While I advocate for traveling solo whenever I can, I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into South America. It was my first ever solo backpacking trip and I decided to kick it off in the country of cocaine and cartels: Colombia. While decades of improvement and progress have passed since the era of Pablo Escobar, it was still a questionable country to choose as my first ever solo trip.
Having gone on several solo trips since then, I can say that solo traveling through South America is still my favorite trip I have ever taken. Central America was amazing but when I compare it to South America, it just paled in comparison. The breathtaking treks and prevalent indigenous cultures in South America made for an awesome adventure. South East Asia was a lot of fun, but the backpacker trail has worn heavy on the countries. Hardly anything felt genuine there, with only a few less-visited stops even resembling the countries in their natural form.
If you’re hesitating to go to South America for whatever reason, I promise you that every second you hesitate is a second you are missing out on an incredible adventure. Whatever your concerns are, I’m sure I can convince you otherwise.
Safety for Solo Travelers in South America
While each country in South America varies in how safe it is, I never had any problems, nor knew anyone who did. A lot of urban legends might spread throughout backpacker communities about a friend of a friend who got kidnapped by the cartel, but most of them are definitely exaggerated versions of what was likely a negligent tourist getting lost. I spent a whole day wandering around Colombia’s most notorious barrio by myself and it ended up being one of the best days of traveling I have ever had.
The people of South America are incredibly friendly. Like everywhere else in the world, there will be a few bad apples that might ruin the reputation of the entire country. Every city in the world has its sketchy neighborhoods and petty criminals. If you use common sense and don’t stray too far from well-trafficked and well-lit areas, then you will be fine.
Another safety concern might be transportation. The roads in South America are not always the safest. Going on a 12-hour bus ride through the countryside to get from city to city is usually safe, but dirt roads winding through steep cliffs are not always the most reliable. During rainy seasons, mudslides and floods can severely stall bus rides or worse.
I took many night buses in South America and had no issues, but the overly-studious traveler might have read about bandits attacking them and robbing them. These are definitely isolated incidents, but I did have a friend traveling solo who fell asleep with a bunch of his valuables just laid out. Did he lose them because he was in South America or did he lose them because he was careless? You decide. Keep your possessions close. I always kept my bag with all my valuables right under my legs.
Do You Need To Know Spanish To Travel South America?
While you can get away without being fluent in Spanish, it can be your biggest advantage if you are. South America is a pretty special continent to travel due to Spanish being the only language you need to know across a dozen countries spanning thousands of miles and various cultures. If possible, try to get at least a partial grip on the language. Just enough to get around and impress the locals. They’ll appreciate the effort more than anything.
English is widely spoken in tourist hotspots in South America, but if you want to stray off the beaten path some more, you will definitely need to brush up on your Spanish. It will be very difficult to find English speakers in rural areas outside of hostels, hotels and tour guides. If you want a complete experience in South America, you don’t want to limit your local interactions to just people who are taking your money. There are a variety of rich cultures all throughout South America, and despite there being a universal language, each country is incredibly diverse in its own ways.
The Tourist Trail in South America
South East Asia has the Banana Pancakes Trail. South America has the Gringo Trail. Get it, like Inca Trail? Ha. Although solo travelers’ opinions on tourists vary, there’s no denying that you feel a little more comfortable when there are at least a couple of others around. Of all my trips, South America felt like the place with the ideal amount of fellow travelers. Aside from Cusco and Machu Picchu, understandably, there were hardly any places that felt like it was overwhelmed by tourists.
No matter where I went, though, there were always fellow backpackers to befriend. One thing I realized while I was in South America was that it was generally the third or fourth major trip travelers take in their lifetimes. Only after completing the rites of passage of a Euro-Trip and South East Asia will most people start considering South America. This is especially true if you’re European or Australian since it’s a bit harder to get to than Asia or Europe.
So what relevance does that have? The travelers you meet in South America are slightly older and more mature. I don’t mean everyone’s going to be in their 50s, but by now, most travelers have gotten over their partying phase and have drastically matured. There are some crazy parties in South America, but thankfully, you won’t find thousands of drunk tourists lining up on a beach covered in body paint and drinking buckets.
There are fewer tourists but a Gringo Trail definitely exists. Compared to South East Asia’s trail, I found South America to be more of a “choose your path” trail. There are established go-to destinations, but no specific path to really follow, whereas in South East Asia, it felt like everyone was always going the same way.
Budgeting For Solo Travel in South America
Traveling solo can get expensive depending on your style of travel. While South America is much cheaper than Europe, Australia, and the U.S., it is slightly more expensive than most places I went to in South East Asia and Central America. If you live backpacker life to the fullest, you can expect to be able to get by on about $20 a day or less, not including any money towards activities or any intercity transportation. Here’s what you can expect to spend your money on in South America.
I love staying in hostels for a number of reasons, but saving money is definitely one of them. Your money will go a long way in South America when you can find a place to sleep for $5-10 a night. Hostel culture in South America is pretty well established, which is great for solo travelers. Every city that you go to will probably have that one hostel that everyone stays at. If you want to look at hostels before arriving at a destination, Hostelworld is a good tool that usually has the best hostels in an area. You can book them directly from the site, too.
While hotels will be pricier if you’re traveling solo, it isn’t too hard to find something within your price range. I was usually able to find some for $30 or cheaper to recover after a long trek or just to have some time to unwind.
Food in South America is amazing and it is cheap. Peru had some of the best food I’ve ever had. I could get three-course meals for as cheap as $1.50 in local markets. This was true for Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia. I spent most of my time in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil in large cities where it was a bit more expensive. Thankfully, when you’re traveling solo, no one can tell you when or where to eat. Making friends is great and all, but I still resent them for that time I had to spend $16 on a small pizza in Cartagena.
Food poisoning hit me hard in Bolivia. Like, really hard. For three weeks, my stomach was in shambles. I ended up spending a lot of time at Subway and Burger King while I was in La Paz. Interestingly enough, I frequented local markets in Peru for almost all of my meals and didn’t encounter any problems. Avoiding food poisoning in South America is honestly a crapshoot. Who knows what can happen.
Unlike the United States, water isn’t usually free in South American restaurants. If you order water, they’ll give you bottled water. You can ask for tap water (agua de llave) and it will be free. I’ll admit, I did this a lot more often than I should have, but I was also born in a third-world country so maybe my stomach has some built-up conditioning to it. On the other hand, some of my friends wouldn’t even brush their teeth with tap water. It’s up to you how much you want to risk drinking the tap water, but bottled water is so cheap that I recommend not risking it.
Transportation in South America
As a solo traveler, buses should be your preferred method of transportation. You can get cheap flights in some countries, like Colombia, but more often than not, a night bus will beat it at comfort and price. Depending on how long the ride is, a night bus can cost upwards of $30, but it is comparable to being on a first-class flight. You basically get a bed, which saves you money if you are taking a night bus so you don’t have to double up on accommodation. Depending on the country, you even get meals to go with your comfy seats and Wi-Fi.
If you’re traveling solo, renting a car or getting chauffeured from place to place will definitely become pricier. If money ain’t a thang to you, then go for it. I’m not sure if this is true for South America but I know in Central America, police are often encouraged to target tourists. Driving in South America will not be the same as driving in Europe or the U.S. I’m sure traffic laws exist, but I’m not sure if the locals do.
Within cities, taxis are good enough to get around. I remember being pleasantly surprised at how cheap taxis were. I was in traffic for almost an hour and ended up only paying about $7 in Colombia. Taxis are usually safe but being a tourist and being solo can always put a target on your head for taxis who like to overcharge.
Try to get a meter taxi if you can since that’s your best bet at getting a fair price. If not, my best rule for haggling is to know the standard rate and then offer that immediately. If you ask a taxi driver “how much?” then you’re immediately in a losing battle. If you know a ride should cost no more than $5, then offer $5.
If you ask how much, the driver will assume you have no idea what a fair price is and then severely overcharge you. He might say $20 and then feign generosity by giving you a discount down to $10, knowing full well that you are still paying twice as much as you should be. I’ve come to find that this is a pretty global thing and South America is unfortunately no exception.
Miscellaneous Advice For Traveling Solo in South America
Like I said, traveling solo through South America was the best adventure I have ever had. Common sense will be your best friend when traveling solo, not just in South America, but across the world. If you avoid any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should be fine. Most sketchy situations can be avoided if you stay on your toes.
Overthinking can be a major problem when planning a trip. I was definitely guilty of this before landing in Colombia. Once I found out how relaxed and easygoing it is to travel solo through South America, I had a much more enjoyable time. Once I got to Peru, I felt like an expert at traveling solo. That allowed the rest of my trip to focus on enjoying myself rather than worrying about silly things. Get the logistics of planning your trip out of the way early and just enjoy yourself.
If you’re looking for advice on specific countries in South America, check out the following below! Thanks for reading, and make sure to catch me on Instagram!