If you are still thinking whether you should cross the border between Chile and Bolivia yourself, please stop right now! Magnificent Salar de Uyuni is a must see place while in Bolivia or in northern part of the Chile. Tourists usually do visit this absolutely stunning and unique place from Uyuni, the town in Bolivia, or from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. It is not so difficult to get to salt flats without any guide, but tour agencies, that can be found in many towns all around, came up with a wonderful 3 or 4 days tours that include Salar de Uyuni, as number one attraction, along with many more wonderful places that you can see only with a guide and by 4×4. Dry salty area, as a highlight, will become just like an addition next. Salar de Uyuni will get overshadowed by beautiful lagoons, geysers, deserts, volcanoes, truly remote villages, you will spend a night in (including a hotel made of salt), and interesting rock formations. It is one of the most bizarre and beautiful places in the world you just can not miss, especially while so close to it. Paying only 180$ (inc everything as accommodation, all meals, guide, 4×4 transport) for a 3 days tour is just a bargain we have to grab. Unluckily, I have lost loads of my photos from the trip, but I hope the remaining ones will be convincing enough for you to book this trip.
Ever experience the duality of activeness that collaborates between land and humans? Sounds crazy? Ten you have to visit Baños. But first let me explain my phrase, starting with the land.
Baños (from Spanish bath) is a town in central part of Ecuador, the country I have visited during my six months backpacking trip around South America. It is located in the land of Tungurahua province and serve also as a gateway to the nearby Amazon Basin. The area close by the town itself is absolutely unique. Volcano, high mountain range, rich in minerals hot springs, surrounded rivers and powerful, almost violent, waterfalls, that shapes the rocks around, are responsible for this fact. The volcano I mentioned is called same as the province, Tungurahua. It lies on the plateau just south of the town, and as of 2016 is still active. The pick of this stratovolcano, on 5,023 meters high, belongs to the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes of central Ecuador, and it`s located 140 kilometers south of the capital Quito. The interesting fact is that Tungurahua’s top was previously snow-covered and did feature a small summit glacier. As of increased activity from 1999, melted away. Nearby impressively high summits are: Chimborazo (6,310 meters) and El Altar (5,319 meters). These statistics can already give you the clue that this landscape must be magnificent. The fact that the volcano spectacular eruptions are visible from the town participates in it too. When the sky is clear at night, you can spot a red lava on the top, and trust me, that looks absolutely unreal. Combined with small earth shakes, that always accompany the eruption, can make you a bit thrill, but that feeling can be easily overtaken by the thoughts that you are witnessing and feeling something you have never experienced before. Its worth adding that when volcano is exploding is able to shoot an ash cloud 5,000 meters into the air. During the eruption dogs are barking all the time. How surreal is that? Volcano is so close to the town, yet you are in a safe environment to watch and enjoy this very rare moment, the moment when our earth shows you its real potential.
It is not a secret that magnificent volcanoes are usually surrounded by little, probably everyone favourite, hot springs. Baños is well known for its hot baths with the temperature that range from 64 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit, and are reputed to have healing properties. These waters are very rich in minerals and many contain sulfur as well as calcium, sulfate, magnesium, iron, chloride, potassium, zinc and many more. Baños is full of them, and they are open everyday all day long. You can soak your body and relax, and if you still not convinced, remember that you will be surrounded by a very pretty panorama. All hot baths are very cheap (2$ for the whole day till 16.00, 3$ for the evenings), so really once there, there is no excuse for you not to try it.
So you can clearly feel the power of this place. It display itself by recently active volcano, powerful high waterfalls and hot springs. I don’t think there’s more I need to add, to convince you that this area is fulfilled with force. The force that strikes through all the earth layers to finish right at the top, at the very soil you stand on! Its like almost this place is screaming for attention, exhibiting its magnificent strength. To show us that this land is overpowering the humans around, and we can not win!
I started this blog by mentioning the duality. Are travelers really visiting Baños just to sit down to sip a cup of tea? No, of course not. This area is perfect for adventures people. The whole town is full of agencies where you can buy a kayaking trips, hiking tours etc. Some walking paths, up to the high hills, are so easy and straight forward that can be done without any guide. Baños is known as a good starting point for exploring the remote Llanganates National Park, surrounded mountains and hills. The city itself has a beautiful main central park with few waterfall close by. Area is also perfect for a day biking trial that goes by loads of beautiful waterfalls nearby including: Virgen de Agua Santa, Inés María, Agoyán, El Manto de la Novia, Pailón del Diablo and Machay. It is worth adding that this town never sleeps. The cute narrow streets are packed with bars and restaurants that stay open till early hours of morning. Baños is small which also helps to navigate your way back to your hotel after night out, to be ready for the next adventures day! Ok, ok….if you really enjoyed your night out, then perhaps soaking in wonderful hot springs the next day to recover would be a better idea. Either way, you will love that place like me! And for sure, your time there will be far away from lazy, sleepy holiday. But that’s what we love, don’t we?
Name “Dead Road” definitely does not come in a first place to any mind as a casual attraction. Originally named Yungas Road became well-known as a silent killer of thousands. Famous for being most dangerous road in the world that contributed to many deaths of drivers in the past and some cyclists in recent years. All as a result of how and where the road has been constructed. A combination of a single track road, 900m high cliffs, rainy weather, limited visibility, rockfalls, waterfalls and lack of guardrails participated in all death. Luckily, and finally, Yungas road was modernised to include two driving lanes, asphalt pavement, drainage systems and guardrails. New road has been opened in 2009, as an alternative of a must choice, replacing the dangerous 64 km stretch. All traffic being diverted to the new road. I am really glad motorists can now travel from La Paz to Coroico without fearing the journey may be their last. New road, apart from the fact that has already saved hundreds of life, left Bolivia also with one of the coolest, adrenaline giving and very adventurous tourist attraction in this country. People from all around the world visit this part of Bolivia to cycle down trough the original way. I did too.
Some statistics to give you the idea
“200 to 300 estimated death drivers yearly along Yungas Road and as late as 1994 there were cars falling over the edge at a rate of one every two weeks.”
“One of Bolivia’s most tragic road accidents happened on July 24th 1983 when an overcrowded bus veered off the side of the road and into a canyon killing more than 100 passengers.”
“Even with these improved conditions, Yungas Road shows no mercy. Nowadays, the death toll is limited to local workers and daredevil backpackers still using the infamous road. It is believed that more than 22 cyclists have lost their lives on Bolivia’s “Death Road” since 1998.”
To do or not to do
The answer for me is definitely YES TO DO. I wasn’t thinking even for a minute whether I should do it or not. It was surely one of the coolest thing I did in South America. However, it really is not for everyone. Most agencies will not be very honest with you, as they just want loads of people to sign for it for the profit. There is no limit of age, fitness etc, but since I have done it, I can set some average requirements. Here they are:
- Dead Road is suitable for confident cyclists to, of course, experts. A bit higher than average fitness and above. In particular for everyone aged 16 and more, but mostly done by younger group of people, usually at the age gap of 20-30. I did have two people at the age of 50-60 in my group. They both were fit and did well. Having said that, our group was one of the fastest, starting last, finishing first, so I am sure it can be done by not perfectly fit people, but maybe get some advice on best company to go with, if that’s the case for you.
- Most of the road is very stony and dusty. The whole road is 64 km long, and, thought, you mostly going downhill, you have to be a good cyclist with some experience to keep up with the group.
- You have to be very very careful, you need a perfect eyesight. The whole road is mostly thin and going via many waterfalls. Mentioning good eyesight meant to warn you that at the beginning road is extremely foggy, and it is difficult to navigate. Waterfalls are very tricky, as the group do not stop to pass them, you will go trough them at your max speed.
- Keep in your mind that it is pretty much “fast and furious” activity. You do not have a choice, but just go at max speed, well…at least my group was fast. So think twice if you want to do this. Trust me, I felt on my head, destroying the helmet, having an open wound on my left elbow, that got swollen as well. Yet, I still had 30 kilometers to go….gosh that was painful. Another guy broke his leg too.
- Cycling will last 5 hours, at high performance. Road is approximate downhill: 90% (one section contains a few small uphills). You have to be ready for sore hands.
- The drop in altitude means travelers experience both chilly conditions in the Altiplano highlands and hot humid conditions in the rain-forests below. Your body needs to be ready for it. Highly not recommended for people, that already feeling light-headed at the high of 2000m.
Once the answer is yes
- Even that you will be provided with food and water, take an extra bottle with you. You will start in very cold environment, but once half way trough, you will be surrounded by tropical hot weather, and that`s the time when your body will need some extra hydration, so you will drink loads at the end.
- Take a good waterproof jacket, as is usually raining near the top.
- As the temperature will be going up, proportionally to the distance cycled downhill, have something under to wear after, preferably with long sleeve, unless you will be provided with elbow protection.
- Take maybe old cloths. I thrown away my shoes after.
- Have some wet tissues, your face will be constantly covered with mud.
- Lucky you if you own GoPro, you can record the whole way by attaching your camera to the bike or helmet. Few of my group-mated done it.
- Do not book you trip if you just landed in La Paz. You body needs few day to adapt to the altitude. Yungas Road climbs to around 4,650 meters, from where you will start.
- Check the weather for the next day. No worries, you can book a trip just one day before, even before 17.00 pm. The bottom line is not to rain that day!
- Have a phone in your pocket. Thought you will have just quick breaks, you will have few chances to take some photos of this absolutely outstanding landscape and scenery.
- Remember! 21 cyclists and 5 guides have died since the road had been opened for mountain bike trips. It might not be the most dangerous road in the world anymore, but it is still the Death Road. Don`t be to cocky on the road.
- Most likely your agency will not cover the entrance fee for riding a bike. it is 50 Bs now – 25 Bs at the start and 25 Bs at the end of the road.
- You really should be covered with medical insurance for this!
Prices and booking
Dead Road is usually done from La Paz, the city in Bolivia. There are loads of agencies to provide you with their service, especially around city center area. Every single hostel and most hotels can book you in too. It really isn’t a problem to buy this trip. It is relatively cheap. Prices depend on agency and mostly the kind of the bike, you will be provided with. It will be between 50-100$, as of 2016. I rented the worst bike, and I think being cheap about the bicycle is not the best idea. Get a double suspension one and from a good agency. Never go with Luna Tours agency (see photos above to recognise uniform and logo). I went with them and was promised to be provided with photos and movies of us while cycling. They did film a lot, took loads of photos, and at the end agency provided us with CDs where all media suppose to be. After few moths, when I came back home exited to show movies to my sister and her kids (to show how cool is their aunt), I discovered that there is no photos or movies of us!!! Just old movies to promote agency. I was extremely disappointed and angry, I have only few photos from my phone.
Brief overlook of the day trip to do the Dead Road
- My meeting point was at the cafe in La Paz at 7.00 am where we had a breakfast, and we briefly discussed the plan for the next 10 hours. Please note that some agencies can pick you from the hotel.
- At 8.00 am our bikes got uploaded to the top of the van, we sat in, and we went off from La Paz, which is at a height of 3,600 meters (11,810 feet), to the foot of the Andes Mountains towards the summit, which was at 4,700 m.
- Approx at 10.00 am we arrived at the starting point of La Cumbre Pass. We then proceed to get the specialized equipment for each of us. The guides make recognition of our teams. We were also explained of all the rules at the road, how to sign with your hand, and what our schedule will be.
- We were fitted into our gear that was: a jacket, pants with knee pads to put under, gloves, and a full-face helmet. Then we tested our mountain bikes: breaks and sit high. Our guide rechecked all again to make sure all is safe, and we went off.
- Starting the adventure at around 11.00 am.
- First 20 kilometers is via new asphalt road to Coroico. Actual Dead Road will start after that length. In this bit we can get used to the bikes and enjoy the road before difficult part.
- Quick break for a snack before getting in to actual Yungas Road.
- Dirt road begins at a height of 2,700 meters (2,953 feet) above sea level. In the beginning of the Bolivian jungle. Exactly where the paved road ends begins the most dangerous road in the world.
- Keep cycling through rivers, waterfalls, along with the wide variety of beautiful flora and fauna with few breaks to keep the team together.
- At 15.00 finishing and arriving at the bridge, congratulating each other. At the end of the road, you will get a well deserved beer or coke and a t-shirt. I picked coke…hmmm, I must have being still in shock after my fall :D.
- After a little rest heading off for a well deserved dinner with swimming pool on the side and showers to refresh.
- At approx 16.30-17.00 heading back to La Paz, arriving at around 18.30-19.00.
Cute little village, called San Pedro de Atacama, lies on a high plateau of Andes in the northern part of Chile. The area around creates the most outstanding landscape on the planet that includes deserts, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and salt flats found only in this part of the world. Surroundings make the scenery around San Pedro to be worth seeing at least once in your life. Together with Easter Islands and Patagonia, stands as the top place to visit once in Chile. The area is known to be one of the driest places in the world which leads to the fact that there’s not much green around, yet the unique geology structure creates there something so beautiful that is beyond anything, anything I saw so far. Not even mentioning that you can also easily see a magnificent milk way at night too.
Small town San Pedro, with population just under 4,000, tends to be a very popular destination, so it`s packed with hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops and anything travelers need really. Please be aware that beds are always in high demand, so you really have to book your stay in advance. I did not know about it, and I had to stay longer in Santiago to spend my new year there, not in San Pedro as planned. It happened because all was already booked up. I got there on 3.01.2016, and it was still full of tourists. Once you’re lucky claiming your accommodation, go to look around. Village is very small and feels very cosy. Whoever decided to name the streets wasn’t really in his clear mind, so you can get lost very easily at first, but after some time you will know your way around well. In the center you can have a good meal or just a nice coffee. You can buy some clothes, hats or a tasty local alcoholic drink, called pisco (actually Peruvians are a bit angry, as this drink has been made first by them…or so they say). The prices around main street are not so high, but clearly set for tourists. I have found a very cool little area to eat, in far east that travelers don’t know about (you’re welcome). Meals there cost around 4$, are very local and very tasty. There are a few small restaurants (if you can call it like that) next to each other, and every single one got something different to offer. There`s one internet cafe in the center too, if you needed, and broadband is really not as bad as backpackers complain about! Apart from that, main street is loaded with tourist agencies. You can book loads of amazing trips there at a very affordable price. Please note that you need some spare Chilean pesos with you, as there is always something extra to pay on your trip (usually entrance fee). It’s good to book few. However, for me, the highlight of my stay turns to be cycling around Atacama Desert. Except for 3 days tour I took around all lagoons, geysers and salars, but that was on Bolivian side, so I will write about it in section about that country.
Cycling. You can hire a bike literally on every corner in San Pedro. They are in a very good condition, and you are getting an extra gear with them too (spare tube, helmet, pump and map). Prices are not so high, and they do depend on length of time you are planning to rent your bike for, and the quality of your vehicle. You can hire it from an hour up to 48 hours. Loads of hotels do this service too, which makes it easy to return it and just to go straight to your room after. I used one agency to rent and once my hotel, and prices were very similar. As far as I remember, it was around 6-8$ for the whole day. So, as I mentioned, you will be given a map with routes you can do. It really is easy to find your way around, but please keep your map with you, as you wont be meeting loads of people on the way to ask for directions. Take also loads of water with you. It’s a very hot area, and climate is extremely dry. Stuck up on some snacks too, shops are only in San Pedro! The field is elevated, so better to use sunglasses and sun protection cream. Now…AGAIN! I have lost all my photos from this beautiful place. I realized that while writing this blog. I was devastated, and I almost cried. I really captured such an amazing moments, areas, friends, and I took really great photos! This place is so so special for me. I have only few from my phone left. It is the same situation, I have had with my photos from Mexico and Belize when 2/3 of my pics just disappeared from my SD card, just like that. Did anyone got the same problem? Can I fix it? I still got all my SDs, and they are full, so photos are there, somehow. Help me readers, you’re my only hope!
- Valley of the Moon
Valley of the Moon, or Valle de la Luna, as a part of the Salt Mountain range, is one of the most visited places in San Pedro area.
The name, probably, came from the fact that the place really looks like from different planet. The whole plateau does! The valley is accessible from the town by car or bike. It is only 10 kilometers away, and you will get there via main road. There are loads of signs on the way pointing directions towards valley, so you will easily find your way. You could walk too, but the whole area of the valley is quiet large already, so you might get tired a bit. The valley also got a spot where you can do a sun-boarding. The entrance fee is just 3,000 Chilean pesos, that’s around 4.5$. The ground around is so dry that there are no any living creatures. So again, remember to take plenty of water with you. Well, as far as I remember, there is a little shop by the entrance too, in case you will run out of drinks. With your ticket you will get a map with all highlights on it, so even with no guide you wont miss anything. I don’t even want to start here how things are looking around there, because I know I already use word “amazing” way to often here. Basically, you will see few beautiful canyons, sandy desert, unusually structured rock formations, snow looks-like a ground (minerals under the soil are responsible for the white cover) and caves. Here, I have to say that after the earthquake in Nepal, I was a bit scared to go trough that tiny little dark caves, but I got over the fear while half way trough there. With the tour, you will end your trip watching the sunset over the amazing valley. So, as you know by now, I did book my tour to see the valley, but I also got there one day on a rented bike. Two ways of doing so got pluses. With tour you will go with a nice group and a tour guy. He will take you in some caves too. But while cycling there alone, you will be very flexible.
You will stop anywhere you like, and you will lose loads of calories, as there are loads of hills to climb. The big minus is that after the sunset its dark, and you will have to cycle back like that. The climate, like geological structure, is diverse too, so as soon as the sun is gone, it`s getting very very cold very very quickly. To be honest, sunset over the valley is something you can’t miss. Well, anyway, you will decide! I guess it is worth doing it twice in both ways, if you have a spare time there. Why not to see the magnificent scenery twice.
- Devils Throat
Devils Throat is the name of a cycling path around another stunning valley. The entrance is just little bit further from Pukara de Quitor, on a right hand side. The trial is 18 kilometers long, so with the road back it`s 36. Every company, you will hire your bike from, will give you the map with the road on it. It is a very easy and pleasant path, a bit rocky at times, but mostly flat. Just in few places you will face some hills, but they are not so high at all. The land around is a bit green, with the little river that will accompany you trough the whole trail. You can see some houses on your way (watch out for angry guarding dogs :).
It really is amazing that people lives in such a peaceful and remote area. Just to warn you, that there will be no phone signal, so cycle carefully please. I did this trial with my lovely friend, I’ve met on the top of Pukara de Quitor, Dorit. So anyway, because I was not alone, we let ourselves a bit, and we went way further than the Devils Throat trial. We crossed the river three times, holding our bikes in hands, and we got, probably, where not many tourists go. And really, again, watch your way around. I still have a big scar on my knee as a souvenir from there 😀 The whole experience was amazing, and the hills around your way will make you breathless. Me and my friend both had shoes and pants wet, but who cares. The area is so dry, nothing stays wet for too long. Dryer is definitely not needed for locals there.
- Pukará de Quitor
So what stands behind this funny name? An archaeological site just north of the town. It is so close (3 km from San Pedro) that you can easily do it with Devils Throat in one day. The side is looking interesting even without the ruins. But they do add the ancient vibe to the area. It`s known that it has been structured by precolombian Atacameño people as a fortress against Inca people. The road there is very straight forward, and even I remember it by now, a year after. Just cross the river on the north-east area, to take the road along the bank of the stream. Then after some time, you should already see the signs pointing the direction. The entrance to the park is very affordable at just 3,000 CLP. You can find there also a small museum with some artifacts that have been found in the area, and a brief view of the history of the place and people who lived there and created it. There is also a place to lock your bike. The ruins are all over the little hill, you will hike. To be honest, it is not so spectacular as rest of the valley, but you can learn loads of interesting facts by reading all the descriptions. Once you’re done with it, please hike a bigger hill just next to it. At the top you will find a mirador (viewpoint), that will give you the opportunity to look at beautiful valley beneath. The road to the top, again, is not difficult, takes around 30 minutes, and its build of rocky steps. At the top you can find a little structure and some faces sculpted in the rock. They look pretty cool. When your eyes feel satisfy with the surrounded view, you can start heading back to San Pedro for a tasty lunch to satisfy your stomach now :p
It took me 4 months to save money and to plan my backpacking trip around South America. Being busy earning cash for my travel, I was also occupied thinking about packing, researching visas issues, planning my route and budget. It really is not so complicated, but it was my first backpacking trip in my life, and I did not have any friends that done it before, who could help me with some tips, to share some experience. I had to heavily rely on internet info and other blog posts to prepare. Yet, I still think there is not that much information about it. Here, I will share with you some knowledge about places I have visited, how I was getting from A to B, my budget, packing and some other tips.
Planning your route
I have to admit that I am very proud of my path. I have visited all major attractions (like Iguazu Falls, Atacama Desert, Salar de Uyuni, Machu Picchu, Titicaca Lake, Dead Road), and I stayed in really amazing places. The only thing I haven’t seen was Angels Falls, as my plane from Bogotá to Caracas, in Venezuela, got cancelled, so I decided just to skip this one. Now, I am thinking that I shouldn’t. Venezuela is truly beautiful, and you can see Amazon from there as well. Basically, I did not plan my whole way around SA back home. I did only think that I will try to visit all countries on this continent, and I set major things I want to see, then I was building my expected way around these places. I think I did well at the end, as I saw 9 countries in total. I booked my hostels/hotels only in 3 first locations, and I planed my route only in the country I started from, Brazil. Then after everything was natural, I was planning my way on weekly basis, changing my mind from time to time. Everything turned out pretty well, and I do highly recommend to fallow my way, but not staying as long in Florianopolis, Santiago and Montanita, as you can add some extra locations to your trip, in Paraguay for example, or just adding Venezuela at the end. I think 6 days is an absolute maximum to stay in one place.
Please note, that real-life vikitravel can be found in every hostel`s kitchen, since there is loads of other backpackers to share their experience and recommend great places to see. Always worth listen and talking to them!
Brazil: Sao Paulo (3 nights) – Florianopolis (8 nights) – Foz do Iguaçu (4 nights) – Paraguay: Ciudad del Este (1 day) – Argentina: Buenos Aires (6 nights) – Uruguay: Colonia del Sacramento (1 day) – Argentina: Mendoza (2 nights) – Chile: Santiago (11 nights) – Valparaiso (1 day) – Vina del Mar (1 day) – San Pedro de Atacama (6 nights) – Bolivia: 3 days trip via desert from San Pedro to Uyuni – Uyuni (3 nights) – Potosi (6 nights) – Sucre (6 nights) – Cochabamba (3 nights) – La Paz (4 nights) – Copacabana (2 nights) – Peru: Puno (3 nights) – Cuzco (4 nights) – Aquas Qalientes, Machu Picchu ( 1 night) – Cuzco (2 nights) – Lima (3 nights) – Mancora (6 nights) – Ecuador: Guayaquil (1 night) – Montanita (10 nights) – Banos (4 nights) – Quito (3 nights) – Colombia: Cali (6 nights) – Bogota (7 nights).
I traveled around South America only by bus. Just once I used a ferry from Buenos Aires to Uruguay. There are loads of bus companies to choose from in every single country, offering different comfort (except in Bolivia) from normal to fully recline chairs with hot meals served onboard. Mostly possible to book online in advance, again, except Bolivia. Flying is very expensive and a bit pointless while backpacking. Train is an option too, especially now is getting more and more popular, but since I have not used it even once, I can not advise you on this service. I found this blog to be very useful for people who want to travel by train. For bus prices in each country you can have a look at my other post here. Regarding buses, they are very comfortable, except Bolivia (most amazing country anyway), and mostly affordable, except Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
I am afraid missing bags from the storage space under the bus are very common, thought nothing like that happened to me, other travelers, I have met, experienced it. There is nothing you can do about it, just hope that it wont happened to you. Always keep all valuable stuff in a small bag pack with you in the bus, try not to have expensive gear, clothes and shoes, not to miss it too much, just in case.
As a Polish nation, I do not need any visa for any country in South America. There is no fee to pay too, not even a tax (that you pay sometimes in Central America). That is for most of the European countries, even England, Germany and France. Border crossing was always nice and smooth for me, with no any hassle, trouble or any major issues. Actually, border personnel was always extra nice and very interested in me, probably due to the fact that not so many polish people travel in that part of the world. Blond hair and green eyes helped too, I guess. Just queuing for the stamp out/stamp in was annoying sometimes (especially at night). Please note that basic Spanish is essential, as they may ask where you are going to stay, or what is your occupation. It can be also a great time to eat, as there are always loads of food stands around to choose from (not between Mendoza, Argentina-Santiago, Chile). Bus driver always wait for everyone and count passengers to be sure all are in, before continuing journey, unless he doesn’t give a damn about it..nah joking, usually he does. Don`t try to smuggle anything, sniffing dogs are present at every border, and in Colombia, even on any route to stop the bus and search bags and passengers. Thought, I did not have any problems at the border, I’ve heard some stories from male travelers that were experiencing some problems, or being asked to pay a fee, that, of course, wasn’t required.
For the 4 months of traveling, excluding flying to this continent from Europe, I have spent approx 6.800$, that including everything, staying 70% of the time in hostels, rest in hotels, all the bus travel, food, trips, activities, tickets, parties, clothes, souvenirs…. Please keep checking fly4free website for cheap deals on flights to South America. I bought mine from Belgium to Sao Paulo in Brazil with return for 650$, but can get even cheaper than that. Here is my other blog post, where I look in to prices of each country with estimated daily budget.
Absolutely essential and one of the most important things before traveling. Can be easily purchase online, and is very affordable. You can buy it just day before your departure, and the price will be still the same. If you are not planning anything like surfing, winter-sports, just buy the cheapest one to cover medical bills. Otherwise, if you have some crazy plans, read what your insurance will cover, trust me, I am a lawyer. No point to buy an extra option for electronic losses (phones, tablets, laptops..etc), unless, of course, it is a very good and expensive policy. My friend had her staff covered, and after being theft from her expensive Nikon camera, got 35$ as of insurance for it! Medical cover is the most essential one for a backpacker. I bought mine for around 120$ for 6 months of my travel.
Just go. Safety is your last thing to worry about before backpacking. People are mostly travel alone now anyway, especially in South America. It is a very safe place, even for solo females, like myself. Just be intelligent and don’t act stupidly (walking alone at night, going out with strangers….etc).
Maps.me is the most important application. Please don’t take a fancy phone with you, unless you can afford losing it, but good smart phone that runs this app smoothly is essential. Old samsung s series are probably the best. I say it, as I was robbed in Chile, losing my camera, tablet and good glasses, so I experienced it myself. Coming back to maps.me, it is an application that allows you to store and later use maps without wifi. You will be even able to use navigation that will show you your location and directions (no wifi needed, as it runs on GPS). I have to say, I was impresses, as GPS was working for me even high in Bolivian mountains, just almost everywhere, and always in cities and town. Apart from street names, there are almost all hostels, hotels, shops, places of interest, all public offices (post office, police, etc). You gonna use it a lot, like I did. App is free of charge.
Other app I used was booking.com, but please note, booking in advance is more expensive than just good old way of turning at the hostel doors and checking in.
Flickr app is great too. It upload all your photos from your phone automatically (once connected to the internet, just turning the app on), so you are avoiding losing them with your phone. Free app again, but just need to create an account (that is free too).
Kindle/ebook/app to read ebooks is essential for every book lover, like myself.
Hmm, it is a very good question. I can just give you a few tips, I found to be useful during all my backpacking trips:
- Less is more! First and most important. Do not take much with you, take half what you are planning in the first place. Clothes are very cheap in South America, especially in Bolivia and Colombia, and by buying them you are getting an amazing souvenir too. Something special in your wardrobe, trust me. I had an umbrella, but haven’t used it even once, so pointless to take. Shoes: funny story, as planning loads of hiking, especially in Bolivia and Peru, I bought and took very expensive Timberlands – throw them to the bin already in Brazil and was just wearing converse (for all my hiking, at the beach, on snow, salt, swamps, deserts….). 2 pairs are max to take.
- Good light waterproof jacket and cover for backpack is a must. Here, I really love The North Face jackets, they just wont let you get wet!!
- For girls: hairdryer is not needed, but you may want to use it in Bolivia sometimes, as of a cold temperature. Still, not worth taking it with you, there are always females around to borrow one, if needed.
- Nova-days, we just can’t live without our smartphones, so it is very important to have an extension for the socket, as in many hostels they are far away from your bed.
- Don`t try to save money buying a cheap backpack. It is one of the most important things and your home for next months. It will be on your back for many many hours, so very good, comfortable straps are essential. It really needs to be a top quality one. I bought a cheap one, had to sewn it many times, and I’ve had wounds on my shoulders from a very bad straps. Trust me, hurt a lot! Before my next backpacking trip I bought a good one and that made a big difference.
- Apart from the shoes, I binned quickly, Lonely Planet book on South America got left in my third hotel, simply because I didn’t want to carry such a heavy guide-book, since everything I needed was online. Maybe for people staying in tents, when internet connection is not always available, might be helpful, but otherwise you will be just fine with your smart phone.
It is wildly required (according to an official info) to have a yellow fever injection and a proof of it! There are 5 more you may want to take. I did all of them, and I’ve had a little book to prove my yellow fever one. I read that you wont be able to enter without it (YF). However, in reality nobody checked it at the border…nobody, even once. But better to take them, just in case and for the peace of your mind.
- Please, wherever you are flying to, don`t stay just one night in your first location. Your body needs to rest after a long fly and adapt to the new climate. It took me 4 days when I landed in Brazil in November from a cold Europe.
- I`ve had 50 Euros always in my purse, just in case. Cash machine is not always available. US Dollars are good too.
- When it comes to thieving and robberies, South America is a leader. Please, always keep an eye on your valuables. Do not keep your backpack behind, always on one arm on the side or on your chest. I was also tightening straps from the zip together.
- Don`t drink a tab water anywhere, unless it’s confirmed by staff in hotel/hostel or by sigh close to the tap.
- Planning to buy outstanding sweater, cardigan? Leave it for Bolivia and Peru! Best quality (especially alpaca`s wool) and price.
- Try to, if possible, have two different types of your cards. I`ve had a Visa and MasterCard, and I found that sometime just first one worked, sometimes second. My MasterCard (credit card) was definitely more acceptable.
- Your passport and your wallet is your main priority! Never leave it alone, even in a locker in hostel! You don`t even realize how easy is to open it for professional. I got robbed this way in Santiago, in Chile.
- Before departure, I gave my mother copy of my passport, insurance, injections I took, all pin numbers and account details, just in case and for peace of my mind. Please do so as well, leave it with someone you trust and memorize phone number, you newer know what might happen.
- Take 2 types (thin and thick) of padlock. Some lockers got a thin holes (to use smaller one). Don`t worry if you will forget, they are widely available to purchase almost everywhere, along with socket extensions and adapters.
- Do not panic if there is an error in a cash machine, it may not be your card, but machine might be just empty. It really is a common problem. I remember, in Buenos Aires, I’ve had to try 6 of them, before finding one with money in it.
- As a budget backpacker, always check general prices in each country. You can have a look here too. A very expensive trip on Amazon trough a rain forest from Brazil might be very cheap from Bolivia, Colombia or Venezuela.
Wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, who visited South America or planning to, the fact that Iguazu Falls are the most known waterfalls on this continent. Going even further, one of the most impressive in the rest of the world, as they can easily and proudly be competitive with Niagara Falls. Having seen “Latino” one, I can confidently say that Iguazu stands out and outshines as way more incredible. They are taller than Canadian one, twice as wide, and are one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, with the area around marked as the UNESCO World Heritage. Iguazu Falls (Portuguese: Cataratas do Iguaçu, Spanish: Cataratas del Iguazú, Tupi: Y Ûasu “big water”) are situated near the border of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Water falls of the Iguazu River that rises near the city of Curitiba, on the border of the Argentinian province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná. The river, for most of its course, flows through Brazil, however, most of the falls are on the Argentinian side. They creates a natural water border between these countries, and they are the largest waterfall system in the world (275 waterfalls). The falls divide the river into the upper and lower Iguazu. Below its confluence with the San Antonio River, that forms the boundary between Argentina and Brazil. Falls are set among National Parks, which consist of subtropical rain-forests that are home to hundreds of rare and endangered species of flora and fauna.
The falls are very well known to every backpacker traveling through the continent or just around Brazil, Argentina or Paraguay, marking a very important dot on their map. There are two most popular gateways to discover these absolutely magnificent, violent and impressively big waters. First one is a Brazilian city called Foz do Iguaçu. Second, Argentinian town named Puerto Iguazú. Close by Ciudad del Este, in Paraguay, that is separated from Brazilian town just by the bridge named Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge), creates also an easy way to reach our destination. I have seen all three of them, so If you’re in a rush and can pick just one location, you may want to have a look at some comparisons below. I will also write briefly about Argentinian and Brazilian side of the waterfalls to help you pick one, if you can not see both, which in my opinion is ideal, but not always a case for everyone.
Iguazu falls from Brazilian side
- Three possible ways to experience the falls: from the top (but only from the side), from the bottom (Devil’s Throat, please take a waterproof jacket!) and by boat.
- You can book a helicopter ride (only available on the Brazilian side) that cost around 100$.
- This side offers a bus service connecting the falls with other activities. That service runs from the entrance to the end of the park every 10 minutes in both directions.
- You’ll get to see the entire panorama of cascades, and this view cannot be duplicated on the Argentinian side.
- Better Viewpoints, but really only a couple different of them.
- Really cool bird park just outside the gates of the Brazilian National Park entrance.
- As of a smaller area of the park, can be done in half of the day.
- Entrance ticket is cheaper.
Iguazu falls from Argentinian side
- Iguazú National Park is much bigger than its Brazilian counterpart, with more trails to walk along, and some that lead you right into the open water. You’ll need at least a full day (or two) to see it all and walk all of its trails.
- Boat trips available too.
- The Garganta del Diablo, bridge above the falls, literally swallows you up as you walk towards the end. It is probably the most impressive viewpoint where you appreciate the absolute power of the falls. The bridge extends all the way to the edge of the falls, as tons of water plunge aggressively into the far distance.
- Available zip line.
- You can get right on top of the waterfall, not exactly possible on Brazilian side.
- On the Argentinian side of the park, there’s a small train leaving about every half an hour from near the entrance, going all the way to the beginning of the trail to the Garganta del Diablo.
- There are many more options on the Argentinian side, and that is the side where you would want to spend more time.
- 20% falling on to the Brazilian side and an impressive 80% in Argentina
The biggest difference, in my opinion, between Argentina and Brazil was that in Argentina you can see falls from right of the top, giving you the impression of standing on them. In Brazil, however, you have the impression of standing kind of under the waterfalls. Two totally different thing that are possible only on each side. Very difficult to compare.
Foz do Iguaçu (city in Brazil)
- Foz do Iguaçu is a city, and that gives you the opportunity to stuck up on anything you may be missing.
- The prices around are not to high, and probably close by Ciudad del Este participate in this fact too.
- There are few big discount shops around for a budget backpackers. Cheap street food stand can be easily found all around.
- Bus, that goes to the falls, is located in the city center, very close to the big bus station.
- Zoo to visit.
- More hotels, restaurants and other amenities.
- Not as touristic as Puerto Iguazú.
- Foz do Iguaçu is probably the worst city, I have stayed in while traveling around South America.
- Main bus station, that connect cities (arriving from Florianopolis for example), is located far away from the center, which makes it difficult to just walk to your accommodation
- Not many things to do around.
- Not the friendliest people, I have met.
Puerto Iguazú (town in Argentina)
- Pleasant, safe, quiet and cute little town, so It is easy to find your way around.
- Closest to Argentinian side of the falls.
- Loads of travelers around to meet.
- People seems more friendly than on Brazilian side.
- Very expensive prices, as generally in Argentina.
- Not many cash machines around, and some do not accept your cards.
- Nothing really to do in the town.
- Expensive restaurants, set for tourists.
Ciudad del Este (city in Paraguay)
- Very cheap to stay in, eat out, everything really.
- Easy access to Foz do Iguaçu, just by crossing the bridge from where you can catch a bus to the falls. Taxi is cheap to take too.
- Very crowded streets, full of trading locals which give you the opportunity to discover the daily life and environment around Paraguayan people that live there.
- Experiencing amazing, very lively vibrant city, a bit of a smuggling one, with busy streets packed with loads of stands. Well known for its cheap electronic equipment.
- Markets rich of fruits and vegetables at very low prices.
- Loads of cheap street food stands where you can grab a lunch for as little as 1$.
- Extremely cheap accommodation.
- Atmosphere on the streets.
- Least touristic one on our list.
- Very friendly people, very chatty, helpful, easy to interact with, more open to travelers.
- Definitely one of my favorite places in South America.
- The only minus, I found, is an extra time you need to get to Foz de Iguazu to catch a bus to the falls. Having said that, you can get a taxi at a very cheap price to take you to the bus stop in Brazil.
Of course, I will leave the choice to you. However, if I had to visit it not having much time, I would stop in Paraguay (Ciudad del Este), and from there I would travel to the Argentinian side to see it. For whats it worth, whatever side you will pick, you will be blown away by the magnificent diverse nature of the area and the beauty of this violently falling waters.
It would be a crime not to pop in to any of Uruguayan cites or towns while in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Especially if you will fallow my way of thinking: “common, you may not have this occasion in your life again”. Visiting close by Uruguay is well easy and well possible, but that, of course, if you have some spare time. There are few available options of transportation to get there from Buenos Aires. Apart from the bus, that can take you everywhere in South America, you can fly (very expensive and a bit pointless) or just take a ferry. Here, we will look in to the last mentioned option, simply because I used it for my one day trip to Uruguay, to Colonia del Sacramento specifically. Ferry, apart from being nice option for a trip, can be a great way to move to your next location while travelling around South America. I guess buses are the cheapest option, and there is loads of info about timetables and prices online, so I will just concentrate on the water-path. The ship, as a way quicker option than bus, can be also a great break from bus traveling, as if you are backpacking, like I did, you will be spending loads of time in them, I mean looooads.
So basically, you can choose between two kind of trips (places) you can reach by ferry. First one will take you all the way to Montevideo, capital of Uruguay. Second, to Colonia del Sacramento, a cute, quiet and small colonial town by the cost. As stated before, I took a trip to Colonia, but definitely would pick Montevideo over now. You can also see both, if you have time of course, as from Colonia you can catch a bus to capital that takes just 3 hours of journey. Please note that these companies do operate between other towns and cities, but Montevideo and Colonia are, in my opinion, best one to see.
Companies, service and routes
The Buenos Aires – Montevideo or Colonia del Sacramento ferry route is currently operated by 3 companies. The Buquebus service runs up to 13 times per week, while the Colonia Express service runs up to 3 times per day. The Seacat company is the third option to choose from.
Buquebus provides two services to Colonia del Sacramento – one faster and more expensive, and the other is slower and therefore cheaper. The faster Buquebus catamaran ferry (1h15mins) is usually quite crowded with day tours and travel groups. Cheaper prices are well possible to find when booking in advance and online. The fast boats have a free wireless internet. The slower boat takes about 3 hours, and it is the one I took. However, checking now the web page, I can no longer find this service. Shame, I really loved my 3 hours on the endless sea. Both kind of boats have a restaurant, cafe and an off duty shops. Buenos Aires to Montevideo service takes 2h15mins and arrives at the Ciudad Vieja district of Montevideo, situated very close to the downtown. Terminal (dock) is located at Antártida Argentina 821, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires (same as for Seacat).
Colonia Express takes roughly 1h to reach Colonia and 3h45mins to reach Montevideo. There is no wifi provided, but there is a duty-free shop and a small bar selling snacks and coffees. Terminal (dock) is located at Av. Elvira Rawson de Dellepiane 155, Puerto Madero Sur, Buenos Aires.
Seacat ferry to Montevideo takes 4h15mins, to Colonia – 1h. Termina is located at Antártida Argentina 821, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires (same as for Buquebus).
Prices as of July 2017
Busquebus (webside here) is the most expensive and offers one way economy class ticket to Montevideo from 93$. However, return ticket starts at 43$ (can’t believe I picked this company!). Day trip to Colonia cost around 80$ (same day return) economy class fast 1h15min boat, which doesn’t seems like a great discount, as a single journey starts from 47$.
Colonia Express (website here) offers a day trips (with return the same day) to Colonia that cost from 70$ (the cheapest) up to 115$, depending on time and day. One way to Colonia cost around 38$ in the cheapest economy class. To Montevideo, one way ticket cost around 45$ in the cheapest economy class.
Seacat (webside here) day trip to Colonia (return the same day) ferry cost from 75$ (economy), and it seem to be a steady price. Buenos Aires-Montevideo cost 43$ for one way cheapest economy class.
Buying a ticket
It is not necessary to pre-book your ticket online, but it can save you some money, and it is a good idea during a holiday when loads of people travel on this route. Buying in advance can also save you some stress, as there might be a long queue to get a ticket just before the departure. As mentioned, you can purchase your ticket online, thought the web page for Busquebus is very poorly designed with a very misleading currencies in dollars. However, if you are not in Buenos Aires, it is best to book and buy online before the departure. My hostel was very close to the Busquebus terminal, so I just walked there, and I bought a ticket at the agent located inside. I can’t say stuff speaks well English, but we closed the deal without any major hassle. You can pay by cash or card, and as far as I remember, I purchased a day return the cheapest option to Colonia (3h of journey each way) and I paid around 70-80$ in total (December 2015).
Remember to check-in
Please do remember that this is an international journey that required you to check-in at the doc with your passport and bag, if you have one. Same as at the airport, you will have to get in a queue lane towards your check-in desk. You should also be at the terminal at least an hour and a half before the departure for immigration purposes etc. Your passport will be checked, but you will get stamped after check-in, but before waiting area. I can’t remember seeing off duty shops there, but they are at the ferry, with a very good prices, especially for cosmetics. Liquor is also available to purchase.
Please do keep in you mind that a time difference between Uruguay and Argentina, with Uruguay being ahead, is one hour. Important to know the proper return departure time. I wasn`t aware of it, and I arrived at the dock an hour ahead, when I could enjoy the Colonial old town longer.
- Argentinian pesos are widely used in Colonia. I paid in the restaurant by them for my bill.
- Very cute touristic old town in Colonia by the cost is easily accessible just on food, so no need to take a taxi.
- For a budget backpacker is better to get your own food and take with, as restaurants in Uruguay are very expensive, with pizzas and burgers starting at 10$, as the cheapest option. You can get a snack with you for the time of journey too, as again, restaurant inside the ferry is very pricey and, to be honest, not the best one.
- 3-4 hours is more than enough to visit Colonia del Sacramento.
If you plan to pick Montevideo over Colonia del Sacramento, which I really think is a better option, you need to stay a minimum of one night in capital to do a proper city-seeing, unless going very early, returning with the last service.
- Please consider buying a ticket in advance for weekends and the peak season (Christmas until the end of February).
Learning salsa, visiting places, meeting new people, chatting with locals, enjoying night life. My time in Colombia was definitely beyond my expectations and came as a highlight. I just wish I could have more time to spend there. As just of my 12 days slot before flying to Panama, I could only see Cali and Bogotá. Sadly, I had to skip Medellin, the city I always wanted to visit. However, I`ve had enough time to absolutely fall in love with locals. They charmed me with their kindness, passion for dance, music and general love for life. Thought, Latino are well known for being very enthusiastic about dance and music, yet they still managed to surprised me how much they really do love it, and how important it is in their lives. And here we are in Cali, the city where salsa is coming from. Walking around, high on a coffee, I was able to truly discover this, once one of the most dangerous in the world, city. I saw people enjoying their life, dancing on the streets, being always surrounded by the music that could be heard from cars, houses, phones, cd players, literally from every corner. You really have to try hard to find a quiet place there. So many things happen always around, leisure areas are usually full of people. This can be hardly found in busy western countries that seems so grey next to colourful and vibrant Colombia. I met loads of local friends there along with other travellers. Not surprisingly, they all said that Colombia was one of the best destinations of their backpacking trips. I am just hoping, I will go back to to this country. There is still so much to experience and discover for me. Hopefully one day…
- Enjoying live events in Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz.
- Watching Colombians dance salsa on the street.
- Lunch in mercado with just locals.
- Late night in Salsa Club, where I learned to dance it.
- Starting every morning with the best coffee in the world.
- Chilling on the hill around San Antonio Church.
- Enjoying rice and beans almost as good as in Brazil.
- Hanging out with Manu Chao crew, as they stayed in my hotel during his tour.
- Few scary night walks back to hotel.
- White rum with Russian version of Jack Sparrow (hello Anton;).
- Sweet bamboo juice.
- Making loads of amazing friends.
Holding the title of the highest navigable lake on the planet, as well as on my list of the most beautiful water basins in the world, tucked away high in the Andes between snow-covered peaks, Lake Titicaca is one of the most popular places to see in South America. Known for its unique panorama during the day and the night time, crystal-clear air and water, combine with mountain range around. Believed to be the birthplace of the first Incas, along with the sun, moon and stars, when creator came out of the lake.
The main two bases to explore Lake Titicaca (and other sites in the region) are Puno, in Peru, and Copacabana in Bolivia. I did visit these two mentioned towns, and I stayed a minimum of two nights in each, which gave me some time to look around and discover them. If you’re backpacking and having loads of time, you can stop in both to see the Bolivian and Peruvian side of Titicaca, as they are very different. However, if you’re rushing a bit, I would definitely suggest staying just in Copacabana in Bolivia. Why? Well, for few reasons really. From there, most tour operators run a day trips to the Isla del Sol, with a quick stop at the Isla de la Luna. Bolivian town is way smaller and cutter. Very touristic too, which I don’t always like, but can be handy when it comes to accommodation and organized trips. Lake is looking really amazing (way better) from this side as well, you can hike some mountains around to spot the stunning panorama of the pool and surrounded areas. In Puno the lake side can`t be really accessible properly, there is no beach to sit and enjoy, and there’s not so many hills from where you can get a good grip of Titicaca. Having said all that, I loved Puno for its truly Peruvian vibe. There is loads of street food stands around, loads of mercados to grab a very tasty local meal, stand with fresh fruits, vegetables, colorful ladies with coca leafs…everything really.
This can not be found in Copacabana, I was really struggling there to find a proper local food, and once I even ended up ordering a pizza. Not so cool. However, It’s just a food, and I think exploring the lake is the reason we are there in the first place, so again, that points us towards Copacabana over Puno. There is also loads of hotels by the lake (I was lucky to be in one), when in Puno you can hardly find any so close to the water. So I think we have a winner at the end-Copacabana. However, again on another side, Puno hold a very strong argument of having a famous Floating Islands, a must see while there. Yet, I think the trip can be booked from Copacabana too. The other reason (to cheer you up really, if you cant do both) to stay at just one place is the fact that any route you will take to get there, you will be able to have another good look at the lake, as streets are usually around the lake. If you will come from La Paz, like myself, to Copacabana, you will even cross Titicaca on the boat.
Just for the lake and islands Copacabana is a winner, but if you want to feel the true vibe, less touristic place, traditional food and real life more than lake, then Puno is definitely for you!
Either way you will choose, the bottom line is not to skip this place. Trust me, Titicaca will stay in your heart forever.