I'm a lady on her own in her late 40s. Three years ago I travelled for 3 months around SE Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore), East Coast of Australia and South Africa. As most travellers will know, it is very easy to get around SE Asia as everything is geared to travellers, there are guest houses at every corner in all standard backpackers route and lots of places where you can easily book day trips to visit various places. I flew to Bankok and made my way via trains and overnight buses to Ho Chi Min City.
I am now contemplating a 6 months trip around Central/South America and wanted to know if it is the same situation there. If possible I would like to cover Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil (avoiding world cup). Perhaps other area if I get recommmendations of 'places not to be missed'.
This time I am not sure how to go about it, South America is a huge place with vast distances.
Is it possible to travel around Latin America in the same way as I did SE Asia? If so, what is the well trodden backpackers route that I should keep to? I am likely to travel alone so looking for some security by meeting other backpackers.
Also what is the best time of the year to do this? I had initially thought about starting in Cuba in July and working my way down but as it is hurricane season, perhaps I should wait till Sept or perhaps I should start in Buenas Aires and work my way up?
Am I mad to consider doing this alone?
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
I have read various threads from Borisborough who seems to be very knowledgeable about this area so any help from him and others would be welcome.
I was hesitating to reply as my experience of Latin America is at least 12 years out of data so please bear that in mind. However I've lived and travelled in South East Asia and travelled in Latin America so figured some of this might be helpful. I think you'll find it straightforward enough to travel around Latin America in terms of logistics but the experience is different. I'm not sure there is a well trodden backpacker trail in SA as there is in SEA - the continent is pretty different geographically. In SA, I travelled up the west of Argentina to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia (not Peru) and most of the time on buses there were perhaps 2 or 3 other travellers at most; frequently none. In CA, from Mexico City to San Salvador and back via Belize and Yucatan, it was similar. In general, I didn't have a sense of gringo trail except in popular places like Titicaca and Atitlan where there was a definite traveller scene and it would be easy to hook up with others. In major cities like Buenos Aires you will find a fairly diverse and cosmopolitan scene much like any major European city. Overall it was much easier to integrate in LA and not stand out especially if you speak a little Spanish so you may find it a more authentic experience.
Of your listed countries, my experience is limited to Mexico (and other central American countries), Cuba, Bolivia and Argentina. In general terms in Argentina and Mexico (and Uruguay) the standards of hotels and travel infrastructure is not dissimilar to Europe but as you already noted, distances are vast. I was in Bolivia 15 years ago so I may be out of date, but travel was much slower, with far fewer sealed roads and old rickety buses, so always subject to delay. The trains didn't work then but there were tracks and always talk of re-opening the rail system so that may have changed. But if you have time, it's a fantastic place to travel - very beautiful and dramatic - and a real contrast to Argentina and Uruguay. Even top of the range accommodation in Bolivia outside of La Paz and Sucre, tended to be small, family owned guest houses so although basic by European standards, they were always friendly, safe and I would imagine ideal for single female travellers. In general, everywhere we went we (I travelled with my wife) stayed in small hotels and didn't some across the typical backpacker hostel with attached cafe type places you get all over SEA.
Hope this helps - I'm sure you'll have a great time.
Hi – thanks for the recommendation!
As you probably know, we were in South America just recently (December/January) for seven weeks. From Auckland we flew to Calama, Chile via Santiago and then travelled most of the way overland through Bolivia and Peru and then on to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. We wanted to do the Inca Trail with Huayna Picchu at the end so we had to book that in advance (only 400 people are allowed up Huayna Picchu each day) and everything else centred around that. We booked a trip across the salt flats from San Pedro, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia, flights for three nights in the Amazon jungle and one night in the Pampas in Bolivia, a flight to Quito from Lima and flights to the Galapagos Islands from Quito and then on to Quayaquil all before we set off. All the rest we researched before we went but booked just a day or two in advance while we were going around. The route is very much a back-packer trail so the transport links are excellent and there’s always another backpacker or six doing the same leg of the journey so you’ll always have company.
We went from Calama to San Pedro by local bus and stayed in San Pedro for three nights before the salt flat trip. Once in Uyuni, we caught a local bus to Potosi, an overnight tourist bus to La Paz for the return flight to Rurrenabaque, a tourist bus from La Paz to Copacabana an a ferry to the Isla del Sol and back, a tourist bus from Copacabana into Peru with a stop at Puno for the floating markets before arriving at Arequipa and then a tourist bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde for Colca Canyon. Then it was a tourist bus back to Arequiopa and an overnight tourist bus to Cusco for the Incan trail. After that we had an overnight tourist bus to Nazca and a quick flight, booked on the spot, over the Nazca Lines before another tourist bus to Lima. With flights from Lima to Quito and Quito to Baltra via Guayaquil already booked we used the local ferries to get around the Galapagos staying on Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobel before flying home via Guayaquil and Santiago.
There wasn’t much we didn’t like; it rained solidly for the three days in Quito which spoilt it a bit but it was still pretty good. Copacabana and Isla del Sol both had a bit of an out-of-season feel to them. The cities of La Paz, Cusco, Lima and Arequipa all had something going for them. The football match in La Paz and the trip down the mine in Potosi were both done on the spur of the moment and were two of the many highlights of the trip. The flight over the Nazca Lines wasn’t cheap but it was definitely worth the money. We managed to get some wonderful photographs of monkeys, spiders, snakes, birds, sloths, caimen and river dolphins in the jungle and pampas and touring the Galapagos was like holidaying with David Attenborough.
You’ll need to speak some Spanish because there are places here where travel people (drivers, agents) don’t speak English at all but you’ll always have other backpackers to talk to. We met others who had also been through Argentina and Brazil and they always seemed to have been travelling with others too. We used mainly double rooms in hostels which, like the bus tickets, we booked a couple of days in advance as we were travelling around. With more time you’ll be able to be more flexible with accommodation and travel and most likely be able to just turn up and get what you want.
La Paz was a little chilly at times as were both Quito and Cusco and, since it’s at 5000 metres most of the time, the salt flat tour was chilly at nights. We had to go December and January and this is supposed to be the rainy season in Quito (as it was!), Cusco (on and off) and La Paz (on and off) but the rest seemed like perfect travelling time.
I hope this helps – please PM me if you need any more information. Cheers!
Most of my travel experience is in Asia, and I've spend several months traveling around SEA on various trips over the last 10 years. It was a few years ago now, but I also took a two month trip to South America - Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. I would say as far as travel logistics goes, they are very similar to travel in. Hotels, transportation, and restaurants are all very easy to sort out, and there is a well trodden backpacker trail throughout the region, much like in South East Asia. For ease of travel, cost and backpacker scene, I found Peru to be very similar to Thailand; Bolivia to be very similar to Laos or Cambodia; and Chile to be a bit like Malaysia or Singapore.
Of course there are a few differences. The main one is language. In South East Asia the languages are pretty difficult for English speakers on short trips, and they change in every country. But most locals speak enough English for travel to be pretty easy without knowing the local language. I found South America to be the opposite - no one spoke English and for easy travel, Spanish is really useful and a good phrase book is essential. But the good news is that Spanish is much much easier to learn for an English speaker, and you have the added bonus of being able to use it in every country except Brazil. If you don't speak it already, try to learn a few of the essential vocab before you go, and make an effort to study as much as you can while you are there. That was actually one of my favourite aspects of traveling there. I also found that compared to SEA, there were a lot of travelers there to study the language, and everyone was keen to practice with locals and with other travelers.
Safety is another difference. Of course you have to be careful in Asia, and especially watch out for scams and whatnot. But 95% of the time, I feel very safe everywhere in Asia. But in South America, you have to be much more careful. There is absolutely no reason to be paranoid, and with the right precautions, you most likely will have no problems at all. But safety is something that you have to think about and be aware of wherever you go. It was the only place in the world that I had stuff knicked from my bag, and also was pickpocketed (with a distraction) walking down the street.
Another difference is weather, depending on where you go of course. In SEA, you can plan for weather that never dips below 25C. But in South America, you have to pack for all seasons. It was 30C in Lima and lower areas of Chile, but -15C some nights in Bolivia. I was there in May and June.
Hope this helps,
Thank you all very much for your very detailed response. It is very helpful and I know I have much research to do.
I'm studing Bolivia at the moment and looking at various tours for ideas. Whilst it seems most people tend to do the 3 day/2night trip for the salt flats and around, it is difficult to ascertain what some of the other places which are on these tours are and whether they fall under the 'not to be missed' or 'not necessary'. I of course am not in any rush since I am planning to go away for 6 months but by the same token, I want to spend my money to see worthwhile things.
The below organisation offers a huge amount of options and I find it difficult to work out which one to go for apart from deciding where to go on to.
We did the three day, two night trip with Cordillera
No climbing of volcanoes but it was certainly enough for what we wanted and recommended by Lonely Planet (although that's not necessarily always a good thing!).
We have just returned from a 6 month trip and spent 3 months in South America and 3 months in SE Asia. We were in South America from August to the end of October. It was a still quite cold when at altitude, so from Cusco - Lake Titicaca - La Paz - Uyuni; however once down from the mountains in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, we were more than comfortable in a cardigan at most for the remainder of our trip, which was from early September. It was dry the whole time we were in South America.
We started in Lima, did the usual (Ica, Huacachina, Aequipa, Cusco) before crossing the border at Puno around Lake Titicaca to the Boliviain town of Copacabana. From there we travelled to La Paz, Sucre, Potosí and Uyuni where we did a 3 day salt flats tour, before taking atransfer across the border into Chile. From there we visited northern Chile, mainly Iquique on the coast before flying to Asuncion in Paraguay, which made for a very interesting stop en route to Iguassu Falls. We did not see any other backpackers there other than a few in our hostel. After that it was overland Asuncion - Ciudad del Este - Iguassu - Sao Paulo - Paraty - Ilha Grande - Rio de Janeiro.
We flew from Rio to Montevideo, Uruguay, which was one our favourtie cities because it had such a laid back feel to it and the best bbq markets serving the best steak you have ever eaten! We took the bus to Colonia and then boat to Buenos Aires. We would have loved to have seen more of Brazil and Argentina, but as always, there is never enough time to do everything!
With the exception of the flight from Santiago to Asuncion, which was due to buses being very long and complicated to get across to Iguassu, and the flight from Rio to Montevideo, which was a a similar price to the 24 hour bus, the rest was covered overland by mainly night buses and was pretty easy. Most of the journeys mentioned above involved some 10 hours on a bus; however these are always available as night buses, therefore saving on time and accommodation. The night buses are a lot more comfortable than those you find in Vietnam. My husband and I really had no problem taking a night bus, actually enjoying that we would wake up somewhere new the following day. After the first couple, you sleep pretty well on theses buses, and are normally provided with a blanket and pillow. Take some earplugs though, as particularly in Peru they loved to play films, quite loudly.
Flying is not really an option as it is in SE Asia as all flights are about £250, with a lack of low cost airlines.
If you speak a bit of Spanish, it will be a lot easier as English can be a bit hit or miss, particularly in Bolivia and Peru. (I speak Spanish, so it's hard to tell how much English they might speak as they never bothered with me.)
I wrote quite a detailed blog for our trip if you wanted to read more about where we went specifically and what we did.
Please send me a message should you have any questions!
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The buses I took in Argentina were incredible...wifi and free champagne!! Bolivia buses are the polar opposite!
Thank you all for your very valuable input. I shall continue my research. I may have more questions later.