Budgeting / Trip Planning

Backpacking through South America: Planning

So a while ago I posted about losing my motivation to travel and not really being sure if I wanted to go to South America and blah blah. None of that applies anymore. It’s winter break, school has taken a back seat for 5 glorious weeks and I’ve either been planning obsessively or watching day-long marathons of Grey’s Anatomy.

Mostly the former, though. It’s a rough life.

Here’s the plan:

I’ll leave in October (hopefully) or November ($$realistically$$). It makes the most sense to start in Rio, work my way south and clockwise up South America. I might head down the coast and eventually end in São Paulo, then take a bus to see the Iguazu falls. After that will be a long bus trip to Buenos Aires, where I’ll stay for about two months while I take a Spanish class. I’ll take a weekend trip to Uruguay at some point (Colonia, Montevideo)…then when I’m ready to move on, I’ll start heading west towards Chile, stopping in Rosario, Córdoba, and Mendoza before getting to Santiago.

If a tour like this from Santiago to La Paz is still running by then, then I’ll probably take that up to Bolivia even though it’s more expensive. I want to do a tour at one point to break it up a bit and have someone else do the planning for me. But it includes San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni, both of which are necessities.

Then Peru (Arequipa, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Lima), Ecuador (still need to do research on where to see, but I’d love to go to the Galapagos Islands if $$ allows), and Colombia (which I’m really excited about).

If I’m not completely burned out and broke at that point, I want to sail to Panama from Cartagena…but that’s where my research has fizzled out.

I can’t commit to any of this and buy a plane ticket because I’m having too much fun thinking about the possibilities.

Plane tickets:

STAtravel has become my new favorite website.

So when I look up plane tickets on Skyscanner from NYC –> Santiago (one way) for end of October, the cheapest one I see is $903, with two layovers. Same goes for Vayama, One World, Kayak, etc. When I look on STAtravel and I check the “youth” box (under 26), I see flights through TAM for $259.20 with one layover. That’s a $643 difference and the reason why no matter what, I HAVE to leave before I turn 26.


One thing to keep in mind about Chile, though, is the $160 reciprocity fee for U.S. citizens if landing at the Santiago airport. Argentina also has a reciprocity fee of (currently) the same price for visitors coming in through ALL points of entry, and it has to be paid online via credit card beforehand (with a printed receipt to give to immigration upon arrival).

So that $259 plane ticket is really $419.

ALSO a Bolivian visa costs $135.  Brazil is $140. Sigh.

All this talk about fundz leads me to the next topic…


Here’s what Lonely Planet estimates for shoestring traveling through SA (which we’ve already established that I suck at):

Argentina- $35/day

Bolivia- $15-25

Brazil- $45-50

Chile- $36-$55

Colombia- $20-$30

Peru- $20-$30

Uruguay- $35-$45

Will I stick to that? Probably not. Everything I’ve been reading recently says to expect to spend more (like $60-80 in Brazil).

I also read Jeff from Lengthy Travel’s post about what he spent per day in South America and How to Plan an Extended Trip in South America, among a million other blogs about it. All of this helped me to realize that I’ll be spending the most time in the most expensive countries (Brazil, Argentina, Chile), which led me to research things that are free:

The Buenos Aires free walking tour. Yeppp that’s about it.

Language courses:

For Buenos Aires, unless someone can convince me otherwise, I’m pretty excited about El Pasaje. This school has the cheapest Spanish lessons I can find in B.A. because there aren’t any extra fees for activities. If you want to go watch a football game or go for a city tour, you can still do it, but you’d have to pay extra.

In Barcelona I went with a school that charged a little extra for these built-in activities…but I only went to one. It was the new student social and I got one free drink before going off to another bar with my new friends. That was it. So I’m totally fine with the cheaper Spanish classes.

Note on the Spanish class:

As a Spanish learner, I have a hard time understanding the Argentinian accent. I also thought about a class in Santiago, but Chileans supposedly speak the fastest Spanish. I’ve heard numerous times that the Colombian accent is a lot easier for people speaking Spanish as a second language.

Why not take a class in Bogotá then? I might, especially since it would be cheaper and I love everything I’d read about Colombia. But I have a really good feeling about Buenos Aires, so we’ll see.

Supplementary reading:

I am currently obsessed with El Travel Blog, and by the end of the break I will have probably read the entire thing. Their trip is long over and some of the pictures don’t show anymore, but it’s not your typical travel blog and it’s refreshing to read something different. Plus it’s hilarious.


As I mentioned before, my parents hadn’t been so excited about this trip since it entails delaying my teaching career. They have some legitimate concerns, but I’ve been bombarding their e-mail with pictures like this in hopes that they’ll change their mind:

Salar de Uyuni. How can you say no?

Salar de Uyuni. How can you say no?

P.S. Any and all advice is welcome!! I’m still very much in the early stages of planning.


10 thoughts on “Backpacking through South America: Planning

  1. Hi Kristine, I spend part of the year here in Mexixo and notice you have not included it on your itinerary. I write a blog All about Mexico on wordpress. The link is http://www.info4youonmexico.wordpress.com/ There is no charge for your entry visa to Mexico and it is a gorgeous country, rich culture, vibrant music, world class history and historic sites, delicious foods, fab beaches and great weather. Warm regards with my sales pitch for Mexico! Charlotte Ortega writer aka Jane Alabaster

    Date: Fri, 4 Jan 2013 03:51:17 +0000 To: drjane121@msn.com

    • I love it!! My Lonely Planet South America book has been a heavy weight in my purse for the past 2 weeks but it’s so much fun researching. Best of luck yourself! You’ll have a blast :)

  2. Pingback: Why my second backpacking trip got off to an AMAZING start « adultescence

  3. Good luck with the trip planning. And thanks, you’ve inspired me to blog about my own tips on backpacking through South America :)

    Quick tips:

    1. The rainy season (throughout the southern hemisphere) of South America makes travel much harder and less pleasant (Summer: End of Dec – March). I’m trying to go to the Salar de Uyuni this week, but it’s flooded, dangerous, and even muddy right now due to the rains.

    2. There’s oftentimes not much to do in each city unless you do tours, which can be expensive (upping daily costs in each country). Bring your gear if you want to hike or trek – or buy some/rent some here.

    3. Know a good amount of Spanish, Most people don’t speak English (or other languages) here!

    I do a lot of my current travel research on the Thorn Tree Lonely Planet forums, which are really useful for up to date news and recommendations.

    Buen viaje!

    • Thank you so much for the tips!! Ugh I’ve been wondering what to do about the rainy season since I’ll be there that whole time…I was also planning on doing Salar de Uyuni during it, so I’ll have to see how that plays out. I know some Spanish now but will be taking a 2 month intensive course once I get there–I’m hoping that will help!!

      P.S. Sorry for the delay in responding, student teaching has been killing me this semester! But I appreciate the comment and thanks for stopping by :).

  4. Thanks for checking out my site. It sounds like you have already done a ton of planning so what I am about to suggest you consider probably won’t be worth the effort, but…

    Have you considered going the other direction (counterclockwise)? You can usually get cheaper flights to Colombia, especially from Miami and maybe your area these days with JetBlue. Most people, myself included, absolutely love Colombia, the Spanish is easier and a class would be cheaper. Also, for studying, quite a few people have said great things about studying in Sucre, Bolivia (see http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/sucre-spanish-school-review/, that blog was helpful to me with my S. America travel), which might be another alternative (I found Sucre to be lovely).

    As for Colombia, the only place I didn’t really like that much was Bogotá but everywhere else I went was great. So, unless you love big, ugly cities (I am not saying there is nothing good about the city), don’t study there. For city life, Medellín is much nicer.

    You mentioned wanting to sail from Colombia to Panama. You could actually start in Panama and sail the other way around (if you aren’t considering the rest of Central America as well). Either way, I have an article about my experience (http://www.lengthytravel.com/sailing-san-blas-panam-to-cartagena-colombia-aboard-the-sacanagem/), that might prove helpful regardless which direction you sail.

    I am having fond flashbacks of my time wandering the continent. I am sure you will have a fantastic trip!

    • To be quite honest, I took a long hiatus from this blog but it was awesome to come back and see this (very helpful!!) comment. I’ve actually changed my itinerary a bit and won’t be studying Spanish in BA anymore, so Sucre could be a definite option! I scrapped my Santiago plane ticket and bought one to BA for a later date (need to save a lot more $!)…and now I am re-thinking that as well. The tickets to Colombia are such a bargain!!

      Thank you again for all of your tips!

  5. Good luck! South America is otherworldly and seeing the Salar is a standout in my mind (Quechua Connections are a fantastic company to go with). Highly recommend the free walking tours (be weary that you won’t want to do the one in La Paz until a few days after you acclimatize to the altitude, depending on how you adjust. I really loved the one in Santiago). All the best!

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