Planning a backpacking trip to South America

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Lyndsey McKiernan outlines the ins and outs of organising a backpacking trip to South America

TikTok has recently been flooded with videos detailing previously undiscovered destinations around the world as well as hacks for cheaper and more minimalistic travel. It is easy to be influenced to want to go abroad seeing these travel vlogs swimming with turtles in Bali, Indonesia, or sharing the best food spots in Mexico City. While it’s great to see these romanticised travel vlogs, it’s easy to get carried away and spend more money than is necessary on tours and excursions or flights where sleeper trains and buses are viable options. In fact, it is often the less glamorous side of travel that never makes it to social media which opens you up to the culture of the place you are travelling, exploring less touristy areas of a country and meeting locals. And of course, cheaper backpacking travels are always preferable for students!

I have been planning my trip to South America this summer for a couple of months now, always looking for the cheapest (but not dodgy-looking) option. The transport I have chosen is a nice combination of flights and buses to cover as much ground as possible without sacrificing comfort too much and spending half of the trip on 15 hour bus rides! Skyscanner and Google Flights are extremely helpful in finding the best possible price for your dates - I adjusted my time spent in some countries to match cheaper travel days to save on my budget. I will only be travelling for six weeks but chose to spend less time in each city and try to visit as many places as possible within that time. If you have more time to play with, I would definitely recommend staying and exploring a country in more detail, heading to less-visited cities and towns. After interrailing Europe a few years ago, I found that 4-5 days was plenty of time to explore one place, though this is also dependent on where you are visiting and what comes next. For example, I will only be spending two nights in Lima, Peru because I am then starting a week-long bus tour of Peru finishing up in Cusco for a week. It’s key to set your priorities before you start planning a multifaceted trip such as this - Lima was not high on my visit list, but it acts as a gateway to the bus tour for the rest of Peru and so there is no need to stay there for too long.

The route I have planned starts in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil and then moves on to Buenos Aires in Argentina; Santiago and the Atacama Desert in Chile; Lima, Paracas, Huacachina, Nazca, Cusco, Machu Picchu and Puerto Maldonado in Peru; San José in Costa Rica; and Mexico City in Mexico. A lot to cover in 6 weeks, but doable when schedules align. Internal flights within South America are relatively cheap, and short travel times mean you can spend more time at the destination. Accommodation in a large dorm room in a hostel averages approximately €12 a night including locker storage. It seems like a daunting trip to consider financially, but I’ve budgeted (and hope) that the trip will actually work out cheaper than the average Europe interrailing itinerary.

It’s also so important to keep updated on the general current affairs of the country you are visiting and consider purchasing travel insurance if it’s within your budget. There is currently political turmoil in Peru after a presidential change, leading to protests and violence in certain locations. This is something we will have to consider closer to the time if it’s worth taking the risk or cutting our losses and skipping over some locations. The priority should always be your safety and to be aware of your surroundings. You don’t want to ruin the spontaneity of your trip by researching too much in advance but you should take care to heed and respect local customs and traditions.

You don’t want to ruin the spontaneity of your trip by researching too much in advance but you should take care to heed and respect local customs and traditions.

That brings me on to every backpacker’s dilemma - what to pack. The online consensus based off of those viral TikTok videos is to reduce what you have planned to pack by half, and then half it again and you still won’t use all that you have brought. A tip I also picked up is to avoid packing white clothes as they will become dirty easier and show more creases. I’m not going to buy much more than the bag itself before travelling, but I will invest in packing cubes, padlocks and carabiners. You should lock your backpack whenever you leave it in a hostel or when in transit, packing cubes can help to pack more clothes in a confined space, and carabiners can be used to attach extra bags of things that will not stay with you throughout your journey to the outside of your backpack while you travel around such as snacks, water, and suncream.

Other things I am preparing in advance of travelling include things like a kindle so that I can bring more than one book with me without taking up any extra space - there will be long periods of time on the road or in the air where you will be grateful for some form of entertainment! I’m also trying to learn some of the basics of the languages of the countries that I am travelling to on Duolingo whenever I have a spare moment. It takes less than five minutes and can be done on your morning commute or before bed but can help you to experience a country better by communicating with locals or even something as simple as asking for directions.

It seems like a hefty task to prepare so much in advance, but it will make the travel experience stress and hassle free when there, leaving you to enjoy all that you have planned!