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A Gap Year in South America

Advice for travelling in South America

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Why go backpacking in South America?

Do you like your journeys hot, hot, hot and packed with jaw-dropping scenery, exultant nightlife, a rich blend of cultures, delicious dining, spectacular beaches, and exotic wildlife? You don’t? We don’t believe you! South America is the continent you need in your life.
Relatively few countries make up South America, but there’s still a frankly ludicrous amount of places to visit. The most popular destination is Brazil, from the party city of Rio de Janeiro overseen by the iconic Christ the Redeemer, to bustling Brasilia and the superlative Sao Paulo, down south to the rugged landscapes of the Amazon basin.

From there you can travel to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and more, tailoring your gap year adventure to suit you. If you’re after wonders of the world, there’s Machu Picchu in Peru, a 15th-century Inca fortress at the top of a mountain. If you want to lie on the beach by day and party by night head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where there’s no place for inhibitions.

If you want somewhere relatively untouched by tourists there’s Guyana to the north. If you want a ridiculous range of postcard scenery you might never leave Argentina, with its mountains and glaciers and forests. If you want to fill your backpacking quest with wildlife you can visit megadiverse Venezuela.

We could go on, but you probably get the idea. South America should be part of any gap year itinerary, and we’re here to help you make that happen.

Tours in South America

South America tours

South America is an incredible continent with a mind-boggling array of natural and cultural wonders. With so much to do, it can be a little daunting figuring out how to see all the best bits, knowing you’re not missing anything important.

With that in mind, a great option for travelling in South America is to do so on a guided tour. You’ll share the experience with like-minded people, have an expert leading the way, and you’ll be able to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Working in South America

South America jobs

A common source of paid work in South America is teaching English. This is a great way to bolster your budget and add some fantastic experience to your CV. For most teaching jobs you’ll need a TEFL qualification, which is usually gained before you jet out. You’re also generally expected to hold a degree.

There are some schools that will waive these requirements, but these are often low-paying, disorganised, or dishonest, and you risk not having a good experience.

There are other working options such as farming or sports coaching, but these will be harder to come across as there isn’t a shortage of workers in South America.

Volunteering in South America

Volunteer placements

If you’re looking to volunteer on your gap year, South America is an ideal destination, the Amazon Rainforest and Caribbean coastline playing host to some of the world’s leading conservation programs.

A great deal of volunteer work in South America involves wildlife and conservation, and there’s a huge variety on offer. You can protect habitats in the Amazon, help baby turtles find their way to the ocean in Guyana, work with endangered species in wildlife reserves, and a whole lot more. There are few better places on the planet to visit if you want to volunteer with animals.

There are other options too, often involving teaching and working with children or the disabled.

As with any volunteering project anywhere in the world you should think carefully about your natural interests, strengths, and weaknesses before committing to anything. These placements are usually a lot of hard work – part of what can make them such a great experience.

Budget accommodation in South America


You should rarely have trouble finding accommodation in South America on your gap year, though the quality and cost can vary significantly depending on where you are on the continent.

More developed nations like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, are likely to be the most expensive, although still generally cheaper than you would pay in Europe. In less developed countries like Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, you can get by on a much tighter budget. In smaller countries like Guyana and Suriname it can sometimes prove a bit trickier to secure accommodation.

Finding & booking

It’s usually a good idea to pre-book accommodation in South America whenever possible. If you’re following established tourist trails this is generally less necessary, but be aware that at certain times of the year hostels on these routes can be very busy. In big cities like Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires this is less likely to be an issue.

Types of accommodation

The kinds of accommodation you find in South America will largely depend on where you travel. More developed countries like Brazil and Argentina will have a wide range, from luxury hotels down to pokey hostels, so you’ll almost always find something to suit your budget. You can also arrange homestays and find guest houses in more popular tourist areas.

Countries like Bolivia and Peru are less developed but so popular with travellers that there’s plenty of hostels to choose from, though generally fewer nicer hotels. Still, wherever you stay here, it’s likely to be nice and cheap.

Small countries like Guyana and Suriname can be more troublesome, especially if you’re visiting more rural areas. There are hotels and hostels, but not in the abundance you’ll find elsewhere. We recommend planning ahead if you’re visiting these countries.

Visit the coast in countries like Chile and Colombia and you’ll often find you can rent a beach hut right on the sand. They’ll be more expensive than regular accommodation, but worth it for such a perfect slice of paradise.

Getting to South America

Travelling to South America

The best way to travel to South America from overseas is to fly. The amount of international flights into the continent has greatly increased in recent years, and most backpackers arrive in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires and go from there.

Some countries in South America like Paraguay and Suriname can still be difficult to reach, often requiring you to fly somewhere close by and travel overland.

It’s surprisingly difficult to get into South America overland, as the only way to do so is from Central America. There are no roads or railways that connect Panama to Colombia, though it is possible to ship your car over by ferry if you’re feeling particularly determined.

It’s possible to take a ferry or cruise liner from the lower Caribbean into South America, although this is rarely a cheap option. The same can be said for coming down from North or Central America – these trips are usually pleasure cruises rather than pure transport.

Getting around South America?

Transport in South America

Transport in South America is fairly extensive and easy to use, whether your backpacking tour is taking you far afield or if you’re only travelling locally. There’s good tourist infrastructure in place, so it’s usually easy to reach even the most remote areas (though you might pay more for the privilege).

By plane

If you’re sticking to a strict itinerary it’s often a good idea to use domestic or other short distance flights between destinations, as overland travel in South America can be time consuming. However flights between countries in South America can be expensive compared to domestic flights. This means it’s sometimes cheaper to fly to the border city of one country, cross the border on the ground, and then take another flight to your final destination.

Make sure to check out visa requirements before travelling.

It’s usually easy to get reasonably cheap flights between major cities within a country. Exercise caution when it comes to using really low-cost regional airlines, as some of these have less than stellar safety records.

By train and bus

Railways in South America are not as extensive as elsewhere in the world. In fact there are no cross-country train services at all on the continent.

The more developed countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil have reasonable domestic networks that generally connect regional capitals, and these can be a good option if you’re travelling on a budget. Other countries like Bolivia only have trains on very specific routes, some of which are scenic routes designed just for travellers.

If you’re looking to travel overland in South America, using buses is definitely your best option. There are numerous bus companies that will take you all over the continent, and usually for a very reasonable price. Of course these journeys can take a long time, so for longer distances you should consider flying.

By car

The quality of roads in South America varies enormously. In more developed countries there are good road networks, whereas in countries like Bolivia and Guyana you’ll often find roads in disrepair, or get stuck with unpaved tracks. We generally don’t recommend driving in South America if you can help it.

Taxi drivers in South American will often try and overcharge you. To avoid this it can be worth asking around to get an idea of what you should be paying for a given journey. Unfortunately there aren’t really regulations about meters like you often find elsewhere. Agreeing a price before travelling is often a wise move.

As for safety, in bigger cities taxis can actually be a safer option late at night than taking the bus or walking. If you’re unsure about the safety of taxis in your area, visit the local tourist office.

What visas do I need for South America?

What visas do I need for South America?

There is pleasingly little to say about visa requirements in South America, as the majority of travellers simply won’t need one if you’re just visiting.

Brazil and Peru are a little stricter than others, but if you’re coming from anywhere in the EU or North America, you won’t have a problem. If you hail from elsewhere in the world you should check ahead of time if you’ll need to acquire a visa.

Citizens of Australia, Canada, and the USA will have to pay a fee of around USD100 to enter Argentina. This can be paid upon arrival.

Simple, eh?

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