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Ultimate South America Backpacker Itinerary

Written by Alice McLeod on 15 / 12 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

South America is as vast as it is beautiful, and has been a draw for gap year travellers for many years. There's so much to see and do that you could realistically spend years backpacking and still not see it all. Three months is a good amount of time to start off your travels, and we recommend spending around 3/4 weeks in each country so that you can get the full immersion and experience.

Planning a three-month backpacking itinerary in South America, with a month each in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, offers a fantastic opportunity to explore diverse landscapes, cultures, and historical sites. You'll get a range of contrasting experiences, from the ancient ruins of Peru to the wildlife of Ecuador.

South America Month 1: Peru

Peru is a great country to start off your Central America backpacking itinerary. It's a beautiful country with vast amounts of history and culture, and we love it so much that we have a Peru programme that gives you a three month introduction to this cool country.

Start your backpacking in Lima

Fly into Peru's capital and start your journey in the bohemian district of Barranco, adorned with colorful street art and colonial architecture. Stroll along the Puente de los Suspiros, or "Bridge of Sighs," for a touch of romantic nostalgia.

For a cultural fix, explore the historic center of Lima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where colonial churches like San Francisco beckon with mysterious catacombs. Culinary enthusiasts, rejoice. Lima is a gastronomic hub, and a visit to the Miraflores district offers a chance to savor the world-renowned Peruvian cuisine. Indulge in a ceviche feast or try local favorites like lomo saltado.

Don't miss the Larco Museum, where pre-Columbian artifacts tell tales of ancient Peru. As the sun sets, head to the coastal district of Miraflores for stunning cliffside views of the Pacific Ocean. Lima, with its fusion of history, flavors, and coastal charm, is a backpacker's haven waiting to be explored.

Backpack by bus or fly down to Cusco

Next up is the the high-altitude city of Cusco, the gateway to the ancient wonders of Peru. Nestled amidst the Andes, Cusco is not just a stopover on your way to Machu Picchu but a destination that will steal your heart. Begin your adventure by wandering through the cobbled streets of the historic center, where Inca walls seamlessly merge with colonial architecture. Plaza de Armas, the main square, is a lively hub surrounded by charming cafes and artisan markets.

Immerse yourself in the rich history at Qoricancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, and the imposing Sacsayhuamán, a marvel of ancient engineering.

Feeling adventurous? Embark on the iconic Inca Trail trek or opt for the scenic train journey to the majestic Machu Picchu. Cusco is also a treasure trove of vibrant local markets, offering handmade textiles, alpaca wool products, and unique souvenirs. After a day of exploration, unwind with a cup of coca tea to acclimatize to the altitude or join fellow travelers in the bohemian San Blas district for a taste of Cusco's lively nightlife.

Those joining our Peru programme will spend time in in the high-altitude towns around Cusco, and will of course see Machu Picchu in all its glory.

Bus out to Rainbow Mountain

Brace yourselves for a kaleidoscopic adventure in the Andes, where nature has painted a masterpiece – Rainbow Mountain. Nestled at high altitudes, Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, is a geological marvel that will leave you breathless, both from the altitude and the sheer beauty of the landscape. Start your trek in Cusco, where you'll acclimatize and gather supplies for the journey ahead.

The trek to Rainbow Mountain is a challenging yet rewarding ascent, with each step revealing a spectrum of colors as if the mountains themselves are alive with vibrancy. As you climb, the stunning reds, greens, and yellows of the mineral-rich terrain unfold, creating a surreal panorama that feels like stepping into a painting. Take your time, catch your breath, and absorb the mesmerizing scenery. Remember to pack wisely - you'll need sturdy hiking boots for this one.

Hop on the backpackers bus to Lake Titicaca

Intrepid backpackers should venture to the high-altitude realm of Lake Titicaca. Straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, this colossal lake is not just a body of water but a living cultural tapestry. Begin in the Peruvian town of Puno, where the vibrant indigenous culture thrives. Dive into the local markets, where you'll find intricate handicrafts and vibrant textiles reflecting the Andean traditions.

Hop on a boat to the Uros Floating Islands , where the indigenous Uros people have crafted entire islands from totora reeds. Witness their unique way of life and paddle through the sapphire-blue waters. Continue your aquatic adventure to Taquile Island , where time seems to stand still, and the locals maintain centuries-old weaving traditions. Don't forget to savor a hearty meal of fresh trout, a local specialty.

As the sun dips below the Andean peaks, bask in the surreal beauty of Lake Titicaca, surrounded by panoramic views that are nothing short of breathtaking. Whether you're exploring ancient ruins or sharing stories with locals, Lake Titicaca promises a cultural immersion like no other, making it a must-visit destination on your backpacking journey through South America.

Fly from Lima to reach Iquitos

Linked to the outside world by air and by river, Iquitos is the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road . If you want to get to Iquitos, you need to fly in either from Lima or one of the other cities in Peru. This is fast becoming more and more of a backpacker destination every year, but it’s more popular as a base for exploring the Amazon. This town overlooks the dense Amazon rainforest and has a crazy nightlife, interesting cuisines to try and fascinating markets. Iquitos interestingly is also called the “Capital of Ayahuasca” with a fast growing number of Ayahuasca retreats surrounding the city area. Make sure you do your research and go through a proper shaman if you wish to try it.

If exploring deeper into the Amazon interests you, then Iquitos is the place to hunt for a guide to help you fulfill that dream. Whilst exploring the Amazon of Peru, you will require a guide at times. The jungle is a dangerous place to be lost or sick, so be prepared to pay for the experience. Make sure you take a local guide who will know what he is talking about. The Peruvian Amazon covers 60% of the country, creating a unique and diverse ecosystem when combined with the mighty Andean Mountain range and Pacific Ocean.

Jaguars, anteaters and tapirs still slink about the greenery, anacondas lurk in the swamps, caimans sunbathe along the riverbanks, and trees rise like giants from the forest floor. Many indigenous tribes still live here scattered throughout the Peruvian section of the Amazon, surviving primarily by hunting and fishing.

Best to fly from Cusco, as the roads are terrible if non-existent, to Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado which are the best two entry points.

South America Month 2: Ecuador

Fly into Quito

Nestled high in the mountains, Quito is a city that seamlessly blends colonial charm with modern vibrancy. Begin your journey in the UNESCO-listed historic center, La Mariscal, where cobblestone streets are lined with colorful buildings and lively markets. Explore the Plaza de la Independencia, the city's main square, surrounded by architectural marvels such as the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Presidential Palace.

Ascend the Panecillo Hill for panoramic views of the city and the surrounding Andean peaks. Dive into the rich history of Quito at the Museo Nacional del Banco Central, where pre-Columbian artifacts and colonial art provide a fascinating journey through time. Don't miss the awe-inspiring Basílica del Voto Nacional, a Gothic masterpiece offering breathtaking vistas from its towers. For a touch of local culture, wander through the vibrant La Ronda neighborhood, where traditional music, dance, and artisanal crafts come to life. Quito's culinary scene beckons with a fusion of flavors, so be sure to try local delicacies like llapingachos and empanadas.

Venture to the equator at Mitad del Mundo, where you can straddle the Northern and Southern Hemispheres simultaneously. For a more authentic experience, head to the Intiñan Solar Museum nearby, offering interactive exhibits and quirky experiments. As the sun sets, experience Quito's nightlife in the lively La Mariscal district, where bars, cafes, and clubs come alive.

Mindo

Make sure you embark on a journey to the cloud forest of Mindo. Tucked away in the Andean foothills, Mindo is a biodiverse paradise that beckons with lush landscapes, vibrant birdlife, and a tranquil atmosphere. Begin your exploration in this ecological gem by immersing yourself in the lush greenery of Mindo Cloud Forest Reserve. For birdwatching aficionados, Mindo is a dream come true, boasting over 450 avian species, including the iconic toucans and hummingbirds. Grab your binoculars and set off on one of the many trails, such as the Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve, for an immersive experience in this avian wonderland.

If you're an adventure seeker then Mindo offers an array of outdoor activities, from zip-lining through the forest canopy to tubing down the crystalline Mindo River. Take a serene stroll through the butterfly and orchid gardens, where you'll witness the kaleidoscopic beauty of these delicate creatures and flowers. A visit to Mindo wouldn't be complete without experiencing the Chocolate Tour. Delve into the process of chocolate-making, from bean to bar, and indulge your taste buds in the rich, artisanal flavors produced by local cacao farmers.

After a day of exploration, unwind in the quaint town of Mindo, known for its relaxed vibe and friendly locals. Savor delicious Ecuadorian cuisine in the cozy restaurants and cafes scattered around town.

Need help planning your South America travels?

Many gappers prefer to start their travels around South America by joining a team programme in order to provide structure and support. Once they've done their team programme (and made lots of new friends to travel with along the way) then they'll head off on a phase of independent travel around South America.

See programmes

Travel to the Amazon Rainforest

This lush and vibrant region, known for its unparalleled biodiversity, offers a true immersion into the heart of the jungle. Begin your rainforest escapade in the gateway city of Coca, nestled on the banks of the Napo River. Take a river journey deep into the Amazon, where towering trees, diverse flora, and the symphony of exotic birds greet you. Once in the heart of the jungle, explore the Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Guided hikes through the dense vegetation reveal the fascinating ecosystems, from towering kapok trees to intricate orchids.

For an up-close encounter with indigenous cultures, visit local communities and learn about their traditions, sustainable practices, and the rich biodiversity that surrounds their way of life. Share stories around a communal fire and experience the warmth and hospitality of the Amazonian people.

A highlight of your rainforest adventure is a visit to the Yasuní Parrot Clay Lick, where a kaleidoscope of parrots and macaws gathers for a vibrant display of colors. Do a might walk to witness the jungle's nightlife, with creatures like tree frogs, night monkeys, and other nocturnal animals coming to life.

Eco-lodges nestled within the jungle provide a comfortable yet immersive experience, allowing you to fall asleep to the sounds of the rainforest and wake up to the chorus of howler monkeys.

Sail to the Galápagos Islands

Set sail to the awe-inspiring Galápagos Islands, a living testament to the marvels of evolution and a haven for unique wildlife. Begin your journey by flying into Baltra or San Cristóbal, the main entry points to the islands. Explore on a guided cruise or opt for a land-based adventure, where each day promises encounters with the iconic inhabitants that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and playful sea lions await your discovery.

Snorkeling enthusiasts, gear up to explore the crystal-clear waters surrounding the islands. Dive into underwater realms teeming with colorful fish, graceful rays, and even Galápagos penguins darting through the currents. Embark on island-hopping excursions to witness the unique landscapes, from lava fields and lush highlands to pristine beaches like Tortuga Bay.

Discover the avian wonders of the archipelago at Punta Suárez on Española Island, where waved albatrosses perform their elaborate courtship dances. Marvel at the fearless wildlife that pays little attention to human presence, allowing for up-close encounters that are truly unparalleled. For an educational experience, visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where conservation efforts and the famous giant tortoise breeding program unfold before your eyes. Immerse yourself in the rich history of the islands and gain insight into ongoing efforts to preserve this ecological treasure.

Unwind on pristine beaches, hike to volcanic craters, and bask in the tranquility of this remote paradise. The Galápagos Islands, with their otherworldly landscapes and fearless wildlife, offer a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, leaving you with memories of a truly extraordinary journey into the heart of evolution.

The Galápagos Islands are a big-ticket backpacking item in your South American itinerary so make sure you budget appropriatly.

South America Month 3: Colombia

Colombia is an amazing and vibrant country which has shed its bad boy reputation of old. You can go from chilled surf beaches to bustling cities in no time at all, but you should also keep in mind that Colombia isn't what we'd describe as a 'soft-landing'. It can be a hard country to navigate alone, which is why we find so many gappers start with a Colombia team programme to ease them into this country. By joining a team programme you can still see all of the highlights but also step off the backpacker route to see a more authentic side to Colombia that many backpackers don't get to see.

Fly into Bogotá

Nestled in the Andes, this sprawling city is a vibrant tapestry of history, culture, and contemporary energy. Begin your exploration in La Candelaria, the historic heart of Bogotá, where cobblestone streets lead you past colonial-era buildings adorned with colorful street art. Dive into the city's rich past at the Gold Museum, home to an astonishing collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts.

Ascend the iconic Monserrate for a panoramic view of the city, and breathe in the crisp Andean air. Don't miss the Botero Museum, where the voluptuous art of Fernando Botero takes center stage. Immerse yourself in the buzzing atmosphere of Plaza Bolívar, surrounded by government buildings and the stunning Primatial Cathedral.

For a taste of local life, wander through Usaquén, a charming district with artisan markets and al fresco dining. Explore the innovative street food scene, indulging in arepas and empanadas, and wash it down with a cup of Colombian coffee. As the sun sets, experience the city's lively nightlife in Zona Rosa or Parque 93.

Medellín

Nestled in a lush valley surrounded by verdant mountains, Medellín has transformed itself from a turbulent past into a beacon of innovation and resilience. Begin your Medellín adventure in the bustling neighborhood of El Poblado, known for its trendy cafes, lively nightlife, and Parque Lleras , a hub of social activity.

Take a stroll through the Botero Plaza , surrounded by the iconic sculptures of Fernando Botero, before exploring the fascinating Comuna 13, a neighborhood that's become a symbol of the city's rebirth with its vibrant street art and community spirit. For panoramic views of the city, hop on the Metrocable and ascend to Santo Domingo . Explore the botanical garden at the Jardín Botánico or take a day trip to the nearby town of Guatapé, famous for its vibrant streets and the towering rock of El Peñol.

Immerse yourself in the local culture by sampling traditional Colombian dishes in the bustling markets or trying local specialties like bandeja paisa. As the sun sets, savor the city lights from the Mirador Las Palmas, and embrace the warmth and hospitality of the Paisa people.

San Gil and Barichara

Nestled in the heart of Santander, this dynamic duo offers a perfect blend of outdoor excitement and colonial charm. Begin your journey in San Gil, known as the adventure capital of Colombia. Thrill-seekers, gear up for a dose of adrenaline with activities like whitewater rafting on the Suarez River, paragliding over lush landscapes, and caving in the mystical Cueva de la Vaca. For a slower pace, explore the vibrant Mercado Central, where local flavors and crafts come to life. As the sun sets, immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere of Parque La Libertad, where locals gather to unwind and socialize.

Next up, make your way to Barichara, a beautifully preserved colonial town just a short drive away. Step back in time as you wander through cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed buildings and adorned with blooming bougainvillea. Don't miss the tranquil Parque Nacional, a shaded square offering breathtaking views of the Suarez Canyon. Take a

leisurely hike to the nearby Camino Real, an ancient stone path that connects Barichara to the even smaller town of Guane. Savour local delicacies like hormigas culonas (big-bottomed ants) chocolate, and indulge in the tranquility of this laid-back town. This is where our Colombia programme is based, so check that out if you're considering a trip to Barichara.

Bus to Cartagena

This enchanting coastal city in Colombia is a vibrant blend of colorful architecture, rich history, and Caribbean flair. Begin your adventure in the heart of the walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where pastel-hued buildings, flower-draped balconies, and charming cobblestone streets create an irresistible charm. Explore the iconic Plaza Bolívar, where horse-drawn carriages meander around the statue of Simon Bolívar, and visit the awe-inspiring San Pedro Claver Church.

Step back in time with a stroll along the city walls, offering panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea. Dive into history at the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, an imposing fortress that has guarded the city for centuries. For a taste of local life, wander through the bustling Bazurto Market, where the sights, sounds, and aromas provide a sensory feast.

As the sun sets, experience the magic of Cartagena's nightlife in the lively Getsemaní neighborhood. Sample the vibrant street food, listen to live music, and dance to the beats of traditional Colombian rhythms. For a touch of relaxation, head to the nearby Rosario Islands, where pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters await - perfect for scuba diving.

Expect hustlers and tourists in equal measure, which is all part of this city. Needless to say, if you're offered "free" cocaine then don't take it as you're very likely to then be forced to pay a huge amount of money to the five guys now threatening to beat you up... Be wary of popular scams, and don't trust anyone who seems too friendly.

Santa Marta

Embark on a journey to the coastal gem of Santa Marta and the breathtaking Tayrona National Park. Nestled along the Caribbean Sea, Santa Marta offers a perfect blend of tropical charm, colonial history, and coastal relaxation. Begin your exploration in the historic center, where Spanish colonial architecture and vibrant street life beckon. Dive into the city's rich history at the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the final resting place of Simón Bolívar.

Now, gear up for a nature-filled adventure as you venture to Tayrona National Park, a coastal paradise where lush jungles meet pristine beaches. Hike through dense forests to discover hidden gems like the Pueblito Chairama archaeological site, providing a glimpse into the ancient Tayrona civilization. As you emerge from the jungle, the turquoise waters and golden sands of beaches like Cabo San Juan and Playa Cristal will leave you in awe.

For a true connection with nature, consider camping within the park, falling asleep to the soothing sounds of the Caribbean Sea. Don't miss the opportunity to snorkel among vibrant coral reefs and witness the diverse marine life that calls this region home.

Back in Santa Marta, rejuvenate by indulging in fresh seafood at the bustling Mercado de Pesca, and soak in the vibrant atmosphere of Parque de los Novios in the evening. As the sun sets over the Caribbean, you'll find that Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park offer an unrivaled combination of cultural richness and natural beauty on Colombia's northern coast.

So there you have it, a three month itinerary to get you started for South America. It's an unbelievably vast and varied continent, so you're sure to have many amazing experiences. From here you could continue to backpack around South America or you could hop up into Central America for some contrasting backpacking experiences. If it feels overwhelming to plan all of this yourself then consider joining a team programme in South America to help give you the confidence to head off independently.

FAQs

When is the best time to go backpacking in South America? South America is so vast that whatever time of the year you travel you'll be able to find somewhere with good weather. It's in the Southern hemisphere, so seasons will be the opposite to the ones we have back home, but make sure you check when the rainy seasons are, as they'll be different in each country.

Is it safe to backpack in South America? Violent crime against tourists is rare, but you should still be vigilant and listen to locals when they tell you where or where not to visit. Keep updated on the FCDO, and if you (or your parents) are really worried about safety then consider a team programme where you'll have a leader with you throughout.

Do I need a visa to travel in South America? No, you don't need visas to enter South American countries on a UK passport and you'll be given them on arrival (usually 90 days). It's always worth checking a countries entry requirements on the FCDO before you travel though.

Which country is easiest to travel in South America? Whilst people will no doubt argue about what country is easiest backack, we think Peru is a great option to get you started. It's popular with backpackers for a reason, and of course has lots of bucket list places such as Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. It's a great place to start your South American journey.

Related Articles

Ultimate Central America Backpacker Itinerary

Asia, Africa, South America - which is better for gappers?

Where to go on your gap year in Central and South America

Need help planning your South America travels?

Many gappers prefer to start their travels around South America by joining a team programme in order to provide structure and support. Once they've done their team programme (and made lots of new friends to travel with along the way) then they'll head off on a phase of independent travel around South America.

See programmes

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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