Are you on a gap year? Or a long-term travel? If yes, then this post is for you! I’ve navigated South America for three years, all by land. Though the continent is huge, you can get from point A to B easily and without a hassle. Please take note that this post is applicable to those who are traveling long-term aka 6 months at a minimum.
Ready to know how to travel South America by land? Here are the answers to your questions.
Cheap Flights to South America
The cheapest flights to South America go from the USA (Miami or Atlanta) and Europe (Madrid). You can book a two-way ticket from $400 – $700 USD. It is highly advisable to land in the capitals of South America where flights are more frequent: Bogota (Colombia), Quito (Ecuador), Lima (Peru), Santiago (Chile), Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Sao Paulo/Rio de Janeiro (Brasil)
FUN FACT: I know i said “capitals” above but the capital of Brasil is not Sao Paulo nor Rio de Janeiro. It’s Brasilia. 😉
When is the best time to go?
Summer is from mid November to April and winter is from May to November. However, this does not apply to all countries. There are areas in South America which has summer all year round (i.e. Colombia, northern Ecuador and Brasil) so there won’t be a problem with the time you want to go. This continent is so diverse that you’ll go from 33 degrees celsius to 15 degrees celsius within one week of traveling, from one city to another.
What should I pack?
Everything! As I have mentioned above, the weather depends on the city, not the country. You can be chilling on the beach in Montañita, Ecuador and experience a very cold weather when you arrive in Quito. Winter and summer wardrobe is highly required in this trip.
There are two ways on how to navigate your South America travel:
- Going up: Brasil-Uruguay-Argentina-Chile-Bolivia-Peru-Ecuador-Colombia.
- Going down: Colombia-Ecuador-Peru-Bolivia-Chile-Argentina-Uruguay-Brasil.
I navigated my travels “going down” so in this post, I will give you an extensive information on how I did it.
I. Start in Colombia
Let’s assume you are from the United States and your flight landed in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota is one of the most controversial cities in the world because of the purported drug trafficking in the country. However, you will find Bogota is really a rich capital and an intellectual hub of Colombia. Flying is very cheap within the country because of the popular budget airlines like Viva Colombia (around$25). By the way, they also fly to Quito (Ecuador) and Lima (Peru) for a very cheap price (around $100 USD)! Should you decide to wake up and realise that traveling by land is horribly exhausting, take the flight.
From Bogota, fly to the coast. Baranquilla, Santa Marta, Taganga and Cartagena are very easy to reach as they are close to each other. The average fare from jumping into these cities is around COP45,000 ($14.45 USD). In the coast of Colombia, mini vans are the most popular mode of transportation. However, taking public busses (very uncomfortable) can cost COP10,000 less. Amazed with the cheap flights within the country? Then don’t skip Medellin! Medellin is one of the best cities I’ve ever been in South America and you should probably want to visit it, too!
So you want to move on to Ecuador. What are your options?
- Fly from Bogota to Quito via Viva Colombia; or
- Continue traveling by land.
If you choose #2, you will have to fly to Cali, Colombia and then from there, take the bus to Pasto, then Ipiales to Tulca. Check this article for a detailed information on how to cross Colombia to Ecuador by land.
Tulca is the name of the city where the border of Colombia and Ecuador meets. Before coming to Quito, you should stop in the little city of Otavalo where you can find every cheap South American/Andean piece of crafts. You can find a wide variety of cheap finds here like ponchos and sweaters which could be useful for the rest of your trip. Busses go to Quito from Otavalo 24 hours a day and it only costs $5 USD.
FUN FACT: Ecuador uses US Dollar as their currency.
Quito is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Latin America where baroque architecture is straddling the city. Climbing Cotopaxi and visiting the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) are one of the biggest activities in the capital. Unfortunately, there are no cheap flights going to the north of the country from Quito. Well, it really depends what you mean about cheap but for me, cheap is $20 – $100. Anything above that is already expensive for me.
So don’t fly to Peru as you will miss the northern part of Ecuador. Guayaquil is just a city but this is the main hub of buses in the North. From Guayaquil, you can go to Montañita (3 hours), Cuenca or Baños (6 hours). Ecuador doesn’t have impressive beaches but if you want to party hard (I mean hard), Montañita is a good option. Take note that Montañita is also a part of the drug economy of South America. If you are not in the party mood, then don’t go. Cuenca is another beautiful colonial city that is worth visiting while the edge of the world swing is located in Baños. Guayaquil is where you have to take the bus to enter Peru. Busses go to Mancora twice a day. Make sure you get the night bus so the hot weather will not bug you. Mancora is really hot, most especially during the summer! Additionally, you need to stop in the border of Peru and Ecuador to do your exit/entry stamp. There are usually no lines at night so it will be faster for you to do this. If you bought a direct ticket to Mancora, there is no need to change buses. | Travel time from Guayaquil to Mancora: 8 hours
Welcome to Mancora! Sick of the parties? Then slowly move your way to the rich coastline of Peru! Visit Chiclayo, Cajamarca and Trujillo — places where the biggest native empire (Inca) left marks of their struggle for independence against the Spanish and Europeans. If you want to experience the jungle, Tarapoto and Iquitos (though out of route) are two of your best options. These cities are the gateway to the Amazon Jungle of Peru. If not, simply make your way down to Huaraz and enjoy shtloads of mountain trekking/climbing and rafting activities. Huaraz is really beautiful I think you shouldn’t miss it!
From there, you can make your way to Lima. A lot of travellers say there is nothing to do in Lima but you might want to check it out. It is not only the capital of Peru but also the capital (main base) of the Spanish colonisation in Latin America.My first time to visit the city centre of Lima was shocking — it looks exactly like Madrid. Give it a day or two then move to Paracas where you can do kitesurfing, visit the National Reserve and Ballestas Islands aka mini Galapagos. | Travel time from Lima to Paracas: 4 hours From Paracas, it is relatively easy to make your way South:
- Paracas to Ica (approximately 1 hour): sand dune surfing in Huacachina and viewing of the Nazca lines.
- Ica to Arequipa (14 hours): Arequipa is one of the modernised slash colonial cities of Peru where the famous Colca Canyon is located. It is advisable to stay at least 5 days in Arequipa.
- Arequipa to Cusco (approximately 8 hours): Of course, you’ll spend longer time in Cusco because of the Machu Picchu tour. I must tell you though, Cusco is more than Machu Picchu! There are a lot of other activities you can do while you are in the city. 2 weeks of stay is ideal because you need to get used to the altitude before you do any extreme activities.
- Cusco to Puno: Puno is the border of Peru and Bolivia, home to the indigenous Uros tribe.
When traveling Peru, I highly recommend Peru Hop (PH), a first class bus company where you can hop on/hop off in any city you choose to go. Basically, you pay for a one-time pass that costs less than $200. Their route: Lima-Paracas-Huacachina-Arequipa-Cusco-Puno (and vice-versa). Let’s say you purchased a pass from Lima and you want to stay in Paracas for one month. You need to inform their customer service when you will be hopping on so they can pick you up from your hostel. Yep, you don’t need to stress in arranging your transport to the bus station nor worry about your next ticket. Additionally, they also have some free tours included in the passes! It is safe, affordable, convenient and flexible! Click here for more information on how it works! If you don’t fancy PH, you can check Peru Bus Portal where you can see all the timetables of the buses traveling throughout the country. But I am sure you will like PH… because they now have Bolivia Hop, too!
From the border of Peru and Bolivia, the first place you will go to is Copacabana where you can spend a few days in some of its beautiful islands like Isla del Sol. From there, buses go to La Paz everyday. I spent three months in La Paz and it’s one of the most interesting periods of my life! As a capital, buses go to Potosi where Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world is located. You can also pass by Sucre and Santa Cruz.
You will be torn in Santa Cruz because there is an option to go towards Brasil, Argentina and Chile. As for me, I eventually chose to go to Chile so I won’t lose my ‘route.’
If you sign up for a tour in Salar de Uyuni, they will also give you an option to cross to Chile and visit the the Atacama desert. Make your way down to Valparaiso and then Santiago (the capital). I did not include it in the map but there are two choices on how to cross Chile to Argentina:
- Direct bus from Santiago to Mendoza;
- Travel all the way down to the South of Chile, visit the Patagonia and enter in the Argentine Patagonia.
Fun Fact: Chile is one of the most expensive countries in South America.
Argentina is a relatively big country so whether you opt to enter from the north or south of Chile, you will always end up in the world-class capital of Buenos Aires. The main bus station (Retiro) is in BA and you can basically travel all over the country by land. Click here to see all the bus timetables within Argentina.
Suggested cities to visit: Rosario, Cordoba, Mendoza, Mar de Plata and San Martin de los Andes. If you have the chance, please visit the South where you can see the glaciers of Perito Moreno and the Tierra del Fuego (land of fire). At the edge of the country, you can find Ushuaia where cruise ships to Antarctica leave! Additional tips: Make sure you bring dollars! There are two exchange rates in Argentina (official and black market) and your US dollars can go a long way here. How do you easily get to Uruguay from Argentina? There is a ship in Buenos Aires that goes straight to Montevideo. Travel comfortably in a first-class mini cruise ship for less than $100 USD and in just 2 hours, you will be in Uruguay!
Not a lot of travellers pass by Uruguay but if you want to reach Brasil, then you should check out Uruguay even just a few days. From Montevideo, there will be buses that go straight to Porto Alegre, Brasil (14 hour bus ride).
Places to visit in Uruguay: Isla del Diablo and Punta del Este. Please take note that Uruguay is also very expensive!
VIII. Brasil: The Final Stop
Why, hello, Brasil! So you are already in Porto Alegre and you want to make your way up to Sao Paulo. Let’s not rush though. I highly recommend you visit the Iguazu Falls in Foz first. There are direct buses from Porto Alegre to Foz so worry not! And more good news — from Foz, you don’t have to change buses to go to Sao Paulo so you’re good. Brasil is really huge so I won’t be really giving you a definite route. Since this is the last stop, you can navigate the country by yourself!
There are a lot of beautiful places to visit in Brasil and here are my recommendations:
- The South: Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul
- Rio de Janeiro (of course!). Don’t forget Buzios and Paraty too!
- Salvador de Baiha for capoeira and some good Brasilian food!
- The northeast: Recife, Olinda, São Luís and Fortaleza
- Matto Grosso
- Minas Gerais
Traveling to South America soon? Don’t be shy! Ask me questions! Feel free to e-mail trishavelarmino[at]gmail[dot]com for further information.