Backpacking South America: Your guide to crossing the continent

Gap Year in South America

What currencies are needed to travel in South America?

When you plan to visit several countries in South America you can, in a positive way, look forward to get to know a lot of different currencies. Not a single one of the local currencies is really well known around the world. Ever heard of the Paraguayan Guarani? The variety here is pretty amazing. All of the currencies are only accepted within the country and not in neighbouring states, so make sure you get familiar with each country and its currency. The only exceptions are Ecuador, as it uses the US Dollar, and French Guiana, which uses the European Euro.

Best time to visit South America

With its vast size and altitude contrasts, there really is no single best time explicitly recommend. However, depending on where you would like to explore and what temperature you find most comfortable, it is possible to create your perfect trip during your own opportune season. Simply keep in mind as a general rule that the southern hemisphere seasons are reversed – so summer is around November to February and winter from June to August. Besides that, you can say that the further south you go, the more likely you are to find a seasonal climate- Buenos Aires and Santiago are very hot in the summer and pretty cold in the winter. If you then head further down you can expect the weather to be more like in Scandinavia-which means summers don’t get hot but winters show deep snow and more storms are likely.

Best beaches to visit in South America

South America is known as the top spot for visiting the most incredible beaches. Due to the fact that it has the Pacific, Caribbean and Atlantic coasts that is not a surprising fact. Naming all of them would be a bit overwhelming but here is a selection of places that well deserve naming on that list:

Peru – Mancora

Perfect for nature lovers – widely known as the “Hawaii of Peru” with warm waters and a clear sky. It is a quiet seaside village and tourist free while offering all of the things you look for at a beach: surfing, good food and a beautiful beach.

Ecuador – Montanita surf

Perfect for all serious surfers -located in a small and very welcoming town you can do a lot of activities here besides your passion for surfing.

Brazil – Lopes Mendes

Perfect for all who seek peace and serenity – after a hike to the beach you find a beautiful site here that has not been commercialized yet. It is possible you can be here totally on your own so bring food and drinks. The soft waves and surrounding will make it worthwhile.

Ecuador – Gardner Bay

Perfect for all who look for flora and fauna – a blue sky, white beaches and a huge variety of animals can be found here. Expect to see manta rays, sea lions, turtles, birds, and much more. Galapagos is not far from here so you are in an all natural environment.

Colombia – El Cabo San Juan

Perfect for all who look for the whole package – located in the Tayrona National Park you not only find crystal clear waters (perfect for snorkelling and animal watching) and white sand beaches but also a peaceful environment also delivering fresh, delicious seafood. Other tourists will be here as well but it won’t feel crowded.

CostaRicaWhich backpacking routes should you choose?

The trickiest question as this depends so much on what you are looking for during your South America experience and how long you plan to stay. Common routes and truly amazing are these three options:

The 2-week trip

For two weeks, decide what aspects you mostly want to discover during your time in South America. Is it the jungle, the cities and its food and culture, its mountains and trekkings? Take that information to put together your own itinerary, preferably with someone knowing all the destinations as there is potentially so much to do here.

The Gringo Trail

This is the classic one – here you can see all of Western South America. It leads you through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

The Big Loop

If you really have some time to spend look at this one. You will make your way around South America in about 5 months time and explore the Andean High, Patagonian pilgrimage, the Amazon, the Guianas and Atlantic Coast.

The best South American food to try

If you like seafood Ceviche will be to your taste in Peru. Raw seafood is cured in citrus juice and spiced up with pepper. If you are more of a meat lover try Chorizo in Argentina. It is a sausage with a smoky taste and famous all over the world but trying it in the country of its origin will make a tasteful difference.

If it is neither fish or meat for you try Platanos Fritos which you can find all over the country. They are fried plantains and a true national delight – they will melt in your mouth and be crisp on the outside.

When it comes to sweet deserts and treats Dulce de Leche is worth a try and you find it in Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. It is part of a lot of desserts and is a milky caramel. You can eat it with pretty much everything – donuts, toast, muffins, the list goes on.

Make sure to try Yerba Maté in Argentina. It is a tea that is made from the leaves of the rainforest holly tree and truly can become addictive when you got used to its taste.

Besides these suggestions, it is important to remember that South America is truly a treasure when it comes to food – if you see Arepas, Empanadas, Pisco Sour, Pastel or Brigadeiros on the way have a try… The list goes on and food lovers will be in heaven here.

Tips for travelling around South America on a budget

Generally speaking, as this will be the first recommendation for probably any country in the world, consider local transport providers over taxis or tourist buses e.g., hostels as your accommodation and shops and supermarkets to get your daily food, if you don’t plan to go to a restaurant every day. It is also possible to cook your food in hostels and carry it with you the next day, or try to find set menus for lunch, which are often cheap compared to getting everything separate. You might also ask for discounts if you stay in a certain hostels – it is common to reduce the prices for a longer stay.

Also useful, is to set up your own alternatives to locally offered tours – why not doing that on your own and by bike for example.Besides that, it also depends which route and country you go to in South America as budgets can very a lot for each country.

One of the most helpful things along the way will probably be the most simple: speak to other backpackers in your hostel. They might be there for some more days now and have already found out great offers, places to go and sharing experiences will be of incredible value as you get the most actual information by the time you are in the country. If, after all, your find your budget going to quick, remember there is almost always the chance to work in a hostel you stay in to earn some extra cash on the way.

South American landmarks to see whilst backpacking

South America is full of landmarks you don’t want to miss:

Peru: Machu Picchu and Iquitos

As a breath-taking Inca City on top of the Andes, Machu Picchu is one of the new seven world wonders. See its famous ruins best by hiking through a beautiful scenery to get there.

Iquitos is a getaway and port city connecting to the jungle and tribal villages. It calls itself the “capital of the Peruvian Amazon” and is only accessible via boat or plane. The perfect place to discover the Amazon.

Ecuador: Cotopaxi National Park and Quito

Cotopaxi is an active volcano but also one of the best monitored so no safety concern. The variety of “things to do” here is incredible – hike the Laguna Limpiopungo, walk to Jose Rivas Refuge, explore it via horseback riding or bike tour or climbing. The nature is breath taking.

Quito as the capital is brilliant to explore when you want to see a city bursting with life – see historic buildings in the old town, museums, churches, stroll through its parks and buy some great local food and clothes and accessories.

Brazil: Rio de Janeiro amd Iguazu Falls

No trip to Brazil without going to Rio de Janeiro. Famous for its carnival worldwide it is also home to the Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches as well as the 38 m high Christ the Redeemer Statue – the picture which is probably taken the most for every postcard.

Maybe a bit less common known are the Iguazu Falls. They belong to the largest waterfall system in the world.

Venezuela: Angel Falls and Mount Roraima

The Angel falls are the worldwide highest uninterrupted waterfalls at an incredible length of 979 metres. A lot of people don’t want to miss this so this is a to do when you go there.

Mount Roraima makes it possible to walk among the clouds. It belongs to the oldest geological formations on earth, dating back over 2 billion years!

Colombia: The Lost City and Street Art

Located deep in the jungle you can find the Lost City. Within 4 days trekking you can find hidden and fascinating ruins that were built in 850 AD by the Tayrona people.

Besides that, the Street Art is truly amazing in Colombia, especially in Bogota. The legality of street art is still a bit grey, but it’s no doubt the artists are truly creating impressive images on the walls – worth exploring them on a tour.


Thinking of taking a gap year?

There’s a lot to think about! Hopefully this guide will be a useful starting point, but we also have decades of industry-leading experience to share with you.

At Gapforce we’re committed to helping you achieve the adventure of a lifetime. With our range of organised travel programsproject placements and outdoor training courses, we make unforgettable adventures easy and accessible.

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