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January – March 2018, South America
South America in 2.5 months ? Yes, we did it! 🙂 If you are considering long term travel, this article has everything you have to know to do it yourself.
- 2.5 months
- 35 000 km
- 5 South American countries
- 2 European countries
- 7 flights
- 3 long distance buses, 24-hours each
- 6 long distance buses, 10-hours each
- 3 days offroad
- 23 times re-packing bags
- Max. altitude 5000 meters
Week 1: Rio de Janeiro + Foz do Iguaçu – Brazil & Cataratas de Iguazu – Argentina
Landing in Rio’s crazy hot humid world, after a rough winter at home, strikes you really bad. Give it some days, it will grow on you.
After all the hustle and bustle exploring its rocky peaks, we end up like locals, drinking caipirinhas at the beach.
At the end of week 1 on the South American continent, we reach the incredible Iguazu Falls. Now this is what we call a proper border crossing. Hello, Argentina!
Week 2: Buenos Aires, Argentina
And just when we’re starting to miss the European architecture, Buenos Aires pops up. Tango and footbal vibes bring people together on the streets, as a celebration of everyday life.
Week 3: El Calafate – Los Glaciares National park – El Chalten – Bariloche, Argentina
5 flights to get to El Calafate and a 26-hour bus later to move up north, have finally paid off. We are literally face to face with the blue glacier Perito Moreno, part of the third largest ice cap in the world.
Patagonia, we’ve been waiting for you all our lives!
Week 4: Santiago – Valparaiso – Viña del Mar – San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
One 20-hours bus and another 24-hours bus later…
We move from skyscrappers surrounded by the Andes, to the street art of Valparaiso and bohemian Viña del Mar embraced by the Pacific ocean, to the driest place on Earth: the desert of Atacama. We will miss you, Chile!
Week 5: National Reserve Eduardo Avaroa – Uyuni – La Paz, Bolivia
Getting to 5000 meters is tough. Every couple of steps feel like a marathon. Spending the night at 4500 meters without any heat source is…something we will never forget. The whole body struggles with the lack of oxygen.
But after all the effort, here comes the reward. We’re standing on 12 000 square kilometers of flooded Salt Flats. Hello, Bolivia! (we’re fine, by the way :))
Week 6: La Paz – Copacabana – Titicaca Lake – Isla del Sol – Puno
After being stuck in La Paz for too long, we’re on our way again, heading to the ancient capital of the Incas, Cusco. But not until reaching the highest navigable lake in the world, Titicaca!
Funny thing is, after such a long acclimatization in Bolivia, the 4000 meters of altitude feel like piece of cake now! 🙂
Week 7: Cusco – Machu Picchu, Peru
After 7 weeks on the road, we finally set foot in Cusco, the eternal stone city, historic capital of the Inca empire.
And if the ancient perfectly designed temples are not proof enough of a magnificent civilisation, make your way to the architectural masterpiece, never discovered by the conquistadors, Machu Picchu.
Words are useless. THE dream has come true.
Week 8: Arequipa – Colca Canyon, Peru
The second we are walking above one of the world’s deepest canyons ( max. depth 4160 m) and see a majestic condor flying over our heads, is something we will never forget. These amazing birds have up to 3 meters wingspan, 15 kg and 50 years life expectancy. Wow moment. 😀
Week 9: Nazca – Huacachina – Paracas, Peru
First we stumble upon 2000 years old geoglyphs on the grounds of Nazca. How they kept the perfect proportions on such a huge surface, we will never know.
Then we really end up in the desert. After some hours of dune buggy with a mad driver, with all our internal organs twisted like hell, we just fall like vegetables on the hot sand. End the day by watching the sunset over the serene oasis of Huacachina.
A few days later the Pacific ocean comes into sight. Thousands of birds, dolphins, penguins and sea lions are having a good life around the Ballestas islands. And here we are, enjoying the best time of our lives.
Week 10: Lima, Peru
Lima welcomes us with a little bit of everything: colonial architecture, top rate peruvian cuisine, delicious pisco drinks, evenings spent on the Pacific coast watching surreal sunsets.
The truth is, you never know what you are capable of, until you challenge yourself. We have never imagined to live such an incredible experience in South America.
A word of advice for whatever you dream of? Life is a rollercoaster…just take the ride!
We’ve put together for you everything there is to know about long term traveling to South America, budget included. That’s because we have read hundreds of travel blogs, watched tens of documentaries and basically spent 6 months only getting ready for this crazy adventure. I only wish you can find everything here, with less effort than our research involved.
So, if you have any questions, or we missed anything of high importance, please shoot!
What to pack for long term traveling
- Backpack: 30 L, 48x29x26 cm. Two backpacks were our only companions for the whole trip duration. Everything you find below fits inside, making a total of 8 kg each(!). The trick is that most of the time, especially between cities, we traveled with the heavy clothes on us.
- Footwear: 1 pair trekking shoes, 1 pair footwear for moderate walking, 1 pair flip-flops
- Clothes: 10 T-shirts, 1 trekking long pants, 2-3 trekking shorts, polar jacket, lightweight waterproof jacket
- Underwear&socks: 10 pieces each
- Plastic water bottle for hiking + water filter supply
- Sunglasses for hiking/mountaineering
- Towel (small size)
- Medicine: pain&fever relief ibuprofen based pills, stomach problems pills, motion sickness pills, anti-inflammatory gel, anti-allergic reaction pills, anti-infection antibiotics, iodine-based skin antiseptic, insect repellant
- Cosmetic products: deodorant, toothpaste + toothbrush, sunscreen (travel dimension <100 ml)
- Electronics: phone, OTG cable, USB stick, earphones, compact camera, Kindle, external power bank, flashlight
Do not worry about the minimal luggage. There are laundries in every major city. You can also throw away some items and buy new clothes, underwear, cosmetics on the spot and replace the old ones. You are not going to another planet! 🙂
- Check for which countries you need Visa in advance(!)
- For us (Romania, Europe), the only trouble was with Bolivia. Bolivian laws divide the countries in 3 groups and each has specific visa requirements. Romania is in group II, which means applying in advance for free at any Bolivian Consulate (we went to the Bolivian Consulate in Buenos Aires, it was on our way)
- Prepare in advance (hard copy and electronic version):
passport, 2” x 2” passport-type photo, yellow fever vaccination certificate, bank statement, travel itinerary (we printed a map with our itinerary), proof of stay in Bolivia (we booked a refundable night in a hostel in La Paz, got the email confirmation, then cancelled it), proof of entering Bolivia (we copied the information of a private tour Atacama – Uyuni, without purchasing anything in advance), proof of leaving Bolivia (we copied the information of a bus company with the La Paz – Titicaca – Copacabana – Puno route, without purchasing anything in advance)
- With everything stated above, go the the following site and register your application here:
- At the end of the online process, you will get a Statement for Visa Application. With this printed Statement and the hard copies of everything you prepared, you will go to the Consulate. At the Bolivian Consulate in Buenos Aires, we got out with the Visa after 40 minutes
- You can do all the preparation before your departure, so that when you arrive to the Consulate you have all your papers ready
You have to make an appointment with an epidemiologist, at least six weeks in advance. Here are the vaccines we took (better safe than sorry):
- Yellow Fever – mandatory
- Diphtheria/Tetanus/Poliomyelitis – optional
- Typhoid fever – optional
- Hepatitis A+B – optional
- Cards: Visa/Mastercard
- USD cash
- Medical kit
- Medical insurance
- Vaccination proof
- Save embassy contact info, for each country you will cross
- Visa documents, if you need Visa obtained in advance
- All documents’ copies: hard copy and online copy – email/USB/google.docs
Make sure your phone is not locked in your home network. We had an unpleasant surprise right after landing on the airport in Rio de Janeiro.
Wi-Fi is really good in all countries we crossed: you will have Wi-Fi at your hotel and most probably in most restaurants/cafes. That’s why we quickly got over the panic of not being ‘connected’ and did not buy any local SIM. Besides, google.maps and maps.me apps work with maps saved on your phone and GPS signal only. And for walking inside a city, there’s also the good old colorful paper map, you will get for free at most hotels.
A thing we learned, is not to buy SIMs inside the airports! The price is like 10 times higher than inside the city. If you really need internet connectivity all the time, you will have to buy local prepaid SIMs in each country. They are valid for a certain number of days, get activated via sms/call to a specific number/local service centers, and you have to recharge them at local shops.
We had 2 Visa debit cards with us. Both worked in most ATM withdrawals and all POS & online payments. What you should know, is that Argentina applies an ATM withdrawal fee of 10-15%, and Chile the equivalent of ~7 USD for any amount withdrawn. So make sure you always have USD cash with you.
In some countries an extra VAT amount is added to the shown accomodation price. You are exempted from VAT if, as a foreigner, show your passport with the entry stamp and you pay with a card issued in a foreign country. Otherwise, if you want to pay cash, 21% (Argentina) or 19% (Chile) will be added to the standard accomodation price.
If you want to escape a rough winter in Europe, heading to South America in January is a good choice.
We started in January in Brazil, went south to Argentina/Patagonia, then moved up north through Chile, just in time for summer in the southern hemisphere (from December to March).
Even if we ended up in Bolivia at the beginning of March, and in Peru at the end of March, during their rainy season, it wasn’t that bad as expected. Just a few drops of rain and warm temperatures of ~15 °C during daytime were perfect for exploring. If you want to see the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia really dry, or want to trek to Machu Picchu, you should arrive in Bolivia and Peru at least at the beginning of the dry season (starts from late April, lasting until early November).
Where to book
We only had the flights booked, until reaching Patagonia. No return flight to Europe. We started looking for return flights 1 month before coming back, but really purchased them 2 weeks in advance. I’m sure you already know about: momondo, skyscanner, kiwi platforms for checking best price combinations.
- Long distance buses
In the first morning in a new town, we always went to the bus terminal to see what company goes to the next city. We usually bought the bus tickets 3-4 days in advance. Do not worry, long-distance buses have cama or semi-cama seats, which bend like 130/160 degrees to the back so you can easily sleep. There is also a toilet inside, air conditioning and TV screens for movie watching.
We had the first 3 weeks booked in advance before our departure, until reaching Patagonia. Even in high-season, finding a place for the night on the spot is actually easier than sounds like. Either we used booking.com, hostelworld.com, we usually ended up booking accommodation 1 day before our arrival and found plenty of options. If you feel more adventurous, you can look for a room when you arrive in town. We did that once.
- Local transportation
We used all local transportation with no problems: bus, metro, shuttle, funicular, teleferic. Both Uber and taxi felt safe. Make sure the taxi has a company logo and phone numbers displayed on the car. If you’re leaving from the hotel, ask the staff to order one and ask for estimated price before stepping inside.
- Local tours
As the title suggests, we strongly recommend to buy tours after you arrive in town. Most of the times the hotel/hostel staff already know the best companies for specific tours, you can even get a discount that way. We did not buy anything in advance. Booking on spot, 1-2 days before, is definitely cheaper than booking online. Besides, you don’t know for sure when you’ll reach the next city, right?
Here’s some good source of inspiration for traveling South America, that we found very useful for our research. Thank you, guys!
Travel Independent – advice, info and summaries for South American countries
Exploring Kiwis – 6 months of adventures in South America
Riding Around the Globe – useful travel tips traveling South America
Tales From the Lens – great insights of traveling for 9 months in South America
Something of Freedom – awesome visiting guides for South America
German Backpacker – stay safe in South America
sLOVEnians Travel – 1 year round the world trip
Two Scots Abroad – 18 months career break to travel the Americas and Europe
Into Foreign Lands – outdoor adventures in Peru
Indie Traveller – cost of traveling on a budget in South America
Nomadic Matt – things to see and do, costs, travel tips and excellent guides for backpacking around the world
This was the most sensitive and ambiguous topic which gave us headaches when doing the research. So…the BIG question…how much??
There are so many differences in each person’s travel style, that’s almost impossible to put a generic number on it.
The huge discrepancies come from: transportation (flight or bus), the type of food you eat (supermarket/restaurant/street food, how many times a day), accommodation (hostel/hotel, private room/bunk-bed), and how much you are willing to spend for local tours.
On top of that, the duration of your travels will definitely influence the average cost per day. Why? Well, let’s say that 3-4 months are enough to cross the whole continent, but you will spend ~3 days in each city. Imagine you will want to visit everything in the first days in a new place. On the contrary, if you spend 6 to 12 months, you will end up living like a local in some places, which means lower costs.
The third factor is the country itself. Argentina and Chile are more expensive. Brazil, Peru and especially Bolivia are at the opposite end.
After hours of calculations, my conclusion is that, if you are a couple traveling South America for about 3 months and cross the 5 mentioned countries (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru), a rule of thumb would be to budget ~1000 USD per week, for 2 persons.
If you stick to one place for a long time and start cooking your own food, don’t spend anymore on local tours and long distance transportation, you will probably cut down your costs by half (~500 USD/week/2 persons). Our costs dropped significantly after more than 1 week in the same city.
Add to that the cost of flying from and back to Europe, ~700 USD/flight/person, and that’s your budget!
Here’s the split of our spendings (without flight from and back to Europe, only costs in South America). But remember, this is for accomodation in hotel/hostel private room, eating out 1 time per day, and traveling with long-distance buses. We stayed on average 3.5 days in each town and wanted to see everything. So we did not go cheap in terms of visiting the surroundings and taking local tours. 🙂
Costs (South America only)
- Accommodation on average (31% of S.A. costs):
~55 USD/night/double room (ranging from 30-40 USD/night in small towns of Bolivia/Peru, 50-60 USD/night in big cities in Brazil/Argentina/Peru, to 70-80 USD/night in the Patagonian region of Argentina and in Chile)
- Flights & Long distance buses (30% of S.A. costs):
Rio de Janeiro – Foz do Iguacu: LATAM Airlines, 150 USD/pers
Puerto Iguazu – Buenos Aires: LATAM Airlines, 150 USD/pers
Buenos Aires – El Calafate: LATAM Airlines, 170 USD/pers
El Calafate – San Carlos de Bariloche: TAQSA MARGA bus, 26 h, 130 USD/pers
San Carlos de Bariloche – Santiago: ANDESMAR CHILE bus, 20 h, 60 USD/pers
Santiago – San Pedro de Atacama: TURBUS bus, 24 h, 100 USD/pers
San Pedro de Atacama – Uyuni: ESTRELLA DEL SUR, 3 days offroad, 200 USD/pers
Uyuni – La Paz: TODO TURISMO bus, 10 h, 37 USD/pers
La Paz – Copacabana – Puno – Cusco – Arequipa – Huacachina – Paracas – Lima: PERU HOP, hop-on-hop-off bus ticket valid for 1 year, 200 USD/pers
- Food (19% of S.A. costs):
In January 2018 we booked one-way tickets, took our backpacks and left cozy old Europe, for (hopefully) the greatest adventure of our lives: South America. If you like our story, don’t forget to spread the word! 🙂
Happy travels and stay safe!
Anita & Geo, World travellers