One of the main questions people use to ask me about my backpacking in South America is how to move from one place to another. What options are available? Which one is the cheapest? is it safe?
Knowing your transportation options is a very important subject before heading for backpacking because it determines your budget a lot. It’s all up to you. If you don’t care about how much money you spend, you can even allow yourself to cross South America by plane. My goal was to travel cheap and safe, taking strongly in consideration this second part. I turned down the idea of hitchhiking from the moment we started to plan our trip because I knew it wasn’t the safest option for two girls traveling solo. Our main mode of transportation was bus and I consider it the best solution for traveling in South America. But before you buy your first ticket, check below all the options.
One thing you should know before heading to South America, especially being European, is that there is barely no Ryanair, Vueling or another similar low cost airlines. Flight tickets from one country to another are very expensive comparing to European standards, even the domestic flights cost more than European average. Even if you won’t probably use this transportation a lot, it may be the only solution for a long-distance trip. I decided to travel by plane from Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro because the bus itinerary was estimated for more than 30 hours. In some situations you will prefer to save time and after checking the prices in different countries Brazil seems to have the most affordable ones, offering inexpensive connections with such airlines like Blue or Gol.
Hitchhiking is an option that I wouldn’t recommend in South America because it’s never completely safe. There might be some exceptions if you travel in group but still I would prefer you to avoid it. However, if you are aware of the risk and still want to try, remember that free lifts are the rule only in few countries – especially Argentina, Uruguay, Chile. In other parts of South America it is considered a public transport and the drivers will expect you to pay for the ride. Ask other backpackers what was their fare because the prices are usually fixed and equal to the bus fares. Sometimes they may be little lower or you can also try to negotiate. Negotiation is the key to survive in South America.
Probably the less common mode of transportation in South America. Why? Because of the lack of railways. If you are planning to visit Salar de Uyuni, you will learn that railway system didn’t work well in South America and it slowly faded from the landscape in the last century. However, there are some spectacular and touristic routes that still operate on short distance, like Tren de las Nubes in Argentina, the famous Machu Picchu train or Nariz del Diablo in Ecuador. This second country is recently investing money in rebuilding the old lines so maybe in the future we can expect the trains to be in daily circulation again.
The most common and popular way to get around South America is bus. Although it may also be the most time-consuming, most of travelers decide for it because it’s safe and affordable. As the flight tickets are expensive and many local people cannot afford them, the bus system in South America is very well organized and it offers you plenty solutions to move from one place to another. My favorite company to travel in Peru was Cruz del Sur because of the comfort which was similar to the one on the plane board. They offer national and international connections with very affordable prices which includes meals, 24-hours service, TV screen, blankets and comfortable reclining seats. It’s very important considering the fact that your journey may last 15 or 20 hours. If your route starts in late afternoon and lasts all night you can expect dinner and breakfast. We traveled at night a lot because it was the best way to save the money – instead of paying the hotel and transportation separately we had everything in one.
Keep in mind that in South America exist many, but many companies offering cheap prices and not always cheap means good. We had a really bad experience replacing Cruz del Sur with another smaller company. It’s not worth to safe 10-15 dollars if you travel insecure, with the bus stopping every 10 minutes in the complete darkness and taking more people on board, many of them looking suspicious. The good thing about Cruz de Sur was the fact that the connections were direct, with only one, maximum two stops during the whole route. Always put your safety first and if you decide to travel by bus, check the detailed itinerary of the bus and the opinions from other travelers online, for example on Busbud.
5. Be original
During 4 months in South America I met a lot of people and some of them decided to travel using their own transportation. There was a Polish girl crossing the continent on a motorcycle and a Canadian couple traveling on bikes. If you are looking for a real adventure, this might be a challenging and exciting solution. Find the most convenient way for you and make sure to always have a plan B in case of any unforeseen situation.
Are you ready for a ride? Let me know which transportation you decided for and in case of any questions leave a comment!