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Written by Alice McLeod on 24 / 05 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

Welcome to a world of gap year wanderlust and exploration as we dive into the common debate: Asia, Africa, or South America – which continent holds the key to the most remarkable backpacking experience? Each corner of the globe offers a unique tapestry of cultures, landscapes, and adventures waiting to be unraveled. In this blog, we compare the three, helping you to discover which is the best fit for you and your gap year. Whether you're drawn to the mystical allure of Asia, the untamed wilderness of Africa, or the vibrant rhythms of South America, join us as we navigate the paths less traveled and guide you toward an informed decision for your next epic adventure
So, with this in mind which continent has your name on it?


Home to the human species, The Big Five, and to a language spoken by nearly 170 million. It’s the continent of extremes: extremely large, extremely diverse, extremely dry, and extremely young. So young in fact, that half the continent still hasn’t reached their 30th 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.

Challenges of Backpacking

We'll be honest, this isn't an easy one to backpack around if you're not a confident traveller. It can be 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 and sometimes the infrastructure just isn't there. 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 organise it beforehand and make sure the transport is included as most volunteer projects are located beyond the street knowledge of a tuk tuk. An easy way to do this is to join something like our Kenya programme, where all logistics, project work, and transport is organised for you. We'll pick you up from the airport at the start of the programme and drop you off again at the end, ready to head home or continue on on your Africa adventure.

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 gorillas, visit Lake Victoria – safari in the Mara, beach it in Mombasa.

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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 third of our planet’s surface.

Asia is certainly the hot 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.

Challenges of Backpacking

They’re so used to backpackers, that travel through these countries is easy, even for novice travellers. You’ll be following well trodden backpacker routes on efficient transport. Air conditioned, comfortable overnight coaches and tarmacked roads are the norm. Cheap and efficient flights make multi-country itineraries super easy. Whilst prices may have risen since the pandemic, it's still a drop in the ocean compared to other gap year destinations like Australia and Costa Rica.

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. If you want to hit the ground running then check out our Cambodia programme - three weeks exploring the highlights of the country as well as heading off-grid to rural Kampot to work with a local school and live in the jungle. You can read more about the work our inspirational team leader does here.

Winning Backpacker Experiences

Thailand is perfect for a first timer. Cambodia and Vietnam carry more adventurous clout, you can read our three month travel itinerary around these countries here. Borneo is amazing, and for those who really want to impress try Sulawesi. You really can do it all, from learning to scuba dive to in some of the most beautiful underwater ecosystems in the world to seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan.

South America

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. Don't underestimate the vast size of these countries for even a moment, for example, to drive from Bogota in Colombia to Lima in Peru will take 50 hours...

Challenges 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. If you're pushed for time then you'll want to fork our for flights, or else you'll spend your entire time in transit, but if you have time to take it slow and enjoy the journey then buses are the way forward.

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 the Amazon 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. You should also be mindful of safety, whilst there are risks in every country, there are areas of South America we'd suggest being very wary of travelling through, or avoiding altogether. Consider joining an organised team programme to help you navigate some of the trickier countries, such as Colombia, especially if your parents will balk at the thought of you touching down

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, too much hassle.' Of course to totally remove the hassle then look at our programmes where we organise the logistics leaving you to enjoy your surroundings, projects, and newfound friends. We run programmes in Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and all are sure to give you an excellent introduction to the continent, giving you the confidence and experience to then go on and continue to explore post-programme.

If you're still unsure about what continent might suit you best then just ask us! We love helping travellers plan their gap years, and are always happy to chat through different options with people.

Want the stress of planning logistics removed?

Join one of our team programmes and all transport, project-work, logistics, and accommodation is sorted, leaving you to focus on the important things like making new friends, and making memories.

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Need inspiration and direction?

Get in contact with the gap year travel specialists.

Here at The Leap we can help both team traveller through our programmes and/or the backpacker.

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