First Time Backpacking South America? Here Are The Best Routes For Every Traveller

If backpacking South America is a life-long aspiration of yours, but you lack the time and money to take on the 13-country “Gringo Trail”… don’t let go of the goal just yet. On a continent home to extraordinary mountain ranges, wonders of the world and metropolitans with a buzz like no other, it can feel impossible to know where to even start in South America. That’s where we come in. Here are three bite-sized backpacking routes — ordered in difficulty level and designed for South America first timers — to get you realistically inspired.

Backpacking South America is an immense journey. This independent, low-budget method of travelling has several perks, but even the most experienced of travellers will agree that it’s demanding. If it’s your first time in South America, or you’re new to travel in general, we highly recommend checking out Intrepid Travel and G Adventures. Their South America tours are the more affordable options on the market, and their groups have an average of 10 people: so you’ll have a healthy mixture of independence and socialising.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay’s UNESCO Old Town.

Uruguay to Buenos Aires (& Beyond)

This route is suitable for: travellers who need a confidence boost and a few days to get settled.

Travelling to a new continent for the first time can feel overwhelming — whether it’s homesickness, cultural shocks, or adjusting to a different time zone. For a steady introduction into South America, start off in Uruguay. Location wise, it’s sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, and it’s a relatively short journey away from Buenos Aires.

Although Uruguay is the most expensive country in South America, you’ll still find affordable hostels in Montevideo: Uruguay’s laidback capital. Uruguay is also generally considered to be most politically stable country on this subcontinent with comparatively low crime rates. The locals are also some of the friendliest people you’ll come across while travelling.

Palacio Salvo, Montevideo, Uruguay.

Along the coast you’ll find former fishing villages transformed into quiet luxury destinations, such as José Ignacio. But if your idea of unwinding is loud music and clubbing, you’ll get to experience plenty of that in Montevideo and Punta del Este. Uruguay may be more tame than its powerhouse neighbours, but this is still South America we’re talking about; the party isn’t over until the sun rises.

How much time you spend in each area while backpacking is entirely up to you, but if your budget and schedule is tight, you only need 48 to 72 hours in Montevideo. A ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires costs anywhere from $3 to $100 depending on your ticket, and the journey takes just under three hours.

You’ll want to spend at least four days getting to know Buenos Aires, and if you’re planning on backpacking around Argentina, you’re looking at three to four weeks of travel. Because Argentina is so massive, you’ll need to factor national flights or overnight bus journeys into your itinerary.

The Lakes District, the Wine Country, and Patagonia are must sees for longer trips to Argentina. Before you do any of that, you may wish to see the epic Iguazú Falls first —  either via a 16-hour bus journey or a two hour flight from Buenos Aires. This natural wonder of the world is shared with Brazil, and so crossing the border will provide a different perspective of the waterfalls. Just keep in mind that you’ll need your passport both ways, and potentially a visa depending on your citizenship. Find out more on our Skratch app under Visas.

Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Patagonia: Argentina to Chile

This route is suitable for: those willing to compromise on budget while backpacking.

To put the size of Patagonia into perspective, it’s bigger than 80% of countries around the world and represents 50% of Argentina and Chile respectively. Travelling through Patagonia is time-consuming, complicated and costly. Despite this, there’s still a few ways you can save money while backpacking.

Not only is Argentina’s side of Patagonia bigger and better equipped for tourism, it’s cheaper. You’ll find far more hostels here, whereas in Chilean Patagonia, you’ll be relying upon Hospedajes: a B&B style of accommodation. There’s more buses available in Argentine Patagonia; for longer national trips, it’s more affordable and practical to travel by plane and ferry, however.

Crossing the border in Patagonia can be difficult to plan, but it seems that the best route for backpackers is a five hour bus journey from El Calafate (Argentina) to Puerto Natales (Chile), with a stop-off at Laguna Amarga inside the Torres Del Paine National Park. You can find out more about crossing the border here.

If you’re looking to stay close to the national park, check out the accommodation options at Serrano Village. Buses from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine typically take an hour, but the trade-off is more affordable accommodation.

Muelle Historico, Puerto Natales, Chilean Patagonia.

The Argentine side of Patagonia encompasses five provinces, the most notable being Santa Cruz and the southernmost Tierra del Fuego. Being able to say you’ve travelled all the way to the ‘End of the World’ is quite the brag, but if you’re a bit short on time, it may be easier to stick to Santa Cruz.

It’s not a compromise, either. In just this region alone you’ll find Los Glaciares National Park and Mount Fitz Roy. You can visit these attractions from El Chaltén and El Calafate respectively. Both areas offer budget-friendly accommodation and are a three hour bus journey away from one another, but you’ll want to book both of these things quite far in advance. The silver lining to things selling out is that you can trust that it’s a reliable route.

Perito Moreno Glacier is the world’s third largest glacier. It’s located inside Los Glaciares National Park, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina.


This route is suitable for: somewhat experienced travellers who prioritise quality over quantity.

Backpacking South America is the kind of adventure you’ll need several months to complete. Still, it’s entirely possible to have the trip of a lifetime on a three week schedule.

Technically, you could squeeze Peru’s major attractions into a tighter itinerary — but this may make your trip feel unnecessarily stressful. Peru may be half the size of Argentina, but it’s still the third largest country in South America and is considerably larger than most countries in Europe.

If you’re an inexperienced traveller, we’d advise against backpacking in Peru right away. As far as beginner-friendly destinations in South America go, Peru is several steps up in difficulty compared to Patagonia and Uruguay.

With that said, it’s arguably the most popular destination in South America for backpacking. This can be attributed not just to the prices and one of the world’s seven wonders, but also its border situation. Peru shares a border with five other countries in South America, making it an ideal destination for any longer trips around the subcontinent. So, if you’re travelling with friends or are a confident solo traveller, you may find yourself falling in love with Peru for several reasons.

Humantay Lake: a hidden gem near Cusco, Peru.

Peru’s capital city of Lima can be safe if you stick to the more touristy areas like Miraflores and San Isidro. Many travellers choose to avoid Lima’s public transportation and get around either by Peru Hop (a TripAdvisor approved company) or Uber. Peru’s biggest draw is Machu Picchu, but don’t skip over Lima if experiencing the culture is one of your travel priorities.

Cusco is far more tourist-friendly. If you’re hoping to see Machu Picchu independently, your biggest issue will be reserving a seat on the Inca Rail —  as opposed to safety concerns.

Many people choose to hike Machu Picchu and the Rainbow Mountain independently. Yet, if you don’t want to be sorting out transportation, book onto a tour instead. It’s tempting to go it alone while backpacking for a more authentic experience, but sometimes, it’s better to trust the experts. Check out Peru Hop for more information on Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain tours.

Two llamas overlooking Machu Picchu.
Header image is of Torres Del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.
Starting from Skratch? Here are some links to help you get started:
Step outside of your comfort zone with our First Time Traveller series.

Backpacking South America —5  Tips for First Timers

  • Travel insurance is a necessity.
  • Arrange any vaccinations ahead of time.
  • Pack a first aid-kit.
  • There’s no best time to visit South America as a whole and so plan any longer trips accordingly. Peru is best from May to September, whereas Patagonia is most suitable from November to March.
  • Don’t be over-ambitious when planning your itinerary. You’ll need to factor in extra-spending, travel days and low energy days.

Share this post

Hannah Douch
March 17, 2024
posted in

More like this