Updated October 3rd, 2019.
South America is a vast continent with more variation in landscape, culture and weather than any other. Unless you have the budget to facilitate flying from country to country, travelling around this huge landmass can prove to be a long and arduous process. You can expect to not only spend hours on uncomfortable buses but also an ungodly amount of time in even more uncomfortable bus terminals. Of course, some trips are too short to allow you to jump on a bus for 12 hours at a time so in these instances, the only option is to break the bank and fly.
For those with both free time and a bit of money behind them, road tripping is the perfect way to travel across South America in a much more up close and personal way. Through conversations with locals, travellers and some extensive research, we have compiled this list of some of the best road trips South America has to offer.
But before we get to the list…
Why road trip South America?
The answer is simple: to experience more. Rather than just passively passing through on a bus or flying over in a plane, you are making an active effort to travel through and be a part of the environment. You will need to stop and interact with local people for simple things like fuel and food. You’ll find yourself seeing things from a much more local perspective and be able to understand the nuances of each town you pass through. There will be no more sitting on a bus and watching the world move around you, you will be moving with the world.
There are other obvious benefits too. Instead of being on someone else’s schedule, you can do things at your own pace. You can stop for a break whenever you want, be it to take photos of the mountainous landscape or to pee behind a hedge. Can’t find an affordable bed in town? That’s okay, there’s plenty of daylight left so just drive to the next one. Or, better yet, sleep in the car!
You will also be more prepared as you are not cramming all of your belongings into a 40-litre backpack and instead, you have an entire car’s worth of space. That extra jumper and coat that you couldn’t fit in your bag will look just fine draped across the passenger seat!
A road trip may initially seem like an isolating way to travel as you are unlikely to be making new friends in hostels every night if you are sleeping in your vehicle or camping near the road. However, you are unlikely to be totally out of the hostel circuit. Many hostels have car parks so when you feel like you need a real bed and a shower they are easy to find.
Once you get chatting with other travellers, you will see their eyes light up when they learn that you are road tripping. To them, you will be a rockstar travelling in a way they can only dream of. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer them a ride for a few days and ask to split the fuel bill. Very few people will turn this down and you will save a huge amount of money, not to mention make plenty of new friends! As you would expect, being in a car for eight hours with somebody is a great way to get to know them.
International Driving Permits (IDP’s)
International driving permits are required for foreign nationals to drive in over 140 countries across the world. Unless you are South American, chances are you will need one on this continent. The rules are often changing around IDP’s so can be hard to keep up with so check with the relevant authorities for the most up to date information regarding IDP’s.
To buy or to ship?
Before you choose a vehicle, you need to decide whether you are going to ship one from home, buy one in South America. Although shipping may be costly, it is often an easier task than trying to buy a car when you arrive as many South American countries make it difficult to purchase a car legally as a foreigner.
Of course, this is not to say it’s impossible to buy a car in South America but you have to know what you are doing. Chile is often touted as the easiest place to buy a vehicle thanks to their less stringent laws but it can still be a complicated and daunting process, especially if you don’t know what you are doing.
You may find if you buy a vehicle from another foreigner that they will already understand the process and help you through it. There are also companies, such as SuziSantiago, who can help you through the entire process of finding, buying and registering a vehicle for a small fee.
Other common places to buy vehicles are Tierra Del Fuego in the south of Argentina, or Colombia. Road trippers or overlanders as they are colloquially known, tend to end their adventures in these locations and will often try to sell a vehicle rather than ship it home. Pan Americana Forum and Horizons Unlimited are both good sites for finding second-hand vehicles from overlanders. Normally the sellers will help with the legal paperwork as part of the deal.
As with buying any second-hand vehicle, make sure you get a good look first and if you feel uncomfortable buying, say no. You can communicate with the sellers beforehand on both sites mentioned earlier so go with your gut. If you get a bad vibe from the get-go then don’t meet up to view the vehicle.
Can I hire a car to road trip South America?
Car hire in South America is simple when compared to buying or shipping a vehicle. The upside or hiring is that you get a well looked after, reliable vehicle which will be fully supported by the hire company. Should anything go wrong, providing you have the correct insurance and haven’t broken the terms and conditions, the hire company will be able to help you out.
There are a few downsides with hiring a car in South America. Firstly, cost. You will probably be looking to spend at least $40 USD a day for the vehicle, depending on the country and that is without fuel or parking costs.
Although you have much more freedom in a hire car than on public transport, it is not quite like having your own vehicle. Many hire companies will not rent you a car for some of the tougher road trips so always be open with them about your route. There is no point lying to them about where you are going and then having to beg for help when you’ve broken the suspension on a road that the car is not suitable for.
It can also get tricky trying to cross borders in hire cars. Many companies will not let their vehicles leave the country and those that do charge around $200 USD to get the paperwork in order.
If you do decide that hiring a car is right for you, there are many car hire agencies across South America for you to choose from. Hunting through them all can be a real headache but thankfully, comparison and booking services, such as rentalcars.com make it quick and easy to arrange your hire car before you arrive.
The Darien Gap
People often ask whether it is possible to buy a car in the USA and then simply drive south. Whilst it is possible for a foreigner to buy a car in the USA, it is not possible to drive it into South America thanks to the Darien Gap.
This 160 km area of Panama is nothing but forest and swampland. It is used by drug cartels and paramilitary groups as a safe zone between the America’s. No road that goes through it and attempting to cross it by any means is foolhardy at best and deadly at worst.
It is possible to ship vehicles around the Darien Gap, from Panama to Colombia, or vice versa but is costly and the ferries are inconsistent. The price varies between $1000-$2500 per container. You can fit two cars in each container so buddy up with someone else to share the costs.
The cheaper option is the roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferry. The crew will drive your vehicle on before driving it off the other end when you reach the destination. This requires you to hand over your keys and entrust your car to someone else for the duration of the journey. It goes without saying that you should remove any valuables from your vehicle if you are planning to use his service.
For more information on shipping check out this article from Drive The Americas.
Type of vehicle
The type of trip you will be taking and the route you plan on following will have an impact on the vehicle you choose. As a basic rule, most South American roads are fine for normal two-wheel drive cars, providing you drive carefully. The road surfaces are sometimes in need of repair but you shouldn’t let a few (a lot of) potholes put you off. Of course, some routes are impossible to navigate without a 4×4 so do your research before deciding on which road trip to embark upon.
If you decide on a journey that doesn’t require a 4×4, then you need to work out what size vehicle you do need. Would you prefer to drive a small car, camp when possible and stay in hostels along the route? Or, does it make more sense to get a van that you can convert into your own house on wheels? Most conversions are simple and very cost-effective. It is also possible to buy vehicles that have already been converted.
Sure, you are unlikely to have a shower or toilet onboard but the money you save on accommodation will mean you can travel for much longer with the world as your bathroom. A small car is the cheapest option but a van is arguably more comfortable for longer journeys.
10 of the Best South America Road Trips
1. The Seven Lakes, Argentina
- Length: 108 km.
- Highlights: The seven lakes – Lago Lácar, Lago Machónico, Lago Falkner, Lago Villarino, Lago Espejo, Lago Correntoso, Lago Nahuel Huapi.
- Vehicle type: This section of Route 40 is well paved so any vehicle will suffice.
- Costs: Under $20 in fuel. Accommodation at either end starts at around $30 per night for two people. If you are not sleeping in your vehicle then make sure you book in advance as these options often sell out. Vehicle hire starts at around $35 per day.
This is a short but stunning section of the famous Argentinian Route 40 between San Martin De Los Andes and Villa La Angostura. The journey winds along the shores of seven distinct lakes which gives the route its name. There are more lakes accessible via small detours and these are likely to be less crowded and unbelievably, even more beautiful.
Clear, inviting waters, dark grey mountains and pale blue skies mean you will be greeted with a new vista after every turn in the road. Take spare camera batteries because you are bound to spend your day snapping away!
2. Route 40, Argentina
- Length: 5000+ km.
- Highlights: Expansive glaciers, towering mountains and rock formations will blow you away whilst dinosaur bones, UNESCO World Heritage sites, perfect steak and amazing Malbec will keep your mind and body satiated.
- Vehicle type: 4×4 recommended but not required.
- Costs: You are unlikely to be able to hire a car for this entire journey but it is worth a shot if you have no other option. The lowest price you are likely to find for a vehicle capable of traversing this route is around $4000. Fuel is around $3 per gallon in Argentina. Wild camping is common but be prepared for strong winds and cold nights. Use the ioverlander app to find the best spots.
Route 40 is a famous highway that cuts right through Argentina from top to bottom. Crossing hundreds of bridges, 18 national parks, countless rivers and multiple cities, this is an epic South America road trip that will leave you breathless from start to finish.
The road condition is unpredictable and the route is made up of a mix of smooth tarmac, gravel tracks and pothole covered roads. With little support available for certain long stretches, make sure you fill the tank whenever possible and always carry a spare tyre.
The same goes for food and water. Don’t expect to find a restaurant every time you get hungry or a bar whenever you are thirsty! You will be driving through vast swathes of uninhabited land so be prepared. Pack way more food and water than you think you will need and be prepared for using nature as your toilet.
More and more tarmac is being laid down along the route so you may be required to make unscheduled stops when you find yourself upon a section of closed road. It will not be closed for more than a few hours so take this opportunity to enjoy the scenery. Eventually, the whole highway will be tarmac which will make it a much easier journey albeit less of an adventure.
If you don’t have the time, money or inclination to take on this epic South American road trip but still want to experience some of the amazing Argentinian scenery, consider taking a week-long road trip through the Salta province. These trips start and end in the city of Salta and often include vast sections of Route 40 but after that, there is no set route, go where the wind takes you!
Highlights of this journey include the Sandstone Formations in Quebradas de las Conchas National Park, roadside wine bars and the colourful Los Estratos. Remember to pack plenty of water and fill up the car when possible.
Mileage will vary depending on your chosen route and car hire is possible from most agencies.
3. Carretera Austral, Chile
- Length: 1100+ km
- Highlights: From seeing the hanging glacier in Queulat National Park to the kayaking through the Marble caves at Lake General Carrera (where Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face drowned), there is enough to keep you busy for weeks (and that’s without the driving)!
- Vehicle type: 4×4 necessary.
- Costs: Renting a car is the most common way of completing this road trip but it doesn’t come cheap. If you get the correct insurance (make sure you tell the hire company you are planning on driving this route) then you will be paying at least $100 a day and that’s before you factor in fuel, food and accommodation stops. Fuel is around $4.50 a gallon in Chile. You can save money on accommodation by wild camping when possible or paying a small fee for campsites. Again, using the ioverlander app will help you find the best spots.
Originally called Carretera General Augusto Pinochet under whose regime is was created, the Carretera Austral is the only road connecting the Northern and Southern halves of Chile. This picturesque route is mostly gravel and involves multiple ferries and bridges with the occasional paved stretch. Named the perfect road trip by National Geographic, the road connects many small villages that were once only accessible by boat.
The going is tough and there are large stretches of nothing but majestic scenery between fill up points. Make sure you have plenty of fuel, food and water on board. There are more and more paving projects going on so the road could be closed at any point. Be prepared for a long cold night in the car if you get unlucky with the closures. Pack sleeping bags and warm clothes. The weather can vary wildly and it is not uncommon to truly experience four seasons in a single day.
4. Route 7, Argentina (365 Curve Road)
- Length: The full journey from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile is over 350 km but Route 7 only makes up around 100 km of this.
- Highlights: Drive past Aconcagua (highest mountain outside of Asia) and enjoy the 370 corners of pure driving pleasure that this road has to offer.
- Vehicle type: The road is in good condition. As long as care is taken when driving, any vehicle will suffice.
- Costs: Car hire starts at around $50 a day but bear in mind, it can be challenging to take a hire car across the border. You will need special paperwork from the hire company which must be arranged in advance and can cost up to $200. The cost of crossing the border depends on the hire company. You may also need to pay visa fees for yourself but this will depend on your nationality so remember to check before you travel. Fuel costs vary between Argentina ($3.00 per gallon) and Chile ($4.50 per gallon) but you shouldn’t need more than a single tank of fuel to make the journey one way. Note: if you are dropping off a hire car in a different city, let alone a different country, the cost of hiring goes way up.
The 365 curve road actually contains 370 corners. The name 365 seems to have stuck because the locals think it sounds better. You only have to look at pictures of this road to understand why it has made our list of top road trips in South America. The narrow lanes and sharp hairpins make this road trip an adrenaline seekers dream drive.
For more practical information about driving this route, check out this post from Earth Trekkers about their experience taking on Route 7.
5. Trans Amazonian Highway, Brazil
- Length: 4000+ km.
- Highlights: Watch colourful birds fly overhead and listen to the noise of the jungle. Meet people from small communities and get to know their way of life. Always wait to be invited into a village before you start exploring though, the local people can be fearful of outsiders and for good reason. They have been persecuted for generations by loggers, farmers and the Brazilian government.
- Vehicle type: 4×4 required.
- Costs: You will not be able to hire a car to make this journey, which leaves you two options; buy a car in Brazil or bring a car from elsewhere. Most people say it is almost impossible for a foreigner to buy a car in Brazil but a few people have had some success in doing so. If you manage to get a vehicle in Brazil, expect to pay close to $8000 for a reliable 4×4! Be prepared to rough camp or sleep in your car most days. Although there are possible accommodation options in many of the small villages, do not expect these to be clean or comfortable. Fuel in Brazil is around $4 per gallon.
Before 1970 there was no road connecting North East Brazil with the state of Amazonas in the west. During that decade, over 4000 km road was literally slashed straight through virgin rainforest. The original intention was for the road to stretch all the way to Peru but thanks to the unstable South American economy, funding dried up before it was completed. As it is now, you can take the road west as far as the village of Lábrea. Most of the route is isolated so make sure you stock up with food, water and fuel whenever possible.
On the way, you will cross rickety wooden bridges, share ferry crossings with river dolphins and get to see for yourself the scale of the deforestation that plagues the Amazon.
Thousands of kilometres of compacted mud make up the majority of the journey which during the rainy season, can prove almost impossible to complete. In bad weather, the road can become a swamp and the bridges are often washed away. Make sure you are not travelling in the worst of the wet season (October to March) if you intend to take on this challenge.
Whilst there are thousands of kilometres of mud trails along the Trans Amazonian Highway, more and more of it is being paved each year. This not only makes the road slightly easier to traverse but also has a massive impact on the already fragile ecosystem. This might be one of the greatest road trips on the planet but it could also be one of the most damaging.
6. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Length: 10,000 square km of salt flats will leave you with plenty of driving, even if you don’t take on the 300 km journey south.
Highlights: Stay for sunset on the salt flats, the sensation of infinity it creates has to be seen to be believed. Eduardo Avaroa National Park in the south offers some amazing mountain views, outstanding night skies and the chance to get up close to flamingo filled lakes.
Vehicle type: 4×4 strongly recommended for the salt flats and necessary for the national park.
Costs: Entrance fee to the park is $20 per person for tourists. Car hire for the salt flats is high due to the corrosive nature of salt. Expect to pay at least $125 per day for a suitable vehicle.
Accommodation along the route starts at around $7 per person per night for the most basic option. The luxury options stretch to hundreds of dollars per night. Fuel is $2 per gallon.
The Bolivian salt flats might not spring to mind when you think of epic South American road trips but hear me out. When most people head to Bolivia’s most famous attraction they do so as part of an organised tour and whilst the salt flats are massive, there is little chance you will be alone for the entire day. Most groups head to roughly the same areas so it doesn’t take long for another car to drive past and ruin that perfect Instagram shot you’ve been setting up.
Don’t get me wrong, the salt flats are beautiful no matter how you visit them but with the freedom of your own car, you get a real chance to explore and get further off the beaten track. Once away from the crowds, it is easy to imagine you are on another planet, such is the desolate beauty of Salar de Uyuni. If you have more than one day available, then head south on the second day to really soak up the Andes. On this route you will find blood boiling mud, steaming geysers and deep red lagoons.
If you want to see the famous reflective effect at the salt flats then you should aim to go in the wet season. December to March is the best time for this.
7. Spondylus, Ecuador
- Length: 800+ km
- Highlights: Pre-Columbian ruins dot the landscape so be sure to put on your Indiana Jones hat and explore. Jump on a boat from Puerto Lopez and head to Isla de la Plata, known as the poor mans Galapagos, to see some amazing birdlife (including the Blue-Footed Booby) and do not miss Playa Rosada, the pink beach.
- Vehicle type: The road is tarmac and in reasonable condition for South American roads. Any car will suffice, just drive carefully and stick to the speed limits.
- Costs: Car hire starts at around $20 per day and fuel in Ecuador is regulated to $1.85 per gallon. Accommodation costs will vary but the cheapest dorm beds come in at around $5 per person per night.
This coastal road provides a great snapshot of Ecuadorian life whilst providing great views of the sea for a large amount of the trip. Part of the route is the famous Ruta del Sol (Sun Route), over 100 km of freshly paved highway. You could easily speed through the country along this road if there were not so many amazing stops along the way!
From Montañita to Puerto Lopez, laid back beach towns give the perfect vibe for this trip but if you are bored of dreadlocks and parties then visit the much more authentic stop of Ayampe. Once you’ve had your fill of amazing beaches then follow the road inland to the Parque Nacional Machalilla for an up-close experience with a tropical dry forest.
8. BR-319, Brazil
- Length: 800+ km.
- Highlights: Bragging rights for conquering South America’s worst highway are not to be sniffed at. Monkeys swinging above and snakes slithering along will keep you company for much of the journey.
- Vehicle type: 4×4 necessary.
- Costs: Once again you will not be able to hire a car for this route and to be honest, you wouldn’t want to. Unless you are prepared with a fully off-road capable vehicle, preferably with winches, a couple of spare tyres and enough room to sleep in, this route is a no go. $10,000 is enough to get you set up with a well-prepared vehicle and fuel costs in Brazil are about $4 per gallon. There is little to no accommodation choices along the route so be prepared to sleep in your vehicle or camp.
Known as one of ‘South America’s most dangerous roads’, the BR-319 was built in the 1970’s. Just like the Trans Amazonian, created at the same time, it was designed to open up the Amazonas region of Brazil. Unlike its longer and arguably more famous brother, it was left, unmaintained for decades. Poor construction techniques combined with the tough environment mean that, in many places, this highway is little more than a thin trail meandering its way through the jungle.
Where there was once tarmac, there is now just potholes and the remnants of a yellow line are just about visible. Do not attempt this route in the wet season unless you are a veteran overlander. There is major flooding each year and although bridges are often reconstructed in the dry season, they are likely to wash away in heavy rainfall. Ferries operate in place of many of these bridges but if the water level is too high or the river flowing too fast they cannot operate.
In the last decade, this road has been used as a convenient way to lay fibre optic cable through the jungle to the city of Manaus. As such, the fibre optic company has relaid tarmac and rebuilt bridges on close to 300 km of the route. Don’t expect the whole route to be given this kind of facelift any time soon though.
It is obvious as you traverse this route, to see the scale of destruction going on in the Amazon. Although a monumentally challenging road trip in its own right, it will also open your eyes and change your way of thinking like no other.
9. Pan American Highway – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina
- Length: 11,000 km but be prepared to drive twice this distance as you detour to various attractions.
- Highlights: Salar de Uyuni, The Galapagos, Machu Picchu, The Lost City, Patagonia (some of these are detours).
- Vehicle type: Providing you don’t stray too far off the beaten track, most two-wheel drive vehicles will be fine for this road trip. If you plan on incorporating some lesser travelled roads then look into a 4×4.
- Costs: Car hire will be almost impossible for this journey but unlike some of the rougher road trips on this list, a 4×4 is not required. Bear this in mind when searching for a vehicle to purchase. A van with enough room to sleep in would be the ideal vehicle for this trip. You can pick up unconverted vans in South America starting from $3000. Remember to do your research before trying to buy a vehicle as it is not possible for foreigners to buy purchase them in many South American countries.
This truly epic South America road trip takes you along the Southern half of the longest road ever constructed. Although there is the awkward problem of the Darien Gap, the Pan American Highway runs over 24,000 km from Alaska to Ushuaia. We are just talking about the South American half which still clocks in at over 11,000 km!
If you are planning on taking on this life-defining South America road trip then be prepared to drive more than double that distance as you wander off to visit the main sites and attractions of each country you pass through. From trekking The Lost City in Colombia to sharing the local market with seals in the Galapagos there is plenty of side trips that don’t involve driving but which you won’t want to miss.
This journey will allow you to take in the amazing party vibe of Colombia before following the Andes south to Ecuador and the worlds highest capital city of Quito. After exploring Ecuador the road continues into the much more popular Peru. In Peru, the road conditions improve drastically and after a lengthy detour, you will be able to hike to Machu Picchu. From Peru, head into Bolivia via Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, to see the world-famous salt flats and really test your vehicle on some epic mountain roads.
Rejoin the Pan American and follow it south into Chile and the Atacama desert. Explore Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina and continue south through breathtaking natural reserves, until you reach the end of the world at Ushuaia. Or you could start in Ushuaia and end your trip in Colombia, the choice is yours!
Expect a journey of this magnitude to take over a year to complete. You could rush it and theoretically complete the drive in around a month but you will see nothing of the amazing continent that is South America.
10. Che Guevara Trail – Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela
- Length: 8000+ km.
- Highlights: Unlike Guevara, you probably won’t want to spend time in a leper colony or swim across the Amazon. However, this road trip will allow you to experience the highs and lows he faced on his journey. The stunning backdrop that South America offers will contrast starkly with the poverty you are bound to encounter along the way.
- Vehicle type: Any vehicle will suffice, although, for the full experience, you should really follow in Che’s footsteps and be on a motorcycle!
- Cost: Renting a car or motorcycle for this journey is near on impossible so the only options are to buy one when in South America or ship one from home. Buying a motorcycle as a foreigner is as difficult as buying a car so you will need to jump through some hoops to do so legally. Cars and vans capable of making this journey start at around $3000. Any big, imported motorcycle will cost significantly more than in the USA or Europe to buy new or used. Another option is to buy a locally or Chinese built bike with a small capacity engine (anything smaller than 250cc). These start at around $2000 new and although not the most reliable of machines, they can be repaired almost anywhere across the continent.
For motorcycle enthusiasts, revolutionaries or students of history, following in the footsteps of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is a must. From Argentina to Chile, through Bolivia, Peru and into Colombia before heading across Venezuela and leaving the continent to travel to the USA, this journey is one for the ages.
Set your eyes upon marvels such as the expansive Atacama desert and try not to get lost on endless mountain roads that zig-zag their way through the Andes. Since the release of the 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries (based on the memoir of the same name), people have sought out this adventure in greater numbers and as such, much of the route is signposted. Don’t let this fool you though, the amount of people who take on the whole trip is small and many of the signposts are not maintained. You will not be a typical tourist.
Whilst taking on this journey by car might be challenging enough for most, the truly intrepid out there have to consider using a motorcycle. By following in the footsteps of one of the most beloved and famous revolutionaries, you might just find yourself wanting to change the world by the end of your trip!
Note: At this point in time it may not be safe to travel through Venezuela due to their ongoing political and economic crisis.