My vacation to South America was without a doubt the most expensive and stressful I have ever planned. I revised and re-revised the plans exactly 17 times. I had planned to go alone and then Polar said he wanted to come with so I started planning again. My school leave was extended which meant I had more time to travel. So I planned again. I spent 5 months researching and making notes. I also put this trip off for 2 years in favour of closer and cheaper destinations. It was pretty crazy for a perpetually planning panda.
Watch our South America highlights video here:
I should also mention that I had no clue about South America. My geography of the continent was scant at best. I didn’t realize how large it was. Like the idiot I am, I was stunned to see how long it took to get from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru.
Despite all of this, I never gave up on this trip because South America has been my ultimate bucket list trip! In this post I will outline a few tips that I wish someone had told me before I started planning my trip to save me time and stress!
1. You can’t do or see everything
When I initially started planning this trip, I had a foolish idea that I would DO ALL THE THINGS and SEE ALL THE PLACES. I was going to see the glaciers, head to Easter Island and swing off a hill in Ecuador… Well let me tell you, that hope was dashed very swiftly. South America is a gigantic continent, almost as huge as North America and about twice the size of Europe. Distances between destinations are vast and there are no extensive rail networks connecting countries. How much you see depends on your available time and budget. Its not cheap to travel between places as you may have to fly unless you have days to spend on a bus. I would go with a less is more approach simply because of the distances required to travel between places.
While there are many companies that will offer you ideas for itineraries, what you see will depend on you. My must sees included Rio de Janiero, Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and Machu Pichu so I planned my trip around seeing those places. I looked up flights and bus routes in order to see what was feasible for the 4 weeks that I had. Plans of going to Ecuador, Bolivia and Easter Island were slowly abolished when I saw the time needed and cost of going to those places! Remember- less is more and the costs add up!
Note: If you are planning to fly around South America, you may want to read this informative article. While a lot of information is U.S. based, it does have a list of budget airlines within the Latin American countries at the end. Personally I used the following airlines during my travels (with the low cost carriers in blue) and hyperlinked their English sites:
2. You need a well defined budget
I’m not ashamed to tell you that I put off this trip for 2 years. Considering that it takes me a 14-17 hour journey to get anywhere on the continent not to mention the 3000AED/$820/R13,000 it would cost me for a return flight in & out of the biggest hub in the continent, Sao Paulo, it was simply not something I could manage before. You may find cheaper deals but not by much. Its far away for most people and that’s something worth factoring in when planning.
I can’t stress enough the importance of sitting down with Google Maps and looking at the distance between places across this continent. Look at the transportation options across places. Make a note of the average cost. If you don’t have a lot of time, you will have to fly between places. Look at the accommodation costs for the places you want to stay in and make note. From there, estimate the costs for you. This is a basic way I budget for most trips but I found it particularly prevalent here.
How much you are willing to spend will determine where you go and what you see. For example, it would be far better to do Brazil & Argentina as one trip. This way you only spend money on domestic flights (reasonably priced options are available) and crossing over from Brazil to Argentina at Iguazu Falls is extremely simple. You could also do a day trip to Colonia, Uruguay from Buenos Aires, Argentina. The moment you start thinking west to Chile or Peru, the prices start to jump up.
Chile, Peru & Bolivia are also three places that could work well together for a trip due to their geographical closeness (unless you visited Southern Chile or Easter Island). Or even Peru & Ecuador. Depending on where you’re flying in from, research well and determine your budget accordingly.
Realize the diversity of every country
I started learning conversational Spanish and a few weeks later someone asked me how my Portuguese was going. I stared at them blankly before I remembered that the official language in Brazil was Portuguese! I felt like a royal idiot although I am glad I didn’t go there and start speaking Spanish to people (that probably would’ve been fine though to be honest). This is just a simple example of how different the countries are from the food to the culture.
Each country will have its own currency and don’t be one of those people who assumes that the U.S. dollar will be accepted everywhere. Unfortunately I was unable to get one of those cards that have no international fees. So factor in changing currencies & bank charges if you’re travelling to more than one country.
We started our trip in Brazil where in July it was balmy 28 degrees celsius. When we flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the temperature dropped to 10 degrees celsius. At the end of our trip- in Cusco, Peru- we were freezing in minus 1 temperatures. I had to leave Lima Airport and buy a fleece lined jacket for myself. I just had this stupid idea that the temperature would pretty similar but it was absolutely not!
Polar and I have two very gastronomical palates when we travel: I tend to eat seafood and vegetables but splurge on dessert. He loves his red meat of all kinds and will pass on dessert. I didn’t eat any meat on my trip in South America and it didn’t take as much effort as you would think. Most cities and areas that cater to tourists, have restaurants that offer many different types of options that will satisfy all palates. Peru was my favourite destination for their delicious ceviche and hearty soups while Polar loved his Brazillian barbecue. Don’t let food hold you back from visiting a place and don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Learn the relevant phrases and you’ll get by!
Prepare to have the best trip you have ever had!
While this trip was exhausting and expensive, it was also the best holiday I’ve ever had. I LOVED the different cuisines and cultures, the melodic sounds of Portuguese & Spanish as well the hospitality of the Latin American people. I would recommend each and every destination that I visited especially as they were each so different from each other- even the ones within the same countries!
South America, has something for everyone- huge peaks, thick forests, historical ruins, and is the perfect destination for any adventure traveller.
The Latin-flavoured continent has virtually every element you’ve ever dreamt of: beautifully preserved historical cities, colonial towns, smoky volcanoes, unmatched natural wonders, deep traditions and, above all, some of the kindest people on earth. I can’t tell you how deeply I fell in love!
Sadly, South America has also earned a reputation for being unsafe. The wild nature of the landscapes combined with a history of civil unrest and underdeveloped countries have instilled a sense of trepidation in many adventurers. But to honest, I think the media has overhyped possible dangers and that as long as you remain vigilant, you should be in no more danger than you would be in the United States.
The main danger you should be aware of in South America is that you’ll be in serious danger of never wanting to leave!
If there was ever a place in the world that perfectly embodied passion, diverse landscapes, and a love of life – it’s South America! With the strong Latin culture running through every country on the continent, it’s no wonder that my time there has definitely turned into the best trip I have ever taken.
Have you ever travelled to South America? Or is it on your list? Let me know in the comments below!