Gap Years in South America
Local Traditions and Cultures
South America is a large and diverse continent made up of 12 different countries, each of which has its own unique set of traditions and cultures. However one unifying feature across these countries is that they were all previously part of European Empires. In particular the Spanish and Portuguese ruled much of South America between the 16th and 19th centuries. Therefore many big cities across South America can feel very European in style, whilst much of the continent still holds on to the Catholic traditions brought over by the settlers – something which is reflected in the conservative societies found in a lot of countries.
Before the Europeans came to South America, the continent was dominated by the Incas and areas remain which are still strongly defined by this indigenous culture (particularly throughout the Andes). In addition the colonial settlers brought with them African slaves and so in certain parts of South America, such as Bahia in Brazil, there is a strong connection to African-influenced traditions. Perhaps most surprisingly there are also several pockets of Asian communities in countries such as Peru.
South America is a popular gap year destination and is a mainstay of round the world trip itineraries. However, unlike many other gap year destinations (such as Australia), few people come to South America for working holidays. Instead most people choose to use the money they have earned elsewhere to travel about this fascinating continent.
Still, not all South American countries are popular with backpackers. Most travellers follow a well-trodden, unofficial route – often referred to as the Gringo Trail – which starts in Ecuador and follows the Peruvian coast down to Lima before heading across central and southern Peru to the Inca city of Cuzco. From here people usually go across Lake Titicaca into Bolivia before making their way south into Argentina. If time and weather permit many people will head all the way down into Patagonia before travelling up Argentina’s eastern coast to Buenos Aires. The final leg of the Gringo Trail goes into Brazil via the Iguazu Falls and finishes in Rio de Janeiro.
Depending on time and money constraints backpackers will join the trail at different locations (normally flying into a major city as a starting point). The route can be done in either direction and at your own pace (although you can only stay in most countries for a maximum of 90 days before needing to apply for a visa). There are also offshoots to this path, such as ones into Chile, Uruguay and northern Brazil. More recently Colombia has also become a popular start/end point for backpackers as the country has become safer to travel in.
Along the Gringo Trail you will find lots of amenities geared towards young backpackers – from hostels to travel agencies. In the deserts and mountains activities range from climbing and hill walking to adrenaline filled extreme sports. Meanwhile much of the coastal route takes in sleepy fishing villages which have become havens for surfers and travellers from around the world. In contrast the urban centres are full of colonial history and vibrant nightlife.
Backpackers will find the Gringo Trail busy throughout the year (with a few exceptions – such as Patagonia in winter) and this means that it is easy for lone travellers to meet people. However those destinations off the Gringo Trail, and those which experience a low season, can be quiet and facilities for backpackers difficult to find. Equally towns and cities where tourism is less common can be more dangerous places for foreign visitors to venture into.
Although the continent is large, few backpackers choose to travel by air. Instead long distance buses are the most common routes to take – with some journeys takings well over 24 hours! There is often a choice of classes, with the most luxurious of buses offering food, alcohol, entertainment (from Bingo to DVDs) and fully reclining leather seats. However you should check local advice and ask fellow travellers in each country about which services are best to take. Some companies (even the luxury ones) are known to be favourites of thieves who steal tourists’ bags whilst they sleep. Similarly overnight travel is not recommended in some destinations. For more information on tourist crime in South America see our travel guides for each country.
Each country in South America has different destinations which act as tourist hotspots and you can read our 10 top things to see lists within each country guide for more information. However in general most visitors to South America have a number of common ‘must sees’.
In terms of cities Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are busy tourist hubs. Similarly Cuzco in Peru is a location high on all visitors’ to do lists, in particular visiting Machu Picchu. Many people choose to walk the 4 day Inca Trail (camping on route) to this ‘lost city’. Indeed the popularity of this trip means that it can only be done on an official tour (to protect the route from overuse) and so places need to be reserved well in advance.
Nevertheless the great thing about South America is that due to its size you are always able to escape the crowds and find hidden gems if you so desire.
When to Go
The northern part of South America is dissected by the Equator and so this means that the climate in this part of the continent remains warm and pleasant all year round. As a result there is no real high or low season. Further south the warmer months between December and February are high season for many beach resorts with hotels full and the beaches unbearably busy.
If you want to visit Machu Picchu and the central Andes, you should expect to get wet between November and February as this is the rainy season.
In southern countries such as Argentina and Chile, the winter months between July and September make some places difficult to visit (such as the extreme south of Patagonia), whilst others become bustling (and expensive) ski resorts.
You also need to be aware of local holidays as cities can be very busy during this period. For example, during Carnival season it can be impossible to find a room in Brazilian cities, with hostels fully booked months in advance.
Many visitors to South America choose to combine travelling with time spent volunteering and as a result there are lots of different opportunities available. These tend to be concentrated in those countries which are also popular backpacking destinations (such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador). If you want to work with people it is possible to teach English or volunteer in a school, whilst if conservation is more your thing, there are lots of projects working with animals or in the amazing South American countryside (from the Andes to the Amazon).
Whilst you can get by only speaking English, a solid knowledge of either Spanish or Portuguese (depending on where you are volunteering) is extremely useful. Therefore you may decide to start your trip with some time at a language school in one of the big cities.
One thing you need to make sure of is that you organise your volunteer placement through a reputable company. All the major gap year companies in the UK can help you find something, and they can often also organise language classes. However you should carry out some independent research to check you are getting value for money as these companies can charge high fees for their services.
There is a varying standard of living across South America which means that budgeting for an entire trip across the continent can be difficult. In general Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia are the cheapest places to visit, with a daily budget of £15-20 enough to cover most costs. However countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile can be a lot more expensive – with costs in the bigger cities in these countries often being comparable to European prices. Therefore a budget of £25-30 per day is more realistic when travelling here.