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Backpacking South America: Our Favourite Countries

We spent 93 days, backpacking mighty South America, exploring splendid colonial architecture, deafening waterfalls, soaring mountains, Inca Ruins and blissed-out beaches, along the way.

Each of the 5 countries we visited, offered us a multitude of sights, adventures and tastes to explore, but which places, experiences and meals stood above the rest?


1. Backpacking Colombia

We added Colombia to our RTW itinerary, without knowing much about it, beyond it’s unsavoury reputation for kidnappings and drug cartel violence. We visited with a little trepidation, wondering if Colombia was safe, but the country quickly wiped clean any misgivings or fears we’d been harbouring.

Aside from Cartagena, Colombia is still relatively untouched by tourism, and it’s easy to feel like you’re discovering uncharted territory.

Add to that, stunning natural beauty, geographically and culturally diverse regions, affordability, and the friendliest locals imaginable, and Colombia easily won the title of our favourite South American country by a long-shot.

2) Backpacking Brazil

While we undeniably enjoyed our time in cultural Salvador de Bahia, it was the magnificence of Rio de Janeiro that put Brazil in the second spot on our list.

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As the only South American city to make it onto our “we could live here” list, Rio offered ridiculously gorgeous vistas, brilliant beaches and a population that seemed optimistic and joyful, no matter their economic circumstances.

We barely scratched the surface of this huge country during our 3 week visit, and can’t wait to go back to discover the rest.

3) Backpacking Peru

Despite a small bout of traveler’s diarrhea right before we were scheduled to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (talk about timing), we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Peru.

The most affordable of all the countries we visited, Peru had, in our opinion, the best food in all of South America, a mysterious and compelling culture, and some of the most memorable experiences of our entire trip.

The only reason Peru isn’t number 2 on this list is because we were quite satisfied by our 3 week visit to the country. While we could’ve spent many, many more weeks exploring new parts of Colombia and Brazil, there were just a few experiences we felt we missed in Peru – a Sacred Valley private tour and a flight over the Nazca lines.

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4) Backpacking Argentina

We had mixed feelings about Argentina. We loved the dramatic nature and peaceful pace of the northwestern region, but were sadly, disappointed with Buenos Aires overall.

The people of the country were nothing less than gracious and amiable, but the economic strain of traveling in the country, and a never-ending diet of steak and pasta, left a bitter taste in our mouths.

We still want to visit the impressive Patagonia and Bariloche, but we’ll have to wait until the impending economic crash reduces the cost of visiting.

5) Backpacking Uruguay

Uruguay takes the last position on our list, not because there was anything negative about the country, but because there was nothing outstanding about the country.

We could find a compelling reason to visit any of the other countries on our list at least one more time, but for Uruguay, the only incentive we could come up with, was to eat more of it’s super delectable and amazing steaks.

Not quite enough to put it at the top of our list. 😉

Do you agree with our list? What’s your favourite South American country for backpacking and why?

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. We’ve only been to Argentina and absolutely loved it. I remember the perpetual civil protests in the main plaza in Buenos Aires. After spending a few days at BA, we were ready to get away and enjoy the beauty of Patagonia. You should definitely visit Patagonia (El Chalten for hiking) next time. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.
    Did you guys not make it to Chile in your trip? It is next on my list..mainly ‘cos I want to hike the Chilean Patagonia 🙂 ( I’ve heard its even more pretty than the Argentinean side)

    December 17, 2013
    • I think we spent too long in BA (2 weeks!), and stayed in the wrong part of the city – so we didn’t enjoy it as much as we could’ve…it was beautiful, but seriously the cost of things was really getting to us. There was just so much more value in Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

      We didn’t make it to Chile OR Bolivia – we just didn’t have enough time. Besides, gotta save some for another RTW trip, right? 😉

      December 21, 2013
  2. oh and I forgot..we did do a day trip to Uruguay from Buenos Aires. Nothing spectacular but we stayed around the more touristy parts so that could be the reason.

    December 17, 2013
    • We did Montevideo, Salto and Colonia, and while it was a nice, ‘suburban’ break, Uruguay just didn’t compare to the rest of the countries (aside from the steak) – but you wouldn’t know about that, would you!! 😉 I think it might be interesting to go hang out with the gauchos in the pampas though…

      December 21, 2013
  3. Haven’t had a chance to visit South America (yet) but I had a Peruvian classmate (when I was doing my masters in Italy) who invited the class for lunch one day. And really, the Ceviche!! Mmmmm!! I SO know why you say you can go back just for that. I think I’m going to attempt making it in India someday. Delicious!!

    December 23, 2013
    • I knowwww!!! It’s soooo delicious. Fortunately, I think that if you have access to fresh seafood, you can make it at home, no matter what country you live in. Let me know how yours turns out!! 🙂

      December 26, 2013
  4. Colombia! not surprised to see it at the top of your list. I haven’t been, but I had a Colombian Spanish teacher who was incredibly friendly, so I am predisposed to like the country.

    As for Buenos Aires, I completely understand what you mean. I spent six weeks in the city, and actually lost weight as a result of disliking the bland food so much. It was fairly expensive when I was there a year and a half ago, so it must be a lot more expensive now. I remember being stunned by the price of clothing & books.

    December 23, 2013
    • Colombia really was amazing – def in the top 5 of any country we’ve visited in the world, and mostly because of the locals. I swear we had some of the best experiences of our travels anywhere, there…and all because we met some friendly Colombians!

      BA was so disappointing for us. It was really one of those places that we thought we could live one day, and the reality was just not it. I felt such sympathy for the Portenos – such warm, lovely people, but living under such difficult circumstances! 🙁 Hopefully things will improve there one day, but I’m not sure if anything can be done about the food!! 😉

      December 26, 2013
  5. I’m gonna have my very own South American solo adventure next year ! ( quivers with excitement ) did you also go to Bolivia? That’s definitely one of my priority countries to visit . And true enough I haven’t added Columbia on my list because of the fear of being alone in druglordland. I just might , after seeing this ,if i summon the guts!

    December 27, 2013
    • Ohhhh, I’m so excited for you! Solo at that! You’re a brave person. I could never go by myself! We never made it to Bolivia because by the time, it fit into our schedule, we were just too tired to face re-acclimatizing to the altitude etc…it’s not the easiest country to travel, I think. Anyhow, we def wanna go back to South America one day and visit all the places we missed on this trip – Bolivia, Patagonia, Chile, Ecuador…

      And yes, you MUST go to Colombia. It’s one of our favourite countries in the world, never mind South America. 🙂

      December 31, 2013
  6. You missed so much of Peru, I think you could rate it high or tie for 2nd or even 1st. Although I’ve not been to Colombia (may!)

    For your next visit to Peru (perhaps with Ecuador and Bolivia?!)
    Might I suggest:
    The North: Huaraz is a hiker and explorers mecca. Some of the top hikes and treks in the world in the Cordillera Blanca. 8 hours bus ride from Lima. Stay at least 2-3 days (more if you have elevation issues) to 2 weeks. Still great food AND one of Peru’s few micro breweries.
    8 hours from Huaraz you start out on the northern beaches. I prefer huanchaco and after reading your blog I think you would too. For more party go to Piura or Mancora. From Mancora on into Ecuador.

    South of Lima you have Paracas and Ica and Huacachina. ADVENTURE in the sea and desert! I didn’t care for nazca.
    Then south into Arequipa for a beautiful white colonial city and more adventure from mountain biking and sand boarding down an active volcano, to rafting, to visiting one of the deepest canyons in the world at Colca. You can also easily then go to Bolivia via Puno.

    Just an idea!.
    I am excited for Colombia. After that trip, it is Brazil for me and I will have CONQUERED South America.

    March 19, 2014
    • Haha, yeah we missed a lot of South America. Period. Unfortunately we had to cut a lot of stuff. Oh to have limitless time and resources. 😉

      Actually it was difficult for us to decide whether to put Peru or Brazil #2. It was very close, but in the end Brazil won because we’re more beach people than trekking people.

      Thanks for all the great tips though. We’ll definitely keep them in mind for our next trip to South America, whenever that may be.

      And enjoy your time in Colombia! Let us know what you think of it! 🙂

      March 19, 2014
  7. Living in Chile I’m a bit prejudiced. With that said, it does offer an amazing diversity of climate and geography. Food, not so much. The Atacama Desert is an amazing place. San Pedro de Atacama is the place to stay. Follow us because this January we are going to the southernmost town in the world and then working our way north through Patagonia and further north to Concepcion. How long it will take is anyone’s guess. Afterwards we will probably head home to the U.S. until we choose another country to live in for a year.

    May 16, 2014
    • Sounds like a fantastic trip!! I’m bummed we never made it Chile, but we definitely have plans to head back one day and see all the things we missed.

      May 18, 2014
  8. Your blog continues to be a great source of information for us in South America. First stop Lonely Planet. Second stop Travel Stained! We have some holiday time to spare in July this year and have been a bit baffled about where to go in South America or possibly the Caribbean. Columbia is on our list of options, and after reading this post, it’s going to the top of my shortlist. Will go and check out your other posts on Columbia now.

    March 25, 2015
    • Haha, I’m glad it’s still helping you out. We really did adore Colombia…the only thing is, maybe check temps in July. It was insanely hot and humid when we were in Cartagena, I literally barely made it from air conditioned comfort to air conditioned comfort… but I bet the mountainous areas would be amazing…

      March 25, 2015

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