Backpack your Way Through South America!

In my previous blog post, I wrote about my top 10 travel destinations in South America, and in this one, I’m going to give you a guide on how to plan a backpacking trip through the whole continent so you can have an idea of what to expect during your trip and feel more prepared and confident!

We all agree that South America doesn’t do small, it’s indeed a huge continent and it’s also quite diverse, it has some of the most impressive historical sites as well as stunning nature from the Amazon Rainforest to the Andes.

I would say each country is magical in its way by giving you a unique experience and tons to explore when it comes to history, culture, and landscapes. This might be every backpacker’s dream, but it might also be a little bit intimidating to explore this vast continent on your own, especially for travelers on a budget. But with a little research and planning ahead, you are going to make it possible to turn South America’s dream into reality!

Learn how to best prepare for your next adventure with this easy in-depth Backpacking Travel Guide to South America!

NOTICE: The information here is updated as best we can in light of COVID-19. Please check before you go anywhere what modifications have taken place to avoid any inconvenience!

#1. WHEN SHOULD YOU TRAVEL

It’s important to decide when you will be traveling: as I said, South America is a huge and diverse continent and the weather can vary from one place to another so deciding when to travel can be tricky.

Choosing when to travel depends on what you want to do during your trip and which places you want to visit. However, as a general rule of thumb, in the southern hemisphere summer is roughly from November to February and winter is from June to August. In the Northern hemisphere, summer is from May to September.

Another important thing to consider is whether you want to be traveling during the peak season as you will need to book things months in advance and everything is usually more expensive. A good idea would be to travel in April and May or September and October when the temperature is pleasant and prices are more affordable!

Lastly, I recommend reading up on the region you plan on visiting as some specific places tend to be closed at certain times. Some places also have their own peak seasons, for instance, July and August, are often peak times to undertake the Inca Trail or visit the Galapagos Island.

#2. HOW TO OVERCOME THE LANGUAGE BARRIER

There are plenty of indigenous languages and cultures in South America, but Spanish is spoken almost everywhere in South America (Portuguese if you are visiting Brazil) and English is not widely spoken in South America.

If you can, it’s worth it and a good idea to learn some basic phrases and vocabulary in Spanish and Portuguese because it will make it easier to communicate with the locals and get around! Giorgy is lucky enough that her native language (Italian) is closer to Spanish so she learned it while traveling. If you are really into learning Spanish I suggest this following app as learning it. Otherwise, if you are short in time, a translator, you will still be able to get around and handle emergencies.

Meet my Galapeños Couchsurfing host, and now international friend, Felix, and help him outreach the goal of hosting at least one person of each country around the world!

#3. TIPS FOR BUDGETING YOUR TRIP

One of the biggest difficulties when budgeting your trip to South America is the fact that there’s quite a big variation between countries and it can be an expensive destination!

To give you a few pointers, below there is a list sample of daily budgets for certain cities across South America. This budget includes the cost of cheap local food, accommodation, and public transportation.

Hey Goofball! I also would like to add another list of my top tips to keep your budget even slower than the one mentioned above. Ready to know the trick to break down South America in low-budget style?

  • Less expensive country – Try to spend most of your time in a cheaper country like Bolivia (a hostel is around $4 per night) and less or a few days in most tourist areas such as Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro.
  • Low/shoulder-season – Not only does traveling outside high season allow you to save you a lot of money but it also won’t be packed with people too!
  • Type of transportation – Sometimes flying can be cheaper than flying, check any kind of possibilities to travel around before impulsively booking.
  • Become your own Masterchef – Eating street food and local specialties are worth trying and your wallet won’t cry; why not also buy local ingredients at the market then cook your own food? You can even consider having a Tupperware to have extra food on the road.
  • The secret of the Nights Out – Who said you have to necessarily drink alcohol every time you go out? You can still have fun without alcohol and drinking, not alcohol each night can also significantly reduce travel costs.
  • Free walking tours – Most cities I visited offer a free walking tour around the city. You can have an inside of the city’s history and culture, also getting to know new travelers.
  • Travel apps – Uber is very popular in most of the north countries. Traveling by bus could break down your budget drastically; use the following app to find and compare cheap bus tickets: Busbud.
  • Cash vs Digital banking – Digital banking is getting more available in most of South America; keep in mind this is going to save you unwanted fees.
  • Slow travel – If you have the luxury of traveling long-term instead of a few weeks, it is going to allow you to incorporate more free days around the city and explore what you like around you without being in a hurry – which means saving a lot of money as well.

#4. GETTING AROUND SOUTH AMERICA

People would say a piece of cake! Indeed getting around South America is generally easy and also cheap. Whether you fly from one country to another, or you use international services to move around all of the other capitals.

I happen myself to travel South America by bus because it is convenient and usually inexpensive! The long the bus ride takes to reach the destination, the less expensive the bus tickets become. It also depends on how much time do you have on your holiday schedule and on your budget too.

Trains? Kind of inexistent in South America, only if you want to take a scenic route. But you will encounter ferries, a common mode of transportation in the Amazon region or while exploring Patagonia.

#5. ACCOMMODATIONS IN SOUTH AMERICA

Surprisingly, you can find one accommodation that fits into your budget in entire South America! From Hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, Couchsurfing and work away (where you can work for bed and boars) so on… all sorts!

Most accommodations have Wi-fi connections, it might not work properly but it’s better than nothing and any kind of accommodations has its own.

Hey Goofball! Remember that staying in hostels is not always easy; I wanna share with you all my disadventures when overnight does not go as expected!

#6. WHERE NEXT?

After giving you all an inside of South America, it’s time to choose where to start your next goofy adventure!

As I mentioned earlier, South America is a pretty large continent, so you must at least have an idea of the places that interest you: whether your unmissable destination is Galapagos Island in Ecuador or exploring the Rainforest Amazon, plan an itinerary around things that you really want to do, and then focus on how best to make it happen! So you won’t get overwhelmed or lose a lot of time on your trip.

If you are still unsure where to head, head back to one of my previous blog posts where I mentioned my top destinations in South America. If you have some destination on the mind instead, my Travel Guides could help you out taking the final decision:

7# HOW TO PREPARE FOR YOUR TRIP

Because of the diversity of terrain and varying weather conditions, packing for your backpacking trip in South America can be a tough challenge.

As a backpacker, it’s important not to overpack and your luggage needs to be as light and practical as possible, so to help you achieve that, I’ve created a list of some of the essential items you need to pack.

Backpack

This is the most important item for your adventure because it will be your companion on the road.

Your backpack should carry everything you need and still be comfortable to wear. Generally, it’s a good idea to pick a backpack that is sturdy, offers some back support, and doesn’t attract too much attention. Otherwise, you can go to your nearest outdoors specialist shop to check out their range and get a backpack that fits you as there are specific fits and sizes.

As for the backpack size, it’s measured in liters, for a short trip (a few weeks to a couple of months) I recommend getting a backpack that ranges from 45 to 60 liters.

Clothes

When packing clothes for your trip, it’s smart to pack for a week or less and then wash your clothes when needed (most hostels offer to wash your clothes for a few boxes).

This list is adjustable according to your needs and preferences, but these are some things that I think are essential to pack – Well, expect to find out useful and also unusual stuff in here, I am the Goofball, remember?

  • 7x underwear;
  • 2x sports bras;
  • 1x regular bra (or none depending whether you use it);
  • 1x long sleeve top;
  • 2x short sleeve cotton t-shirts;
  • 1x hiking trousers;
  • 1x jeans;
  • 2x leggings;
  • 1x light dress;
  • 1x scarf (that you can easily transform into a pillow wherever you are traveling to);
  • 4x socks;
  • 2x hiking socks;
  • 1x fleece jacket;
  • 1x light waterproof jacket;
  • 1x jumper/hoodie;
  • 1x hiking boots;
  • 1x everyday shoes (trainers or converse – your favorite and comfortable walking shoes);
  • 1x flipflops/sandals;
  • 1x beanie/warm hat;
  • 2x swimsuits.

Toiletries

  • 1x toothpaste –toothbrush
  • 1x deodorant
  • 1x shower gel
  • 1x nail clipper
  • 1x sunscreentreat yourself with care instead of making your poor skin cry!
  • Insect repellent: if you don’t want to be eaten alive, I truly recommend taking a good insect repellent;
  • 1x comb/hairbrush
  • 1x shampoo/conditioner
  • 1x moisturizer
  • 1x soap
  • 1x razor and spare blades
  • 1x mosquito repellent
  • Cotton buds
  • Sanitary products: if you’re a tampon user, it might be a good idea to stock up on tampons as they are less available and more expensive. Pads are widely available in South America or switched on the menstrual cup’s use!
  • First aid-kit

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Documents, Money & safety

  • Passport/visa
  • Waterproof bag: a dry bag is coming in handy to keep your electronics or any important belongings dry.
  • Plane/bus/train tickets
  • Booking confirmation (hotel/tour)
  • Travel insurance
  • Emergency cash
  • Credit card/ Debit card
  • Padlocks for hostel lockers

Electronics

  • 1x tablet/laptop
  • 1x smartphone
  • 1x portable charger
  • 1x camera with a spare batterie
  • 1x adapter
  • 1x earphones/headphones

Miscellaneous items

  • Packing cubes: They make it so easy to organize and save a lot of space in your luggage (A LOT, they saved me in a few situations).
  • Swiss army knife
  • Sunglasses: If you would like to copy my Goofball style, this is the only pair of sunglasses I use.
  • Water bottle: Water is important, bring a reusable bottle with you which you can fill from wherever you are.
  • Sleep Mask & Earplugs

#8 STAYING SAFE AS YOU TRAVEL

Is South America safe? I say out loud YES! In the end, everywhere you go could happen something to you. It’s just important to be precautionary and stay safe while traveling around places, here are some tips I would like to remember for you all!

  • Know where you are heading – There are certain areas people should avoid, and South America is no different. Make your research in order to be safe in the areas you plan to visit. Be also aware that taking an overnight bus (which is always a good reason if you can sleep everywhere and want to save money on accommodation) is a little bit riskier, more if you get to the destination very early or late at night.
  • Altitude sickness is not a joke – Few people are aware of Altitude sickness over 2’500 meters (8’200 feet) and South America is well known for places situated on high elevations, such as La Paz and Cusco. Take care of it because it’s not worth missing out on a bucket-list adventure because you are sick from the altitude! Do as locals do, eat coca leaf, drink coca tee, or chew coca candies and win against altitude sickness).
  • Drink in moderation – Not only does not drink alcohol is allowing you to spare money but saving you from unwanted situations since it makes you more vulnerable. Keep in mind that alcohol makes it harder for your body to acclimate especially in high-altitude places.
  • Not be outstanding – Try also to avoid outstanding with rare gadgets or jewelry that may attract the wrong kind of attention.
  • Reassure the beloved ones – Let others know where you are by sharing your itinerary.
  • Have a copy of your essential documents – You never know what could happen, make sure to have a copy (paper and digital) of all your essential documents. There could be fake police around the area you are in, so show them always a copy.
  • Become a local – As mentioned above, knowing at least a bit of Spanish, it’s going to be helpful while traveling in South America. Again, I would recommend downloading an app for learning it or getting an instant translator to have with you a long way.

Don’t be intimidated to embark on your journey through South America, if you plan ahead, this myriad of cultures and landscapes is going to be one of the most valuable experiences of your life!

Whether you plan on traveling for a week or a year, there is no shortage of things to do. I hope this guide helps you navigate your trip confidently and easily. Don’t forget to stay open and flexible and enjoy the beautiful culture and landscape that awaits you! So, where are you heading to next? Leave a comment below on telling your next travel destination!

 

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