4 Expertly Curated Three-Week South America Travel Itineraries & Routes

Three weeks in South America really isn’t a long time, so to have the best time it’s about finding the shortest route and most efficient itinerary so that you can see as much as possible. Here are 4 expertly curated three-week backpacking itineraries for South America to suit every traveller.

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What’s The Best Travel Route For Three Weeks In South America?

We think visiting two countries in South America is a great idea over three weeks. That gives you around 10 days in each country, which is more than enough to see the best sights.

 

Here are all the different options we think fit well with three weeks in South America:

 

 

  • Ecuador & Peru – travelling south through Mainland Ecuador and finishing in Cusco/Machu Picchu
  • Peru & Bolivia – starting with the best bits of Peru and ending with the Salt Flats in Bolivia
  • Bolivia & Chile – Epic adventure with the Amazon and Salt Flats in Bolivia, and lots of trekking and nature in Chile
  • Chile & Argentina – following the wine route through Chile and into the north of Argentina

#1 Three Week South America Itinerary: Ecuador & Peru

  • Pros: Cheaper, short easy journeys in Ecuador as it’s mostly buses overland
  • Cons: one flight which will add to the cost, No visit to the Galapagos Islands included

Here’s the complete three-week South America itinerary that includes Ecuador, Peru, and Machu Picchu:

 

  • Day 1-2 – Quito
  • Day 3-4 – Cotopaxi
  • Day 5- 6 – Quilotoa
  • Day 7-8 – Banos
  • Day 9 – Guayaquil
  • Day 10 – Lima
  • Day 11-12 – Paracas
  • Day 13-14 – Huacachina
  • Day 15 – 16 – Arequipa
  • Day 17-21 – Cusco & Machu Picchu

Day 1 – Quito

We are starting this three-week South America itinerary in Ecuador’s capital – Quito.

 

Whilst there you can explore the UNESCO historical centre, visit the equator line at Mitad Del Mundo, and have a night out on the town. If you are feeling brave you can also attempt your first hike at altitude and climb Volcano Pichincha which looms over the city.  

For more information on what to do in the capital, check out our guides below:

 

 

Day 3-4 – Cotopaxi National Park

Now it’s time to spend 2 days at Ecuador’s best hostel – Secret Garden Cotopaxi. The hostel is set in the middle of the national park and has one of the best views in the world, directly opposite Cotopaxi Volcano.

 

From the hostel, you can plan hikes into the park, go horse-riding across the Andean planes, and even summit Cotopaxi if you are brave enough.

Read our review for all the reasons you need to stay at this hostel:

 

 

Day 5-6 – Quilotoa

After a lovely stay at Cotopaxi is time for more trekking. A short journey will take you to the town of Latacunga. From here you can get a bus to the town of Quilotoa.

 

The town of Quilotoa is tiny but the main attraction is the huge water-filled crater created by a volcanic eruption around 800 years ago. You can walk to the crater in 5 minutes for incredible views but seeing as you have a full day, aim for the full trek around the crater which can take 4-5 hours.

Day 7-8 - Baños

Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador.

 

There’s so much to do here including hiking, riding bicycles to the crazy waterfall ‘Pailon del Diablo’, and enjoying the thermal baths fuelled by the volcanoes surrounding the town.

Check out our Baños guide for more information:

 

 

Day 9 – Guayaquil

After this, you will need a full day to travel to Guayaquil (7-8 hour by bus). Rest up for the night before flying to your next country on this incredible three-week South America itinerary – Peru!

Day 10 - Lima

One day in the capital of Peru is more than enough to explore the bohemian district of Barranco and try some amazing regional dishes like ceviche. But there isn’t much here for backpackers so best to move on after a day and use your limited days in the more exciting places.

Day 11-12 – Paracas

Paracas National Park is an untouched natural desert perfect for exploration and adventure. You can navigate the park by tour, bicycle, ATV, or dune buggy. Checking out the park at sunset is a must!

Day 13-14 – Huacachina

Then after Paracas, it’s time to swap one desert for another with a visit to the famous oasis at Huacachina.

 

You’ll get another chance to fly across the giant dunes in sand buggies as well as sandboard down to the tallest of them, watch the epic sunset, and party the night away in the crazy Wild Rover backpacker hostel.

For more information on this unique place:

 

 

 

Wild Rover in Huacachina is also one of our favourite hostels in South America. For the full list of backpacker hostels, follow the link below:

 

 

Day 14-16 - Arequipa

Arequipa is an amazing city for backpackers, but the real wonder here is a visit to Colca Canyon – the second deepest canyon in the world.

 

Unfortunately, you won’t have enough time to trek down into it on this itinerary but you can visit for the day:

 

 

Arequipa is also full of great backpacker hostels, restaurants, and bars to enjoy. Our favourite thing to do there is to find a rooftop bar and watch as the sun sets on all volcanoes surrounding the city.

 

Check out our itinerary below if you want to stay a bit longer: 

 

 

Day 17-21 – Cusco & Machu Picchu

The ancient capital of the Inca Empire, known for a wealth of archaeological remains and beautiful Spanish colonial-era architecture, is now one of the most popular backpacker hubs in all of South America.

 

Spend your first day here before preparing to travel to Machu Picchu.

For more information on backpacker hostels and things to do in Cusco, head to the guides below:

 

 

Machu Picchu is the ultimate highlight of many people’s trips to South America. Visiting the marvellous citadel of the Incas, hidden amongst misty valleys, and set high above the clouds, truly feels like you are walking back through time.

 

The best way to do this is to take the train to Aguas Calientes on the morning of Day 18. Aguas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Picchu and the hub for travellers before they start their trek up to the mountain.

 

The train is 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 book the train and prices:

 

 

 

 

If you want to save money and take the bus, then we’ve outlined that here as well, but it does take a lot longer (8 hours compared to three):

 

 

 

On your final day, you will return to Cusco from Aguas Calientes and your three weeks in South America are over. If you would prefer longer in Cusco (as it’s one of the best cities in all of South America) we recommend cutting out Arequipa and maybe just visiting Huacachina for a night. This will give you three extra days.

 

 

If you have three weeks in South America and prefer to visit just a single country, then check out these alternative itineraries which may work better for you:

 

 

 

Or if you prefer the Galapagos Islands over the mainland then check out this 10-day planned itinerary that will get you to both:

 

 

#2 Three Week South America Itinerary: Peru & Bolivia

  • Pros: All over land so no expensive flights
  • Cons: Some long bus journeys

Here is the complete three-week south America itinerary that includes Peru, Machu Picchu, and Bolivia:

 

  • Day 1 – Lima
  • Day 2-3 – Paracas
  • Day 4-5 – Huacachina
  • Day 6-8 – Arequipa
  • Day 9-12 – Cusco & Machu Picchu
  • Day 13-14 – Copacabana
  • Day 15-17 – La Paz
  • Day 18-21 – Uyuni & the Salt Flats

Day 1-12 - Lima to Cusco/Machu Picchu

Follow the same itinerary as laid out above with a couple of changes.

You can take an extra day in Arequipa which will allow you to visit Colca Canyon. All trips to Colca Canyon start from Arequipa and take 2 days in total.

 

Trekking down into the second deepest canyon in the world is an experience like no other. You’ll spend most of your time picking your jaw up off the floor as you walk around in awe of the canyon’s vastness.

 

For more information on the guided trek:

 

 

Also, if you prefer, you can spend longer in Cusco as it’s one of the best cities in South America. We recommend, either skipping over Paracas/Huacachina or just visiting each for a day if you wish to do this.

 

For more Cusco guides:

 

 

 

After Cusco, you can then get the bus to Bolivia and straight to Copacabana which takes around 8 hours.

Day 13-14 – Copacabana

Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,810 metres above sea level.

 

Half of it sits in Peru, the other half in Bolivia. The town of Copacabana on the Bolivian side is a small but pretty place filled with local markets and artisan restaurants, but it’s the lake itself that is the must-see.

 

Fun activities include walking up to the summit of Cerro Calvario to get beautiful views of the lake and taking a boat tour to Isla del Sol, the largest island on the lake.

Day 15-17 – La Paz

Once you reach La Paz you have an endless list of things to choose from such as biking down Death Road, trekking in the Valley of the Moon, or climbing Huayna Potosi.

 

3 days is a good amount of time to cover it all. We recommend riding down Death Road one day and then using the others to explore in and outside of the city.

Day 18-21 – Uyuni & La Paz

You can either fly or overnight bus down to Uyuni. Once you arrive in Uyuni, it’s time to end this epic three-week South America trip with probably one of the best tours on the whole continent.

 

The 3-day Salar De Uyuni tour will take you from one unique landscape to the next, starting with the white expanse of the salt flat on day 1, to the high-altitude desert of the Andes on the next.

 

Your mind will be blown by all the incredible scenery and you will leave on a high. The perfect way to end an incredible 3 weeks in South America!

Our Uyuni guides have all the information you need:

 

 

Or if you prefer to stick to one country like Bolivia and visit the Amazon instead of more places in Peru, then check out our Bolivia itinerary to see how it can work:

 

 

#3 Three Week South America Itinerary: Bolivia & Chile

  • Pros: Lots of nature, fewer places visited so you get longer in each town
  • Cons: Costs more compared to the other itineraries as Chile is more expensive and there are more flights included

Here’s the complete three-week South America itinerary that includes Bolivia & Chile:

 

  • Day 1-2 – La Paz
  • Day 3-6 – Amazon
  • Day 7 – La Paz
  • Day 8-11 – Uyuni & Salt Flat Tour
  • Day 12-14 – Atacama
  • Day 15-16 – Santiago
  • Day 17-20 – Pucon
  • Day 21 – Santiago

Day 1-2 - La Paz

La Paz is the thriving capital of Bolivia and your first stop on this three-week South America itinerary.

 

For your day in the city, book onto a Red Cap walking tour to explore the sprawl that is La Paz, ride the cable cars around to some incredible viewpoints and then spend the evening enjoying the lively bar and club scene.

 

You also have one full day of adrenaline-fuelled fun on the Death Road tour. Your heart will be in your mouth as you bike down one of the most dangerous roads in the world.

Our 3 day La Paz itinerary can be found in full here for more information:

 

 

Day 3-6 - The Amazon

Visiting the Amazon in Bolivia is much cheaper and easier compared to other countries in South America. Most Amazon tours are 3 days and two nights.

 

The Pampas tour is the most popular among backpackers. On the tour, your days will be spent on a longboat winding through the tributaries of the Amazon searching for caimans, anacondas, and exotic birds. You can even go swimming with pink river dolphins!

 

This is one of the best tours in South America and a fraction of the price it would cost in countries like Brazil or Colombia.

Our complete guide to getting to Rurrenabaque and finding and booking an amazon tour can be found here:

 

 

Day 7 - La Paz

If you prefer to break your journeys up, then take an extra day in La Paz here.

 

The flight back from the Amazon is only 20 minutes so if you prefer to save the day then you can either hop on another flight down to Uyuni or take the overnight bus which takes 8-9 hours.

 

As this is a three-week itinerary, we recommend either enjoying the extra day in La Paz or flying; long bus journeys are cutting into the limited time you have.

Day 8-11 – Uyuni and the Salt Flats Tour

Your next stop is the town of Uyuni, most famous for the 

 

The three-day/two-night tour will take you exploring one of the most surreal landscapes in the world. This is one of the best tours in the whole of South America and shouldn’t be missed.

 

Day 1 is spent on the actual salt flat taking the all-important perspective and reflection photos before spending a night in the famous salt hotel. Day 2 takes you out across the high-altitude desert to see even wilder landscapes such as volcanoes, geysers, and beautiful high-altitude lakes full of flamingos.

 

The salt flats tour then drops you off at the Chilean border where you can take a bus to the town of San Pedro De Atacama. Nice and easy!

For more on the Uyuni Salt Flat Tour including the best companies to book with, head to the post below:

 

 

Day 12-14 - Atacama Desert

Your mind may have just been blown with volcanoes, high-altitude lagoons, and surreal landscapes on the salt flats tour, but it doesn’t stop there.

 

Just across the border, the Atacama Desert still has some incredible landscapes worth checking out.

 

Why not rent a car and explore it yourself this time? You can head to the ‘Valle de la Luna’ to see strange rock formations eroded over millions of years or float in the tranquil salt lagoons of the desert surrounded by mountains and volcanoes.

Check out our Atacama Desert itinerary for more information on the best places to visit:

 

 

Day 14-16 - Santiago

Santiago is a long drive from Atacama so best to take a short 1-hour flight. Once in the capital, you can start with the walking tour to get your bearings and then visit one of the several museums Santiago has to offer.

 

For any extra days you wish to stay, you can take day trips outside of the city to Valparaiso, go trekking in the mountains or head to one of the many vineyards to try the best of Chilean wine.

Day 17-20 – Pucon

Pucón is the adventure capital of Chile, and there are so many great activities on offer in this city including horse riding, kayaking, volcano trekking and much more.

 

You won’t be disappointed ending an epic three-weeks in South America here.

 

One of the best hostels in the country is here – Chili Kiwi Hostel which won HostelWorld’s Best Hostel in Latin America in both 2017 and 2018.

 

This hostel is in an unbeatable location on the shore of Villarrica lake, directly opposite the majestic Villarrica Volcano and only a short walk from downtown Pucón. The hostel has a nice garden with swings, hammocks, and treehouses where you can catch sunsets over the lake and volcano.

For more on our favourite hostels in South America, check out the post below:

 

 

Day 21 - Santiago

Fly back to Santiago to take your flight home. If this itinerary contains too many flights and long journeys for you then we have some other options.

 

From Santiago, you can take a bus across the border to Argentina into wine country. Keep reading as it’s the next three-week South America itinerary on this list.

#4 Three Week South America Itinerary: Chile & Argentina

  • Pros: All over land so no expensive flights, off the beaten track
  • Cons: Second part of the route is better with a car which can be expensive

Here is the complete three-week South America itinerary that includes Chile & Argentina:

 

  • Day 1 – Santiago
  • Day 2-3 – Valparaiso
  • Day 4 – Santiago
  • Day 5-8 – Mendoza
  • Day 9-11 – Cafayate
  • Day 12 – Cachi
  • Day 13 –15 – Salta
  • Day 16 – Humahuaca
  • Day 17 – Tilcara / Purmamarca
  • Day 18-21 – Salta / Buenos Aires

Day 1-3 – Santiago / Valparaiso

Santiago is a beautiful place and there will be some great restaurants in the city for tasting wines, or you could head outside of the city to the Maipo valley to start your wine tasting journey.

 

With snow-covered Andean peaks forming the visual backdrop, the Maipo Valley ranks as one of Chile’s most picturesque spots. It’s also home to some of the country’s top wines. 

 

Another great city to check out is Valparaiso on the coast known as the “Pacific Jewel”. 45km away is the Casablanca valley, another great place full of bodegas and vineyards.

Day 5-8 - Mendoza

It’s a short hop across the border from Santiago to reach Mendoza, Argentina’s best wine-producing region. Whilst here, one of the best things to do is head out to the vineyards, rent a bike, and hit up all the different bodegas on a self-guided tour.

 

You can pay a small amount for a tasting at each bodega, and you will end the day rather tipsy. Lots of backpackers do this and everyone else biking around ends up back at Maipu Bikes for a final round of drinks.

 

Other activities include trekking around Cerro Aconcagua the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere or escaping to Lake Potrerillos – a 7-mile- (12-kilometer-) long lake, fed by the Mendoza River. You can take a relaxing stroll around the lake’s edge for breath-taking views of the rugged landscape or for adventure travellers, go rafting or river boarding down the rapids of the Mendoza River.

Check out our North Argentina backpacking itinerary for more great ideas on some extra stops you can add into this part of the itinerary:

 

 

Day 9-11 - Cafayate

Cafayate is a must for wine lovers and follows on perfectly from a stay in Mendoza.

 

The town is the wine-producing region of the northwest of Argentina and is one of the world’s highest suitable locations for growing grapes. It’s second only to Mendoza as one of the best wine-producing regions in the country.

Check out our full guide to the town including the best bodegas and vineyards to visit here:

 

 

Day 12 - Cachi

Cachi is a small wine town in between Cafayate and Salta. It’s the perfect one night stop to break up the journey, enjoy more beautiful views of the valley and try some more wine.

Day 13-15 - Salta

Salta is the biggest city in the northwest of Argentina. It’s full of interesting sights such as the Museum of High-Altitude Archaeology (MAAM) which contains a perfectly preserved mummified corpse of an Andean child, thought to be sacrificed by her tribe hundreds of ago.

 

Make sure you rent a car here as the next part of the journey is heading right into the north of the country to check out three small towns that are off the beaten tourist track.

For everything you need to know about Salta:

 

 

Day 16-18 – Humahuaca, Tilcara and Purmamarca

Humahuaca is the first of three small towns along Route 9 which runs through the beautiful northern countryside all the way down to the city of Salta.

 

Here you can find Argentina’s very own Rainbow Mountain (and depending on who you ask, better than the more famous one in Peru). Everything else you need to know about Humahuaca from our favourite hostels to the best restaurants is here in our guide to the town:

 

 

Tilcara is the second town you come to along Route 9. It has the same laidback vibe of Humahuaca and is filled with artisan cafes, shops, and restaurants.

 

In the summer, it gets livelier with Argentinian tourists escaping the big cities and filling up the peñas (communal gatherings with traditional music from the region) and bars.

 

For more information on Tilcara:

 

 

Spend one night here before driving back to Salta to drop off the car. On the way back if you want to stop off at a few places you can.

 

Another short journey south is the third town on Route 9 which includes Argentina’s second Rainbow Mountain – the Hill of 7 Colours.

 

Whilst it doesn’t sound as impressive as the 14 Coloured Mountain, the hill is just as colourful and impressive, and you don’t need to take a tour to see this one. You can see it from anywhere in town, but the best way is to walk along the Paseo de los Colorados, a 1.5 mile (3 km) easy trail for great views of this multi-coloured hill.

 

Purmamarca is also a good base for a trip to Salinas Grandes – Argentina’s spectacular salt flat.

27-30 - Buenos Aires

End an incredible three weeks in South America in one of its greatest capitals – Buenos Aires.

 

Known as the “Paris of the South”, Buenos Aires boasts renowned architecture, world-class cuisine, and fantastic nightlife. You’ll be ending the trip on a high!

For some alternative, one-month long itineraries in this region, check out the post below:

 

 

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