5 Months in South America: A Backpacker’s Guide
You know that feeling of sitting at your desk at work, or maybe your apartment at home, looking out the window and thinking “surely, there must be…more…out there?”
I knew that all too well. And it’s why, after months of daydreaming about it, I actually did it. I set aside everything in my life in the USA and bought a one-way ticket out. And it was even more mind-blowing than I imagined.
Perhaps you’re reading this because you’ve had the same urge. You’re interested in an exotic adventure, but you’re not really sure where to start.
You might be wondering what to pack for 5 months in South America. Or maybe you’re trying to find the best route for 5 months in South America. Maybe you’re interested in going longer, or shorter. You want to know how to budget for this time. And, of course, you probably want to know – is it safe in South America?
I’m JC, and I’m here to help.
JC is an American adventurer who took his first major sabbatical at age 29. While traveling Central and South America for five months, he explored beaches, mountains, jungles, and much more.
His epic adventure inspired him to write a book for future travelers thinking about backpacking this area as well. JC guides readers on the highs and lows of solo travel in this region, sharing humorous stories, tips, and tricks for survival. Besides world travel, JC enjoys reading, cooking, fishing, sports, exercise, and hanging out with his two young nephews.
If you enjoy this article, then head over to Amazon and buy JC’s book, which will give you everything you need to follow in his footsteps.
Outline of JC’s South America Backpacking Trip Itinerary
In October 2017, I flew one-way to Panama City, Panama, to begin 5 months of epic exploration across four countries. I didn’t have much planned, other than a few cities and places that were on a general “must-see” list. There was also a “must-do” list, which included things like the San Blas sail trip from Panama to Colombia, partying in Medellin, swimming with turtles and sharks in the Galapagos Islands, and hiking Peru’s Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Technically my trip included Central America, as my first four weeks were spent in Panama. Panama served as a wonderful gateway to understanding and experiencing the Latin American culture. It’s also the jumping-off point for the infamous 5-day sailboat trip to Colombia.
My South American travels included six weeks in Colombia, four in Ecuador, and another six in Peru. Each country has so much to offer that I could have spent five months in each one. The beaches, the mountains, the hiking and biking, the cheap beer, the parties, the food – they all made it nearly impossible to leave.
South America backpacking requires physical fitness, determination, language skill, patience, adaptability, and much more. But the payoff is extremely rewarding. Below are some simple tips and tricks that will hopefully give you more insight and confidence to begin planning your own adventure.
How Much to Budget for 5 Months in South America?
Money is obviously a crucial factor when planning an extended trip overseas. Because chances are, you’re no millionaire. You’ll need to learn how to extend your budget as necessary to meet your basic daily needs, while factoring in some extra cash for fun activities. And, of course, you’ll want to keep that emergency stash set aside too.
My monthly budget was on the generous side at $2000/month. It was easier to factor in my spending and keep track of it by breaking it down to $67/day. That was the amount I was comfortable shelling out for a day’s worth of accommodation, food, fun and transportation. Many days I was well under this amount. Some days I went well over. I chose to fly between the last three countries as well. I was able to offset many of those costs with credit card points, another invaluable tool in a traveler’s arsenal.
$10,000 for 5 months should be highly sufficient for the countries I listed above.
The Budget Option
Of course, it’s possible to get by on much less. If you stick to dorm rooms, commit to cooking your own meals, and pick free activities over paid ones, you can get by on closer to $30/day.
“If you stick to dorm rooms, commit to cooking your own meals, and pick free activities over paid ones, you can get by on closer to $30/day.”
Dorm rooms in South American hostels are a terrific bargain for the price. I routinely got a bed and a free breakfast, along with full facility access, for about $10. If you hunt down the right restaurant, you can often get the menu del dia – lunch of the day – for about $2-3. Restaurant dinners tend to be pricier at $5-8. This is where buying some simple groceries can be a better bargain.
So what are the Budget Busters?
Partying, drinking, and nightlife in general are where the costs can add up. Transportation is usually pretty cheap, but activities that include transportation can be pricey. White-water rafting, horseback riding, guided hikes, surfing lessons, etc. – these are all must-dos, but be prepared to pay $25 or more for each. Still, you’ll find that it costs half or even a third of what you’d pay in a first-world country for the same thing. Not bad!
When factoring your budget in South America, don’t forget this basic fact – it is a huge continent. Colombia is extremely far from Chile. And everything in Chile costs more. If you are going to visit both, you’ll need to plan accordingly. You may decide to take a plane between countries to help you get along faster. Plan on needing a few hundred dollars for each flight. Will this be part of your “on-the-ground” budget, or will you use other funds? These questions can be answered with some careful planning and research ahead of time.
What to Pack for 5 Months in South America?
Many blogs and guides will warn you about the danger of over-packing on your trip. Taking this advice to heart, I actually made the mistake of under-packing. The heat wave that hit me in Panama was a theme that continued for much of my time abroad. As a big sweaty guy, I went through clean clothes extremely fast.
My top advice for packing is to do your research on the climate of the places you’ll visit. If it’s primarily hot and humid – as is most of low-elevation Latin America – bring lots and lots of lightweight, breathable clothes. Multiple pairs of shorts and T-shirts are a must. The good news is that if you forget something, you can usually buy it wherever you are. It may not be the exact right size, or the most current fashion, but it’ll do the job.
In addition to shorts and T-shirts, don’t forget to pack some longer wear for those freezing cold buses! You’ll also benefit from sweatpants and a jacket if you venture up to higher elevations. Overall, be prepared to do a fair amount of exchanging along the way. I found some cheap clothes in thrift stores in Panama that were extremely helpful in hotter climates. Once I got to Ecuador and went to the mountains, I discarded some of the lighter clothes in favor of longer stuff.
Besides clothes, here are a few more must-have items that made my travels much easier:
- USB portable power bank
- USB wall charger (ideally with two ports)
- Flashlight/headlamp (if you like hiking, get the headlamp)
- Pen + notepad
- Deck of cards
- Padlock with key or combination lock
If you want to see a full suggested packing list for long-term travel in hot countries click here.
What is the Best Route for 5 Months in South America?
There are very few ways to answer this question incorrectly. The formula for how often you move, and where you go, depends on a few factors:
- Do you want to see as much as you can in the shortest time or do you prefer a more relaxed pace?
- Do you want to chill on a beach or do you want to climb all the mountains?
The good news is that through much of South America, there is a suggested path to follow for each country. It’s called the Gringo trail. The Gringo trail covers the main highlights of each country in places that cater to tourist infrastructure. Most major cities in each country on the Gringo trail.
“The good news is that through much of South America, there is a suggested path to follow for each country. It’s called the Gringo trail.”
There’s pros and cons of following this trail, as you might expect. You’ll meet plenty of other travelers along the way, and find lots of activities. There’s better accommodations and dining, and more reliable transportation as well.
My travels didn’t stray too far from the Gringo trail. Of course, at some point, you inevitably get sick of being surrounded by tons of other backpackers, and you’ll find yourself saying things like “ugh, I really need to get off the Gringo trail.” But as one Aussie hostel owner explained to me in Colombia, “the Gringo trail is where the best things are. It exists for a very good reason.”
Map of JC’s Route
How much time to Spend in each Country?
Allowing yourself at least one month in each country you visit will give you a chance to appreciate its diversity. I could have spent five months in Colombia or Peru – those countries are really that epic. But six weeks in each was still enough to give me a thorough appreciation. Ecuador, a smaller country, offers an incredible array of beaches, mountains, and jungle experiences. I could have spent months there as well, but my four full weeks – including one unforgettable one in the Galapagos islands – were terrific too.
Intrepid travelers often plan on going from Colombia all the way down the continent to the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina. Theoretically, this is doable in five months. But it means a more rushed experience trying to get through the countries on the way. Colombia is large. Peru is enormous. A 12-hour bus ride may only take you a fraction of the way through some of these regions. You may decide that you don’t want to take four of these bus rides per week just to check off every country and city on your list.
Must-See Sights in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru
With all that said, here are some of my “must-see” recommendations in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. These are all more-or-less part of the Gringo trail, and should be easily doable by spending 4-6 weeks in each country:
- Explore Cartagena’s old walled city, its street food, nightlife, and historic fort overlooking the ocean.
- Check out Tayrona National park near the coastal city of Santa Marta.
- Go mountain biking or paragliding in the massive canyons near the central city of San Gil, and maybe even through yourself off a bridge!
- Spend at least a week in Medellin, soaking up the Paisa culture.
- See Jardin, a charming small city nestled in a valley just hours outside Medellin.
- Take the gondola lifts to snow-capped mountains in Manizales.
- Spend the money and visit the Galapagos Islands – it’s unlike any place on earth.
- Hike up and down one of the many volcanoes in the middle part of the country.
- Visit the Quilotoa crater lake and hike along the rim.
- Baños is the adventure capital of the country – hiking, biking, bungee-jumping, white-water-rafting, and much more
- See the stunning architecture and eat in wonderful restaurants and cafes at Cuenca.
- Take a beautiful train ride to the ‘Devil’s Nose’ from Alausi and see the surrounding countryside.
- Try some ceviche and catch a sunset along the Malecon in Lima. Be sure to spend time in the Miraflores district which, offers amazing food, sight-seeing, and nightlife. I spent three of my six weeks in Peru in this area.
- Visit the Andes region near Huaraz for unforgettable mountain views.
- Check out Arequipa and Cusco, two different yet distinct cities with plenty to do.
- Visit the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu.
- If you’ve got less time to spend in Peru check out this 10-day Peru itinerary here.
Safety Tips for Backpacking in South America
Your family and friends may raise an eyebrow when you tell them your daring plans to explore this developing part of the world. When people think of Colombia, they think of drugs and crime and machetes and machine guns. They envision the jungles in Ecuador and Peru and assume that you’ll be attacked by poisonous blow darts and man-eating snakes.
Anyone who has already spent significant time in these countries can tell you – it’s really not like that at all. Disaster is easily avoidable. And you avoid disaster with common sense. Common sense means you don’t do things like this:
- Fall asleep on a public bus with your wallet and cell phone in plain view.
- Accept a ride from a non-taxi-driving stranger at night in a big city.
- Get blackout drunk alone at a nightclub.
- Walk around at night looking for prostitutes.
- Ignore your bag at a bus station for a few minutes while chatting with friends.
Okay, okay, you probably already know to avoid these things. But on my trip, I witnessed many other travelers who set aside common sense for too long, and had a negative experience because of it. Let’s be clear though: nobody got killed, nobody got stabbed, nobody got kidnapped.
The number one thing to be concerned about in these countries is small-scale, petty crime. Pickpockets and people who want to snatch-and-go when you let your guard down. The good news? You are extremely unlikely to be murdered in this process.
My book, Backpacking Latin America: How to Survive and Thrive, covers this topic of safety in more detail. You’ll find some excellent tips and tricks to help enhance your Common Sense factor in a number of unique situations.
South America (and its neighbors in Central America) offer an incredible array of opportunities for travelers who dare to visit. Jaw-dropping scenery, incredible people, and low prices make it a perfect destination for people from all over the world.
Yes, there are challenges to overcome. Things will be different. Things will not always go as planned. But that’s part of the beauty in travel. Learning to adapt and overcome and achieve will give you an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride in yourself.
My four months in South America barely scratched the surface of all the possibilities this wondrous continent has to offer. Start asking yourself the question – why not? And start packing. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
IF YOU’VE ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE AND WANT TO KNOW MORE head over to Amazon and buy JC’s book, which will give you everything you need to follow in his footsteps.
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