As another email drops into my inbox offering a two-week trip to South America for an eye-watering £3500 (without flights), it’s little wonder so many people think it’s out of their price range.
It’s true that some of these companies offer a reliable, tailored approach which takes the stress out of planning for first-time visitors. But South America doesn’t have to be an intimidating or expensive place to plan your own shorter trip to. There’s certainly a lot more online now than when I first visited back in 2007. And the wonders of Google translate can get you a fair way if you don’t speak Spanish/Portuguese fluently (I don’t!).
Like everything, information can change over time, so if you spot something that needs updating, please let me know… I love visiting these places and it can be done for a lot, lot less than the price quoted above!
Travel resources – before you go
There’s no getting away from it, if you are visiting South America on a one-off trip, rather than part of a RTW ticket, it’s not the cheapest place to get to. But there are certain hubs that have more competition and therefore better deals.
Look out for unusual routings, set up email alerts for any possible route and, if you’re in Europe, think of flying from somewhere other than your usual home airport. Two quick examples:
Last summer we flew with a fast-expanding German airline, Condor Airlines, from Frankfurt to Salvador in north-east Brazil, instead of flying from London-Sao Paolo and then taking a connecting flight. Not only a time-saver, but also £180 cheaper.
Our flight to Ecuador next month lands first in Quito, the capital. We’ll stay on the plane for the final stop, Guayaquil, less than an hour later. Flying to Guayaquil on this particular flight and date is £200 cheaper than getting off the plane in Quito!
Places to stay
booking.com is invaluable. If you are arriving in the evening, book somewhere to stay for the first night. If you don’t like it you can always look for somewhere else in the morning. Some areas are sketchier than others, so why take the risk on the first night in a new place?
So far I’ve always found booking.com reviews more reliable than Tripadvisor. But that’s not to say they’re immune to the odd fake review.
Still difficult to find online for many companies, although it’s improving. It’s pretty difficult to pre-book a bus ticket online in Brazil unless you have a Brazilian bank card. But it’s fairly straightforward to book at the local bus station. If you find the counter for the bus company you want, they will usually list all the routes they serve. There might be several companies operating the same route, so do a bit of research to see what suits you best for time and price.
A word about night buses…
In some South American countries these aren’t really recommended, but I’ve taken night buses in Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil. All fine, but I wasn’t travelling alone. If you’re worried about it, ask for a reclining seat downstairs so you’re nearer the driver and other staff.
While you’re there…
But isn’t Brazil an expensive country to travel in?
Brazil is more expensive than a lot of South American countries. The distances can be huge with long bus journeys between major towns. If you only have a couple of weeks, concentrate on one or two areas to explore. But don’t be too rigid for the sake of saving a few pounds. We found a budget flight back from Ilheus to Salvador which saved us nearly eight hours of bus travel.
Ask around – if you’re staying in a hostel or a pousada there will probably be people around to compare notes with. People on the ground can let you know if a bus isn’t running due to a blocked road or if a hotel is a rip-off.
Guidebooks – yes or no?
Hands down the best guidebooks for South America are Footprint in my view. The Bradt guide to Bahia was also useful, although I find them a bit hit and miss as a series.
Any questions about planning a trip in South America? Leave me a comment below and I’ll be happy to help!