You can’t expect to fit everything South America has to offer into one trip – or two or three or four, to be fair – and we don’t suggest you try. For those taking a big, extended trip around the continent you could join a few together, but remember that the distances you’ll be covering can be vast. Plus, there's lots to discover off the beaten track.
Here, we've compiled 7 options for your South America itinerary from The Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. For more detailed maps, expert advice on transport, destinations, accommodation, safety and more, buy the full guide here.
1. Southern Brazil: from Rio's beaches to Serra Gaúcha's mountain bases
Start in Rio (1), where beaches and samba bars will kick off your trip in style. Head south to Costa Verde (2), backed by forested mountain peaks and brimming with hidden gems like colonial Paraty and the breath-taking beaches of Ilha Grande. Then turn inland towards the historic towns of Minas Gerals (3).
Check out Brazil's capital, Brasília (4), in all its retro-futuristic glory, before experiencing the huge array of wildlife in the vast wetlands of the Pantanal (5) – a great alternative to the Galápagos if you're pressed for time.
Lounge in Ilha de Santa Catarina (6), home to some of Brazil's best beaches, before wrapping up with crashing waterfalls and intense hikes and climbs in the verdant mountain bases of Canela (7) and Gramado.
2. Northern Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay
Begin in the most cosmopolitan of all South American cities: Buenos Aires (1). From here, leave Argentina and head to the historic town of Colonia del Sacramento (2) for a taste of Uruguay's charms. Get to the Eastern Beaches (3) for surf and sunny getaways sure to suit any budget, before looping back over the border to Rosario (4). Wander the cool bars and colonial centre of Córdoba (5), and venture further west to Mendoza (6): a wine-lovers sophisticated paradise. The tallest mountain in the western hemisphere, Cerro Aconcagua (7), is a must of course – but strolling the central plaza in Salta (8) shouldn’t be missed either. Get your fix of flora and fauna in the lush cloudforests of Parque Nacional el Rey (9), quench your thirst for epic waterfalls in Iguazú (10) and end at the nearby Ruta Jesuitica (11), the site of Paraguay’s famous Jesuit ruins.
3. Chile and Argentina: The Lake Districts and Patagonia
Detour to Peninsula Valdés (6) for whale watching, before making the trip south to the dramatic Perito Moreno Glacier (7). Trek throughout the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (8) and finish this trip up in Ushuaia (9) – the end of the world, where the dream of Antarctica is only 1000km away.
4. Northern Chile and southern Bolivia
Kick off in Chile's capital, Santiago (1), and carry on to the hilly streets and funiculars of Valparaíso (2). Sample a proper pisco sour in Pisco Elqui (3) before driving through the arid salt flats and flamingo-populated lakes in Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces. Soak in the wilderness vibes of San Pedre de Atacama (5), then tour the iconic waters of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni (6). Caffinate in the lively cafés of Potosí (7), a colonial town blighted by the tragic legacy of the nearby silver mines, and conclude your travels in buzzing Santa Cruz (8).
5. Ecuador, Peru and Northern Boliva
Base yourself in the old town of Quito (3) before hiking the volcanic crater lake of the Quilotoa loop (4). Cruise through the Andes on the glorious Nariz del Diablo (5) train ride, nurture your soul in spiritual Vilcabamba (6), cross the border and head to Peru’s lively city and trekking hotspot Huaraz (7).
Don’t miss Lima (8) on your way to the the Trails to Machu Picchu (9) – a less expensive and less crowded alternative Inca trails deep in the jungle. Wander the plazas of Cusco (10), then set course towards Bolivia for the awe-inspiring altitude of sacred Lake Titicaca (11).
Situated high in a canyon, the energy of La Paz (12) will be tough to wrench yourself away from, but if you have to wrap your trip up, finish in the beautifully maintained colonial architectures of Sucre (13).
6. Colombia and Venezuela
Begin in Bogotá (1), Colombia’s densely packed cosmopolitan capital, then visit the mountain landscapes and monolithic statues of San Agustin (2). Continue to fun and freewheeling Cali (3), and further up to modern Medellín (4) in Colombia's coffee country. Cartagena (5) is a must-see jewel on the Caribbean coast before exploring the pristine beaches, pre-Colombian ruins and lush flora in Parque Nacional Tayrona (6). Go south to San Gil (7), Colombia’s best spot for adventure sports (paragliding included), then to Villa de Leyva (8) and the wildlife-rich regions of chilled-out Mérida (9). Ciudad Bolívar (10) is Venezuela’s most lovely colonial town, and your gateway to the towering Angel Falls (11). Don’t miss the mind-blowing jungles of the Orinoco Delta (12) before you end this itinerary in conveniently located Parque Nacional Henri Pittier (13) – close well connected Caracas.
7. Northern Brazil and the Amazon
You’ll be pressed to find a prettier city than Olinda (3) anywhere in the north, but won’t regret having left it once you’re browsing the stalls of Fortaleza’s (4) central market. The world-class restaurants and bars of Belém (5) are worth writing home about, as is the fine street food in bustling Manaus (6).
Then set course for the Amazon (7), where a river trip down the Rio Negro will be an experience that stays with you for the rest of your life. If you can’t bring yourself to leave, consider floating all the way to Iquitos in Peru.
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