Want to backpack through South America? It’ll take time. South America has TONS to see! Planning any longterm trip can be daunting. Thankfully, neither you (nor we) are the first to attempt such a feat. Below, we summarize each country on the well-known gringo trail and explain how to get from place to place. Plus, there’s a map! Keep reading for How To Plan a Yearlong Trip to South America.
We hope this post addresses many of your questions on how to plan a longterm trip to South America! Now crack open a bottle and cheers with me to a year’s worth of learning summed up into one post!
Before We Begin
How To Plan a Longterm Trip to South America
It’s important to start by acknowledging that you’ve taken a big step! There’s a lot to explore in South America, and you’re going to love it! Below, we’ve compiled our best tips for how to plan YOUR longterm trip to South America (note: it can be six months, nine months, a year – however fast or slow you want to go!). You also don’t need to plan every detail, but it’s important to think about some things in advance. Lucky for you, you’ve got us!
N&M Travel Guides
We’ve written travel guides for most of the places mentioned below. If a city is hyperlinked, clicking on it will take you to our travel guide! These are detailed posts with our authentic tips! If you’re in the early stages of planning your trip to South America, make sure to bookmark them for future use!
All the countries we mentione have no special visa requirements for US citizens as of March 2020 (a.k.a. we can enter for free & don’t have to file anything beforehand). Once entering the country by bus or air, you will present your passport at the customs office and will be given a 90-day tourist visa. With a tourist visa, you do not have to pay taxes on major purchases (save some special sales like alcohol). At the time of my writing this (March 2020), the only country in South America that requires a visa is Paraguay, and it costs $160USD.
You’re going to see a lot of LONG bus rides in this writeup. We’re talking 12+ hours. If you’re from the US, you’re probably not used to any length of bus ride… We weren’t either, but you’re going to have to trust me on this next sentence. Overnight buses in South America are not bad! It’s not like getting on a Greyhound bus where you’re sitting next to god-knows-who, nor is it like taking a filthy inner-city bus. And the bus stations are nearly never sketchy and are usually full of people. It is time to learn to embrace the bus.
When you see “overnight bus,” I want you to think “business class flight.” On these often double-decker buses, the seats usually recline up to 145 degrees. You often have chargers and a meal provided. This is how travelers and locals alike get around South America. You will sleep, everybody does, and when you wake up, you’ll be in a new city! Plus, you’ll have saved a day of traveling along with the cost of a bed for a night!
Before our trip, I figured that we’d fly as much as possible. After all, people from the U.S. hate buses. But after 7+ months on the road, we plan our next travel destination based on where we can reach by overnight bus. Our experiences on overnight buses have been so much better than we first expected that we are constantly wondering why the U.S. doesn’t have a similar system.
How to Plan a Yearlong Trip to South America: Map
One well-traveled path, commonly known as the gringo trail, leads you down a U-shape route through most major destinations. While this is the route we planned to take through South America, circumstances (i.e., the political unrest of 2019) dictated otherwise. The route below is the most efficient way to visit most of the major sites in South America. If you follow it, you’ll see most if not all of them! (The route we actually took is here,)
How to Plan a Yearlong Trip to South America: Countries
This itinerary can either be done from Colombia counter-clockwise to Brazil or from Brazil clockwise to Colombia. We started in Colombia, so that’s where we’ll start for the purpose of this post. You can tack on Central America with either route, though it might make more sense going from Colombia.
- Bogota – capital: Arrive by plane from the US. Bogota is usually the cheapest place to fly to in South America.
- Medellin – city everyone loves: Flight from Bogota. An 8-hour bus is an option, but we’ve heard it’s miserable and super bumpy. Flights within Colombia are very cheap. Bogota -> Medellin is ~$10-30USD one-way and you can book it up to one day in advance. Seriously.
- Jerico/Jardin – cute Colombian towns: A 2-hr bus gets you to Jerico, and a 3-hr bus to Jardin; then take the 4-hr bus back to Medellin.
- Salento/Filandia – coffee country: Fly from Medellin to Armenia, Colombia, and take a 2-hr bus to Salento or Filandia in the heart of Colombian coffee country (known as the “Zona Cafetera”). For a bonus experience (VERY worth it), spend a day in Buenavista. You’ll have to bus back to Armenia to get get there.
- Cali – the salsa capital: It’s a 5-hr bus from Salento or Filandia, including a bus transfer in Armenia, or simply 3-hrs from Armenia.
- Pasto – border crossing: 10-12 hour day bus from Cali. Option to stop in Popoyan along the way. There is also a spectacular church near Pasto called Las Lajas Sanctuary.
Give Me More (Colombia)!
Northern Colombia (Carribean Coast)
We did not explore northern Colombia as it was too hot and humid for our tastes. Our short time in Cartagena made us feel like we were back in Houston for the summer, except there was no air conditioning and people tried to sell you hats and eyeglasses every second of the day! Many people consider the Caribbean coast a MUST, and we’re kind of sad we missed it.
- Cartagena: The #1 place to go in Colombia per Lonely Planet. Not to mince words, we did not like it. It was too hot, humid and tourist-y (click here for a more elaborate response). It is a common stopping point for most tourists and is easily accessed via plane from the US, Medellin or Bogota. While it’s on the coast, do NOT go to the beach there (they are dirty and full of vendors), instead take a boat tour to a nearby island.
- San Andres & Providencia Islands: These are secluded, clear water islands in the Caribbean. Both can be accessed by boat or plane. Plane is strongly recommended for visiting Providencia, which is more remote.
- Santa Marta: Supposedly a less touristy Cartagena, but just as hot. From here, you can do the Lost City Trek, a 4-5 day hike through the jungle to ancient city ruins. If you attempt this trek, expect to be wet the whole time. We skipped it because – well, it sounded too much like our walks to work during a Houston summer.
- Minca: A charming small town on hill. Think hippy vibes, earthy feels, and incredible sunsets. For many people, this is the preferred place to stay before or after doing the Lost City Trek or for exploring Tayrona (rather than staying in Santa Marta).
- Tayrona National Park: Where the jungle meets the sea. You can visit from Minca or Santa Marta.
Colombia to Panama
If you plan to go from Colombia to Central America, a 4-day/3-night San Blas islands boat tour will take you from Cartagena to Panama. It is very popular among travelers and very highly recommended .
Colombia to Peru (via the Amazon!)
Flying is cliche. For a unique border crossing experience, sail the Amazon from Colombia to Peru! The most common route is from Leticia, Colombia to Iquitos, Peru. Boat trips can range from 12 hours on a fast boat (more $$) to 5 days on a cargo ship (less $$). On the latter, you’ll be sleeping on a hammock that you supply. You have to fly to Leticia from wherever you are in Peru. This option sounded more uncomfortable than we prefer to travel, so we didn’t do it. If it sounds like something that may be of interest to you, now you know!
Detailed Itineraries + Our Faves
For more information on Colombia, we put together a 1 week, 2 week, or 4 week Colombia Itinerary for any type of traveler! Plus, we loved Colombia and put together this list of our favorite things to do, places to eat and places to stay!
We unfortunately did not make it to Ecuador due to transportation strikes; however, we did have a full 2-3 week Ecuador itinerary and were ready to go.
- Otavalo – large market: 6-8 hour bus from Pasto (including time for border crossing). Flights into and out of Ecuador are quite expensive. It’s a pretty straightforward crossing but you do need to transfer buses and get a short taxi. See Along Dusty Road’s post on how to do it current as of January 2019.
- Quito – capital: 2 hour bus from Otavalo. Be sure to visit or hike the nearby Cotopaxi volcano!
- Latacunga – hike the Quilotoa Loop: 3 hour bus from Quito or 1.5 hour bus from Cotopaxi. Check out this guide by LaidBackTrip (we used their guides a lot!) to plan your adventure.
- Banos – action sports: 2 hour bus from Latacunga.
- Cuenca – UNESCO site, border crossing: 6 hour bus from Banos. We’ve heard this city is super dead on Sundays with most stores/restaurants closed.
Give Me More (Ecuador)!
You can fly to the Galapagos Islands from Quito. Beware when booking this flight as prices are different for Ecuadorian citizens and foreigners. Before you click “buy”, confirm that you are purchasing a foreigner/tourist ticket. It’s usually twice as expensive. For round-trip flights from Quito, expect to pay roughly ~$500USD per person.
A good rule of thumb is to plan to stay there a week and budget roughly $1000 per person for flights and expenses.
- Mancora – party surf town: 8 hour overnight bus from Cuenca (including time for border crossing).
- Huanchaco – quiet surf town: 10 hour overnight bus from Mancora to Trujillo, then 20-30 minute taxi to Huanchaco. You also have the option to stop in Piura. We heard great things about northern Peru, but did not visit.
- Huaraz – high altitude hiking: 8 hour overnight bus from Trujillo.
- Lima – capital: 8 hour overnight bus from Huaraz.
- Paracas – seafood and biking: 4 hour bus from Lima.
- Huacachina – oasis and sandboarding: 1.5 hour bus from Paracas to Ica, then 20 minute taxi to Huacachina. There are no ATMs in Huacachina!
- Arequipa – beautiful city and great food: 13 hour overnight bus from Ica. You can hike the Colca Canyon (aka second deepest canyon in the world) from here!
- Cusco – Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu: 11 hour overnight bus from Arequipa.
- Puno – Lake Titicaca and border crossing: 7 hour bus from Cusco.
Give Me More (Peru)!
Many people visit the Amazon while in Peru. Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado are the main gateways to the Amazon. To see if an Amazon experience is right for you, check out Michelle’s post!
Peru to Chile
You can skip Bolivia (which we would NOT recommend) and cross directly from Peru into Chile. Here’s the route:
- Arequipa, Peru -> (6 hour bus) -> Tacna, Peru -> (3 hour bus including time border crossing) -> Arica, Chile -> (9 hour overnight bus) -> San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Detailed Itineraries + Our Faves
For more information on Peru, we put together a 1 week, 2 week, or 4 week Peru Itinerary for any type of traveler! Plus, after spending about 2 months there, we put together this list of our favorite things to do, places to eat and places to stay!
As of December 20, 2019, US citizens do not have to pay for a tourist visa to enter Bolivia! We had originally skipped it due to political unrest from national elections, but the $160USD visa requirement was also a factor. Still, we did research on the route and what it would look like.
- Copacabana – border crossing: 5 hour bus (including time for border crossing) from Puno.
- La Paz – capital: 3 hour bus from Copacabana.
- Sucre: 12 hour bus overnight bus from La Paz.
- Uyuni – salt flats tour: 8 hour bus from Sucre. There is a 3 day Salt Flat tour that you MUST take. It goes both directions in between Uyuni, Bolivia and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Give Me More (Bolivia)!
Travelers usually move through Bolivia pretty quickly (like 2 weeks), though it is becoming more and more popular due to its landscapes and affordability. Some additional options are:
- Cochabamba: Considered the culinary capital of Bolivia. It is in the middle of La Paz and Sucre.
- Potozi: Known for it’s silver mine. It is in the middle of Sucre and Uyuni.
- Santa Cruz de la Sierra: The largest city in eastern Bolivia. It’s on the other side of the Andes, so you’ll need to fly there and back unless you love spending days on bumpy buses.
- San Pedro de Atacama – Moon Valley and star-gazing: Cross the border as part of the salt flats tour from Uyuni.
- Santiago – capital: 1.5 hour bus/van from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama, then fly to Santiago. You can take a 22+ hour bus, but domestic flights are very affordable. Think $10-20USD one way.
- Valparaiso: 2 hour bus from Santiago.
- Pucon – Volcano hike: 2 hour bus to Santiago. 9 hour overnight bus from Santiago to Pucon.
Give Me More (Chile)!
Easter Island is a bucket list destination for many people. While we recommend flying out of Santiago, it’s possible to find better deals elsewhere. Plan this part of your trip in advance to keep costs low. Visiting Easter Island is similar to visiting the Galapagos. Expect this to be one of the most expensive weeks of your trip.
Patagonia isn’t actually a country (even though we’ve broken it out as such). It’s a region of South America that is split between two countries: Chile and Argentina. Both countries are very long; and as they’re better combined at the bottom, we thought to split it up this way…
I had no idea what Patagonia actually was before I started this trip. I just told everyone that I wanted to go there. Patagonia is all of southern Chile AND southern Argentina. It is bound in the north by Puerto Montt, Chile and Bariloche, Argentina. Everything south of these towns, at least to my understanding, is Patagonia.
This route takes you on a U-path from west to east: starting in the Chilean part of Patagonia, hitting the end of the world in Ushuaia, Argentina, and then wrapping back up through the Argentine part of Patagonia.
- Puerto Montt / Puerto Varas, Chile – cute little towns: 4 hour bus from Pucon.
- Punta Arenas, Chile – penguins: Fly from Puerto Varas. It is too far to bus since there is no continuous route and the road is not well maintained. With a week’s notice, flights can be $15-25USD.
- Puerto Natales, Chile – Torres del Paine National Park: 3 hour bus from Punta Arenas.
- Ushuaia, Argentina – Tierra del Fuego National park: 3 hour bus from Puerto Natalas to Punta Arenas, then a 12 hour day bus from Punta Arenas.
- El Calafate, Argentina – Perito Moreno glacier: Fly from Ushuaia. Roughly $100USD per person. OR from Puerto Natalas, take a 6-7 hour bus to El Calafate.
- El Chalten, Argentina – Mount Fitz Roy: 4 hour bus from El Calafate.
- El Bolson, Argentina – hippy town with hikes: 21 hour bus from El Chalten. Yes, it’s a long way; but somehow, after many months of traveling, I promise it won’t seem that bad. If you must fly, you can return to El Calafate, fly to Bariloche, and skip El Bolson.
- Bariloche, Argentina – hikes and relaxation: 2 hour bus from El Bolson.
Give Me More (Patagonia)!
If you want to explore Patagonia even more, you’ll need a car! And MAKE SURE it’s a 4×4. Google a guide for the Carretera Austral in Chile or Route 40 in Argentina, but start with Chile.
- Mendoza – wine country: 20 hour bus from Bariloche.
- Cordoba – Argentina’s 2nd largest city & notably different from Buenos Aires : 10 hour overnight bus from Mendoza.
- Buenos Aires – capital & Paris of South America: 10 hour overnight bus from Cordoba.
- Iguazu Falls – Wonder of the World & border crossing to Brazil: fly from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina or take a 20 hour bus.
Give Me More!
From Buenos Aires, it’s a 2-3 hour ferry to Uruguay. Unfortunately, virtually every traveler we met didn’t like Uruguay; they said it was too expensive and not worth it. We took their advice and skipped it.
Salta is the second largest wine producing region in Argentina, and it also has some very colorful mountains (like Rainbow Mountain in Peru, but not as commercialized), and salt flats that rival Bolivia’s. While you can get around the region by bus, we recommend exploring by rental car. Getting to Salta is easy via a bus from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile or a flight from Buenos Aires.
People sometimes skip Brazil on their longterm South America trip. Probably because it’s so big and the native language is Portuguese. While you could spend six months in Brazil alone, we’ve boiled down the highlights.
- Florianopolis – beaches: 2 hour bus from Puerto Iguazu, Argentina to Foz do Iguacu, Brazil (including time for border crossing); then a 15 hour overnight bus from Foz do Iguacu.
- São Paolo – metropolis: 12 hour overnight bus.
- Paraty – colonial town & natural waterslide: 6 hour bus.
- Ilha Grande – secluded beaches: 5 hour bus + boat.
- Rio de Janiero – Carnival & hikes: 5 hour boat + bus.
Give Me More (Brazil)!
You can break up the long trip from Foz do Iguacu to Florianopolis with a stop in Curitiba. It’s a 10 hour overnight bus from Foz do Iguacu, and then a 5 hour bus to Florianopolis.
Ouro Preto & Belo Horizonte
Ouro Preto is a charming, colonial town in the Brazilian countryside. It is known for its gold mines (which you can tour!), ornate churches, and great, hearty food! (Whenever we asked Brazilians, which part of Brazil had the best food, they tended to name the region Ouro Preto is in named Minas Gerais!) Ouro Preto is about 2 hours outside of Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil’s largest cities. Chances are that if you’re going to Ouro Preto, you’ll stop in Belo Horizonte, and as with any big city, you’ll find plenty to do such as explore the outdoor Inhotim Museum!
Our South America trip did not include parts of Brazil further north than Salvador. We have heard from a couple travelers that there are many incredible, secluded beaches and off-the-beaten path adventures. If you want to add northern Brazil to your itinerary, look into the following:
- Salvador da Bahia (including nearby island of Morro de Sau Paulo) > Recife > Natal > Fortaleza > Jericoacoara
Uruguay To Brazil
You can also choose to enter Brazil through Uruguay (if you choose to go to Uruguay). You can bus along the coast of Uruguay, cross the border and start your Brazilian adventure in Porto Alegre. If you do this, do NOT skip Iguazu Falls. We recommend taking the 15 hour overnight bus from Florianopolis to Foz do Iguacu, and then a 12 hour overnight bus from Foz do Iguazu to São Paolo.
How To Plan a Yearlong Trip to South America: Questions
How Much Time Do You Need?
You would need at least 5 months for the base itinerary above, AT LEAST. However, running from country to country is exhausting, and traveling slowly allows you to spend extra time truly enjoying your favorite places. For a rough country by country slow travel timeline, we recommend the below:
- Colombia: 4 weeks (+ 2 weeks for the Caribbean coast)
- Peru: 4 weeks
- Bolivia: 2 weeks
- Chile: 4 weeks
- Argentina: 4 weeks
- Brazil: 4 weeks
When Should You Start Your Yearlong Trip to South America?
When you cross the equator from the northern to the southern hemisphere, the seasons flip. Summer in the southern hemisphere is November to February. It is very important to keep this in mind if you want to go to Patagonia, as the best time to go is between November and March. Aside from this, it’s useful to avoid the rainy season for any long hikes you do. For Machu Picchu and the Lost City trek, the rainy season is November to April, roughly.
If you are starting in Colombia, a good time to start your trip would be around July-August. If you are starting in Brazil, you can start in October.
Congrats on making it this far! You are infinitely more prepared than we were for our yearlong trip to South America!
There you have it, our guide on How To Plan a Yearlong Trip to South America. If you’re looking for more practical information on How to Prepare for a RTW trip, plus a 6 Month Checklist, click here! For our ideal South America Packing List, click here!
From us to you, happy adventuring!