An itinerary through: Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil

You can’t really fit everything there is to do and see in South America into one trip (or two, or three). The continent is about three times the size of Europe.

Surprised? The size and diversity of this continent just blow my mind. Although I’m a big fan of spending more time in one place, South America is a popular destination for backpackers wanting to see as many countries as possible. In 2015 we, the NomadApp team, have done it ourselves. So here we put together tips and a 2–3 month itinerary for South America.

First, the travel hacks.

Travel Hacks

Wherever you go: you can save big if you know the local travel ecosystem. Ask questions like: Do people take buses or trains? Which budget airlines are local? Where do they go? Do these airlines show up on travel platforms like Google Flights or is there a local OTA? Is there a local bus comparison site?

Our secret weapons for South America are the following:

  • flights are more expensive than in other parts of the world (distances are huge)
  • the cheapest budget airlines are Viva Colombia, Colombia based; they fly into the US, Panama and Peru
  • flights in Chile, Argentina and Brazil are comparatively expensive: buses are the way to go
  • long distance bus travel is comfortable and cheap (the standard is often better than the usual buses you know from the US)
  • for bus comparison Busbud has the most extensive database
  • information online is sometimes limited and you might get better prices by going to local bus terminals directly rather than on the Internet

The Itinerary

6 countries, 20 cities, 2–3 months

Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, Tayrona National Park, Bogota, Lima, Paracas, Huacachina, Cusco, Aguascalientes, Copacabana, Isla del Sol, La Paz, Uyuni, San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, Foz de Iguazu, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro

Start in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

You don’t have to start out in Cartagena but I found it to be a convenient starting point for a number of reasons. For one thing, flights from the US to Cartagena are cheap (See: Fort Lauderdale to Cartagena for $64USD). Plus: it’s beautiful and very much a vacation spot. If you’re from Europe or Asia you may want to fly into Brazil first, and start the itinerary there.

However, the upsides are clear: Caribbean colonial flair mixed with delicious Colombian food and great music. You’ll love Cartagena. We stayed for four days.

Cartagena de Indias — Santa Marta  $11

We took a $11 bus found on Busbud. It’s a four hour bus ride. If you have time, you can stop in Barranquilla. If you’re heading there in February you should definitely try to visit the famous carnival in Barranquilla. It’s one of the biggest carnivals in the world.

Santa Marta — Tayrona National Park  $10

From there on you can take another local bus to go to Tayrona National Park or stop by Taganga for a few days of partying. The cost should be about $5–10USD.

Santa Marta — Bogota  $30

Flights on Colombia’s budget airline VivaColombia are unbelievably cheap. For only $27.76 you can fly from Santa Marta to Bogota.

Spend a few days in Bogota and see how different the capital is from Cartagena!

If you have more time stop by these cool places in Colombia.

Ready to move on? It’s time to head on to the next country: Peru.

Bogota — Lima  $167

As mentioned before, VivaColombia just really is one of the cheapest airlines in South America. Internationally, they only go to Panama and Peru. Perfect opportunity to hop over to Lima.

Ready to get your Machu Picchu adventure started?

Cusco is still a few days away from you but we’re on our way! Get ready to spend a few nights on buses.

Lima — Ica $14

We found the bus by just showing up at the bus terminal in Lima and asking around (normally cheaper than online). However, these negotiations do sometimes require quite some Spanish skills. If you want to buy your tickets online, try Busbud.

Ica — Paracas  $5

Take a local bus or taxi from Ica to the little fishing village Paracas. It is one of the few spots where you can get a glimpse of the famous Nazca lines. For those that don’t know them: the Nazca lines are a group of pre-Columbian geoglyphs etched into desert sands. Covering an area of nearly 1,000 sq. kilometers, there are about 300 different figures, including animals and plants. You can see them from a helicopter but went the cheaper route and took a boat tour. The one you can see in Paracas is not as big as the ones in Nazca itself but still worth it. Besides, it’s also great for animal spotting.

Paracas- Huacachina  $9

Again, ask around and take a local bus or taxi to the desert oasis of Huacachina. You won’t have problems finding a driver, it’s one of the most common destinations for travelers. Enjoy your desert experience, sandboarding down the dunes and riding a rollercoaster buggy. We stayed for only a night before heading back to Ica trying to make our way to Cusco.

Ica — Cusco (17h)  $28

It’s finally time to head to Machu Picchu! Yes, it’s a cray 17 hour ride from Ica to Cusco but you can do it! Again we booked our tickets at the local bus terminal but they are available on Busbud for about $30 USD.

We recommend staying in Cusco for at least 2 nights to get used to the altitude. You’re at almost 12,000 feet (3,400 m). Note: You’re not yet at Machu Picchu. Packages range from about $150 — $500USD for a 2–3 day trip. We booked with a local travel agent in Cusco the town is full of them and it turned out to be a lot cheaper than online.

If you want to do the trip the cheapest way possible: follow the advice here. We’ll Show you the Cheapest Way to Visit Machu Picchu

Ready for Bolivia?

Again we hopped on a bus headed to the Bolivian border. It was not that easy to organize but there are bus companies that take you to Copacabana (Bolivia) gateway to the famous Titicaca lake. Ask around for bus tickets.

Cusco — Puno — Copacabana (11h)  $35

We ended up booking at a local bus terminal in Cusco and took the overnight bus to Copacabana with a short stop in Puno and the Bolivian border.

From there you can take a ferry to Isla del Sol

Copacabana — Isla del Sol  $9

We spent 2 nights on the Isla del Sol playing football with local kids and hiking around the island.

Copacabana — La Paz  $7

A 4h bus and you’ll arrive in Bolivia’s capital city La Paz. We didn’t stay long and went straight on to Uyuni on yet another 12 hour night bus.

La Paz — Uyuni  $35

Congrats! By now you’ve spent 3 nights on buses! However, Uyuni’s saltflats are worth the journey!

Uyuni — San Pedro de Atacama  $20

By now, you’re used to them: another bus will take you across the Chilean border to San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama — Santiago de Chile (17h)  $40

And another bus … to Santiago de Chile! Our advice: book with local company like Pullman.

Santiago — Buenos Aires, Argentina  $100

If you’re sick of buses by now: take a $100 flight found on Google Flights via Sky Airline. Or enjoy the scenic night bus crossing the Andes.

Buenos Aires — Foz de Iguazu (16h)  $80

I would definitely recommend spending some time in Buenos Aires to recover from all the night buses. Maybe head to some surrounding cities or villages, explore the “Tierra del Fuego” and recharge. Because there’s yet another night bus to come. It’s about $80 with a local bus company like Andesmar.

Optional: cross the border and stop by in Paraguay

Foz de Iguazu — Sao Paulo  $66

I ended up taking yet another nightbus. However, if I went back in time I’d take a flight on a local airline like Gol or Azul. I found flights starting at $66 Google Flights

São Paulo — Rio de Janeiro  $30

It always depend on what you’re looking for but I’ve heard from many travelers that they liked Rio better than Sao Paulo. Maybe plan to spend more time there than in Rio. We found a $30 bus on Busbud.

Last stop: Rio de Janeiro

Fly back from Rio de Janeiro

TIME: 2–3 months
TOTAL: $656 (585€)

How to book: If our sample searches don’t work or the dates don’t fit just go to Google flights, Skyscanner or Busbud and play around with the dates a bit. You should be able to get pretty the same prices. We’ll leave it at that. We gotta go (off to the next adventure!).

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