Backpacking Your Way Through South America
If you’ve ever wanted to explore South America, backpacking your way from country to country is a great way to see the sights and mix with the locals. It’s a different kind of trip though. Depending on how you do it, you may have to forgo a shower on occasion, be willing to sleep in slightly less than 5-star hotels, and get used to loooong bus rides. But the benefits of backpacking may just be worth the occasional inconvenience or discomfort. These expert tips will give you the advice – and confidence – to try it yourself while staying safe and healthy throughout the journey.
Backpacking Culture: Who Does It and Why?
Why backpack when you can just as easily book a nice hotel, fly to your destination with multiple suitcases, and enjoy most of the luxuries of home? It depends on the type of experience you want. Backpackers place more emphasis on the travel experience, not just the destination. This involves the fun (or difficulty) of actually getting there and the people you meet along the way. The overarching philosophy is to travel cheap and economize on accommodations so you can spend money on the things that really matter: the food and the experiences that immerse you in the culture of your destination.
Backpackers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. While the majority of them are younger, that’s about where their similarities end. Some travel to learn about a part of the world they’ve never seen before. Others immerse themselves in foreign cultures to learn a new language. And some use travel as a way to volunteer and learn a new skill that will help them find a job.
For backpackers, “tourist” is a 4-letter word. The point of backpacking is not to travel the beaten path and rack up a lot of sightseeing and photos that you can post on your favorite social media account. However, even those who call themselves “backpackers” are falling into the same rut as other backpackers by taking the road more traveled.
Backpacking purists have strong opinions on the backpacking lifestyle, and it’s not about doing the same thing as everyone else. Julio Moreno of Travel World Heritage provides advice on how to do backpacking “right” and what motivates him. He says that he typically decides to visit a place because it looks amazing. His goal is to experience something because he feels like it could make the trip worthwhile, and offer a chance to get to know some locals—he feels human nature is inherently good. And, he says wearing a backpack is simply more convenient than luggage. As the backpacking movement has grown, not every backpacker shares this outlook.
“Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the growing popularity of backpacking,” he says. “But I think the right way to travel is to do it your way, regardless of what other people think. My main gripe is with people who try to follow what everyone else is doing in the name of ‘backpacking.’”
So it’s not about the backpack and it’s not about having the exact same experience as everyone else visiting the destination you’re traveling to (even other backpackers). Backpacking is about carving out your own unique interaction with the people, places, and culture of your destination.
Staying Safe: Know Where to Go and When
Stories about getting mugged in South America are not uncommon, and the media hyped the dangers – both real and fabricated – before, during, and after the Rio Olympics. It’s understandable that many backpackers worry about their safety before traveling. And being aware of your surroundings when you’re traveling throughout South America – and anywhere for that matter – is a smart move. However, that doesn’t mean you should be paralyzed by fear or cancel your plans to travel.
Yvonne Ivanescu of Under the Yew Tree shared her top tips for traveling safely with Backpacker South America after traveling around the continent (and being mugged in Chile – lesson learned!). The following tips, adopted from her advice, will help to keep you safe while backpacking and traveling in general:
- Know the neighborhood: Don’t assume you know where it’s safe to go in an unfamiliar city. Walking a few blocks in the wrong direction can increase your risks for encountering dangerous situations.
- Listen to the locals: If a local says it’s probably not a good idea for you to be in a particular place or neighborhood, heed their advice.
- Don’t stand out: “Flashpackers” beware. Showing off your electronics, flashy clothing and other valuables is a sure way to make yourself a target for thieves and muggers. Try to blend in with the crowd.
- Speak English sparingly: Blending in with the crowd includes speaking the local language if you know it. If you don’t, use English only when necessary since it will also make you a target for people who want to take advantage of you.
- Leave your valuables behind: If you’re leaving your hotel or hostel for a daytrip, leave your valuables behind in a secure area. If you’re not carrying it, it can’t be pickpocketed.
- Be vigilant: Always be vigilant for potentially dangerous situations. Your body and your brain have a unique way of alerting you to danger. If you feel like something isn’t right, leave quickly.
- Don’t overindulge: Drinking too much alcohol will lower your defenses and make you more vulnerable. While it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a night out, pick and choose the right times to let loose.
- Be insured: Make sure you have the appropriate travel insurance for your trip. This will help with everything from stolen credit cards to medical emergencies.
“I was pickpocketed during my first week in Buenos Aires,” said Karen Baldry, who spent nearly eight months traveling and backpacking in South America with her husband Robert. “I hate to say it because I love that city, but it really colors your perspective. It could happen anywhere, it’s just important to be cautious and know your surroundings.”
In comparison, Baldry spent time deep in the Amazon jungle in the city of Iquitos, Peru. It’s inaccessible by road, so they had to paddle there by canoe with a guide. Although there was no running water or electricity – and is essentially situated in the middle of nowhere – she felt safe and comfortable there. “The people there were lovely,” she said.
How Much Money Will You Need?
Traveling in South America puts you in touch with a wide range of people and landscapes. The costs you’ll incur in different countries throughout South America will range just as widely. You’ll find rock bottom prices for food and lodging in rural areas, and near-Western prices in the big cities of Brazil.
As a general rule of thumb, you can group the most-popular countries and destinations in South America on the following scale:
- Cheapest: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia
- Mid-range: Colombia
- Expensive: Brazil, Chile and Argentina
Marek Bron, author of Travel the World Without Worries and Indie Traveler, provides a rough guideline for your budget when backpacking and traveling in common South American countries. While costs typically depend on your travel style, you can work out your lodging costs using the following scale:
- Research the average cost of a hostel bed in a backpacker dorm room.
- A bed in a private room at a hostel, guesthouse or small independent hotel will cost about double the price of a bed in a hostel dorm room (you may still have to share a bathroom).
- A mid-range hotel room will cost about triple or quadruple the price of a bed in a hostel.
Managing your budget is best done be prioritizing what’s important to you. Karen and Robert Baldry developed guiding principles for how they wanted to spend their time in South America, and spent their money accordingly to reach their goals.
“There are so many things that you can do on any given day, and you’ll hear a lot of advice from other travelers,” she said. “We prioritized activities that were either healthy or involved nature, followed by social activities that put us in touch with locals or other backpackers. If we had two options and one was a better fit with our guiding principles, that’s what we chose.”
It’s important to come prepared with a mix of ways to pay along the way, as every country, city and small town may have its own quirks when it comes to paying for food, hotels, and travel. Jessie Festa of Jessie on a Journey learned this the hard way when traveling in Patagonia. As she advised in her blog, bring a mix of U.S. cash, debit and credit cards, and local currency with you.
“It is not uncommon outside of big cities, especially in Patagonia, for ATMs to run out of cash, so it’s good to be prepared. Despite begging and pleading for the travel agencies to let me use my credit card they would only take cash. Luckily, someone I had met on the road trusted me enough to loan me the money.”
Alternative Ways to Stay: WWOOFing, and Couchsurfing
If you’re a backpacker in South America on a budget, which many are, there are a few alternative ways to travel that can help cut down your costs. Two popular options are WWOOFing and Couchsurfing.
WWOOF stands for “world wide opportunities on organic farms” and it’s a great way for travelers and backpackers to explore a new country while learning a skill. The movement links volunteers with organic farmers and growers. In exchange for working four to six hours a day on average – doing things like gardening, planting, tending livestock and other farm duties – the WWOOFer receives room and board. Typical WOOFing arrangements last for one or two weeks, but the length of time spent on the farm ultimately depends on the arrangement made between the volunteer and farmer. The WWOOF website provides a list of current opportunities in South America.
“Couchsurfing” is another popular option that backpackers and travelers are starting to take advantage of. Through the Couchsurfing app, backpackers can meet and chat with home owners who are willing to host them during a portion of their trip. The app facilitates the meeting, helps home owners and travelers vet each other before meeting in person, and is supported by a “Trust and Safety” team to help with potential issues. If you’re budget-conscious and willing to stay with a relative stranger, Couchsurfing may be right for you.
Get Used to Taking the Bus
As a backpacker, you will do a lot of walking. You’ll also be riding the bus. A lot. Traveling by bus is convenient, and sometimes the only way to go, while exploring South America. When Karen Baldry traveled through Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina and Peru, the bus was a staple form of transportation.
“Our longest bus ride was about 24 hours,” she said. “They’re relatively luxurious, and if you have the right entertainment and mindset it’s not bad. The seats folded down into a bed, and we just loaded up our iPads with lots of movies to watch.”
Keep an Eye on the Weather
The seasons in South America are the opposite of North America, so plan your trip accordingly. Also keep in mind that South America is a huge continent, so the weather and seasons you experience in the north will be much different than what’s happening farther south. For this reason, it’s best to plan the timing of your trip by thinking of South America as three distinct regions: north, central, and south.
The northern region of South America encompasses Colombia, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela. Do the bulk of your traveling here during the dry season, which runs roughly from December through April. In the middle of the continent – which includes Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay – can be sweltering in the summer. Target September to April for your visit. And finally, in the southern part of South America – which includes Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – is harder to judge because beaches here meet soaring mountains. Visit the mountains of Patagonia in the summer, and the beaches from October to December and March to June.
Karen Baldry says that if she had one piece of advice to provide other backpackers based on her stay in South America, it’s to take advantage of every opportunity to meet your fellow travelers.
“We made some amazing friends after being with them for only five days in one destination or another, since we had this shared experience. I wish we had more of those interactions over our eight months in South America,” she said. “If you’re planning a trip, my advice is to talk to more strangers, ask more people where they were and what they did. Don’t be shy about asking for help – you won’t regret it.”
Images courtesy of Karen Baldry, Far South of South.