Backpacking South America Part 1
South America is an awe-inspiring continent that is a haven for backpackers. Boasting wonderful scenery, diverse cultures and landscapes, friendly people and delightful cuisines, South America has everything and more a backpacker could want. A well established road and rail transport network makes inter-country travel easy and relatively inexpensive, so in part one, we focus on the top five must see South American destinations that are both cheap and easy to get to.
1 – Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is, without question, the number one backpacking destination in South America. Located high in the Peruvian Andes, Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca citadel which is famous for its stonework and sweeping panoramic views. Since its discovery in 1911, Machu Picchu has become a mecca for trekkers and holidaymakers alike, and an estimated 75,000 outdoor enthusiasts visit the site each year.
There are a number of different ways to get there, with the most popular being either tagging along to the legendary Inca Trail trek at Ollantaytambo, or by taking the train from the city of Cusco. Cusco can be easily reached either by bus or train from elsewhere in Peru or neighboring countries. For those preferring to trek to the site, there are two different options available – one is a four day trek and the other a two day trek. Both are relatively inexpensive, although due to popular demand pre-bookings are required at least four months in advance. Tour guides and accommodation are also factored in to the price. Most trekking experts recommend visiting Machu Picchu in May as it is just before both the peak tourist month of June and the monsoon rains.
2 – Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
It may come as a surprise to list the salt flats of southern Bolivia as a must see, yet the reviews and snapshots of this eerily beautiful place ensure it ranks high on our list. At an elevation of 3,700 meters and covering an area of 12,000 square kilometers, Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It is a popular choice for backpackers because it can be visited all year round. During the dry season, the salt becomes blindingly white, while during the wet season a lake forms above the salt and it acts as a giant mirror.
Travelling to Salar de Uyuni is probably easiest if coming from Peru. Trains run from Lima through to numerous destinations in Bolivia. The final train stop before the salt flats is Sucre, from where tour guides and jeeps must be rented. It is a three day drive to the salt flats and there are options to stay at the flats for one, three or five days. The village of Uyuni is home to a number of hostels and cheap hotels, and in addition to the salt flats, there are plenty of other attractions nearby.
3 – Buenos Aires, Argentina
A backpacking tour around South America would not be complete without a stop-off at Buenos Aires. Located on the east coast of Argentina, Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as the ‘Paris of South America’. It is a cosmopolitan city with an interesting and diverse population, and its breathtaking architecture and buildings mean it is not unsimilar in style to some of Europe’s largest cities.
Buenos Aires is also a very lively and exciting city with plenty of tourist and nightlife attractions to suit the tastes of all backpackers. Some of the more well known attractions include the weekly craft market, the cemetery, the La Boca area and for those interested in watching football, the Boca Juniors stadium. Hostels and backpacker accommodation are cheap and plentiful, and as a regional transport hub, Buenos Aires is well connected to other parts of Argentina and surrounding countries.
4 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When one thinks of South America, we automatically conjure up the iconic figure of Christ the Redeemer, samba dancers at the annual Carnival Parade and beaches such as the Copacabana. Rio de Janeiro is home to all of these and is another must see place on any South American backpacking trip.
Rio is blessed with a warm year round climate that makes it the perfect destination for some rest and recuperation. In addition to its beaches and iconic landmarks, Rio also has some of the best restaurants in South America, the lively areas known as favelas and some of the friendliest people in the world. Backpacker accommodation can vary in price, and some of the more upmarket hostels have their own swimming pools or are located very close to the beach. Regardless of budget, Rio has something for everyone and is well connected by all modes of transport.
5 – The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is our fifth and final must see place when backpacking in South America. Spanning an area of some 5.5 million square kilometers, this tropical rainforest is spread out among nine different countries in total. Over 60 percent of the rainforest is located in Brazil, and this section of the rainforest is reputedly one of the cheapest and most popular of all the Amazon tours.
The city of Manaus is the primary start off point for most Amazon rainforest tours, and there are a wide choice of travel and accommodation options to choose from, ranging from five star cruises to boat and lodge stays. This section of the Amazon also boasts over six miles of jungle trails which offer the perfect way to see the diversity of the Amazon up close. Manaus is well connected to Brazil’s main cities by both road and rail networks and is busy all year round with backpackers.
Part 2 of our Backpacking South America series is coming soon.