How Do I Plan for My Trip to South America?
September 7, 2012 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to spend 2~3 months in South America and have no idea where to go or how to begin planning. I'd like some help please.

I'd like to spend some time (2 to 3 months) in South America and see/do everything I can. No idea where to go or how to even begin planning for this. I'm sure there are some books or websites that are helpful - any recommendation or suggestion is much appreciated.

I want to keep transportation and lodging low cost but I'm not exactly on a low budget - just wanna see as much of the world as possible before I run out of money.
posted by jstarlee to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on your comfort level, I'd strongly recommend buying a round-trip ticket and figuring almost everything out once you're there. The countries that I've explored (Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador) all have great bus networks, and I felt perfectly safe doing this as a young bright-white female traveling alone. I tried to pre-plan my first trip, and drove myself crazy doing so ... so much information is easier to find once you're there. Plus, the flexibility is awesome. If you don't already speak Spanish, you might want to spend your first week or two at a language school (or studying on your own while staying put in a city).

I'm a big fan of the Footprint travel guides. They have activity suggestions that appeal to my slightly off-the-beaten path preferences, and have the practical stuff (maps for food & lodging, w/ contact info) well covered.

Some countries (esp Brazil & Bolivia) want to make US travelers feel the pain that foreigners feel when visiting the US ... so look up visa requirements in advance.

I looked at to find travel warnings and stay aware of which areas of what countries are sketchy, and to look up recommended vaccinations.

As far as what to do ... you've left it pretty open, so I'll give you some of my highlights:
* go for a glacier trek in El Calafate, Argentina
* study spanish for 2 weeks in Bariloche, Argentina (yum! chocolate!). Plus, lots of pretty hikes around there
* bike tour of wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
* explore the Tigre Delta near Buenos Aires Argentina
* Iguazu falls!
* decide on a whim to catch a bus from Mendoza, Argentina to Portillo (just over the Chilean border) for world-class skiing
* horseback riding in some tiny Bolivian town ... the whole town was awesome
* biking from 4100m to 1100m (snow to jungle!) in La Paz, Bolivia
* exploring Bolivia in general ... I found the local accent easy to understand, it's dirt-cheap, and the people were relatively friendly
* hiking around Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
posted by Metasyntactic at 7:36 PM on September 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

I just got back from Chile and Argentina. I love Chile and I'd move to Santiago in a heartbeat. Chile is also super inexpensive. Argentina was comparatively very, very pricy. After several years of heavy inflation, everything is expensive in Argentina.

The takeaway is to really understand the economies you'll be traveling in and portion your money appropriately. You could spend a few weeks in Chile for what a week in Buenos Aires will cost you.
posted by 26.2 at 9:18 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spent a little over 6 months in SA last year doing a big overland route (no planes) and went to every country: here's a map.

Go to a library and borrow, or just buy a guidebook. Decide where you want to go- read the thorntree forums too. Book a flight and your first nights accommodation. Read up, get your first visa, pack light. That is all you need.
posted by maya at 9:34 PM on September 7, 2012

I just want to say that your potential budget has a wide range based on where you go, how fast you move, your preferred level of comfort, and the activities you choose. Ecuador and Bolivia were the cheapest for me, followed by Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, then Venezuela, then Guyana and Suriname. Then Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and finally Brazil and French Guiana.

In the Southern part of the continent bus prices were usually set and much higher- like $60 for a
night bus instead of $6 or $10 in Bolivia. But there are many factors.

In Argentina I stayed in dorms for $7-$15 USD per night (paid 30-40 Arg. Pesos in Buenos Aires 1 week before 'high season'). I self-catered a lot there, buying fresh vegetables, eggs, bread, etc and cooking in hostel kitchens. I did not find Chile cheap- I paid 8000-10000 Chilean pesos a night and got private rooms in Chile and self catered a lot.

You will usually find it cheaper to fly into the northern part of the continent. Ecuador and Peru and Bolivia will give you a good taste and an easy circuit. In SA you'll even find European style hostels with things like jello shots and pasta. It is also (thankfully for some) easy to stay away from those places.
posted by maya at 10:06 PM on September 7, 2012

Having lived in Peru and traveled to just about every region/department at some point, I just want to point out that in Peru you can find just about everything you could want - beautiful expansive beaches in the north, deserts with sand dune surfing in the south, snowcapped mountains in the middle, rainforest/jungle covering the whole eastern part, upscale and downscale, big city and tiny villages, cheap and expensive, wildlife, unique cuisine, ancient ruins and modern remnants of a whole array of different civilizations spanning thousands of years; I'm not sure what you're looking for, but you could spend the whole time in Peru and not come close to getting bored. There are sleeper buses that go everywhere which are reasonably priced; knowledge of Spanish helps find the better deals. There are lots of backpackers all the time, and lots of hostels and things that cater to them, although, again, of course it's easier to wing it if you can speak Spanish.

Guayaquil, Ecuador is also very inexpensive and worth visiting for a few days. I didn't love Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires -- they kind of just felt like big cities to me, and were expensive too (by the standards I had gotten used to in Peru and Ecuador) -- but it's hard to know what to recommend since you haven't really said what you enjoy.

In general I would say browse some guidebooks (or online, although I think books are easier) and find things that look interesting to you. You don't have to plan it all out before you go, except maybe for visas. If I remember right, Brazil and maybe Bolivia are more of a pain and you might have to do them in advance. Ecuador and Peru were non-issues: just show up. Chile is just paying the $100+ one-time fee, so it's easy, but expensive.

I haven't been to Venezuela or Colombia, but I hear the beaches are wonderful. Think about what climate appeals to you (I like the tropics - probably one reason I liked Ecuador more than Chile); what economic level appeals to you (I prefer cheap and downscale and very different from my former clean, nice middle-class life in the US, which is one reason I preferred Peru to Argentina); what kind of attractions appeal to you (whether nature, history, nightlife, ...); there's plenty to cater to all those tastes. But to get better recommendations from the community you might want to be more specific about what you think you might be looking for.
posted by jef at 11:48 PM on September 7, 2012

For itinerary ideas, check out the websites of travel companies like Intrepid or Gecko's. This will give you an idea of things to see, how long you might want to spend in each place, and they also have alot of notes and general information about the countries you will be visiting.

In terms of guidebooks, I'd recommend Lonely Planet's South America on a Shoestring, for information on travelling on a budget. As this one book covers the whole continent, it might be worth buying more specific guidebooks for places that you plan to spend a bit of extra time in.
posted by peppermintfreddo at 1:18 AM on September 8, 2012

I'm a teacher currently living in Santiago, Chile, and I spent my summer off traveling around South America. Metasyntactic has a lot of excellent ideas for where to go. Within Chile itself, I would probably say to skip Santiago - it's a fun place to live but not much of a tourist attraction. My favorite trip, however, was the hiking trip we did in Torres del Paine in the south of Chile. It was absolutely gorgeous and by far one of the most fun hiking trips I've ever done. I would definitely suggest hitting it up if you're into hiking, and I would probably recommend it over El Calafate, which does have a very cool glacier, and is beautiful, but has more of a ritzy tourist town feel (although it of course depends what you're into). It is expensive to get to Torres del Paine, however, so you would have weigh its appeal with your other options.

I also went to Peru and hit up Machu Picchu as well as Lake Titicaca and the Sacred Valley. Peru is SUCH a beautiful country, and much cheaper than Chile. I second jef's opinion that you could spend ages in Peru and never get bored - there's just so much to do for a much lower cost than Chile or Argentina. I unfortunately do not find either of those places cheap, especially Chile. I would say, however, that Buenos Aires is definitely worth a trip if you want to see a city. I thought it was so beautiful and I extended my stay there by five days just so I could explore more of the city.

Another really fun place, that is also really cheap, is Ecuador. I spent two months there before I arrived to Chile and I had an excellent time. I was living in Quito, which is gorgeous in and of itself, but took lots of side trips all around the country. We took various hiking trips, visited the jungle, went to the beach, and went out a ton all for much less than it would have cost in some other countries. Just thinking about it makes me miss it so much...I definitely suggest that you try to include Ecuador in your itinerary!

While I haven't been, I hear awesome things about Colombia, and even better things about Brazil. My friends who went to Brazil loved it but thought it was the most expensive place they visited, especially Rio de Janeiro. If you go to Buenos Aires, Uruguay is also very close and can be reached by a ferry. Brazil has a somewhat tricky visa process for Americans, as does Bolivia, so if you are from the US make sure to work that out before you get there. A lot of the travel plans, as other people have said, can be worked out when you get there, but if you get a rough itinerary together and want to include some flights, a great site to find cheap flights within South America is ( in Chile - works great here but no guarantees it is a cost effective from the US).

Good luck! I love living in and travelling around South America. You will have a blast no matter where you decide to go. If you have any questions or want to know anything more specific just memail me!
posted by luciernaga at 6:32 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

What do you like doing when you travel? What are your interests? There are people who want to spend a month trekking in the Peruvian Andes, and people who want to spend three months becoming an expert in Chilean and Argentinian wines.

We can all tell you about how Bolivia was amazing or we hear great things about Colombia, but without any input into what you look for in a travel experience, that will all be meaningless platitudes.

There's a recognized tourist trail through South America. If you don't know what you like, you can always just stick to that, I guess. Any guidebook to South America as a whole will hint at what that tourist trail is. South America On A Shoestring is a great way to get a sense of what there is to see and do in each country.

Keep in mind that, if you are an American, a lot of South American countries either require visas or charge large entry fees to get into the country. You say you're not on much of a budget, but this is definitely something to consider. I skipped Bolivia because it seemed like a waste to pay $130 just to spend a few days in a country I didn't have any specific interest in. Those fees can definitely add up if you plan to visit a lot of countries that have them.
posted by Sara C. at 8:04 AM on September 8, 2012

How exciting -- you're going to have a great time! My partner and I spent 3 months last summer traveling in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and it was fabulous. I've also previously been to Argentina and Brazil on a more tradition 2-week vacation. We went down with a round-trip ticket to Lima, a reservation for the Inca trail and a rough idea of which direction to go -- all other plans we made on the go, which is quite easy.

As others have stated, if you want your budget to go a long way, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia, and (to a lesser extent) Peru are the way to go. Highlights in these countries including: the Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia (such a surreal experience), the bustling city of La Paz, the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Colca Canyon, Mancora, the jungle, the colonial city of Quito, adventures in Banos, Vilcabamba for relaxation. Another plus about that group of countries is that they're close enough together that you can get around entirely on buses, although we did take a few plane trips to avoid hours of buses.

Since no one has mentioned it, I do want to put in a good word for the Galapagos Islands. We too were on a budget and for most of the trip, didn't plan on going because it was so expensive compared with our every-day traveling in South America, but ultimately found a last minute deal while in Quito and decided to go on a 8 day cruise, with a few extra days on land in the islands, and it was absolutely amazing and worth every cent! One thing that swayed me was that, despite the hype, everyone we talked to in South America who had been there raved about it to no end, while we talked to quite a few people who felt Machi Picchi, or Lake Titicaca, or the salt flats were overrated. It's only going to get more expensive to visit the Galapagos Islands as time goes on, so you should go for it if your itinerary goes through Ecuador.

I will say that Rio de Janeiro is probably by favorite South American city, but expensive. If you get over there, definitely don't miss Iguazu falls. I'm actually one of the few people who found Buenos Aires kind of overrated.
posted by purplevelvet at 7:36 PM on September 8, 2012

Response by poster: Lots of good info and answers! Looks like I've got lots of homework and reading ahead. Thanks everyone! I really really appreciate all your help. =)
posted by jstarlee at 6:03 PM on September 9, 2012

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