11 South American Pillars to Plan Your Trip Around
South America’s thirteen countries offer a diverse travel experience. From the beaches of Brazil to the rain forest in Ecuador to the Andes in Peru to the big, cosmopolitan cities everywhere, South America is a geographically and culturally rich continent. It is also a whole heck of a lot of fun to travel there, and most of the continent is very budget friendly.
Indie travelers could easily spend a year or more traversing this massive continent, and it was set up for indie travel. The bus system is vast, the prices typically low, the people friendly, and the culture welcoming and unique in each country you visit.
When planning a trip of any kind, most have their pillars, or must-see, destinations, and South America is chock full of amazing sites, cities, and activities. Here are a handful to plan your trip around:
- Machu Picchu – One of the most sought after sites in the entire world, Machu Picchu’s a magical, mystical ruins offer a glimpse into the lives of the Incas in the middle of the Andes. Take the train from Cusco or take part in one of the many hikes offered, including the most popular – The Classic Inca Trail.
- Iguazu Falls – These mammoth falls that straddle the borders of three countries – Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay – are a site to behold. They are worth a multiple day visit, as many travelers like to see them from both the Argentina and Brazil side. If you’ve ever been to Niagara, that will look like a drippy faucet compared to these behemoths.
- Patagonia – If you are an outdoors lover, then Patagonia no doubt is near the top of your travel wish list. Options abound in this vast region covering much of the southern parts of both Argentina and Chile – with hiking, climbing, camping, and every activity you could imagine – all in one of the most stunning landscapes in the world.
- Easter Island – Located far off the coast of Chile (it’s about half way to Tahiti), Easter Island is still shrouded in mystery. Traveler go for the isolation and to marvel at the giant moai, which the island is littered with.
- The Galapagos – One of the most fascinating places on Earth for those who love wildlife, the Galapagos are tops on most South American itineraries. Price of traveling there deters many – but if you read Finally, a Galapagos Trip You Can Afford, you can see how a family of three did the Galapagos on $5000USD, flights from the US included.
- Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian Salt Flats) – The name of this infamous South American tour is a bit misleading. The Salt Flats themselves are a certain highlight, but they are only a small part of most 3-4 day jeep tours. Salt Flat tours typically visit much of the Bolivian southwest, which has an other-worldly terrain that will have you feeling as though you left planet Earth. One of the most visually stunning regions on the planet.
- The Amazon – Lots of travelers automatically think of Brazil when they see the word “Amazon,” but it’s important to know that it’s possible to visit parts of the Amazon from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador as well. Visiting this vast jungle oasis is great for those interested in flora and fauna.
- Angel Falls – Venezuela has long been a destination that travelers debate, and with the recent death of President Hugo Chavez, no one knows what’s in store. If political instability clears up, Angel Falls, the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the entire world, is worthy of a visit.
- Rio de Janeiro – Another great aspect of travel in South America is the big, cosmopolitan cities it offers, and Rio is near the top. The beaches, the food, the landscapes, and the vibrancy of its people means Rio is a place not to be missed.
- Buenos Aires – One of the most unique cities in not only South America, but the world, Buenos Aires is part Latin America, part Europe. Red meat, red wine, tango, and futbol are the passions here, and while prices aren’t as low as they once were, it’s still much cheaper than visiting comparable cities around the world.
- The Colombian people – While I hate to categorize an entire people as a pillar, part of what we love about indie travel is connecting with locals, and nowhere is it easier than in Colombia. This is no longer the war-torn, drug fueled nation it once was, and the people of Colombia are eager to show travelers why. Never have I felt so welcomed, and never has the happiness of a people rubbed off on me than in Colombia.
The travel experience you have in South America depends greatly on what you set out to do. If you are looking for comfort, you can find that in countries like Argentina and Chile. If you are looking to get by on the cheap, Bolivia and Peru are excellent countries for backpackers.
If you are seeking something truly different, head to the Amazon. If you want all of the above, consider making stops along the Pan-American Highway. If you really want to get off the beaten path, try visiting Guyana or French Guiana. How many people do you know that have been there?
South America is a HUGE continent, so while getting around is rather easy in most places, travel times can be extremely long. Buses are by far the best way to get around, as most countries don’t have trains. The bus network in most countries is very well developed, though quality varies drastically from country to country. In Argentina it’s common to have seats that recline to a near-horizontal position, and eat hot meals while drinking glasses of wine. In Bolivia, well, not so much.
One thing to note about getting around in South America is that English is not widely spoken. You can always go through an travel agent in most places when booking buses, but you’ll pay considerably more than just going to the bus station and booking yourself. Obtaining some basic knowledge of Spanish will help quite a bit.
Read Seven Spectacular Bus Routes Through South America to find out more about bus travel throughout the continent.
Where to stay
Once you are on the continent, you will have a lot of options for accommodations. South America hostels are the affordable way to go, but as with most regions fo the world, they vary greatly in quality. On average, and remember that all countries will vary, most backpackers can get by on about $7-15USD/night for accommodations.
If you are a couple or family, private hostel rooms with ensuite bathrooms will set you back around $20-25USD/night for the room. Big cities are obviously going to cost more, super small towns less, and places like Brazil and Patagonia are on the higher end of the cost spectrum.
Here are some of our most popular articles and resources for traveling around South America:
- How to Plan an Extended Trip in South America
- Wine Tasting in South America: Where to Go and What to Try
- Seven of the Best Eco-friendly Experiences in South America
- The Incredible National Parks of South America
- Ten Places in South America to Escape the Northern Winter
- Five Unexpected Treasures of South America
- Vegetarian Travel Tips for South America