Backpacking in this giant continent has never been easy. Knowing where to start or where to go can give you a headache as there are so many different territories to cover. No matter how much thought you have put into this, there is just no way to see it all. It’s impossible.
Nonetheless, there were some smart people who indeed have given it a lot of thought and came up with some fascinating routes.
We will be talking about the classic South America backpacking route: The Gringo Trail
Gringo is a commonly used term for foreigners in Spanish speaking countries (mostly in the Americas). Though is not used as a racist term or as an offence to anyone, it isn’t a compliment either. It’s mostly applied to a person who isn’t Hispanic or Latino, especially to Americans.
This route is a great way to discover what Western South America has to offer.
Starting in the north of South America, Colombia, you’ll cut through the breathtaking cloud forest of Ecuador, the ancient ruins of the Inca empire in Peru, an endless salt desert which mirrors the Bolivian sky and the moonscape of the Atacama Desert and glaciers of Patagonia in Chile and Southern Argentina, before ending in the buzzing metropolis called Buenos Aires.
But first let’s go by parts, as Jack the Ripper would say.
The country, which is famous for its stereotypes of having cocaine and the best cartels, actually has a lot of good stuff to offer. From Caribbean beaches and colonial towns to incredible nightlife. Your trip will be starting in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Especially because many international airlines use this city as an entry point to South America. Be sure to enjoy some of the food and experience the nightlife this place has to offer. Furthermore, don’t forget to visit cities like Ciudad Perdida (kind of a Machu Picchu without tourists), Cartagena (largest Caribbean port in Colombia) and Medellín, the city of Pablo Escobar. Even though you may have watched Narcos, it still has a lot to offer since it has undergone many changes in recent years to become a favourable destination for backpackers.
The next one on the list is quite different from Colombia. Even though it’s still developing as a tourist destination, it’s a great place to visit. Ecuador possesses diverse land environments like mountains and volcanoes from the Andes and a part of the Amazonian rainforest. On top of that, we have the cherry on the cake, The Galapagos Islands.
It’s important to notice this will be one of the most expensive parts of your trip, but still, it will be worthwhile to observe some unique wildlife in these volcanic islands.
You also have the capital with the highest altitude of the world which lies at 2.850m above the sea. But wait a second… isn’t La Paz the highest capital in the world? Even though La Paz lies 3.640m above the sea, it isn’t the official capital of Bolivia, which makes Quito technically the capital with the highest altitude! In addition, this city is the first cultural World Heritage site, making it very rich in culture. One can find diverse historical traces and heritages from Spaniards and Incas. Nonetheless, you will need a few days to get used to the altitude, but other than that there won’t be any difficulties. It’s going to be a tremendous experience.
You have to take into account that crossing the borders in South America may not be the safest thing to do on a cold night, as there are sometimes bandits who could take advantage of the situation. Just be careful as always.
Many people say Peru is the richest country in the world and we are not talking about monetary riches. This country invites us to discover that being rich isn’t about having the most, but about experiencing the most unforgettable moments.
One example is Lima, one of the most diverse cities in South America. Whether you are into history, art or cuisine, there is something for everyone here. Take advantage of this and try out some of their typical dishes. Some of them may even astonish you!
Apart from Lima, you have Cuzco, which is full of tourists, but don’t let that discourage you. As the oldest inhabited city in South America, it’s very rich with Inca and Colonial history and it probably has the biggest tourist attraction of the whole region: Machu Picchu.
Have you ever really been to Peru if you haven’t visited Machu Picchu? Probably not.
So definitely don’t pass up on this opportunity.
It’s impossible to talk about Peru without naming Bolivia, as both are similar in some aspects and they even share Lake Titicaca. Which reminds me of this old joke the Peruvians have. As they share the lake they have the “titi” and Bolivians the “caca”. Not the best joke, but you should get some laughs out of it.
Once you made your way into Bolivia you should start heading towards the sky. Exactly, you heard me right, towards the highest city in the world: La Paz.
This is a city which lies in the mountains and has an impressive landscape. Not only is the city surrounded by mountains, but every one of them has a different style. Making it a pleasure to watch.
Since you are here already what a better way to view all of La Paz than with the Cable Car System. Just hop inside an eight-person cabin and move between the city areas while enjoying the amazing sights of the city.
Next, from La Paz, we have the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. I personally advise you to go in March during the rain season as this makes the salt flat the world’s largest mirror. Definitely a breathtaking moment. Sooner or later you will need a transport vehicle for this place, so rent a 4×4 and explore this salt desert. Usually, tourists make creative pictures in this region, as everything is white and there is nothing in the background.
Furthermore, you can also visit the white city called Sucre and what was once the wealthiest city in the world, Potosi. The one which bankrolled the Spanish empire!
In this long, narrow country, there are so many amazing landscapes, it’s unbelievable! Starting with the Atacama Desert with an area over 105,000 km² you have one of the driest places in the world. Legend says the Atacama went once 400 years without rain. Once you pass through this desert you keep on heading South where you’ll find some beautiful cities with rich architecture like Valparaiso and Santiago de Chile (capital). Possessing more than 40% of the country’s population, Santiago de Chile is the biggest and most important city in Chile.
Journing in this place can be extremely time-consuming as it is one of the longest countries in the world, second only to Brazil (from north to south, of course!).
Before leaving Chile and getting to our last stop, Argentina, you must pass through a sparsely populated region called Patagonia. There is enough stuff to do in this place shared by Argentina and Chile. Kayaking and horse-riding before camping under the stars are such a delightful experience.
After travelling south for these past months, we finally arrive in Argentina. Where exactly? Ushuaia. The southernmost city in the world, also known as “End of The World”. Take a cruise on the Beagle channel to see some penguins or even sea lions.
From there you can head back to the capital, Buenos Aires, either taking a flight (could be expensive) or take the bus (which is very long). It’s up to you to choose what to do.
Arriving in this incredible city makes it the perfect end to an exciting and demanding journey.
One could easily stay here for weeks trying out some of their famous “asados” (barbecues) and learning the tango.
Actually, I could keep on and on about the wonderful sights and experiences you can have in South America. This trail covers a lot of things but there are some countries which are left out like Uruguay and Brazil. As I mentioned at the start it’s impossible to cover this whole territory. Still, one could take several trips and see the rest of this marvellous continent.
Drink it in. Be adventurous, be bold, but savour it. It goes fast.
Are you looking for other tips on how to travel on a student budget? Check out our blog post about it.
Mark is a Business student and currently a member of our Intern team! Mark has three different nationalities, he lived in a lot of places (New York, La Paz, Mexico City, to name a few) and he’s now in Amsterdam to help other students excel at their studies!