Backpacking South America: Where to Start
Backpacking in South America is a wonderful adventure. Travel Amazing South America, this travel site, was founded after I backpacked for 18 months in South America. The following tips will not only serve you if you decide to backpack South America by yourself but also if you decide to join one of the many adventurous South America Tours to discover the wonders of this amazing continent.
Map of South America
A good first introduction before backpacking in South America is getting familiar with the map of South America. The continent is huge and distances between travel destinations are enormous. Before embarking on your backpack adventure in South America you can start by mapping out a basic itinerary.
You can download the map as a PDF (right click, safe target as)
I backpacked all the way from Caracas (Venezuela) to Ushuaia (Argentina) and yes, it's a long way. Get familiar with the map. It's a good start to get a first impression of how big this amazing continent is and which country, or countries, you want to visit.
Are you into mountains ? I climbed Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, a breathtaking mountain near Quito, Ecuador. Or is a tropical beach your way of life? I spent 5 months in Brazil with plenty of beautiful white sand beaches lined with palm trees.
How to Start
The following information is a good starting point for backpacking South America.
1. Common Sense
We all hear the unpleasant stories and South America has a fame of being dangerous. I backpacked 18 months, traveled thousands of kilometers, cities, jungle, islands, mountains, carnival, spent 6 weeks in a street child care center in the favelas of Salvador da Bahía (Brazil)... nothing. I repeat, nothing happened. Use your common sense. Avoid badly lit streets at night and if your sixth sense is giving you the "something's wrong" sign then take a taxi to your destination. Lock your backpack while traveling on public transport and in dorm rooms. Don't walk the streets with valuables. Always have some cash on you ($10) in case your 'worst case scenario' comes true, they just want money. Never argue or start a fight, it's just money.
- Safety for Women Travelers
South America is the home of the "macho" culture. During my journey through the continent I met a lot of solo women travelers. They always joined little groups (don't forget you'll meet lots of fantastic people).
If you get an invitation from a "guide" to join him, or her, for a starry night on an amazing island; by all means go but take somebody with you! It's better to be safe than sorry. Enjoy the journey but use your common sense.
Read more about Women travelers in Brazil, Women travelers in Ecuador and Women travelers in Peru
- Travel Insurance
Whether you are trotting in South America in search of adventure or just living in one of the many mesmerizing places South America has to offer for an extended stay, you should be covered for any mishaps that may come your way.
Backpackers Travel Insurance policies from UK's InsureAndGo can offer you great protection for a low and affordable price. For the rest of the world I can highly recommend taking a backpacker travel insurance policy from WorldNomads.com (also recommended by Lonely Planet).
2. South America Travel Guide Book
The first thing that you will need on your backpacking adventure in South America is a travel guide book. It will be your best companion in your search for adventure. I can highly recommend:
- Lonely Planet´s South America on a Shoestring
to get you started. This South America book, also available as a PDF eBook, covers all you need to know to get the most out of your trip and is ideal to plan your journey ahead. I've used the guide extensively while I was backpacking in South America.
Lonely Planet offers excellent travel guides of all the countries in South America, all available in book and PDF eBook. Besides using Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring guide I've used their separate travel guides of Peru and Brazil. Lonely Planet's travel guide books are the most popular among backpackers.
- The Rough Guide to South America
- South American Handbook
Note: Ideal, but not practical (you want to travel light), would be to enjoy the adventure with a Lonely Planet and either the Rough Guide or the Handbook as your South America guidebook.
3. Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese
The most rewarding thing for me was the fact that you can travel in a huge continent like South America with only 2 languages. Spanish and Portuguese. If you plan to backpack just for a few weeks you can invest in a Spanish and/or Brazilian Portuguese Phrase Book. If, on the other hand, you are planning to backpack for a few months I can highly recommend taking a Spanish and/or Portuguese language course. Ideal would be in a school in South America (I took lessons in Quito, Ecuador, I had a private teacher for $2.50/h).
English is not widely spoken and even a basic knowledge of Spanish and/or Portuguese makes the trip so much more rewarding (people in South America are extremely willing to help you, so don't worry, be happy).
Note: I can highly recommend learning some Spanish before going to South America. Check out our Learn Spanish Online page for more information.
4. Walking Shoes
Do yourself a favor and invest in quality walking shoes with Gore-Tex. Your feet will be more than grateful as they will carry you around day after day, week after week, month after month, year after... no, I'm exaggerating. Excellent walking shoes are a must when backpacking in South America.
- Yellow Fever (if you plan to go to the Amazon Basin), Typhoid (consists of two injections taken 4 weeks apart), Diphtheria-Tetanus, Polio, Cholera (only when necessary), Smallpox
- Medical Kit
- Depending on what you plan to do you can include the following:
Antiseptic cream, aspirin, lomotil for diarrhoea, antibiotics, throat lozenges, ear and eye drops, antacid tablets, motion sickness medication, alcohol swabs, water purifier, lip salve, foot and groin powder, thermometer (in a case), surgical tape, assorted sticky plasters, gauze, bandages, butterfly closures, scissors and last but not least, first-aid booklet
Note: malaria pills are required in the Amazon basin, please be aware that those pills are very strong and you should check with your doctor before departure (I had the pills with me but didn't take them as I was hearing some horror stories of possible side effects).
6. Travel Gear
A high quality backpack is obviously a must.
Choose the backpack type that has different compartments that can be opened separately. Very handy if you need something quickly.
I used the Eagle Creek backpack you see on the picture on my 18 month trip in South America.
Travel as light as possible. A heavy backpack is destined to undermine your traveling pleasure.
Depends on where you go. If it's the mountains and the jungle, get some quality clothing from home. If it's the beach, buy your t-shirts there (cheap).
- Camping and Climbing Gear
You can rent camping and climbing material in South America but the quality may be questionable. Always check the material. Bring your own gear if possible. I backpacked 18 months with my own tent and various camping utensils.
Note: I rented a sleeping bag in beautiful Huaraz, Peru, when I did a 4 day hike. There was a very prosperous flea community living in that sleeping bag
Pictures are something personal. Some people just want some snap shots, others want to publish in the National Geographic. I'm still very much old school. I don't own a digital camera. All my pictures were taken with a cheap analog Nikon F50 camera.
I had two zoom lenses, a 35-80 mm. and a 70-210mm. I also dragged a tripod and an excellent flash with me. I used FUJI slides (100 ASA) but you definitely need 200 to 400 ASA if you plan to go to the jungle.
Note: a polarize filter enhances the colors tremendously on sunny days. Another filter that is of use is a u/v filter.
If your heart is up to it you can do as I did and engage yourself in volunteer work in South America for some time. I can highly recommend staying in one of the many street child care centers. It will be an experience that will stay in your heart forever.
Must See Places
Aah, finally, some of my favorite places in South America.
Go for it and see them, live them, enjoy them!
The Amazon Basin stretches from Northern Brazil to all the surrounding countries. I had an incredible wildlife tour in the pampas of Bolivia. Crocodiles, piranhas, anacondas, sweet water dolphins, thousands of astonishing birds and capybaras.
I've experienced carnival in Brazil. Not in Rio de Janeiro but in Salvador da Bahía. I had more than a great time. It was fantastic, if you want to have the party of your life, go to carnival in Brazil.
Shrouded with mystery, Chile's Easter Island has enormous sculptures scattered all over the island.
An absolute wonder of evolution, an archipelago in the waters of Ecuador. Marvel at the giant tortoises, see unique sea iguanas, swim with dolphins and sea lions and snorkel between sharks.
The Lost City of the Incas, an astonishing site in Peru. Feel the touch of the gods in this mystical sacred place.
A region of spectacular beauty in the south of Argentina and Chile. See whales, hike in Torres del Paine in Chile, go to Ushuaia (the most Southern city in the world) or see the world biggest moving glacier Perito Moreno in Argentina.
Words cannot describe the beauty of this dried up salt lake in Bolivia. Take a tour and visit the red lake, the green lake, have a hot spring bath and wonder at the most spectacular starry night you´ll ever see.
The most spiritual lake I have ever set my eyes on. It lies on the borders of Bolivia and Peru. The Floating Islands on the Peruvian side and the Island of the Sun on the Bolivian side evoke an immense tranquility. What a joy.
© All photographs by Mark Van Overmeire