Tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your adventures
Dizzying heights, spectacular landscapes, vibrant cities and endless opportunities – welcome to South America! Every year many adventurous travellers come here to experience the diverse countries of this continent. I got chatting with an experienced backpacker who was kind enough to share some tips and tricks that she picked up on her travels that her her from Peru to Patagonia!
Backpacking in South-East Asia and a solo trip through Australia may well be the vogue thing to do for aspiring travellers, but what amazes me is that backpacking in South America is still unheard of to so many people! The continent is a unique adventure, filled to the brim with landscapes which will take your breath away – and not just because of the thin air in the Andes! It truly is highlight after highlight – from the deserts to the jungles to the major urban cities, all underneath an incredible starry sky. I’ve had a quick chat with a traveller named Anna, who trekked, adventured and explored her way from Peru to Patagonia together with her boyfriend. She hiked through national parks, laid on the beaches of Chile and got some amazing selfies with llamas! Her fascinating pictures can be viewed on her Instagram account. She’s been kind enough to share with me the route she’s taken as well as various tips and tricks which will make a backpacking trip across South America that little bit easier!
Anna’s journey in South America begins in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. “Even the flight from Lima is beautiful – you can fly over the Andes and see the snow-covered peaks.” The city itself is nestled in a valley, spreading out from the main square of Plaza de Armas. The centre of the city in particular features beautiful, baroque buildings that create a nostalgic charm thanks to their intricate designs. In the rainy season, the weather can be quite unpredictable. “But you shouldn’t let that stop you,” says Anna.
Guru Tip: Altitude sickness is no joke! If you feel a bit short of breath and are also suffering from symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and nausea, it’s time to act! You will be able to get expert help at the reception of your hotel or hostel.
“As soon as you leave the centre, you’ll be going uphill. If you’ve not been to South America before, then you can be quite shocked to see how the sheer altitude affects you. The air is so thin that two steps can sometimes feel like a half marathon.” Hardly a surprise if you ask me – Peru’s touristic centre is located at a dizzying height of 3,416 metres above sea level! Cases of altitude sickness among tourists are therefore not uncommon.
Cusco is the starting point for various trips and excursions to sites such as Machu Picchu, and has gained status as the tourist centre of Peru over the years. “The typical tourist and Andean markets are everywhere,” Anna confirms. As a result, you can expect generally higher prices in Cusco compared to the rest of the country.
Legendary Machu Picchu
If you’re ever in Peru or are planning a backpacking trip through South America, an excursion to Machu Picchu is obviously a must. “It’s already very touristy, that’s true. But regardless of this, when you’re standing in front of one of the seven wonders of the world, it’s truly overwhelming knowing that the Inca built this so many years ago”.
“There are three possible routes to Machu Picchu – the Inca Trail, which was unfortunately closed in February, the trail which is over 5,000 metres high in parts (this was a bit too audacious for us), and the Inca Jungle track, which we ultimately decided to take.” Across four days and three nights, packed with numerous sporting activities such as mountain biking and rafting, Anna travelled from Cusco to the Machu Picchu ruins. “It’s super easy to book these tours inCusco, because there are plenty of providers who offer the same packages at similar prices.”
After her final night in Machu Picchu village, Anna’s day started very early – the gates to the ancient Inca ruins open at 4:30am. “You should have your passport and your ticket ready so you can quickly pass through the entry gate and get a Machu Picchu stamp for your passport.” The early bird catches the worm in this instance! If you have already done the climb by 6 am, you can sit in sheer amazement and watch thesun rise over this ancient wonder of the world “There are of course shuttle busses available, but we wanted the full experience.That’s why we took the steps to the top. And it was absolutely worth it!”
Anna’s tips for your visit:
Do not be put off by the season. Even in the rainy season, the visit can be beautiful, as long as you pack the right clothes.
The train to Machu Picchu is unfortunately quite expensive, so the hikes along the trails are worth it.
Many backpackers make the same mistake and only allow for one day there! You have to leave the ruins early in the morning, so that you can get the last buses. If you book another night in the Machu Picchu village instead, (while you’re in Cusco), you can stay in Machu Picchu until 4 pm. Take advantage of this additional time, and simply have a sit down in the sun.
Book a climb up the Machu Picchu mountain (also known as Huayna Picchu), and admire the city of the Inca from above. The view is crazy! Since the ticket quotas are limited, you should make sure that you buy your tickets well in advance.
Macchu Picchu has a circular design, so you cannot simply turn around half way through: you have to leave and reenter. However, readmission is only possible a few times. The toilets also lie outside the exit, so you should plan your day in advance.
If you think Anna sounds like a real power woman who can hike through the Peruvian wilderness, climb the countless steps of Macchu Picchu, as well as climb a mountain and go downhill again, fear not: “At the end of the day I was absolutely knackered – the first thing I did when I got back was collapse on the bed!”
The real Peru in Arequipa
Thanks to the free walking tour through the political and economic centre of southern Peru, Anna was able to explore the city of Arequipa without overstretching her travel budget. Arequipa shines in pure white – there are numerous beautiful churches here. The cathedral at Plaza de Armas will particularly catch your eye, its spires marking the very centre of the city. It was here that Anna got her first true feeling of being in Peru: “Arequipa is smaller and far less touristy than Cusco. The standard of the houses, however, is very different. While some are very well kept, others are falling apart.“
From Arequipa, we went on to the Colca Canyon for a two-day tour of the crater, the likes of which overshadowing even the Grand Canyon. On the first day, you hike along the ancient terraces, ploughed by hand and animal still to this day, before eventually heading further down into the gorge. For those of you who already think that this sounds like a difficult task, then you’ll definitely reach your limits on the second day, where you’ve got to hike back up steep, rocky hairpin turns. Anna’s conclusion sounds a bit mundane, but is nonetheless an important recommendation for all of you who are considering seeing this wonder of nature yourself: “If you do not feel you have the ability to hike back up again, do not go down!” The tour is therefore only really suited for the sporty ones amongst you.
On the border between Peru and Bolivia lies the largest lake in South America. Anna has visited both sides of the lake and definitely favours the Bolivian side.
“Everything on the Peruvian side was very touristy, the Bolivian side is much nicer!” But before you cross over from to Bolivia, you should prepare yourself – the departure from Peru can take some time. “The entry into Bolivia was super fast, I had no idea what the Peruvians were up to…”
The first place Anna chose to stay in Bolivia was the small town of Copacabana. It is located in one of the bays at Lake Titicaca and has a fantastic viewing platform. The sunset here had a lasting impression on Anna. “When the sky turns pinkish-red and the lights come on in the village, the lake looks fascinating.” Not only can you collect some amazing photos here, but Anna also gave me a great tip for all you foodies out there: “At the local beach, you can eat extremely cheap and really tasty fish.” Sounds like a plan, right? The next part of Anna’s South American trip is also exciting: a day trip to Isla del Sol, one of the holy islands of the Inca. “Unfortunately you have to pay a fee for using the trails/strong> on the island. Although it’s only the equivalent of one or two Euros, it all adds up,” Anna reveals. But she did not want to miss the trip to Isla del Sol, and what’s more the trails there are in good condition, which you’d expect after having to pay this fee!
The trendy city of La Paz
Thought that La Paz was the capital of Bolivia? I thought that too for a while myself actually, but actually it’s the city of Sucre which claims the title, situated much further south in the country. La Paz is actually the seat of the government of Bolivia – and the city is full of the flair which you’d expect from a capital.
Of course, the party hostels such as Wild Rover contribute towards this flair. “I can highly recommend the Wild Rover. There is always something going on here. We met lots of people, there is a bar, and the free walking tour from the hostel is really good.” Just what every backpacker wants, right?
Taking a ride on the cable car in La Paz is also definitely worth doing – it was built to ease the traffic in the city. The Mi Teleferico runs on three different lines, all of which are colour-coded. “A ride is not at all expensive and it gives you a completely new perspective of the city.” For those of you who are scared of heights, La Paz also has many other tourist attractions on offer.
Uyuni and the salt flats
bizarre reflections of the sky – it gives you the illusion that you are walking on water! However, it’s not just during the day that the salt desert makes for some wonderfully unique photography. Even at night, you should have your camera at hand: “After dark, we saw the most amazing starry sky of our whole trip.” And that must mean something!
On the second part of the tour, the camera simply did not stop clicking. Anna’s favourite photo opportunity in the salt flats was getting up close and personal with the local fauna. Flamingos, llamas and alpacas all call the salt flats their home! “The climate changes repeatedly throughout the journey” – the days in the desert are characterised by glaring light, while it can become very cold at night. To make your trip through the remote landscapes of Bolivia to the Chilean border just as pleasant as Anna’s, she advises you to take some precautions: “In Uyuni, you can book the desert tours everywhere – often at times you’re in the middle of nowhere alone with a driver. If the agency does not have proper cars or guides, it can be really dangerous.” Therefore, you should be well informed beforehand as to which provider is reliable. Anna had a great experience with Salty Desert Adventures.
After a short detour to San Pedro and a somewhat hazy day in Santiago de Chile, the next highlight of Anna’s backpacking trip through South America awaits her. Vina del Mar is a fashionable holiday destination. It is a known getaway destination for many of Santiago’s inhabitants. The proximity to the beach and the palm trees give that real holiday feeling. Simply rent a board and dive into the sea at Vina’s city beach – it’s that easy! But as you can imagine, as with all of the activities so far, there is always something to do when it comes to sport and exercise! As it so happens, the Dunas de Concon is an excellent place to go sandboarding. “The boards can be hired for next to nothing and it’s really great fun.” But there’s no reason to be nervous about doing it if it’s your first time: “I fell over loads, and turned completely black because of the sand!” Just get out there and try it!
If you’re the kind of person who prefers the sand on the beach as opposed to the dunes, you should head to one of the beaches in the north of the city. The beaches here are usually empty, if not completely deserted. It sounds so relaxing in Vina del Mar. Well, it is, even in the evening: “You can’t go wrong with Vina!”
Art in Valparaíso
Known for its street art and graffiti, Valparaíso is definitely worth a day trip. You can simply drift through the streets here and admire the colourful works of art, which can be found everywhere. Everything is colourful, creative and there is something new to be discovered at every corner. “In one of the numerous rooftop bars, you can also kick back and enjoy the sun.”
The starting point for Anna’s adventure in Patagonia was Punta Arenas. It’ll quickly become clear that in Patagonia, everything is far more expensive than in the rest of the country. This is because many tourists come to this area to cross the border from Chile to Argentina, and vice versa. Particularly popular is a trip to Ushuaia. From here you can take hiking tours to Tierra del Fuego National Park, or embellish your passport with a stamp from the southernmost city in the world.
For many backpackers, this part of the continent is the number one spot to visit. However, this was not entirely the case for Anna: “I would only go to Ushuaia if you really had the time, and money is no issue.” She also speaks of one of the weak points of the region. The bus trip from Punta Arenas is twelve hours long and is frequently sold out, so a trip there will most likely be spontaneous. In addition, the trip down south costs about 35 dollars per person, which is significantly cheaper than the return trip, which costs almost double. “If you’re initially down south, then you’ll have to return anyway,” stated Anna. Tierra del Fuego National Park is truly beautiful with its fjords, bays and mountains, but can not compete with Torres del Paine. A tent for the night in the national park costs 25 dollars, but the camping grounds are free.
Torres del Paine National Park
Having arrived in Puerto Natales, the preparation for an excursion to Torres del Paine is almost child’s play. “You can simply hire everything, from the tent to the sleeping bag, to the camping stove and the dishes. In fact, you don’t actually need to bring anything.” Preparations are also helped by the fact that regular information events are held here. Locals inform tourists about the current conditions in the national park, the weather situation, as well as the perfect survival kit to take with you. This informative event is known as the ‘3 o’clock talk’ and takes place daily in the Erratic Rock hostel. “You need at least one day to attend the talk, as well as buy and pack everything.” In the national park, there are only overpriced kiosks, in case of emergency. That’s why it’s sensible for backpackers in South America to be well equipped, before beginning their hike.
“There are two possible routes through the National Park: the W-Track and the O-Track. In the latter you get to hike through the entire park – I’d definitely recommend it. If you’re well trained you can definitely do it in five days, but we allowed for more time. Every blister on your foot is more than worth it!” No wonder then, that the park is one of Anna’s personal highlights from South America. The hikes will lead you past the snow-capped peaks of adventurous mountains, crystal clear lakes and impressive glaciers. This dreamy scenery is so different and so far away from home, that you’ll either be left feeling homesick, or gazing in awe. Guess how Anna reacted!
The park got its name, Torres del Paine, from the three needle-shaped granite mountains, located approximately in the middle of the park. The name means ‘towers of the blue sky‘.
Anna’s Tips for Torres del Paine:
Hang your food in the trees! Why? On some camping sites, there are mice, which will try to eat their way through your tent sheet and your supplies, as well as other sorts of packaging.
A hiking stick will serve you very well, particularly during the rainy season – you’ll more than likely have to walk through streams.
At night it can get really cold, so dress warmly!
You’ll get nowhere without a reservation – you should book the hike up to two months in advance.
Perito Moreno Glacier
Admittedly, the journey, as well as the entrance fee, is quite expensive. But when you hear Anna’s motivation for going, then the 80 dollar fee will be no issue. Perito Moreno is a glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, known for its consistent mass and constant movements. It is one of few glaciers in the world which is advancing, and not retreating. “And how often do you ever get to come so close to a glacier?“
Due to its tendency to shift, it is not uncommon for huge chunks of ice to break off from the edge of the glacier and fall to the ground. A unique spectacle of nature! “I sat down and waited so long for something to break off. I really wanted to see it. Then it began to crack and a huge piece fell off and crashed into the water.“
The capital of hiking – El Chaltén
El Chaltén is known as Argentina’s hiking capital. Although the route here is still very long, the access roads have been very well developed, and the drive over the inadequate gravel tracks is now a thing of the past. The Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains are particularly popular with hikers and free riders alike. I asked Anna to describe the hikes, which she undertook: “Both mountains can be hiked from the city as day trips. All routes are excellently signposted, making it easy to find your way around. Moreover, the tracks are mostly flat – the Cerro Torre is particularly easy for any ability. On the hiking trails of the Fitz Roy, it’s only the last section up to the mountain lake which is a bit steeper and more strenuous – but it is absolutely worth it!”
By bus: approximately 24 hours or 2 x 12 hours with intermediate stop (in Cordoba for example)
After her adventures in Patagonia, Anna returned to north-west Argentina. The reason for her journey here is a university expedition, which she is partaking in. It starts in Salta and leads through the Jujuy region. “Salta is also good for tourists. Although, this area is incomparable with the other tourist resorts in South America! But the stones found here, which are coloured by minerals, are really cool.”
In Jujuy, Anna was able to truly immerse herself in the rural and secluded Argentinean lifestyle: “There were no hostels or restaurants. Sometimes we slept in a church and drove for hours on gravel roads, which led to the middle of nowhere.I do not believe that travelling this area is possible without contacts.” So, if you’re a beginner when it comes to backpacking, cross this region off your list – even if it does have its charms.
Anna’s last stop, before she returns home, takes her to Argentina’s capital. “I did a free walking tour here – Buenos Aires is a really cool city! Also, the cemetery, known as La Recoleta, is a must see! Virtually every coffin has its own house here!” Anna was also very fond of the bookstore El Ateneo Grand Splendid which is an old theatre. The hipster district, with all its hostels and street art, was also worth visiting too. “This is a great place to stay.” Anna unfortunately didn’t get to experience the nightlife here, which Argentina’s capital is famous for: “After two and a half months on the road, I was honestly just looking forward to going home.”
Unique South America
Are you overwhelmed by the diversity of South America? I definitely believe that backpacking in South America is the best way to discover this fascinating continent. If you ever decide to embark upon this long journey, then you’ll want to experience as much as possible. Anna was very enthusiastic about her experience. As she was, you’ll be lost for words on more than one occasion, I’ll guarantee you!
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