You have decided that the time has finally come to travel to South America, great! Maybe you have high hopes of backpacking the Andes, getting in touch with indigenous cultures, seeing ancient ruins, visiting tropical beaches and getting to know the Amazon rainforest. The only catch is that you can only get an approved one month leave from work. My advice to you, DO IT! Go for it and don’t look back! Seize the opportunity to take in as much as you possibly can, while you may not be able to see everything on your list, this trip could inspire you to return as often as possible and even change your worldview.
For many nationalities, one month may be seen as quite a long holiday (I’m looking at you US citizens), however it is hardly enough time to explore the 17.8 million square KM’s (6.8 million square miles) of continent that is South America. This means that you are going to have to make some concessions on your Pan-American bucket list, at least for the initial trip. Don’t worry about what you are going to miss, but instead focus on what you will be fortunate enough to experience.
Here are a few considerations to take into account for taking the initial plunge down South:
1) Figure out what is important to you
Are you more of city person or do you prefer small towns? Are you wanting to surf and enjoy sugarcane infused libations under the sun, or do you prefer to go mountaineering and exploring glaciers? Do you want to party to pulsating latin rhythms in sweat and hormone filled nightclubs, or do you prefer to free your mind and disconnect from your iPhone by exploring the serene, natural world? Do you have a more specific goal in mind? Perhaps you would like to inspire your cooking repertoire by immersing yourself in the Caribbean culinary scene. Do you want to learn a couple of dance steps that you can take back home with you? Try to single out things that seem more valuable to you and base your trip around those.
2) Don’t try to do it all
With just one month you should narrow your trip down to one or two countries maximum. While it may be possible to “do” smaller countries such as Ecuador and Uruguay in a couple of weeks, in other countries such as Brasil and Argentina (respectively the 5th and 8th largest countries in the world) it is possible to spend 1 month and not fully explore a single region of the country. Pick a specific region that attracts you and find a feasible route taking into account entry and exit points. Remember you should always leave one thing undone so that you have a reason to come back.
3) Travel like a local
While you could fly from Cartagena to Rio to Ushuaia, this type of travelling on this timeline only allows you to see the absolutely most touristic areas without immersing yourself in authentic local culture. If you really want to see a country, you should try to travel the way locals do, which for most of South America is bus travel. While bus travel may not be the most glamorous type of travel, it can be a truly romantic way to see a country. Some of my best memories of bus travel involve my forehead pressed against the window watching the scenery unfold as an over-packed coach blaring cumbia beats rambles down the road stopping occasionally in small localities to allow vendors on board to hock their fried delicacies for mere pesos. I wouldn’t trade those memories for any quantity of frequent flyer miles and tiny bottles of whiskey.
While bus travel is great, it is not the only way to travel. Try the more memorable ways to get from point A to point B. Take a multi-day bike tour, make the crossing from Panama to Colombia on sailboat, get to the Galapagos on the cheap by travelling in a freight liner, or take a trip through the countryside on the roof of a train. Remember, it isn’t about the destination as much as it is about the journey.
4) Consider your budget
Countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador are very cheap and traveling on $10 a day is very feasible, including lodging. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brasil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina are more expensive in general. However the most determined budget travelers can survive in these countries by being creative. Hitch hiking, Couch Surfing, wwoofing, and volunteering are some great ways to stretch your budget and get to really know a place with a local perspective.
5) Take the weather and seasons into account
Remember that in South America the seasons are switched from the Northern hemisphere. This has surprised more than a few travellers who show up in Chile in June wearing beach wear and had to immediately buy a new wardrobe. If you prefer your vacations to be filled with beaches than you want to think about countries like Brasil, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. If you are a cold weather person, then Patagonia could be calling for you. Countries such as Peru can offer the best of both worlds as micro climates change due to altitude and proximity to coastal or tropical zones.
Two countries which present quite a particular anomaly regarding the temperature and weather are Argentina and Chile. Not only are these the two most southern countries in the world, but because they stretch from the Tropic of Capricorn nearly to Antarctica, they encompass just about every type of microclimate possible. It is possible to find subtropical jungles, high deserts, grass plains, swamps, mountainous glaciers, and the perennially frozen Tierra de Fuego. While this variation of climates allows you to see diverse geography, climate, and culture; it can also make packing quite the challenge.
Whatever you choose to do, the wild continent of South America will not disappoint. Just remember that travelling is like sex – even a bad experience is better than no experience at all! Happy travels!