A Guide to Backpacking in South America

South America is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many, and it’s completely worth your while. But there’s a lot of ground (and biodiversity) to cover, and hotels could get expensive. So if you have the time, you may want to consider backpacking your way through South America.

A Guide to Backpacking in South America

Backpacking is a great way to get an intimate view of this continent’s rainforests, mountain ranges, lakes, and deserts. And yes, you really will see all these things, if you plan your trip well enough.

One thing you may not want to do without during your trek is a vehicle. You may save money backpacking, but you can spend a whole lot in public transportation without your own car. Since this is sure to be a long trip, consider buying a used car when you get there and selling it before you leave. Just be sure to check the car’s maintenance before you get started. You’ll be driving through diverse terrain, and you don’t want to risk getting stuck somewhere.

Backpacking routes in South America

This is the kind of trip where you can plan virtually anything and be completely flexible, but there are three popular routes that many backpackers take within South America. You can follow them or use them as inspiration to plan your own journey.

The Gringo Trail

This is a very classic route that starts in Colombia, passes through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Southern Argentina before ending in Buenos Aires. On this trail, you’ll see the cloud forests of Ecuador, Incan empires of Peru, salt flats of Bolivia, the Atacama Desert and glaciers of Patagonia. Naturally, you can plan stops and make this trip your own, but you’ll want to stick to the Pan-American highway along the way. If you stray for sightseeing, make your way back, and you’ll be on track again.

Super Loop

The Super Loop backpacking trail starts and ends in Brazil. So if you’re looking to get some Brazil and Venezuela time into your itinerary, this is your route. It also takes you through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, northern Argentina, and Uruguay. This trail covers more ground, so you’ll need to dedicate more time. You’ll start this journey in Rio de Janeiro and end in Manaus, the central hub for the Amazon jungle. There’s not much to see or do here aside from a jungle exploration trip. But then again, do you want to miss a chance to see a jaguar or a sloth up close and personal? You can spend some time in the historic city of Salvador de Bahia before heading back to Rio to catch your flight home.

Thrill Seeker’s Trail

This one isn’t exactly a straight run to all the sights, but it’s the best route if you want to have a thrilling adventure in each destination. The Thrill Seeker’s Trail starts in Chile with scuba diving on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The trail ends in Baños, which is known as the adventure capital of Ecuador. Here, you have your choice of things to do, from volcano climbing to puenting (bungee jumping), you’re sure to find something to keep you busy. And along the route, you have plenty of options to get your heart racing. Here are some ideas:

  • 5-day hike across massive glaciers and picturesque lakes, known as the W Trek
  • Sandboarding and surfing in Iquique, Chile
  • Skiing or hiking in Bariloche, Argentina
  • Biking North Yungas Road, Bolivia
  • Rock climbing in Huaraz, Peru
  • Biking on the world’s highest volcano in Riobamba, Ecuador

Final thoughts on backpacking in South America

As you’re planning your trip, remember the diverse terrain. You’ll have a very different experience if you stick tight to the Pan-American highway than if you end up hiking in the Andes.

Start by making a list of the things you must see and do during this trip, and then take a look at the popular backpacking routes to see if one makes sense for you. If it doesn’t, no worries. You can always modify to fit a stop or make up your own trail altogether.

And here’s a final tip to leave you with before you start planning: Learn at least a basic knowledge of Spanish.

Throughout South America, there are many indigenous languages, but most are some variation of Spanish. So if you understand the basics, you should be able to get by without too much trouble.

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Peter is a digital nomad who largely writes from Asia, Europe, and South America. Always following the "vibe," he sets up shop in hostels and AirBNB's and continues to entertain us with wild stories from life abroad.

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