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Asia, Africa or South America? Which is better for Backpacking?

Written by Milly Whitehead on 01 / 07 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

Exams are over, the partying has started (surely) and the time for planning the future gap year or imminent summer is upon you. But where to start, where to go, what to do? The decisions to be made are in double figures but underpinning them all is the great debate: where should you go backpacking? Southeast Asia, Africa or South America? A nail biting decision when all 3 float your boat.

But help is at hand as we scratch beyond the National Geographic’s headlines and reveal that the 3 continents provide very different flavours, challenges and experiences for the backpacking traveller, especially with with regard to actually getting around and off the beaten track.

So, with this in mind which continent has your name on it?


Flavour - Wildlife, landscapes and tribal communities.

Home to the human species, to the world’s largest desert, and to a language spoken by nearly 170 million. It’s the continent of extremes: extremely large, extremely diverse, extremely dry, extremely poor and extremely young. So young in fact, that half the continent still hasn’t reached their 25th birthday. So diverse you can be on a dusty safari in the morning and be splashing about in the Indian Ocean in the afternoon.

Many of the worlds natural phenomena exist here – Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), The Serengeti (Tanzania), The Migration (Kenya and Tanzania), Lake Victoria (Uganda), The Drakensberg Mountains (South Africa), the gorillas (Uganda)... just the tip of the ‘must see’ iceberg.

Challenge of Backpacking

Very easy to backpack around an individual country but not between. Local buses or matatus are a great option for short hops, inside a country, but longer journeys need a coach or a train.

Multi-country backpacking will involve expensive flights or overland trucks- converted lorries which journey on set routes providing a hop on, hop off scenario. Uncomfortable as they are, they do the job.

Getting off the Beaten Track

Not easy. The National parks are vast, expensive and only accessible via an organized safari company. The tribal communities are proud and would find it threatening/weird if you just walked in and asked to lend a hand. If you want to volunteer, you must organize it beforehand and make sure the transport is included as most volunteer projects are located beyond the street knowledge of a tuk tuk.

Winning Backpacker Experiences

Focus on one or two counties at a time. A good itinerary would be to fly into Cape Town, backpack by bus up the coastline to Port Elizabeth, train to Joburg - fly to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Sounds exhausting but logistically smart.

Another one would be to fly into Mount Kilimanjaro, safari through the Serengeti – maybe even climb the big mountain. Coach to the coast – head for Zanzibar island, relax. Fly to Malawi, bus down the length of the great lake. Fly home. Highly recommend.

Kenya and Uganda make a great backpacking pair. Fly into Uganda trek to see the gorilla’s, visit Lake Victoria – safari in the Mara, beach it in Mombasa.

Want the hassle of backpacking taken away? Have a look at program in Tanzania or Namibia where you can really make a difference to community and conservation.

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Flavour – Ancient culture, architecture and community spirit.

From pagodas to palaces, Asia is blessed with exquisite natural beauty, deep spiritual richness and compelling culture. Sparkling lakes, dense forests, meandering rivers and majestic mountain ranges are here for the camera. The scale too is staggering - this is the largest continent on earth, covering a full one-third of our planet’s surface.

Asia is certainly the ‘hot to trot’ destination of choice for backpackers at the moment. Perhaps it’s the lure of the full moon parties or perhaps the weather, food or architecture? The markets are the best in the world... buzzing, brilliant and barter heaven.

Challenge of Backpacking

Super easy. They’re so used to backpackers, even those with Bridget Jones pants on, you’ll be following well practiced backpacker routes on efficient transport. Air conditioned, overnight, comfortable coaches and slick tarmacked roads are the norm. Cheap and efficient AirAsia make multi-country itineraries super easy.

Getting off the Beaten Track

Medium – easy. The city communities and outside villages are very welcoming and used to tourism in all shapes and forms. Arranging work or volunteering opportunities on arrival, would work, if you had time on your hands. However the jungle is a different ball game and prior planning a must. Try finding local charities who have remote infrastructure already in place. I know this works as it helped us find my favourite charity, tucked away on the Vietnam boarder, who look after rescued elephants. They provide a sanctuary for these gentle giants to live out their final years in peace. Our volunteers spend a few weeks living the elephant conservation dream by helping the mahouts and their elephants. Heaven.

Winning Backpacker Experiences

Thailand is perfect for a first timer. Cambodia and Vietnam carry more adventurous clout. Burma is amazing and for those who really want to impress try Sulawesi. Trust me it’s a winner. An island shaped like an octopus, it’s still the land of head hunters, hanging burial sites (sounds a touch gloomy) but I promise it will wow you.

South America

Flavour – Massive landscapes, indigenous communities, mystical ruins.

It’s easy to see why South America has captivated so many over the years - idyllic beaches, snow-drenched mountains and steamy rainforests, the lost majesty of Machu Picchu and the riddle of the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert. There’s just one catch: it’s massive and prior planning in every respect is a must.

Rio Carnival is a backpacker favorite, 6th form chat and itineraries have been built around it. Gaggles of gappers meet in Rio to shake their booty for a week in February – it’s not to be missed. Trekking to Machu Picchu is a case of debate and shame - did you walk or take the train?

Challenge of Backpacking

Needs prior planning – for the route and for the packing, you’ll need just as much gortex as you will bikinis. Air-conditioned buses, on good roads are the favored way to travel in and between neighboring countries but if you think you want to skip across a couple of boundaries– flying is the only way. But be aware, these flights must be pre-booked on an ‘around the world’ routed ticket. Buying a ticket in country will completely fleece you.

Getting off the Beaten Track

Not easy. The distances are too big and regular transport wouldn’t go “off the beaten track”. If you were wanting to visit an Amazon tribe for example you would have to prearrange with a company who has good contacts and a sensitive approach as to how visitors should be managed, otherwise you will be heading for a toe curling tourist experience.

Winning Backpacker Experiences

A great itinerary will be to fly into Quito – bus around Ecuador, bus to Lima, Peru (this will take a couple of days but its fun) lots of stops, lots of street food to eat along the way. Then fly either to Argentina or across to Brazil to party hard.

Another good one would be to fly to Patagonia and work your way up by bus, but only if you have time on your hands as the distances down there are extreme, as is the weather.

Where are you heading?

So there we have it – by now your inner traveler should be saying 'yes I am up for that or no that sounds way too tough, too expensive, to much hassle.' Of course to totally remove the hassle then look at our programs where we organise the logistics leaving you to enjoy your surroundings, projects and friends - take a look here at our most popular program in Ecuador to see how it works. Here you will travel and contribute in the Andes, Amazon and Galapagos- what's not to like?

When you've nailed the continent – the next thing you need to do is buy the book and the lonely planet is a great place to start.

Let me know if I can be of any more help or if you have anything to add please send my way, I would love to hear.


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