Hitchhiking in South America provides the ultimate adventure. The freedom of going with the flow, meeting local people and grabbing life by the horns is a lot of temptation for an intrepid traveller to resist! But in reality, how safe and practical is it to hitchhike in South America?
To find out, we spoke to our community of adventurous travellers, asking them for their tips. The result is this epic hitchhiker’s guide to South America. From the best countries to snag a ride to safety concerns and a heartening firsthand account, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to thumb a ride in South America.
Related: (opens in new tab)
- Is South America Safe?
- What Are The Safest Countries in South America?
- South America Backpacking Tips
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to South America
Hitchhiking in South America: Country by Country
Argentina is a country no stranger to hitchhikers. This is largely because the locals use hitchhiking as a means of transport in places where public transport is scarce (which is a fair few places)! Home to one section of the Patagonia region, this is one of the most popular areas for hitching a ride in the whole continent and you can also expect to see locals thumbing a ride here.
“I did it once in El Calafate in Argentina and it was the best experience of our trip! We had a good experience so I just want to share as it might seem scary but wanted to share some positives on hitchhiking! We got a lift to tourist attractions and then back again by the same family! We [spoke] hardly any Spanish and got by! Just be safe – better to do it with others, have your route on the maps, internet access and a basic level of Spanish. It can be a great experience!” – Jade.
Hitchhiking as we traditionally think of it (that is to say in a car) is pretty unusual in Bolivia. The country has the highest rate of femicide in the entire continent and women would not be advised to get in a car with an unknown male for safety reasons.
If you are offered a ride in Bolivia, it is likely to be in a truck. It could be full of other passengers (usually locals) and you may be charged a few bolivianos for the ride (so not hitchhiking as you may know). As public transport is so cheap in Bolivia, it might be easier to hop on a bus – it’s still cheap and a ride is guaranteed!
“In Bolivia was a bit hard in some parts, mostly in small towns. Bolivians don’t really understand the hitchhiking concept and always stop to tell you that everything will be fine because the next bus will pass soon… the nearer you get to the borders, the easier it gets. Recently they forbid the trucks to pick you up (they still do but are a bit reluctant) which made it a bit hard, but still totally doable!” – Giovanna.
When it comes to countries in South America that travellers say they wouldn’t feel comfortable hitching in, Brazil is the one most commonly mentioned. With a dodgy reputation for safety at the best of times, we would definitely recommend having a bit of Portuguese under your belt as well as hitchhiking experience.
Despite this, plenty of people do thumb a ride while in the country. While I was travelling in Bolivia, I met a couple who had travelled from Portugal by cargo ship and then hitched their way through the Brazilian Amazon before crossing into Bolivia!
“I can say that in brazil [hitchhiking] is super easy! I am from there and I travelled the country all my life hitchhiking and never had a problem. Actually, I fell in love with it there!” – Giovanna.
Travellers commonly say that Colombia is the most difficult country in South America to hitchhike in. Colombia’s dark history looms big in the mind of locals and they are generally wary of picking up strangers. Even if you do want to pursue hitchhiking in Colombia, sticking out your thumb is not the best way to do this. Instead, it is far better to approach locals at petrol stations and outright ask them whether they’d consider giving you a ride.
Chile is arguably the safest country for hitchhikers in South America. Sharing the Patagonian region with Argentina, bumming a lift is common and actually expected in this area. The Carretera Austral is a hugely popular area with those thumbing a ride, although looking for someone to give you a lift in a city is less common.
“My boyfriend and I hitchhiked throughout Chile and Argentina and found it to be an awesome experience. Obviously, it’s a bit different as we were together, but I know many who did it alone and also enjoyed it massively.” – Charlotte.
Hitchhiking is becoming more popular in Ecuador but mostly happens outside the big cities owing to safety concerns. Much like in Bolivia, some drivers may expect payment so it is best to establish whether this is the case beforehand.
“Ecuador also is pretty easy to hitch around but I wouldn’t do it as a solo female around the bigger cities” – Emma.
Hitchhiking is fairly common in the more rural areas of Paraguay, however, wait times can be long due to the lack of cars on the road.
“In Paraguay, it is super easy to find rides if you are on big roads, the small ones are a little harder because there are almost no cars!” – Giovanna.
In Peru, private car ownership is not an expected thing. Therefore, it is not as easy to hitch here as it is in some other countries. If you do get picked up, it is not uncommon to be charged by the driver of the car. The highland areas around the Andes are the most common spots for hitchhikers.
“In Peru when I went hiking, I always felt comfortable [hitching a ride] but took general precautions and carried pepper spray. Helps a lot to speak Spanish and be aware of potential risks. If you haven’t hitchhiked before, maybe consider doing it with someone initially.” – Emma.
Uruguay is very similar to Argentina in a number of ways and its attitude to hitchhiking is no different. The country is generally very safe and both locals and tourists alike will often pick up hitchhikers.
9 Hitchhiking Tips
1. Choose your country wisely
Hitchhiking takes place all over South America but it is no secret that some countries come with additional risks. Always do your research before planning a hitchhiking trip.
2. Consider your group size
It is no secret to anyone who has tried to bum a ride that you are more likely to be successful if you are few in number. Solo hitchhikers and couples are likely to have the best chance of success. If you are travelling in a larger group, you should split up and arrange to meet at a mutually agreed destination later.
3. Pick a practical spot
If you’re wanting to bum a ride, always head to the outskirts of a city rather than trying to pick up transport in the centre. You’re less likely to be accosted by unlicensed taxis and find people doing longer trips.
4. Learn some of the language
When I asked our intrepid Facebook community what their best tip for hitchhiking around South America is, the first response I got was to make sure that you have a degree of fluency in the language.
While fluency would be great, it is probably a little unrealistic for some people. Instead, make sure you’ve nailed the basic phrases and words.
5. Get creative
While you don’t strictly need eye-catching signs and fluffy hats, there is no doubt that the more that you stand out, the easier it will be to catch the attention of the people driving. In areas where competition for rides is more fierce, such as Patagonia, it helps to be eye-catching.
6. Ask where the driver is going
If you’re a woman hitchhiking alone and you are concerned about safety, ask the driver where they are going rather than telling them where you want to go. This way you know they are not just telling you want they think you want to hear in order to get you in the car.
7. Suss out the vibe
Hitchhiking can be a great and cheap way to get around but it is never 100% safe. Always trust your gut and if you get a bad vibe from the driver, do not accept the ride.
8. Have your route on a map ready
Whenever we visit a new country, we always recommend buying a local SIM to stay connected. If you have access to the internet on your phone, it is a great idea to load up the route map to where you want to go. Having a visual representation of your desired destination can help to overcome language differences and avoid confusion.
9. Have a back-up plan
Hitchhiking won’t always go to plan. While it can be a great way to explore the continent and keep costs down, it can sometimes take hours to hitch a ride, if you are even offered one at all. Keep some emergency cash for accommodation or carry a tent so you won’t be stuck if no one helps you out.
Hitchhiking in South America: A Journey of Humanity
Picture yourself standing on the side of a remote road in a foreign country.
You take a good look around and breathe in your surroundings. You see truckers taking a rest amid their 24-hour international journey, jubilant children playing enthusiastically with a tattered football and a veritable army of snack-selling women waiting patiently to pounce on anyone who dares to slow below 10kmph, curiously all touting a choice of the same three items.
As the sun reaches its peak in the sky and you question your choice of shadeless spot, the thought crosses your mind that the day is half gone and you have moved nowhere so far.
All the possessions you considered important are stuffed in a 65-litre backpack which nestles snugly on your back, and with every passing moment, you curse yourself more for packing three pairs of shoes. Three pairs?! What were you thinking? You’ve barely worn one.
Had you known that no sensible traveller gives a crap about what you wear, you would be carrying a tote bag right now instead of being slowly driven into the ground.
The stream of locals surrounding you, who have become your closest friends over the past few hours, offer you anything from words of advice on which route to take to strange looks as they openly wonder what on earth these ‘gringos’ are doing here.
A car approaches in the distance and immediately you jump into action. Thunderbirds are go! You pick up the sign you lovingly crafted with a scrap of paper and some markers and make yourself as prominent as possible on the road. The car gets closer – a pickup truck!
Your heart rate increases as you see its only occupant is the driver, and you consciously begin to make eye contact with him, you know, to make yourself seem more personable. You are sure this car will stop for you.
This road has no turnings for two hours, he can’t be going anywhere else. Even if he doesn’t want to talk he could just let you jump into the flatbed where you would gratefully collapse as the wind whips your face cooling your sweat, you can already feel it as you form a vivid picture in your mind.
And then he’s gone. No explanation, no words exchanged, just flew by as if you didn’t exist. Unfortunately, this was just one of the tens of cars that have passed you in the past three hours and there isn’t much time to dwell on your intense disappointment before a shabby Toyota comes speeding toward you. You immediately pull yourself together and resume your station, just as confident that this one really will be your ticket out of here.
As the car becomes clearer you see once again that it’s just one driver and no passengers. You hold the sign high and give him as wide a smile as you can muster and to your absolute delight he slows down to a crawl before stopping right next to you.
After a brief exchange where he establishes that you are unlikely to be a serial killer (and you do the same) he tells you he is going your way and to hop in. At that moment, all the previous hours of dashed hopes well up inside of you like an erupting volcano and you literally jump for joy that another human is reaching out to you in a time of need. Have you ever actually jumped for joy before?
You take a seat inside the car where you learn your saviour’s name – Victor – and that he’s travelling with a particularly feisty terrier called Manolo. You ask inquisitively what brings Victor on the road?
He answers you by removing his radio head unit to reveal a secret compartment packed with clothes; he’s bought these in a tax-free zone by the border and he’s planning on slipping them past customs for a quick profit.
You sit back and take in a breath of slightly musky air laced with a hint of tobacco smoke and dog hair. You look at your morally questionable driver and then stare out of the window as you begin to pick up speed moving further and further from your most recent home, and the only word to describe what you’re feeling right now? Gratitude.
This story (which happened to my friend and me three days ago) perfectly highlights why we decided to abruptly change the theme of our travels for something less predictable.
We had just completed 2 weeks of hostel-hopping and landmark-visiting in Argentina and, as fun as it was, we just wanted something a bit different.
Yes those waterfalls are spectacular, yes those rock formations do have a lot of colours, but where’s the challenge? Moving from well-trodden place to place with groups of Anglos comparing pictures of the same sites no longer stimulated us, we needed to mix it up.
I was shocked by my friend’s enthusiastic response and before I knew it we were waiting by a petrol station on an exit route out of Salta, Argentina with a sign that simply read “Chile, Por Favor”.
Only later did we realise how monumentally naïve we were to think that it was likely that someone would take us from there all 8 hours directly to Chile, but that was the first step in a very steep learning curve.
As we developed our techniques for hailing a ride it quickly became apparent that we were essentially salespeople to the public, and the product? Us. Necessity required progressively increasing creativity during each of those fleeting moments of interaction with the passing vehicles.
From multi-coloured signs to dancing in the street and even placing ourselves suspiciously close to a police stop to ensure a trickle of slow-moving cars, we took each day as a clean slate awaiting innovation.
Hitchhiking in South America can teach you more than you think.
Something important to me about travelling is the truly flexible mindset. The ability to immediately change your plans when something pulls you in a different direction is a luxury often not indulged by people in ‘the real world’ and can be the start of the greatest adventures.
Hitching can frequently present you with these opportunities; when you are offered a ride somewhere not exactly on your route, or even in the wrong direction. Say yes without obsessing over where you’re supposed to be going and just see where it takes you.
We found ourselves in the cargo hold of an open-topped 18-wheeler speeding through the sinuous roads of the Peruvian Andes mesmerised by the sun-strewn landscape flying past after Rolando was kind enough to take us somewhere vaguely in the direction of Lima.
Yes, we had no desire to go to the loading yard where he was to stock his truck with seaweed, and yes we needed our sleeping bags once the chilly night fell, but that was a journey we will never forget.
For somebody who constantly needs to have some sort of plan, I have found this new element of going with the flow truly invaluable and I hope to take a little of that home with me.
Putting aside the ego embedded in the fact that everybody likes to do something a little different on their travels – you know, have a good story – something dawned on us that compelled us to continue down this path.
We realised that almost all the locals that we would usually come into contact with on our travels were in some capacity trying to sell us something; be it hostel staff, tour operators or street vendors – most conversations were centred around some sort of purchase.
Suddenly, we were meeting a cohort of people who had just invited us into their car without expecting anything in return. Oftentimes we found that after they would pick us up, they would feel a responsibility for our welfare and go out of their way to help us in any way possible, be it including us in their dining plans or helping us secure the next leg of our journey, we were truly moved by their benevolence.
We also noticed that sitting next to a complete stranger who has just performed an act of kindness for you breeds conversation of genuine interest. Who is this selfless person? Why did they, of all people, stop to help you out? We decided to take these opportunities to peer into a new culture from a different perspective.
As an aside, having to make conversation rapidly progressed our Spanish from speaking un pocito (a tiny bit) to un poco (a little bit).
Of course, hitchhiking in South America is by no means for everyone, it takes those who are really prepared to put themselves out there and wade through the barrage of rejection that inevitably flies your way.
The frustrating times can teach you patience and positivity; you can re-enforce your faith in humankind or throw it into question; you can experience the peaks and troughs of human emotion – and that’s just in the first 10 minutes!
Our journey is coming to a close but yours could just be beginning, and all it takes is a point of the thumb, what have you got to lose?
About the writer: This personal account was written by Chaim Haber, a 26-year-old backpacker (and hitchhiker) from the UK. He is currently taking a break from his work as a doctor and is now continuing his journey in Colombia.