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Four months in South America, where to go & what to see without taking a single flight

From the mesmerising and otherworldly landscapes of Bolivia to the perfect beaches of Brazil, South America is a mix of vast countries, each offering a unique and fascinating look into another way of life. I spent just over four months travelling through the continent, which looking back, was not long enough, but I made the most of my time there by travelling from Argentina, through Uruguay and Brazil, back down into Argentina, before heading up to Bolivia and Peru, eventually ending in Chile, all without taking a single flight.

white lake and mountain in bolivia
One of the lakes in Southern Bolivia 

The reason I travelled by land was so I could really get into the pace of the countries I was travelling through, I wanted to see real life on the ground. This decision also saved money and was much kinder to the planet. Many of the bus journeys I took became travel experiences in themselves, I made friends along the way and saw things I would have otherwise missed if flying. 

Where to go during four months in South America 

My first stop was Buenos Aires, Argentina. BA is a good starting point for South American travels as there are lots of reasonably priced flights into the city, loads of good hostels and the place has a western feel, so you can ease yourself into the travelling way of life without too much of a shock. After five days of tango, incredible steak and lots of exploring in cute neighbourhoods like La Boca and San Telmo I headed into Uruguay on an overnight bus. Buses in Argentina, Brazil and Chile are, for the most part, incredible, you get huge reclining seats, sometimes a tray of snacks and drinks is provided (similar to what you get on flights) and there’s always a toilet on board. For Bolivia and Peru it’s a different story, but I’ll come to that later. 

Through Uruguay, I made stops at Montevideo, Punta Del Este and Punta Del Diablo, the latter being a highlight. This cute fishing town, full of brightly painted houses, friendly locals and huge waves (that are great for surfers) feels much more authentic than its showier neighbour, Punta Del Este. After a few chilled days relaxing beachside, I travelled up into Brazil, stopping for one night in a random town called Pelotas, after a disastrous border crossing and missed bus. 

Brazil is a country so huge it can feel overwhelming, in fact, you could spend a whole four months solely travelling this country and still not feel like you’ve scratched the surface. And bus journeys here are long, I remember one in particular, across the width of Brazil, that took an amazing 25 hours! 

From Pelotas in the south, I stopped at Rio Grande for Praia do Cassino beach then traveled onto Florianopolis, a place full of the most stunning beaches, before heading up to Rio De Janerio. I spent my days in Rio exploring Rocinha, the largest favela in the city (with a local resident guide), drinking caiperinias and checking out the world famous Christ the Redeemer statue. Next up, and somewhere not to be missed is Ilhe Grande, a tropical island paradise off the coast of Brazil. Here you’ll find one of my favourite beaches in the world, Lopes Mendes, where the sand is so soft it squeaks as you walk along it. Back on the mainland, I travelled to Campo Grande to visit the Pantanal of Brazil, before heading onto one of my highlights of the four months in South America, Iguazú Falls.  

Hundreds of waterfalls at Iguacu Falls in Brazil overflowing with water surrounded by jungle
An overview of the incredible Iguazú Falls, seen from Brazil

The falls are best seen from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides so I’d recommend dedicating a good few days to each. From Brazil you get a brilliant overview of the enormity of the falls, while once over the border and back in Argentina, you can get up close, with wooden footpaths leading to the top and boats taking you into the crashing water at the bottom. For me, this was one of my favourite experiences of South America, the power and beauty of nature at its best was just astonishing. 

From the falls I spent two more weeks in Argentina, visiting small towns and staying for a week in Salta, a truly beautiful city full of perfect buildings and home to the best BBQ I ever ate. 

symmetrical ornate pink building with white detailing and stained glass window in salta argentina
Cathedral of Salta, one of the towns prettiest buildings

Next came one of my favourite countries of the trip, Bolivia. This landlocked country and one the poorest of the continent is full of incredible history, inspiring landscapes, unusual food and the most colourful clothing outside of India. I spent just over three weeks in Bolivia, crossing the border at Villazon before travelling up to Tupiza, where I joined a group of four other backpackers on an amazing tour of Salar de Uyuni, the incredible salt flat of Bolivia. This was another huge highlight of the four months, where I got to see incredible sights daily, there were pink flamingos, rocks shaped like trees, red and green lakes, geysers, the salt flat itself (which is crazy cool) plus an eerie train graveyard. Ending the tour in Uyuni, I went on to take six more bus journeys through Bolivia, stopping along the way at Potosi (one of the highest cities in the world), Sucre, La Paz, Coroico (to visit a monkey sanctuary) and Copacabana, next to Lake Titicaca. All of these places were amazing and totally worth visiting, I particularly loved the markets of Potosi, the beautiful town of Sucre and the coca and carnival mask museums of La Paz

Bolivian men and women wearing bright rainbow coloured outfits and feathers in La Paz
Colourful street procession in La Paz, Bolivia

As I mentioned earlier, the buses in Bolivia and Peru are a little bit more rustic. There generally isn’t a toilet, so you’ll have to get comfortable with going by the side of the road with everyone else. Seats don’t recline and there’s a chance you’ll have to get cosy with other people if the bus is overcrowded, four to a seat? Why not! I rarely slept on these journeys at night, the roads wind up and down sharp sides of mountains and stop every so often to let people off and on. But they were all an experience and the day journeys revealed the most incredible landscapes, sights I simply wouldn’t have seen by flying in and out. 

My fifth country was Peru, another favourite for the variety of landscapes, sights and the amazing people and food. I stayed for three weeks but could have spent three months in Peru. My first base was the fabulous city of Arequipa, ringed by volcanoes and home to the best Pisco Sours. From here I headed into the countryside to do an independent trek down and up Colca Canyon, the second deepest in the world, before travelling up the country to a bizarre desert oasis called Huacachina, then Lima for a few days. Next, I stopped off at Trujillo and surf town Huanchaco, where they serve the most incredible ceviche, before heading back down to Nasca to see the amazing ancient line-art deep in the desert. Cuzco, stopping off point for Machu Pichu, was my last Peruvian city before taking a very old bus along crazily winding roads carved into mountains all the way back to La Paz, Bolivia, for a three night stop. From here, Chile beckoned.

The bus from La Paz to Iquique, Chile, takes 18 hours and is completely fascinating, with the Pacific Ocean to the right and massive mountain range to the left, a full moon creating a dreamlike vibe on my trip. My three weeks in Chile were spent stopping off in towns along the coast, and a brief trip inland to Vicuña, a place famed for stargazing, before journeying down to Viña del Mar, quirky cool Valparaiso and finally, the last stop on my four-month tour of South America, Santiago. 

white sand beach with white sun umbrellas and blue sea iquique chile
The beautiful beach in Iquique, Peru

I loved the route I took during my four months in South America and made some memories that will last forever. Of course, there’s a lot I didn’t get to see too, but in four months I wouldn’t have wanted to travel any faster than I did. Next time, I’d like to go to Colombia and Equador, but would also like to explore the parts of Brazil I didn’t get to and the same goes for Argentina and Chile. With places like Patagonia, still to be explored, it’s looking like I need to plan another trip to South America soon.

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