Writing this post after spending nearly 11 months across South America over three trips since 2008, i surely feel i can tell you a lot about my favorite continent.
Consider this a primer if you’re thinking of exploring South America for the first time.
Why South America?
The first few images anyone typically thinks about when you mention South America are Rio De Janeiro’s Christ The Redeemer statue, Machu Picchu, the Amazonia rainforest and perhaps the vast expanses of Patagonia, right? Honestly i knew nothing more than this before i first embarked on my first trip, back in 2008.
I had two cues to choosing to travel there, then – both based on friends’ influence. First, a close friend suggested i should travel there because it is the farthest, most expensive destination for the Indian traveler and once you’ve ‘tackled it’ early on, the rest of the world seems way more accessible. Second, another friend pretty much coaxed me into joining her since she spoke Spanish and i didn’t speak a word of it back then.
To my readers, i’d say this: South America (and possibly Africa) is a fabulous destination not only for its natural wonders, epic parties, stunning beaches and the magnificent Andean mountains, but also for its unique culture, art, wilderness, heritage (locally referred to as ‘patrimony’), music and friendly people and all of this combines to give you an authentic travel experience which you can only compare to exploring distant parts of rural India – hinterlands, where the magic and essence of a destination are often found.
How to plan a trip to South America
Over the years, traveling to South America for the Indian traveler has only gotten better – primarily thanks to easier visas and access to tons of information thanks to blogs & social media (i relied primarily on my Lonely Planet guidebook back then!). The only thing that hasn’t changed much is connectivity and flight prices, which will likely be your biggest expense on the trip.
First, you’ll have to figure out which parts of South America you’d like to explore and for how long. I wouldn’t recommend trying to cover the entire continent in one go. If you must, try to keep a max count of three countries. Stick to either the northern part (Colombia + Ecuador + Peru) or Southern part (Argentina & Brazil or Argentina + Chile + Bolivia).
You could combine multiple smaller countries, but if you want a truly genuine experience, i’d recommend not combining Argentina or Brazil with any other country.
Both are massive – Brazil, for example is 2.5 times the size of India!
So avoid the temptation of doing a Europe like multi-country trip, unless you’re strapped for time and budget is not a concern for you.
Flights & Routes:
The Dubai route is perhaps best and most common – i’ve personally done this twice and Emirates has been excellent both the times. Another time, i flew in to Colombia (Bogota) via USA (New York). The latter is a great idea if you have a US visa and you could break your journey and do a fab NYC pitstop! Other routes via Spain, Portugal, South Africa and Ethiopia are less popular, but if you’re ok with layovers, want to combine it with a pitstop and explore another European / African country, these may be viable options for you. Keep an eye on SkyScanner / Kayak / Kiwi for flight deals with flexible dates.
Like i mentioned, it’s getting easier to visit South America with a power visa like a USA visa. Colombia, Peru, Chile & Argentina now offer visas on arrival if you a have a valid USA or Schengen visa. Please note that Ecuador no longer permits visas on arrival for Indian passport holders (earlier, you didn’t even need a power visa for Ecuador). Getting a Brazil visa is easy, and with the proper documentation, you should get it within 7-10 days. Budget for two weeks anyway. If you don’t have a US visa and need to get other visas beforehand, i would encourage you to NOT combine too many countries in one trip. Also, it is possible to get some visas on the go. I have gotten myself a Brazil visa from Colombia, and a Colombia visa from Ecuador since these were last minute changes in plans.
A & Z have excellent visa documentation on their blog for visas and Mahesh Murthy has created a super handy visa spreadsheet which you can print and keep, or access online any time for reference.
Where should you go in South America?
Here’s how i handled my 3 trips so far…
1. Brazil focus (3 months) along with a month each in Ecuador & Colombia
2. Colombia focus (75 days) + 10 days in Brazil
3. Quick circuit: 23 days across Brazil, Peru, Chile & Argentina followed by a week in Buenos Aires, 2 weeks in Rio De Janeiro & 10 days in North East Brazil
Needless to say, my first trip was the most epic one. Depending on the time you have, i’d wholeheartedly recommend spending a good chunk of it in Brazil and Colombia for sure. Ecuador is amazing too, and you may want to combine mainland Ecuador with a trip to the Galapagos islands if you’re a nature buff. I haven’t explored Peru, Chile & Argentina enough but a lot of my friends love that circuit too. Buenos Aires in Argentina would also make for an excellent ‘hub’, competing with Sao Paulo / Rio De Janeiro / Bogota. Make any of these cities your base, and you’ll do great.
When should you visit South America?
My travel agent buddy puts it brilliantly – there is no ‘right or wrong time’ to visit – we’re talking about a massive continent here, with completely different climatic conditions at any given point in time. Having said that, you may want to avoid the rainy season, although it’s all the same to me – experiencing authentic culture and regular local life takes precedence over ‘ideal weather’ for me personally. So convenient dates = best dates!
This link may help you plan your dates better.
Keep in mind that high season is usually from Nov – Feb.
How much does a trip to South America cost?
Whether you travel on a budget or splurge, there will always be one minimum fixed cost – your return flights, which typically average Rs.100,000. Yes, that’s a lot, but i would urge you to not compare it to Europe or even the USA. Try this math instead: Budget 40-50K per country. This way, if you cover 3 countries, you’ll be paying about 120K and averaging it to 40K per country.
Choosing to do just one country? Excellent choice! The premium would still be worth it if you spend 3-4 weeks there.
My daily costs in Brazil used to average to R$ 100, excluding stay (to each their own type of stay, with costs ranging from R$ 0 to R$ 40 for hostels to R$100 or budget hotels to R$200 onwards for 3+ star hotels. You could do a backpacking trip with costs under R$50 too, but i’d still budget for R$ 100 per day.
Costs in Colombia were similar, while Ecuador, Peru & Bolivia are about half the costs. (About Rs.1,000 per day will a long way, excluding stay – which starts from Rs.1,000).
This should get you started with your basic planning for South America, while i work on improving this post with more data, links and references.