Our journey through South America was pretty amazing. We moved quickly compared to many travellers as we knew there was a lot to fit in, but the pace was by no means uncomfortable.
In total we were able to spend time in 6 incredible countries – from just a couple of days in the Chilean desert to over 3 weeks exploring Peru.
There are pros and cons for the itinerary we followed – there’s a lot of travel involved when covering such enormous distances, and we didn’t get the chance at any point to ‘live like locals’ in the countries we visited. However, we got to see so much, and ticked some incredible places off our bucket list – being on a tight schedule meant we made the effort to get out and explore new places almost every day.
It’s possible to do this sort of trip on all different budgets – I’d say ours was pretty midrange, but you could easily splash out and have a more luxurious time or live on more of a budget. South America was definitely more expensive than we had anticipated and in total I’d estimate our budget for the 10 weeks was around £11000 ($13,450) for the two of us, so around £80 ($98) per day per person.
This included a 15 day tour with G Adventures from Buenos Aires to La Paz which was pretty pricey. It includes all the flights and buses I’ve detailed, as well as sleeping in private rooms rather than dorms. We also ate out quite a bit, probably more than we should have done! The only major expense not included are our flights in and out of South America as these were booked on our round the world tickets from STA Travel.
Day 1-4: Ilha Grande – this was mainly hiking, beaches and amazing seafood, a really relaxed atmosphere and somewhere we would have stayed longer if we could have. It’s basically a tropical paradise a few hours off the coast of Rio 🙂
Day 4-7: Rio de Janeiro – highlights here were Sugarloaf mountain, Christ the Redeemer, Escadaria Selaron, and the Botanical Gardens. We also spent time on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.
Day 8: Iguazu Falls – the Brazil side doesn’t offer as much as Argentina and is easily done in a day but is well worth seeing, also visit the bird park, it’s inexpensive and there’s lots to see.
Buses (2 – 7.5 hours)
- 1 from Rio Airport to other Rio Airport
- 1 to and from the port for Ilha Grande transfers
Boats (2 – 1.5 hours)
- 2 to and from Ilha Grande
Planes – 1 (2 hours)
- 1 to Iguazu from Rio
Distance Travelled -1722km
Day 9: Iguazu Falls – the Argentina Side has a lot more to do, with several trails to hike and boat / helicopter rides available. A full day minimum to do it justice.
Day 10-16: Mendoza – we spent a fair while here relaxing and enjoying the city. Loads to do including wineries, mountain tours, hiking, horse riding and lots of steak eating! It’s also a popular place to head over the Chilean border to Santiago which we’d have done with more time.
Day 17-23: Buenos Aires – an amazing city with tons to do and fantastic night life, shopping, bars and restaurants. There’s beautiful architecture to enjoy everywhere and many different districts to explore – Palermo, La Boca and Montserrat were our favourites.
Day 23-24: Salta – we only visited this area as it featured on our G Tour but it was a nice city and handy for the Chilean border to San Pedro de Atacama. Horse riding, steak, hiking and wine feature heavily again, as well as impressive colonial architecture
Buses – (2 – 15 hours)
- 1 to cross the border at Iguazu
- 1 overnight to Buenos Aires
Planes – (2 – 6.5 hours)
- 1 to Mendoza from Iguazu
- 1 to Salta from Buenos Aires
Distance Travelled -4436km
Day 25-26: San Pedro de Atacama – the driest desert in the world where you can enjoy sand boarding, hiking, and star gazing just outside of an isolated hippy town with a great atmosphere. The valley of the moon is worth a visit for some crazy landscapes. Here’s what we got up to in 24 hours in San Pedro de Atacama.
Buses – (1 – 10 hours)
- 1 to San Pedro from Salta
Distance Travelled -598km
Day 27-29: Salar de Uyuni – as most travellers will be aware, this is the home of where all those crazy perspective photos are taken with blue skies and white salt ground stretching for miles. We did a 3 day tour through the region and loved every minute… except the altitude!
Day 30-32: Potosi – this is the highest city in Bolivia and is famous for its mining industry where silver and other precious metals have been mined for centuries from the ‘cerro rico’. There’s also a nice town centre area, some interesting museums and a brewery that offers daily tours.
Day 32-34: Sucre – a beautiful city packed with colonial style architecture in its historic centre, it’s a popular stop off for travellers in Bolivia. Lots of history and cafe culture in the city itself and great opportunities for trekking and exploring in the surrounding countryside with incredible landscapes on offer.
Day 35-36: La Paz – personally not a place I’d linger, with a bad reputation for crime and safety, but worth seeing if only to take on the famous ‘death road’ by mountain bike. One for adrenaline seekers!
Buses (4 – 20 hours)
- 1 to Bolivia border from San Pedro
- 1 from Uyuni to Potosi
- 1 from Potosi to Sucre
- 1 from Sucre to La Paz
- 1 jeep for 3 days solid driving
Distance Travelled – not entirely sure but it was a lot! Especially with the many day buses and our jeep tour – perhaps 1573km between main destinations
Day 37: Lake Titicaca – we passed through here en route from La Paz on our Bolivia Hop bus to Cusco. Some friends stayed a night on Isla Del Sol and had a great time, we’d recommend a few hours there at least – it’s the worlds highest navigable lake and the views are stunning.
Day 38-39: Cusco – we spent around 8 days here between other tours and trips and loved the city. Packed with quaint architecture and lots to do, it’s laid back and very traveller friendly.
Day 40-42: Puerto Maldonado Jungle – there are lots of places to visit the amazon, we chose Puerto Maldonado as it was accessible from our base in Cusco and had an action packed few days seeing so much wildlife and so many awesome animals, including sloths!
Day 43-44: Cusco
Day 45-49: Salkantay Trek Machu Picchu – kind of a must do in Peru, sadly the classic Inca Trail was sold out many months before our visit but we loved the Salkantay Trek. Tours are on offer at pretty much every agency in town at competitive prices and there are many alternative trekking options available.
Day 50-52: Cusco
Day 53: Nasca – there’s not a lot to see here so we just stopped off briefly for a flight over the famous Nazca lines in the desert. It’s a bit pricey but really the only way to see them properly so I’d only stop here if you want to invest in the flight.
Day 53-55: Ica – Paracas & Ballestas – if we came back, we’d probably stay in Huacachina, a desert oasis just down the road from Ica, but it’s a lot cheaper to stay in Ica itself. We had a fab time dune buggying and sand boarding and also visited the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ in the form of the Ballestas Islands. A couple of hours out of the region it’s a brilliant day trip if you include the Paracas National Park – many tours include both as standard.
Day 55-58: Lima – we met up with friends here and had a lovely few days relaxing in the safe and travelled friendly miraflores area. Other highlights are the beaches packed with surfers, the Larco museum and a bus tour of the historic city centre.
Day 58-59: Bus to Guayaquil – if you have the budget then fly. It’s 2-3 hours compared to almost a day and a half on the bus! Although, the bus was a quarter of the price and gave us a good opportunity to relax and catch up on some sleep!
Buses (5 – 56.5 hours)
- 1 to Cusco from La Paz via Copacabana 16
- 1 to Puerto Maldonado 17
- 1 from Cusco to Nazca 16
- 1 from Nazca to Ica 2.5
- 1 from Ica to Lima 5
Planes (1 – 1 hour)
- 1 from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco
Distance Travelled -2619km
Day 59: Guayaquil – we only stopped here as we’d managed to secure cheap flights to the Galapagos at $210pp. It’s not renowned as the safest city to explore, but flight deals are well worth investigating.
Day 60-65: Galápagos Cruise – this was hands down one of the best things we did on our South American adventure. Extremely expensive on a backpackers budget but worth every penny, we saw 5 Islands – Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, Rapida and North Seymour – and had an unbelievable time seeing the nature and wildlife on offer. Budget from a minimum of $650 to $1200 for a 5/6 night cruise depending on what route and class of boat you prefer.
Day 65-66: Santa Cruz Island – this is the main island and it’s possible to spend a few days here quite cheaply. We enjoyed relaxing at Tortuga Bay, exploring the Darwin Centre and eating some amazing seafood.
Day 67: Floreana Island – we did a day trip here from Santa Cruz and loved it. The Island has an interesting history since its first pirate inhabitants and you can snorkel off the black sandy beach as well as seeing plenty of giant tortoises and pirate caves up in the highlands.
Day 68-69: Santa Cruz Island
Day 70: Guayaquil – our final stop in South America, we headed from here to Miami (via Venezuela!) as it was the cheapest route for us to get onto our next destination. We’ve also heard about cheap flights into Houston from Ecuador for those travelling onwards after South America.
Buses (1 – 27 hours)
- Lima to Guayaquil
Planes (2 – 5 hours)
- 1 to and from Galapagos
Distance Travelled -3977km
So yeah, we’ve been busy! Based on our experiences I’d say the absolute must do’s in South America are:
- Machu Picchu
- The Amazon Jungle
- Salar de Uyuni / Salt Flats
- Ilha Grande (if you’re heading to Brazil)
- Buenos Aires
- Iguazu Falls
- Galápagos Islands
There are a few places I feel like we missed out on seeing due to our tight schedule, but mostly these are whole continents or regions. I think we managed to see an awful lot in the areas that we spent time in. If I came back to South America, I’d definitely take time to fit in trips to:
- Patagonia & more of Chile in general, including Easter Island – probably 3-4 weeks here minimum
- Mainland Ecuador & Colombia – another 3-4 weeks
- Arequipa and more of the Peru coastline, e.g. Mancora and other beach towns – probably an extra 1-2 weeks would have helped with this
- Brazil also has a lot more to offer such as Paraty, the Amazon, San Paolo and more – spending 3-4 weeks travelling more here would be great
Overall though, for us it was the right balance of touring and travelling. A lot of people we met who travelled with less of an itinerary got caught up in one place for too long and didn’t end up seeing quite so much, whilst others who moved around more seemed pretty shattered! We perhaps missed out on the experience of staying in one place for an extended time period and perhaps working or volunteering for a while, but hopefully we’ll have the chance to do this in one of our future destinations.