Backpacking South America can be an epic adventure and this route is the longest of all our travel itineraries. It includes Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. It may easily take up to half a year to complete and that would still be missing out large chunks of the continent! Read on and start planning what could be the trip of a lifetime.
All our South America Backpacking Routes
As well as our main South America route (on this page), we also have smaller, separate routes for a couple of other parts of the continent:
South America Itinerary Overview
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 – £4600 €5300 $6000
These figures are based on spending roughly $1000 per month and exchange rates as of April 2019. For more detailed info see our South America Backpacking Costs, which features individual country budgets.
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.
We recommend SafetyWing who specialise in providing affordable travel medical insurance for long trips to all four corners of the world including South America. This cover includes treatment for COVID-19 should it be needed.
We have more on the best travel insurance for backpacking trips here.
WORK OR VOLUNTEER WHILST TRAVELLING IN SOUTH AMERICA
One way to have a more rewarding and perhaps realer South American experience is to use Worldpackers to find a work or volunteer placement. Their website/app allows you to search for placements and exchange your skills for free accommodation and meals.
Backpacking South America – A 6 Month Itinerary
Our South America backpacking route starts in Colombia which has been experiencing something of a travel 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.
It 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 Backpacking Route – Cartagena to Popayán
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.
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 real 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 old 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 main plaza.
Bogota – Cool and much improved capital city. Cyclist’s paradise (especially on Sundays), alternative districts and some of the best museums in South America. Read our rundown of fun things to do in Bogota for a bit of inspiration as to how to pass your time in the Colombian capital.
Salento – Small town, lots of travellers and some stunning surrounding countryside.
Cali – Colombia’s salsa city with some wild nightlife at weekends.
Popayán – Perhaps the most attractive of Colombia’s old towns with lots of churches and pretty white buildings. If you’re looking for something a bit different, check out Tierras Del Sham, an international project just outside Popayan which hosts workshops for the community such as bilingual yoga, permaculture classes, meditation, food preserving, artistic expression and lots more.
Read more – Is Colombia Safe?
Ecuador Itinerary – Into the Andes
The Popayan-Otavalo leg is said to be potentially dangerous at night with armed bandits in Western Colombia (check the latest situation though). It’s advisable to 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 itself is fairly quick and painless at the international bridge between Ipiales (COL) and Tulcan (ECU) and there are regular buses on to Otavalo.
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 – Stunning National park with the giant and freezing cold 5900 metre Volcan Cotopaxi at the centre of it.
Baños – 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 kilometres east of the town.
Riobamba – Mountain town with some random buildings and shops. Starting point of the ridiculously 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.
Backpacking Peru – The Inca Trail & More!
Make your way to the Huaquillas border crossing or take a direct bus 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 that much to see.
Huacachina– Not exactly the most historic destination in Peru but much fun to be had here nonetheless 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 South America 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.
Puno – Lively town on the Peruvian banks of Lake Titicaca.
Read about the cost of travel in Peru.
Bolivia Travel Itinerary – Lake Titicaca, Salt Flats & Altitude Sickness!
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. As of 2019, there are now said to be ATM’s in Copacabana (there didn’t use to be) but it’s advisable to make sure you have enough cash before crossing the border as banking facilities are notoriously unreliable in Bolivia. 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. In Bolivia, you can even stay in a hotel made entirely out of salt, which makes our countdown of weird places to stay around the world.
Next Stop Chile! – Atacama Desert to Santiago
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 (by regional standards) 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 – Some of the best beaches in the country with one of South America’s most famous music festivals 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.
Trace Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries in Argentina
Buses 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 – Argentina’s second city is full of students with something of a Mediterranean feel. It’s a big city but much more chilled out than Buenos Aires.
Alta Gracia – Small country town outside of Cordoba. The main attraction in Alta Gracia 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.
Hit the Coast in Uruguay
Colonia is actually a popular day-trip 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 during the summer months or at holiday times!
Cabo Polonio – A tiny coastal village with sea lions, penguins, whales, rustic hostels and lots of hippies.
Last Stop Brazil – Porto Alegre to Rio
Brazilian football fans
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 accommodation 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 if you can. The city of sun, sea and sin is so much fun!
Backpacking South America Tips
What visas do you need for backpacking South America?
Visa requirements aren’t very strict at all in South America, particularly if you are from the EU with 90 days visa-free the norm in most countries. Even North Americans, Australians and people from other countries should have an easier time of it these days following some relaxing of the rules. Find out which countries you need a visa for here.
Where else can I backpack in South America?
There are loads of other places you could visit and routes you could take. 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.
Brazil is large enough that you could spend the best part of a year just travelling in the country alone. For an extended itinerary, see our backpacking route for Brazil.
Explore the Amazon
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. 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 Suriname, Venezuela and the Guineas. Following the course of the Amazon River would be an option.
Ecuador is a good place for a more accessible Amazon experience. It’s 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. Check out the full-moon parties in Montanita for some moonlight raving!
Want to visit every Country in South America?
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 (Paraguay also doesn’t feature on this route, although it goes very close).
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.
Ideas for a Shorter 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. Therefore 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. It’s also pretty easy to fly home from Buenos Aires, which has many international connections. 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.
If you have a larger budget and less time, you may wish to opt for joining a tour group for at least a section of your trip to cram lots of experiences and activities into a shorter amount of time. We have a post on the best backpacking tours which you may wish to check out.
This route was last updated in April 2019.
Please use the comments section below for all questions and queries. We aim to reply to them all!