenos airesBuses from Santiago to Mendoza take around 8 hours. The route is a fairly spectacular crossing of the Andes and obviously you will see more if you opt for a day bus although night buses do run. You may want to stop off in a village in the mountains to break up the journey and enjoy the incredible scenery. For bus times in Argentina and some of the other countries check out BusBud.

Mendoza – Excellent wine produced here and it’s also not far from Mount Aconcagua, the tallest on the continent.

Cordoba – Second city full of students with a Mediterranean feel. Big city but much more chilled out than Buenos Aires.

Alta Gracia – Small country town outside of Cordoba. The main attraction is Che Guevara’s childhood home, which is now an excellent museum.

Rosario – Interesting big city which includes riverside beaches with an alternative vibe.

Buenos Aires – Fantastic city, take in a passionate football match, the vibrant streetlife, super shopping and lively clubs that party well past dawn. Many travellers view the giant Argentinean capital as their favourite city in all of South America.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Waikiki Hostel, Buenos Aires 

Cheap hostel near a subway station so it’s easy to get around. Sensibly sized 4/5 bed dorms.


Argentina-Uruguay


Colonia is actually a popular daytrip from Buenos Aires so it is very easy to get from Argentina to Uruguay. Buquebus is a company that offers fast boats taking just one hour or cheaper slow boats that do the journey from BA to Colonia in three hours. They also have boats direct to Montevideo and Punta del Este from the docks in Buenos Aires.

Colonia – A short hop across Rio de la Plata from BA, this cobblestone town with lively bars is a great if a little touristy introduction to Uruguay.

Montevideo – Small and very pleasant by the standards of capitals in Latin America. Popular with artists and architecture lovers.

Piriapolis – Budget beach resort with fun stuff including jet skiing, windsurfing and banana boating.

Punta Del Este – Most popular beaches in the region and some banging nightlife!

Cabo Polonio – A tiny coastal village with sea lions, penguins, whales, rustic hostels and lots of hippies.


Uruguay-Brazil


Cross the border on foot at the town of Chuy north of Punta del Este but still on the coast. The main street is called Avenue Brasil/Uruguay and is where you will find the immigration controls There is accomodation in the town if you don’t want to head straight to Porto Alegre. This is where backpacking through South America suddenly gets a bit more expensive. Read more on the cost of travel in Brazil.

Porto Alegre – City with interesting museums, arts and music.

Iguacu Falls – Spectacular waterfalls where three countries meet. Pop over into Paraguay if you’re looking to tick another country off your list. Iguacu Falls is one of our Top 10 Latin America Travel Experiences!

Curitiba – Historic buildings, interesting art scenes and a European influence give Curitiba a different feel to other cities in Brazil.

Ilha do Mel – Enchanting island with top notch beaches, surfing and even lively youthful parties in the peak season. Cars are banned!

Sao Paulo – The biggest city in the southern hemisphere is chaotic but worth a visit just to get a feel for one of the world’s mega-cities. More on the monster that is Sao Paulo here!

Paraty – Stunningly preserved 18th century colonial town with so many beaches and islands nearby you are literally spoilt for choice.

Ihla Grande – More amazing Brazilian beaches, lush forests and some lively island parties.

Petropolis – Easy day trip from the heat of Rio but it’s worth crashing in this historic mountain town for a night.

Rio de Janeiro- Rio would make a spectacular ending to your time travelling in South America. Time it to get here in March for the Rio Carnival. The city of sun, sea and sin is so much fun! Check out our 5 funky things to do in Rio!


MFT RECOMMENDS – Walk on the Favela Hostel, Rio de Janeiro 

Sociable hostel just a 10 minute walk to the world famous Copacabana Beach but with a real local vibe.


Rio de Janeiro skyline

(for more on Brazil see our backpacking route for Brazil)


  Budget Accommodation in South America

You don’t really have to book accommodation in advance in most of the stops on this route however during festivals or at weekends in big cities, the best budget hostels sell out quickly so in such cases you may prefer a reservation. Many of the real cheap places in the Andean region are not found online.


Options for extending your trip in South America

There are loads of other places you could visit and routes you could take, it’s all down to what interests you really. Other possible stops include Medellin in Colombia which is another great city but given Colombia is a big country with plenty of long journeys you may look for a more direct route. If the infamous city of Pablo Escobar and the Colombian Cartels appeals to you, then you could always head south from Cartagena and miss out the national park, Mompos and San Gil in the East of the country.

If you had a whole year at your disposal then it’s well worth venturing deeper into the Amazon. Iquitos in Peru gets rave reviews from backpackers many of whom visit the shaman nearby and experiment with the native visionary and very trippy medicine ayahuasca. Indeed if nature is more your thing and then you could do an entirely different route to the mostly mountainous and coastal route above. The Amazon is enormous and despite deforestation it still covers a huge portion of the continent and extends from Brazil into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia as well as Surinam, Venezuela and the Guineas. Following the course of the Amazon River would also be an option.

Another extension would be to start in Venezuela or one of the smaller less visited countries on the Caribbean Coast. This would enable you to do a big loop and potentially even visit every country on the continent.

Ecuador is small and very diverse with coastal, mountainous and jungle regions so you could easily hit the coast or head further into the jungle without any major detours. Head to the full-moon parties in Montanita for some moonlight raving.

With more time and money travelling down to Patagonia in the south of Chile and Argentina is immensely rewarding. You can even arrange trips to Antarctica from backpacker friendly Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina. You could also see more of Chile this way and consider hitchhiking to cut costs as it’s very safe and popular in this part of South America.


Options for shortening this route

There are obviously ways to shorten the route. One would be to skip Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru by flying into Lima and going from there. You would be missing out on a lot of great places but if you’re limited on time then you will have to pick and choose what you want to see the most. Adding a few flights into the mix would speed up your journey. One possibility would be flying from Quito to Cuzco and then heading on the Inca trail. Peru is a very large country and the ascent up to Cuzco by land is something of a nightmare so a flight although more expensive may not be a bad bet if you can find some reasonable deals.

If a tight budget is your main concern then you should consider missing out Brazil, the most expensive country on the continent and flying home from Buenos Aires. Chile could also be missed for the sake of more time in dirt cheap Bolivia and then travel down either through Northern Argentina or by heading east to Paraguay, which is more budget-friendly.

 

Pics courtesy of Fernando Stankuns (Rio), Pablo Flores (Che Museum), Richard Ijzermans (Cotopaxi) and AlCortes (San Gil) on flickr.


 This page was last updated in January 2017