Spending months travelling through both Europe and Asia, I have not only been a backpacker but also come across many in my day. However, on a recent trip to South America I was shocked by the sheer number of travellers who were ‘roughing it’, and quickly came to realize that perhaps the continent is somewhat of a Mecca for budget tourists. Here are five reasons why it’s a fantastic—and popular—option.
$1 for two large bottles of water. $4 for a four hour bus ride across the country. $20 for a large, hand woven Alpaca blanket. These are just some of the prices you’ll come across in places like Bolivia and Peru, if you play your cards right. While there are a plethora of options available for high-rollers, such as a $1000/night room at the base of Machu Picchu, most travellers can get by on less than $50 per day.
Food is one way you can save a bundle compared to places like Europe, thanks to set menus that will get you a three course meal for about $10, or by picking up some street meat. Lodging is also affordable, with modern hotels in big cities only costing about $100/night—compared to the average of $200 or more in places like New York or London.
Europe and Asia are still the envy of the world when it comes to cheap air travel, but South America has the market cornered when it comes to inexpensive buses. Companies like Cruz del Sur shuttle travellers around Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, offering meals and cushy reclining seats for cheap. Not only can you save a bundle getting from point A to B, but you’ll also save on the cost of a hotel room if you take one of the overnight buses!
You don’t need to dress nice
If you learn one thing from this article, let it be this: if you pack a bag any larger than a carry-on for your jaunt around the continent, you will regret it. Even if you book a tour to get you around, chances are you’ll find yourself somewhere like Aguas Caliente, the gateway to Machu Picchu, which is all uphill and offers no way to get around other than your own two feet. Is that where you want to be caught hauling a large rolly suitcase over the cobblestone streets?
With that in mind, might I suggest you don’t haul all of your fancy clothes down to South America, and embrace the backpacking spirit instead. Many of the places worth exploring require workout/outdoor clothes anyway, and unless you find yourself at some expensive restaurant there are few places you’ll actually need to dress up for. Save for Brazil, few places are known for their fashion sense, and you can easily get by without bringing a single pair of heels. Another bonus? You’ll save a ton on laundry and baggage fees!
There are tons of other backpackers
When I spent a summer in Europe in my early 20s, it was incredibly easy to meet other travellers, mostly because I was staying in hostels. Now that my budget it a bit higher and I’m spending the night in hotels, I’ve noticed my journeys haven’t lent themselves to as much easy interaction. Well, that changed with my first trip to South America. I can’t remember any other time it was so easy to meet fellow travellers, many of whom were following similar itineraries and happy to trade advice. We even met another couple in the middle of the Peruvian desert who happen to live in the same city as us!!
I think the camaraderie is thanks to the fact that nearly everyone ends up being a backpacker in South America—even if they didn’t expect to be. Simply getting from point A to point B is an exercise in patience most days, making it important to become fast friends with those around you so you can help each other out. You’ll quickly find yourself commiserating with fellow passengers in that minivan that’s already packed full, but the driver keeps trying to squeeze random people in as he speeds down a dark highway! Even pre-arranged tours don’t always go as planned, and regardless of how much you spent it will soon feel like you’re roughing it.
It is also common to come across people who spend months at a time exploring South America, not only because it’s cheap to get around but because there is so much to see. Expect to come across at least a few of them throughout your journey, and get just a bit jealous of their nomadic lifestyle!
It’s easy to book things as you go
I am Type-A when it comes to booking everything before I head out on a trip. The idea of arriving in a city with no place to sleep freaks me out, plus I don’t want to spend my vacation time trolling the internet for deals. However, even folks like me are able to relax a bit when it comes to planning a South American jaunt, as everything is just so darn easy to book while you’re there—making it perfect for impulsive types. In nearly every tourist-type area you might find yourself in, you’ll see rows and rows of travel agencies ready to make your dreams into reality—for a price, of course. Need a bus ticket for tonight? No problem. A hotel room, transfer, horseback ride, last-minute airline ticket? Easy-peasy!
My only warning with waiting until you’re there to book is that certain activities do require some advance planning. For example, permits that are required to hike the Inca trail often sell out months in advance, especially in the high season. Visas can also be an issue, as countries like Brazil might require you to send them your passport in advance. Bolivia has been known to ask visitors to present proof that they’ve had their yellow fever immunizations, so you’ll want to check that you’re up to date on your shots before you head over.
Extras are included
I hate, hate, hate when hotels charge for wi-fi. Why is that still a thing?! So imagine how happy I was to find that nearly every type of accommodation I booked in South America—whether it was $30 a night or $130 a night—offered free wi-fi in rooms, along with free breakfast. And not that type of ‘breakfast’ they offer in Paris that consists of a piece of bread and jam. No, there were made-to-order eggs, cereal, fresh squeezed juices, fruit, even pancakes and French toast! Things like this are a huge bonus for those watching their bottom line, as the cost of internet cafes and an extra meal every day can really add up. Also keep an eye out for lodging that offers free airport transfers—a common bonus in places like Cuzco, Peru.
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