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Airports & Airlines

North American, European and Australian airlines offer regular South American connections.

Argentina The main airports are Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini and Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, both in Buenos Aires. There are several other international airports around Argentina; find info online at Aeropuertos Argentina 2000 (www.aa2000.com.ar). Aerolíneas Argentinas (www.aerolineas.com.ar) is the national carrier.

Bolivia The principal international airports are La Paz’ El Alto International Airport, Santa Cruz’s Viru-Viru International Airport and Cochabamba's Jorge Wilstermann International Airport. The national airline is the state-owned Boliviana de Aviación (www.boa.bo), which has international flights to Madrid, Barcelona and Miami.

Brazil The most popular international gateways are Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s GRU Airport. Salvador and Recife receive a few direct scheduled flights from Europe.Though headquartered in Chile, LATAM (www.latam.com) is Brazil’s largest international carrier.

Chile Santiago's Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez is the country's main gateway. LATAM (www.latam.com) is the chief international airline serving Chile.

Colombia Aeropuerto Internacional El Dorado in Bogotá is the main gateway. Avianca (www.avianca.com) is the national carrier.

Ecuador Quito and Guayaquil airports are both international hubs. TAME (www.tame.com.ec) is the national carrier but Avianca (www.avianca.com), based in Quito, is close behind.

The Guianas All three of the Guianas are difficult to reach, with Cayenne the only modern airport in the region. Both Cayenne and Paramaribo have direct flights to Europe. Suriname also has the best connections to elsewhere in the Americas. The key airlines are Suriname Airways (www.flyslm.com), Air France (www.airfrance.gf), Air Caraïbes (www.aircaraibes.com).

Paraguay Aeropuerto Internacional Silvio Pettirossi is in Luque, a satellite town of Asunción, and is the main international arrival and departure point. Paraguay has no national carrier.

Peru Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez is the country's major hub. LATAM (www.latam.com) has the most flights domestically and internationally.

Uruguay Montevideo’s Carrasco International Airport is the main port of entry. Uruguay has no national airline.

Venezuela Aeropuerto Internacional Simón Bolívar in Caracas is the country's main gateway. Conviasa (www.conviasa.aero) is Venezuela's national airline.

Tickets

Flights from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand may permit a stopover in South America en route to your destination city. This gives you a free air connection within the region, so it’s worth considering when comparing flights. International flights may also include an onward connection at a much lower cost than a separate fare. Be sure to investigate Air Passes before you purchase your ticket. Some Air Passes require you to purchase your arrival ticket on a codeshare partner.

From Central America

Flights from Central America are usually subject to high tax, and discounted flights are almost unobtainable.

You must have an onward ticket to enter Colombia, and airlines in Panama and Costa Rica are unlikely to sell you a one-way ticket to Colombia unless you already have an onward ticket or are willing to buy a round-trip flight. Venezuela and Brazil also demand an onward ticket. If you have to purchase a round-trip ticket, check whether the airline will give you a refund for unused portions of the ticket.

The cheapest flights are generally between Panama City and points south – Bogotá and other Colombian cities or Quito. Some travelers prefer going by boat from Panama to Cartagena.

From Continental Europe

The best places in Europe for cheap airfares are 'student' travel agencies (you don't have to be a student to use them) in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris. The cheapest destinations in South America are generally Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. High-season months are from early June to early September, and mid-December to mid-January. The cheapest flights from Europe are typically charters, usually with fixed dates for both outward and return flights. Two handy travel agencies based in Europe are Voyageurs du Monde in France and Lastminute in Germany.

From the UK

Fares from London are some of the best in Europe, with the cheapest destinations in South America generally including Buenos Aires, Bogotá and São Paulo.

Some London agencies specialize in South American travel. One very good agency is Journey Latin America.

From the USA & Canada

Major gateways are Los Angeles, Miami and New York; Miami is usually cheapest. Newark (New Jersey), Washington DC, and Dallas and Houston (Texas), also have direct connections to South America. As a general rule, Caracas and Lima are probably the cheapest South American destinations, while Buenos Aires, Santiago and La Paz are the most expensive.

Inexpensive tickets from North America usually have restrictions; often there's a two-week advance-purchase requirement, and usually you must stay no more than three months. High season for most fares is from early June to early September, and mid-December to mid-January. Look in major newspapers and alternative weeklies for sample fares and deals.

Travel agencies known as 'consolidators' typically have the best deals. They buy tickets in bulk, then discount them to their customers, or sell 'fill-up fares,' which can be even cheaper (with additional restrictions). Look for agencies that specialize in South American travel, such as exito (www.exitotravel.com) The largest student travel company in the USA is STA Travel (www.statravel.com). G Adventures (www.gadventures.com) is also recommended.

Most flights from Canada involve connecting via one of the US gateways. Travel Cuts (www.travelcuts.com) is Canada's national student travel agency.

Departure Tax

Departure taxi is always included in the ticket price for international travel.

Land

From North America, you can journey overland only as far south as Panama. There is no road connection onward to Colombia: the Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy) ends in the vast wilderness of the Darién Province, in southeast Panama. This roadless area between Central and South America is called the Darién Gap. In the past it has been difficult, but possible, to trek across the gap with the help of local guides, but since around 1998 it has been prohibitively dangerous, especially on the Colombian side. The region is overrun with smugglers and is positively unsafe.

Sea

One of the most popular modes of travel between South and Central America is by booking passage on one of the foreign sailboats that travel between Cartagena and the San Blás islands, with some boats continuing to Colón (Panama). The typical passage takes about five days and costs between US$450 and US$650. A good source of information regarding schedules and available berths is at Blue Sailing in Cartagena. Do some serious research before joining any tour; there are many unsavory operators out there, and a few boats have even sunk.

A less expensive way to reach Panama from Colombia is via small boat from Capurgana to Puerto Obaldia (COP$30,000 for the 30-minute trip) from where you can take a domestic flight to Panama City (US$115, flying Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays) or continue up through the San Blás islands.

Officially, both Panama and Colombia require an onward or return ticket as a condition of entry. This may not be enforced in Colombia, but it's wise to get one anyway, or have lots of money and a plausible itinerary. Panama requires a visa or tourist card, an onward ticket and sufficient funds, and has been known to turn back arrivals who don't meet these requirements.

There are occasional reports of pirate attacks off the coast of South America, most of which occur in the Caribbean region.