South America is blessed with some of the most astonishing landscapes on earth. This dynamic continent has enthralled travellers for centuries with its array of natural wonders, ancient ruins and modern metropolises. It holds some of the world’s most impressive beaches, most fascinating cultures and most thrilling adventure activities.
But one of the greatest joys of exploring South America is just travelling itself. From the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget, we've picked six of of the most impressive routes to kick-start your trip planning...
1. The Inca Trail, Peru
Although just one of the Inca trails you can follow across the Andes, what makes this 33km route so popular is the unrivalled reward of Machu Picchu at its end. The most famous ruins in South America are a place that – no matter how jaded you are – stop you in your tracks.
© SC Image/Shutterstock
2. Carretera Austral, Chile
To see the wettest, greenest and wildest part of Chile, head to Northern Patagonia where the Carretera Austral, the partially paved, partly dirt-and-gravel “Southern Highway”, stretches for 1240km from Puerto Montt to tiny Villa O’Higgins.
The rounding ice-fields, vast glaciers and jagged fjords along this spectacular highway are most easily visited with your own wheels, but most are reachable by public transport; all you need is a bit of time and some organizational skills, since not all buses run daily.
© Nigel Hicks/Dorling Kindersley
3. Death Road, Bolivia
One of the most popular trips in Bolivia, and some travellers’ sole reason for crossing the border, is a chance to hurtle down the infamous Death Road. This hair-raising adventure involves a 3500m descent along the old road from La Paz to Coroico in the Yungas.
Be careful when planning a trip, though – cyclists have been killed or seriously injured on this rough, narrow track chiselled out of near-vertical mountainsides, and you must choose a tour operator with great care.
4. Ruta 40, Argentina
The legendary Ruta 40 (or RN40) runs from the top to the bottom of Argentina, following the line of the Andes all the way to the far south from the border with Bolivia. It covers 5000km and 11 provinces, crosses 18 important rivers on 236 bridges, and connects 13 great lakes and salt flats, 20 national parks and hundreds of communities. There’s little wonder it’s one of the most famous attractions in the country.
If you haven’t got your own wheels, head to the section between El Calafate/El Chaltén and Bariloche. Long popular with backpackers, with much of this route is paved and buses run its length almost daily in season – but it still retains a sense of isolation thanks to the endless pampas scrubland, interrupted only by the occasional tiny settlement or estancia.
5. Serra Verde Railway, Brazil
The Serra Verde Express is one of the most scenic train journeys in Brazil. This enchanting ride winds around mountainsides, slips through tunnels and traverses one of the largest Atlantic Forest reserves in the country.
In fact, it’s one of our top reasons to visit Brazil’s overlooked southern states. Make sure to sit on the left-hand side of the train for the best views (or on the right if you’re not good with heights).
© The beauty of the world/Shutterstock
6. The Circuit, Torres del Paine, Chile
The great massif contained within the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, with the sheer granite towers of Las Torres to the east, and the multicoloured Los Cuernos to the west, is one of Patagonia’s most jaw-dropping sights. The park offers incomparable opportunities for backcountry hiking, as well as animal spotting; you are likely to see guanacos – wild relatives of llamas – and ñandú or rhea (like a small ostrich).
To best soak up the charms and wildlife of this rugged landscape, embark on “The Circuit” – a seven- to ten-day hike. An extended version of the popular “W”, this route that leads you around the back of the Torres, giving you some respite from the inevitable crowds.
© Tim Draper/Rough Guides
Top image © Nigel Hicks/Dorling Kindersley
Explore more of South America with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.