Salar de Uyuni

Traveling to South America Guide: Tips, Tricks, and Info

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If you’re planning on traveling to South America it can be an intimidating and somewhat confusing prospect as you consider the sheer amount of incredible things to see and do across this massive continent.

But it’s also one of the world’s best destinations for backpackers or any kind of traveler for that matter. South America has a vibrant and interesting history, big and beautiful cities filled with colonial architecture, a language that is relatively easy to learn, some of the most stunning natural landscapes on earth, incredible wildlife, and so much more to offer the intrepid traveler.

Traveling to South America? The Ultimate Guide to Planning an Unforgettable Trip

One of the most appealing aspects for many is that South America is, on the whole, quite cheap for traveling which means you can stretch your dollars much further and travel for much longer than in other destinations.

But, as mentioned, it can also be an intimidating destination. It doesn’t exactly have the reputation for being the world’s safest place, what with the chance of pick-pocketing, armed robbery, and so forth. But if you take some common sense precautions, you’re not likely to run into trouble.

I’ve traveled extensively throughout almost all of Latin America now and have spent more than 4 years in total on the ground in South America from one end to the other. My goal is to help you plan a better trip to South America, get all that you can out of it, and enjoy at least a slice of what this amazing continent has to offer. It will be an adventure unlike any other.

South America Travel Tips

Most travelers stick to the Andean spine, traveling through the Spanish speaking countries either from north to south or south to north, which is what I would recommend to most. That way you are able to focus on mastering one language rather than confusing yourself with Portuguese, and it makes for a more straight forward trajectory in terms of travel. Brazil is a massive area to explore by itself and is best saved for a standalone trip, if possible.

This means that if want to travel the length of the continent, then you should consider starting your travels in Colombia or further south in Buenos Aires or Santiago.

Be aware that Chile and Argentina are not especially cheap, so if you are traveling on a budget, you will find you can stretch your money much further elsewhere. Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia are particularly cheap, and Ecuador is also quite reasonable. Venezuela is currently a no-go zone, unfortunately.

Most backpackers can plan to budget between $30-50 per day as they are traveling throughout these countries, but it obviously varies whether you are staying in hostels, how much you are going out eating and drinking, and the number of organized activities you participate in.

My favorite countries across the continent were easily Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and you could spend the bulk of your time in these amazing countries and be totally happy. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in all three, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of everything they have to offer.

Questions About South America Travel

Do you need visas to travel South America?

Obviously, this depends on your country of nationality and where you plan to visit. For the most part, travelers do not need to plan in advance for visas to South America and can quite easily get them at the border or upon arriving. Most are just a tourist visa and a stamp in your passport rather than a drawn out process.

Is South America safe for travel?

This is a tricky question that isn’t easy to simply answer yes or no. It’s important to realize that there is indeed a great deal of poverty throughout much of Latin America and poverty makes people do things they shouldn’t.

While it is possible to be a victim of theft or robbery here, it is still relatively unlikely if you are a street smart traveler. We have spent literally years traveling through all of Latin America, well off the beaten path and on the tourist trail, and we’ve only ever had one robbery attempt. It is important to be careful, not let your guard down, and not be an easy victim.

What do I need to travel to South America?

Traveling in South America can be tricky thanks to the sheer variety of climates, temperatures, and environments. If you’re going on an extended trip, then it isn’t unheard of to be traveling from sticky, hot, humid environments, to freezing cold mountain towns.

You’ll need to pack shorts and a down jacket. Really. Rather than a roller suitcase, the best way to travel is with a backpack. Unless you are only going to be in major cities, you will undoubtedly encounter muddy, unpaved roads, cobblestone streets, and other terrain that isn’t amenable to a normal suitcase.

Which is the safest country in South America?

This is another tricky one to answer. If we are speaking only about the major countries in South America, then I’d probably have to say that Chile is the safest of all of them. That isn’t to say that the others are particularly dangerous, but you do hear more stories from them.

Likewise, that isn’t to say that Chile is 100% safe because there are definitely areas that are more prone to petty crime like robberies and theft. Valparaiso and Calama are two that come to mind.

How much time should you take when traveling South America?

The short answer is as much as you can! Most people underestimate the size of this continent and what all they can see within a limited time. If you’ve only got two weeks, for instance, it would be crazy to try and tackle multiple countries. Two weeks is barely enough to scratch the surface of Colombia or to explore everything that the area around Cusco has to offer. 

If you want to do a long term backpacking trip of South America and visit multiple countries, then I would strongly suggest you have at least a few months, hopefully as much as six months to really do the region justice. But again, I’ve been here for years and it still hasn’t been enough. When we were road tripping from Colombia to the end of the continent, we took about 15 months to explore the southern section of Colombia (we did it quick since we live here), Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

Before Traveling to South America

South America Packing List – The trickiest part is knowing what to take, and what not to take. Here’s what I brought with me that balanced hiking, city life, volunteer work, and more. The focus was on a light and manageable pack weight.

Learning Spanish – This is my #1 tip before you go! Learn as much Spanish as you can. Your life will be much easier while traveling in South Aerica. Of course, you can and should spend time studying Spanish somewhere in South America, you will be best served by studying all you can before.

Travel Insurance – Protect yourself against theft, illness, trip cancellations, medical evacuations, and more. You should never travel overseas without adequate travel insurance, and I use and recommend World Nomads.

A quaint little bridge in Popayan, Colombia, an unexpected surprise when traveling in South America

South America Travel Guides

Colombia – This is where I’ve spent the majority of my time, and I’ve traveled extensively from one end of the country to another. It’s an incredible place that isn’t as frightening as its reputation might suggest. From the islands and beaches to the mountains of El Cocuy there is so much to visit here. Colombia has become my home away from home.

Peru – If you love nature then it is hard to beat Peru. The mountains of Peru, particularly those in the Cordillera Blanca, left me absolutely spellbound for a long time. Then, of course, there are incredible cities like Cusco or the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Ecuador – From the Amazon to the Galapagos Islands to some of the highest volcanoes in the world, there is a lot to see and do in Ecuador. You can go surfing on the coast one day and then hiking around caldera lakes the next (although be aware of the altitude).

Cuicocha Lake hike in Ecuador, one of the best things to do when traveling to South America

Bolivia – Bolivia is famed for the Salar de Uyuni, but I found the country as a whole to be incredible. So cheap, so much to see. I spent much longer than I’d imagined exploring Bolivia, and only scratched the surface. From the big city of La Paz to the pleasant little capital of Sucre, I loved Bolivia!

Chile – This long country packs in a lot of incredible places to see, from the bustling capital of Santiago to the incredible Patagonia region in the south. I loved so much about Chile from the food to the people to the views.

Argentina – Argentina packs a punch with mother nature, culture, history, art, and more. I loved the bustling streets of Buenos Aires, the incredible food and cafe culture, to the stunning scenery in the southern stretches of Patagonia, or the wineries and nature of Mendoza.

I hope that this gives you a place to start planning your adventures to South America, whether you’re visiting for a few weeks or plan to be on the road for many months. Undoubtedly, this is a continent that will require repeat trips to explore all of its wonders.

While most focus on visiting Machu Picchu or the Amazon in Brazil, there are a million more new things to see and do when you travel here. I hope you take the time to explore.

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