I’d like to introduce my epic South America backpacking itinerary.
With so many South American travel options – which will you choose?
After spending so long in Latin America, many people have asked me to give them the best itinerary for South American travel.
The reality is that there’s no one best place or the best time to travel to South America.
Countries here are so diverse, and it’s best to look at different routes. From there, you can create the perfect itinerary for South America that suits you and your travel plans.
Then all you need is your best backpacking gear, and you’re ready to rock and roll. This is going to be the ultimate South American trip.
Table of Contents
South America Travel Routes
So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the most popular travel routes in South America.
Don’t let time put you off; skip some places or stay longer. The countries are listed in the order according to the suggested route.
Famous for: Tropical landscapes, Birdwatching, Exotic fruits, Biodiversity.
Route: Cartagena > Tayrona > Mompos > Villa de Leyva > Bogota > Salento > Cali
It’s no secret that Colombia is one of my favorite countries in Latin America. Part of what makes a trip to a place like Colombia so fun is the special nature of its landscape.
Not only is it diverse and rich in culture, but it also boasts many other interesting points for any backpacker thinking of backpacking South America. For example, San Gil is great for extreme sports.
With some great beaches in Colombia , you will find a stunning tropical landscape waiting for you the moment you step off the plane.
There are some places to visit in Colombia that are truly unique in Latin America. Colombia is also my preferred entry point to South America.
Even in major parts of the country where urbanization has taken over, there is still that distinctly tropical feel to everything all around you.
That is one of the main reasons to come here: the richness of the biodiversity could make an ecologist out of anyone.
On top of that, it’s a fun place to visit if you enjoy your food thanks to the amazing exotic fruits that grow here that you won’t find elsewhere!
One of the popular things to in Colombia is to visit the lost city which can be accessed from Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Famous for: Equator Line, Mega-diversity, Amazon Rainforest, Cocoa, The Huaorani.
Route: Otavalo > Quito > Cotopaxi > Banos > Riobamba > Sibambe > Cuenca
Known as a nation for those who can handle the altitude, a trip to Ecuador can be a headrush in so many different ways.
Part of the joy of a trip to Ecuador is that you can enjoy everything from places like Puerto Lopez that make your trip more worth the while to a look at the Equator line and the amazing quality of diversity found here.
With so many places to visit in Ecuador, you may be surprised by what it has to offer culturally and geographically. Ecuador is indeed similar to Colombia in many different ways but unique in itself.
It’s a nice and easy journey from Colombia if you’re traveling by land – not to mention the lush scenery you’ll see.
Are you feeling adventurous? Scenic locations like Cajas Park are worth getting to know if you’re into hiking.
You can even check out the Ecuadorean Amazon Rainforest that is home to over 587 species of birds and four thriving National Parks to discover. If you travel to Ecuador, you will see how unique it is.
Few parts of the world are quite so open and diverse as Ecuador, which is one of the many reasons why a lot of people enjoy coming here.
It’s got amazing Amazon rainforests to come to visit alongside some truly special diversity in its landscape and layout.
On top of that, the natural growing conditions of the cocoa beans here ensures it produces some of the best beans in the world!
The main highlight for many backpackers is the Galapagos Islands – an incredible place to visit ecologically protected wildlife.
Also, if your South America Travel budget allows it, you can even get there without taking the cruise.
Famous for: Amazon, Landscapes, Cultural Diversity, Food, Surfing.
Route: Mancora > Huaraz > Lima > Huacachina > Nazca > Cuzco > Machu Picchu
Why not plan a trip to Peru for your trip to South America?
A nation that is absolutely steeped in history, Peru is popular and famous for a great many things including Lima the capital city.
Just outside of Lima alone you can visit many of the popular tourist attractions via day trips from Lima that you can do in one day.
From its truly special Amazon areas to the amazing landscape that covers much of the country, you would do well to find a more diverse, fun place to come and visit than Peru.
Whether you wish to learn about the Incan Empire in Cusco, visit a meditation retreat or trek through the Peruvian Amazon, you’ll not be disappointed with the diverse range of activities to do here.
You can even go sandboarding in Huacachina, which has the only natural desert oasis in South America.
It’s a special location to visit for those with a taste for creative foods and exciting things to do.
From hiking trips to taking in the various cultures that make up the diverse background of Peru.
No matter how you look at the country; it’s oozing in culture. Peru has a great national reserve, and you’ll find the best food in Latin America.
Depending on your South America travel duration, you can hopefully get to see Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Here’s a perfect two-week Peru itinerary that goes from Lima to Cusco if you are looking for a popular Latin America backpacking route.
If you’re feeling a bit short on time, no worries; you can always check out this snazzy four-day Peru itinerary that may just help you squeeze the most out of your days.
You can enjoy so much about this amazing country. On top of that, be sure to try out the food: like most South American nations, the food here is unlike anything you’ll try back home!
Famous for: Pisco, Atacama Desert, Extreme Landscapes, Wine, Sports.
Route: Copacabana > Isla del Sol > La Paz > Sucre > Potosi > Salar de Uyuni
This is the cheapest country to visit in South America. Bolivia and its culture will have you daydreaming about visiting earlier.
When you head to Bolivia, one thing you will notice upon arrival is that this is a location that makes it easy to settle in. The quality of the food and wine is very impressive, as is their general diversity in landscapes.
You can head from one form of the landscape to a complete contrast in a short space of time; it’s a nation that makes it easy for you to cover a lot of diverse land in a short amount of time.
First time in Bolivia? Copacabana is the main Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca, which makes a great starting point if you’re backpacking from Peru by land.
One thing you’ll enjoy about Bolivia is the richness of the food, but landmarks like the Atacama Desert make excellent places to visit, too.
If you like sports, you’ll find this to be among the most sport-crazed nations on the continent, too!
I hope your South America travel itinerary will carry you here. If it’s your first time, you’ll want to know some tips and tricks for Bolivia to get you started.
Don’t leave Bolivia without seeing Salta de Uyuni; the experience and scenery are unforgettable with landscapes changing every 10 minutes as you cruise in a jeep.
It’s the best place to visit in South America for many backpackers.
Famous for: Pisco, Atacama Desert, Extreme Landscapes, Wine, Sports.
Route: Santiago > Valparaiso > Vina del Mar > & Antofagasta > San Pedro de Atacama
Chile is a special place, and with UNESCO sites like Valparaiso, it’s a very satisfying place in the developed world to come and visit.
One thing that you will find about Chile is that it offers many fun places to visit, while it also shares the Atacama Desert with Bolivia.
You will get to enjoy the diversity in landscape enjoyed in Bolivia, but you’ll also get to take in some brilliant delicacies to try out.
You’ll find Chile has some of the best wines to try in the world, too. Chilean wine is among the most popular in the world – almost as popular as sports in this country. Also, you can visit a vineyard here.
For a truly diverse experience, be sure to come and try out Chile yourself!
Whatever you do, please don’t be undermined by Chile’s size.
Whether you’re just passing through and only looking for the top things to do in Santiago or you’re here to sample award-winning wines, you won’t be disappointed.
Chile packs some serious adventure for any keen backpacker and absolutely perfect terrain if you’re traveling overland by motorhome or adventure camping.
If you’re not a fan of the heat, you can always head down to Patagonia and check out places like Torres del Paine, which offers a bunch of multi-day hikes.
Santiago is a great starting point and a booming capital city. If you didn’t know, Santiago is one of the largest cities in the Americas.
You’ll find that most South American travel books have great things to say about the capital’s success.
Famous for: Tango, Elegant Architecture, Football, Steak, Wine.
Route: Buenos Aires > Rosario > Cordoba > Mendoza > Salta > humahuaca > Iguazu
Every South American trip should include Argentina in their itinerary. If you are lucky to make it to the southern cone, you’ll get a true taste of South American culture.
As arguably the most well-known of all South American nations, the European input into Argentina is hard to ignore.
It’s a nation that is known for its elegance and its richness in terms of architecture and landscape.
From the amazing steaks found in just about every restaurant to the tremendous Argentine wine, you will find that there is food to be enjoyed all over Argentina unlike other parts of the nation.
As a city, Buenos Aires has been one of the most diverse and exhilarating places I’ve visited in South America.
Another thing to note about Argentina is that if you like football, you will have come to one of the true homes of the sport.
While it was made in Britain, it was a sport perfected in Argentina and Brazil – showcased perfectly by the likes of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
The people are animated, and you’ll notice their body language speaks louder than words.
Many people use Buenos Aires as a landing point to get their trip off the ground, even if you’re heading further south to do a big ice trek in places like Perito Moreno or go to Ushuaia, the small resort town.
I salute you if you ever get the chance to travel to Patagonia in the south.
Famous for: Quality of Life, Drinking Mate, Meat, Marijuana, Unspoiled nature.
Route: Colonia > Montevideo > Piriapolis > Punta Del Este > Cabo Polonio
Straddled between the ‘big two’ South American nations is beautiful Uruguay.
Small but special, the high quality of life enjoyed by Uruguayans is something anyone can appreciate. You’ll get to enjoy a nation that has not ruined its landscape with excessive tourist traps and the like.
In various South America travel publications, many have named Uruguay as one of the safest countries to visit.
You’ll also be introduced to Mate culture; a form of tea that you might find very hard to put down once you have your first drink.
A rich and enjoyable way to have some fun, you’ll get to enjoy everything from amazing meat dishes to puffs of some of the finest (100% legal) marijuana that you will find anywhere in the world.
For a more peaceful and positive approach to South America, be sure to come and check out Uruguay.
From Salto to Montevideo, there is much to enjoy about this special country.
You’ll quickly learn how the Rio de la Plata plays a significant role in joining with Buenos Aires and how many citizens use it day-to-day.
On arriving at the port, you’ll quickly see why! Though it’s definitely not one of the cheapest countries in South America.
If you’re backpacking on a budget, it would be best to start your South American trip itinerary here in conjunction with Buenos Aires.
If you’re thinking of doing a road trip and wondering how to travel Uruguay, you’ll find its 660-kilometer-long coastline very appealing.
Famous for: Carnivals, Portuguese, Luscious Beaches, Samba, Football.
Route: Iguacu Falls > Curitiba > Sao Paulo > Paraty > Ihla Grande > Rio de Janiero
Compared to Argentina, Brazil can seem massive. However, part of what makes Brazil such a special place is immense diversity.
From major city to major city, state to state, Brazil changes entirely.
One thing that remains in almost every part of the country, though, is their love of the Samba spirit; the very essence that has made them a sporting idol the world over.
One thing that you will soon find about Brazil is that you cannot go far without seeing a reference to either Catholicism or football.
These are the two religions in this amazing nation, so be prepared to travel through a melting pot known for its amazing carnivals, its football, and its love of having a wild and exciting time!
You’ll find some of the best cities in South America are in Brazil. The mammoth capital, Sao Paulo, is popular with backpackers.
Pencil in a good length of time to explore, as Brazil is the largest country in South America. Maybe now is time to brush up on your Portuguese?
I have gotten by with Spanish in some of Brazil’s best places and spent many hours traveling by bus and plane around the country.
Brazil is not for the light-hearted or beginner backpacker.
However, if you do go, make sure you check out Rio de Janeiro as it makes a great introduction to Brazil as well as a good ending point.
- South America Travel Advice
- Benefits of Traveling Alone
- Booking Tours in South America
- Safe Places to Travel in South America
Best Accommodation in South America
Depending on your budget, you’ll find some great options for places to stay in South America.
Before you start planning a trip to South America, I suggest you do a little research on the types of accommodation that will suit you best.
If you only have three weeks in South America, then maybe your accommodation strategy would be different.
Or if you are backpacking on an itinerary of six months, then you’ll need to learn how to mix it up.
In my Smart Travel guide, I talk more about my accommodation strategy for Latin America.
It’s best to try one of the many types of accommodation South America has to offer to get a full 360 experience.
The most popular is hostels, which you can get for free if you know-how.
Preparing for your Trip
Are you starting your South American itinerary without much travel experience?
Don’t worry! I assure you that you’re going to meet many people doing the same type of travel.
Some prefer to travel alone, and there are many reasons why.
Are you thinking of doing something unique? Like glamping in the Peruvian Amazon? Don’t be surprised if you find someone with similar interests.
Knowing what to pack is one of the most asked questions that beginner backpackers ask me. Check out my travel gear page for inspiration on what to carry on your trip.
Got Travel Insurance for South America?
Designed by travelers, for travelers, World Nomads covers more than 150 adventure sports and activities so you can explore your boundaries.
There’s more than one reason why Travel Insurance is important to consider while planning your South America travel routes.
Below I’m going to list some of the things to consider:
- Trip Cancelation
- Trip Interruption
- Flight Delays
- Lost Luggages
- Property Damage
If you’re looking for ideas on how to plan a trip to South America, the last thing you want to worry about is any of the above complications that can quickly become part of anyone’s trip.
Can you drive to South America?
If you’re based in North America, maybe you’re thinking of driving to South America. Trust me, not even the most experienced backpacker decides to leave home without travel insurance.
Backpacking through South America
As part of my South America backpacking itinerary, and after doing years of solo travel in Latin America.
Here I’d like to share five pieces of advice based on what I’ve learned and applied along all the South America travel routes I have taken.
One of the most memorable trips I did was from Bogota to Buenos Aires, which was an amazing trip. I went to live in Buenos Aires and learn more about the cultures of South America.
Maybe you have a Central America, backpacking route that you’re trying to extend to the south.
If you’re asking where does South America start or how to get from Central America to South America, you can pick one of few options, but I’d recommend flying from Panama to Colombia.
Some people ask me if it’s possible to drive from North America to South America. Of course, you can; many people are doing it. Chile was part of my backpacking South American itinerary.
Whichever South American backpacking routes you choose, I have a few backpacker tips that may help you along the way.
Below, I’m going to give you a few tips that have strengthened my character and understanding of who I want to be as a young man.
When traveling solo, you face new situations daily, and there are certain interactions, which really challenge you to be authentic.
One challenge could be opening up to others, feeling vulnerable to sharing your personal history, or who you want to become.
That is quite normal and a minor sticking point that only you can overcome.
Another way I’ve seen people deal with this is by being a square, choosing to remove themselves from the interaction or environment.
That can be quite normal, and we all have done that at some point.
In my humble opinion, either can be appropriate, depending on how well you know yourself and the purpose of your trip.
When you’re aware you’re unhappy with your current surroundings, I found it best to keep moving along until I arrive at a place where there are people similar to me or to a location that is more likely to support my growth.
Your personal growth time is too valuable to allow yourself to waste it at the expense of thoughtless strangers.
Everybody feels lonely
The more I travel solo, the more I learn about myself; however, I can’t learn about myself without the luxury of meeting other people.
Traveling solo is quite a selfish exploration. Solo travel is a gamble; maybe you don’t meet anybody during your whole trip that likes you, let alone understand you or show you any affection.
It took me many solo travel trips to realize that despite traveling with a group, some people can feel lonely.
This is the perfect motivation for interacting with people on a personal level, even though they may seem like they’re with a group of old-time friends.
Saviour is around the next corner
Do you know the difference between feeling lonely and being alone?
You must understand the difference before you embark on your first or next solo travel. Being alone is a state of being, whereas loneliness is a state of mind.
Although solo travel is about traveling by yourself, feeling lonely is never a goal or a desired outcome. However, it’s inevitable.
I’ve found that whatever tools you have to change your state of mind when loneliness creeps in will make or break you.
I’ve felt lonely many times on my solo travel adventures, and honestly, it just takes one conversation with one person, and the feeling is gone.
People are always willing to talk, but how and where you meet those people is down to you.
Aligning with allies
How many times have you bumped into an old friend in the street and instantly rekindled a connection?
Often, during solo travel adventures, you’ll bump into somebody that you feel you’ve known for ages.
I learned that we instantly identify and feel a deeper connection with people from the same city or country, etc. It’s almost relieving at first.
Beware of this as I’ve fallen back into my comfort zone, and my trip of growth was affected.
Maybe you stick around for a conversation, but it’s dangerous to rely on others to hold your hands for the rest of your trip.
The good news is that you can consciously take a break from your solo adventures by being aware of this paradox, but remember, you’re sacrificing a part of your own personal growth while you’re traveling with other people.
Always travel first class
I know what you’re thinking, and no, not in a pretentious way.
One thing solo travel taught me is people who have less naturally go out of their way to help others.
How will you manage to connect with people from different walks of life? Also, will you honestly be able to relate to them if you’re too cool or pompous to use public transport or visit a certain neighborhood?
Everybody has their own standards when deciding on the best route to travel in South America. But when doing solo travel, you need to reduce your threshold to allow random and random’s friend to come in.
Try not to let your high standards get the best of you. Learn how to travel with all classes of people.
South America travel Routes
I hope you can get inspired by looking at these ideas and basic South American travel routes.
There are so many other places you can see, and I will be writing about them in my Latin America section.
There are also some really good tours you can check out along the way. For example, if you’re in Medellin, maybe you’d like to do the Pablo Escobar tour.
Or, if you’re in Peru, you can do the famous Inca tour; (or one of the many day trips from Lima) I’ve heard is a once in a lifetime experience.
If you like the idea of being in Brazil, and South America trip itinerary would have to be tailored to spend a huge chunk of its time there.
Otherwise, you don’t even end up scratching the surface of what Brazil can offer as a country and its eclectic mix of cultures.
Over the past four years, I’ve traveled solo consistently, improving my life, time after time.
I’ve learned so much and created opportunities for myself and even others by taking these new trips of growth.
Whether that’s by learning Spanish, watching Spanish movies and practicing what I’ve learned with locals on the road, or helping a local family I’ve stayed with during my travels.
I sincerely hope you got some useful information from this South American backpacking itinerary – if not – please let me know any questions you may have.
💬 Leave a nice comment or let’s start a conversation below!
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COSTA RICA VIBES says
Loved this! I recently did some traveling in Central America solo for the first time and experienced a lot of the same emotions/ things. I especially love point #3. 🙂
Love this post. There are similarities to my experiences. I usually travel by myself and I love it. It made me stronger, more confident and so much more. Unfortunately, it also makes me feel that I don´t fit in the “normal” world back home.
Mia Herman says
Traveling solo can be a great way to learn independence. I think everyone should try it at least once. I’m glad you learned some valuable lessons. These are great!
Some very nice tips! I think most of them can also be relative outside South-America! Really nice post for backpackers!! Thank of sharing!
Nawdeeya Nelson says
Awesome tips! I love travel solo. And your right…it can be rather selfish, but I love it.
That’s a massive amount of learning and some great tips, so many of which carry over into life. What you say about loneliness is really powerful too. I spent last weekend on a short trip, and I could have learned from your wise words about not being reticent to talk to people already in groups.
ali dunnell says
Great post. One of the things I learnt from my many years of solo travel is that more adventures happen and often the unexpected. I really like the photographs you included in this post too. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂
Tua Halen says
Amazing post! Really interesting, since I have been dreaming about traveling to Central America for so long!
The Upbeat Path says
Great post! Great advice for new travelers to live by for sure. If you’re new to traveling, the best thing you could do is open up and learn to meet new people on the regular. It’s a time when you should absolutely feel as though you can be yourself and not care what others think. You’ll eventually meet people who will want to continue traveling with you, and if not they’ll be gone the next day. No harm no foul
I rarely travel alone – my partner is as crazy about travelling as myself (if not more – he wants to go for a BIG trip next year!) but you made some good points – if you travel alone there is more chance to interact with the local crowd and it is what is really beautiful about travelling, knowing the language also helps – speaking Russian definitely opened so many doors when I was travelling to Siberia!
Lana Giles says
This is why I love travelling, to be able to meet people, mingle with the locals and have these incredible experiences you will never forget. Great tips! Hope you had an amazing time travelling around Central America.
Beautifully written post! I travelled alone, I travelled in a group, I travelled as a couple. I too think that the most intense experiences you can have are when being solo on the road, yet… I recently started travelling with my gf… which makes some other stuff far more easier. So – travelling as a couple? My favourite way now.
Petq Miteva says
Oh, Latin America is on the top of my bucket list! Nice post, beautiful mature and I like that pictures are very realistic! Thanks 🙂
Indu Indra says
Interesting tips on traveling solo in Latin America. Beautifully written post I enjoyed. I have traveled many Spanish speaking countries but not learned Spanish yet so I may join you in my quest to learn Spanish.
HF Tours says
Interesting tips about solo traveling over all. It’s very brave to solo travel but it has it’s own charm, the freedom to do anything, try anything. Group bound tours or tours with families are very restricted. Very beautifully written post about Latin America. I have always been fascinated about knowing more about Central America and you have provided a very realistic review about the place. Spanish is a very beautiful language and also want to learn this language.
I think you are very brave to solo travel, we are lucky we have each other and even then sometimes when travelling for a long time you can feel lonely, or miss old friends and family. Your tips are really helpful and I totally agree with moving on until you are comfortable. Thanks