5 Easy Steps to Plan Your Backpacking Trip Through South America

I love independent long term travel. On this trip, I’ve continuously been backpacking for 16 months and, out of that, 6 of those months have been in South America. Plus, this my 4th trip to South America lifetime. Hopefully, I can lay out some well earned road wisdom to help you plan the South American trip of your dreams.

Step 1 - Figure out your “Why?”

Before you embark on any large undertaking in life - long term travel, starting a business or new job, making a large purchase like a house - it’s important to take some time and reflect on your “Why?”  There exists a massive amount of information out there in the world trying to persuade you what to do, how to do it, the “right” way to do it, how to part with your money. But the most important thing for you to understand is “Why are you spending your time doing this?”

Is your goal to see Machu Picchu in Peru and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia? Learn Tango in Buenos Aires? Perfect your Spanish? Destroy your liver and your reputation in every party hostel you come across? Volunteer in underserved communities? All of the above? There is no “wrong” or “right” way to travel, but there is going to be a “right” way as it pertains to your own tastes, preferences and dreams. It merits some consideration as you start to wade into the massive amount of options you will find as you start to put together this plan.

Step 2 - Plan your route

Make no mistake: South America is huge. You could easily spend a few years in South America without retracing your steps or running out of things to do. With that, it makes sense to do some thinking about your route before you go. The distances between places can be very deceiving on maps due to the Andes, the Amazon, or less than ideal roads. Also, intercountry flights aren’t as inexpensive as you might expect, so you probably want to avoid backtracking if it can be avoided.

I like to get inspiration from a couple of source. First, I use Lonely Planet’s itineraries. I find their itineraries to be one of the most helpful parts of their guides overall. You’re unlikely to find any “hidden gems” once a place been published in one of their itineraries, but they do point out most of the highlights you’ll want to include along the way. I do find their overall time needed for their itineraries to be misleading. Ignore those for now. Second, G Adventures is a travel company that sells backpacker-like itineraries in a packaged format. For the DIY traveler, use their itineraries as inspiration as they tend to have a lot of options broken out for different kinds of travel, for example, adventure sports trips, nautical trips, etc. Again, since they are handling a lot of the logistics for you, their trips tend to stay in a town only 1 or 2 nights max. Ignore this timing for now.

Once I’ve taken a look at those, the next step I like to do is to put all of the destinations into a spreadsheet. I’ve put a screenshot of an example one below. This allows you to get a sense of how long you’ll need to hit all of those highlights. I generally plan for a 3 night minimum in any place to avoid travel burnout, but you can enter whatever default values you’d like. Note that this is only for planning purposes. The beauty of having it in a spreadsheet is that it’s easily editable as your plans change, but also gives you good insight for handling those things that require advance planning, for example, booking plane tickets between long distance destinations (or home) or high demand tours.

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Step 3 - Learn the language

Want to get beyond the simple pleasantries of “hola”, “por favor”, and “gracias”? Want to navigate a restaurant menu with ease? Meet the locals? Understand the lyrics to your favorite reggaeton song? Caution on that last one, by the way ;-)  Learning the language is an immensely valuable skill for your trip. English is not widely spoken in South America; however, Spanish classes are widely available and many cater to the traveler who only has a few weeks to improve.

With your route in hand from the previous step, you might look at what makes sense for you given your itinerary and timing. It makes sense to spend some time at the beginning of your trip getting a firm grasp on the basics. I spent 6 weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the beginning of my South America adventure taking classes and it helped immensely. I’ve spent the last 4 weeks in full Spanish immersion at Spanish Adventure in San Carlos, Colombia, only a short bus ride from Medellin. Spanish Adventure has helped immensely in taking my Spanish to the next level. I really enjoyed the process of learning the language through formal methods and then spending time traveling and integrating what I learned before sitting down to push myself again in class.

While you travel, there are tons of free apps out there to help you with daily practice or translation difficulty. In no particular order, a few of my favorites are AnkiDroid, DuoLingo, Google Translate (don’t forget to download the language packs for offline use!), and SpanishDict. They definitely come in handy on the road and help me feel more confident engaging in daily conversations with the locals.

Step 4 - Figure out where you will stay and how to get there

While most backpackers know to use sites like Hostelworld or Booking.com to find hostels around the world, there are even more economical ways to stay that a lot of folks aren’t aware of.

First, if you want to do more than just stay in a place, but also spend time immersing yourself in the culture while volunteering, Workaway is a great place to find volunteer opportunities of all sorts. From helping with organic farming, building schools, or, like I did at Spanish Adventure, working at a language school. Often, although not always, the volunteer host with provide you with food and accommodation for free during your term in exchange for your volunteer efforts.

Second, if you want to really meet the locals, Couchsurfing is a great community to meet and stay with locals for free. In lieu of money, a cultural exchange of stories is the currency of this platform. Even if you don’t want to stay with folks, but still want to meet locals wherever you are, the Couchsurfing app provides a handy “hangout” function to meet up with other travelers and locals to grab drinks, a meal or just to go explore the city together.

Getting between cities in South America usually involves a bus. Or several of them. Sometimes a plane and an Amazon riverboat too :)  While a large portion of these services have yet to get online (this varies massively by country), there are a couple handy tools that can help you figure out how to get place to place. The easiest is a Google search. Many times, it’s the best way to receive the wisdom of travelers who have gone before. I also like a website called Rome2Rio. It will help for those trickier trips that may require multiple modes of transportation from A to B.

Step 5 - Dealing with government issues

No list like this would be complete without mentioning some pesky bureaucratic issues you may need to address in advance of your arrival. Government passports, visa, and entry requirements can be a pain to find good information on, but can also halt you at the most inopportune time and place. (Can you say in the middle of a remote desert border checkpoint between Bolivia and Chile?)

First, all countries have their own visa requirements and those requirements are going to vary depending on a traveler’s country of origin. Also, countries update their requirements often. This makes searching for answers to these questions online to be very troublesome because you will often find out of date travelers forums’ threads with info that is either out of date or not applicable to you because of your home country.

I’ve found the best solution here is to consult your home countries’ Department of State office (whichever government institution that is responsible for issuing your passport). I can speak only for the USA here, but the travel.state.gov website has been an invaluable tool to determine if visas are required and, if so, what extra documentation is necessary. Often there are also links to the destination countries embassy sites where additional info can be found.

In general, for all countries, a minimum of 6 months of remaining passport validity is required. For US citizens, the only countries that required visas were Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. For these countries, the process can be quite extensive and expensive, so plan accordingly.

Finally, check to see if you need proof of onward travel before entering a country. This only was a problem for me, although a very stressful problem!!, when flying from Peru to Colombia. I was not allowed to board my flight at the gate until I showed the airline proof of a flight leaving Colombia.

Conclusion

South America is a truly wonderful, magical place. It has everything you could want in a backpacking adventure and hopefully this article gets you off your computer and onto the trail. Vamos!



Slow down, the way to learn Spanish

Travelling is the greatest gift that you can give yourself. It is a wonderfully exciting adventure. After a year and half on the road I have been lucky enough to see so much of this beautiful world and encounter so many amazing humans along the way. However, being away from home for an extended period of time can take it's toll. Being separated from loved ones and familiar faces can be difficult, especially when travelling solo. Packing your bag every few days and starting fresh in a new hostel, city or country can be exhausting. It can also be lonely. Only staying in one place long enough to form Surface relationships and only knowing a place well enough to say you´ve seen it. My advice; slow down.


Not only will studying Spanish allow you to travel more easily, and have more authentic interactions with locals, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to slow down and settle in somewhere for a little while. Unpack that heavy backpack. Take a deep breath. Make yourself at home. I had intended to study at Spanish Adventure for two weeks, and six weeks later I'm still here writing this post. Whether you are able to attend Spanish school for one week or eight, let me tell you why you won't regret making time for it.


From the moment that I arrived in San Carlos I felt at ease. After the hustle and bustle of hitting up all of the backpacker hotspots on the Northern Colombian coast I was in need of a change of place. I had an amazing time but I was getting sick of the gringo trail and seeking something off the beaten track, and San Carlos was exactly what I was looking for. It was immediately obvious from the moment that I set foot in the Spanish Adventure school that it was a small, close knit group. After only a few hours I felt like part of the family, and that feeling has just kept growing exponentially.


Before studying at Spanish Adventure I rarely felt confident enough to practice my Spanish, and didn't need to since I was primarily surrounded by English speakers in touristic destinations. However, after quickly feeling comfortable around my fellow students and teachers I no longer felt ashamed to try to speak Spanish and even to make mistakes. Given that San Carlos is a small, non-touristy town, using Spanish on a daily basis with the locals is absolutely necessary. Not only are the San Carlintanos happy to speak with you (even when your Spanish isn't great) but they are also incredibly friendly, curious and interested in getting to know you. Being invited into strangers homes for a meal, or to the community dance aerobics class with the local women are regular occurrences here and have really made me feel part of the community.


Another major factor that contributes to feeling at home is having a routine. When you take the time to study at a Spanish School you will inevitably fall into some kind of routine. Here at Spanish Adventure a typical day consists of: going to Spanish Class, cooking and eating meals together family style, afternoon adventures (hiking, swimming, climbing), studying and practicing Spanish, spending time with the locals,  exercising, and of course exploring the San Carlos nightlife. Of course you are travelling to have new experiences right? Slowing down long enough to learn Spanish will only expand your capacity to explore Latin culture further.


It is also inevitable that you will form incredible friendships with your fellow students (and teachers), especially considering you spend so much time together and are all here for the same common goal; to learn Spanish and have amazing adventures! While the time to really learn Spanish and explore Colombian culture



Sport in San Carlos

You have Spanish lessons in the morning, swim and jump off rocks during the adventures while exploring the beautiful San Carlos landscape. BUT, somehow, you still have energy.

In San Carlos you can find a lot of places where you can exercise or play sports.

Where can I do some exercises?

In San Carlos there are two outdoor gyms. The closest to the school (just a 2 minute walk away) is for every age. Children play, elders do their cardio and teenagers pump their muscles. It’s a great spot to work out and exchange with the locals in a nice atmosphere.

The second one is a sports field. Here you have mostly bars and some old-school weights (made out of stones) for some bench presses. School students mostly train here, so if you don’t know what you want to train they might help you out.

There are also two different indoor gyms - that cost around a dollar a pop - if you want more variety and better equipment.

Where can I play sports?

There are basketball and soccer fields to play on, either with the locals or with your friends. But be aware, the locals play football pretty well! Don’t expect them to be easy on you. If you go for a game with your Spanish adventure colleagues you will find out that there is always someone who wants to join.

If you don’t like soccer or basketball then don’t worry, there is more in San Carlos. You can play table tennis, volleyball or go out to one of the big fields and play any game you want.

Sport for the brain:

If you walk in the streets of San Carlos you will recognise the Colombian culture. The people from San Carlos don’t watch TV or stare at their mobile phones after work. No, they are out on the streets socialising. You will find many people on the street playing card games or board games like chess. Join them, and you might catch some new Spanish words.

Conclusion:

It is definitely worth it to overcome your inner fears by getting out there and socialising. Not only to improve your body or mental strength, but also because It is a good opportunity to make some local friends and improve your Spanish. Don’t waste your time in big cities, go out to the Colombian countryside and everyone will welcome you with open arms!


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