Apart from a short 10-day trip to Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, I hadn’t seen much of South America until recently and a proper backpacking trip to this part of the world had been on my bucket list for years. So, when I finally had the chance to go there in spring 2017, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I had given myself four weeks, which may seem like a lot when you’re working full-time and used to holidays of not more than two weeks in a row, but in fact it’s hardly enough to visit one single country in the region, let alone four. I was determined, though, to stick to my preferred itinerary: starting in Buenos Aires and – crossing parts of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru – finishing in Lima (partly because most of the highlights I wanted to see were on this route and partly because these two cities had the best international flight connections). And although a lot of fellow travellers I met on my way thought it was a crazy idea to do this in just four weeks, I managed to make it work. And what’s more, my trip hardly ever felt rushed.
So how did I do it? Looking back, a number of things helped me to ensure this was one of the smoothest multi-country trips I’ve done so far:
South America is VAST and as a European it’s easy to underestimate the time it takes to get from one place to another. I knew I was never going to be able to see everything there is to see. Instead, I decided to focus on a few key destinations I definitely didn’t want to miss – including the Salar de Uyuni and Machu Picchu – and planned my trip around them. Obviously, my list changed several times, but at the point of booking my flights I had a pretty solid idea of all of the places on my trip I wanted to see and experiences I wanted to have.
2. Research and plan a LOT (but not everything) in advance
Once I knew which places I wanted to visit I started looking into the more detailed practicalities. How much time would I need to see a certain place? What were the different options and prices to get from A to B and at which days and times? Would it be worth spending a bit more on a quick internal flight instead of a long-haul bus? Were there any special tours I wanted to do, how much would they cost and what were the experiences of other people? What were the nicest hostels or hotels to stay in? Speaking to South American friends or people I knew who had travelled to the region previously also gave me a lot of new insights and helped me fine-tune my ‘master plan’.
Being the spreadsheet lover that I am, I had soon compiled a two-page document that combined all of the information into one overview, with a day-by-day planning. However, apart from my return flight to South America, I didn’t book anything (just) yet. A day before arriving in each new destination I would check availability in the hostel(s) I had selected and would book online if needed. However, quite often I found that hostels and tours still had space even on the same day.
3. Speaking the local language helps
Of course, no one would expect you to be fluent in Spanish or Portuguese when you embark on a trip to South America (let alone all of the other indigenous languages that are spoken across the region). However, understanding even just a few words of the local language can make all the difference. In my case, speaking Spanish meant I was able to ask for recommendations or directions whenever I needed any guidance. Given the fact that I hadn’t booked any local travel or accommodation in advance, talking to locals allowed me to get the right information at the right time and helped me a great deal to make my journey as smooth as possible.
4. Stick to the plan
There’s no point in coming up with a great travel plan and then not sticking to it, especially when your time is limited. So, once I set foot on South American soil I vigorously followed my schedule. At times, this meant I had to skip certain tours or activities because I simply didn’t have the time. For instance, when I got to La Paz and everyone seemed to be going to Death Road for a day and I had bail out because doing so would have meant I was not going to reach my next stop on time. I was, however, not completely inflexible and sometimes I did compromise. I spent a day longer in Buenos Aires than planned, for example, because I loved the city so much and realised that taking a quick (but rather expensive) flight to my next destination would outweigh the benefits of an 18 hour bus ride. And in Cuzco I decided to do a three- instead of a two-day tour to Machu Picchu and spend less time in the city.
Finally – and this may sound rather obvious but it’s so true – no journey runs seamlessly without a bit of luck. I was incredibly lucky that there were no major hick-ups that could have derailed my South American travel plan. All busses ran (more or less) as planned, no flights were delayed or cancelled, the weather didn’t cause any problems (just a few weeks prior to my trip parts of Peru were flooded and inaccessible, but all had been resolved by the time I arrived there) and there was enough space in most of the hostels I had picked (but not booked in advance).
Curious about my South American adventure and the places I eventually visited? Read all about it here!