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Entering South America

Passport

Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months beyond the projected end of your trip and has plenty of blank pages for stamp-happy officials. Carrying a photocopy of your passport (so you can leave the original in your hotel) is sometimes enough if you're walking around a town, but always have the original if you travel anywhere (never get on a bus leaving town without it).

Air

Airports

Every South American country has an international airport in its capital and often in major cities as well. Main gateways include Bogotá (Colombia); Buenos Aires (Argentina); Caracas (Venezuela); La Paz (Bolivia); Lima (Peru); Quito and Guayaquil (Ecuador); Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (Brazil); and Santiago (Chile). Less frequently used international gateways include Asunción (Paraguay); Manaus, Recife and Salvador (Brazil); Montevideo (Uruguay); Río Gallegos (Argentina); and Santa Cruz (Bolivia).

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.

Airports & Airlines (Intl)

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

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 effectively controlled by guerrillas and is positively unsafe.

Border Crossings

There are ample border crossings in South America, so you generally never have to travel too far out of your way to get where you eventually want to go. This is particularly true in Argentina and Chile, where a shared 3500km-long frontier provides many opportunities (especially in Patagonia) to slide between countries. Most crossings are by road (or bridge), but there are a few that involve boat travel (such as across the Río de la Plata between Buenos Aires and Uruguay; several lake crossings between Argentina and Chile, and across Lake Titicaca between Bolivia and Peru).

With the influx of footloose foreigners in the region, border police are used to backpackers turning up at their often isolated corner of the globe. That said, crossing is always easier if you appear at least somewhat kempt, treat the guards with respect and make an attempt at Spanish or Portuguese. If, on the off chance, you encounter an officer who tries to extract a little dinero from you before allowing you through (it does happen occasionally), maintain your composure. If the amount is small (and it generally is), it's probably not worth your trouble trying to fight it. Generally, border police are courteous and easy going.

Before heading to a border, be sure to get the latest information on visas – whether or not you need one – with a little on-the-ground research.

Bus

The cheapest but most time-consuming way to cross South American borders is to take a local bus to the border, handle immigration formalities and board another bus on the other side. To save a few hours, you might consider boarding an international bus that connects major towns in neighboring countries.

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 four to six days and costs between US$375 and US$600. A good source of information regarding schedules and available berths is at Casa Viena in Cartagena and Captain Jack's in Portobelo, Panama. 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 from where you can take a domestic flight to Panama City 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.