Some things you might want to know in the way of backpacking, budget travel country advice, info and summaries for: South America - Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Plus shorter summaries for Argentina, Paraguay & Uruguay.
For Central America go here.
» 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
A number of South/Central American countries have currencies pegged/fixed to the US dollar where a better parallel (black market) exchange rate can exist. To benefit you need USD cash. Do your research before travel. This is currently the case in Venezuela and Argentina.
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. This is were 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 lastly you have Brazil, which although often combined as part of a larger trip (typically Rio and/or the Foz do Iguaçu), due to its size, needs to be treated separately.
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 then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). If you want to read fiction, you are in luck as some of the world's best writers originate in South America. All guides/books can be viewed in more detail.
Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region
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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.
Tours, Tours, Tours: Bolivia is indisputably 'backpacker central' and an industry has sprung up to provide easy, cheap and comfortable tours tailored to young travelers. So much so that you could easily explore the jungle, silver miners, salt flats, 'death' road, etc., without ever having to take local transportation, 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.
What to take: Some warm clothes and 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.
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: 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 Columbia [in hot spots] widely available. Still highly illegal, the attitude is more tolerant and certainly in La Paz there exists '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 drivers outside or 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-2013 we were 'arranged' a visit by a guy handing out flyers for a bar on the street). The names Eddies Place and Route 36 (most notorious) our most 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 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 (close around 0400-0500).
Miss at your peril: Salt flats, overland trip from Chile through the altiplano, and Potosi - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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 these 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 a disaster.
What really sets Brazil apart is, generally speaking, unlike the rest of South America it is fairly void of tourists outside of three or four locations, who are scared off by the distances, costs and stick mainly to the run to Bolivia and Argentina from Rio (the a main entry hub) taking in the Foz do Iguaçu.
Brazilian Portuguese, which you need to think about more than just believing its 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 infact anywhere else South of the USA (Chile and a few Caribbean islands aside). And that's really the deal - since as great a 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, avoid 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.
Lowlights: Amazon, distances and big cities (Rio aside). Money doesn't go as far as elsewhere in South America. Language barriers.
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 hide 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 $100 for US citizens. Ouch!
Be warned that if visiting other countries in the region where yellow fever is a problem (e.g. Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela) a yellow fever certificate maybe requested on entry. You need to have the jab ten days before you travel.
During summer (December-February) many Brazilians take holiday's, making travel both difficult and expensive. At the same time in Rio and the rest of the south the humidity is nasty. Summer is also the most festive time of year, as Brazilians escape their apartments and take to the beaches and streets. School holidays begin in mid-December and go through to Carnival, usually held in late February (the weekend and days before Ash Wednesday).
Land: Economy buses are okay value and are usually reasonably comfortable. Deluxe buses are sometimes very comfortable, but obviously pricier. The cost of bus travel can however really add up and a hire car is an option if you have the money or are in a group. Overnight trips aren't too painful. Many companies offer difference classes on longer routes, but the distances just go on forever! Take for example the journey from Rio to Recife - 38 hours by bus. Train are a scenic option in places.
Air: To really cover Brazil, those that can afford it may want to consider an air pass or much easier use this countries excellent budget airline network. Gol, TAM and the much troubled Varig are the three leaders. You can check all their websites to get an idea of routes, times and prices. These can be equally surprisingly low or high. Six hours on a bus, Rio to Sao Paulo can be flown for less than 70US$ (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:
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 and over subscribed Patagonia 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 hostel and free maps abound. You'll find in urban centers plush shopping malls, well stocked super-markets and great nightlife. If only the country were more compacted..... 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 cheap 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 fiordland 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 Australia and the Pacific section summaries.
Highlights: Patagonia and the lake district (you will need to trek to see these properly), San Pedro de Atacama, Valparaiso, white-water rafting, nightlife and getting off-the-beaten track along with good value and world class skiing (Esquel & Bariloche)
Lowlights: Distances and the bottom of the world (the continents most southern point is somewhat unspectacular). Santiago, may be the capital, with a great nightlife and home to most of the population, but it is an underwhelming place.
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 the Americans and Canadians 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 there 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.
Getting to Patagonia is some what 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's 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.
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.
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
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: 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)
Miss at your peril: Patagonia and Easter Island - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
Dangers: This goes for all of South America, but more so 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.
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 not 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 spend most of my live travelling Colombia and I haven't seen a guerrilla yet. In Colombia we have many natural parks not all off 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 road, 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 America.
Not as common as you might think, most of Colombia is an anti-theses 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.
Intro: Ecuador is many travellers first and sometimes, only taste of South America, either arriving from Central America or seen as the ideal taster country, being 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 over crowded. Otavalo's culture is hard to find and the towns famous market is a fest of dollar pushers and takers. Baños (the bathroom of South America), 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 of the highly spoken of Vilcabamba. The coastal region lacks really good beaches and scenery, the jungle is over crowded and over priced (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).
Highlights: Galapagos Islands , smallish size, standing on (and either side of!) the equator and laid back attitude
Lowlights: Coastal areas and non-eventful tourist traps
Highly recommended, but not necessarily cheap. A trip will be expensive, but prices may not be as expensive as you have heard of if you can travel at short notice in an off season and stick to the inhabited part compared to live-aboard boats most chose and that required for getting to distant islands. Choices are overwhelming with numerous pitfalls (such as ending up on a nasty boat). Most guidebooks will point you in the right direction and the internet is full of reviews and comments.
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 and are fun 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 use to be, but less than $35 per day if sticking to cheap rooms.
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 canoetrips. 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.
Intro: 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 treks. 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.
Lowlights: 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 let down 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 after 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 (2012 pricing - see right) - and only a guide as prices vary considerably from company to company, you can still find under US$450 tours, but with a train the day after the trek (see below) and a few other elements excluded and possibly second class guides/equipment) - that's about double previous years prices and you could double it still if you think it's a good idea to book with a company outside Peru (it isn't - but needing a permit in advance means many will).
Picking a company is tough as it seems when dealing with the cheapies you will hear just as many bad reports about them as some of the expensive trips - it's a lottery, but standards are on the whole good. Think about the sort of people who will be on the trek with you and what you actually get for your money.
Increasing cost of the Inca Trail:
Due to the rising costs in Cusco for backpackers (the trail is min now in the 480-600US$ 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 are pushing to basically eliminate backpackers from visiting Agues Calientes (town at base of Machu Picchu) unless they want to pay tourist prices.
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 make the Inca trail up there! Ask some local to walk you around (usually the younger villagers are more than willing to tour 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. Any other comments welcome.
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. 'The Gringo Trail' by Mark Mann has some very interesting facts in it's Peru chapters. To see more details of this book and others please click here
Miss at your peril: Cusco and trekking around Huaraz - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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 translates to a lack of affordable flights to regional countries. Nevertheless, Venezuela is the closest South American country to Europe and not far off with the USA.
The reason that Venezuela doesn't pull the crowds that Peru, Ecuador or even Colombia does, is 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 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) does create a headache, but you can find many parts to yourselves without the tourist masses found in other parts of the continent or Caribbean.
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 expensive, 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 exists thriving black market exchange rate. Which is you need cash Euros or US dollars to take advantage of - and is a must. So 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 tourist will need to use it 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 whom 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 traveler 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.
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 are about as iconic as you can get and in the right conditions 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 preferable 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, to 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 to literary get out and push the boat up stream in very shallow water for the last 30mins or feel like you are on a grade V rafting trip. Once you get to the Falls you camp in a basic camp about 1-2hours walk from the base of the falls. Basic is hammock covered by mosquito net covered by 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, adventure of getting/sleeping there and surrounding scenery are incredible. Nevertheless if it rains during the night or during you 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 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 a 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 prices network or internal flights, but if you book outside of 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 500merters 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.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Temperature changes are minimal over the year with a rainy (May/June to Nov). Merida and and high altitude areas will be cold in winter and AC busses are always freezing.
Tourist factor: Venezuela is a big country and tourist 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 at independent travellers.
Average cost: Around US$40-60 for a double room.
Communications: Plenty of internet places in major towns and attractions. Plus in most hostels have Wi-Fi.
Vegetarians: Not the world's best place to be a vegetarian, however you can make do.
The Others (very briefly)
Miss at your peril: 'Highlight of Independent Travel'
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 US dollar pegged Peso. Argentina became very cheap. Now with the worst of the 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). 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 other of the countries attractions). Countrywide, there's a good travellers network and it's stunning beautiful with huge variation - even the Spanish sounds gorgeous here!
Highlights: Value for money, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, the lake district and the Foz do Iguaçu (see Brazil above)
Lowlights: Distances and the bottom of the world - Ushuaia is the 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 really Timbuktu, somewhat overrated and unspectacular (compared to other parts of Chile/Argentina, that don't lie on the Tierra del Fuego).
Visa strategy: Free on arrival for most nationalities. However as with Chile some reciprocal fees exsit. US citizens for example must pay a reciprocal 'entry fee' of about US$160.
Typical tourist trail: There are several tourist trails, but they normally include Buenos Aires then take in Iguaçu Falls, Salta, Mendoza and of course Ushuaia (and Patagonia with it's spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier).
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Trekking in Patagonia is not possible in the winter (European/N. American summer) and some parts are better that others during the shoulder season. As with Chile, huge climate varies from the countries top to bottom. Any cold weathergear that's needed can be rented there for reasonable fees. Buying technically 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 use 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 parell exchange rate exisits meaning that if you have USD cash you can change in the informal market and get a much better rate. Check the situation be for you leave and get bring USD cash from home or nieghbouring countries. If needs must you can get to Uragury on a day trip from BA to get USD cash.
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 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, Varig. 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.
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 an excellent point for getting information, planning your trip and meeting people. Elsewhere hotels and guesthouse are quite reasonable and plentiful.
Hot water: Never a problem
Average cost: Around US$10 for a dorm bed, US$30-50 for a double room.
Communications: Plenty of internet places 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
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 the 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.
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 boarder. These beach 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. There is a good network of buses and budget places to stay, but none, 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. 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.
The Rough Guide First-Time Latin America - Polly Rodger Brown
Footprint: South American Handbook 2013 - Ben Box
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. Its pretty sweet and helped me find cool stuff to do and great places to stay and is way better organized than any other site I've found. - Rebeca
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
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!'