Bustling cosmopolitan cities, inhospitable jungle forests, snowed mountain tops, mesmerising ruins and colourful folklore – South America is a place of incredible natural and cultural diversity. You could spend a lifetime travelling this part of the American continent and still not have seen everything there is to see. However, this 4-week itinerary from Buenos Aires to Lima, although far from complete, provides you with a glimpse of some of the best that this part of the world has to offer.
Although 4 weeks might seem rather short to cover such a vast part of South America, it can easily be done. Yes, distances here are big, but I found out that with advanced planning and prioritising (and taking an internal flight here and there) travelling from Buenos Aires to Lima in 4 weeks is perfectly doable. In fact, I think it’s THE perfect itinerary if you’re short on time, but still want to get a sneak peek of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru – 4 countries that are connected not only by the Andes Mountains but also by their shared Inca past.
I did this trip in March-April 2017, and these were some (but not all) of my highlights:
- Fall in love with Buenos Aires
- Two tales of northern Argentina
- The most epic bus ride ever: Salta to San Pedro de Atacama
- Watch the stars in the driest place on earth: Atacama
- Travel through jaw-dropping landscapes in Bolivia
- Sucre: a delight of a city
- Try to navigate your way through Lake Titicaca
- Indulge in Peruvian food in Arequipa
- Follow the footsteps of the Incas in Cusco and Machu Picchu
- Sip pisco sours in Lima
Fall in love with Buenos Aires
Have you ever had that strange sensation that you absolutely love a certain place, without actually ever having been there? Well, that’s how I felt about Buenos Aires. For some reason I just knew that I this city was a match for me. And I was right. Although the feeling was not immediately mutual (I was welcomed by rain and mass demonstrations that blocked the roads to the city centre), the Argentinian capital soon gave me a warm embrace. I stayed in Palermo, which turned out to be a great decision as it’s young, lively, safe and well connected to other parts of the city. Palermo is almost a city in itself and can be divided into 3 different parts: up and coming Palermo Soho, hip and happening Palermo Hollywood and cool and quaint Palermo Viejo.
Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts though. So while you have trendy districts like Palermo on the one end, you’ll find poor working class neighbourhoods (and even slums) on the other. One of the most well-known working class areas is La Boca. Images of its colourful improvised homes often appear on the covers of tourists guides of Buenos Aires. Although it’s an iconic place to visit, I was a bit underwhelmed by La Boca. What was once (supposedly) an authentic colourful neighbourhood is now a (still colourful) Disneyfied tourist trap. Go and see it, tick it off the list (let me know if you disagree with me!) and then move on to more interesting places.
San Telmo is another popular area. It’s actually the city’s oldest neighbourhood and although parts of it are a bit run down and neglected, it has an incredible charm. In fact, one of my highlights in Buenos Aires was the Feria de San Telmo, the neighbourhood’s weekly Sunday flee market. It offers a great mix of kitsch and antique, tourists and locals, cheap wine and artisan beer and a good dose of sunshine. And in the evening, once the feria has ended, the local Plaza Dorrego is converted into an open air tango dance floor!
On the other end of the spectrum is Recoleta, where Argentina’s Old Money resides. It’s home to some of the city’s most elegant villas AND its most famous cemetery: the Cementerio de Recoleta. No, don’t expect anything creepy – this cemetery is filled with extravagantly decorated mausoleums and tombs and is the final resting place of many Argentinian public figures and celebrities, including Eva Perón. I thought it was well worth the visit.
For a full list of things to see, do and eat in Buenos Aires, check out my separate blog post about this incredible city here soon.
Two tales of northern Argentina
The waterfalls of Iguazu are breathtakingly beautiful so it’s no surprise that a lot of people visiting Buenos Aires make a trip to the falls. If you’re not keen on taking the 18 hour bus ride, then flying to Iguazu is the way to go. It not only saves you time, but the views from above are stunning and give you a nice idea of South America’s hugely diverse landscape. Flights do get expensive (especially for non-Argentinians) so if you’re clever (unlike me) make sure you book in advance!
Although you could spend 2 days or even more at Iguazu to see the falls from different angles, I decided to stay for just half a day. It was short, I admit, but just long enough to get a good impression of the waterfalls and to walk around the area. The Argentinian and Brazilian side of the park each have their pros and cons, but the cool thing of visiting the Argentinian part is that you actually get to see the falls from up close – you get to go all the way to the edge!
After I treated myself to a night in a really nice jungle lodge in Iguazu, I continued my journey (on a plane) to Salta. Although it’s situated at almost the same latitude as Iguazu, it feels worlds apart from it. This is ancient Inca territory, at the foot of the Andes mountains. The climate is drier here, the people look different, it’s getting slightly more chaotic… Salta’s colonial architecture is beautiful enough but the most interesting thing I got to see here was the High-Mountain Archeological Museum (MAAM), which takes visitors 500 years back in time to the Inca era.
Salta is a great basis to discover more of northern Argentina, both of its distinct natural beauty and culture. I highly recommend a day tour to the Quebrada de las Conchas, a canyon with incredible red-coloured rock formations. Also make sure to visit some of the region’s wineries (which can often be combined with a tour to the canyon) and try the regional cuisine – the most famous local dish is locro, a warm earthy stew. It’s not to everyone’s taste but I quite liked it!
The most epic bus ride ever: Salta to San Pedro de Atacama
The 10 hour overland bus trip from Salta in Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama is surely THE most epic one I’ve ever made. The views are simply spectacular. As you cross the Andes, the landscape changes constantly, from colourful mountains and salt flats to dry plains and snowed volcanoes. After each turn is an even more impressive view.
Just when you think you can’t go any higher, you ascend even further into the mountains – by the time you cross the Argentinian-Chilean border, you will have reached a whopping 4,300 meters! The altitude might get to you (I just got a headache and dry mouth), but the views will continue to amaze you and distract you from any signs of altitude sickness, I promise!
According to me, this is one for the bucket lists. And if you ever do go on this journey, make sure to take a day bus and to get a window seat (duh).
Watch the stars in the driest place on earth: Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is a bit of a strange place. It’s a tiny town in the middle of the driest desert on earth, during the day it can get boiling hot and at night freezing cold, and it’s made up of semi-improvised houses and buildings… and yet it’s buzzing with visitors and tourists from all over the world, all of whom are using it as their base camp to explore the surrounding natural wonders.
The one thing that everyone comes to see in Atacama is the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, called like this because of its moonlike landscape. It truly is an out-of-this-world setting. Weird rock formations, craters, sand dunes and salt caves… It’s a place unlike any other I’ve ever seen. Besides the Moon Valley, there are plenty of other beautiful sites in the Atacama Desert that are worth a trip, including stunning lagoons and geysers (which I skipped because I was going to see similar places on the next leg of my trip).
If you’re staying in San Pedro overnight, I would highly recommend you do a star gazing tour. Because of its altitude (you’re literally closer to the stars), its dryness (which makes the air less blurry), and its isolated location (there’s little light pollution), the Atacama Desert is one of the best places on the planet to observe the wider universe and the amount of detail you get to see just with your bare eyes is incredible. Although you can of course do this on your own, having a guide explain everything makes the experience just so much more interesting. For me, this was a real eye opener (literally)!
Travel through jaw-dropping landscapes in southern Bolivia
I was so excited about this next part of my trip: a 3-day jeep tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia. After a fruitless attempt to try and find the best tour operator (lesson: you never know which one you’re going to end up with – even after booking – and they’re all more or less the same anyways) I eventually joined a group of other travellers on what was to become one of the most memorable travel experiences of my life so far. There were seven of us, including myself and our Bolivian driver and guide Lucas, plus luggage and food for 3 days, all squeezed into one (rather old) jeep… This trip is not about comfort or luxury, but about the spectacular scenery you’ll get to see and the new friends you’ll make.
Over the course of 3 days we made our way through the high plains and mountains of southwestern Bolivia, a remote and desolate area at an altitude between 4,200 and 5,400 meters. The landscape here is phenomenal – volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, geysers and rock formations are some of the things we got to see on the first 2 days of the trip. The first night we stayed at a homestay, which was a nice way of getting an impression of life here in this remote region. And although our dormitory was freezing cold, the place actually had a decent bathroom and even hot water (on demand)!
The final day of the trip was probably the reason why all of us had decided to go on this tour. After a (short) night at a salt hostel, we got up at 4am to make our way to the salt Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Seeing the sun come up from the Salar is indeed a mesmerising experience. Especially during the rainy season, when a tiny layer of water creates mind-blowing reflections as soon as the sun appears on the sky. It’s a playground for photography lovers like myself, making up weird poses like this one…
Read all about why you need to go to the Salar de Uyuni and what you need to know before going there in my other blog post.
Sucre: a delight of a city
From the town of Uyuni I went straight to Sucre, passing Potosí – the highest city on earth – on my way. In contrast to some other Bolivian cities, Sucre is a place to fall in love with. Whitewashed houses, beautiful squares lined with palm trees, colonial architecture… And (not unimportantly) a very pleasant climate.
Although Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, nowadays it’s only home to the country’s judicial power, with the executive and legislative branches being based in La Paz. Which is maybe another reason why the city feels so relaxed and stress-free.
The House of Liberty museum in Sucre is worth a visit as it tells the fascinating (and sometimes sad) history of what is now Bolivia – about its colonial past, the independence movement, and how the country is trying to embrace the diversity of its peoples and cultures.
Head down for lunch to the Mercado Central. This huge indoor market is a feast for the senses. It’s crowded, colourful and authentic. Some of the traders also serve wonderful Bolivian meals and sell delicious fresh-made fruit juices. Yummm… Sucre is one of those places I just can’t wait to go back to…!
Try to navigate your way on Lake Titicaca
After having spent a day in dreadful (sorry) La Paz, I headed onwards to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake and the mythical birth place of the Incas. There are two main places around the lake that are worth visiting: the serene Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side and the area near Puno – including indigenous floating villages – on the Peruvian side. Because of bus time tables and time constraints (yes, this is one of the places where I had to compromise) I wasn’t able to visit both and I decided to go directly to Puno. Puno itself is not very pretty, but there are plenty of tours from here to the floating Uros villages. Unfortunately, stories about the Disneyfied nature of the floating villages are true… Although you will visit actual homes of the indigenous Uros people, the tours have turned the area into a tourist trap and with people constantly trying to sell you things, the place has lost some of its authenticity. My visit to the islands was cut short because of a thunder storm, which was a shame, but in all fairness, I was glad to leave this place. Having said that, Lake Titicaca itself is fascinating. If you’re lucky (unlike me) you can see the snowed peaks of the Andes in the distance on a clear day, which is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights ever!
Indulge in Peruvian food in Arequipa
Arequipa is well worth the 6 hour detour by bus if you’re coming from (or heading to) Puno. Peru’s second biggest city has everything you could wish for: colourful colonial architecture, beautiful vistas, almost 365 days a year of sunshine and some of the best of Peruvian cuisine.
It may be a city of over 800,000, but central Arequipa actually feels quite small – it’s definitely a city that can be explored on foot. The city’s main landmark is the Plaza de Armas, a gorgeous square lined with cafes, palm trees and the town’s cathedral, with in the backdrop a number of imposing snowed volcanoes.
The Santa Catalina monastery is another highlight of the city. This nearly 500-year old convent is not only vast but also extremely colourful (for a monastery). I spent 3 hours wandering around the patios and quarters and just loved it. It’s a wonderful, serene place in the middle of the buzz and excitement of the city.
In Arequipa I also found my inner-foodie. Peruvian cuisine was a real discovery for me. Sure, I had had ceviche before, but nothing like the food I tried in Arequipa. In fact, Peruvian food is incredibly diverse, with influences from Europe, Asia (in particular Japan and China) and of course South America. And did you know that thanks to the scientific contributions of the Inca, Peru now has more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes?! A great place to try some of them is Hatunpa, which serves some of the tastiest, most colourful potatoes I’ve ever had. Also make sure to grab a bite at one of the city’s many picanterias: lunchtime restaurants that serve authentic local food. The best ones (IMHO) include La Capitana and La Nueva Palomino. Finger-licking good…!
And if you’re looking to burn some of the calories, book yourself a trip to the nearby Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons and a perfect spot for hiking!
Follow the footsteps of the Incas in Cusco and Machu Picchu
Cusco – once the capital of the Inca Empire, now a colourful and vibrant tourist city. At times a bit too touristy though – there’s only so many times you can be asked if you want a massage without getting annoyed. But there’s no denying this is a beautiful city with a fascinating history. Full of stunning squares, church towers, cobblestone streets… The beauty of this place speaks for itself. I got here from Arequipa on an overnight bus – there are plenty of bus companies, but Cruz del Sur offers some of the most comfortable seats (complete with your own TV screen, headphones, food and blankets).
Most people that visit Cusco are either on their way to or from mighty Machu Picchu, the ruins of a glorious Inca city and science retreat hidden in the jungle. There are various ways to get there, but you need to take out at least 2 days for the trip. I decided to do a 3-day jungle tour, which would see us mountain biking, rafting, zip lining and hiking our way up to Machu Picchu. Although not the true Inca Trail experience (which I’m hoping to do another time), this nevertheless turned out to be an epic experience.
Getting to Machu Picchu on the last morning of the tour (after having conquered 2,500 steps at 4:30am), was an awe-inspiring moment. I remember being stunned not just by the beauty of the place but also by how inhospitable it is. If you didn’t know it was here, you would never get here. We passed snowed mountains, wild rivers, rain forest and gorges to get to this place that’s hidden in the clouds. Apparently that’s exactly what the Incas had in mind when they built Machu Picchu in the 15th century.
Sip pisco sours in Lima
From the Machu Picchu jungle to the jungle that is Lima. The contrast could not be bigger. After a short and cheap internal flight from Cusco I arrived at the Peruvian capital for the final stop on my whirlwind tour through this part of South America. Lima is cosmopolitan and modern, but at times also dodgy and dirty. The city centre is worth a quick visit (take the brilliant and rapid metro-bus if you’re staying elsewhere), but the nicest areas are Miraflores and Barranco. Miraflores is an upscale district with shopping malls, nice restaurants and green squares and as it’s between the city centre and Barranco it’s a great (and safe) place to stay.
Barranco is a trendy, up and coming seafront neighbourhood with lots of amazing street art and cool bars. I really loved this area! It’s the perfect place to end (or start) your journey through South America. And what better way to celebrate than heading to the grandiose Ayahuasca bar and getting tipsy on THE best pisco sours in Peru (if not the world)…?! Here’s to some brilliant travel memories!