1. When Is THe Best Time To Visit SOuth America?
South America is a big place with a variety of landscapes and micro-climates, from misty cloud forests in Ecuador to low lying deserts in Peru.
Due to such variety, there isn’t one specific month that’s optimal for visiting. However, the best time to visit in general is between May-October where most of the countries have their dry seasons.
Here are some key countries and seasons you need to know about in South America:
- Colombia – slightly different to the rest of South America. Summer in Dec-March and then again in July and August
- Brazil – Dec to March for the summer temperatures. Try to avoid the rainy season in places like Colombia and Brazil as they experience more sudden tropical downpours that can last throughout the afternoon.
- Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – May-October are the best months as these are the dry seasons. I would say as a good rule of thumb, trekking in the Andes (Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) will always be better and safer in summer as there’s less rain and the trails will be less muddy.
- Chile and Argentina – sunny days and ideal temperatures most of the year, especially from November-March.
- Patagonia – the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. Visiting Patagonia year-round is do-able but the summer months (Dec-Feb) are most popular due to the hotter weather. However, the shoulder seasons (September-November and March-April) are also great to avoid the big crowds. Winter months are June-August which are ideal for skiing
To download this chart in a handy infographic, head to the link below:
2. What's The Best Travel Route Through South America?
The best South America travel route is one that follows the summer weather and goes through consecutive countries i.e. ones that are next to each other.
The best route through South America is one like this:
High Season / Summer
High Season / Summer
High Season / Summer
High Season / Summer
Shoulder Season / Spring
High Season / Summer
High Season / Summer
Obviously, this route is only possible for those of you with the ability to travel long term. For short term trips, do your research and try to visit countries during shoulder or peak seasons.
A shortened travel route that still gets the best weather through South America looks like this:
- August – Colombia/Ecuador
- September – Peru/Bolivia
- October – Chile and Argentina
- November – Brazil
However, don’t let this put you off planning a trip outside of these months. I spent time in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from October to January which is considered ‘winter’ which just means rainy reason. But I rarely experienced bad weather that ruined my trip.
Some forward planning always helps though. Ending up in a country during rainy season can have an impact on your trip as you might not be able to do certain tours due to the weather conditions.
For example, February is the wettest month in Bolivia and this may affect Salt Flat tours as some parts of the desert become flooded and inaccessible.
3. How Many Months Do You Need To See South America?
You need 6 months as a bare minimum to see the most popular countries in South America – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.
This is a huge continent, so just accept won’t be able to see every country. It took me 6 months and I still didn’t get to see much of Brazil or Argentina.
Don’t let that put you off though. You can easily see 2-3 countries in month with a well planned itinerary.
One of the most popular itineraries on this website is the month-long one. I’ve outlined 4 options in the post, but the favourite is the first on the list that covers Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and takes you from Cotopaxi Volcano to Machu Picchu to the Salt Flats, all within the space of 4 weeks.
The breakdown of the itinerary looks like this:
- Day 1-3 – Ecuador – Quito
- Day 4-5 – Ecuador – Cotopaxi National Park
- Day 6-8 – Ecuador – Banos
- Day 9 – Ecuador – Guayaquil
- Day 10-11 – Peru – Lima
- Day 12-13 – Peru – Paracas National Park
- Day 14-15 – Peru – Huacachina Oasis
- Day 16-20 – Peru – Cusco and Machu Picchu
- Day 21-23 – Bolivia – La Paz
- Day 24-26 – Bolivia – Amazon Tour
- Day 27 – 30 – Bolivia – Uyuni / Salt Flats Tour
- Day 31 – Bolivia – Fly out from La Paz, Bolivia
If you would like this 1-month itinerary in an easy-to-read, downloadable, PDF format, just pop your email in the form below to subscribe to our mailing list:
4. WHat Should I Pack For South America?
You need to pack for summer and winter when visiting South America due to the variety of micro-climates.
With the Andes going through seven countries, one day you can be enjoying warm weather and sunny skies at sea level, and the next, you’ll be cold and wet in a high-altitude mountain town.
You’ll need shorts, sandals and vests for when you’re at the beach and then base layers, hiking boots, a thermal jumper and a waterproof windbreaker for when you’re in the mountains.
For the full packing list, head to the post below:
- The Ultimate Packing List For South America
5. What Should I Wear Hiking In South America?
South America is a trekking playground, and it has several of the top treks in the world, most notably the Salkantay Trek in Peru.
Don’t be an idiot like I was and go out with just a pair of trainers. After a week in Ecuador, and having completed two treks in trainers, I realised I had made a huge mistake.
Get yourself a solid pair of waterproof hiking shoes or boots.
I would recommend boots over shoes for a couple of reasons. There were several times I stepped in a huge puddle and didn’t notice. If that had been hiking shoes, my socks would have been soaked.
I also prefer the extra ankle support of a boot and felt that the ankle high boots gave me the support I need. There were zero ankles rolled over my 6-month trip.
Here is a brief list of items for South America that you’ll need for trekking in South America:
- Trekking boots – fully waterproof and ankle high are essential for trekking in the Andes. I went into my local Mountain Warehouse and picked up a pair of these and they haven’t let me down since.
- Winter fleece – a fleece is lightweight but warm, perfect for whipping on and off when trekking to regulate your temperature. Great in the evenings as well when it’s much colder. I go with R1 Daily Zip-Neck from Patagonia
- Waterproof windbreaker – much needed when trekking in the Andes to deal with the biting winds and rapidly changing weather. I like to use the Patagonia TorrentShell 3L. Its lightweight, warm and packable. The jacket self-stuffs into one of the handwarmer pockets with carabiner clip-in loop
- Waterproof hiking trousers or shorts – on my first trip to South America I just wore shorts. This wasn’t the worst decision in the world, but I did get rained on a couple of times. I hiked with a few people who had waterproof trousers and the legs would come off. This is perfect as the flexibility is key to adapt to the constantly changing conditions and temperatures. The TorrentShell pants go perfectly with the windbreaker.
- Hiking Socks – a few pairs of sturdy merino wool socks that don’t rub. There’s nothing worse than getting a blister whilst hiking. If you are from the UK, try these on Amazon.
6. Should I Learn Spanish Before I Go To South America?
Yes, you should 100% learn basic Spanish before you travel South America.
South America is home to 9 Spanish speaking countries, with Brazil being the only one that speaks Portuguese. This means learning a little Spanish before you go can go a long way, especially as many of the locals don’t speak English.
As a bare minimum, I would recommend picking up some basic vocabulary like numbers and some simple phrases.
The official levels outlined by Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CERF) are used around the world to designate language proficiency.
After completion of the first beginner level (A1), a person can “Understand and use very basic expressions to satisfy concrete needs. Introduce themselves and ask other questions about personal details. Interact simply if the other person speaks slowly and clearly.”
On Duolingo, you can complete this in 1-2 months if you are consistent.
In big cities, you’ll be fine and most of the staff in hostels and tour companies will speak English. However, once you get to border towns and places off the beaten track, you’ll need to know some Spanish to help you get by.
Knowing basic Spanish also means you are less likely to be taken advantage of as you look like less of a tourist. I would always ask cab drivers how much a ride would cost and then having a brief chat with them in the cab.
As a bonus, it’s also fun being able to speak to locals and they will always appreciate the effort put in. You’ll have a much more authentic experience if you can interact and involve yourself with the local community as much as possible.
Here are some basic phrases to learn that can make your trip that much easier:
- ¿Dónde está … el baño? – Where is the bathroom?
- Useful when you need to find restroom facilities. Use ‘donde esta’ to ask for anything you need to find like a pharmacy or a bank
- ¿Cuál es el plato/menu del día? – What is the dish of the day?
- Helpful when dining at local restaurants to ask about daily specials. The menu of the day is often a set meal for $2-3 and great for eating on a budget
- Me gustaría una cerveza, por favor. – I would like a beer, please.
- Use this as a polite way of ordering a drink in a bar or restaurant.
- ¿Puedes ayudarme? – Can you help me?
- A polite way to ask for help
- ¿Cómo llego a…? – How do I get to…?
- Useful when seeking directions to a specific place.
- ¿Qué recomiendas para comer aquí? – What do you recommend to eat here?
- A great question to ask for food recommendations from locals.
- ¿Cuánto cuesta el tour/excursión? – How much does the tour/excursion cost?
- Handy when inquiring about the price of guided tours or activities.Use ‘cuanto cuesta’ to ask how many anything is. Especially useful before getting into cabs to agree on a price.
A simple pocket-sized phrasebook like this one can be a lifesaver at times.
I took this with me on my first trip and used it in many situations during my first few weeks in South America before eventually signing up to a language school.
7. Should I Take A Backpack Or A Suitcase To South America?
The answer is neither, take a hybrid backpack that has wheels to South America.
I spent 6 months travelling South America and took with me an eagle creek 85L wheeled backpack.
I never once had to wear it on my back. The only time it was a little annoying was in towns like Cusco that had narrow pavements and cobbled streets.
Why not just take a wheeled suitcase? Several reasons:
- The shape and structure of a wheeled backpack is much more suitable to hostels. The long and narrow bag can be stood up or laid flat and hardly takes up any room.
- Backpacks also fit into lockers easier compared to a suitcase and can be locked away and kept safe underneath your bed.
- It can be put on your back if needed. Best of both worlds.
Here’s a quick comparison of the advantages of a suitcase vs a backpack vs a hybrid:
For the full breakdown comparison between backpacks, suitcases and hybrids, along with my suggestions for the best options in each category, head to the post below:
- Suitcase vs Backpack: Which One For South America?
8. What Size Backpack Should I Take To South America?
The size of the backpack you should take to South America depends on several factors, including the duration of your trip, the countries you plan to visit, and the activities you intend to undertake.
Here are some backpack size recommendations for specific countries in South America:
|Country||Gear||Backpack Size (L)||Day Pack Size (L)|
Colombia / Brazil
Warm weather clothes, trousers and a jumper for the rare cold evenings
Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia
Warm weather clothes, cold weather clothes and hiking gear
Argentina / Chile
Warm weather clothes, cold weather clothes. Hiking gear for multi-day treks
As mentioned, I took an 85L wheeled hybrid backpack along with a 30L daypack on my extended trip to South America. However, I also had camera equipment that took up at least 20L in my bag.
Therefore, I would recommend taking between 60-70L for your backpack and 30-40L for a day pack when travelling South America.
My current combo is:
- Osprey 80L Hybrid
- Tortuga 40L Backpack
Watch the video below to see why the Tortuga 40L is one of the best day packs around:
9. What's The Best Way TO Deal With Altitude In South America?
Dealing with altitude in South America is an issue for many people. Some have to deal with a constant headache or nausea whilst others feel exhausted and are unable to do much for a day or two.
Here are some useful tips for dealing with altitude in South America:
- Take your first days slowly – When arriving somewhere with a high altitude (let’s take Quito for example at 2800m), take a couple of days to acclimatise. Don’t plan any strenuous activities and see how you feel. Get lots of sleep and stay rested.
- Food – stay hydrated and well fed, and eat lots of bananas – potassium helps.
- Medication – you can buy coca leaves from local markets. The locals chew on them to help with altitude sickness. If you’re still struggling head to a pharmacy and buy altitude sickness pills such as Acetazolamide (sold under the name of Diamox).
- Build up – if you can, plan your trip in a way so that you start at lower elevations and build up slowly, adjusting a little each time.
Take Peru for example. You’ll arrive in Lima and travel down the coast to Paracas, enjoying sea level altitude for a week. Then when you reach Arequipa, you’ll need to acclimatise to 2300m. If all is good here, Cusco is the next stop.
You’re now at 3400m in Cusco. Take the first couple of days easy and don’t do any strenuous activities. If you’re fine walking around then great, you should be fine everywhere else. After some time in Cusco, why not go even higher – 4500m on the Salkantay trek or 5200m at Rainbow Mountain!
10. What's The Best Way TO get Around South America?
The best way to get around South America if you’re on a budget is by bus.
Buses are cheap and the services are good quality. Some of the distances are long which require an overnight bus but I always found these comfortable and easy to sleep on.
I would use Busbud to find the best prices and times. However, you don’t always need to book online. For most places in South America, you can simply go to the bus station the day of your departure and hop on the next bus.
You can also take buses across the border. From Cusco to Copacabana, you can take an overnight bus that takes 9 hours.
Here is a list of best and safest bus companies to use in each country that are reputable:
- Colombia – Rapido Ochoa. However, I would personally get internal flights. They are cheap and quick whereas the bus journeys in Colombia are 10-12 hours long at a minimum. The topography of Colombia is rough too meaning the roads are bumpy and curvy, making for an unenjoyable ride.
- Ecuador – unfortunately Ecuador doesn’t have an establish company that covers the country, so you’ll just have to use local buses. Don’t worry though, I spent a month in Ecuador and never had an issue on the local buses.
- Peru – Cruz Del Sur or Peru Bus
- Bolivia – Trans Copacabana
- Chile, Argentina, and Brazil – take internal flights. These countries are so big that the journey times mean a bus is never worth the hassle. The buses are almost as expensive as the flights as well.
If you are doing an extended trip through South America, then there will be times you’ll need to fly. Luckily flights won’t break the bank. I flew from Guayaquil (in Ecuador) to Lima in Peru for under $100.
A secret hack is to go and book flights in person at travel agencies in South America. You’ll get them much cheaper compared to using sights like Skyscanner.
Alternatively, there are companies like Way Away which are rewarding customers for booking flights with them. I have been using them for my most recent trip to South America and I’ve received loads of cashback already.
If you sign up to the Way Away Plus program, you’ll get flights 5% cheaper and up to 10% cashback on hotels and other bookings.
Use the code SWGH10 to get 10% off when you sign up to the plus program.
11. Should I Use Cash Or Card In South America?
You’ll be using cash most of the time in South America.
Card machines and payments only exist in the big cities and even then, they don’t always work with a foreign card. You’ll be paying in cash for most things like transport, food, and activities.
In terms of having cash on you, never carry too much cash at one time. Petty theft is still an issue in many places in South America.
My system whilst travelling South America would be to take out my weekly budget ($300) from a cash machine. I would then store it in my travel wallet (which is safely locked in my bag inside a locker in my hostel).
I would then take out my daily budget of around $50 a day.
12. What's The BeSt Debit Card To Use In South America?
If you are from the UK, I would recommend getting a Monzo card before travelling to South America. It allows you to pay for things anywhere, in any currency, without a fee.
If you upgrade to the Monzo Plus which costs £5 a month, you get fee-free withdrawals abroad. Up to £400 free every 30 days. If you upgrade to Monzo Premium, for £15 a month, you get all these features, discount on airport lounges and worldwide travel insurance included. Not a bad deal.
In the USA, one of the best currency cards for South America is Revolut as they don’t charge you fees for withdrawing cash in a foreign currency.
13. What's The Food Like In South America?
I personally love the food in South America, especially Peruvian food. Ceviche is one of my favourite dishes.
Each country will have its own cuisine and popular dishes and I recommend you get out of your comfort zone and try them.
Here are a few to try:
- Argentina – Choripan, Asado and Alfajores
- Peru – Ceviche, Lomo Saltado
- Ecuador – Bolon de Verde, Encebollado
- Chile – Pastel De Choclo, Cazuela
- Brazil – Coxinha, Feijoada
- Colombia – Bandeja Paisa
The ultimate budget hack when travelling South America is to look for restaurants offering ‘menu del dia’. They aren’t hard to find, and you’ll notice locals populating these restaurants.
The ‘menu del dia’ is a set menu that usually consists of a main meal such as rice and meat, a side dish such as a soup, and a drink.
They cost between $3-5 depending on the country you are in.
Markets stalls will also offer a set menu. This is a filling meal that will help you stick to a budget. I would have free breakfast at the hostel, find a ‘menu del dia’ in the local market for lunch and then usually treat myself to a restaurant meal in the evenings.
14. Do I Need Vaccinations For South America?
You’ll need a few vaccinations before you travel to South America. Some you may have had as a child though.
I’m from the UK and got all my vaccinations free with the NHS. Sorry Americans, I don’t know how it works in your country!
For UK citizens, the best thing to do is speak to your local GP and tell them your travel plans. They will have records of your vaccinations and then tell you which ones you need.
The likely vaccinations you’ll need before you travel to South America are:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Japanese Encephalitis – this is caught from mosquitos. Essential if you are visiting in the Amazon, tropical climates or places during rainy season.
- Yellow Fever – some countries in South America will require proof of your yellow fever vaccination before entering.
The rabies vaccine is optional. In the UK, you can’t get it free on the NHS and you’ll have to pay for it. It’s given in 3 does over 28 days so make sure you plan accordingly.
15. What Are The Hostels Like In South America?
There are some top-quality hostels in South America, and I was impressed by what was on offer.
Aside from some great stand-alone hostels like Milhouse in Buenos Aires you also have chains running in some countries for consistency.
They are also cheap, and you can expect to pay anywhere between $6-12 a night for a dorm room.
In Ecuador, Secret Garden and Community Hostels are great. Peru has Wild Rover, Loki and Kokopelli. The latter being my favourite due to the high-quality dorm rooms.
Bolivia doesn’t have many hostel chains but several well-run individual hostels. My favourite is The Nest in La Paz. Chile and Argentina are much more built-up countries and have a variety of hostels suitable for budget backpackers and flashpackers.
For the full list of my favourite hostels in South America, head to the post below:
16. Is South America Safe?
Safety is a big concern for travellers heading to South America. During my time there I was never robbed in person, however I have heard stories of people getting robbed from other travellers.
If you stick to crowded areas and don’t go out alone at night to random parts of the city, the likelihood of you getting into trouble is low.
We met several people who had their phones stolen from their pockets during Carnival in Brazil. Try to use a sling or fanny pack where possible.
The one time we had our stuff stolen was in a hostel in Chile. We put our laptops in a storage locker and left some smaller items in our backpack which was left out in the dorm thinking it would be fine. We came back from dinner and didn’t realise until a day later that someone had taken some of our smaller electronic items. Always lock up your backpack in your locker whilst staying in dorms.
Most small scams come from taxi drivers so it’s always good to be aware. Always make sure they turn the meter on before driving off.
In some places, you’ll find taxis that don’t have meters. If this is the case, always agree on a price first. Before getting in, ask ‘cuanto cuesta’ which means how much. Agree on a price beforehand otherwise you will get stung when they drop you off or end up in an argument.
Cuppa To Coppa Travels has a great blog on the top scams to watch out for in South America:
17. Do I Need Travel Insurance Before I Go To South America?
Getting travel insurance is a must before travelling to South America.
The two things you need to protect, when travelling to any foreign country not just South America, are yourself and your gear.
The two things that are most likely to happen to you are:
- you get sick or hurt
- your stuff breaks or gets stolen.
Over a long enough period, one or the other will happen.
During our time in South America, we were very lucky to not have anything disastrous happen, but both of these things happened to us. One of us got bitten by a dog on a trek and had to get rabies jabs. This cost around $200 which was paid back by the travel insurance company.
We also had some small items stollen from our bags whilst staying at a hostel. All we had to do was visit the police station, file out a police report and give this to the insurance company. We received a payout for this and were able to replace the items shortly after.
The biggest thing you want to protect yourself from though is serious illness. You never know what can happen and if you hurt yourself badly during a trek, or catch something nasty, you could end up in hospital for days or even weeks and you’ll need to be covered.
Get travel insurance! It gives you peace of mind so that you can enjoy your travels.
18. Should I Book Tours Online In South America?
The beauty of south America is that you can visit most places without a tour – even the Galapagos Islands!
Do your research and if you prefer adventure, try to visit places without booking a tour guide.
When you are in a big city like Quito, you can easily be tempted into booking a $50 day tour into the countryside or to the next town along. Again, these places are much better visited by yourself. Mindo and Otavalo are two examples where you will save money and have a much better time by skipping a tour.
For any tours you do wish or need to book, online booking still isn’t the way forward. The online prices are set and often over inflated. If you can, book in person and use your haggling skills to get the best price. Haggling is completely acceptable in South America!
Me and some friends got a great Uyuni Salt Flat tour deal with Salty Desert Adventours by visiting their office and haggling. However, when we booked our Amazon tour in Bolivia online, we realised we messed up as most people we spoke to on our tour got theirs for half the price by booking in person.
If you are going to book a tour, I would recommend doing your research first and seeing what’s on offer. In some cases, booking beforehand is the only way.
For example, Rainbow Mountain in Peru can’t be visited without a tour. Its too far away and requires too much admin. A tour is high quality, costs $50, and includes all your meals and transport.
When I did book day tours, I would compare between Viator and GetYourGuide to find the tours with the best prices and reviews.
19. What's The Best Sim Card To Get For South America?
If you are travelling to multiple countries in South America, I would recommend getting an eSIM (digital SIM card) instead of a physical SIM card.
An eSIM is better than a physical SIM card for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, you can access the Internet from any country in South America without having to pay excessive roaming charges. Secondly, you don’t waste time looking for a local plastic SIM card. An eSIM can be activated either immediately after installation or upon arrival at the your destination.
When I first travelled to South America, I bought a sim card in most countries as I was there for a month or more. This can be a bit tricky if you don’t speak Spanish but if you go to a mobile shop, the clerks are more than happy to help. I had a guy in Argentina talk me through the whole process in perfect English. However, having to do this in every new country I went to became annoying.
I now use Airalo. Airalo is the world’s first eSIM store that solves the pain of high roaming bills by giving travellers access to eSIMs from over 200 countries.
Simply download the app, buy the digital sim, and then use the app to switch sims when you reach your destination and you’ll have data on the go.
20. What Adapter Do I Need For South America?
Unfortunately, there’s little consistency between the electrical outlets and plugs in South America so you’ll need a decent travel adapter.
Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia have the same outlet as the U.S. But the rest use a variety of shapes.
The best thing to do is to buy a universal travel adapter. Make sure you get one with extra sockets and USB-A and USB-C outlets too.
These are super handy when you need to charge a phone, camera, portable charger and laptop all at the same time. Especially if you’re in a shared dorm and you only have a single socket next to your bed.
Here’s my favourite travel adapter:
You won’t be getting the best wattage from the plugs either. Make sure you bring a portable charger and keep it regularly charged.
I’m a big fan of Anker products.
I’m currently using the Anker 337 PowerBank. With full charge, you can charge your phone up to 6 times. This was a life saver on long overnight buses. It only takes 6 hours to charge as well so you plug it in overnight and be ready to go the next day.
21. Can I Drink The Tap Water In South America?
No, the tap water in South America isn’t drinkable.
Unfortunately, this means you’ll go through a lot of plastic water bottles during your time there.
The best thing to do is to bring a 1L flask that you can refill at hostels. Some hostels will have a fountain or cooler with drinkable water. However, I was surprised to find that even then they were few and far between.
My flask of choice whilst backpacking South America was the 1L (40oz) Lightweight Wide Mouth Trail Series from Hydroflask.
It’s 20% lighter than the other flasks they provide which is ideal when you’re carrying it around all day or hiking.
22. Do I Need Visas For SOuth America?
Travel in South America is simple for both US and UK citizens.
All countries require a tourist visa but these can be purchased on arrival in each country. Tourist visas for most countries last 90 days however Peru allows 180 days.
In previous years, reciprocity fees were required to be paid by US citizens on arrival to some South American countries. For example, Bolivia required a $160 reciprocity fee. Brazil and Chile also had similar fees.
However, these have all been waived as of 2019.
Popular South America Itineraries
If you have more than two-weeks to spare then why not check out our other South America itineraries ranging from three weeks to three months: