In March 2017, I went on one of the best experiences of my life, a 7 week trip from the southern tip of Chile all the way up to a northerly point of Medellin, Colombia via Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. While 7 weeks was almost too short for this journey, to say it was a full on action packed trip would almost be undermining it. It was also the first time I went on a real backpacking adventure, and with a group of close friends who I had been working with in Antarctica recently.
From this article, I am going to show you how we managed to navigate our way north through South America (mainly by coaches), summarising methods, costs and activities along the way. This journey was approximately 10,000km in length, it’s a long, informative read.
Destination 1: The Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)
After 95 days in Antarctica (including 28 days sailing on the RRS Ernest Shackleton), we made it to our drop off point, the Falkland Islands. We had booked a flight from Mount Pleasant, Falklands, to Punta Arenas, Chile, whilst on board the ship. This left us with a mere two days to explore the island. Which was more than enough (actually too long). Maybe it was because we spent too long in an isolated continent like Antarctica, we ready for civilisation again and the Falklands didn’t cut it. After paying an eye watering £450 GBP for the flight to Chile (Yep this is how much it costs to fly into/out of the Falklands) we were ready to be reinstated back into a social environment.
Destination 2: Punta Arenas, Chile
It didn’t take us long after landing into the Patagonian region of Chile to realise that tourists were bottom of the food chain here. We were proverbially milked for our money here at every turn. There was originally nine of us planning to travel together through South America, but after learning of the high expenses here, me along with another five of the gang decided it would be better to travel north to Puerto Natales asap. Whilst the other three wanted to travel further south to Puerto Williams. We took the Bus Fernandez (£12 GBP) to Puerto Natales, taking around 3 hours. Trust me, there is nothing worth seeing in Punta Arenas…unless you have an obsession with stray dogs.
Destination 3: Puerto Natales, Chile
After getting to the Puerto Natales main coach terminal, we had to get to the main town and set up shop for the night. After finding some accommodation (approx £20 GBP/night). Puerto Natales is the gateway city to the famous Torres del Paine. We spent the day in the city preparing our camping equipment and getting briefed on the gruelling hike. Hiking Torres del Paine makes the budget busting stay in Patagonia more than worth while.
Destination 3: Santiago, Chile
While our original plan was to do the entire trip by coaches only, we were forced into flying from Puerto Natales to Santiago. The over complicated route of doing this by coach involved ridiculous fees for crossing the Argentinian border (around £100 GBP) made no sense to us, only to fly. A flight cost us a mere £80 GBP. Santiago was immediately apparent to be far more inexpensive compared to that of Patagonia. Where we were paying $10 USD per night in a good hostel. When it was time to leave Santiago, we left two friends behind and carried on north to San Pedro de Atacama. We were down to 4 in the group now.
Destination 4: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
We got a sleeper coach to San Pedro from the main bus terminal in Santiago. This is where we finally learned how stressful it was to not know any Spanish. Between the 4 of us…not a word! Yes, we are useless. The coach was a 17 hour, 1,600km, overnight trip with a transfer at Calama to San Pedro (we later found out you can get a direct coach with Turbus). The cost of the coach was $33,000 CLP. From this coach ride we learned some vital points that would prove a recurrence in South America;
- Bus drivers neither know or want to speak English
- Print ticket for any bus and double-check you gate number at the help desk
- No power points or wi-fi on board
- No blankets provided
- No toilet paper or hand soap in the toilets (a lethal combination)
- Long distance coaches are not punctual. To put it lightly
Destination 5: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
When we arrived at the coach station in Calama we were still some way off the main town in San Pedro. Just over 100km to be exact. We had to share a taxi with a New Yorker we met on the coach who could in fact speak Spanish. Thank you sir if you ever come to read this! The taxi cost was around $30,000 CLP between 5 of us. It was evident the further north we made it through this continent, the more affordable everything became, we started to loosen up our budgets and hit bars a bit more often. I would highly recommend going to the Tours 4 Tips for a detailed insight to San Pedro. After spending 3 days in San Pedro (I could have stayed much longer), we decided to take the 4×4 tour to Uyuni via the salt flats ($90, 000 CLP). This was the best tour I have ever taken to date. Do not even consider any other method of transport to Uyuni.
Destination 6: Uyuni/La Paz, Bolivia
After spending the previous 3 days crossing the Bolivian desert to get to Uyuni, we only had 6 hours in this city before we got a sleeper coach to La Paz. I wouldn’t recommend staying overnight in Uyuni, even though we just boarded a sleeper coach after 3 days worth of clothes that had been soaked in desert sweat. Apologies to anyone who sat near us. The overnight coach to La Paz departed at 8:00pm and arrived at 5:00am which cost $100 Bs. In Bolivia there is no haggling similar to Chile. Spend as much time as possible in La Paz, its wild ‘lawless’ nature is so refreshing. Even if the city is bedlam. You can hire a motorbike here with no license and up until recently do a tour of one of the most dangerous prisons in South America (this could well possibly be still a thing). La Paz is incredibly cheap. Bolivia and Peru are proably two of the cheapest countries in South America.
We made our way to Cusco, Peru, using the Hop On Bus company. This made a 5 hour stop off at Copacabana which I would avoid if at all possible. It was absolute rubbish, and Isla del Sol is meant to be worse. The Hop On Bus in the Peruvian side is top quality, including blankets and very comfy chairs for $40 USD.
Destination 7: Cusco, Peru
Peru has so much more to offer than Machu Pichu, if you have neither the time or the funds do not worry, Here are my Top 5 Sights in Peru. We hired out quad bikes in Cusco, hiked, learned about the colonial aspect to this city and even learned how Tupac the rapper chose his name from the local Cusco hero. During my time in Cusco, St. Patricks Day festival fell on the same weekend and it was the best one I ever celebrated. I have extremely fond memories of Cusco, this could partially be down to the fact that everyone was in high spirits for Paddy’s Day and a lot of young backpackers were around.
Cusco was the only city I stayed in Peru, I had other plans for bussing my way through the country but unfortunately a terrible flooding occurred. This resulted in many fatalities in northern Peru and the closure of many roads, so I had to fly to Quito, Ecuador via a stop at Lima, Peru (£240 GBP). I almost missed my connecting flight to Quito in Ecuador because I had no evidence of how long I was planning to stay in Ecuador. Be sure to have a way out Ecuador booked as evidence, as I was lucky, but my friend missed the flight because they would not let him check in. This is a reminder to give yourself plenty of time in South American airports. Even for internal flights. This was the only time I travelled solo in South America, because I did the Machu Pichu day trip and my friends didn’t, but I ended up meeting them again in Quito.
Destination 7 & 8: Quito & Banos
When you land into the airport in Quito, it becomes apparent very quickly that this city it too large and unnavigable for the transport the city provides. Bus terminals are very far from the city centre. You can get a local green bus ($2 USD) from the airport to the north bus terminal and get a taxi from there, or get the direct bus with wi-fi ($8 USD). On a side note; in Ecuador they use the American dollar. I didn’t particularly like Quito. I felt that there was not much to do only sight see old colonial buildings and churches, it doesn’t take long before that gets repetitive. I found it more of a gateway city to places like Cotopaxi. (Here are Ecuador’s 5 best sights) I found Banos to be far more exciting.
You can get the bus to Banos from Quito for only $4 USD and I could have stayed there for a week. With never-ending waterfalls, bustling nightlife at the weekends, adrenaline packed excursions like white water rafting…etc etc. Banos is also an entry point to the Amazon where you can experience meeting tribes people, nature and hallucinogens.
Destination 8: Cali, Colombia
I got to Cali from Quito for next to nothing. I split my journeys to save money. A direct coach would cost you $70 USD and leave you tired on your arrival to Cali. You can share a taxi to Cartelen bus station in Quito (less touristy therefore cheaper) and get a coach to Tulcan for $6 USD. Tulcan is a small border town on the Ecuadorian side. Either cross the border early or stay overnight because the border is NOT safe at night-time. Then get a taxi to La Frontera (the border) for $3 USD. Once you get your passport stamped and get into Colombia, get a yellow official taxi to Ipiales (fixed rate of $6,000 COP). Take your time here and make a quick trip to the Las Lajas sanctuary. Take a taxi ($9,000 COP) or bus ($1,000 COP). Once back in Ipiales take the 12 hour coach to Cali, costing $45,000 COP (Use Transipiales for a coach with wifi).
Once in Cali you will see you’re in a wild country that thrives at nightfall. There is not a whole lot to do during the day. Go see the markets and learn to salsa, but once the sun goes down the locals of Cali come out and the city rocks with passion and music. Cali is also a cheap place to learn Spanish and I was in need of it. Even if I am still far from bilingual, it’s better than when I started.
In Colombia Uber is illegal. Just use yellow official taxis, and settle a fare before you get in or demand the meter is on. Don’t wait to ask ‘how much?’ when you get yo your destination.
My next destiantion was Medellin. Internal flights in Colombia are so cheap I would not recommend using long distance coaches what so ever. The flight cost me £45 GBP to Medellin. Just rememeber not to leave yourself open to any extra charges with these budget airlines, such as not printing your boarding pass. This is where they make their money from cheap flights.
Destination 9 & 10: Medellin/Bogota, Colombia
While the sights to see are very limited in either city, Medellin is on steroids. If you can’t deal with the wildness of South America, just plain avoid Medellin. The bars are hopping and every corner is littered with drugs and prostitutes. In saying that I loved Medellin. It was incredibly touristy, fake and pretentious, but I found it a great place to meet fellow backpackers and just blow some steam off. The city is just pure chaotic. Even the excursions here are wild. We went paintballing at Pablo Escobars old mansion in Guatape ($65,000 COP), madness!
As for Bogota…I would not recommend here to anyone. Even the local Colombians were questioning my reasons for coming here. There is just simply nothing going on here from a tourists perspective. Use this city as an entry point into the country for reasonable flights. My flight from Bogota to London cost £450 GBP.
Here is an overlook at my expenses for near 7 weeks of South American backpacking. Bearing in mind I was not being too careful with my funds as I just left Antarctica after 95 days, I wanted to let loose when I got here. Now that I look back at the cost I feel sick. You can do it for cheaper!