There is an extensive network of domestic flights, with refreshingly low price tags, especially in the Andean countries (Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru). After 18-hour bus rides across mountainous terrain on atrocious roads, you may decide to take the occasional flight.
There are drawbacks to flying, however. Airports are often far from city centers, and public buses don't run all the time, so you may end up spending a bit on taxis (it's usually easier to find a cheap taxi to an airport than from one). Airport taxes also add to the cost of tickets; they are always higher for international departures. If safety concerns you, check out the 'Fatal Events by Airline' feature at www.airsafe.com.
Avoid scheduling a domestic flight with a close connection for an international flight or vice versa. Reconfirm all flights 48 hours before departure and allow ample extra time at the airport.
Air passes offer a number of flights within a country or region, for a specified period, at a fixed total price. Passes are an economical way to cover long distances in limited time, but they have shortcomings. Some are irritatingly inflexible: once you start using the pass, you're locked into a schedule and you can't change it without paying a penalty. The validity period can be restrictive and some passes require that you enter the country on an international flight – you can't travel overland to the country and then start flying around with an air pass. Citizens of some countries are not eligible for certain air passes.
Multicountry Air Passes
A few South America air passes exist and can save you a bit of money, provided you can deal with a fixed itinerary. These mileage-based passes allow travelers to fly between cities in a limited set of countries. The restrictions vary, but flights must be completed within a period ranging from 30 days to 12 months. You'll pay higher rates (or be ineligible) if you arrive in South America on a carrier other than the one sponsoring the air pass.
Gol South America Airpass (www.voegol.com.br) Includes Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
One World Alliance Visit South America Airpass (www.oneworld.com) Includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
LATAM South American Airpass One of the most extensive networks around the continent; covers some 124 different destinations in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Single-Country Air Passes
Most air passes are only good within one country and are usually purchased in combination with a round-trip ticket to that country. In addition, most air passes must be purchased outside the destination country; check with a travel agent. Argentina, Brazil and Chile all offer domestic air passes.
Cycling South America is a challenging yet highly rewarding alternative to public transport. While better roads in Argentina and Chile make the Cono Sur (Southern Cone; a collective term for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and parts of Brazil and Paraguay) countries especially attractive, the entire continent is manageable by bike, or – more precisely – by mountain bike. Touring bikes are suitable for paved roads, but only a todo terreno (mountain bike) allows you to tackle the spectacular back roads (and often main roads!) of the Andes.
There are no multicountry bike lanes or designated routes. Mountain bikers have cycled the length of the Andes. As for road rules, forget it – except for the logical rule of riding with traffic on the right-hand side of the road, there are none. Hunt down good maps that show side roads, as you'll have the enviable ability to get off the beaten track at will.
Bring your own bicycle since locally manufactured ones are less dependable and imported bikes are outrageously expensive. Bicycle mechanics are common even in small towns, but will almost invariably lack the parts you'll need. Before setting out, learn bicycle mechanics and purchase spares for the pieces most likely to fail. A basic road kit will include extra spokes and a spoke wrench, a tire patch kit, a chain punch, inner tubes, spare cables and a cycling-specific multitool. Some folks box up spare tires, leave them with a family member back home and have them shipped to South America when they need them.
Drawbacks to cycling include the weather (fierce rains, blasting winds), high altitude in the Andes, poor roads and reckless drivers – the biggest hazard for riders. Safety equipment such as reflectors, mirrors and a helmet are highly recommended. Security is another issue: always take your panniers with you, lock your bike (or pay someone to watch it) while you sightsee and bring your bike into your hotel room overnight.
From cruises through the mystical fjords of Chilean Patagonia and riverboat chugs up the Amazon to outboard canoe travel in the coastal mangroves of Ecuador, South America offers ample opportunity to travel by boat. Safety is generally not an issue, especially for the established ferry and cruise operators in Chile and Argentina. There have been a couple of recent problems with tourist boats in the Galápagos (including a few that have sunk over the years), so do some research before committing to a cruise.
Feature: Lake Crossings
There are outstanding (but expensive) lake excursions throughout southern Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. Some of the most popular routes:
- Copacabana (Bolivia) to the Lake Titicaca islands of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna.
- Lago General Carrera (Chile) between Chile Chico and Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez.
- Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas (Chile) to Bariloche (Argentina).
- Puno (Peru) to the Lake Titicaca islands.
Long-distance travel on major rivers such as the Orinoco or Amazon is possible, but you'll have a more idyllic time on one of the smaller rivers such as the Mamoré or Beni, where boats hug the shore and you can see and hear the wildlife. On the Amazon, you rarely even see the shore. The river is also densely settled in its lower reaches, and its upper reaches have fewer passenger boats than in the past. River travel in Bolivia is less common than it once was, with more folks opting to take short flights between destinations.
Riverboats vary greatly in size and standards, so check the vessel before buying a ticket and shop around. When you pay the fare, get a ticket with all the details on it. Downriver travel is faster than upriver, but boats going upriver travel closer to the shore and offer more interesting scenery. The time taken between ports is unpredictable, so river travel is best for those with an open schedule.
Food is usually included in ticket prices and means lots of rice and beans and perhaps some meat, but bring bottled water, fruit and snacks as a supplement. The evening meal on the first night of a trip is not usually included. Drinks and extra food are generally sold on board, but at high prices. Bring some spare cash and insect repellent.
Unless you have cabin space, you'll need a hammock and rope to sling it. It can get windy and cool at night, so a sleeping bag is recommended. There are usually two classes of hammock space, with space on the upper deck costing slightly more; it's cooler there and worth the extra money. Be on the boat at least eight hours prior to departure to get a good hammock space away from engine noise and toilet odors.
Overcrowding and theft on boats are common complaints. Don't allow your baggage to be stored in an insecure locker; bring your own padlock. Don't entrust your bag to any boat officials unless you are quite certain about their status – bogus officials have been reported.
The best-known sea trip, and a glorious one at that, is the Navimag (www.navimag.com) ferry ride down the Chilean coast, from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Short boat rides in some countries take you to islands not far from the mainland, including Ilha Grande and Ilha de Santa Catarina in Brazil, Isla Grande de Chiloé in Chile and Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. More distant islands are usually reached by air. In parts of coastal Ecuador, outboard canoes act as public transport through the mangroves.
In general, bus transport is well developed throughout the continent. Note that road conditions, bus quality and driver professionalism vary widely. Much depends on the season: vast deserts of red dust in the dry season become oceans of mud in the rainy season. In Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, coastal and southern Brazil, and most of Venezuela, roads are generally better. Chile and much of Argentina have some of the best-maintained roads and most comfortable and reliable bus services in South America.
Most major cities and towns have a terminal de autobuses or terminal de ómnibus (bus terminal); in Brazil, it's called a rodoviária, and in Ecuador it's a terminal terrestre. Terminals are often on the outskirts of town, and you'll need a local bus or taxi to reach it. The biggest and best terminals have restaurants, shops, showers and other services, and the surrounding area is often a good (but frequently ugly) place to look for cheap sleeps and eats. Village 'terminals' in rural areas often amount to dirt lots flanked by dilapidated metal hulks called 'buses' and men hawking various destinations to passersby; listen for your town of choice.
Some cities have several terminals, each serving a different route. Sometimes each bus company has its own terminal, which is particularly inconvenient. This is most common in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, especially in smaller towns.
Especially in the Andean countries, buses may be stripped nearly bare, tires are often treadless, and rock-hard suspension ensures a less-than-smooth ride, particularly for those at the back of the bus. After all seats are taken, the aisle is packed beyond capacity, and the roof is loaded with cargo to at least half the height of the bus, topped by the occasional goat or pig. You may have serious doubts about ever arriving at your destination, but the buses usually make it. Except for long‑distance routes, different classes often don't exist: you ride what's available.
At the other extreme, you'll find luxurious coaches in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela and even Bolivia along main routes. The most expensive buses usually feature reclining seats, and meal, beverage and movie services. Different classes are called by a variety of names, depending on the country. In Argentina, Chile and Peru, the deluxe sleeper buses, called coche-cama or bus-cama (literally 'bus-bed') – or leito (sleeping berth) in Brazil – are available for most long-distance routes.
In the Andean countries, bus rides generally add up to about US$1 per hour of travel. When better services (such as 1st class or coche-cama) are offered, they can cost double the fare of a regular bus. Still, overnighters obviate the need for a hotel room, thereby saving you money.
Prices elsewhere average about $2 per hour, but can vary considerably within countries. Prices are highest in French Guiana (around $5 per hour).
It's always wise to purchase your ticket in advance if you're traveling during peak holiday seasons (January through March in the Cona Sur; and around Easter week and during holiday weekends everywhere). At best, bus companies will have ticket offices at central terminals and information boards showing routes, departure times and fares. Seats will be numbered and booked in advance. In places where tickets are not sold in advance, showing up an hour or so before your departure will usually guarantee you a seat.
Anyone who has done their share of traveling in South America can tell you stories of horrifying bus rides at the mercy of crazed drivers. And there are occasionally accidents. Choosing more expensive buses is no guarantee against accidents; high-profile crashes sometimes involve well-established companies. Some roads, particularly those through the Andes, can be frightening to travel. A few well-placed flights can reduce bus anxiety.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving around South America can be mentally taxing and at times risky, but a car allows you to explore out-of-the-way places – especially parks – that are totally inaccessible via public transport. In places like Patagonia and other parts of Chile and Argentina, a short-term rental car can be well worth the expense.
There are some hurdles to driving. First off, it's a good idea to have an International Driving Permit to supplement your license from home. Vehicle security can be a problem anywhere in South America. Avoid leaving valuables in your car, and always lock it. Drive carefully. Throughout South America, if you are in an accident that injures or kills another person, you can be jailed until the case is settled, regardless of culpability.
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
Shipping your own car or motorcycle to South America involves a lot of money and planning. Shipping arrangements should be made at least a month in advance. Stealing from vehicles being shipped is big business, so remove everything removable (hubcaps, wipers, mirrors), and take everything visible from the interior. Shipping your vehicle in a container is more secure, but more expensive.
If you're planning to drive anywhere, obtain an International Driving Permit or Inter-American Driving Permit (Uruguay theoretically recognizes only the latter). For about US$10 to US$15, any motoring organization will issue one, provided you have a current driver's license.
Home auto-insurance policies generally do not cover you while driving abroad. Fender benders are generally dealt with on the spot, without involving the police or insurance agents. When you rent, be certain your contract includes seguro (insurance).
If you're spending several months in South America, purchasing a car is worth considering. It will be cheaper than renting if you can resell it at the end of your stay. On the other hand, any used car can be a financial risk, especially on rugged roads, and the bureaucracy involved in purchasing a car can be horrendous.
The best countries in which to purchase cars are Argentina, Brazil and Chile, but, again, expect exasperating bureaucracies. Be certain of the title; as a foreigner, getting a notarized document authorizing your use of the car is a good idea, since the bureaucracy may take its time transferring the title. Taking a vehicle purchased in South America across international borders may present obstacles.
Officially, you need a carnet de passage or a libreta de pasos por aduana (customs permit) to cross most land borders in your own vehicle, but you'll probably never have to show these documents. The best source of advice is the national automobile club in the country where you buy the car.
Major international rental agencies such as Hertz, Avis and Budget have offices in South American capitals, major cities and at major airports. Local agencies, however, often have better rates. To rent a car, you must be at least 25 and have a valid driver's license from home and a credit card. Some agencies rent to those under 25 but charge an added fee. If your itinerary calls for crossing borders, know that some rental agencies restrict or forbid this; ask before renting.
Rates can fluctuate wildly (ranging from US$40 to US$80 per day). It's always worth getting a group together to defray costs. If the vehicle enables you to camp out, the saving in accommodations may offset much of the rental cost, especially in Cona Sur countries.
Except in Guyana and Suriname, South Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road. Road rules are frequently ignored and seldom enforced; conditions can be hazardous; and many drivers, especially in Argentina and Brazil, are reckless and even willfully dangerous. Driving at night is riskier than the day due to lower visibility and the preponderance of tired and/or intoxicated nighttime drivers sharing the road.
Road signs can be confusing, misleading or nonexistent – a good sense of humor and patience are key attributes. Honking your horn on blind curves is a simple, effective safety measure; the vehicle coming uphill on a narrow road usually has the right of way. If you're cruising along and see a tree branch or rock in the middle of the road, slow down: this means there's a breakdown, rock slide or some other trouble up ahead. Speed bumps can pop up anywhere, most often smack in the center of town, but sometimes inexplicably in the middle of a highway.
Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Hitching is less dangerous if you travel in pairs and let someone know where you are planning to go.
Though it is possible to hitch all over South America, free lifts are the rule only in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and parts of Brazil. Elsewhere, hitching is virtually a form of public transport (especially where buses are infrequent) and drivers expect payment. There are generally fixed fares over certain routes; ask the other passengers what they're paying. It's usually about equal to the bus fare, marginally less in some places. You get better views from the top of a truck, but if you're hitching on the altiplano (Andean high plain of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina) or páramo (humid, high-altitude grassland) take warm clothing. Once the sun goes down or is obscured by clouds, it gets very cold.
There's no need to wait at the roadside for a lift, unless it happens to be convenient. Almost every town has a central truck park, often around the market. Ask around for a truck going your way and how much it will cost; be there about 30 minutes before the departure time given by the driver. It is often worth soliciting a ride at servicentros (gas stations) on the outskirts of large cities, where drivers refuel their vehicles.
Local and city bus systems tend to be thorough and reliable throughout South America. Although in many countries you can flag a bus anywhere on its route, you're best off finding the official bus stop. Still, if you can't find the stop, don't hesitate to throw your arm up to stop a bus you know is going your direction. Never hesitate to ask a bus driver which is the right bus to take; most of them are very generous in directing you to the right bus.
As in major cities throughout the world, pickpockets are a problem on crowded buses and subways. If you're on a crowded bus or subway, always watch your back. Avoid crowded public transport when you're loaded down with luggage.
Taxis in most big cities (but definitely not all) have meters. When a taxi has a meter, make sure the driver uses it. When it doesn't, always agree on a fare before you get in the cab. In most cities, fares are higher on Sundays and after 9pm.
Trains have slowly faded from the South American landscape, but several spectacular routes still operate. Ecuador has invested heavily in rehabilitating its old lines. Uruguay is also revitalizing its old rails, though it's still years from completion.
For great scenery with a touch of old-fashioned railway nostalgia, try the following routes:
Curitiba–Paranaguá (Brazil) Descending steeply to the coastal lowlands, Brazil's best rail journey offers unforgettable views.
Oruro–Uyuni–Tupiza–Villazón (Bolivia) The main line from Oruro is currently out of service going south of Uyuni owing to track damage. If it reopens, the line continues from Uyuni to Tupiza (another scenic rail trip through gorge country) and on to Villazón at the Argentine border.
Ferroviaria Oriental (Bolivia; www.fo.com.bo) Covers eastern Bolivia, operating a line from Santa Cruz to the Brazilian frontier at Quijarro, where you can cross to the Pantanal. An infrequently used service goes south from Santa Cruz to Yacuiba on the Argentine border.
Lima–Huancayo and Huancayo–Huancavelica (Peru) These memorable rail journeys are among the best on the continent. The less frequent Lima–Huancayo train travels one of world’s highest rail routes.
Tren Túristico Guaraní (Bolivia; www.ferroviaria-andina.com.bo/turismo) A tourist service departing every second Sunday of the month between El Alto and Tiwanaku.
Puno–Juliaca–Cuzco (Peru) From the shores of Lake Titicaca and across a 4600m pass, this train runs for group bookings in high season. Departures are unpredictable, but when it does run, it's open to nongroup passengers.
Riobamba–Sibambe (Ecuador) One of a growing number of short tourist-train jaunts in the country, the Nariz del Diablo (Devil's Nose) is an exhilarating, steep descent via narrow switchbacks.
Salta–La Polvorilla (Argentina) The Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) negotiates switchbacks, tunnels, spirals and death-defying bridges during its ascent into the Andean puna (highlands). Unfortunately, schedules are extremely unreliable.
Classes & Services
There are several types of passenger trains in the Andean countries. The ferrobus is a relatively fast, diesel-powered single or double car that caters to passengers going from A to B but not to intermediate stations. Meals are often available on board. These are the most expensive trains and can be great value.
The tren rápido is more like an ordinary train, pulled by a diesel or steam engine. It is relatively fast, makes few stops and is generally cheaper than a ferrobus. Ordinary passenger trains, sometimes called expresos, are slower, cheaper and stop at most intermediate stations. There are generally two classes, with 2nd class being very crowded. Lastly, there are mixtos, mixed passenger and freight trains; these take everything and everyone, stop at every station and a lot of other places in between, take forever and are dirt cheap.
The few remaining passenger trains in Chile and Argentina are generally more modern, and the salon and Pullman classes are generally comfortable and still more affordable than flying. The economía or turista classes are slightly cheaper, while the cama (sleeper class) is even more comfortable.
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 (money) 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.
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.