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Intro.... From a traveller perspective, South America splits into roughly three regions. The more developed Southern countries of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile; with their European feel, political stability and relatively high standards (not to mention great wine and meat). This is where many start/finish a trip.
Then you have the less developed 'Inca and Amazon' countries - Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador/Colombia. Here you have the main concentration of travellers, drawn not only by the world famous sights, but also the significantly lower cost of travel (certainly in Bolivia). And a more 'authentic' South American feeling with a great percentage of indigenous population (highest in Bolivia) and stereotypical scenery.
And lastly you have Brazil, which although often combined
as part of a larger trip (typically Rio and/or the
Foz do Iguaçu), needs to be treated separately due to its size and different vibe/language.
South America on the whole lacks difficult border crossings and visa
headaches (although Americas will occasionally run into hefty charges). Bus transport
is easy to arrange and there is a very established trail of attractions
(often known as the 'Gringo Trail').
This however causes many to 'bite off more than they can chew'
in terms of distances to be covered overland, not finding the time
or the energy
to discover out of the way gems and (although good value on a world
level) spending too much [money] in the Southern developed countries
and/or (especially) Brazil.
The most 'backpackery' countries are Bolivia
and Peru with a clear 'trail' of attractions, 'party' hostels/towns/tours
and lots of people to meet. Tour mentality and the type of other travellers
(certainly at the budget end) you meet can jade some, certainly in the
case of Bolivia where you'll find the best value for money on the continent.
What follows are only basic snap shot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information, you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us: it will make life much easier.
It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for www.travelindependent.info
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
The poorest and debatably the best (from an independent budget traveller's
perspective) of South American nations. Bolivia is no secret, it's
generally crammed full of backpackers who come for a cheaper stay
than elsewhere in the region and the great diversity on offer.
Diversity in - to name only a few examples - historic (Potosi), amazing scenery of a beautiful altiplano plus the world's highest capital city, reasonable trekking opportunities and a hugely accessible (cheapest in South America (not as accessible as in Central America)) jungle. Bolivia is also the most indigenous country on the continent, with more than 50% of the population maintaining traditional values and beliefs. This Tibet of the Americas is as popular as the Asian original.
On the downside it's worth noting that the country's road system is not great, due in part to the topography and in part to lack of maintenance. This can make some longer trips somewhat unpleasant; there is no established budget airline network, so to avoid such journeys and fly, can become quite pricey. Worth a month of your time and a few Spanish lessons, but don't expect to have anywhere to yourself, but the remotest jungle.
Lots of tourists and 'tour mentality' - see below -tours, tours, tours. Poverty notable and so are mosquitoes/heat/humidity in jungle areas. The country's road system, cost of internal flights and distances.
Visa strategy: Free visa on border or at the airport for most nationalities. Other nationalities such as South Africans will have to pay (almost US$50). Regulations seem to change frequently, but our understanding is currently citizens of Japan and most EU countries can stay 90 days without paying for a visa; citizens of Canada, Australia and New Zealand can stay 30 days without paying for a visa. USA citizens now do require a visa, it's a 135 bucks (!), takes 24hours to issue and is valid for 5 years (you can use it up to 3 times per year, 90days max) - more information here. Most other nationalities require a visa in advance - usually issued for a 30-day stay.
Locals: Very nice and laid back, Spanish easy to understand
Other travellers: Typical Gringos and lots of them.
Predominately young Europeans on long (regional trips), many
have high expectations of Bolivia and come to spend large amounts
of time. As the cheapest country in the region many just
hang-out, taking the odd tour. Also notably many Israelis (often
in large groups).
Tourist factor: 8/10
Accommodation: Cheap, sometimes basic and cold (spend money on better warmer accommodation if need be)
Hot water: Can be a problem at budget end.
Average cost: less than $10-25. Some amazing value
places, notably in Sucre.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: The higher plains of Bolivia get pretty cold at night, but are never as cold as some make it out (since it is not a damp cold), unless in winter (June/July). Visiting jungle areas during or just after the wet season is not pleasant. Lying in the southern hemisphere; winter runs from May to October and summer from November to April. Basically it's generally wet in the summer and dry during the winter.
The tourist season is something like late June to early
September, which has a good climate and is Bolivia's major fiesta season.
This does however make for a very crowded time with overseas visitors
and lots of South Americans travelling.
As mentioned, highlands and the altiplano can become very cold in the winter and wet in the summer. However, the wet summer months (northern hemisphere winter) are not a serious barrier to travel and additionally there is far too much scaremongering regarding the winter's freezing lows.
Yes it can get very cold with the higher points of the altiplano dropping as low as -15C, and in most seasons below zero is not uncommon, but these are nightly temperatures when you will be tucked up in a sleeping bag (rent no problem) with loads of blankets available and not outside in a tent. Remember these high altiplano points are where you transit from Chile to Potosi/Uyuni, not where you travel day-to-day (which are lower areas such as Potosi, Sucre, La Paz or Cochabamba). During the day, it is most likely you will be in a jeep as at such attitude any physical effort is very tiring. It won't be t-shirt weather, but a good fleece (or two) is enough. It's ridiculous to pack arctic clothing for only a few days stay and limited exposure to such a climate. If anything, good thermal underwear is most useful due to it's many applications.
Conversely, on the tropical lowlands, summer is pretty miserable with mud, steamy heat, bugs and relentless downpours, making travel very difficult if you are anywhere off the beaten track.
Typical tourist trail: Lake Titicaca to La Paz, to the jungle (Rurrenbaque) sometimes via a mountain bike ride to Coroico - back to La Paz - Sucre to Potosi to Uyuni to Chile/La Paz (or reverse if coming from Chile, not Peru/La Paz)
Dangers: Some violent crime, take care at night and during civil unrest (stay well away from demonstrations) - road blocks and unrest around Easter time common. Watch petty thieves in markets and bus stations. Such thefts normally involve a distraction like something being dropped or spat/sprayed on you. On the whole, these are all minor issues and it is a fairly safe country on regional standards.
Money: In larger cities plenty of ATMs. For cash, US dollars
are of course the foreign currency of choice throughout Bolivia,
but currencies of neighbouring countries can be exchanged in border
areas. All casas de cambio change cash US dollars and some
also change traveller's checks. If you can't find a cambio, try
travel agencies, jewellery or appliance stores and pharmacies. Credit
cards may be used in larger cities, but not elsewhere - best bet
stick to using ATMs in major centres. Some ATMs (La Paz airport)
give USD cash.
Getting around: Most roads okay with frequent buses, some
roads (especially lowland roads in wet season) are awful. Trains
get very cold at night and are considered worse than buses - certainly
slower. Worth flying to jungle areas and if feeling a little travel
worn. As mentioned in the lowlights, making long trips can be somewhat
unpleasant, roads in the cities are alright, and the stretch just
south of La Paz is OK, but most other rural roads are terrible.
There is no established budget airline network, so to avoid such journeys and fly, can become quite pricey. Domestic carriers- are expensive compared to buses, but not as expensive as this seems to imply.
Costs: Cheapest nation within South America, US$20-30 or even less a day. Excellent value if you are prepared to live, eat and travel as locals do. However, if you want to do a jungle trip, mountain climb/bike, trip across the altiplano or other such activities you will spend more (although tours are great value). There are also plenty of other temptations (give often party vibe) which will increase costs for some.
Tours, Tours, Tours: Bolivia is indisputably 'backpacker central' and an industry has sprung up to provide easy, cheap and comfortable tours tailored to young travellers. So much so that you could easily explore the jungle, silver miners, salt flats, 'death' road, etc., without ever having to take local transportation or interact with locals (apart from guides) all to a soundtrack of contemporary dance music.
These tours make seeing Bolivia easy, cheap and fun (if you get lucky with others in your group). However, after a while you might wonder if you really saw Bolivia at all.
Health: Be aware of food poisoning. Take it very easy and be careful
at high altitudes - it is common for a traveller to hit 5000 meters. Anyone
arriving from sea level will have a screaming headache for a day or two,
and a few become very sick indeed.
What to take: Some warm clothes and a hat, cool covering clothes
and insect repellent for jungle. Some periods of the year can be quite wet
and a waterproof jacket can be useful during these times. Note that La Paz
is full of shops selling not only locally produced Llama and Alpaca wool
jumpers/gloves/scarfs, but also outdoor equipment such as fleeces, down
jackets, hiking shoes, rain jackets and anything you would need if you don't
bring from home, so no need to panic - you won't freeze.
Guide book: Footprint. For a full list of regional guides please click here.
Communications: Internet no problem, plenty of fast Wi-Fi,
Food: Some good, cheap food
Vegetarians: Not really a problem
Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
Women alone: Be careful at night, not really a problem. Taking jungle tours alone, especially if female, is not advised.
Local poisons for the body: Mate de Coca, a tea made
from coca leaves (as in the raw material for cocaine production) is widely
available, drunk and cherished throughout the country. Equally, the leaves
are chewed (and have been for centuries) by locals. Both are known to be
helpful for altitude sickness. Despite the content, you would need to be
a fairly professional chewer (the locals build up large lumps of chewed
leaves in their cheeks, hamster style) or drink one hell of a lot of tea
to have any real effect beyond that of strong coffee.
The finished article, that is cocaine, is of course much more potent and as in Colombia [in hot spots] widely available. Still highly illegal, the attitude is more tolerant and certainly in La Paz there exist 'Cocaine Bars' where you may go to sample the famous marching powder in its pure form. The location of these bars (there are really only a very small number) changes regularly. A taxi driver outside or a bar tender inside any of the large (party) hostels are your best bet to find one, as is asking around with English speaking locals (during a visit in mid-2014 we were 'arranged' a visit by a guy handing out flyers for a bar on the street). The names Eddie's Place and Route 36 (most notorious) are most often referenced. It is purely a Gringo (no locals) affair with the vibe ranging from laid back (early on) to that of a club (later one). The locations are hidden away from main areas (often near/above existing clubs) and you are met by official looking staff on the street who quiz you before showing you in. With lots of young (often drunk) backpackers this looks like an accident waiting to happen. Like all references to illegal activities on this site caveat emptor - and don't be an idiot and carry the stuff around with you (and certainly not across international borders), be careful when taking a taxi home when leaving late (these bars usually close around 0400-0500).
Intro: On the whole Brazil is a pretty western country - somewhere it's easy to travel and have a good time. It's also home to some of the world's most beautiful scenery, particularly along its southern coast. Jungle regions may disappoint, as prices run high and any tour is likely to have you not 'seeing the wood for the trees', as the expression goes, as with all trips of this nature, the focus is very much on flora and not fauna. Trips to the Pantanal (wet land areas) are far more worthwhile, but it can be quite a touristic experience, costs are still comparatively high and there a more than a few stories running around of cheap tours turning into disasters.
What really sets Brazil apart is, generally speaking, unlike the rest of South America it is fairly void of travellers outside of three or four locations. Tourists are often scared off by the distances - and costs and stick mainly to the run to Bolivia and Argentina from Rio (the main entry hub) taking in the Foz do Iguaçu.
Brazilian Portuguese, which you need to think about more than just believing it's pretty much the same as Spanish, needs some mastering as English or Spanish is incredibly rarely spoken for a developed country and day to day living costs are much higher than the likes of Argentina and Peru or in fact anywhere else south of the USA (Chile and a few Caribbean islands aside). And that's really the deal - as great as Brazil can be, if you have any illusions of bargain travel and have to watch your pennies plus don't speak a word of Portuguese, it's going to be a lot less fun. You're not quite at European or North American prices, but if you are hitting the big cities and popular beaches don't figure on cheap. A double room in a Rio hostel will set you back over 100R or 50+US$ (although dorm beds are of course cheaper) and (especially when factoring in long distances), bus travel will soon add up. A great network of internal flights are good value and it's when you get away from the major attractions that you'll meet some great fun people from the sexiest nation on earth. Speaking some Portuguese, avoiding any crime and being disposed to 'beach life' are the major factors in getting the very best from Brazil. Those who do will deservedly rave about the place.
Typical tourist trail: Rio to the coast and down to Foz do Iguaçu then on to Paraguay.
Dangers: Some violent crime. Care is required in big cities as with anywhere in South America. Although few travellers experience serious problems it is worth remembering that along with a handful of other places on the globe, Brazil can be a very dangerous country with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, and care is needed even by day. Simple precautions like not wearing a flashy watch and not using ATMs on deserted streets and always hiding your PIN make a lot of sense.
Visa strategy: Visa free on arrival for EU members plus New Zealand / Israel. Visa required for other nationalities (inc. Canada, Japan, Australia). A Brazilian visa now costs $100 for US citizens. Ouch!
Be warned that if visiting other countries in the region where yellow fever is a problem (e.g. Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela) a yellow fever certificate maybe requested on entry. You need to have the jab ten days before you travel.
Costs: US$40-60 a day should cover you, if hitting some big cities. If you want your money to go the furthest, Northern Brazil is certainly cheaper and some knowledge of Portuguese is essential. Kitchens in many hostels and good supermarkets mean self-caters can really reduce daily costs. The same goes with using dorm beds rather than private rooms.
Brazil has never been cheap compared to many other Latin American counties, but is getting increasingly more expensive, mainly due to its massive economic growth which has significantly strengthened the Real as a currency. Once again, those expecting ultra-budget travel, beware.
Money: ATMs commonplace, although many don't work on the international network. Look for HSBC branches which use the VISA network (Cirrus much less common). Most banks change travellers cheques, but changing cash or TCs on a Sunday can be quite difficult. On the whole, you can pay for most of your day-to-day needs getting about with a debit/credit card, which limits your need to carry too much cash.
Guide book: Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides please see here.
Locals: Very friendly and welcoming, especially if you make an effort with Portuguese. Younger travellers getting a little off the beaten track and staying in communal accommodation are often welcomed into beach parties and make friends very easily.
Other travellers: Many British/Irish, not so many typical Gringos. Worth noting is, as in South East Asia, a large number of Israelis.
Tourist factor: 6/10 (obviously away from Rio and other main attractions)
Accommodation: Can be quite expensive relative to the rest of South America. There has been a big increase in international-style hostels in the past few years, but away from Rio and the like, you are limited to the smaller less traveller/non-Portuguese speaking orientated Brazilian versions. For carnivals it's advisable that accommodation be booked between August and November regardless of the carnival you choose to view, although you may be offered a home stay on arrival if you're lucky. If you are looking for a double room in a Rio hostel, best book before you arrive.
Hot water: Fine
Average cost: 70R up to 110R in cities. Note these are as with all average accommodation prices on this site for a double room. Is it worth noting that for Carnival or over New Year places jack their prices up, up to ten times, and have several day minimum stays.
Communications: Okay internet, some international call centres. Post, cheapest in South America
Food: Sometimes expensive, buying your own at good supermarkets is an option. Is it also worth noting the outstanding variety of Brazilian food and fruit juices, with so many cultures from all over the world and all the fruits from the Amazon.
Hassle and annoyance factor: None really, apart from Pantanal tours
Women alone: As with the rest of South America, single women should be very wary before taking a jungle or Pantanal tour with a male guide
Local poisons for the body: Brazilians love to party
and normally alcohol is involved. Cocktails including the famous
Caipirinhas and its many variations are mixed very strong -
so watch how much you drink if out at night and in an unfamiliar
area. Cocaine readily available in big cities if you are looking
- police entrapment is common. Grass also widely available.
Substances likes 'daime' or 'ayahuasca' are not illegal in much of South America (inc. Brazil). Both are two names for the same hallucinogenic that are used in rituals. The effect is similar to magic mushrooms, or peyote, or even LSD. There are many specific destinations for those who want to participate with support, although the effect is not to be underestimated.
During summer (December-February) many Brazilians take holiday's, making travel both difficult and expensive. At the same time, in Rio and the rest of the south the humidity is nasty. Summer is also the most festive time of year, as Brazilians escape their apartments and take to the beaches and streets. School holidays begin in mid-December and go through to Carnival, usually held in late February (the weekend and days before Ash Wednesday).
Land: Economy buses are okay value and are usually reasonably comfortable. Deluxe buses are sometimes very comfortable, but obviously pricier. The cost of bus travel can however really add up and a hire car is an option if you have the money or are in a group. Overnight trips aren't too painful. Many companies offer difference classes on longer routes, but the distances just go on forever! Take for example the journey from Rio to Recife - 38 hours by bus. Trains are a scenic option in places.
Air: To really cover Brazil, those that can afford it may want to consider an air pass or much easier use this countries excellent budget airline network. Gol, and TAM are the leaders. You can check all their websites to get an idea of routes, times and prices. These can be equally surprisingly low or high. Six hours on a bus, Rio to Sao Paulo can be flown for less than 70US$ (not to mention that Rio's Santos Dumont and Sao Paulo's Congonhas airports are spectacular to take-off/land in). Booking on-line proves far more difficult, due to recognising or security checking non-Brazilian credit cards (this should change in the future), but these airlines have desks that can be found in shopping malls or airports where you can book. Equally a travel agent can do it for you, sometimes even hostels. Getting deep into the interior normally requires the use of a flight at some stage.
The three most popular Carnivals in Brazil are:
Salvador: Celebrated along 26 km of streets filled with approximately 2.2 million people. It's the biggest street party on Earth according to The Guinness Book of World Records. It's also a giant open-air festival of Brazilian music for free. About 411,000 out-of-state visitors, mainly from Rio and São Paulo, come to participate in the 280+year-old party. In Salvador it's all about participating in Carnival, and not only watching when some of the best Brazilian bands and singers are in action.
Recife/Olinda: Carnival in Recife and Olinda is celebrated by approximately 1.5 million people along 12 km of streets. About 100 dolls 3.6-meter tall, some dating as far back as 1932, are unique to the Saturday parade in Olinda.
Rio: Takes place along a 700-meter runway, also know as Sambódromo, an open-air stadium built 21 years ago to house the two-day extravaganza that dates back to 1932. About 70,000 people cheer from the grandstands, with tourists paying from US$100 to US$4,000 to watch the spectacle. The cost of accommodation in Rio during this time is very high and you are normally required to stay the week. Worth staying away if you are not seeing the carnival.
The main parade (on Sunday and Monday) consists of 6 samba schools per night with 4,500 people each, in colourful costumes and on floats; great for photos and video. Although largely ignored by the locals, it's popular among richer foreign tourists. The "Champions Parade" is on the Saturday following Carnival and features the top 5 winning samba schools from the previous weekend; the best way to see the highlights in Rio at a lower admission cost.
When?: Carnival in Brazil normally starts on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and finishes on Ash Wednesday itself, though in some places the celebrations tend to spill over until the following weekend.
Intro: Ten times longer than it is thin. Flying into Santiago
on a clear day you can see the Andres and the ocean in one quick glance.
Like Brazil, Chile is far from a budget destination and Spanish, which is
spoke at an amazing speed, is tough to understand for a beginner. Valparaiso
and the odd vineyard aside, most cities lack obvious attractions, those
landing in Santiago and heading north to the vast uninteresting region that
turns into the visually stunning altiplano at the border with Bolivia, may
not be overly impressed. However, those with time, money and 'outdoor' personalities,
who have good weather on their side and head south to the lake district
are in for a real treat.
Chile really does feel different than the rest of South America. Comfortable, almost European in places with quirky cities and a 'frontier' feel on its fringes. Tourism is for the most part well supported with plenty of hostels and free maps abound. You'll find in urban centres plush shopping malls, well stocked super-markets and great nightlife. If only the country were more compact..... despite a fantastic and comfortable bus network, to see the country beyond Santiago and Valparaiso, you'll need to invest some time - which most don't given the temptations of other, cheaper countries to the North and East.
Getting to Patagonia is particularly problematic, requiring a flight or, as with any travel in Chile, a long (but always good) bus ride. Very much an outdoor destination, the beautiful fjordland and national parks leave those with time to explore and the right weather conditions breathless. There is also the opportunity to ski at good value resorts. Those interested in Easter Island see details under the Polynesia section summaries.
Patagonia and the lake district (you will need to trek to see these properly and hit the sweet spot of good weather in the shoulder seasons rather than good weather and big crowds during the peak season at major attractions - the best of Patagonia is very weather dependent), San Pedro de Atacama, Valparaiso, easy access white-water rafting and volcano climbs (however the jury is out on Pucón), nightlife and getting off-the-beaten track along with good value and world class skiing (Esquel & Bariloche). Booze in Chile is also a real highlight from Pisco and Mango Sours to exceptional red/white wine and numerous artisanal beers (especially in Patagonia)
Distances between attractions. The bottom of the world (the continent's most southern point is somewhat unspectacular). Equally the weather in the South (Lake district to Patagonia), if against you, will make you wonder why you came. Santiago, may be the capital, with a great nightlife and home to most of the population, but it is an underwhelming place compared to its counterparts in other countries on the continent.
Visa strategy: No visa required for most nationalities, but as with most of the rest of the region, a 'reciprocity fee' is levelled on those nationalities that charge Chileans for a visa. Most notable this applies to Canadians (no longer to Americans) at a whooping cUS$130 (Australians about half that), the amount is payable in USD on arrival and is linked to the passport number so good for as long as you have the passport. Kiwis, Brits and most other European nationalities have no such fee charged.
Typical tourist trail: Arrival in Santiago by air or overland from Mendoza. Costs considered, many and especially those who already spent time in Argentina and are making their way North to Bolivia and beyond, restrict themselves to only Santiago (and possibly Valparaiso) before jumping on a Bolivia bound bus. Those with more time taking in Patagonia, the Lake District and/or San Pedro de Atacama.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Trekking in Patagonia only possible in summer (European/N. American winter). Climate varies dramatically from snow to sun.
Costs: Reasonable, transportation is a major cost, especially paying for flights. Great supermarkets so do your own cooking or sandwiches. Consider US$50-60 per day.
What to take: Some warm clothing. Sleeping bags and rain gear can be hired for Patagonian treks and is okay quality, but not fantastic. You may do some camping and if you are into this scene bringing all the gear with you is a good idea. You don't need a tent to trek the Tories del Paine, there are rest houses, although they are basic (need sleeping bag) plus get very crowded in peak season and close in the winter.
Money: ATMs. USD cash are always welcome and technically they is 19% VAT payable on hotels. As a visitor you can escape this, but to do so you need to pay USD (either cash - always preferred - or USD on a credit card). It is nicer places to stay where you can take advantage of this, rather than the cheapos. Everyone in the country will know the USD exchange rate and places to change are plentiful, including decent sized supermarkets,
Guide book: Rough Guide or Footprint. Many use a regional guide. For a full list of regional guides please click here.
Getting to Patagonia is somewhat problematic, as there is no direct road link. Road transport is a lengthy route via Argentina. A flight is the easiest solution and not too costly if done with a budget carrier rather than LAN Chile. There is a boat run by NaviMag that is quite expensive, but a traveller favourite. It travels through the beautiful fiord land and your trip maybe extremely beautiful or a gray haze. As with most things in Patagonia, so much depends on the weather. When travelling by sea you can expect smooth sailing while in the fiords, apart from one stretch on open seas that can be very rough. We understood at one point that the Puerto Montt - Puerto Natales 'Fjords Route' had been suspended due to the company deciding to use the ferry for freight services from September 2013 onwards. However on checking the site - NaviMag - on the last update, it seems to be running fine. Any info is appreciated.
It is worth noting that Chilean Patagonia connects easily with Argentina making trips to the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier and Tierra del Fuego no problem.
Getting around: Great overnight buses and cheapish internal flights (Sky Airlines best best). Turn up at the bus stations and try and get a discount on half empty departures just leaving - except on holidays. A lot of locals hitchhike and car rental is not impossible if you have the budget and like to drive endlessly.
People vibe: Young Chileans looking to practice English are friendly, so on the whole are the rest of the very civilised population. Spanish is spoken very fast with some endings clipped and thus hard to understand for a beginner.
Locals: Generally nice, interesting and educated people
Other travellers: Fine. Predominately German, English and American. Sometimes in large groups of friends. There is also an increasing number of Argentinean and Brazilian travellers.
Tourist factor: 7/10 in Santiago, Valparaiso, San Pedro de Atacama, and parts of Patagonia. Elsewhere, considerably less.
Accommodation: Mainly okay, occasionally quite expensive (Santiago). Private homes often offer the best accommodation and a chance to get away from large groups of travelling friends, but many have closed with the massive explosion of hostels over the last ten years. Towns like Valparaiso went from having no hostels to one on every corner within a ~10 year period. In general and like everywhere, some are good and some are not. One feature is that very few hostels are purpose built and thus don't have the facilities to handle large number and often wooden floors that carry any sound. Those looking for the very cheapest deal (which many are as Chile is an expensive country) won't necessary get a good nights sleep.
Hot water: Always. Limited water sometimes none for showers in desert regions
Average cost: Less than US$40 - more in Santiago
Communications: Okay internet, easy to find and a good speed in most cases. Most hostels have Wi-Fi or a computer you can use for free
Health: Altitude when entering the country by bus from Argentina or Bolivia
Food: The country seems to have an obsession with Hot Dogs (try the Italian, with toppings to match the Italian flag) and Pisco. Great supermarkets if you wish to prepare your own food.
Vegetarians: No problem
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Fine
Local poisons for the body: Fantastic and cheap wine. Pisco is the national drink (never mention that you heard it came from Peru), in its more sophisticated form: Pisco Sours, less so and a popular student drink: Piscola (Pisco and Coca-Cola). For the adventurous, a 'terromoto' literary 'Earthquake' is the way to go. Based on wine, fruit juice, served in pitchers and topped with ice-cream, it creates a lasting memory.
Rating: 7.5/10 (if you have time and not on a very tight budget)
Intro: Colombia has had a terrible reputation
and like most of the countries in the Americas is not without danger
(at the wrong place, wrong time). Violent crime, and especially
bus hold ups were unfortunately common. There are still (as with
several South American countries) large sections best avoided and
an increasing rate of crime in parts. However, the situation
and safety in Colombia has improved dramatically over the last five
or so years. In 2016 the government and the FARCs
agreed a ceasefire, potentally (the ceasefire failed to pass
a national referendum) ending 52 years of hostilities and
giving a huge boast to safety and security that was already
improving for years. The situation in Colombia today is as
stable (sometimes more than) any other in the region and it has become a
backpacker favourite and for very good reason.
Colombia ranks as one of the most beautiful countries in the Americas and in parts is fairly free from tourists (compared to Bolivia, Peru, Costa Rica, et al.). The vibe is fun, independent and relaxed. Anyone coming from Peru or Bolivia will find higher standards, fewer (and more interesting) travellers and plenty to see and do making your own path, rather than joining the tourist 'production line' that dominates most of the Andean nations of the Americas.
Cartagena old town and Caribbean coast beaches, San Agustin , Zona Cafetera north of Cali, Sierra Nevada, carnival (forget Rio, head to Barranquilla), the trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) few tourists
Distances and risk of common theft
Visa strategy: Free upon entry for most nationalities
Typical tourist trail: None (other than a quick transit
taking in Bogotá and Cartagena). Most do stick to, and hang-out
on the Caribbean coast
Getting around: Great bus system and excellent faster
'collectivos' (mini-buses that leave when full). Good
value on main routes, more expensive on country routes. If off
the beaten track, always know the security situation along the road you
are travelling if not a regularly used and well-known
As with much of South America distances are long and even with an excellent bus system, if wanting to get around the whole country and do so as safely as possible you should use the excellent cheap internal air network. A good starting point is LAN Colombia (formally) Aires Aero.
Costs: $40 per day, general costs much higher than in Ecuador, but lower than Brazil
Money: ATMs commonplace, allowing you to make small withdrawals at a time. You can use a debit/credit card for many purchases with ease.
What to take: As little as possible (keep your bag with you at all times when on public transport), all insured and nothing you mind losing.
Guide book: Footprint and new Lonely Planet on the scene. Both with a good level of detail and practical security advice.
Locals: Various, however many don't want anything to do with travellers, considering them all North American. Most, however are very affable, friendly and welcoming.
Other travellers: Various, many Germans, very few North Americans - generally Europeans and Israelis. Some degree of snobbery among the self-styled 'hardcore' backpackers element.
Tourist factor: 6/10
Accommodation: Hostels and bulk standard hotels in cities, accommodation has much more character and is cheaper in rural areas. Try and stay on a coffee farm.
Average cost: $30 big cities, $10-20 in rural areas
Communications: Internet can be a little difficult to find outside the big cities, but always available.
Books: 'A hundred years of solitude' is one of the best books based in Colombia, if not the best ever written. Other Gabriel Garcia Marquez titles are also highly recommended. As is Louis de Bernieres trilogy, the first part (his first book), 'The War of Don Emmanuel's Neither Parts' is the best of the three. Strange title (that has nothing to do with the plot), hugely funny, clearly copied style from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but as with 'A hundred years of solitude' highly, highly recommended. (It should be noted that Louis de Bernieres trilogy is set in a fictional South American country - that resembles parts of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela (Grand Colombia)). Click here for other South America recommended reads.
Food: Okay, eating out not overly cheap in cities, many supermarkets mean cooking for yourself in hostels is easy. Water comes in silly little packets and fruit, especially mangos is ubiquitous and cheap.
Hassle and annoyance factor: No real hassle. The most hassle is found in Cartagena.
Dangers: This goes for all of
South America, but more so for Venezuela and Colombia. Violent crime and
petty theft do happen. The biggest threats are after dark street theft.
If heading right off the beaten track, ask locals and, if necessary,
your embassy. Having your bag stolen and/or being threaten with violence
is no joke. Take only what you need. Common sense is the order of the
day, such as giving drugs a wide berth and the one solid bit of advice:
don't arrive after dark if at all possible, especially in places like
Cali (unless being met at the airport) and no matter how far you have
to go in urban areas [after dark] even if just a ten minutes' walk, think
about taking a taxi. It's not just tourists: Colombians live everyday
with these problems.
However, the country has improved its safety issues for tourists dramatically and the FARC are no longer a serious issue with regards to security. 2015 was one of the best years for internal and external tourism. Millions of Colombians travelled all over the country and hundreds of thousands of foreigners visited the country. Most urban areas are considered safe for tourists (Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellin, Cali).
....Or consider the slogan of the national office of tourism: 'the only risk is wanting to stay!'
Hot spots - Continued kidnappings make some
rural areas unsafe, and travellers are advised to avoid excursions that
include Choco, Putumayo, Meta and Caqueta and the rural areas of Antioquia,
Cauca, Narino, and Norte de Santander.
'I'm worry about foreigners being afraid to come to Colombia. There are only some parts you can't go, but most of the tourist sites are safe. In big cities people are nice and security problems are like any other big city in Latin America.
I have spent most of my life travelling Colombia and I haven't seen a guerrilla yet. In Colombia we have many natural parks not all of them are safe but many are. Don't go to Colombia only for drugs. We on the whole produce, not consume. If people from other countries stop consuming cocaine Colombia wouldn't have drug and guerrilla problems. Don't be afraid of travelling on the main roads, they have military present and are safe'. - Felipe - Bogotá
'I happened on your very good site by chance, a gift to the world. I've not much to say ..... I have been living in Barranquilla, Colombia for 6 months. If one keeps an eye out for the bad guys, it is all quite manageable security wise. Common sense is the order of the day. Do not go about drunk and do not even THINK of doing drugs here. But if one is stupid enough to try that they need to stay home. Here is one solid bit of advice: Don't arrive after dark. Especially in Cali. This applies to first time travellers, etc. Seasoned vets with folks meeting them at the airport will be OK.' - Ernie Eggler
Since the Pan-American Highway grinds to a halt
just past Panama City, there is no road access between North and South
A traveller wishing to cross between South and Central America has 3 options: flying, which will cost about $US200-400 (tip if a single is too expensive, try with a dummy return (you don't use) 30 or 60 days later), sailing, or trekking through the Darien Gap. Since the Gap has become increasingly dangerous due to guerrilla activity and smuggling, the Darien option is not for the faint-hearted and very expensive.
Sailing to Panama: Almost all boats (2015) charge ~$US550 and that includes all food on the 4.5-5 day journey. 1.5 day is spent sailing on open sea, at this time you are generally not allowed up on deck during night time because there can be heavy winds and the captain has no way to find you if you go overboard. Then you reach the San Blas islands which are amazing. Your captain can practically choose an island and you have it for yourselves the whole day. The 3 days are usually spent lying on the beach on a tiny island, eating lobster and drinking rum with the Kunas during night.
Panama-Colombia ferry: There has been a ferry (suitable for taking car/bike on) operating between Colon-Cartagena-Colon ferry, this was suspended in 2015 and never started up again (well at least at time of writing). Keep an eye open. However unless you need to move a car or a bike the sailing option is much better and more fun.
Not as common as you might think, most of Colombia
is an anti-thesis to the moustache bearing, rolled bank note up nose
image that popular media portrays. Cocaine in Colombia is - if you have
contacts - available for US$5-15/gram.
If you don't have contacts buying off the street is something you should really think about before doing, as risks are high and prices inflated. On the Caribbean coast cocaine is often quite lumpy due to the humidity.
Just because you are in the Cocaine heartland don't think what you buy won't be cut with something potentially nasty/harmful.
Intro: Ecuador is many travellers' first, and sometimes only, taste of South America, either arriving from Central America, as a hopping point to the Galapagos Islands or seen as the ideal taster country, being largely safe and compact (a rarity in South America). It's the departure point to the biggest draw on the continent and what most wealthier travellers are in Ecuador to get a flight to - the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador is all these things, safe, compact and easy (the number of North American visitors is testament to this), but can be seen as a disappointment compared to the rest of the continent and overcrowded. Otavalo's culture is hard to find and the town's famous market is a fest of dollar pushers and takers. Baños (the bathroom of South America or Baños de Agua Santa to give it its full name), a number one destination offers nothing more than a few good bike rides, sugar cane to chew on and a chance to relax with good restaurants and books (best place in South America to find them). The same goes for the highly spoken of Vilcabamba.
The coastal region lacks really good beaches and scenery, the jungle is overcrowded and overpriced (compared to Bolivia). The famous ride on the roof of a train has lost the best parts of its track to various El Niños and the cities are certainly not much to write home about. It's still fun though and since it is easy (and smallish), it provides a good chance to relax and get away from constant bus travel. It's also cheap! The chance to climb a volcano should not be missed and the one attraction that really shines does so, so brightly, if you get the chance to get there all else is forgotten (that's the Galapagos Islands by the way).
Galapagos Islands (independently visted) , smallish size, standing on (and either side of!) the equator and laid back traveller friendly attitude.
Coastal areas and non-eventful tourist traps
Visa strategy: Free visa on entry - expensive +$100 park entry fee to Galapagos
Dangers: Some guerrilla activity in very north west, along the Colombian border. Like Costa Rica, petty theft is becoming prevalent and you should be extremely careful on buses and at stations. Worth reading avoiding theft section.
Passport: Technically you should carry your passport on you at all times, although many will advise you a copy is best given the high levels of petty theft in Ecuador.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Jungle, coast and highlands all have different best times to go. Overall pretty much a year round scene.
Getting around: Pretty good cheap buses. Roads good, just windy
Guide book: Footprint
Locals: Fine, a little tourist jaded in places
Other travellers: Lots of Americans and a few package tourists
Tourist factor: 9/10
Accommodation: Good value
Hot water: Normally fine, apart from jungle areas
Average cost: Less than $15. Quito more expensive
Health: Many travellers do suffer from food poisoning and related stomach problems
Books: Best if not only place for books (Baños and Quito) in South America. See Colombia summary for some recommended reading.
Food: Good choice and range in tourist areas, more limited outside. Can you bring yourself to eat a guinea pig?
Vegetarians: If you eat chicken fine, if not harder
Hassle and annoyance factor: None
Women alone: Fine
Local poisons for the body: Vilcabamba is famous for it's hallucinogenic cactuses, however most backpackers won't come across them. Grass is of course available pretty widely and certain so in beach/touristy areas.
Rating: 6.5/10 - note that typical mainland tourist destinations
are rather disappointing (Banos, Papallacta), but many speak highly
about more off the beaten track regions.
See comment. But then
again comments are not meant to be disparaging of Ecuador, remember
it summarises the whole and compares against other similar countries
in the region directly. Obviously if you can get to the
Galapagos Islands and have the time, luck and/or funds to make the
most of it this rating sky-rocket.
Highly recommended and
cheaper than you may think - no tour needed. Okay a trip
will be expensive, but prices may not be as expensive as you have
heard if you can travel at short notice in off season and stick to
the inhabited part compared to the live-aboard boats that most
choose and that are required for getting to distant islands.
See Galapagos page for more detail.
The budget option: Take a flight from Guayaquil as opposed to Quito to either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. Recommended is arriving at one airport and departing from the other. Santa Cruz is more built up but there is still plenty of tour operators on San Cristobal as well. Getting between the 3 inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and the beautiful Isabella) is easy as there are loads of speedboats leaving daily.
time is 3 hours between each island. Day trips to uninhabited islands
or dives can be arranged from Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Isabella
at the moment is undeveloped. Accommodation starts at $10-15.
Meals start at $5 for a cheap lunch (definitely
look away from waterfront) Dives start at $150-200 in low season. Boats
are $25 between main islands. Cruise ship quality is unreliable, as
you don't know what you get till get there and lots of them break down
(at the budget end). Travelling independently gives you the
freedom to decide on your own itinerary and can avoid the hordes
If you require a boat and really want to 'do' the island chain seeing its full wonder you do need a live aboard boat - especially if short of time. These can be - and are mainly - booked from abroad - although better rates can be found in Quito and Santa Cruz. It's worth noting that if you dive (have PADI) and enjoy it, that you will get the most from the trip.
The Sucre has long been replaced by USD. ATMs are widespread throughout the country. Credit cards can be used to pay for some items with a small commission. Costs: Ecuador is not as good value as it once used to be, but less than $35 per day if sticking to cheap rooms is quite possible.
Comment: Just visited the Galapagos and Amazon in Ecuador and wanted to provide some info, I use your site a lot so it's time to contribute! The Amazon – several lodges along the Rio Napo, most are pretty expensive but Sani Lodge has a tent option that is more budget friendly and run by the tribe directly. Great food, showers (no electricity yet though), tents on platforms with roofs for the rain, and amazing hikes and canoe trips. Good group to support as they are fighting oil drilling on their land and the lodge helps them do it. The Galapagos – I decided not to do a liveaboard and instead used the inter island ferries to get around. Plenty of good budget hotels on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz and restaurants with local and western food. You can arrange for day trips with the hotel or a taxi to see the tortoises, go to beaches, or hike volcanoes.
The home of the Incas, Machu Picchu and the amazing sacred valley, Peru
is the image of South America most people bring to mind and Machu Picchu
is somewhere everyone will want to see, but, to coin a phrase, that's just
the top of the pyramid - Peru is the Egypt of the Americas.
There certainly is a lot to see, but most ancient sights, if not destroyed/assimilated by the Incas, were finished off by the Spanish. Therefore what's left, outside of Machu Picchu (which the Spanish never found) and Nasca can be a little dull unless you're an archaeologist.
Peru is a huge country, which means
two things, the first that distances can get you down especially crossing
mountains, but secondly, if you have got time and knowledge of Spanish,
there is loads to explore off the beaten track, jungle river trips and great
Time is a precious commodity, Cusco can take a week minimum and will try to keep you there for longer with it's great bars and restaurants. Lima is not overly interesting and the country is generally poor value compared to Bolivia and Asia, and good cheap food, in any variety is hard to get.
Rip off culture, in common with the likes of Vietnam,
Peruvians in the tourist industry more often than not see dollar signs
in tourists and can be a little aggressive. Inca trail and it's raising
cost - not taking anything away from the ruins at the end, Puno, distances
and generally being overloaded with historical facts and ancient civilizations.
The poor man's Galapagos Islands off Pisco are a little of a letdown
unless you have never seen a seal or seagull before. Fog covers the
whole coast (especially Lima) for several months a year. Crime
is on the rise - watch out for your things.
The Inca trial to Machu Picchu from near Cusco is something every visitor to Peru will want to do. Regulations have recently changed requiring you to trek with a guide (tour) therefore technically outlawing doing the trek yourself. You will need to take a tour from Cusco ranging from about $480 to $600 (2015 pricing - see right) - and only a guide as prices vary considerably from company to company, you can still find under US$450 tours, but with a train the day after the trek (see below) and a few other elements excluded and possibly second class guides/equipment) - that's about double previous years prices and you could double it still if you think it's a good idea to book with a company outside Peru (it isn't - but needing a permit in advance means many will).
Picking a company is tough as it seems when dealing
with the cheapies you will hear just as many bad reports about them
as some of the expensive trips - it's a lottery, but standards are on
the whole good. Think about the sort of people who will be on the trek
with you and what you actually get for your money.
The tour will take you by mini-bus to the km 82 marker where you arrive at about midday, you walk (little interest) to the real start - km 88 - and where the train stops, and then a bit further onto camp for the night. The next day you walk up Dead Woman's Pass, which a lot of people make a fuss about, but if you are acclimatized and reasonably fit is not too bad and porters are available. On the other side of the pass you camp again.
Next day you go over another pass and it is only here the trail gets really interesting. You pass some great ruins and camp again, as far as you can go. That night there is a little party, but you'll be getting up very early the next morning in order to make it to the sun gate for sunrise. This is somewhat of a let-down, since you probably won't make it for actual sunrise. It's a walk in the dark and Machu Picchu is covered in shadow for the first few hours. It's only when the shadow passes and the sun hits it, that it really impresses (this is not the postcard view). Also you'll going to be tired from the early start and late night (noise from previous night's party). Every day you camp about lunch time and the trail is only about 25 km and took me an easy two days. Basically tours are stretched out. Water is always available (take purifying tablets) from streams and a guide is not needed.
After seeing the ruins, the trains (INCA train - expensive, Autovagon or the Turismo Economico (backpacker express)) departs Aguas Calientes at 1745 and arrives back in Cusco for 2200ish (the INCA train leaves earlier). If you want to save money, ask the trekking company not to include the return train ticket and spend the night at Aguas Calientes and return on an early morning train departing Aguas Calientes at 0600 to Ollantaytambo and then take a connecting bus service back to Cusco. This ride will cost about ~15USD, but the cheap train can be booked up in July and August. Some of the budget trekking companies include this cheaper ticket as standard in their 4 day package.
Several years back many did the trail without a tour as regulations were not that strict (but have become so). If you want to try (at time of writing you have about a 1% chance of this working1) then here is how. Take the train to km 88 not bus to 82. Make sure you have everything you need (rentable in Cusco) and can prove you are a responsible trekker. If you have any problems, sign up for a cheap tour to use their guide to pass the entry check point, then go solo from there (arrangements can normally be made with low cost companies for just using there tour to get you passed the check point). However these days 'good luck' doing anything unofficial.
Typically permits/places (of which there are only 500 per day available) need to be booked in advance 2-8weeks before. Some tour operators now display permit availability on calendars - see here or Google it. May, September and October are considered the off-season. The trail is usually closed once a year for the month of February for maintenance. Depending on the season or time of year, all or some of the following can be indispensable: bug repellent (sand flies can be a real problem), rain gear, thermals.
Whatever way you do it, be warned after 1030 each day huge crowds descend and any effort to get to the site before is well worth it. Alternatively, the area of Chachapoyas and the ruins of Kuelap are now becoming a really great place for mountain trekking and backpacking.
Due to the rising costs in Cusco for backpackers
(the trail is min now in the 480-600US$ range, new regulations have
increased standards and conditions for workers, but increased costs.
However it's not the tour operators who are making more money - in 2000
the entrance fee was about 17USD now it's pushing 100USD. Additionally
the train for your return has increased 1000% over the same period to
(cheapest) near 50USD with enforced foreigner pricing; taxes payable
have increased by the same amount. Hostels are being pushed by the government
to raise prices and meet new building codes: hotel consortiums now own
the railroad to Machu Picchu and [some say] are pushing to basically eliminate
backpackers from visiting Agues Calientes (town at base of Machu Picchu)
unless they want to pay [higher] tourist prices.
Prices are for four days and include entrance fees, tax and return on train. A US$30 discount is offered to students who have valid ISIC cards and to children under 16 years old. What is notable is the increased Inca Trail rates apply to everyone including Peruvians and other Latin Americans and their absence from the Inca Trail and Cusco is obvious compared to previous years.
The big price increases really boil down to tourist pressure on this over-subscribed trail, stricter regulations and better standards. For example, porters are now paid a minimum wage and carry less weight (maximum of 25kg) and groups are limited to max. 16. Tour operators now have to take communal dining tents, kitchen tents and only professionally qualified guides are allowed to lead the groups. The number of trekkers has been limited to about 500 per day (that's 200 tourists and 300 porter/staff allowed) - which means it is worth allowing yourself a few days in Cusco before you want to trek. In the low season you find days when permits are available 3/4 days in advance, but at busy times of year (May to September) - book ahead or do a different trek.
Just visiting Machu Picchu with no Inca Trail: In the big scheme of things, not walking the Inca trail (make another walk in the region for free with same or much better scenery) and saving your money is no major deal. To just visit (without the trial before), you take the train US$100-150 return (about 4 hours there, 5 back), then ~US$40-50 (depending on FX rate at time) park entrance fee (have exact money in USD or sole equ.) and then ~US$15 return for the bus from the station to Machu Picchu (you could walk but it will take about 90mins and is very tough up-hill). Still an expensive day out. Only 2,500 people can enter the site per day. Students get a 50% discount.
For an alternative Inca Trail, the following Inca Rail Trail, has been recommended. From Cusco pick up a minibus to Ollantaytambo (be aware you will be transferred in Urubamba), this costs only a few soles. From there walk a good 35 km to Aguas Calientes along the railway track (remember 35 km is a long way and you need to be fit and even then it's at least 10-12 hours at a reasonably quick pace). However you will see some ruins on the way. You of course need good shoes and snacks/water, but there are shops at the 82 km marker, where the regular Inca trail starts and where is probably a better place to pick this rail trail up. When you arrive in Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu), it is recommended that you book a train ticket straight away back to Ollantaytambo, since tickets go fast.
The cost will be something like
US$12. Stay the night and have a soak, there are plenty of cheap places
to stay. Next day walk up to Machu Picchu for free, (hell of a hill,
but only a 4-5km). Or catch the bus for US$4.50 is you feel you have
done enough walking. It's going to cost 20US$ to get into Machu Picchu
when you get to the top. After head back to Aguas Calientes and have
another soak in the hot springs and/or beer. Stay the night and catch
the train back early with your prior booked ticket.
[With thanks to Dominic] It is also possible to take a minibus from Cusco to Santa Maria. This journey takes about 4-5 hours and costs US$7. From Santa Maria, catch a shared taxi to Hydro Electrica. This is a one hour drive and costs US$5 per person. You can then walk the 8km to Agua Calientes along the train tracks in about two hours and then hike up the hill to Machu Picchu the next morning. Which is a much cheaper way of reaching Machu Picchu than via a tour.
Better still head to Huaraz and the Cordillera.
Dangers: Some violent crime, be careful at night – don't walk with your pack on after dark or in the early hours of the morning
Visa strategy: Free on border
Typical tourist trail: Bolivia - Puno, Cusco, Arequipa, Nasca, Pisco, Lima, Huaraz, Trujiillo - Ecuador.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Jungle, coast and highlands all have different best times to go, pretty much a year round scene. Serious coastal fog much of the year. Highland towns like Cusco get cold at night. Peru's peak tourist season is from June to August, which is the dry season in the highlands, and the best time to go for hiking. Many of the major fiestas occur in the wettest months and continue undiminished in spite of heavy rain.
Money: ATMs; a Visa Plus as well as MasterCard's Cirrus card is useful. Can withdraw dollars in some machines.
Costs: Not brilliant value for money compared to Bolivia or Ecuador, about $40 per day. Allow $300-$500 to do the Inca trail and similar for an arranged jungle trip. Costs are of course lower than in a developed country, but higher than those in many neighbouring countries. Lima and Cuzco are the most expensive destinations in Peru.
What to take: You can rent all equipment for the Inca trail in Cusco. Take good walking shoes and a warm fleece, plus if you have on, your International Student card for the Inca trail.
Getting around: Buses, some roads (Lima to Cusco) a killer, distances just go on and on. The Pan American highway is smooth and flat. Trains are slow, cold and over-priced. Internal flights good value and a necessity to get to many jungle areas.
Tourist factor: 10/10 in Cusco, outside of 7/10 to 4/10
Accommodation: Reasonable accommodation, brilliant choice in Cusco.
Hot water: Some problems
Average cost: Always less than $10
Communications: Good internet in major towns
Health: Altitude and food poisoning
Books: Very limited opportunities to buy
TV: Hotels with cable have Sony channel and others, with loads of treats. Restaurants and bars in Cusco show movies
Food: Outside of Cusco, poor and expensive. Eating fixed menus is a way to keep the costs down
Vegetarians: Can be difficult
Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
Women alone: Normally fine, be careful at night
Locals: Not as friendly as other South American nations
Other travellers: Typical Gringos, packages in Cusco
Local poisons for the body: Pisco Sours are the drink of choice (see Chile summary) Inca Cola is the soft drink of choice.
Rating: 6.5-7.5/10 (depending on how you experience it and how you deal with/get away from the crowds)
Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash is an amazing route that doesn't get as much press as many other routes (Chiquian is a lovely place to start your trek). The best time to trek is the "summer" months of June-July, but trekking is definitely an option most of the year. A guide costs roughly US$15 per day, Arrieros US$10 per day, and Burros about US$5. From Huaraz, the closest point to really gear up is Chiquian is about 110 km, and is a great place to set off from with basic accommodation. You can literally just walk out of town towards the mountains. About 12-15 days is enough to trek around the range. There are some beautiful hidden lakes and little farms dotting the valleys, a truly beautiful place. There are a few spots that tend to be crowded with tents, but for most nights and days you will see no other trekkers.
Some suggestions e-mailed in for highlights away from the general traveller focus of Southern Peru. A little north of Huaraz (on the road to La Merced in the Amazon) you can find the lovely Andean city of Tarma. Take a chicken bus up to Tarma Tambo and take the Inca trail up there! Ask some local to walk you around (usually the younger villagers are more than willing to show you around for a few soles and are able to tell you all about the discovered Inca ruins over there.)
The scenery is magnificent and the people are great! Knowledge of some Spanish and showing some interest is key to success. Adjacent to Trujillo you can surf the Pacific in Huanchaco where a real surfing atmosphere and great waves welcome you and where you can stay at nice hostels at fairly low rates. Take the river tour to Iquitos, in the North Eastern part of Peru and live the Amazon life. Peru is more than just the southern, dryer part.
Comment: One of my highlights of my 2 months in Peru was the city Chachapoyas and the surroundings in northern Peru. Except for the nice little town Chachapoyas the real highlight is Kuelap fortress. An old huge fortress situated 3000m above sea level on top of an hill built by the Chachapoyas people (which eventually overtaken by the Incas). The Chachapoyas also left a bunch of old ruins and sites in the area such as sarcophagos carved out in the mountains. There is also plenty of nice treks in the area, for instance a day one to the world's highest waterfalls (Gocta) and some other higher falls but more far away (Yumbilla). The region enjoys a warm nice climate but can suffer heavy rains during rain period.
Everybody goes to Macchu Picchu but there might be a better place; Choquequirao. The site is not fully excavated but seems to be larger than MP. The main reason why no one knows about it (which is great!) is because it's far away. The site is reached by a rough two-day off the beaten path trek from Cusco and there's no train to take you back! - Thanks Simon.
Guide book: Footprint. For a full list of regional guides click here.
Reading: Among loads
of excellent guides and fiction is The White Rock (see image) it tells
the story of the Incas, the discovery of them by the conquistadors and
the author's journey to find a long lost site to rival Machu Picchu.
Archaeology, History, Adventure - and funny too. If you want an irreverent
account of travels through Peru and Bolivia then Inca Kola by Matthew
Parris is also an excellent good read. To see more details
of this book and others please click here
With the longest Caribbean coastline of any country, 5000m peaks, birth
place of the hero
Bolívar, island paradises, grass lands and river deltas teaming with
wildlife, incredibly jolly/fun locals and one of the world's breathtaking
sights - Angel Fall - Venezuela is one hell of a country and one of the
most diverse in South America. And yet it is one of the least visited. Perhaps
this is due to the fact that access for over-landers is only for the adventurous
and does involve some very long jungle routes to/from Brazil or Colombia,
or transiting the Caribbean coast (via Colombia). Certainly Venezuela's
relations with its international neighbours means a lack of affordable
flights to regional countries. Nevertheless, Venezuela is the closest South
American country to Europe and not from the USA.
The reasons that Venezuela doesn't pull the crowds that Peru, Ecuador or even Colombia do, are very simply, its international reputation and well-founded fears over crime. Venezuela is however (with the right precautions) perfectly safe to visit and quite frankly the politics of the country are not a matter visitors need concern themselves with (although fascinating and worth studying - more so with the death of the loved/hated president). There is so much to do and see in Venezuela and tourism is on the whole well organised in tourist hubs like Merida. It's not as cheap as other parts of South America and the dual exchange rate (see below) is a headache, but you can find many parts to yourselves without the tourist masses found in other parts of the continent or Caribbean.
Mérida and around, Angel Falls (Salto Ángel), Orinoco River delta tours, Los Llanos, Los Roques, climbing Roraima or any tepui, and finding a little beach or party tucked around somewhere. There are alomost no tourists and people are really friendly. It is also pretty cheap.
Caracas and most big cities, crime and the jury is out on Margarita Island. Venezuela has a lot of problems. Transport (including flights) is unreliable. Breakdowns and delays common. Medicines are scarce and for any standard of health care you want to be in Caracas. Locals will warned how the police are notoriously corrupt.
Visa: Easy and free on entry for most developed countries.
Money and Costs: At time of writing Venezuela was subject
to artificial exchange rates. In lay terms this translates to the government
setting at exchange rate which is official and any 'official' changing of
money: a bank, change bureau, ATM, credit card - is subject to. With this
exchange rate Venezuela is very expensive on par with Western
Europe. Since a 'natural' free floating exchange rate would have the Bolivar
at a much lower/weaker rate, there is a thriving black market for
changing currencies. You need cash Euros or US dollars to take advantage of
the black market -
and doing so is a must. So the bottom line is: you need to travel to a country with one
of the world's highest crime rates with a great pile of cash to change illegally!
Although technically illegal, it is well-known that tourists will need to use the black market in order to afford to travel in Venezuela and thus all backpacker and privately run places to stay or tour agencies will change EUR or USD for you at black market rates and many will allow you to transfer funds to a European or US bank account in order to pay for long stay accommodation or tours.
The whole system sounds terribly complex, but don't worry - you can pay with dollars at the black market rate for anything from anyone who deals with tourist (taxis from airport, guesthouses, tours, etc.). There are plenty of places to change money at black-market rates - but the street is not the best and the airport is certainly not. There are plenty of money changing tricks (don't change money at the airport, pay a taxi driver in dollars). The best place to change money is a traveller-friendly guesthouse or travel/tour agency. Rates vary slightly between cities and a quick Google search will let you know the ball park figures you need to be looking for until you figure out the system. In February 2016 you got about 850 to 1 USD, by the time you read this, it will be out of date.
You will need anything from US$30-60 a get by in Venezuela. Trips to Angel Falls, Los Llanos, Los Roques, or Roraima will cost significantly more.
Angel Falls: Angel Falls is about as iconic as you
can get and in the right conditions is an unforgettable site. The effort and
cost to get to Angel Falls is not minimal, the (land/river) trip is seasonal
and conditions (rainfall and cloud on the falls) variable.
Most trips will start from Ciudad Bolivar, a sleepy, steamy place aside the Orinoco River with little to see/do. Reached by overnight bus or flight from Caracas (you can also fly/bus to Ciudad Guayana and make a short transit). Here you will find the offices of various companies who will arrange Falls trips for you. There are plenty of offices at the bus station, two at the tiny airport and at popular backpacker guesthouses. Many speak English, offer very similar trips with similar prices and by following recommended operators in major guidebooks it is hard to go wrong - with weather conditions, mood of guide, cook and other travellers on your trip down to luck.
You can book in advance over the internet before you leave with many operators or simply turn up and arrange a departure for the next day(s) at probably a more favourable rate. Your trip will typically be 2 or 3 days. Two days is a little rushed and three days is a little too relaxed for those on a schedule. Most operators will adjust trips lengths to suit your needs (most pushing 3 days). All trips start and end with a flight (sometimes in a small plane) into the jungle. Here arriving around noon you can either spend the afternoon killing time lounging at accommodation near the airport and seeing a near-by spectacular waterfalls (that you can walk behind) and then spending the night in fixed accommodation (rather than hammocks). The alternative (and the 2 day trip) is to get cracking on the boat ride up the river to the Falls in a small motorised launch. The 3 day trip might leave the following morning. The journey will take about 3-5hours during which you will get wet, windy, cold (if it rains), sun baked and a serious numb arse on the hard wooden seats. The river starts of wide and deep, but as it winds up through the jungle towards the falls get narrower with small rapids traversed in reverse (you go upstream to get there).
It is the volume of the water in the river that makes the trip seasonal. Too much water and the rapids are too fierce, too little and you run aground before you get there. Any guidebook or website will tell you the 'typical' season - but the weather varies too much for hard and fast rules. Typically you can still get there in February, with Nov, Dec and January being good bets and popular times. Operators will take you until the last possible moment which means a boat trip might involve either having literary to get out and push the boat upstream in very shallow water for the last 30 mins or feel like you are on a grade V rafting trip. Once you get to the Falls you camp in a basic camp about 1-2 hours walk from the base of the falls. Basic camp consists of hammocks covered by mosquito net covered by a corrugated iron roof. Some camps have better toilets than others, but they are all generally similar; none are four star. Food is cooked on an open fire and after the sun goes down there is not much to do. When you first arrive you can walk up to the falls, nap or swim in the river (or all three). The falls are typically covered [with cloud] later in the day. Either way most groups will wake up before dawn and hike in the dark to the base of the falls as the sunrises for the clearest views. There you can swim at the base at get the best views. Then you return for breakfast and back on the boat to catch your return flight after a quick look at the near-by waterfall (near to the first camp/airport). Those on the three day trip take more time at this waterfall (having already seen it on day one) and kill time until there return flight the same time (around one) on the next day.
The falls, the isolation, the adventure of getting/sleeping there and the surrounding scenery are incredible. Nevertheless if it rains during the night or during your whole boat ride, or the falls are totally covered in cloud it is not much fun considering the cost and time to get there. Obviously, there are no refunds for bad weather, but it is worth the chance. If worried about the weather, the 3 days trip allows for more flexibility, but as highlighted above, is on the whole a waste of a day. When land/river trips are not an option due to the water level, flyovers operate pretty much daily from the airport.
Typical tourist trail: Flying into Caracas (and leaving as soon as possible) to Ciudad Bolivar for an Angel Fall trip and/or Romano climb. Then to Merida (not the simplest journey - no direct flying option). Hang-out in Merida with a climb/hike and/or Los Llanos tour. Other popular trips are an Orinoco river delta tour and the beach at Choroní. Those that can afford it head to the paradise of Los Roques. Many visitors only see Margarita Island (less so independent travellers).
Getting around: There is a good and reasonably priced network or internal flights, but if you book outside Venezuela using the internet, the booking will be subject to the official exchange rate and thus close to double the price of arriving, changing money and booking locally (note you find all the airline desks at the airport (domestic terminal 500 meters from international)). Buses are largely good quality, but freezing - take clothing suitable for Sweden in December if using over night buses. For shorter distances, por puesto (per seat) buses or taxis, leave when full. If you want to get you own taxi for the day you can get an 8 hour drive from about $50USD
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Temperature changes are minimal over the year with a rainy season (May/June to Nov). Merida and high altitude areas will be cold in winter and AC buses are always freezing.
Tourist factor: Venezuela is a big country and tourists concentrate in certain areas. Most tourists will be found in Isla de Margarita. After this 'off-shore tourist escape' you will find minimal to no other travellers.
Accommodation: Caracas and many other large cities with low traveller appeal lack numerous cheap or hostel/guesthouse accommodation. However in travellers' centres, such as Merida, there are plenty of lovely cheap places to stay geared to independent travellers.
Average cost: Around US$40-60 for a double room.
Communications: Plenty of internet places in major towns and attractions. Plus most hostels have Wi-Fi.
Vegetarians: Not the world's best place to be a vegetarian, however you can make do.
Venezuela is a country with problems! Take basic meds, as pharmacies have next to
nothing. You will seriously struggle to get something like antibiotics for an ear infection.
Be prepared to have to wait a day or two for things -
country is crippled by its political/economical situation, you can't
expect to have easy access to tours/transport. Worth booking stuff a
couple of days in advance if possible.
Many thanks to Anna, whom helped update this section with a 2016 trip. She recommends (as we do) to know a bit of Spanish - a lot of people do not have English, so a few short phrases are a must!
Her must sees are: Mount Roraima is wonderful, it's a massive climb and the views across Guyana are breathtaking. Orinoco Delta incredible - untouched, lush, mangroves; staying at Orinoco Eco Camp (but skipping the trip 'to see the villagers'). Odd little German settlement village - Colonia Tovar. A Bavarian village in the middle of the Venezuelan mountains.
Intro: Not so long ago long-term travel in Argentina was prohibitively expensive for budget travellers, then everything changed with the devaluation of the once rigidly US dollar pegged Peso. Argentina became cheap to very cheap (depending on the current need for USDs affecting the black market, or 'Blue' rate).
Now with the worst of several economic crisis behind the country, Argentina when comparing standards of comfort when travelling and to neighbouring countries, particularly Brazil, is a bargain (do note however that with high inflation prices are creeping up and anything imported comes at a price). Coupled with this Argentina is an extremely likeable place. Buenos Aires is a fantastic, fairly laid-back city (and big enough to escape the crowds that can blight some of the country's other attractions). Countrywide, there's a good travellers' network and it's stunningly beautiful with huge variation - even the Spanish sounds gorgeous here!
Visa strategy: Free on arrival for most nationalities. However as with Chile some reciprocal fees exist. US citizens for example must pay a reciprocal 'entry fee' of about US$160.
Value for money, Buenos Aires, Salta, Patagonia/the lake district and the Foz do Iguaçu (see Brazil above)
Distances - you'll get to like buses or have to fork out for flights which are not always a bargain. The jury is out on the bottom of the world - Ushuaia which is a 'Timbuktu of the Americas', someone where everyone seems to want to make a bee-line for. It's not unattractive nor without merit, but as with the real Timbuktu, somewhat overrated and unspectacular (compared to other parts of Chile/Argentina that don't lie on the Tierra del Fuego).
Typical tourist trail: There are several tourist trails, but they normally include Buenos Aires then take in Iguaçu Falls, Salta, Mendoza (both Salta and Mendoza act as the stepping stone into Chile) and of course Ushuaia (and Patagonia with it's spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier, lakes and outdoor activities).
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Trekking in Patagonia is not possible in the winter (European/N. American summer) and some parts are better than others during the shoulder season. As with Chile, huge climate variations from the country's top to bottom. Any cold weather gear that's needed for a specific activity can be rented there for reasonable fees. Buying 'technical' clothing and fabrics will be more expensive than Europe or North America.
Costs: Very reasonable, transportation is a major cost, especially paying for flights. If used to paying for buses in Peru/Bolivia/Ecuador, you are going to find buses tickets expensive, but the standard good. Consider US$30-50 per day, depending on the distance you travel and if you use easy to find, cheap dorm beds.
Money: Plenty of ATMs. There is a USD peg and at times a parallel exchange rate exists meaning that if you have USD cash you can change in the informal market and get a much better rate. Check the situation before you leave and get bring USD cash from home or neighbouring countries. If needs must you can get to Uruguay on a day trip from BA to get USD cash. Known as the Blue dollar, a simple Google search will let you know the latest rates and situation. By the time you read this, things may have changed, but for a good period now, having USD cash makes a significant difference to the cost of your trip.
Getting around by air: In terms of Airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas (domestic + international) and its domestic-only wing Austral are known as the most extensive in their coverage, but they're also expensive for foreigners - and have a reputation for being unreliable. Aerolineas offers a domestic combo pack if you fly into Argentina with them, but this is now generally regarded as a pretty bad deal, since it would be as cheap or cheaper to book domestic flights individually. LADE is a weird military carrier that apparently has rock-bottom rates, but flights are sporadic and can be unreliable. LAN Chile also might have some domestic flights in Argentina. For further afield such as for Asuncion, Brazil or Chile, Aerolineas. The domestic airport in Buenos Aires is called Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (or simply "aeroparque"), although Aerolineas Argentinas also flies some domestic routes out of Ezeiza, the international airport.
For more information see: Argentina Cafe Travel Guide
Tourist factor: Argentina is a big country and you can easily escape the crowds, but at major attractions it can get quite crowded. 8/10 on the beaten track, 2/10 off it.
Accommodation: Good section of hostels in BA and other major destinations, many offering excellent reasonably priced double rooms if dorms are not your thing. These hostels are excellent place for getting information, planning your trip and meeting people. Elsewhere hotels and guesthouse are quite reasonable and plentiful.
People: Argentines - especially the the younger generation - (like their Chilean and Uruguayan neighbours) are cool, friendly, arty and happy to help you out or share a beer.
Average cost: Around US$10 for a dorm bed, US$30-50 for a double room.
Communications: Plenty of internet places and free Wi-Fi in major towns and attractions. Plus in most hostels have Wi-Fi.
Food: Some of the best steak in the world and at very reasonable prices.
Vegetarians: No problem
A quick low down: Despite recent time spent in Paraguay, it's hard to put something down about a country such as Paraguay. To say it's void of any attraction is obvious wrong. In fact just being in a country void of the streams of tourist that flood the likes of Bolivia and Peru is a highlight, but there are no salt flats or Inca ruins here. What Paraguay offers is a look at a sleepily steamy South America.
Those with the time will surely find many a wonder, but time at the expense of visits to very similar and superior attractions in neighbouring countries (national parks and Jesuit reductions). Paraguay is easily accessible from Foz do Iguaçu on a day trip, but its border town is the worst the country has to offer.
Six hours on a bus from the Foz do Iguaçu border, is the sleepy capital
almost out of a novel - Asunción. Located right on a swampy river and
the Argentina border it makes the logistics of getting across the continent
(from the falls or Rio to Salta, Chile and ultimately Bolivia), much
easier. From Asunción there are river boats north for a price and some
interesting (if a little expensive) places to stay such as ranches,
but that's it.
There's a lot of history and it's interesting to simply be there, but that's about your lot. It's not referred to as South America's empty quarter for nothing.
A quick low down: It's very hard not to like Uruguay. Like Argentina and Brazil it's civilised, it's also laid back and friendly - but unlike these neighbours and more like Paraguay as there's not that much going on. If you're in Buenos Aires, Uruguay can be reached easily (a few hours capital to capital and about 60US$ on the fast ferry) and if you have the time it's worthwhile.
The three most visited attractions and highlights are:
Colonia, a charming colonial town and easier to reach from BA than Montevideo. Second comes the capital, Montevideo, seemingly a million miles away from BA in size and hassle. A pleasant place where the top attraction could be argued to be a collection of port side restaurants (Mercado del Puerto). Lastly is Punta del Este (and the whole of the so called Uruguayan Rivera plus the Santa Teresa NP) a collection of beaches that reach around to the Brazilian border. These beaches are stunning, many in resort style, can be crowded and are, well just beaches. All of the above are well worth a look if not pushed for time or money.
Punte del Este in Uruguay has an unearned reputation and is over priced - an alternative beach spot is Cabo Pollonio, literally off the grid (only its lighthouse has electricity from the national grid, although many hostels and restaurants have generators). In Cabo you can enjoy asados on a beach only accessible by a low-priced 15 minute off-road ride from the national park entrance, check out los lobos de merinos (sea lions) at La Loberia right at the end of the beach (perhaps even see a penguin) Also, the nearby beach town of Valizas is a three-hour walk along the beach, or two hours with a shortcut through the ever-shifting sand dunes. Either way, be prepared to wade across a small river for 50 or 60 feet through calf to thigh deep water just as you finally reach Valizas. Thanks to Nate for the updates.
Inland you'll find few travellers and a lot of flat cattle grazing land, real gaucho country and if you want to pay for it you can relax and horse ride on ranches. Most just take in the Capital and/or Colon on a few days side trip from Argentina.
Overall in Uruguay there is a good network of buses and budget places to stay, but few destinations, unless endless enjoying a beach, require too much of your time. For example it can be hard to fill a day in somewhere like Colonia and the others aren't far behind. It is worth noting that compared to neighbouring countries Uruguay can be expensive and particularly at Punte del Este which has a French Rivera (St. Tropez) feel (well kind of) and is home to much of the continent's wealth management.
The Rough Guide First-Time Latin America - Polly Rodger Brown
For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.
For hostels (if you prefer them) in South America have a looks at www.minihostels.com. They are a network of independently owned hostels all over South America and in some cities they also have language schools, tours, and restaurants.
Comment: 'The hostels I found on their site were all clean, safe, fun, and really friendly, plus on the site you can see pictures and read descriptions and link to the website of the hostel which makes it way better than hostelbookers or hostelworld. Best of all, you can buy a minihostels card for US$10 and get 10% off every hostel in the network and all the other businesses they feature on the site. It's pretty sweet and helped me find cool stuff to do and great places to stay and is way better organised than any other site I've found. - Rebecca
"The word gringo originated in the conflict between Mexican and American soldiers in the border between the two countries and comes directly from English 'green go!' "