South America is vast. And travelling around the continent can prove to be a long, arduous process. If you want to avoid flying, expect to spend days on buses and hours waiting in terminals.
But there is another way.
If you’ve got the time, a bit of money and an adventurous spirit, a South American road trip is the perfect way to explore! 🚗
Through our own experiences, conversations with locals and travellers in our Facebook community, as well as some extensive research, we’ve compiled this list of some of the best road trips South America has to offer!
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Related: (opens in new tab)
- Best South America Backpacking Routes
- Guide to Domestic Transport in South America
- Renting a Car in South America
10 of the Best South American Road Trips
1. The Seven Lakes, Argentina
- Length: 108 km
- Vehicle type: Any
- Cost: Around $250USD
This short but stunning section of the famous Argentinian Route 40 stretches from San Martín De Los Andes to Villa La Angostura. It skims the shorelines of the seven distinct lakes that give the route its name. These are: Lago Lácar, Lago Machónico, Lago Falkner, Lago Villarino, Lago Espejo, Lago Correntoso and Lago Nahuel Huapi.
Clear, inviting waters, dark grey mountains and pale blue skies greet you around every turn so ensure your camera is fully charged! 🏔📸
The trip is likely to cost around $250USD. That accounts for fuel, a night’s accommodation at either end, vehicle hire for two days and food money.
2. Route 40, Argentina
- Length: 5000+ km
- Vehicle type: 4×4 recommended
- Costs: Upwards of $5000USD
Route 40 stretches over 5000 km down the spine of Argentina. A journey along the epic road takes you across hundreds of bridges, through astounding national parks and into the heart of Argentina’s most popular cities. Expansive glaciers, towering mountains, bizarre rock formations and some wonderful nightlife are on offer to anyone bold enough to tackle this adventure!
Road conditions can be unpredictable. The route is a mix of smooth tarmac, deteriorating roads and long gravel tracks. There’s little support for extended stretches, so make sure you keep the tank brimmed and carry a spare tyre.
Don’t expect shops or restaurants on every corner either. You’ll be driving through vast swathes of uninhabited land. Bring food and water and start practising those squats for your outdoor toilet adventures!
Every year, more sections of Route 40 are being tarmacked. This can lead to unexpected road closures and unscheduled stops. 🚧
The good news is, the closures tend to last for just a few hours – allowing you to soak up the scenery! Eventually, the whole route will be tarmac which will make the journey easier, albeit less of an adventure.
Road-tripping Route 40 isn’t cheap. Expect to spend upwards of $5000USD. Hiring a car will eat up most of your budget, while fuel in Argentina is around $4-$5USD per gallon. Wild camping is common along the route but be prepared for high winds and low temperatures. Use the iOverlander app to find the best spots! 🏕
If you don’t have the time, money, or inclination to take on the whole route, consider a week-long road trip from Salta. You can pick up large sections of Route 40 from the city.
3. Carretera Austral, Chile
- Length: 1100+ km
- Vehicle type: 4×4 necessary
- Costs: Upwards of $1400USD
Originally known as the Carretera General Augusto Pinochet, under whose regime it was created, the Carretera Austral is the only road connecting Northern and Southern Chile. Picturesque but hard on your car, it was named the ‘perfect road trip’ by National Geographic.
The journey can be tough, with large stretches of nothing but majestic scenery. Ensure you have plenty of fuel, food and water on board. Paving projects are taking place all along the route, so you may find sections of road that are closed without notice. Be prepared for long waits which can sometimes stretch into the night if you’re unlucky. Pack sleeping bags and warm clothes. The weather can change fast and it’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in a day! ☀️🍁❄️🌱
Renting a car is the most common way of completing this road trip but it doesn’t come cheap. Expect to pay at least $100USD per day for your vehicle. And that’s before you factor in fuel, food and accommodation. Petrol is around $6USD per gallon in Chile. Wild camping is possible and there are a few ‘proper’ campsites dotting the route.
4. Route 7, Argentina (365 Curve Road)
- Length: 100km (full journey over 350km)
- Vehicle type: Any
- Costs: Around $600USD
Colloquially known as 365 Curve Road, Route 7 is a 100km section of the 350km journey between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile. The whole drive is an adventure but the best section is Route 7! Narrow in places with sharp hairpins, steep elevation changes and jaw-dropping views, this road offers a driving experience like no other. 🛣
Highlights include seeing the epic Aconcagua (the highest mountain outside of Asia), driving the famous 29 curves and if you’re up to the challenge, hiking the nine-mile roundtrip to Confluencia base camp.
If you opt to drive the entire route, prepare for the border crossing. It can take hours to get through, even on a good day. You should also be aware that taking a hire car across borders is a real headache. Ensure you have the correct paperwork from the hire company and be prepared to repeat the journey – you won’t be allowed to pick the car up in one country and drop it off in another. We don’t recommend trying to make the return journey in one day. Instead, stop off for a few nights to explore before returning!
Car hire starts at around $60USD per day and the paperwork to get the car across the border is around $200USD. It must be organised well in advance. Fuel costs $4-$7USD per gallon depending on where you fill up.
5. Trans Amazonian Highway, Brazil
- Length: 4000+ km
- Vehicle type: 4×4 required
- Costs: 🤑🤑🤑(Too hard to estimate)
During the ‘70s, the Brazilian government began an epic task; to carve a road through more than 4000km of virgin rainforest. The ultimate goal was to connect North-East Brazil with Peru but funding dried up before the road could be completed. Today, you can follow the road as far as the village of Lábrea in the Amazonas region.
Thousands of kilometres of compacted mud make up the majority of the route and although more of it is paved each year, it’s still impassable during wet season.
The journey encompasses rickety wooden bridges, sketchy ferry crossings and thousands of miles of jungle. A 4×4 is required and as much of the route is isolated, ensure you stock up on supplies whenever possible. You’ll need to sleep in your vehicle most nights, although some villages along the route offer rudimentary accommodation options. 🛖
You won’t be able to hire a car for this journey. If you want to take on this challenge, you’ll need to buy a 4×4 in Brazil (which as a foreigner is almost impossible) or ship a vehicle in.
6. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
- Length: 300 km (+10,000 square kilometres of salt flats)
- Vehicle type: 4×4 required
- Costs: Upwards of $500USD
Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni doesn’t always spring to mind when you think about epic South American road trips. Most travellers visit the country’s most popular attraction as part of an organised tour but if you want to get a little more off the beaten track, renting a car to visit the salt flats on your own is an exhilarating experience. You can get away from the crowds and truly appreciate the expansive Salar.
Witnessing sunset from deep within the salt flats is indescribable – just make sure you know the way back to Uyuni. There are very few landmarks to help you orient yourself, especially in the dark!
If you have more than one day, head south after visiting the salt flats to really soak up the Andes. Eduardo Avaroa National Park showcases some of the harshest environments on earth. Boiling mud, steaming geysers and amazing night skies will leave you yearning to return.
Entrance to the park cost $20USD per person for tourists. Car hire is expensive at around $140USD per day. The corrosive nature of the salt flats means hire cars don’t last long in this area. Accommodation is relatively cheap, starting at around $10USD per night and fuel is around $2USD per gallon.
Wet season (December to March) is the best time to see the famous salt flats reflection when the whole area turns into the world’s largest mirror!
7. Spondylus, Ecuador
- Length: 850+ km
- Vehicle type: Any
- Cost: Starting at around $400USD
Named for the seashell once used as currency throughout the Andes, the 850km Spondylus Route clings to the Ecuadorian coastline before cutting inland at Parque Nacional Machalilla. It passes some of Ecuador’s most beautiful beaches, takes you through epic national parks and offers the chance to visit Isla de la Plata, also known as the ‘Poor Man’s Galápagos.’
From Montañita to Puerto Lopez, pumping traveller towns litter the Spondylus Route, offering plenty of opportunities to stop and explore for a few days. But if partying isn’t for you, the more chilled-out town of Ayampe is as popular with laidback locals as travellers.
Part of the route is the famous 110km Ruta del Sol (Sun Route), which thanks to the smooth, dark tarmac and striking palm trees, feels more like Miami than Ecuador!
Car hire for the Spondylus Route starts at around $30USD per day. Fuel is $2-$3USD per gallon and accommodation costs vary. The cheapest dorm beds are around $5-$10USD per night.
8. BR-319, Brazil
- Length: 800+ km.
- Vehicle type: 4×4 required
- Costs: Upwards of $10,000USD
Intended to open the Amazonas region of Brazil to the rest of the country, the BR-319 was built in the early ‘70s. Since its construction, the BR-319 has become known as one of South America’s most dangerous roads. For decades the road was left to deteriorate but recent projects have repaved long sections to bring vital infrastructure to Brazil’s more remote areas.
However, much of the road is still in a state of neglect. Vast swathes are impassible in wet season when bridges get washed away, ferries are incapable of crossing raging rivers and flooding turns the road into little more than a swamp.
Travelling along the route is all but impossible without a properly kitted-out 4×4 and accommodation is rare at best. If you’re taking on this monumental adventure, be prepared to sleep in your vehicle and ensure you have all the required provisions. Unless you’re an experienced overlander, the BR-319 should be avoided. But if you know what you’re doing, this road offers the adventure of a lifetime!
It’s not possible to hire a car for the journey, so you’ll need to have your own 4×4, prepared with winches, spare tyres and enough supplies to get you through multiple nights in the jungle. It’s a costly adventure but you can’t put a price on memories, right?!
9. Pan-American Highway – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina
- Length: 11,000 km (Expect to double this on detours!)
- Vehicle type: Any
- Costs: Upwards of $20,000USD
When it comes to truly epic South American road trips, it doesn’t get much better than the Pan-American Highway. Stretching 24,000km from Alaska to Ushuaia, the Pan-American Highway is only broken by the Darien Gap – 100km of impassible jungle between Panama and Colombia. But for this trip, we’re only discussing the 11,000km of the southern half of the route. Be prepared to cover more than twice this distance as you detour to take in some of South America’s most iconic sites!
The route cuts through the South American traveller hotspot of Colombia and allows you to explore the diversity of Ecuador before heading into Peru. After a lengthy detour, hiking to Machu Picchu is a must for bucket-list travellers. Bolivia, via Lake Titicaca, comes next, allowing you to explore the famous salt flats before crossing into Chile and the Atacama Desert. Spend some time exploring Patagonia in Chile and Argentina before continuing south to the city at the end of the world, Ushuaia. Or start your journey in the South and drive up to Colombia!
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’d see nothing of the amazing continent that is South America!
Car hire is impossible for this journey but unlike some rougher road trips on this list, a 4×4 is not required. A van with enough room to sleep in is the ideal vehicle for this trip. It’s possible to buy unconverted vans in South America for $3000-$5000USD. Companies like Suzi Santiago can help travellers with car purchase if required.
10. Che Guevara Trail – Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela
- Length: 8000+ km.
- Vehicle type: Any (motorcycle recommended)
- Cost: Upwards of $10,000USD
For motorcycle enthusiasts, would-be 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 is a journey for the ages.
Feast your eyes upon 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. 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 well maintained. You will not be a typical tourist.
Renting a vehicle for this road trip is near on impossible. Your best options are to buy one in South America or ship one from home. Buying a motorcycle as a foreigner is as difficult as buying a car, so you’ll need to jump through some hoops. 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. 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’re simple to maintain and repair.
Note: At this point, it may not be safe to travel through Venezuela due to the ongoing political and economic crisis. Always do you research about the current safety rating of any country before visiting.
South American Road Trip FAQs
It’s possible to hire a car for some South American road trips. But most companies forbid you from taking vehicles out of their country. You can find cars to travel between Argentina and Chile but they require extra paperwork which comes at a cost.
For longer road trips, you’ll need to buy a car – which is challenging as a tourist – or ship your own to the continent.
Road-tripping in South America is as safe as anywhere else in the world. The biggest dangers are other drivers. Be patient, try to avoid driving at night and never drive intoxicated.
South America has a reputation for being dangerous but as long as you’re sensible and take the right precautions, it’s as safe as any other continent.
Whenever you drive abroad, always be prepared with an International Driving Permit issued in your home country. Most South American nations recognise at least one of the IDPs on offer. And in some, you’ll be breaking the law if your try to drive without one.
For a full list of IDPs and where they are accepted, check out this Wiki page.
Buying a car as a foreigner in South America is difficult at best and often impossible. The easiest place to get a car that you can take across borders is Chile. But still, it’s complicated. Suzi Santiago is a company that can help you through the buying process for a nominal fee.
There are only two real options for shipping a car to South America. These are a RoRo (Roll on, Roll off) ferry or container ship. The RoRo ferries require you to drive the car on board and leave it parked on the boat. Some allow you to stay on the ship for the crossing (for an extra fee, of course), while others require you to leave the keys with the crew and make your own way to the destination port.
Container ships involve loading your car into a shipping container and waving goodbye. The container is loaded onto a ship and you are required to pick your car up from the destination port. Neither option is cheap, costing between $1000-$6000USD.
Container ships offer more security as the container is locked and you keep your keys. RoRo ferries often involve handing your car keys over, so the crew can move your vehicle if required. This means it’s left unlocked on the boat – ensure you don’t leave any valuables inside!
The vehicle you’ll need to road trip in South America depends on the route you plan to take. Many of the main routes are suitable for any vehicle but they can be rough going. Make sure your car is well maintained before, during and after your trip!
For some of the more epic adventures, a 4×4 is required.
Why Road Trip South America?
The answer is simple: to experience more. Rather than passively passing through on a bus or flying over in a plane, a road trip through South America offers you the chance to become an active part of the environment. No more sitting on a bus and watching the world move around you, on a road trip, you move with the world.
There are other obvious benefits too.
You’re on your own schedule. You can stop to take photos. Eat or pee whenever you want. And have a large choice of places to stay each night. If there’s nothing in your price range, just move on to the next town, or better yet, sleep in the car!
You’re less restricted on the amount of stuff you can bring. No need to cram everything into a 40-litre backpack when you’ve got an entire car for storing your gear!
At first glance, a road trip in South America can appear to be an isolating way to travel. You’re not making friends at hostels every night and you’re unlikely to interact with as many travellers as your average backpacker. But you won’t be away from the hostel circuit the whole time. Sometimes you want a real bed and a shower!
Get chatting with other travellers and see their eyes light up when they learn of your adventure. You’ll be a rockstar! If you’re 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’ll save a huge amount of money, not to mention make plenty of new friends! As you’d expect, being in a car for eight hours with somebody is a great way to get to know them, as many of these road trip quotes show!