Backpacking Route in South America
So you want to see South America huh? Not sure where to start? Well if
you need some inspiration then look no further. This is the MFT
backpacking route for the continent. There's so much to see in South
America that this trip could take anything from six to twelve months
and yet still there is so much more that we had to leave out.
The route starts in Colombia which is experiencing something of a backpacking 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. The route 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 continents 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.
Fly into Cartagena, COLOMBIA or coming from Panama consider crossing the Darien gap.
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 Caribbean flavour.
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 timewarp with lots of furniture and rocking chairs!!!
San Gil- Adrenaline junkies paradise with cheap and excellent rafting, paragliding, hydrospeeding and waterfall abseiling. (right)
Villa de Leyva- Colonial town near the capital with a huge square.
Bogota- Cool and much improved capital city. Cyclist's paradise (especially on Sundays), alternative districts and great museums.
Salento- Small town, lots of backpackers and some stunning surrounding countryside.
Cali- Colombia's salsa city with some passionate Colombian nightlife at weekends.
Popayan- Perhaps the most attractive of Colombia's old towns. Lots of churches and pretty white buildings.
The Popayan-Otavalo leg is potentially very dangerous at night with armed bandits in Western Colombia. Set off very early and consider stopping over in Pasto or Ipiales. The journey is at least 12 hours in total. The border crossing is fairly quick and painless at the international bridge between Ipiales (COL) and Tulcan (ECU).
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 5900m Volcan Cotopaxi at the centre of it. (left)
Banos- Touristy town but very pleasant safe place with its famous baths and surrounded by green mountains. Take a trip into the Amazon which starts just a few kilometers east of the town.
Riobamba- Mountain town with some random buildings and shops. Starting point of the famously steep train ride down to Sibambe.
Sibambe- End of the trainline, little to see but it's a short trip to Cuenca.
Cuenca- Riverside city full of colonial buildings and cool cafes.
Cross at the Huaquillas border crossing. If you speak Spanish, it's fairly easy to hitch a lift in one the many lorries that run the route down to Mancora which is about 3 hours south of the border.
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 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 much to see.
Huacachina- Much fun to be had here 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 backpackers.
Cuzco- The ancient Incan capital is still an impressive sight and 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.
Puno- Lively town on the Peruvian banks of Lake Titicaca.
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. There are no ATM's in Copacabana so make sure you have enough cash before crossing the border. 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 and la ciudad blanca (White City) is probably the most attractive in the country.
Potosi- Take a trip down the shockingly dangerous working mines in what is the highest city in the world. An unforgettable place.
Salar de Uyuni- The world's largest salt flat is a weirdly charming place.
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 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. The town is all of a sudden experiencing something of an unexpected boom in tourism.
Vina del Mar- Best beaches in the country with awesome music festival every February.
Valparaiso- Colourful town with a vibrant bohemian culture.
Santiago- Capital city with so much to do in and around it. Skiing in the Andes, nice beaches and interesting towns all very close.
Buses from Santiago to Mendoza take around 8 hours and cost in the region of CH$10,000. 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.
Mendoza- Excellent wine produced here and it's also not far from Mount Aconcagua, the tallest on the continent.
Cordoba- Second city full of students with a Mediterranean feel. Big city but much more chilled out than Buenos Aires.
Alta Gracia- Small country town outside of Cordoba, main attraction is Che Guevara's childhood home now an excellent museum (left).
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.
Colonia is actually a popular daytrip 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!! Cabo Polonio tiny coastal village with sea lions, penguins, whales, rustic hostels and lots of hippies.
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 accomodation in the town if you don't want to head straight to Porto Alegre.
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.
Curitiba- Historic buildings, interesting artistic 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 megacities.
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 possibly the liveliest backpacker parties on the continent.
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. The city of sun, sea and sin is so much fun!
(for more on Brazil see our backpacking route for Brazil!)
There are loads of other places you could visit and routes you could take, it’s all down to what interests you really. 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.
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. Indeed if nature is more your thing and then you could do an entirely different route to the mostly mountainous and coastal route above. 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 Surinam, Venezuela and the Guineas. Following the course of the Amazon River would also be an option.
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. Ecuador is 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. Head to the full-moon parties in Montanita for some moonlight raving.
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 so 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 and flying home from Buenos Aires. 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.
Argentina is another of the pricier countries and transportation costs seem to have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Lonely Planet's 2009 edition of South America on a Shoestring (The Bible) seriously underestimates the cost of bus travel around the country and we've opted for a quick passage through Argentina for your wallets sake. However with more time and money travelling down to Patagonia in the south of Argentina is a long cold trip but very memorable. 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.
Pics courtesy of Fernando Stankuns (Rio), Pablo Flores (Che Museum), Richard Ijzermans (Cotopaxi) and AlCortes (San Gil) on flickr.
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