A land of ancient ruins, soaring Andean peaks and sweltering, seemingly endless jungle, South America is a true treat for the adventurous traveller.
Covered with sights that give testimony to the continent’s chaotic yet captivating history, across a series of nations as unique as they are huge, this is a region where few are disappointed – and many can’t help but return. If you're planning a solo trip in South America, here's everything you need to know.
The must-see destinations
The once Inca capital of Cusco is the gateway to the continent’s prime destination: Machu Picchu. Trek the paved path of the classic Inca Trail through lofty peaks and cloud forest, or escape the crowds along the increasingly popular Salkantay or Lares treks that take longer – and more remote – routes to these magnificent ruins.
In the south, Patagonia has become synonymous with world-class hiking, particularly in Chile’s Torres del Paine and Argentina’s Los Glaciares national parks, while Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, are an incomparable sight at dawn.
At the heart of South America, the Amazon rainforest draws visitors in their droves, all keen to spot a yawning caiman or one of the jungle’s most elusive residents, the jaguar. Sling up a hammock on a river boat journey, take a tour from Iquitos in Peru, or explore the wilderness surrounding the Brazilian city of Manaus.
But it’s not all about the countryside in South America. Encounter graceful colonial architecture in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, and learn to tango in the sultry streets of ‘The Paris of South America", Buenos Aires. If samba, caipirinhas and hedonism are more your style, join the ultimate Brazilian party at Rio de Janeiro’s famous carnival celebrations.
Covering over 17.8 million square kilometres, the continent is best explored by focusing on a few countries at a time, particularly as domestic and international flights are expensive unless booked well in advance.
Many budget travellers take the local approach and journey by bus. Although the quality varies between countries, overnight buses are an affordable means of travelling and help to save cash on accommodation.
Hiring or buying a vehicle (particularly in Chile where the process is easier for foreigner visitors) has become a common way of exploring South America. Argentina’s Ruta 40, the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, Uruguay’s east coast and the Pan-American Highway have all contributed to the continent’s reputation as one best explored with your own wheels. Try one of these 6 incredible journeys if you need more inspiration.
Where to stay
Hostels – the mainstays of solo backpackers – are found in the vast majority of towns and cities, but keep an eye out for local types of accommodation that rarely appear online, such as family-run alojamientos or hospedajes. Often cheaper than hostels, these take the form of a dorm bed or individual room in a family’s house.
Basic campsites are common in Chile and Argentina, while all across the continent, a homestay with a family offers the dual benefits of language learning and a greater insight into the lives of the local people.
Where to eat (and drink)
South America is an easy place to find cheap and filling food. Menús del día (two-course lunchtime menus) served in small, local restaurants can cost as little as US$1.25 in some countries and street food is a quick and delicious alternative to a full sit-down meal.
Don’t miss out on the sensory experience of the South American market either. Feast your eyes on stalls loaded with strange fruits and hundreds of types of potatoes – and then fill your stomach with breakfast, lunch or dinner, eating shoulder-to-shoulder with locals on communal benches.
In larger towns and cities, bars offer the chance to get chatting to other travellers and introduce the continent’s various national drinks. Sample a host of locally-produced wine, pisco, aguardiente and even craft beer.
Where to find work
Securing a working visa is a complicated process in most South American countries, so getting a paid job is more hassle than its worth.
Instead, find hostels and farms listed on volunteering sites such as Workaway and Helpx where you can expect to work a few hours per day in exchange for food and board – ideal arrangements for those on a strict budget.
How to meet people
Although travelling alone in South America might feel like a daunting prospect, you’re never likely to be far away from potential travel companions. Most visitors follow a similar itinerary, known as the “gringo trail”, which winds through the continent’s top destinations.
Another way to meet other foreigners and get chatting to locals is at language exchange nights; one example is Mundo Lingo held in Buenos Aires and Lima. Organised tours, such as trekking to Colombia’s Lost City or sailing around the Galápagos Islands, are also excellent for meeting other travellers.
Explore beyond the gringo trail
For those looking for a more unusual adventure, there’s still ample opportunity for delving into this continent’s wildest corners. To make the most of escaping the tourist thoroughfare, learn some Spanish before you go or invest in an intensive language course upon arrival.
Top image © Dmitry Pichugin/Shutterstock