5 Tips for Backpacking South America

By Rachel McLeod


5 Tips for Backpacking South America

This Christmas break I spent a month backpacking through a bit of South America. Starting in Buenos Aires, Argentina and ending in Lima, Peru with some time in Bolivia in between; I saw and did a lot in my short time frame of three weeks. Typically when people travel through South America, they take months to do it. Most people I met along the way were working their way through this incredible continent in a year. Since I didn't have the time due to school, I did a quick tour that was beyond amazing and left me wanting more. My experience backpacking, although short, was a great learning experience and left me with better knowledge for when I do find the time to go back and see everything there is to see.

1. Getting From Point A to Point B

The cheapest way to travel in South America is by bus. They may not always be the most comfortable or the cleanest option, but the prices are unbeatable. You can save hundreds of dollars by skipping the airplanes. Being such a large continent with countries that sometimes take days to cross, overnight buses are almost always an option; and usually the best option too. Overnight buses do not have normal seats, you either get a partial bed or a full one that reclines all the way down. Not to mention the nice blanket and the pillow that accompany this type of bus. When you're backpacking, I can almost guarantee that you will be tired enough to pass out on these buses, not to mention the beauty of traveling overnight saves you money on a hostel room, while not wasting any of your time to do things during the day. You will definitely be sick of buses by the end of your trip, but bussing is the best way to get around in South America – not just within a country, but for traveling from country to country. While traveling I walked across two borders (Argentina to Bolivia, and Bolivia to Peru). In this situation the bus takes you to the border, where you have to walk through one by one (like in an airport) and then picks you up on the other side in the other country. This will not be the most enjoyable experience of your life, but to make it more bearable you should dress in layers with really warm options (as most overnight buses that cross borders will try to get you there early in the morning to try avoid lines) and always have snacks.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

In order to enjoy your trip to the fullest, you need to try things you wouldn't normally do. I think this applies for any trip, but personally I found myself doing a lot of things while trekking through South America that I never imagined myself doing. It can be as simple as ignoring a fear of heights and going up steep cable cars, or maybe you just met a new friend in the hostel who has fun plans they invited you to. Step out of your comfort zone and go hang out with those strangers, who often become friends. Try new foods, go into the restaurant that you know you are way too underdressed for, talk to new people, conquer your fears. There are so many amazing experiences to be had in South America (Iguacu Falls, Death Road, Tango shows in Argentina, Patagonia, Rainbow Mountain), some will be challenging, but all will be worth it.

3. Eating on a Budget

Luckily, in most South American countries, you can find food that costs almost nothing. For example, in Ecuador you can get a filling, three-course lunch for as low as two dollars. Cheap places like this are everywhere, and if you want something fresh there are fruit stores and bakeries everywhere you go, sometimes on every corner. Traveling through Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, when breakfast wasn't included in our hostel, there was always a bakery nearby where you could get several goodies for a dollar, and fruit was usually under fifty cents per piece, sometimes depending on what you want. Going out and buying your own things to make yourself a meal will only cost you a few dollars, and oftentimes your hostel will have a kitchen for you to use, to cook your own meals to save money. In certain cases, I found the hostels that had their own kitchens and menus were very reasonably priced, and it was cheaper to eat in the hostel than to go out. While it is nice to treat yourself to a nice meal out every now and then, if you're travelling on a budget, the best thing to do is to go to small shops in the streets and buy your own food to cook and eat.

4. Finding a Good Hostel

Finding a great hostel can be tricky. Sometimes you will get extremely lucky and sometimes you won't. After booking many hostels in many countries, I've come to realize the ratings are not nearly as important as the comments. I found it was best to read the reviews written by people in your age range. This is because an older person who wants a quiet place will review a party hostel terribly, but if you're young and want a fun hostel, this review doesn't mean anything to you, and their low rating will bring the overall rating down. Reading comments from people your age, and getting recommendations from people you know if possible, is the best way to go. Even if you do get unlucky and end up in a dirty or bad hostel, just remember you don't have to stay! And when you find yourself in an amazing hostel, you don't have to leave! Wherever you go, you WILL have options for where to stay, so it's best not to worry about it and just go with the flow. Go with what makes you feel comfortable.

5. Toilet Paper

In South America you will learn very quickly that you always need to carry toilet paper with you. If you are coming from North America this is not something that you will think of. But after spending some time here, you will realize that oftentimes you need to bring your own or use nothing at all. Some public bathrooms will have somebody working at them who you will buy toilet paper from (for no more than fifteen cents). However this is not always the case and many public bathrooms will simply have no option, which is why you need to bring your own. I always had a roll in my backpack, and was thankful countless times for this choice.

Want to keep up with Rachel? Follow her on Instagram, @rachellmcleod.