I spent three amazing months backpacking around South America. I spent my first-month hiking around Peru, Machu Picchu and camping in the Amazon. I then flew to Columbia where I camped on the beach in hammocks and explored the beautiful walled city of Cartagena before sailing north to Panama.
Reflecting back on my trip, I have put together 12 tips for backpacking South America.
Learn basic Spanish before you arrive
At a minimum learn to say: hi, thank you, sorry, numbers and do you speak English. Locals love it when you try to speak their language, often they speak basic English but will appreciate your effort. Having a basic understanding of the language will make it easier for you to get around.
You will be moving around a lot and will have to carry your bag with you, so make sure you pack light. Whatever you have packed – halve it, seriously. I have highlighted the benefits of packing light here.
Take a backpack, not a suitcase.
Getting around South America can be a challenge. Get ready for LONG bus rides and long walks from the bus /to your hotel with your luggage. The streets of South America are far from even, so wheeling a suitcase around can be challenging. A backpack is a better option.
See less but do more
South America is huge and trying to cover too much will mean you will feel like you spend more time in transit than you do exploring.
Research before you go.
Plan a rough itinerary – have an understanding of how far apart places are and how realistic it will be to do everything that you want to do. South America is huge and offers so much, but logistically, it is impossible to do it all. Figure out what interest you most and the smartest route.
Comfort over style
You will be moving around a lot and walking long distances so make comfort a priority. For any overnight bus rides – wear your PJs. For days out, always wear hiking shoes/ walking shoes.
Whatever you have budgeted- double it.
South America is more expensive than you think. Getting around South America in itself is expensive, not to mention visiting Machu Pichu, the Amazon and other major attractions that you will no doubt want to do. For example, my 4-day camping trip into the Amazon cost around $500AUD and hiking Machu Picchu costs about the same.
Prepare to get sick
Before you leave home, go and see a travel doctor and get all vaccinations that you need. Even after doing this, it is highly likely that you will get sick. Be prepared. Having a rough itinerary as opposed to one set in stone can help. If you are feeling unwell, the last thing you will want to be doing is setting off on a 4-day hike or boarding a 20-hour bus ride.
Not everyone is out to get you – have trust in the locals
There is a stereotype around South America and how dangerous it is for tourists. Sure, there are high levels of crime, but it doesn’t mean everyone is out to get you. Whilst always staying aware of your surrounding and situation, make sure you have some trust in the locals allowing you the opportunity to connect with the local culture and make friends. In my time backpacking around South America, I never had any issues.
Don’t carry more than you can afford to lose
Don’t carry more money or valuables than you can afford to lose. If something does go missing you have to be prepared for it and ready to move on. If you have something you couldn’t stand the thought of losing, don’t take it. You worry less when you have less.
Don’t keep all your money in the one place
Keep some money on you, some money in your handbag and some money in your hotel. Never leave all your money in the one spot. Same goes for credit cards. You always need to have a backup plan for accessing money.
Get off the beaten track aka the gringo trail
Most backpackers in South America stick to the Gringo Trail (I am guilty). Almost everyone is either coming from or heading to the same place. While there is nothing wrong with this, I do suggest getting off the beaten track now and then to experience a different side of South America.
Book a tour of South America
Disclosure: This post on Tips for Backpacking South America contains affiliate links.