Updated March 8th, 2020.
Thanks to the Andes, South America is arguably the most diverse continent on our planet. The impact this mountain range has on its surroundings is massive, it separates deserts from rainforests and boasts more than 100 peaks over 6000 metres above sea level. The Andes is home to the highest mountains outside of Asia and allows us to get closer to space than anywhere else on earth!
From buzzing South American nightlife, to the best beaches on earth, from high altitude mountain trekking to whitewater rafting through the rainforest, this is a continent that has it all!
We Present To You The Best Of The Best…
1. For Variety Head to… Chile!
To experience a huge slice of South America’s diversity, make your way to Chile. Covering over 4000 km north to south, Chile is the longest (or second longest)* country in the world. This immense distance means it stretches over 10 climatic zones, each with dramatically different weather patterns and wildlife. Ice caps and glaciers rule the south whilst the world’s driest desert dominates the north. In between is Patagonia, Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and the Valdivian temperate rainforest, which teems with life.
The lowest point of the country is bang on sea level and the highest, the peak of Ojos del Saldo, reaches up to almost 7000 metres. With such a dramatic change of elevation, weather, flora and fauna, you would not be wrong in thinking, Chile has something for everyone.
It’s not just about the climate though, the buildings, food and culture can vary enormously.
The alpine ski resorts look like they have been ripped straight out of Bavaria but in Viña del Mar, the glitzy beach promenade could be mistaken for Miami or Marbella. Whatever you’re after from your backpacker experience, you’ll find it in this incredible country.
*Depending on your sources. Many experts argue that Brazil is a touch longer. Even so, there would be less than 100 km in it!
Must see spots in Chile:
- Located bang in the middle of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park has to be seen to be believed. Aquamarine lakes nestle amongst towering, snow capped peaks, leaving visitors in a state of awe. The famous ‘W’ and ‘O’ treks both call this national park home and attract thousands of visitors each year. Whilst it is possible to go in winter (April to September), tours are limited because of bad weather and short days.
- Valparaíso, close to Santiago, is a colourful example of a South American city. Explore the hills that make up this ex maritime haven and marvel at the constant sensory overload. Street art explodes over every corner and the cities’ funiculars are a great way to save your legs on all the hills! Do not miss the famous Chorillana, this dish involves meat, more meat, cheese, fried onions, chips and more meat, all topped off with a fried egg.
- Often skipped by backpackers due to cost, Easter Island is well worth a visit if your time and budget allow it. Located over 3500 km from the mainland, the island is steeped in mystery and lures visitors from the mainland year round. It’s not just the famous Easter Island Heads, or Moai, either. There are plenty of other attractions, from stunning beaches to beautiful volcano hikes. Getting to the island on a budget can be a challenge. Flights only leave from Santiago and are expensive! Make sure you book your flight and accommodation in advance as spaces fill up quickly.
2. For The Best Beaches Head to…Brazil!
Whilst Chile has some spectacular coastal regions, Brazil is renown for having the best beaches in South America. In fact, the British expression ‘that’s my cup of tea’ has a Brazilian equivalent: “é minha praia”, Portuguese for ‘that’s my beach’. Say no more!
From Uruguay to French Guiana, its coastline stretches for 8,000 kilometres which is further than the distance between London and Mumbai (and that’s not even including the river beaches along The Amazon)!
There are over 2,000 beaches from buzzing Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio, to more secluded tropical hideaways far up north in Bahía. Don’t just stick to the vast golden sands either, the toasty Atlantic waters create the perfect environment for water sports. Surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing and even diving are all common pastimes for locals and travellers alike.
Must see spots in Brazil:
- The island of Florianópolis is home to great hiking, beautiful beaches and just the right number of backpacking hippies. Connected to the mainland via a bridge, Florianópolis is easy to reach and has great transport links.
- The beach paradise of Alter do Chão. Hidden deep within The Amazon, this river beach town is as laid back as they come! No one is in a rush and with little to do aside from relax on the sand, even the most on-the-go folks find it easy to unwind. Getting here involves jumping on a boat for 1-3 days to the city of Santarém, before boarding a bus for the rest of the trip. Alternatively, you can fly into Santarém from either Belem or Manaus. Flying costs significantly more but the prices vary. Book as far in advance as you can and make sure you use a service such as Skyscanner to get the best deal.
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s old capital, may seem a bit too cosmopolitan for “true backpackers” but this city oozes fun and personality. From Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain, to perfect beaches and favela tours, Rio is a city that will keep you occupied for much longer than you’d expect. Planes, trains and buses all serve the city so there are plenty of ways in and, if you don’t decide to stay forever, out again.
3. For Nightlife Head to… Colombia!
If you are hunting for a party, look no further than the backpacker haven of Colombia! This country has truly shrugged off its dark and dangerous past and is one of the most popular South American countries for travellers.
Personal safety is no longer the concern it was and now friendly, educated, stylish Colombians have helped reinvent the country and release it from the drug cartels that once ruled. Each city has its charms but they all have one thing in common… Chiva Tours!
Ride around the city in a blinged out, open sided bus and let the drinks flow. The music will just get louder and louder and before long everyone on board will be as loud as they are pissed. It’s an experience to say the least!
Must see spots in Colombia:
- The city of Cali. Brazil and Argentina may have buckets of nightlife to offer but Colombia’s Calí is the world’s undisputed capital of Salsa, with many Salsotecas pulsating well into the night. Many hostels offer free salsa classes so you don’t become a complete embarrassment when you give it a go after too many aguardientes!
- In both Bogotá and Cartagena, Chiva Tours are around $15 per night for entry, transport and unlimited rum and Colombian doughnuts. Can’t say fairer than that! If you get fed up with the Chiva tours but the night is still young (in Colombia, the night is always young), then head to one of the thriving bar districts. In Bogatá head over to Zona T, or Zona Rosa as it’s also known. This area is crammed full of the best bars and clubs the city has to offer. Likewise, in Cartagena, head to Getsemani to see how the locals like to party!
- If partying isn’t your thing but you still find yourself drawn to Colombia, don’t worry! There are plenty of other activities to keep you busy. The Lost City Trek rivals the famous Inca Trail in terms of beauty but is wildly more challenging. The route takes you through waist deep rivers and sends you scrambling up steep rock faces. You must carry everything with you as there are no porters or horses on this trek. The Lost City Trek is not one for the faint of heart but is an adventure you’ll remember for a lifetime.
These two countries are so close together yet offer such incredible experiences it’s hard to choose between them. Instead of our South America Backpacker team having a Battle Royale to decide which is best, we decided to throw them in together.
The reason these countries provide such an array of activities is simple: The Andes. The world’s longest mountain range and the vast Altiplano calls out for off the beaten track adventures and what better reason to come to South America in the first place?
Of course, there is the famous Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in Peru and The Salt Flats in Bolivia but nearly every large town in these countries will give you an opportunity to do something you’ve never done before.
Trekking in Che Guevara’s footsteps, climbing a peak over 6,000 metres or whitewater rafting through the jungle all need to be considered if you want to experience the real Andean countries.
Must see spots in Peru and Bolivia:
- Peru – Yes, it feels overcrowded when you get there but trekking to Machu Picchu really is one of the best South American experiences you can have. Whether you book early enough to take on the Inca trail or are a little under prepared (like me) and have to opt for the Salkantay or Lares treks, the journey is way better than the destination. None of the treks are easy but facing the challenge and following in the footsteps of the once great Incan empire is an experience you’ll be telling people about for years.
- Rainbow Mountain, not far from Cusco is a sight you will not forget quickly. The coloured stripes that make up these towering mountains are certainly enhanced on the tour poster but seeing them in person is still breathtaking. The hike up to 5000 metres above sea level will also leave you fighting for oxygen, so do not attempt this until you are acclimatised to the Andean elevations.
- Bolivia – For one of the best priced 3-day tours you will find anywhere in the world, head to Uyuni to check out The Salt Flats. Go between December and April to get the full mirror effect which makes you feel like you are staring into eternity. Following a day on the actual salt flats, most tours will take you further into the Altiplano. Here you will witness flamingos in bizarre coloured lagoons, geysers and some of the best views of the milky way our world has to offer.
- Just outside the city of La Paz is the infamous Death Road. With steep drops up to 1000 metres, no safety barrier and barely enough room to squeeze two cars past each other, it is easy to see why the road got its name. Now closed to traffic, it is possible to cycle down this 60 km road on a specialised mountain bike. Not for the faint of heart, a trip to Death Road will get your heart pounding and give you another great story to tell when you get home!
5. For Wildlife head to… Ecuador!
Ecuador is one of the smaller countries in South America, which makes it very easy to travel around. It is one of the few nations in the world where you can have breakfast on the beach, lunch high in the mountains and dinner in the rainforest. With this incredible collection of environments all so close together, it’s no wonder that wildlife spotting is commonplace throughout the country.
From seeing Caimans and Spider Monkeys in the rainforest to glimpsing an Andean Fox high in the mountains, it’s hard to stop staring at the world around you for fear of missing something special.
But it’s not only the mainland that offers an incredible array of species. The Galapagos Islands are a bucket list experience for any nature lover and allow you to get up close to Giant Tortoises, Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas, Blue Footed Boobies and if you are lucky, Hammerhead sharks. Exploring the Galapagos Islands is a little like being in an Attenborough documentary but you don’t have to look for the wildlife – it will find you! Book your own diving and hiking adventure to the Galapagos for the chance to see incredible marine life and much more!
Even if your budget doesn’t stretch to the Galapagos, you don’t have to miss out on some of the country’s most impressive wildlife. Half an hour off the coast of Puerto Lopez, Isla de la Plata is home to thousands of Blue Footed Boobies, as well as Nazca and Red Footed Boobies. If you time your trip well, you may even spot Manta Rays, Humpback Whales and Albatros but these are only close by at certain times of the year. Be sure to ask with your guide when you book which animals you are likely to encounter.
Must see spots in Ecuador:
- A trip to Ecuador will never be truly complete without a hop over to the Galapagos Islands. The cheapest way to do this is to fly from Guayaquil to either Baltra (Santa Cruz) or San Cristobal. From either of these Galapagos Islands, you can spot a wild array of animals, go on tours or just hop on a speed boat to another island. If you don’t want the headache of arranging the trip for yourself, check out one of the many Galapagos cruises available. Be aware that cheaper cruises will only take you to sights and activities you could arrange yourself for free…
- If you are near the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, then set aside a day or two to make your way to Mindo Cloud Forest. Here you will see more hummingbirds, butterflies and reptiles than you thought possible! Keep your eyes peeled and you may even see a Toucan or two scrambling about above your head!
- The Galapagos is sadly, not within everyone’s budget. Instead of pining over what could have been, take a bus to Tena to get a little off the beaten track. Whilst some travellers do still visit this vibrant city, most backpackers avoid it because it is a little too far out of the way. Surrounded by verdant cloud forest and hemmed in by the Andes this town offers some of the best white water rafting anywhere in the country! On the right day, you can even spot monkeys swinging lazily through the trees as you float on by.
- As well as being a base for exploring Isla de la Plata, Puerto Lopez is also home to Humpback Whales from June to December, when they flock to the area to mate and give birth. Sightings are virtually guaranteed during this time and tours can be arranged in most hostels for just $20USD per person.
6. For Food and Drink head to…Argentina!
Two words: wine and steak; enough said. Because of its climate and environment, Argentina is arguably the best place in the world to taste both of them. Pretty much anywhere in Argentina, you will find a prime steak and a good glass of Malbec for a price much cheaper than at home. These aren’t the only tasty treats you should try though, Argentina produces some of the best food found throughout South America!
Asado is the Argentine version of a BBQ. This isn’t your typical British summer BBQ, standing around in the rain whilst dad burns the sausages. An Asado is an event that can last hours and they serve the tastiest meats you can imagine!
If you attend an Asado, no doubt your host will introduce you to Chimichurri. This condiment is to Argentinians, what ketchup is to Brits. Made from olive oil, chilli flakes, onion, garlic, oregano, parsley and a drop of lemon or vinegar, Chimichurri is served with almost every meal.
After the abundance of meat and wine, it is understandable that you would want a sweet treat. This is where Dulce de Leche comes in. This caramel starts life as condensed milk and is boiled down further until it reaches its final, sweet sticky form. Served on everything from empanadas to ice cream, Dulce de Leche features in swanky restaurants and is a favourite South American street food too.
Must see spots in Argentina:
- The famous wine region of Mendoza is a must see for wine lovers. The city of Mendoza is a good distance from the nearest bodegas but the city eats, sleeps and breathes wine. Free tastings are available on every street and tour companies offer trips to vineyards all day, every day. The Bodegas are some of the finest in the world and the snow capped mountains towering over the grapevines sure make for some spectacular photos!
- Known as “Paris of the South” Buenos Aires really does have a Parisian feel to it. Trees line the streets whilst cafes on every corner provide the perfect rest stop. The city doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either! The Tango clubs are world renowned so make sure you go, even if it is just to watch!
- If Argentina’s great food and drink choices leave you with that post Christmas, loosen the belt feeling, head on down to El Calafate. Surrounding the town is Los Glaciares National Park, making it the perfect place to pull on your walking boots and explore the outdoors. Within the national park, you can hike up to and on top of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, which is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing.
Written by: Harry Van Schaick and updated by Tim Ashdown.