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Why South America Is The Best Destination For Backpackers

backpacking

Image via agrigg

In terms of long-term backpacking, I’ve done Europe twice, Ghana, South East Asia, China, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and — my personal favorite — South America. After three months making my way from Brazil, through Argentina, Patagonia, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and ending in the Galapagos, I realized South America provides a full and convenient backpacker experience. Here’s why:

Affordability

While not everywhere in South America is cheap, overall it makes for a very affordable trip. This is especially true when you’re traveling through countries like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador where overnight buses can be $12, a 3-course meal might be $0.75 and a budget hotel or hostel can be less than $5.

Comfortable Hostels

During my three months going through South America, I did not encounter a single hostel that didn’t include breakfast, Wi-Fi and hot water in the price. While I was expecting the hostel scene to be a lot dumpier than what I’d seen in Europe and Australia, it was quite the opposite with warm and friendly hostels at affordable prices offering many amenities.

chocla con queso

Chocla con queso

Cheap & Delicious Street Food

That 5 Euro kebab will seem expensive once you go to South America. While Brazil sells cheap tapiocas, cassava crepes filled with ham, beef, cheese, chocolate, banana, condensed milk and other fillings, Peru serves up tasty chocla con queso, local corn topped with fresh cheese. In Argentina juicy burgers topped with fried onions and thick choripan sausages with the works make for a delicious and affordable lunch, while Bolivia’s street corners serve up Lomo Montado, fried steak with fried eggs, rice and fried banana. No matter where you go in South America, you’ll enjoy filling street meals without breaking the bank.

Backpacker Clientele

There is a certain type of backpacker that travels through South America over, say, Europe or Australia. You’ll make adventurous, open-minded new friends who truly want to learn about a new culture and experience some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.

Friendly Locals

While I’d heard endless stories — from people who’d never been to South America — about dangerous locals, I experienced quite the opposite. Of course, there are dangerous areas of the continent you’ll want to steer clear of; however, on my route I encountered many locals who were helpful, friendly and interested in knowing more about why I was there. On the bus rides I also met numerous locals happy to help me practice my Spanish, which I was very thankful for.

sacred valley

Sacred Valley near Cuzco

Scenic Hiking

Backpackers love exploring the open road, and South America offers many opportunities to do this in a scenic way through hiking. Trekking the Andes, the unworldly national parks of Patagonia and Amazon Jungle are just some of the ways to experience the one-of-a-kind landscape the continent has to offer. Some of my personal favorite places for hiking were Ilha Grande in Brazil, El Chalten in Argentina, Ushuaia in Argentina, Torres del Paine in Chile, Moon Valley outside La Paz in Bolivia, Juarez in Peru and Vilcabamba in Ecuador.

Cheap Transport

As stated above, one of the best things about backpacking South America is its overall affordability. One main reasons this continent is so affordable is its offering of long- journey buses, which end up being much cheaper than a flight or high-speed train. While Brazil and Argentina tend to be a little pricier, you’ll still save money compared to other continents. And, in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador you’ll find some unbelievable deals. For example, I took an overnight bus from Puno, Peru to Cuzco for $12.

Culture Shock — But Not Too Much

Going to non-Western destinations is always worthwhile as it gives you some culture shock and takes you out of your comfort zone. This forces you to grow as a person and have new adventures and experiences you’ll remember forever. That being said, if you stay on the backpacker circuit you’ll never feel too out of place that it’s not enjoyable.

An Immersive Experience

Backpacking through South America is completely immersive. The rich culture of these Latin American countries makes it easy to have an experience at ground level, from the man grilling up intestines on the corner to the locals dressed in indigenous clothing to the buses filled with women and their goods going to market.

Have you ever backpacked South America? What is your opinion?

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14 Comments

  1. Paul on February 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Great article. I plan to spend a few months wondering around South American in the hopefully not too distant future, and this post has just extra validated that decision for me.

    • jess2716 on February 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      Glad to hear it! I can’t wait to go back myself 🙂

  2. Nicole @ Suitcase Stories on February 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Great post! I have to agree with all your points.

    So far we have only been to Rio and Buenos Aires (which is now one of my favorite cities!). We cant wait to explore the rest.

    • jess2716 on February 18, 2013 at 11:08 pm

      BA is amazing! I hope you took a tango lesson! 🙂

  3. Robert on May 21, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Awesome!! We are counting the days until our indefinite adventures in south America! Can’t wait to experience all these things! Excited face!!!

    • jess2716 on May 21, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      @Robert- You will not regret it! 🙂 Every country has something special to offer so you really can’t go wrong with your itinerary either.

  4. Lauren on August 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Hi Jessie, thanks for the article it was really helpful. I’m looking to spend 2-3 weeks in South/Central America in Nov/Dec and I want to go to the best beach(es) there is and spend as little money as possible. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you! 🙂

    • jess2716 on August 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      @Lauren- Have you looked in Mancora, Peru? That’s a really fun little beach town that’s really cheap and full of hostels and backpackers. You’re going to have a blast! I would honestly go without making too many plans and kind of meet people along the way for recommendations. South America is really easy to get around by bus (especially in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia where it’s really cheap!).

  5. Bart on August 8, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    We just came back from a great hiking trip in El Calafate, El Chalten and Ushuaia in Patagania (Argentina). Great experience. Uruguay (living there now) is relative expensive but is very safe and great beaches. Currently hearing that Venezuela is getting more unsafe.. so pay attention on that. Next travel plan will be hiking in Ecuador and the Galapagos – any tips for me? Un beso.

  6. Donata on March 16, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I am looking forward to go through Panama, Colombia and Peru, but as I have never backpacked before, I do not even know where to start planning…

  7. Taylor on July 12, 2017 at 10:16 pm

    I’m going to be trying to make my way from Costa Rica to Chile between dec 23-feb 25. Looking at bus and airfare online, everything seems so expensive! Do you have a post (or if not can you write one) that goes more in detail about the practicalities of transport in SA? did you book an hour before the bus left, or a day? what was your farthest bus ride? ARe there specific bus companies you’d recommend? etc etc

    • Jessie Festa on July 14, 2017 at 7:56 pm

      @Taylor: This has some more info: https://jessieonajourney.com/backpacking-south-america/

      Every city is different to be honest. I would typically book my bus tickets 1-3 days in advance. The biggest things to remember:

      1. Make sure there’s a bathroom on the bus!! The rides are long and they don’t all have them. Bring your own toilet paper too.

      2. Beware of theft. You’ll need to sleep on these buses at some point. I use Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments (Affiliate Link: http://www.clevertravelcompanion.com?rfsn=10804.96ed) to hide valuables inside my clothing. Nobody will even know you you’re carrying cash! 🙂

      All the buses are super different! Some are way nicer than others, but even the not-so-nice ones are okay as long as there’s a bathroom and your valuables are safe! 🙂

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