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Latin America[i] 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


! You don't need to be fluent in Spanish (or even know more than a good number of phases), but a basic level makes a HUGE difference in this region. The same can be said for Portuguese in Brazil. Spanish lesson are normally cheap/easy to arrange on route.


! 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.

South America on the whole lacks difficult border crossings and visa headaches (although Americas will run into hefty charges). Bus transport is easy to arrange and there is a very established trail of attractions. This however causes many to 'bite off more than they can chew' in terms of distances to be covered overland, not finding to time/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.



TucanWhat 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.



*   South America

 * Get your bearings.. show/hide map of the region

» Bolivia

  • BolivaIntro: 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 the terms of - to name only a few examples - historic (Potosi), amazing scenery of a beautiful altiplano plus the worlds 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 countries road system is not great, due in part to the topography and in part to lack of maintenance. This can make some longer trips can be 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 anything to yourself, but the remotest jungle.

  • Highlights: Salt flats* and altiplano *, Inca Trails (there are several), a mountain bike trip down the world's most dangerous road*, Potosi and swimming with river dolphins in the Amazon

  • Lowlights: Lots of tourists and 'tours mentality' - see below right. Poverty notable and so are mosquitoes/heat/humidity in jungle areas. The country's road system

  • 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.

  • 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, much more 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.

  • People vibe:

    • 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 simply 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 Surce.

  • Hot/cold, wet and dry: The higher plains of Bolivia get pretty cold at night, but 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 scare mongering 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 toiling. 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 multi purpose applications.

Conversely, on the tropical lowlands, summer is near 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 which normally involves a distraction like something being dropped or spat/spraied 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.

* Miss at your peril: Salt flats, overland trip from Chile through the altiplano, and Potosi - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Brazil

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.

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 bed 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.

  • People vibe:

    • 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 with 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.

    • Vegetarians: Fine

  • 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

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: 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.

Summer holiday's

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).

Getting Around

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, 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.

Carnival!

The three most popular Carnivals in Brazil are:

Salvador: Celebrated along 26km 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 12km 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 your 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.

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» Chile

  • 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,

  • 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.

  • Guide book: Rough Guide or Footprint. Many use a regional guide. For a full list of regional guides please click here.

Getting to Patagonia

Puerto Natales, ChileGetting 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. We understand that the Puerto Montt - Puerto Natales 'Fjords Route' has be​en suspended due to the company deciding to use the ferry for freight services from September 2013 onwards. 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.

* Miss at your peril: Patagonia and Easter Island - 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Colombia

  • 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. As the situation improved Colombia 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 fairly vacant of tourists. The vibe is fun, independent and relaxed. Anyone coming from Peru or Bolivia will find higher standards, less (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.

    • Highlights: 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) and limited tourists

    • Lowlights: 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 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 situation along the road you are travelling.

      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, allows you to make small withdrawals at a time. You can use a debit/credit card for many purchases.

    • 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 loosing

    • Guide book: Footprint and new Lonely Planet on the scene. Both with a good level of detail and practical security advice.

    • People vibe:

      • Locals: Various, however many don't want anything to do with travellers, consider 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, but always available.

    • Media:

      • [book]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, commonplace supermarkets means cooking for yourself in hostels is easy. Water comes in silly little packets and fruit, especially mangos are ubiquitous and cheap.

      • Vegetarians: Fine

    • Hassle and annoyance factor: No real hassle. The most hassle is found in Cartagena.

    • Rating: 7.5/10

Dangers:

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.

However, the country has improved dramatically its safety issues for tourists. 2013 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.

Comments:

c '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

c '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


Getting to Colombia from Central America

Since the Pan-American Highway grinds to a halt just past Panama City, there is no road access between North and South America.

A traveller wishing to cross between South and Central America has 3 options: flying, which will cost about $US200, 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.



Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol

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.

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» Ecuador

  • Visa strategy: Free visa on entry - expensive +$100 park entry fee to Galapagos

  • Typical tourist trail: Quito to Otavalo, back to Quito and down the avenue of volcanoes to Baños and other villages in the south. Most travellers come from Peru or Costa Rica

  • Dangers: Some guerrilla activity in very north west, along 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

  • People vibe:

    • 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

  • Communications: Good internet

  • Health: Many travellers do suffer from food poisoning and related stomach problems

  • Media:

    • Books: Best if not only place for books (Baños and Quito) in South America. See Colombia summary for some recommended reading.

    • TV: English language cable in some hostels

  • 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

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: 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:5.5/10 - 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-rockets.

Galapagos Islands:

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.

The budget option: Those on a tight budget will skip the multi-day boat trips and have to have time to waste. Take a flight from Guayaquil as opposed to Quito to either​ Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. The flights are expensive (for the distance). Recommend arriving at one airport and departing from the other. From the islands most of the attractions can be seen without a guide or arranged through a tour operator on either island. 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) i​s easy as there are loads of speedboats leaving daily. Travel time is 3 hours betwe​en each island. Day trips to uninhabited islands or dives ca​n be arranged from from Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Isabe​lla at the moment is very undeveloped. Accomodation starts at $25 for double room per night in low season. Meals start at $4 for che​ap lunch (definitely look away from waterfront) Dives start ​at $160 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 of American tourists!!

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.


Costs & Money

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.

Panama hatC 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 t​hat 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.

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» Peru

The Inca trail:

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). [book]

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. Its 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 nights party). Everyday you camp about lunch time and the trail is only about 25km 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 train departs Aguas Calientes at 15:55 and arrives back in Cusco for 20:20. 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 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 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.

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.

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 carrying 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 people per day (that's tourists, 300 staff allowed) - which means it is worth allowing yourself a few day 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 there, 5 back), then ~US$40 park entrance fee (have exact money in USD or sole equ.) and then US$14 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.

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.

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 35km to Aguas Calientes along the railway track (remember 35km 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 82km 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. 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

  • Media:

    • 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

  • People vibe:

    • Locals: Not as friendly as other South American nations

    • Other travellers: Typical Gringos, packages in Cusco

  • Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: You may hear of Cocaine available in Cusco night clubs. Pisco Sours are the drink of choice.

  • Rating: 6.5/10

Trekking in the Cordillera

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.



A little off the beaten track:

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 & Reading

[book]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'

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» Venezuela

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* The Others (very briefly)

» Argentina

* Miss at your peril: 'Highlight of Independent Travel'

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» Paraguay

  • Statue in Square, AsunciónA 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 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.

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.



» Uruguay

  • 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 reach easily (a few hours capital to capital and about 60US$ on the 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 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.

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[book]The Rough Guide First-Time Latin America - Polly Rodger Brown

Buy/view: in the USA (amazon.com), in Canada (amazon.ca) or in the UK (amazon.co.uk)

:-) Highly Recommended



[book]Footprint: South American Handbook 2014 - Ben Box

Buy/view: in the USA (amazon.com), in Canada (amazon.ca) or in the UK (amazon.co.uk)

:-) Highly Recommended

 

[i] 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.

c 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!'




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