Kaleigh, a follower of STGT on Facebook, asked:
My boyfriend and I want to backpack around South America for 3 months this spring starting in mid-February. Do you have any suggestions for possible routes? There’s not enough time to do everything we want to do, so we’re trying to choose some highlights and try to stay on a budget. The highlights we’re interested in are: Rio Carnival, Machu Picchu, an Amazon tour, Lake Titicaca, Uyuni salt flats, Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, Patagonia, etc…we haven’t really narrowed it down. My issue is that everything I want to do is on the west side of South America, but how can you pass up Brazil? It’s not at the top of my list, but it feels like I need to go, especially since we’ll be heading down around Carnival. What do you suggest?
Well Kaleigh, based on my own experiences and some thorough research, I’ve come up with the following route suggestions (listed in order from least to most expensive):
Of course I’ve only roughly outlined a route here and there is A LOT to see along the way between the places I’ve specified. For example: good budget Amazon tours can be done in Ecuador and Bolivia (you might find the following blog post helpful: “The Bolivian Amazon”); Ica/Huacachina and the Nazca Lines between Lima and Cusco; Arequipa and Puno after Cusco before going into Bolivia; the “Death Road” outside of La Paz; Potosi between Sucre and Uyuni; and Vina del Mar and Mendoza around Santiago. A few things not specified that I think are not to be missed (speaking from personal experience) are: Copacabana and Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca; doing a multi-day tour out of Uyuni that goes through the desert as well as the salt flats; and Valparaiso on the Chilean coast by Santiago.
Here I wanted to give you an option that really highlights Brazil. After researching visiting Rio during Carnival, I was pleasantly surprised that it seems to be a lot more affordable than I expected if you BOOK EARLY (aka. as soon as possible). The dates for this year’s Carnival are February 28–March 4. The best deals I found are samba parade tickets starting from US$59 (for more info visit: www.rio-carnival.net) and accommodations starting from about US$50 per night for a bed in a shared dorm. Booking your flight and good, affordable accommodations early is KEY. You might find this helpful.
After Carnival, I’d suggest going north along the coast if you want to stray a bit away from the beaten backpacker routes, and see a lot more of what Brazil has to offer. There are stunning beaches all along this coast and plenty of places to stop along the way. To name a few: Buzios, Parque Estadual de Itaunas, Porto Seguro/Arraial d’Ajuda, Itacare, Marro de Sao Paulo, Maceio, Porto de Galinhas, Praia da Pipa, and the not easily accessible, but simply amazing, Jaricoacoara and Lencois Marahenses. Last , but definitely not least, the islands of Frenando de Noronha are supposed to be the Galapagos Islands of Brazil, and will probably cost you just as much to visit, but they are famed to be worth it, especially for scuba diving enthusiasts.
If the northern Brazilian coastline doesn’t interest you, you can of course just go south from Rio and hit up the also beautiful, popular destinations marked on the map, on your way to Sao Paulo, and then check out the famous Iguazu Falls before heading over to Bolivia and Peru. If you did this you could also fit in going up the coast to Ecuador and Colombia.
Once again, this map is just a rough outline and there is a lot more to do along the way, especially in Patagonia. Here are a few ideas: 10 things to do in Patagonia. Easter Island is expensive by South American standards, but do-able. The biggest cost would be the flight. A roundtrip would cost you about US$600 per person.
- Make sure to carefully check all of the entry requirements for the countries you’re planning to visit. Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Brazil all charge American passport holders pretty hefty visa/entry fees (US$135-$185), and you’ll need to get your tourist visa for Brazil in advance. Here’s a great resource for this: travel.state.gov/travel
- South America is a BIG place, so expect a lot of SUPER LONG (16+ hour) bus rides. Luckily getting a cama seat on some buses can feel like you’re flying first class, and can allow you to get a decent night’s sleep on overnight buses.
- Avoid going with the cheapest bus company. In South America price usually strongly correlates with safety, and fatal long-distance bus accidents occur there every year (even if it doesn’t always make international news). A good example of a reliable company I’d suggest is Cruz del Sur in Peru.
- Be aware that many places in South America can really be dangerous (especially at night) and pickpockets are extremely common, so stay aware of your surroundings and try not to carry a lot of valuables and cash on you. I’d strongly suggest orienting yourself with which places to stay away from (for example anywhere outside of the tourist port area in La Boca, Buenos Aires) and looking at the government safety warnings on travel.state.gov/travel.
- To find the cheapest flights to and around South America, I’d suggest searching Kayak, and Brazilian budget airlines GOL and Azul.
- If you’re looking for a party hostel while in Peru or Bolivia, stay at one of the popular Loki Hostels.
- Pick up a digital or paperback copy of Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring—trust me, you won’t regret it.
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any more questions and enjoy South America—it’s an amazing continent.
As always, happy travels!