Backpacking in South America
It seems like a lifetime ago but back in 2013, I spent almost 2 months in South America travelling with my boyfriend. What an incredible place, that you could easily spend at least 6 months exploring. Unfortunately we didn’t have that time on our hands and we can’t wait to get back there again some day.
Here is what we did cover in 7 weeks:
34,347 km, 4 countries, 16 beds, 13 flights, 91 bus hours
Rio de Janeiro - Ihla Grande – Iguazzu Falls – Buenos Aires – Arequipa – Cusco – Inca Trail – Amazon Rainforest – Lima – Mancora – Montanita – Quito
As always, none of the recommendations mentioned are sponsored. They are from personal experience and are recommendations we genuinely feel are worthwhile to pass on.
We flew into Rio and to this day it remains one of my favourite cities in the world. It is breathtakingly beautiful and so full of life and soul. We stayed in Books hostel which is in Lapa and I’ve recommended this place to so many people since. There is such a nice family vibe at this hostel and it was the perfect place to start our trip and make us feel welcome. Lapa isn’t a huge touristy area so you get a much more authentic experience – try spend a Friday night here as there’s an amazing street party in Lapa every Friday.
We stayed in Rio for 4 nights but easily could have done with an extra one. The main things to do here are; visit the beaches of Copacobana & Ipanema, climb to the Christ the Redeemer, venture up Sugar Loaf mountain, rent a bike and cycle around the city, and party with the locals! Favela tours are also a popular thing to do in Rio but it doesn’t sit quite right with me so we gave it a skip – it’s everyone’s own personal choice.
After a great start, we got a bus & boat to Ihla Grande - a lovely little island off the coast of Rio. I’m not sure if its more built up now, 7 years on, so maybe research this. We stayed in this little hostel in the jungle part of the island, which was so peaceful and a nice place to recoup after the hectic-ness of Rio.
There’s plenty of trails to discover hidden beaches and snorkelling day tours that go around all the different coves on the island. Pure bliss!
Next we made our way to Rio Airport and flew to Iguazzu. If you’re short for time and book in advance the flights are worth it – but if time is on your side I would say bus it. It’s cheaper and better for the environment.
It is well worth making the trip to Iguazzu, even though it’s a bit out of the way. It’s the most incredible natural wonder – often compared to being better than Niagra Falls. The famous falls sits on the borders of two countries so there are two sides to visit – the Brazil side and the Argentina side.
Often people just do one but if you can try to spend two days so you get a day on each side as it’s hard to decide which is better. All the hotels around the falls are super expensive & touristy so we stayed in a town about 45 mins away but there’s hourly coaches that go to and from the Falls so it was perfect. There is boat tours you can do that go so close to the falls and look incredible; our tight backpacker budget didn’t allow for it.
From there we got an 18 hour overnight bus to Buenos Aires. If you are getting overnight buses in South America it’s worth paying for the full “cama”. There is a “semi-cama” option but the slight extra cost for the full cama made all the difference to us; the way we saw it, we were saving on accommodation by travelling overnight and were almost guaranteed a good night’s sleep with the cama as you can fully lie down. Make sure to shop around the different companies, usually all in the bus station, as the prices can vary. When we were there you got meals on board too; my experience was that SA coaches were so much better than the ones in SE Asia.
As always, make sure to put all your valuables into your small backpack and bring that onto the bus with you; keep it on you if you’re sleeping or within sight if you’re awake. It’s very easy to get robbed on the buses; we were very careful the whole way throughout our trip but we met tons of people that got robbed while they slept on buses.
We stayed in Millhouse hostel in Buenos Aires, which was a well-run large hostel, and very clean. We spent about four nights in BA which is almost dangerous as the nightlife here is so good! 7 years ago we enjoyed going out to clubs so had a crazy fun time in BA – I can’t say we’d look for the same experience if we went today haha! A bike tour around the city is a great way to see it and check out the beautiful architecture. La Boca is a really cool area and where you’ll see all those colourful buildings that are all over Insta. If you’re a meat eater then this is the city to treat yourself to a famous Argentinian steak.
From Buenos Aires we made our way over to Arequipa in Peru. As we were stuck for time we flew to Chile - Santiago and then to Arica, and got a bus from here over the border and up to Arequipa.We spent three nights here which I think is plenty of time as it’s a small city. This Unesco World Heritage–listed city is magical; guarded by three volcanoes, the city got its nickname as the “White City” as the buildings are carved from white volcanic rock. We did a walking tour here and it was so interesting to hear about the colonial history.
Because of the landscape, it’s a great place for activities like trekking and rafting. We spent a day white water rafting, an activity I always love, and it didn’t disappoint. We stayed at Wild Rover hostel – these are all throughout Peru and they are great craic. Aside from the good nightlife at this hostel, the other thing I weirdly remember is how comfortable the beds were here!
We then got an overnight bus to Cusco; this is the city you will go before you start the Inca Trail. You’ll need to go 2-3 days before you start your trek to get used to the high altitude. Plus, Cusco is great! Again it’s such a gorgeous Peruvian town; the local people are amazing and the markets are fantastic to pick up trinkets and to experience incredible local food.
There’s plenty to do around Cusco too, including hiking trails and a day trip to the “rainbow” mountains.
So for the Inca Trail, there is the official trail which is 3-4 days of hiking and I think you have to book months in advance and it’s super expensive. Instead we did the jungle trek, which you can book from your hostel, or if you prefer to be safe you can book it in advance too. I got a recommendation off a few people to do this instead and we we’re delighted we did it this way!! It’s seemed much more authentic and off the beaten track and there’s loads of fun activities throughout the 4 day experience; like white water rafting, mountain biking, zip-lining, going to hot springs, and of course hiking. You stay with a Peruvian family in the middle of the jungle one night, and then in these little hostels other nights and get to eat real home-cooked Peruvian food. It’s amazing. For your last day you make the summit to Machu Picchu, starting with a 4am hike so you can get there on time for sunrise. Then we had the whole day up there to explore and do our own thing, which was the perfect way to end an experience we will never forget.
We got a bus back to Cusco from here, which arrived in quite late so we stayed here for one more night before moving on. We then made our way to the Amazon, on a short 45 minute flight over the rainforest from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. You can travel by road but I think it takes about 12 hours as it’s over different terrains.
Our experience in the Amazon was a real treat as it was a birthday present for my boyfriend. We booked a relatively expensive tour, but there are many other cheaper ways of doing it – just do some research. We got collected from the airport and took a boat down the river to our lodges. We spent two nights there in a lodge with only three walls so you’re essentially sleeping in the forest, and you can hear all these amazing animal sounds when the sun sets. I personally didn’t sleep a wink during this though!
During the day time there is loads of activities; boat trips along the river, climbing a canopy tower so you have a view above the trees, parrot & monkey watching, night walks in the jungle, discovering the Shaman culture and learning about Amazonian medicinal plants. It was such an interesting yet relaxing experience.
From Puerto Maldonado we flew to Lima, where we just spent one night before getting an overnight bus to Mancora. We planned on staying three nights here but that turned into a week as we were having such a great time. We stayed in Loki Hostel, right on the beach and made some great friends here. It was exactly what we wanted, a nice chilled beach vibe after all of the trekking and exploring we’d done in the previous few weeks. There’s a cool little lighthouse on the hill overlooking the town and this is a great spot to watch the sunset, and definitely try the fresh ceviche on the beach while sipping a cocktail. Dreamy!
After a week of bliss, we decided to move on and get another overnight bus to Montanita, just over the border in Ecuador. Back in 2013 the buses in Ecuador were nowhere near as high of a standard as they were elsewhere in SA. This may have changed by now but just incase – be prepared for some uncomfortable journeys. I’m talking 10 hours on a very cramped bus with no air con, no leg room and no pit stops.
Montanita was a cool beachside hippy town back when we visited. The beaches are cool and it’s a great spot to have a surf. There’s lots of little café shacks with fresh smoothies and bbq stalls in the evenings near the beach.
Our last stop was Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we were flying home from. We had planned on going to Banos for a few nights, which is a great spot for adrenaline junkies as it’s famous for its biking, zip lining, rafting etc. Unfortunately we ran out of time as we overstayed in Mancora. But sure that’s what backpacking is all about, living in the moment and not sticking to a schedule.
I wish we had more time in Quito too as I really liked it and there’s these amazing hikes you can do just an hour or so outside the city. We treated ourselves to a nice hotel to finish the trip. After spending almost 2 months in hostels this was such a lovely treat and I’m glad we kept money for it. There’s some gorgeous parks and restaurants in Quito, and the city sits on the equator so we made a trip to the “the middle of the world”, which was well worth it.
Again, if you have more time to spend in SA – do it! Although we spent almost 2 months here we really felt like it was just the tip of the iceberg and we have so much more exploring of this beautiful region to do in the future. Visit Bolivia and see the salt flats, spend time in the Argentinian countryside of Mendoza and do some wine tasting on horseback, go to Colombia which we have heard nothing but great things about from other backpackers. We just can’t wait to get back there some day in the future!