Backpacking Across South America? Here’s Your 3-Week Itinerary

Adventure
January 3, 2014 1:14 am

Three friends are planning separate trips to South America in 2014 (one is World Cup-related!) and asked me for suggested itineraries after my six months on the continent in 2008. To help them out, I list some suggested sights, a list of bus times as I know them (really hard to find!), and a few other tips and tricks for spending a month in South America.

South America’s strangeness and beauty comes from the fact that often the most deliberate tourist attractions still give you that transcendent feeling only usually spurred by an “authentic” cultural experience. So much of that continent’s history still lives, and those places are very worth seeing. The people are open and welcoming, and even a place like the Floating Islands in Peru, which in photos looks like a tourist trap, teaches you something very real about the people who live there and what matters to them. Go with an open mind, and ask lots of questions not only to your guides but to everyone else, too.

Building an Itinerary
This is loosely based off my time in South America. The Bolivia/Peru/Rio portion took 3 weeks. I would not plan to do all three of those countries in 2 weeks simply because erratic bus schedules may cause you to miss a flight if you’re over scheduling.

'The Devil's Throat,' a famous rock formation in El Cayafate, Argentina

‘The Devil’s Throat,’ a famous rock formation in El Cayafate, Argentina

Argentina

Need a friend? Buenos Aires (like any city) is really fun with a friend. But the rest of Argentina makes for a great adventure trip alone.
Language: The Spanish is difficult here. Italians emigrated to Buenos Aires in two major waves (the latest in the ’50s) meaning Argentinian Spanish is heavily accented and they speak very, very quickly. Even if you spoke years of Spanish in college, you’ll have trouble here. Some of my friends who studied abroad in Spain had a hard time as well.
Safety: I never had concerns here for my safety.
What to pack: Even though Buenos Aires is a major city, don’t expect to find anyone dressed in designer labels. Basic cotton clothing (think Target) is your best bet. Converse are very popular here and might help you fit in a little.

Don’t miss:

  • Buenos Aires as a whole is a fantastic city. We have plenty of information here on TKGO on this subject, including advice from Karina (who’s living there!) on transportation and hostels in Argentina. You can easily plan for 2 weeks here.
  • Iguazu Falls: These waterfalls in Misiones are great, but even better is the vibe in this town. Most tourists are just passing through to see the falls so don’t spend more than 2 days, but as this town is like a local vacation spot for Argentinian families, it gives off a different feeling than most places in Argentina.
  • Bariloche: This local resort town is the equivalent of Colorado in the U.S. Primarily local tourism with the emphasis on hiking, skiing, and locally handmade dark chocolate. There’s plenty here.
  • Salta: The town itself isn’t great just walking around — you have to know what you’re looking for. This is gaucho central, where you should expect to catch a show with folkloric music and coca tea. A variation on the empanada called “saltea” is a delicious local treat. Finally, the area’s highlight was the neighboring area of El Cayafate, where the rock formations make for a great hike! A number of tour companies will take you on different adventures there, which you can easily book ahead via email. Movitrack is one of the more hardcore companies to offer daytrips through the formations.

Crossing the border from Argentina to Bolivia:
There are many ways to do this, but walking across is a popular solution. Many buses in Argentina can get you to the border town of Guemes. From there, you walk across (passport and cash in hand) to the Bolivian side where the border town is a train hub called Villazon. It’s easy to then hop on a train to Uyuni or anywhere else.

Waiting for a 'taxi' in La Paz, Bolivia

Waiting for a ‘taxi’ in La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivia

Need a friend? This is the highlight of all South America. It’s not as fun when you’re alone because you’ll find far fewer fellow travelers — very little tourism exists here. Bring an adventurous friend if you can, but don’t skip Bolivia just because you can’t find one.
Language: There was basically no emigration to this country ever, so the Spanish is really pure and easy to understand. However, you won’t find English outside your hostel or hotel.
Safety: I never had concerns here for my safety. However, it’s necessary to carry cash to find places to stash it on your person. No one takes credit cards in this country outside La Paz (still not common).
What to pack: Nothing remotely fancy. You’ll want closed toed shoes as the terrain gets a little rough. Toilet paper (or Kleenex pocket packs) will come in very handy!

Don’t miss:

  • Salar de Uyuni: The Salt Flats are famous for many reasons, and of course it’s a tourist trap, but it was the highlight of the trip. Back in 2008 I signed up with Laqaya Tours for an overnight, where the price was Bs$1296 (USD$180). Sleeping bag rental is USD$7. Pay in cash (either dollars or bolivianos accepted). They pick up in front of the bus terminal in Uyuni. A secondary piece of the tour is the train graveyard, which is stunning in the desert. You may even see a few small sand tornados which look straight out of an installation in the MoMA.
  • Copacabana: This is the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca (the Peruvian side is Puno), also the launching point to visit the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the sun in Incan mythology. The museums on the island are disappointing, but the two sites of Incan ruins are worth seeing (Chincana & Pilko Kaina). Take the early boat to Isla del Sol at 8:15am and the early boat back to Copacabana at 11am — it’s enough time. The only other boat returns at 5pm which isn’t enough time to see Copacabana after your return. This is another popular touristy spot with plenty of hostels, and easy to spend a day or two here on your own.

Skip:

  • La Paz: I hate to recommend you skip an entire city, but the smaller cities in Bolivia are more worth your time. If you connect to another city via La Paz, take notice of the “taxi” system of public shared vans that serve almost as buses into, out of, and around the city.

Bus Schedules:

  • Uyuni > La Paz (overnight): Todo Turismo bus service can often be purchased ahead
    • Uyuni bus ticket office: Calle Cabrera Nro 158
  • La Paz > Copacabana (4 hours, US$2): No need to buy far ahead.
  • Copacabana > Puno (3.5 hours around Lake Titicaca): No need to buy far ahead.

Note on cash:  Take enough cash out in Uyuni to last you for a long time. Copacabana/Isla del Sol are more touristy and those ATMs/exchange houses will rip you off.

Floating Islands, Puno, Peru

Floating Islands, off the coast of Puno in Peru

Peru

Need a friend? Either or! Peru is a little more of an adventure, and hiking through ruins can almost become a spiritual experience if you’re on your own.
Language: Spanish is pretty easy to understand here, but there isn’t a ton of English so plan your itinerary ahead.
Safety: Avoid spending large amounts of time in Lima, and wear poor clothing. Peru is not dangerous, but there’s a lot of pick-pocketing in Lima (traveler’s worst nightmare).
What to pack: Adventure clothing! Peru is a great place to hike, to spend time at high altitudes, walk longer distances, and sometimes get wet unexpectedly. You don’t need Tivas and nylon vests—just don’t bring anything you care about. Bring sunblock and Converse.

Don’t miss:

  • Puno: This Lake Titicaca town is home to two sights: First is the “floating islands” where people still actually live. It’s super touristy obviously (that’s their entire income) but it’s beautiful. Second: Sillustani ruins are stunning. Puno is also a good jumping off point to the rest of southern Peru and Bolivia: buses depart from here to Cusco, Arequipa, Juliaca, Tacna, Lima, and La Paz.
  • Cusco: Sign up for a tour here. The city is rich with history and if you’re not hiking the Inca Trail, you can sign up for tours that will take you to those archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley within a few hours rather than the 4 days. Many tourists are eager to head to Machu Picchu right away and stay in Aguas Calientes, so Cusco tends to be more relaxing (and slightly more local) tour experience. The Precolumbian Art Museum here is one of the best in the world and worth a visit with a tour guide before you head to Machu Picchu.
  • The Inca Trail: A 26-mile, 4-day hike (not super strenuous) from Cusco to the mountain, passing plenty of gorgeous ruins. It’s a great thing to do by yourself.
  • Machu Picchu: Buy the entrance tickets at the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre in Aguas Calientes (10 m from the main Plaza, opens at 5:15am). The entrance fee is 122 Peruvian Soles — bring the exact amount. No USD accepted. As soon as you enter Machu Picchu, make your way over to the base of Huayna Picchu where you’ll find a small hut handing out the free tickets to climb. Only 400 people can climb per day — the first 200 can go up straight away, and the second group is permitted at 10am. The views are worth the effort, I promise.

Skip:

  • Sacred Valley: If you’re in a time crunch and not into Precolumbian history, you may find this missable. If so, spend the extra time at Machu Picchu or in Cusco. But I’m hugely into Precolumbian history and absolutely loved it.
  • Lima: If you happen to stop over on your flight to Brazil as I did, the ceviche in Miraflores (an upscale neighborhood overlooking stunning beaches) is incredible. Overall, like La Paz, it’s not a must-see. The best is in the smaller cities.
  • Aguas Calientes: Skip the hot springs (they’re a different kind of dirty, like never been cleaned ever dirty, and more lukewarm than hot), and skip the guinea pig, a specialty at local restaurants with a 600% price markup for tourists. Spend your time in Cusco.

Bus Schedules:

The views on the trains from Cusco to Aguas Calientes are stunning (AC is where you get the bus to Machu Picchu). Trips are frequent but in high demand, so buy these tickets as soon as you get to Cusco. From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, you take a bus that drops you toward the top of the mountain. The last bus leaves Machu Picchu for Aguas at 5:30p. If you miss it, you can walk the 1 hour downhill back to AC.

The view from Sugarloaf (Pao de Acucar)

The view from Sugarloaf (Pao de Acucar), Rio de Janeiro

Brazil

Need a friend? Rio de Janeiro is the only city I visited in Brazil. It’s a great place to spend a week or two by yourself. Lots of singles tend to stay in the hostels here on the beach, and they tend to make friends and plan fun day trips. English is the common language in the hostels.
Language: Everyone speaks English. The lack of Spanish actually surprised me—very few spoke any Spanish and if they did, their English was better anyway.
Safety: There are a couple somewhat sketchy places in Rio. Not talking about the favelas — there are some neighborhoods in the city where crime and violence are a problem. You won’t likely end up there, but just be aware.
What to pack: You really don’t need any nice clothing there—it looks out of place. Just cotton, stuff that can get sandy. Sandals. A light sweatshirt for the nighttime.

Don’t miss:

  • Churrascarias: I would recommend doing research on your own to find a couple good ones, instead of asking a hotel concierge. They just point you to the fancy ones, which won’t give you food poisoning but also have zero atmosphere. The really fun ones are more local, but you have to be more discerning about what you choose to eat if you don’t have a tough stomach.
  • Samba bars: They spill into the streets at night, and it looks like they’re restaurants during the day. You can literally follow your ears to the live music. They’re in the not-fancy parts of town, so you may have to take a cab. Unlike other places in South America, people get plastered in Rio and it’s all a good vibe. I never was worried about getting conned or mugged at a party (not that I brought anything worth stealing). You definitely don’t need to know how to samba — someone will teach you.
  • Beaches and flea markets: I would highly recommend buying a Brazilian cut bikini bottom before going. The beachside vendors target anyone with a covered up swim suit and it’s annoying when you’re napping in the sun. Make sure you get yourself a coconut water or matte leao!

Skip:

  • Cable car up Pao de Acucar: The views of Rio from Sugarloaf are beautiful and it’s a really quick trip up and down (less than half a day) but it’s just a lot more fun on the ground!
  • Corcovado: This statue of Christ is a huge global symbol of the city of Rio, but when you get to the top, it’s just a monument. I’d choose one or the other (Pao de Acucar or Corcovado) for your vista of the city and skip the other.
  • Favela tours: I don’t tend to support slum tourism (it’s kind of sick, like a human zoo), but I hear the ones in Rio are less terrible than elsewhere, contributing to the favela economies a little more than usual.

Logistics: Making Reservations and Bookings

My three friends are planners, as many of the travel bunch are. We especially want to know about transportation, like when the only bus in and out of a town every week leaves the station. South America does not cater to planners. Expect much of your booking to be done on the fly.

Transportation Between Cities: Train/Bus
Sometimes you cannot buy a train or bus ticket until you arrive at the city you’ll be leaving from. Don’t fret — trips between smaller cities rarely sell out. A general rule of thumb is that if there’s no online booking system, just buy your ticket the day you arrive in the new city, or at least one day before you want to depart, and you’ll be fine. For bigger cities with buses leaving multiple times per day/week, keep in mind that online schedules are rarely updated.

If you want to plan from home, you will do better checking travel forums than official websites. The most reliable is to ask your local hostel.

Transportation By Air
Low budget airlines such as Taka may not show up on Expedia.

 

Good luck to my biffles, and safe travels! 

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