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.
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
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.
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!