I write this both in the airport and on the plane to Portugal. It is my intention to write up a little summary of how I view this most recent leg of my trip, how it ranks among other trips I’ve taken, as well as for which types of travelers I recommend my route, destinations, etc. I write based on 5 criteria: route, logistics, price, food, and culture, as I believe all of these (and generally only these) factors should contribute when deciding to visit a certain place. If you want to see pictures and hear more about what I saw in my backpacking expedition from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Sao Paulo, Brazil, feel free to scroll beyond this post.
In brief, my route tended to lean more toward racking up countries in the allotted time than seeing the best parts of every country. No city I visited was disappointing and I would recommend my route for country-counters and culture-fiends alike, with the exception of the border town of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Some highlights, where I could have easily stayed longer, were Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Most travellers would benefit from spending at least two days in Lima, and three or four in Buenos Aires.
There are also several cities that I missed, that more time would have allowed me to visit. When meeting other backpackers, the buzz about Cusco is palpable, and if you want to see Machu Picchu, this city tends to be the best jumping-off point. Paraguay was my largest regret. I only visited Ciudad del Este, which is largely a typical duty-free-and-casinos-style border town. I would have much rather seen Asuncion, but also visiting Uruguay would have made that difficult as that would have extended my time on buses greatly. If given the choice, I am sure most travelers would enjoy Asuncion over Ciudad del Este based on what I heard from others.
Bus-hopping across South America, much like backpacking Europe or Southeast Asia, is a cliche, though for good reason. For those inexperienced in overland international travel, South America is a great place to test the waters and see if backpacking is right for you. This is not to say that there will not be challenges. Unlike Europe, cities in South America can be over half a day apart and those who grow travel weary may not adjust well to so much downtime. The frequency of buses between cities is impressive, and often I was able to find buses going day-of to my destination just by showing up at the terminal.
As for language capabilities, learning or knowing some Spanish will be a boon to your trip in South America, but is not necessary. The same goes for Brazil. Portuguese is not necessary, but the locals really enjoy hearing a foreigner try to learn their language (if only just to laugh at your accent). Many people, especially younger people, speak enough English to be able to point you to where you need to go in South America, and I came across many people, especially Europeans, who knew no more than a few Spanish or Portuguese words.
All the countries I visited except for Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil were visa-free for anyone with an American passport. In the next few months, however, Brazil is trying to roll out visa-free travel for Americans, making traveling to Brazil just a little easier. At the time of writing, Brazil issues e-visas for $40 plus a $4.24 transaction fee, and after applying, your visa should arrive in your email within a few days. The Bolivian and Paraguayan visas, though expensive at $160 apiece, are fairly easy to get. If flying into Asuncion or La Paz, Americans can get visas on arrival and Bolivian visas can be acquired at the major border crossings as well. I applied for both at the New York consulates and received them same-day.
If I have said it once, I have said it a dozen times: South America is known for meat, and not their kale probiotic salads. That said, there are options for most types of eaters, and the pickiest among us will not starve in South America. There are adventurous options (like my street ceviche, boiled tongues, and stews made of various animal innards), and there are the simple, tried-and-true classics (salchipapas, lomo saltado, and chorizo come immediately to mind). Food in South America is generally good and cheap, with the must-try dishes mostly mentioned in these parentheses. While I did not actively seek out vegetarian and vegan establishments, most of the more heavily trammeled cities have multiple vegetarian restaurants catering to tourists.
I have taken multi-country trips before where the passport stamp is the only thing that seems to differentiate the two countries in terms of cultural activities. South America is not one of those places. Not only does every country offer a new, totally unique, experience, but sometimes driving through a single country feels like driving through seven. Bolivia comes to mind as one country, officially a “plurinational state,” where there are so many mixing cultures and traditions that you come out more unsure of what is considered “Bolivian culture” as compared to when you came into the country. South America is chock-full of small wonders like late-night tango performances in the streets, witches markets selling furry llama fetuses, or mile-long weekly street fairs. Traveling through South America, country by country, provides a fascinating glimpse into the incredible diversity of life and experiences that can be cultivated on the continent.
For the solo backpacker, South America is just about as good as you can get in terms of value for money. I stayed in several hostels and guesthouses and, with the exception of the one in Paraguay, all were fantastic and cheap. My Paraguayan insect incident can only be attributed to my own stupidity in booking a hostel with a low rating. Booking.com users beware: anything under an ‘8.0’ is bad in South America. This is the advice I generally give, and the time I haven’t abided by it have resulted in disastrous results.
As for food, meals tended to be cheap, with the exception of Uruguay and, to a lesser extent, Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires. Alcohol, drinks, and water were also extremely cheap as well. Some travel necessities, such as bus tickets, ranged from $15-$35 to upwards of $75. However, it is typically the longer treks that are more expensive. If you are to avoid 24-hour stints on a bus, your individual tickets will likely be much cheaper.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.