While I now 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 still felt like a questionable country to choose for my first ever solo trip. I was clueless and green as a traveler, though I eventually grew to love the liveliness of the culture.
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. I’ve since taken an eight-month solo trip through the continent until Coronavirus sent me home. At this point, it’s safe to say that South America is my favorite continent. As a backpacker or solo traveler, you could hardly ask for more.
Central America was amazing but when I compare it to South America, it just paled in comparison. 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. And I’ve only barely begun to scratch the surface of Africa.
The breathtaking treks, prevalent indigenous cultures, and multitude of otherworldly environments in South America made for unforgettable adventures. 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 differs, I never had any problems, nor knew anyone who had anything major happen to them. 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. That goes for pretty much every country that I’ve been to, but especially so for places like Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. 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. If you travel like a tit, you’ll get treated like a tit.
Another safety concern might be with transportation. The roads in South America are not always the safest or most developed. 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. A good rule to follow is to never throw anything up in the overhead compartment area.
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. Seriously, how cool is that? There are a dozen countries spanning thousands of miles and various cultures, and aside from Brazil, you only need to know Spanish. A good grasp on Spanish can even help you in Brazil. 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. If you want to stray off the beaten path, you will need to brush up on your Spanish. It will be 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 only 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 parts of Peru, there were few places that felt entirely overwhelmed by tourists.
I’m looking at you, Machu Picchu.
No matter where I went, 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 South America is 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 generally more expensive than 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 well established, which is great for solo travelers. Every city 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 to have some time to unwind.
Food in South America varies wildly. In some countries, it is amazing and cheap. In others, it is horrid, but thankfully, still cheap. Peru had some of the best food I’ve ever had and is renowned as a gastronomical capital of the world. 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 larger cities where it was a bit more expensive. In the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, whew. Let’s not go there. 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.
I have a strong stomach but odds are, on a long-term trip through South America, food poisoning will come ruin your life at some point. 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.
But hands down, the best water one can get would be straight from the crystal clear glacial lagunas.
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. Patagonia is the exception. Patagonia is always the exception. In most non-Patagonian regions, a night bus costs around $25. Double or triple that if you are in Chile or Argentina. The nice thing about the buses is that 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.
Within cities, using Uber is the way to go. Unfortunately, Uber is mostly restricted to big cities. In smaller towns, 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 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 with your damn chest out.
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.
Of course, traveling solo in South America does come with its risks. While travel insurance is a personal choice for many, I do recommend purchasing it for a trip in South America. A lot of unexpected things can happen while traveling, and travel insurance gives you peace of mind for those things that can be out of your control. For backpackers, I would recommend SafetyWing travel medical insurance, as it has great plans that fit any budget.
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!