If you’re Australian, American, European or any other nationality that ISN’T Latin American, chances are when you venture off to explore South America (or Central America for that matter), there’s a good chance you’ll be following the same or very similar path as many backpackers before you. It’s often known as ‘The Gringo Trail’.
“But I don’t want to be a tourist… I want to get off-the-beaten path.”
Ok ok, calm down there sonny, I get it. I thought the same thing too – but following the ‘gringo trail’ doesn’t mean you need to put on your tourist shirt, tucked into your shorts with your sandals and socks combo and take photos of every single thing in sight (you know the kind of people I’m talking about). Following the Gringo Trail means you will meet lots of other really awesome backpackers and probably run into them time and time again on your travels. You will also see and experience some of the greatest things that South America has to offer. If people are always wanting to go there, then these places have to be worth a visit right!? And the beautiful thing about free travelling is that you CAN get off-the-beaten path, whenever you want! Having a trail to follow is just a great way to keep you on track and to help you gauge where you want to go next.
Jarryd (my boyfriend) and I backpacked through South America for 4 months. This didn’t even include Brazil (because the world cup was on and everything was so so expensive) and we still didn’t come close to seeing everything we wanted! But nonetheless, 4 months in SA was amazing and by far one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen and one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. Recently, I have had quite a few friends hit me up for places to visit, things to do and recommendations for South America. So I decided to create this blog for them, and for you… yes you there! You inquisitive soul who I hope has an inkling to get your butt over to SA. By the time you finish reading this, I hope I can convince you to get your $#!t into gear, save up and book yourself a flight over there too!
So where do you start?
In this instance I can really only tell you where WE started and share with you our story of our time in South America. There are just so many nuggets of wisdom floating around in my head that I decided to break it up into a 4 part series because I know, no matter how bad you want this information, you’re attention span will start to go after the 3rd or 4th country if I include everything in the one blog. So let’s ease ourselves into this shall we…
[At the end of this post, I have listed our adventures in a nutshell if you really don’t want to read the whole thing, but trust me, you’d only be disadvantaging yourself if you miss out on all this juicy travel goodness!]
Our story begins after landing in BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA. During our flight we were lucky enough to take in the stunning views of the snow-capped Andes Mountains.
Helloooooo South America! Knowing we had 4 months in this beautiful continent we had planned maybe the first week of our travels and from there, we had an open book with no real set plans, but rather, an idea of the direction we wanted to travel. For the first part of our travels, this is what our ‘gringo trail’ looked like:
We spent the first 3 days in Buenos Aires which was great to get settled in, get our bearings and combat the jet lag. During this time we did a LOT of walking and taking in the sights, we got amongst a peaceful protest by students and traded some of our USD’s on the black market in Florida Street (but that’s a story for another day!). If you’ve got time up your sleeve, here are some great ideas of places to go wandering while in Buenos Aires:
Plaza De Mayo – Government Houses & Architecture
Recoleta – Cemetario de Recoleta & Cultural Centre
Palermo – Botanic Gardens. Also a relatively safe neighbourhood and good place to stay
San Telmo – One of the oldest suburbs. Architecture and weekend market
Microcentre – Florida Street (The biz district)
La Boca – Super colourful down town neighbourhood and old port of Buenos Aires. Keep your valuables close to you but don’t let this stop you from visiting
For our first 3 nights, we stayed in a super chilled hostel called Portal Del Sur. We enjoyed free breakfast on the roof top each morning overlooking some colonial buildings (and some locals’ washing – very authentic haha) and it was nice and quiet, a great place to get your bearings. If you want to stay somewhere PARTY PARTY, I highly recommend the Milhouse Hostel Avenue. Even better yet, to get the best of both worlds, stay somewhere nice and quiet where you can actually get some sleep and just go over and get into party mode at Milhouse!
On day 4 of our adventures, we were headed off to famous Iguazu falls. We organised return flights from BA as we had points we could use. On a bus, it’s about an 18 hour drive each way. If you’ve got the time and want to save some $$$’s, I highly recommend taking the bus. You will see some beautiful country side. Puerto Iguazu is a tiny little town and I am convinced it exists almost solely as a result of tourism to the waterfall, and good on them! Their backyard is honestly one of the most spectacular natural wonders I have ever seen – Iguazu Falls! We spent 3 nights here and we are so glad we did, because the only thing cooler than the waterfall itself (ok ok, they are on par) was the hostel we stayed at. Of all the 50+ hostels we stayed in during our time in SA, Mango Chill would easily rank in the top 3. Here is a blog I wrote specifically about our hostel experiences in South America.
Manu the owner and his merry hostel men are the definition of customer service and make every single guest feel at home. They also put on, in my opinion, the best BBQ dinner in Argentina. A 3 course meal prepared by Manu’s legendary chef of a brother will set you back a whopping $12-$15 AUD roughly (did you get the hint of sarcasm there!) and the best part, the tables are arranged in one big line and everyone eats as a family. One big multi-cultural family! Here’s what we did in Puerto Iguazu:
– Made friends at our hostel
– Ate the most amazing BBQ dinner… twice!
– Went for a walk and stood at the point where 3 countries meet – Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil
– Spent two days at Iguazu Falls (only on the Argentinian side – the best side!)
Day 1 – We walked to all of the viewing points, went for a boat ride into and under the falls itself (so cold!) and marvelled at the top of Devil’s throat
Day 2 – We hiked through the bush (it was all flat) and found a cute as waterfall tucked away in the forest
After 3 days we flew back to Buenos Aires for a quick stop over. We couldn’t miss out on a tango show, which turned out to be such a good night and I can honestly say I ate one of, if not the best steaks of my life that night! Argentina, the masters of football (soccer), red wine and steak – what a combo!
Moving on, it was now time for our first long haul bus ride down to Puerto Madryn. A seaside port town that I’m sure flourishes in the summer months. We were there in the low season and our main motivation for a visit was to go swimming with sea lions! In terms of timing, we absolutely nailed it! The water might have been 12 degrees but because it was the low season, there was no one else doing the tour! We literally had the whole experience all to ourselves. Just us and our guide in the water taking snaps. This was without a doubt one of the best things we did. These beautiful creatures were so intrigued by us and couldn’t wrap their heads around our GoPro and selfie stick, they were all keen on giving it a nibble. One even decided to slide up and lay on my back in the water. I will never ever forget this day, or the freezing cold water. We went with a company called Scuba Duba and I can highly recommend them.
In Puerto Madryn we also hired bikes and went for a cruise towards the south. We saw another sea lion colony along the way and made it to a point where the desert meets the ocean. Unfortunately, we had missed the start of whale season by like 3 days but if you go there during whale season, and if you’re lucky enough you can watch the food chain in action and spot an orca whale nab it’s breakfast straight from the shore line… and when I say breakfast, I am talking about a sea lion. I guess it’s all apart of nature right.
After 3 magical days in Puerto Madryn we headed to Bariloche, right near the border of Chile and Argentina. I can’t report much about this place as it bucketed down with rain for the whole 24 hours we were there. In good weather, you can spot snow-capped Andes mountains and even go skiing//snowboarding in winter. This town is renowned for it’s chocolate and beer shops. Not generally together of course but there is a big European (mainly German) presence here and you can really tell. We stayed at Penthouse 1004 Hostel, which is literally a penthouse apartment that has been turned into a hostel. This is a great place to soak up some stunning views of the area, such as the one below:
Of course, this is not the kid of views we had, ours resembled something more like this:
But nonetheless, if you go there, you won’t be short of fun things to do! This is also where we met an Aussie couple who would later become two of our bestest buds, still to this day (watch the video here). From Bariloche, it was a hop a skip and a jump over into CHILE. Actually not really, we waited at the border crossing for 4 hours before we could be stamped in and our bus cleared. For every 5 bus loads of people that arrived, they probably had 2 immigration officers. Super organised 😐 . It was certainly an experience and luckily we had snacks. Our first stop in Chile was to a town called Pucon (that’s poo-con). I had been excited for this place since before we left Australia. My sister had recently been here and told me about all the amazing things they did there, like stay in an eco hostel surrounded by goats and other farm animals, climb an active volcano with snow shoes and spikes and go canoeing on the lake. Remember I said we were travelling in the low season… well as winter was fast approaching and the weather had not gotten any better (it was still raining and pouring), a lot of the tour companies had called it a day, for the next 3 months and shut their doors! And there was hardly any hostels taking bookings. I couldn’t get in contact with this eco hostel at all and there was certainly no tours operating to climb Volcan Villarrica. I’m going to be honest with you here, our experience of Pucon was yet another brief 24 hours of rain and us staying in a hostel that I would confidently compare to a crack den, but don’t worry, I don’t think this place exists anymore. The crack den that is, not Pucon.
But please don’t let our experience here put you off visiting Pucon. There are so many adventure activities and lots of great places to stay. Everyone’s experiences are different and my one piece of advice is not to take any one person’s opinion about a place as fact. Go there and form your own opinion, you will probably be pleasantly surprised.
In our case, I promise the story gets better. We decided to bust out of Pucon earlier than planned and made our way to SANTIAGO, CHILE. The capital city of one of the thinnest countries I think exists…
Let me start by saying that Santiago is about as modern as a South American city can be. Their public transport system works a treat and with a population of 5 point something million people, I guess it has to. Being able to zip around the city on the train is super handy, but not when you arrive into the city at peak hour trying to squeeze into a carriage with both your backpacks on. We definitely copped a few unpleasant looks but hey, what could we do about it so we just gave everyone a big smile and a polite ‘Disculpe Senor/Senora’ (Excuse me sir/madam). Our hostel was in the Bellavista region of Santiago. Definitely stay here! Do not stay in any other suburb, this is where all the action is and it is a relatively safe area to be in. I can even recommend our hostel La Chimba. This place is huge and it’s a great place to meet new people and socialise. You wouldn’t believe it, but on our first day in Santiago we met a guy who was from our home town in Australia! Where I’m from there is about population 240,000. It’s not a small country town but it’s by no means a huge city either so we were pretty shocked and stoked to meet someone who was good friends’ with one of our good friends. It really is a small world!
While in Santiago for the first few days, we mainly got up to this:
– Walked up San Cristobal Hill and took in some amazing views of the city (sunrise or sunset are the best times)
– Wrapped our lips around Chile’s signature foods, the completo (a hot dog with avocado on it! Seriously, how have we not thought of this) and chorillana (pronounced chor-y-ah-na), which loosely translates to ‘my arteries are not going to like me after this’. Juuust kidding, but seriously, it’s a huge steak topped with hot chips, melted cheese, gravy and sometimes a fried egg. Jarryd and I shared one and even that was too much!
– We went on a virtually FREE walking tour with Tours4Tips. Do it!! Best value for money (they only accept tips and don’t charge a set price) and these guys know their stuff. They wear ‘Where’s Wally’ shirts and take you around to some of the best spots. There might even be 2 or 3 different tours to different regions by now.
– We partied in the Bella Vista area
– We visited the ‘Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos‘ or Musuem of Memory & Human Rights
One MASSIVE benefit for Jarryd and I was that I had an old exchange student friend who is from Santiago. I hadn’t caught up with him for about 4 or 5 years, so we were well and truly over due for a reunion. We were lucky enough to spend the next week and half between Santiago and Vina Del Mar/Valparaiso, where his family live.
If you’re visiting the area, it’s likely that you’ve got Valparaiso on your list. If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve definitely come across pictures of the place on the internet and the ‘gram. The piano stairs and the colourful buildings are chock-a-block full of murals that have put Valpo on the world map and made it a shit hot travellers destination.
But Valparaiso is not only known for it’s colour and beauty. It is also the home of Pablo Naruda, a very famous poet from history. You can visit his incredibly quirky house which has some of the best views in town. A Tours4Tips experience is also a must here, where you can learn about the history of the place, go for a ride in a teleriffico (old school gondola) and visit areas that you may not otherwise have known to go to. Be sure to spend some free time just wandering around yourself and taking photos. Stop in at one of the many bars for a pisco sour (Chile’s signature drink) and strike up a chat with a local if you can. A little word of advice, be vigilant and use some common sense. Don’t walk around with your wallet hanging out your back pocket and don’t drape yourself in ‘expensive looking’ jewellery. Yes Valpo is an amazing place to visit, but like any 2nd world country, there’s probably someone out there who wants your money more than you do.
Vina Del Mar is the sister town to Valpo and is known for being a little more upper class. In the summer months, you could check out Renaca Beach and Wulff Castle. If you want, I can probably even put you in touch with my amazing Chilean amigo’s who I’m sure are always up for meeting new and exciting people from all over the world!
In amongst our visit to the mid-south of Chile, our very hospitable host family organised for a trip away to La Parva, one of the ski fields about an hours’ drive from Santiago. This was definitely a highlight for us as Jarryd had never seen snow before! We spent the next 24 hours mucking around on the bunny hill with a ski lesson, eating empanadas (another classic South American food) and drinking Pisco sours while we watched the most majestic sunset over the snow-capped Andes. If travelling around winter time, you can easily organise a day trip to a ski field through your hostel.
So on our travels, we decided to do things a little differently. We zig-zagged back over to Argentina to go and experience the country’s authentic red wine country in Mendoza. The drive from Santiago to Mendoza is so worth the trip, and part of the reason we did it like this was so we could travel across this stretch of road:
We were now back in Argentina and ready to drink some red wine, even though for the last 23 years of my existence I had never really liked the stuff. But life’s too short for that; when in Rome, do as the Romans do! We stayed at a place called Hostel Mora Mendoza. It was super central and just down the road from Plaza Independencia. We just so happened to be there when Argentina played Australia in the World Cup too. Of course, the Aussies got an ass-whooping but the atmosphere in an Argentinian pub with the locals absolutely embracing every second of that game was worth it. They say football is a religion over there and I completely agree. There’s being a dedicated fan, and then there’s being an Argentinian football fan.
Now when you head off for a day at the vineyards, there’s really only one way you should do it. And that’s on a bicycle of course, with a map and not a single care in the world. I love that in Australia, a tour like this would be down right illegal, but in Argentina, it is promoted as the best way to really experience wine country. Be sure to pop in and rent your bike from the man himself, Mr Hugo from Mr. Hugo’s Bikes, one of the happiest men alive. He will give you the hot tips on where to visit first and where not to go. Throughout the day, we visited 2 or 3 different vineyards and also the wine museum. We even managed to pop into a beer garden and enjoy some freshly made empanadas. This was all part of the strategy, to soak up some of the red wine in our bellies and make room for more!
This was such a great day and we came home with two bottles of home made red wine, which had a vanilla-ery kinda taste. And did I mention that our hostel gives you a free glass of red wine each night, and they never said not to a top up 😉 . Red wine is to Argentina what rum is to the Caribbean. And if you’re thinking to yourself ‘I don’t even like red wine, I don’t think I’ll go there’, think again! There are plenty of other things to see but really, at the end of the day, if you can’t beat ’em. Join ’em. Am I right?
From here, we make our way back to Santiago for one last catch-up with our Chilean friends before venturing up to Northern Chile, but I will hold off on that for the next instalment. I think your brain has had enough nuggets of wisdom for one sitting, don’t ya think?!
Was this information helpful? And more importantly, have you now got a travelling itch that only South America can scratch? For help on how to save as many $$$’s as you can in as little time as possible, click the link below to find out how I managed to save $14,000 in under 9 months.
PART 1 – In a nutshell:
Plaza De Mayo – Government Houses & Architectural buildings
Recoleta – Cemetario de Recoleta (Cemetary where a lot of famous natives are buried) & Cultural Centre
Palermo – Botanic Gardens. Also a relatively safe neighbourhood and good place to stay
San Telmo – One of the oldest suburbs. Architecture and weekend market
Microcentre – Florida Street (The biz district)
La Boca – Super colourful neighbourhood and old port of Buenos Aires. Try and catch a local football match. Keep your valuables close to you but don’t let this stop you from visiting
Experience a Tango Show
Hostels – Milhouse Hostel & Portal Del Sur
Visit Iguazu Falls – Do a boat ride under the falls and hike around the park area
Walk to where the 3 countries meet; Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil (it’s part of the river)
Stay at Mango Chill Hostel
Swim with sea lions!
At the right time of year you can see orca whales
Hire a bike and explore the region
Ski/Snowboard in winter
Eat local chocolate and drink the local beer
Hostel – Penthouse 1004
Red wine country
Go on a self-guided wine tour on a bicycle
Hire your bike from Mr. Hugo’s bikes
Walk around the town – Plaza Independencia
Hostel – Hostel Mora Mendoza
Learn to love red wine
Adventure capital of Chile in Summer
Hike Volcan Villarrico
Find the eco-hostel we never got to stay in and pat a goat for me
Walk around the place
Stay in Bella Vista
Walk up San Cristobal Hill (sunrise of sunset is best)
Do a Tour4Tips Walking tour (they offer more than one)
In winter – organise a day trip or go and stay at a ski field
Museum of Memory and Human Rights
Party in Bella Vista area
Eat a completo, chorillana and an empanada
Drink Pisco sours
Hostel – La Chimba
Walk around the town
Do a Tours4Tips walking tour
Ride a teleriffico
Take a photo with the piano stairs
Vina Del Mar:
In Summer – Renaca Beach
Things to Remember:
- Do not lose your exit slip that you receive when you cross the border into Chile. You will have a really bad time if you can’t produce this when you leave the country
- If travelling across to Argentina for the first time, research whether you need to pay a reciprocity fee (tourist visa)
- Domestic and International flights seem to be quite expensive. Don’t be afraid to take the bus. This is the best way to experience the country side and Argentina has arguably the best quality bus companies in South America.
- Get a basic understanding of Spanish BEFORE getting there. South America is not like Asia where everyone speaks English, more ofthen than not you will find yourself in situations where no-one speaks English. In this case, it’s a really good idea to know how to ask for things like ‘where is the toilet’ (Donde esta el bano?) or ‘Where is the bus station’ (Donde esta el stacion de buses?)