When we were planning our trip to South America, we knew we would be pushed for time but didn’t quite realise how much!
Time and travel is personal. Some can afford lots of internal flights, others are disgusted by people doing “highlight” tours, and insist on staying for three months in each country.
You’ll figure out what’s best for you, but here are our tips for anyone planning a South America itinerary.
1. Take As Much Time As You Can
Distances are vast and there is heaps to see. We met a lot of people who were travelling for twelve months just in South America alone.
If you have that much time off, consider staying in South America for your whole trip as opposed to going around the world.
The more time you have, the less flights you will need to take and the cheaper it will be.
2. Take the Seasons into Account and Think About What You Want To Do
The “When to Go” tabs of the country specific pages of Audley Travel’s website are great! Googling specific parts of a country for its average monthly precipitation can also be useful.
Although it’s generally cheaper, in my experience, it’s no fun visiting anywhere during the rainy season unless you have to. It’s often more dangerous with an increased risk of flooding, land slides, and road closures too. Some businesses will be closed and you won’t experience the buzz of seeing a place in full swing.
November to April
November to April is the rainy season in much of South America. In Bolivia, rain means beautiful photogenic reflections in the Salt Flats, but you may not be able to visit most of the region because of road closures.
Have a think in advance about what you want to do.
If you want to prioritise trekking, then Chile and Argentina are best in the summer, between November and April, (the wind in Patagonia is always fierce but can be worse than usual in November/December). The fall colours in Fitzroy, Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego are spectacular in late March/April.
The Inca Trail is closed in February and trekking in the Cordillera Blanca and Huascaran National Park in Peru is more difficult in the when it rains too.
December to February can be a great time to visit coastal Argentina and Uruguay if you want some hot weather and a party atmosphere.
If you’re thinking of doing something particularly expensive such as visiting Antarctica or the Galapagos, or seeing a particular animal or bird, then it pays to research the best time of year to visit.
Tourist voyages only leave for Antarctica between November and March. (You can still get last minute deals for both Antarctica and the Galapagos, even at high season.)
May to September
During May-September, the weather is colder, but often dryer. For example, it is a bit too cold to visit the beaches in the south of Brazil, and the coast of Uruguay will be very quiet during that period.
On the upside, it brings great trekking weather to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and it’s obviously a great time for skiing in Patagonia. Just bear in mind that on the borders of Argentina and Chile, snow can often close high passes, so build in some time for a last minute change of plan in winter, or budget for some flights.
Check out the dates for any festivals you might want to visit or avoid, such as Carnival, Easter, New Year, Pachamama. The atmosphere in most places will be fabulous but transport and accommodation can sell out and be very expensive.
3. Make Time for Spanish Lessons When You Arrive
Make room in your schedule for at least a week of Spanish lessons. Ideally, take more than a week, maybe a month or longer.
Even if you’ve been learning Spanish in your home country, a week when you arrive is a good way to adjust and make some friends.
Trust me, even if you don’t have time, find time. Preferably at the start of your trip.
You will regret not doing it, and will get far more out of your trip if you can communicate a little with the locals, and make friends.
Duolingo is awesome but having a good teacher is far more powerful. You’ll be forced to practice and will get some confidence speaking the local language. Lessons are rarely for the whole day unless you want them to be. They are usually a few hours in the morning or afternoon giving you plenty of time to relax, or sightsee. Some lessons can also come with free accommodation. As a last resort, have some remote lessons with a Spanish teacher in a South America country before you go using iTalki.
4. Don’t Forget the Altitude
Much of Bolivia, Peru, parts of Ecuador, and northern Chile lies at altitude i.e. over 2,000m (circa 6,500 feet). Your body can struggle to deal with this at first, especially if you are flying in from sea level or somewhere much lower down.
If you are making your way along the coast of Peru from the north into the mountains or Bolivia, then you may have issues. If you are making your way from Argentina/north Chile into Bolivia and Peru, you might find it easier and should be okay.
If you’re visiting anywhere at altitude, build in a couple of days to help you acclimatise before you start any tours or treks.
We couldn’t find anywhere that sold Diamox (Acetazolamedie – the Western altitude drug of choice), so get it before you go if you think you’ll need it. You can discuss whether you might need it with your Travel Doctor before you leave.
5. Think Carefully About Booking Anything Months in Advance e.g. the Inca Trail
There is so much to see in South America. No matter how much research you do, you’ll inevitably meet others who will recommend great places to visit that won’t be on your itinerary. If you have a booking for the Inca Trail for example, chances are you would have made it six months in advance and will be rushing to get half way across the country to make sure you get to Cusco on time. The Inca Trail is a great trek but has to be booked months in advance. There are lots of other great treks on offer in the Macchu Picchu region, you will not be missing out massively if you don’t do the Inca Trail. If you’re starting in Peru then it’s perhaps something to consider, otherwise, unless you have months up your sleeve, avoid booking.
Try to reserve at least one day a week purposefully relaxing or catching up on admin i.e. not sightseeing, or doing any tours. Your body and bank balance will thank you for it. Focus on saving money, detoxing, relaxing and getting your admin done.
I found this extremely hard and had very few days like this. There is always so much you will want to do and time is limited, but it will make things so much easier on you in the long run.
6. Build in Extra Time for Cities Where There Are Lots To Do
There is often loads to do in the bigger cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Build in at least one more day than you think you need. You will often need it. The extra time will also give you more flexibility to do things based on the weather, and even if you run out of things to do, cities are great places to hang out, and find decent Internet connections for Skype calls and catching up on admin if nothing else.
7. Seek Out Experiences Over Places to See or Boxes to Tick.
This can be a hard one as there is so much to see, but thinking of your trip in terms of experiences can often make it a far more memorable experience.
Looking back on our trip, it’s the experiences that stick out the most.
Seek out new skills you can learn like dancing or languages; do a course in something you enjoy like skiing/rafting; or look out for treks that you can do or cool volunteer opportunities you might learn about.
8. Book a Dance Lesson
Dancing is a huge part of the South American culture, and there is no better place to learn to tango than in Buenos Aires, salsa in Colombia or samba in Rio de Janeiro.
It’s not often that you get a chance to learn a new skill, and dancing is something fun that anyone can do.
Find out the schedules in advance and have a look into booking them in advance – you’ll save time and you won’t be tempted to not go when you arrive.
It’s a fun new experience, even if you hate it, at least you’ve tried it and you’ll respect the locals a bit more, after figuring out how hard it is in practice.
9. Ask for Recommendations
Other travellers you know who have travelled in the region are great sources of advice. Others you come into contact with in hostels, bars or on tours are often one of the best resources you can find.
Talk to people you meet about what they enjoyed doing and whether they have recommendations or suggestions of places to avoid.
Be flexible enough to change your plans if you learn of any great experiences that are worth doing while you are on the road.
10. When Booking Accommodation – Don’t Forget to Look at TripAdvisor and AirBnB.
We stayed in fabulous hotel rooms via Booking.com, and rented whole apartments on AirBnb, for less than what two dorm beds, or even a private room with a shared bathroom would have cost us in a hostel.
Not all accommodation options offer online booking. If you’re struggling to find anything in your price range, it’s always worth checking out places on TripAdvisor which you can often e-mail to book something or just turn up to see if they have anything free. Some of the best accommodation options can be found this way too.
Having stayed in some rough places in my time, I tend to check out reviews of places before we book or check anywhere out if I can. I’m surprised that so many people don’t do this and spend ages moaning about bad experiences they’ve had.
Most booking sites have some sort of review mechanism, but I usually check TripAdvisor as well. Look out for bogus good reviews, (often posted by users with only one review,) which will undeservedly increase the place’s ranking.
11. Take a Cushion Cover/Pillow Case You Can Close Up
Overland travel in South America usually involves at least a few long distance bus trips. Take a cushion cover with you so that you can stuff it with clothes and use it as a decent pillow.
12. Make the Most of Nice Bathrooms and Hot Showers
Sometimes you never know if it will be your last hot shower or decent bathroom for a while.
We met a few people who had been electrocuted by showers in South America. The shocks are not usually life threatening but can be quite painful. Look out for any wires protruding from a white plastic looking chunky shower head – you can usually be alerted by people screaming but if in doubt, wear rubber flip flops into the shower to help you avoid any potential shocks.
We experienced lots of electric showers in Brazil but had no trouble – so they won’t all give you shocks.
Our South American Trip
We only spent four months in South America. We made our way from Santiago to Patagonia, and on to Buenos Aires, Rio and the south of Brazil, back into Argentina and then up through Bolivia, then Peru before ending our trip in the Galapagos. We took a few flights, one from Santiago to Puerto Natales with Sky Airlines, one from Ushuaia to El Calafate with LAN and another from Buenos Aires to Rio with Emirates. Apart from the obligatory flight from Guayaquil to Baltra in the Galagpagos, the rest of our trip was overland.
We missed practically the whole of Chile, Ecuador and the north of Brazil and a lot of Bolivia and north Argentina. We completely missed out on Colombia, which everyone raves about, as well as Venezuela, Uruguay, and lots of other countries people recommended to us.
There is so much to see and do in the places we missed: the Atacama and the desert landscapes of north Chile, the Amazon and inner cities of Boliva; Quito/Banos/Mindo/Cotopaxi in the north of Ecuador, and Salvador/Natal/Recife/Fortaleza in the north of Brazil. If you have the time take a few more months than we had and make an effort to take your time and visit these places.