One of Peru's must-see sights: The Sacred Valley. Photo: Getty Images
It might be the ultimate destination for backpackers. South America: a continent of adventure, of indigenous and colonial cultures, of great food, of football, of wine, of coffee, of beaches, of jungles, of music, dance and passion. And all of this comes to you at a bargain basement price, often with barely any other tourists to share it with.
There’s something about South America that makes it very easy to like. Maybe it’s the familiarity of Latin culture mixed with each area’s individual history. Maybe it’s the local people. Maybe it’s the cheap booze and the parties.
Whatever it is, South America should be top of any backpacker’s bucket list.
But how to approach this huge continent? It can be a little intimidating for first-time visitors, especially given the reputation for petty crime, gun crime and even kidnappings in some parts. These are mostly nothing to worry about – a bit of common sense will see you safely through most countries in South America.
Just don’t wear expensive jewellery when you’re there. Don’t call attention to yourself with flashy clothes. Don’t stick a wallet full of cash in your back pocket. Don’t walk down dark alleys at night.
That’s not to say bad things don’t happen in South America, and you could be unlucky, but those simple steps will at least prevent you from standing out in the tourist crowd.
But anyway, on to the good stuff. It’s your first time in South America: where do you go? How long do you go for?
Most people think of South America as something you’d only do in a big, sabbatical-from-work style of trip, although I’m not sure why. You’d go to California for two weeks – why not, say Argentina?
Don’t attempt to conquer the whole continent, a la the Spanish. Small parts of South America can easily be explored in shorter journeys – maybe choose one country, or even just part of one country, and really get under its skin. Choose a big, bucket-list attraction and then build yourself an itinerary around that.
South America used to be a prohibitively expensive place to fly over to, but with fares steadily decreasing lately, it makes shorter trips more accessible to budget travellers.
To get around once you’re over there, buses are your friend, particularly if you have time on your hands. While internal air travel is expensive and trains are rare, buses are cheap, often very comfortable and reliable, and will have you rubbing shoulders with the local population. Just take care at the bus stations at night.
Now, where to go. Interested in cities? Buenos Aires is a must. It’s one of the best cities in the world. Lima, too, is vastly underrated, with great food and arts scenes. Medellin, in Colombia, is bursting with life. Rio is… well, it’s Rio. You have to go.
What about ancient monuments and ruins? Obviously you’ll want to check out Machu Picchu. And it’s worth it. But my advice is to forgo the famous Inca Trail in favour of one of the other hikes around Cusco, in particular the Salkantay Trail, which will still bring you to the foot of those famous ruins, only via a much quieter and equally spectacular route.
Then there are the natural wonders – the salt flats at Uyuni in Bolivia, the Amazon jungle, the glaciers of Patagonia, the vastness of the Atacama Desert, the beauty of a Brazilian beach, the wonder of the Galapagos Islands.There are so many varying experiences you could have in South America, so many options for travel, but these are some of the must-dos: go to a football game, preferably at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires; walk through the old town of Cartagena; go out all night dancing – anywhere; climb a mountain; eat as much as you can, particularly in Lima, and BA, and Sao Paulo; and drink a pisco sour. In fact drink a lot of pisco sours.
Indulge in the South American highlights. Do the clichés. But don’t forget to investigate the hidden gems, places like the Lakes District of Chile, the ski town of Bariloche, Arequipa in Peru, Quito in Ecuador, and Paraty in Brazil.
Try to learn some Spanish before you arrive – it’ll make a world of difference. You’ll get by with English, but you won’t be able to have many conversations.
Do a tour if you’re nervous about travelling solo. The La Paz to Lima route, or Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, are perfect itineraries for first-time visitors looking to get a taste of the continent. There are plenty of companies to choose from: you can go from backpacker campers to five-star luxury. Get Googling.
Buy good travel insurance. Things go wrong in South America – stuff gets stolen, travel gets delayed, people fall off bikes, they get drunk and be silly. Prepare for the odd thing to go awry and you’ll be fine.
My best tip for South America, however, is to take it slow. Don’t rush around trying to fit everything in. This is a continent that’s best explored in the slow lane, enjoying the little things, letting places open themselves up to you.
You can afford the good life here. You can eat in top restaurants, you can drink wine at nice bars, spend mornings drinking coffee at little cafes. You can also hike amazing mountains or swim in the clearest seas. Give yourself time to appreciate it.
Because this really is the ultimate destination.
What are your tips for first-time travellers to South America? Do you think South America tops the backpacker’s bucket list?