Backpackers Guide to Salta, Argentina

Pleasant Thrills in Argentina’s Far North

Backpackers Guide to Salta, Argentina

Salta is something of an outpost. 7 hours by bus from the Bolivian and Chilean borders, even further from Paraguay and over 1000km from the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires which is politically and culturally dominant in the country. Despite its isolated location there is quite a lot going on and if like many travellers in Salta you have just arrived from one of the neighbouring countries you will instantly feel as though you have arrived somewhere completely different. Salta is a cool place and well worth hanging around for a few days.

The People

If you’re travelling south from Peru, Bolivia and even the very Northern towns in Argentina, you will quickly notice the people are different here. The Native American populations in the mountainous regions of Argentina’s Northern and Western neighbours seem like a distant memory. Here the people are mostly descendents of a mix of Spanish or Italian immigrants and look and dress very differently. The difference is most evident in the girls and women who no longer sport traditional Quechan dresses but the latest accessories and fashionable clothes with plenty of flesh on show.

Salta AerialThere is certainly a certain confidence and westernised feel about the people here which will come as a sudden reminder of life back home if you’ve been travelling in South America for a while. If you started out in Buenos Aires and are now heading into the Andes, Salta may well be the last glimpse you will have of civilisation as you know it ahead of months in the more indigenous South American countries.

That’s not to say Salta is like a city in Europe or the US, far from it. It still moves to a Latin American beat and unique Argentine customs are very evident.

The Long Siesta

Once you’ve been backpacking in Argentina for any length of time you’ll probably have got used to the afternoon siesta, which sees shops and restaurants shut down. In Salta the siesta seems to last practically the entire afternoon. There are a couple of really long shopping streets which aren’t that dissimilar from ones you find in the UK or Australia with the exception that between 1pm and 5:30pm they are all shut. Between 6 and 9, especially in the summer the streets are suddenly overflowing with people who come out to do their shopping. Restaurants don’t open till about 8 and most people don’t sit down to dine till 10pm.


The Big Fiesta

The benefits of taking a long nap during the day, is that you have plenty of energy left by the time night falls. Even at dusk, it is still many hours before the nightlife in Salta truly gets going. Take a wander down the most popular bar street at 1am and you will experience a quiet scene with a few people drinking and chatting in the tables outside. By 2 or 3am (kicking out time in most Western countries) things will have really livened up as large groups of young Argentines hit the dancefloor and party till dawn. People in Argentina drink, but not too excess so getting sloshed on booze is not commonplace and won’t impress the locals.


The Salta Sights

Salta GanchosSalta isn’t overly touristy by any stretch of the imagination which is in many ways a good thing, as it allows you to get a feel for what life is like in a real Argentine city. With just under 500,000 residents it is reasonably big and home to some beautiful buildings, churches and plazas. It’s the sort of place that’s great to have a wander and relax in one of the many parks. You can also walk or take the cable-car up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo which offers top notch views of the city and surrounding areas.

Out of town there’s some great trekking, mountain climbing and rafting opportunities amongst other popular adventure-type activities. The terrain is well suited to this sort of thing although Summer’s can be stiflingly hot so bear this in mind before setting out for the day.


The Food

Salta is also a nice place to sample Argentine cuisine. You may find some of the famous Argentinean steak houses don’t really cater to travellers on a budget, however you will notice plenty of good value pizza places (pizza is also very popular in the country). Empanadas in Argentina are another traditional snack. These tasty and cheap pastry items come with a variety of different fillings and Salta has plenty of restaurants and snack bars where you can try them. Most of the cheaper restaurants are at the end of town closest to the bus station.


Pics courtesy of b00nj and angel david ramoyo on flickr

 


This article was published in September 2011.

Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018 for a more detailed look at budget travel in the region.


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.

Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018  for more detailed info on the region.

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.


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.


GET OUR FULL BACKPACKERS GUIDE FOR SOUTH AMERICA 2017-2018

Paperback – £4.99 | €5.49 (+ VAT) | $5.99

Ebook – £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79


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.


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.


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.


GET OUR FULL BACKPACKERS GUIDE FOR SOUTH AMERICA 2017-2018

Paperback – £4.99 | €5.49 (+ VAT) | $5.99

Ebook – £2.99 | €3.49 | $3.79


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.

Couchsurfing is a good option in bigger cities, particularly in Argentina, Brazil and Chile where the price of accommodation is a bit higher. It’s also worth joining just because as a member you can access lots of free events and get in touch with other travellers and locals as you move around.


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.


Backpackers Guide to Backpackers Guide to south america

For a full overview of budget travel in the continent get our Backpackers guide to South America 2017-2018, available as either an e-book or paperbook. As well as a similar route to this it includes info on visa requirements, return tickets, vaccinations and typical backpacking costs in each country. There’s also suggestions for the continent’s best festivals and party destinations, the top natural wonders, cultural highlights and awesome activities for adrenaline junkies. FAQ’s from first-time travellers in South America are also answered.


 This page was last updated in January 2017