South America Travel Guide: Overview
Bordered by two oceans and spanning two hemispheres, South America is a vibrant, diverse continent comprised of twelve sovereign states. From the skyscraper-filled chaos of São Paulo to the jungle of the Amazon to the serenity of windswept Patagonia, South America’s unique cultural experiences, food, natural wonders and people ensure there’s something for everyone.
Throughout the Paleozoic and Early Mesozoic era, the supercontinent Pangaea dominated the globe, and present-day Africa and South America were connected in a landmass known as Gondwana. This eventually separated into Africa, South America and Antarctica. In the Late Miocene, the Panama Block shifted and connected South America to North America.
Agricultural practices on the continent (including cultivation of potatoes, chilies and beans) have been dated back to 6,500 BCE. By 3,500 BCE, people within the highlands of the Andes began domesticating llamas and alpacas, and permanent settlements began to emerge, such as the Valdivia on the Ecuadorian coast.
When European colonizers arrived in the mid-1400s, 20 to 30 million people already lived across the continent. With the introduction of the conquistadors came varied exploitation, including claiming of land and resources, introduction of devastating diseases and forced labor.
The 19th century was full of political upheaval, wherein the Spanish colonies eventually won their independence. Guyana and Suriname both won their independence in the 20th century, and French Guiana, to this day, is an overseas French department.
Internal political struggle marked the middle to late 1900s. The most known of these struggles include Colombia’s political strife, Chile’s dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, Peru’s internal political problems of the 1980s and 1990s and, much more recently, Venezuela’s socioeconomic crisis. While democratization spread across the continent from the 1980s on, allegations of corruption and political overhaul are still somewhat common. Since the 21st century, an increasing number of leftist politicians has filled the South American political scene.
Every country within South America has its own diverse and storied history. For those travelers specifically interested in this, dive deeper into the individual country (or countries) you’ll be visiting on your trip.
Music is a particularly prevalent part of South American culture, and with that comes dance as well. The most internationally known forms include samba and bossa nova from Brazil and tango from Argentina and Uruguay.
On the literary front, Latin American authors enjoyed a boom throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, the work of Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa became quite popular. Other notable South American authors include Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, and Pablo Neruda.
Good to Know
In general, there’s not a strong tipping culture in South America, and it’s not obligatory. Like anywhere in the world, though, a tip (especially at a restaurant) is always appreciated and often reflects your level of satisfaction with the service.
The largest exception to this is Paraguay. Wages are often very low in this country, even relative to other South American nations. Tipping, therefore, is greatly appreciated and helpful to service staff members.
South Americans are known for their relaxed attitude toward punctuality, and showing up to events up to thirty minutes late is not uncommon. This can spill over into your dining experiences, where service can be slower than Western visitors are accustomed to. Come to the South American experience with a bit of extra patience in this regard, and you’ll have a more enjoyable time.
Whenever going out, do as the South Americans do, and make an effort in terms of appearance and grooming. Even if an event seems casual, err on the side of more formal and put together.
Knowing a bit of conversational Spanish or Portuguese, while not necessary, will often be met with gratitude. Even if your language skills are shaky, South Americans tend to appreciate the effort.
If you’re ever invited to someone’s home, bringing a small gift (wine, flowers or candy) is customary and polite.
Electric current and plug style will vary from country to country. Colombia, for example, uses 110 volts and US-style plugs, but Brazil uses 110 volts and either two or three round prong outlets. If you’re planning on traveling to multiple countries in one South American trip, you’re best bet is to always carry a converter (for voltage) and a universal adapter (for every possible plug type).
Public bathrooms are generally available throughout South America, so unless you’re out in the wilds, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be forced to duck behind a bush. However, from country to country, expect to encounter different public restroom experiences.
- To flush or not to flush.
- Many South American countries don’t have plumbing that can handle toilet paper. In Brazil, for example, it’s common to see wastebaskets piled high with used toilet paper. In Argentina, however, there are signs specifically asking people not to do this. If you’re unsure about where to deposit your toilet paper, look for signage or other telltale signs, such as a readily available wastebasket (with or without used paper).
- Toilet styles.
- Depending on where you’re traveling, you’re likely to encounter several different toilet styles. In some countries, such as Argentina, toilets are practically indistinguishable from Western-style commodes. In others, you’ll find everything from squat toilets (little more than a hole in the floor) to dual-compartment toilets in Bolivia. The presence or lack of toilet seats will also crop up across your South American travels.
- Always be prepared.
- It’s always a gamble whether a South American restroom will provide toilet paper or not. No matter the country, it’s a good idea to come prepared with your own roll—just in case. It’s also not a given they’ll be running water, hand dryers or paper towels. A small bottle of hand sanitizer will never go amiss.
Drinking water’s one area where there are significant differences between countries, so be careful. Don’t assume because the drinking water is safe in one country that this applies to other countries. In Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, you should never drink the tap water—even in major cities. Most cautious travelers avoid even brushing their teeth with it. (Paraguay is particularly dangerous. Tap water here can carry dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid and more.)
In places like Brazil and Colombia, however, water in major cities tends to be safe, albeit unpleasant tasting, but it should be avoided in smaller towns.
On the other end of the spectrum, countries like Argentina and Chile boast safe drinking water throughout the nation. (In Chile, there’s one notable exception: San Pedro de Atacama. Avoid the water here.)
If you’re going from country to country, it can quickly get confusing. So, if you’re ever unsure, err on the side of caution. Opt for bottled water, or sterilize your water before drinking. If you want local insight, ask a resident about whether tap water is safe in that particular city.
Backroads Pro Tip
As of early 2018, Venezuela continues to be embroiled in a national crisis. Food and water shortages are common here, so if you plan to travel, always bring your own means of water purification in case bottled water isn’t available.
There are currently 14 currencies used throughout South America. Each of the 12 sovereign nations uses a nation-specific currency, the Falkland Islands uses the Falkland Islands pound, and French Guiana uses the Euro.
Backroads Pro Tip
As of March 13, 2000, Ecuador officially adopted the US dollar as its national currency. Ecuador does still produce and issue centavo coins, but US dollars are used and accepted throughout the country.
In midsize to large cities throughout South America, ATMs tend to be readily available. Always have local currency on hand for small purchases or if you find yourself in a more remote area that doesn’t accept credit cards. Unless you have a travel-specific credit card that waives travel fees, expect to pay a nominal price every time you use an ATM.
When To Visit
When planning a trip to South America, remember that the seasons are reversed from the States. Summer in the southern hemisphere is roughly November to February.
The ideal time to visit does depend on your intended activities. For example, hiking can become difficult in the rainy season, but South America spans a huge swath of the planet, and rains hit at different times in different countries. Always research the specific country (or countries) you’ll be visiting to ascertain weather patterns and ideal time to visit.
Full Article Coming Soon!
- South America is known, in large part, for its natural wonders. Here are just a few amazing, interesting, fun facts about South America’s geography:
- At 979 meters, Angel Falls (Venezuela) is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall.
- The Atacama Desert (Chile) is the driest place on the planet. Since scientists have started keeping records here, some regions have not received a single drop of rain.
- Roughly 40 percent of the world’s plant and animal species are located in South America, even though South America only spans about 12 percent of the total land surface.
- Within the Brazilian Amazon, it’s estimated there are at least 70 native communities who have never had contact with the outside world.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
The northern edge of Patagonia, this region houses wineries and views that aren’t to be missed. (Just be prepared for strong winds!)
San Carlos de Bariloche: Within Nahuel Huapi National Park, Bariloche is an outdoor adventure haven, offering everything from skiing to mountaineering. It’s also known for its tourist fare, such as restaurants, cafes and even chocolate shops.
Glaciers that recede into the horizon. Impossibly jagged mountains. Crystal-clear lagunas. Santa Cruz is the best known of all Patagonian regions for a reason.
El Calafate: While many come simply because El Calafate is a convenient base for nearby Perito Moreno Glacier, the town itself will impress. For wildlife lovers, keep an eye out for Lago Argentino and the droves of flamingos that congregate there.
El Chaltén: Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre look close enough to touch in El Chaltén, a jumping-off point for casual day hikes or multiday adventures. While here, don’t miss Laguna Capri and its impossibly blue waters.
Read our full Argentina & Patagonia Travel Guides.
The most populous and economically influential region, the Southeast is a diverse landscape that spans from tropical forests to partially arid expanses in the north.
Rio de Janeiro: Bustling, busy chaos reigns in this city so historically significant that an entire portion was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the iconic Christ the Redeemer, and, if possible, plan your trip to coincide with the whirl of colors and activity that is Carnival.
São Paulo: Cosmopolitan, diverse São Paulo is home to over 20 million people, including millions of immigrants from around the globe. The multicultural atmosphere makes this city Brazil’s cultural beating heart and a must-see for any visitor.
Expanses of untouched forest dominate this region, including cypress and the towering araucaria.
Pucón: Known as the adventure capital of Chile, Pucón is a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Villarrica and just 17 kilometers from Villarrica volcano.
Temuco: Home to famed poet Pablo Neruda, Temuco is dominated by a grand central plaza and contains various museums for the history minded.
Los Lagos Region
It’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Chile, with the region offering fishing opportunities, ski resorts, hot springs and more.
Puerto Varas: Scenic and touristy, Puerto Varas sits on the shores of Lake Llanquihue with stunning views of Osorno Volcano and Calbuco Volcano.
Bolívar Department: Whether you’re looking for snorkeling, beaches, fishing, architectural interest or history, Bolívar is the stunning place to find it all.
Cartagena: A historically significant port town, Cartagena is a colorful and architectural delight, with its colonial walls earning status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bogotá is the beating heart of Colombia, and the district it encompasses serves as the industrial, political and cultural center of the nation.
Bogotá: Steeped in its colonial history, Bogotá offers numerous museums and a distinctive blend of the traditional and modern. It’s a diverse city filled with green spaces, enticing restaurants and reminders of both traditional and cosmopolitan ways of life.
Unlike other geographic regions in Colombia, Paisa is defined not by borders but by cultural mentality. It’s largely marked by commerce, particularly the coffee, agriculture and textile industries.
Pereira: Right in the heart of the “Coffee Axis,” Pereira is a UNESCO site, as well as a draw for those seeking adventure tourism and buzzing nightlife.
La Región Insular
Encompassing the Galápagos Islands, this region features some of the most unique animal and plant life viewing in the world and is a tourist mecca.
Puerto Ayora: Boasting the most developed infrastructure within the Galápagos, it’s a popular destination for animal viewing, as well as nightlife, shopping and dining.
Known as “the highlands,” this region fittingly contains the majority of Ecuador’s snowy peaks and volcanoes.
Quito: The capital city, Quito is simultaneously modern and traditional. The historic center is considered one of the most well-preserved throughout the Americas, and Quito, along with Kraków, Poland, had the distinction of being UNESCO’s first World Cultural Heritages Sites.
Read our full Ecuador Travel Guide.
Sitting at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, this region is best known for its eponymous city, its high-altitude crops and, of course, the iconic, breathtaking Machu Picchu.
Cusco: The historic capital of the Incas, Cusco is now a vibrant, touristy town with rich cultural heritage, a gold-laced cathedral and a sweeping Plaza de Armas.
Aguas Calientes: Nestled about six kilometers from Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is the closest town to the famous ruins. Enjoy the hot springs, accommodations and restaurants, but know, compared to other areas in Peru, you’ll be paying top tourist prices here.
Worth a Visit
Spanning more than seven million square kilometers and nine nations, the Amazon is an unrivaled mass of teaming flora and fauna. Hike, boat or fly your way through this impressive display of wild, mystical rain forest.
Angel Falls (Venezuela)
Whether viewing it from a distance or from a swimming hole below, the 979 meters of freefalling water is not only the tallest in the world but one of the continent’s most impressive highlights.
Iguazu Falls (Brazil and Argentina)
From the Brazilian side, marvel at the thundering power of these falls; from the Argentine side, get an even more up-close-and-personal experience at the Devil’s Throat.
Machu Picchu (Peru)
One of the most iconic locations within South America, don’t forget to add this ancient Incan ruin to your must-do list. For an extra hiking challenge, arrive there via the Inca Trail.
Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)
Chilly and expansive, these salt flats are the largest in the world, and their austere beauty consistently attracts admirers from across the globe.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to South America
As a US citizen, you don’t need a visa to enter many South American countries (for stays of 90 days or less). However, there are exceptions to this. Bolivia, for example, requires a visa before entry. Brazil does as well, but as of January 25, 2018, you can now obtain that visa online.
Entry rules (including entry/exit fees and what countries are required to obtain visas) are always changing. Especially if you’re planning on visiting several countries in one trip, be certain you’ve done all your research and obtained all your necessary documents before you leave the States.
If you’re entering South America by air, you’ll have many choices for an entry point. Here are some of the biggest, busiest transportation hubs you’ll likely find when searching for airfare:
- São Paulo—Guarulhos International Airport (São Paulo, Brazil)
- El Dorado International Airport (Bogotá, Colombia)
- Rio de Janeiro—Galeão International Airport (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
- Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (Santiago, Chile)
- Jorge Chávez International Airport (Lima, Peru)
- Simón Bolívar International Airport (Caracas, Venezuela)
If you’re short on time, air travel is arguably the best way to hop from country to country (or region to region). International flights connect major hubs, and smaller domestic flights can often get you to midrange cities. Flight prices can add up quickly, but if you don’t have time for overland travel, flying’s your best bet.
Buses are, by far, the most common mode of long-distance transport across the continent. Options range from luxury rides (complete with air conditioning and seats that recline into beds) to budget options, where you’re likely to be sharing a seat with other passengers—and maybe even a few chickens. While you don’t have to go with the most expensive bus every time, gravitate toward midrange buses or better. These companies are more likely to rotate drivers after long shifts and might even have safety-minded speed-restricting devices built into the bus.
Renting a car is definitely the most convenient way to travel around South America, but it’s also expensive. Also, don’t forget to always check with your rental agency about any restrictions taking a car across international borders. For slow, scenic day trips, hop on a bike, and soak in the scenery and culture of whatever country you’re exploring.
Your ability to get linguistically around South America will depend on the country (or countries) you’re visiting. The official languages across the continent include the following:
- Portuguese (Brazil)
- English (Guyana and the Falkland Islands)
- French (French Guiana)
- Dutch (Suriname)
In addition to these official languages, there are numerous dialects and indigenous languages throughout the continent. Due to the Brazilian population, Portuguese is the most widely spoken language in South America, but Spanish is spoken in the most countries. If you learn just one language, Spanish would be your best bet.
While learning Spanish is, by no means, a prerequisite to packing your bags and heading to South America, you’re more likely to run into non-English speakers here than, say, Western Europe. With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to learn some Spanish basics to make your travels smoother. Focus on keywords and phrases that’ll help you navigate restaurants, transportation hubs, accommodations and basic conversation:
- Hello: Hola
- My name is…: Me llamo…
- Yes: Sí
- No: No
- Thank you: Gracias
- You’re welcome: De nada/Por nada
- I’m sorry: Lo siento
- Please: Por favor
- Please help me: Por favor, ayúdame
- I don’t understand: No entiendo
- Do you speak English: Habla inglés
- Where’s the bathroom: Dónde está el baño
Backroads Pro Tip
While Spanish and Portuguese do share many similarities, don’t assume a Portuguese speaker will automatically and fully understand Spanish (or vice versa). They are unique, separate languages, and you might accidentally insult someone by assuming they can be used interchangeably.
Food and Drink
What South American travel guide would be complete without mentioning the food? The culinary scene of each South American country is vibrant and unique, but here are some can’t-miss eats that should top your list:
- Arepa: Essentially a flatbread sandwich, an arepa can be made from maize or flour and can be filled with just about anything. (Cheese, meat and eggs are some of the most popular options.) Venezuela is particularly known for this dish.
- Ceviche: Fresh raw seafood cured in citrus, ceviche began in Peru and spread through many coastal regions of South America. It’s almost akin to sushi but with a South American flair all its own.
- Empanada: Empanadas (those crescent-shaped savory pastries filled with vegetables, cheese or meat) are so pervasive in Argentina that nearly every province has a unique flavor.
- Maté: A tea made from holly tree leaves, maté is many things: an Argentinian passion, a buzzy pick-me-up and an undeniably acquired taste.
- Pastel: Brazil’s answer to the empanada, these tasty pastries can be savory or, less often, sweet.
- Pisco Sour: Was this drink first created in Peru or Chile? The debate rages on. One thing’s certain, though. The cocktail is now found throughout South America—and it’s delicious!
- Platanos Fritos: Fried plantains are uniquely South American and can be found throughout the continent.
Food in South America: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Safety concerns vary widely throughout the continent, and any South America travel should involve adequate education on the potential dangers.
To that end, Uruguay has the distinction of being known as one of the safest places to travel in South America, and Argentina, Chile and Ecuador are also widely considered safe. Countries like Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia have higher instances of crime. (Note: Colombia is considerably safer now than it has been in recent years.) Currently, Venezuela is the most volatile South American region, and it poses the largest safety concerns. Caracas and areas near the Colombian border are particularly unstable.
Obviously, not everyone who visits these regions will experience issues, but an extra dose of precaution is a good idea. To that end, never take food or drinks from strangers, take official taxis from the airport (not the cars waiting outside the gates), and never get in a taxi that already has a passenger.
To prevent petty theft, add locks to your zipped bags, always carry your bags on your lap (beneath the bus, between your legs or above your head makes your bags vulnerable to slashing and grabbing), and keep important documents in a money belt on your person.
Drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine, are illegal everywhere in South America, but they’re also big business. Anyone caught with these substances can definitely serve jail time—or worse. Be aware drugs can also be offered in scams specifically meant to blackmail or to exhort tourists, so it’s best to abstain altogether.
Emergency Numbers (for Police):
- Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela: 911
- Brazil: 190
- Chile: 133
- Colombia: 123
- Falkland Islands, French Guiana: 112
- Guyana, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: 999
- Suriname: 115
One last word of caution: if a plainclothes police person ever stops you, don’t get into a car with him or her. Don’t show documentation or money. If the query seems legitimate, insist on going to the police station (on foot).
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great South American adventure!