Is South America Worth Travelling? 18 Reasons Every Backpacker Should Go

South America is an incredible continent with 12 countries, all with their own unique climates, cultures, and wonders to explore. Travelling through this epic continent is a must for backpackers and you’ll be treated to endless amounts of adrenaline activities, insane hikes, UNESCO heritage sights and untouched natural beauty. Here are 20 great reasons why South America is well worth travelling and why you must make it your next backpacking trip!

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18 Great Reasons To Backpack South America In 2023

1. South America Is A Budget Backpacker’s Dream

Your money goes a long way in South America, especially compared to other popular backpacking places like Southeast Asia or Europe.

 

Budget backpackers can get away with a budget of $30 a day but we recommend budgeting $50 a day when travelling South America.

 

This will obviously vary depending day to day and on the country you are in, but it’s a good rule of thumb to stick to. In countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, you will be able to manage $35 a day but in countries like Chile or Brazil it will be closer to $50.

 

For a month backpacking in South America, you should aim to budget between $1000-1500.

 

Here’s a rough breakdown of what you should expect to spend your budget on:

Expense Average Cost (Per Day) Monthly Spend
Accommodation
$8 - 10
$240 - 300
Food
$8 - 10
$240 - 300
Transport
$2 - 5
$60 - 150
Activities
$15 - 25
$450 - 750
Total
$33 - 50
$1000 - 1500

Because your money goes further in South America, this means you can extend your trips, enjoy popular activities such as Machu Picchu without breaking the bank, and treat yourself every now and then to a nice meal or activity that you usually wouldn’t if you were on a shoestring budget.

 

The rough budget outlined above is based on our 1-month South America Itinerary which visits 3 countries (Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). This is one of our favourite itineraries because you can see the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, and the Salt Flats, which are arguably three of the best sights in all South America.

For this full itinerary and breakdown of the budget for a month in South America, head to the post below for more detail:

 

 

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2. South America Has A Popular Backpacker Trail

The backpacker trail through South America is well established and easy to follow.

 

Often referred to as the ‘Gringo Trail‘, it is the Western Hemisphere’s equivalent of tropical Asia’s ‘Banana Pancake Trail’.

 

This unofficial trail hits the highlights of South America, going through 6 of the most popular countries from Colombia all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia in Chile. 

 

This route consists of big cities, backpacker party towns, UNESCO heritage sites and natural wonders such as the Bolivian Salt Flats. The major stops are typically affordable, social, adventurous, and cater to travellers — making life on the road a little easier. This route guarantees you will meet other backpackers along the way, see the best sights and have the most fun.

Here’s how easy it is to see three or four countries in South America, all within the space of a two weeks, two months or longer if you have the time. Head to one of the posts below for our popular backpacking itineraries:

 

 

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3. Many Places In South America Are Still Off The Beaten Track

Whilst the Gringo trail is well established, this doesn’t mean South America has become over saturated with tourism and ruined by backpackers.

 

If you are looking for hidden gems, you can easily step off the Gringo Trail, get off the beaten track and immerse yourself in local culture whenever you like. Experiences like these make you feel like a local rather than a tourist and will have you coming home feeling like you’ve had a more authentic experience.

 

Whilst places like Machu Picchu draw thousands of people every day, smaller towns in Peru such as Arequipa keep their authentic charm and day to day about town you are unlikely to bump into any other travellers.

 

Towns such Cuenca in Ecuador and Sucre in Bolivia have just enough of a backpacker presence for you to find hostels, but are off the beaten track enough that you feel like you’ve escaped the backpacker trail. 

 

Northwest Argentina was the epitome of authentic travel for us. When we travelled to towns such as Salta and Cafayate along the wine route, we found ourselves enjoying steak and wine every day without a backpacker in sight; we were the only people on the hiking trails, the restaurants were quiet and peaceful, and everything was so cheap!

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4. It's Super Easy To Bounce Between Countries In South America

Travelling through South America is one of the easiest things I’ve ever done.

 

There are well established bus companies in each country that can take you from town to town for as cheap as $2. Overnight buses for longer journeys of 8 or 9 hours or more never cost more than $20 and they were always safe and comfortable.

 

Internal flights never break the bank so flying from Lima to Cusco should cost around $100. Flying from country to country doesn’t cost much more either and flights from Peru to Bolivia for example costs us around $120.

 

In the past when we travelled South East Asia, border crossings were chaotic, no one knows what’s happening, and the border security charge you whatever they feel like for a visa. In comparison, border crossings in South America were simple.

 

This means bouncing between countries is easy. You can take an overnight bus from Cusco and be in Copacabana Bolivia in 8 hours. You can go from Cusco to Boliva to Chile within the space of a few days too.

 

This makes your backpacking experience ih South America feel quick and efficient and you rarely have to worry about things going wrong.

Head to one of the posts linked below to see some of our shorter backpacking itineraries that take advantage of these easy border crossings:

 

 

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5. The Diversity Of Nature In South America Is Incredible

One of the best things about backpacking is new experiences – experiencing new climates, environments, and wonders of nature – and if you are a nature lover, then South America needs to be the next trip you plan.

 

Whether its golden sand beaches, dense cloud forests, towering volcanoes or beautiful national parks – South America will have something for everyone.

 

For me personally, one of my most memorable experiences was seeing a desert for the first time. Being from the UK, I’ve not experienced this type of landscape before and when I went to Paracas in Peru, my mind was blown. I was riding a bike up and down giant sand dunes, surrounded by desert for miles. It felt like I was on another planet.

 

Another favourite of mine was climbing my first volcano. We trekked to around 4300m to the refuge on Cotopaxi Volcano (Ecuador) and had an incredible view of the national park.

Even with a country, one week you will be in the desert and then the next you are high in the mountains or deep in jungle. We went from the vast desert of Paracas, to 5000m above sea level in the Andes near Cusco, all within the space of a week.

 

Seeing multiple places in a short period of time makes time dilate and makes your trip feel even longer than it is. Another great reason why South America is well worth visiting.

Some of our other favourite landscapes and nature experiences in South America include:

 

 

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6. South America Has A Rich History

The history of South America is fascinating and well worth learning about on your trip.

 

The colonisation of every country on this continent has left a lasting impact which can still be seen today.

 

Whether it’s the 19th century European architecture or the recognisable main plazas you can find in every major city, the impact of the last 200 years of South American history can still be seen today.

 

However, it’s the history of the Incas and the other indigenous tribes that  populated these countries is even more fascinating. Visiting places such as Machu Picchu feel like you are taking a step back in time and leave with with a sense of awe and wonder, trying to picture how they built such incredible places. 

 

The Quechua people are one of the main native cultures of Peru. These Inca descendants have successfully preserved and developed their proud cultures despite every growing tourism. 

 

Many of them now work for the tour companies that take you to South America’s most historical places and they continue to celebrate their cultures and educate others about their history.

 

If you are a history buff, then a visit to South America to learn more about the Inca Empire is a must. 

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7. The Backpacker Hostels In South America Are Unrivalled

The hostels you stay in when backpacking are essential to making or breaking your trip.

 

As backpackers we want clean, comfortable, spacious dorms with pod-style beds and a relatively uninterrupted night’s sleep. We also want lively social areas and a great atmosphere which fosters meeting other backpackers.

 

South America certainly delivers and has some of the best hostels we have ever stayed at in our many years of travelling.

 

In each country there are several popular backpacker chains that cater to backpackers. The Community Hostel chain in Ecuador, Kokopelli chain in Peru or Che Lagarto in Brazil are all examples of great hostels.

 

South America also has several unique hostels which need to be ticked off every backpacker’s bucket list. Some of these have special features such as epic pool parties or rooftop bars whereas some have an incredible location which sets them out from the crowd.

 

For example, Casa en el Agua in Colombia. This hostel is only accessible by boat and is set in the middle of the ocean. Not many people can say they have stayed at hostel in the middle of the Caribbean sea before.

 

Secret Garden Cotopaxi Hostel in Ecuador is also one of our overall favourite hostel experiences in South America. The hostel is situated in the middle of the national park, directly opposite Cotopaxi Volcano: this is one of the best views from a hostel you will probably ever have.

 

Backpackers looking to party, don’t worry. South America also has several chain hostels that focus creating crazy nights out for travellers.

 

The Wild Rover chain has a hostel in most major cities in South America. They have a reputation for being one of the craziest party hostels in the world. These hostels are the best place to stay if you are looking to meet fellow backpackers, have a good time and find a wild party.

For more on the best hostels in South America, check out the posts below:

 

 

8. You Can Visit The Amazon Rainforest From 4 Countries In South America

Visiting the Amazon Rainforest in South America is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

 

The fact that you can visit it from several countries, including Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, makes it even better.

 

In each of these countries you will have an incredible and unique experience, but in our opinion, Bolivia is one of the best ways to see this natural wonder as it’s one of the easiest and cheapest options compared to the other South American countries.

 

Tours begin from Rurrenbaque in the north of the country, and packaged deals can be purchased for as cheap as $200. This includes return flights and a 3-day tour. 

 

When visiting the Amazon in Bolivia, you can choose from ‘jungle’ or ‘pampas’ tours. Jungle tours will take you deeper into the Amazon to visit the indigenous tribes and learn more about the plants. Pampas tours stick to the small branching rivers and tributaries of the Amazon and centre more around wildlife spotting.

 

That’s why we’d recommend the ‘pampas’ tour in Madidi National Park. You see so much wildlife including birds of paradise, caymans, anacondas, pink dolphins, and capybaras.

Check out the complete backpacker guide here on how to book your Amazon tour in Bolivia:

 

 

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9. Adventure Activities Are Everywhere In South America

South America is the perfect continent to travel if you are looking for adventure.

 

The beautiful green valley of Baños in Ecuador is an adventure junkies dream. With its famous route of waterfalls, forested mountain trails, and of course, the still-active Tungurahua Volcano, it has everything a thrill seeker needs. For some more intense adrenaline kicks, there’s a wealth of waterfalls to rappel down and high-grade white-water rapids to navigate.

 

In the desert oasis of Huacachina in Peru, mountainous sand dunes surround a tiny town, all built around a calm desert oasis. Nothing about Huacachina is calm though. It’s a place where you’ll find incredible sunsets, ride dune buggies across the desert, and hear the screams of backpacker’s sandboarding down the tallest dunes.

 

And for the ultimate thrill seeking experience, you have Death Road in Bolivia. 

 

Once known for having 200-300 deaths per year, Death Road is now one of Bolivia’s most popular attractions. Riding down this highway at high speeds, descending from the snow-covered high altitude mountain ranges at 4,600m into the warm, lush jungle, is the ultimate thrill-seeking experience.

 

On top of all these exciting activities, you are never far away from an epic hike. However, the trekking opportunities in South America deserve a point of their own which brings me on to the next point on the list of great reasons why you should travel south America.

 

For more on some of our favourite adventure activities in South America, head to one of the posts linked below:

 

 

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10. South America Is A Hikers Paradise

South America is the ultimate trekking playground.

 

With the Andes mountains lining the western edge of the continent, you only ever a short trip a stone’s throw away from an incredible hike.

 

This vast mountain range starts in Venezuela, crosses through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and finishes in Chile at South America’s southern point. This means you can find incredible treks in every country you visit.

 

In Ecuador, you have the Pichincha Volcano trek in Quito taking you to 3800m above the city. In Otavalo, hiking the 14km circular loop around the beautiful Laguna Cuicocha. Then, only a few hours from Quito you can hike the majestic Cotopaxi Volcano or take on the grueling three day self-guided trek known as the Quilotoa Loop.

 

Peru is also home to two trekking hotspots that attract hikers from around the world – Huaraz and Cusco.

 

Huaraz has several multi-day treks that take you into the Cordillera Blanca, or “White Range,”. This area of Peru is home to 722 glaciers and the tallest mountain in country – Huascaran.

 

In Cusco, you have so many options from Rainbow Mountain to the world famous Salkantay Trek. This is a 5-day guided hike through the Andes mountains that eventually leads you to Machu Picchu on its final day. National Geographic lists it as one of the “25 World’s Best Treks”. With a route that takes you past glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and serene high-altitude lakes, it’s one of the most scenic ways to reach the ancient Incan city.

 

In Bolivia, you have Huayna Potosi, the iconic peak overlooking the capital city of La Paz. You can do a short trek to base camp or if you are feeling brave – why not summit? The great thing about this mountain is its accessibility to beginner climbers. It is often referred to as one of the most accessible 6,000m peaks in the world.

For more information on some of the best single and multi-day treks in South America, head to the posts below:

 

 

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11. The Bolivian Salt Flats

Alongside the Amazon and Machu Picchu, the Uyuni Salt Flats are one of the highlights of South America.

 

They draw thousands of backpackers every year to see the beautiful white expanse of salt and take those famous perspective shots for the gram.

 

The flat white expanse of salt is unlike anything you’ve come across before, and this isn’t even the best bit.  On the second day of the tour, you enter the Altiplano, a high-altitude plateau set between two Andean mountain ranges.

 

The surreal, other-worldly landscapes of this area will leave you questioning whether you’ve left the planet. Brightly coloured green and red high-altitude lakes, strange rock formations eroded by winds over millions of years, powerful geysers firing grey sulphuric smoke into the sky, and the weirdly wonderful Dali Valley that needs to be seen to be believed.

 

The sights on this trip will stay with you forever and it’s one of the many reasons why people book a trip to South America in the first place.

Everything you need to know on the town of Uyuni and booking a Salt Flats tour can be found in our guide:

 

 

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12. South America Has Some Of The Best Beaches In The World

With over 25,000km of coastline, South America has hundreds of beaches to choose from.

 

Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil all have long stretches of beach and each country offers something a little different – with surf focused beaches in Peru and Ecuador, to golden sand, sun bathing beaches in Brazil.

 

Palomino in Colombia started as an off-the-beaten track town that has grown popular in recent years with backpackers. The beach, with its white sands fringed with huge palms trees is empty most of the time and you can enjoy peaceful walks up and down it without coming across another person.

 

The town of Montanita in Ecuador is hugely popular with backpackers, all seeking good surf and even better nightlife.

 

It’s also a great hub for some of the best language schools in the country and the perfect place to learn Spanish – the combination of morning language classes, sunset surf sessions, and mad parties are difficult to tear yourself away from and many travellers find themselves staying for weeks rather than days.

 

Mancora in the north of Peru has a similar vibe to Montanita. This beach town is filled with locals, backpackers and other tourists wanting to do two simple things: surf and party.

Check out our list of more of the best party beaches in South America:

 

 

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13. The Galapagos Islands

A list of why South America is worth visiting wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Galapagos Islands.

 

Yes, they are expensive but it’s a once in a lifetime experience that needs to be ticked off every backpackers bucket list – and it can be done on a budget! We visited for a week and spent $900 but you can go for 5 days and keep your spend below $700.  

 

The islands are unmatched when it comes to abundant wildlife and nature. Each island has pristine beaches, free museums, hiking trails and some of the best snorkelling in the world.

 

You can spend your days sunbathing on the untouched fine sand beaches surrounded by sea lions or go hiking to highland lagoons to look for nesting birds. Each island has an abundance of snorkelling spots, from crystal clear blue waters full of tropical fish to mangrove forests full of baby sharks and sea turtles.

 

It truly is a once in a lifetime experience.

 

The Galápagos Islands are an incredibly unique and necessary place to visit for any traveller looking to experience one of the best natural wonders in the world.

If you want to add a visit to the Galapagos islands in on travels around South America, then our guides have everything you need to know:

 

 

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14. The Party Never Stops In South America

As the Gringo Trail grows in popularity, so does the number of backpackers and hostels along the way.

 

With fantastic weather, cheap cost of living and the ever-popular reggaeton music, you won’t struggle to find some amazing places to party throughout South America.

 

Cusco has great nightlife and it’s one of the best cities to party in Peru. All the nightlife centres around the main square known as Plaza De Armas so the town centre is always buzzing and full of people. You are never more than a stone’s throw away from the next bar, club, or party hostel and on nights out you will find yourself bar crawling from one to the next.

 

We enjoyed nights out in Quito, Lima, Cusco, and La Paz. These countries know how to party, and we had a great time in each.

 

Let’s not forget one of the biggest parties in the world – Carnival in Brazil.

 

We flew to Rio for a week just to experience this incredible event and weren’t disappointed. Every day we went to a different street party and danced way into the night.

 

If you are a backpacker who enjoys a night out, then don’t worry, South America has everything you need.

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15. South America Is A Foodie Travellers Dream

The countries of South America are a dream for foodie travellers.

 

If you get a kick out of tasting new foods that you can’t get back home, then South America is perfect for you.

 

Local markets in South America are a vibrant display of colours, filled with new ingredients for you to try. On top of this, each country has its own gastronomic style and national dishes that must be tried.

 

In Argentina, you must try two things: steak and wine.

 

Finding a great steakhouse in Argentina is easy, and you know you will be getting grass-fed, pasture-raised beef. As we travelled along the ‘wine route’, a selection of towns all known for their excellent vineyards, we ate steak and drank wine to our hearts content.

 

Peru is 100% worth visiting just to try ceviche. It’s Peru’s national dish, and you can find the best versions of this marinated fish dish in Lima. Being right next to the ocean, any ceviche you buy comes fresh out of the ocean and tastes delicious.

 

In Bolivia, saltenas are small pastries that make the perfect snack. You can try several different savoury combinations of meat and vegetables, or they make sweet ones too if you prefer a treat. Stopping for a saltena was one of the happiest parts of our day when backpacking in Bolivia.

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16. It's The Best Place To Learn To Speak Spanish

One of the great things about travelling South America is that most countries speak Spanish. So, if you are learning it, you can move from country to country and continue to practice on your travels.

 

This is exactly what we did and after 3 months in South America, we became confident Spanish speakers.

 

Along the backpacker trail, most locals speak English and you can always find someone to help if you are struggling with translation. But if you’re in South America for a while, we’d highly recommend learning some Spanish.

 

The locals are incredibly friendly, and they really do appreciate it when you can speak even a small amount of Spanish.

 

Spanish shares around 2000 commons words with English so it really is easy to pick up. Completing the first two modules on Duolingo is enough to get by in common situations like booking transport or accommodation. However, if you pair Duolingo with a one- or two-week language school, you will feel the benefits and be speaking at a conversational level in no time.

 

We signed up to several language schools when backpacking South America including Lima, Montanita, Arequipa, and Buenos Aires.

 

However, our favourite was Montanita in Ecuador – a popular surf town. Learning in outdoor spaces with the fresh ocean breeze and the beach being a 10-minute walk away certainly beats learning in a stuffy classroom in Quito.

 

One of the best schools we recommend is ‘Montanita Spanish School’. The location is amazing, set up in the hills behind the town with great views of the beach.  They offer surf, language and accommodation packages which are reasonably priced.

 

Finally, learning Spanish at a language school in South America is a great way to meet other backpackers. Most schools organise outside events, and we made good friends during our time here too. 

For more on the town of Montanita, head to the post below:

 

 

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17. South America Is A Great Place To Learn To Surf

Montanita is known as the surf capital of Ecuador.

 

Whether you’re an experienced surfer or just starting, Montanita is the perfect place to jump on a board. Sandy bottom beaches with long breaks make this one of the best places in South America to learn to surf.

 

The water temperature ranges from 20-25 degrees Celsius from October to May and backpackers and Ecuadorians alike flock to the beach town to enjoy the waves.

 

Mancora in Peru is another popular surf spot. This beach town is filled with locals, backpackers and other tourists wanting to do two simple things: surf and party. Mancora is a great place for beginner surfers who have never been on a board before.

 

The continual waves, calm water and warm weather crate the perfect conditions for surfing. And once a full day or surfing is over, you can enjoy a wild night of partying on the beach.  

 

On top of this, Brazil, Argentina and Chile all have beautiful coast lines dotted with surf camps. If you want to start learning to surf, then South America is a great place to start!

Check out our backpacking itineraries for Ecuador and Peru so you can see how to fit learning to surf into your South America trip:

 

 

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18. Machu Picchu

One of the 7 New Wonders of the World – if you go to South America and don’t go to Machu Pichu then people will question if you even went!

 

Whilst it may have become a huge tourist destination these days, going via the Salkantay Trek can be one of the best ways of visiting as your experience is more than just seeing Machu Picchu.

 

You’ll visit the ancient ruins on the 5th and final day of the trek, arriving at the top just before sunrise. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll hopefully see the ancient Inca ruins lit up in the glow of the early morning sun and you’ll be down the mountain again before the mass of tourists arrive later in the day.

 

The train is another great way to reach Machu Picchu. It’s a bit more expensive than the bus, but the journey is packed full of beautiful sights along the way as the train goes through the Sacred Valley.

For more information on how to visit Machu Picchu, check out the posts below:

 

 

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