Air Travel in South America
On a continent as vast as South America, air travel is a necessity in order to get around in a timely fashion. The Amazon basin with its myriad rivers and flood plains and the Andes are formidable obstacles to ground travel, and flying is safer, faster and more reliable than travel by bus or boat. Flying in South America is also a great way to get an idea of the geography of a country and its vastness. Try to get a window seat and bring your camera for some great shots of the rain forest and mountain ranges. Small planes on short flights have a lower flight elevation than large jets, and you will be able to enjoy the changing scenery during your flight. It is an unforgettable experience to fly over the Amazon rain forest or the Argentinean Pampas and then watch the landscape rise to form the magnificent Andes, with their snow-capped volcanoes and extensive high plains.
The Cost Factor
When thinking about buying a plane ticket in South America, it is important to keep the cost-benefit factor in mind. If you have plenty of time but are on a budget, you might opt for a boat trip on the Amazon, instead of flying. A boat trip will cost you half as much, but will take several days. If you have little time, it is best to skip long on uneventful bus or boat rides and fly to your destination. Most countries in South America have their own international airline(s) with both domestic flights and international flights to Europe and North America, allowing you to easily connect to domestic destinations.
As the dollar has slipped in recent years, it is no longer as cheap to fly in South America. When the Brazilian real was 3:1 to the U.S. dollar a few years ago, long-haul flights across Brazil were very affordable. Today with the exchange rate closer to 2:1, flights are now 30% more expensive. Fortunately, South America’s largest country Brazil has deregulated its airline industry over the past decade, and several low-cost carriers now connect many cities across Brazil and South America. Most other South American countries still have a favorable exchange rate, making it fairly affordable to fly.
Keep in mind that international flights in South America are more expensive than domestic flights covering the same distance. If you visit natural or cultural attractions that border several countries, it is best to fly to one country and then continue across the border by bus (or boat). This is the case with Patagonia, which is shared by Chile and Argentina, the Iguaçu waterfalls (Argentina, Brazil), the Jesuit missions (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil), the Pantanal wetlands (Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay), the upper Amazon river (Peru, Colombia, Brazil), and the Andean high-altitude steppes (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile), just to mention the most popular.
Transportation Safety Considerations
Traveling up or down the Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia by bus can be dangerous, and flying is definitely safer. These roads, most dirt roads, lead from the Amazon basin (average elevation 400 feet) up to an elevation of 10,000 to 15,000 feet and are mostly frequented by cargo trucks. Avoid bus travel in the Amazon basin during the rainy season (October through April south of the equator), when dirt roads turn into mud. Flying is your best option during this time.
If you plan to visit nature parks and reserves in the Amazon, be wise and book a flight. Flights are cheap enough to make them a very reasonable alternative to the long and precarious bus rides up or down the Andes. Most rain forest tours and excursions start from cities or towns that have developed airports and paved runways and are connected by conventional commercial flights. On the other hand, if you are adventurous, be aware that many flights to remote areas will land at very primitive airports, often consisting in small clearings in the jungle with a dirt runway.
In some South American countries government airlines or the Air Force provide cheap flights to remote locations, mostly transporting locals and their cargo, but they are also open to foreigners. Such flights serve the simple purpose of providing transportation for the locals, and do not follow international guidelines for passenger travel. Standing room is common, and don’t be surprised to climb onto a Russian cargo plane through the ramp in the back, putting your bags in the center of the fuselage and then sit on a wooden bench alongside the cabin. You might be traveling with chickens, pigs and bunches of bananas. Forget about air conditioning and sound proofing. These flights are cheap, but not very comfortable. Fortunately they are usually fairly short. However, with the exception of Air Force flights, all other passenger air travel in South America is carried out by regular commercial airlines that are up to international standards. Flights are more or less on time, and the airplanes are staffed with flight attendants. You won’t have to carry your baggage on the plane yourself, and you will most likely have an assigned seat.
|A plane ready to land in Sao Paulo, Brazil.|
Booking a Flight
Most airlines in South America have websites with English versions where you can book flights ahead of time. Air Force flights do not offer advanced bookings, and flights are filled on a first-come first-served basis. To book a flight locally, contact a travel agency or airline office. In remote locations or small towns, you may have to ask around to find a booking agency. It could be a restaurant or government office that doubles as a ticketing agency. If you travel with the Air Force in Peru or Bolivia, don’t expect exact timetables. The planes fly their daily routes with little regard for schedules. Get to the airport early and bring something to read while you wait. For the locals it is more important to know that the plane will come on a given day, not the exact time it will arrive. Be prepared to pay for you ticket in cash.
Air travel is expensive for most South Americans, and fewer people fly than in North America and Europe. This means that there are fewer flights than you might be used to, often only one per day. You should also expect numerous stopovers before reaching your final destination. Keep in mind that the summer in the Southern hemisphere (December through March) is the main travel season and that flights may be completely booked months ahead of time. Last year in Argentina I wanted to fly south to visit one of the glacier national parks, but I could not get a seat for another few months. A huge part of a glacier had broken off a week earlier, and Argentineans were flocking to the area to see what was going on. It would have taken three days by bus, and I changed my travel plans. In Bolivia, on another occasion, I tried to book a flight from the Amazon basin to La Paz, but I was unaware that it was the weekend of Bolivia’s independence day celebration, and all flights to La Paz were booked. My only option was to take the bus, or fly four days later. I decided to take the bus, which I regretted it later, because the bus had many breakdowns and the journey took four days instead of two.
Although holidays, festivals, and unexpected natural events can suddenly impact seat availability on flights, it is generally quite easy in South America to book a flight on short notice without paying a higher fare. On several occasions I booked a same-day or next-day flight for a very low price. I have also found that flight dates can often be changed without penalty. It is also quite common to buy a one-way ticket, costing usually just half of a round-trip fare, which gives you more flexibility during your travels. Due to the smaller size of aircraft most flights have strict baggage rules. The allowed weight of your baggage varies from airline to airline, but you should expect to pay a surcharge for checked baggage over 15 kilos (33 lbs.).
Top South American Airlines
LATAM Airlines is a growing South American-based airline—originally Chilean but now having a parent company with Brazilian, Colombian, Peruvian, Argentinean, and Ecuadorian affiliations—offering many cheap domestic and international flights.
GOL is an airline based in Brazil.
Argentinean Airlines is Argentina’s national airline, providing domestic and international flights.
Avianca Airlines is based in Colombia but handles flights throughout South America and worldwide.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has extensively traveled in South America, both by air and on the ground, most recently in Argentina.
The Best Way to See South America
The vastness of South America and the beauty of its cities and landscapes have been attracting tourists for years on end. Many travelers find themselves wondering about the best way to see South America, not only because they want to save big but also because they want to avoid any inconveniences and waste time on unnecessary hassles.
As with any hot destinations, it all depends on what you want to see and how long are you planning on staying. The destinations in your desired itinerary will pretty much dictate how you will travel around this wonderful continent.
The Best Way to Travel South America
First and foremost, you have to take a close look at your South America bucket list and see if the pieces fit. Unless you have several months or even a whole year set aside for traveling between the countries, then it’s best to pinpoint two neighboring ones and start planning the itinerary. Traveling from country to country takes a great deal of patience, planning, and stamina so if you only have several weeks to do so, don’t even bother visiting more than two as you will end up exhausted.
Instead, pick some of the best countries in South America worth visiting, see if you can travel between them easily and stress-free, find the most cost-effective accommodation and transport options and start mapping your journey.
Traveling from Brazil to Argentina
Brazil is a gigantic country, abundant in beaches, rich culture, and amazing sceneries. As such, it requires that you stay there for months in order to see everything. Very few people are lucky to have this period of time for exploration so it’s best to simply base yourself in Rio de Janeiro, explore it thoroughly, make a few trips to some extraordinary attractions around Rio before you head off to Argentina.
Getting around by bus is one of the easiest ways to see the county or else travel to another one, such as Argentina. There are numerous operators in Brazil and the price of tickets vary to a great extent, depending on the class. There are four bus classes in Brazil: Convencional, Executivo, Semi-Leito or Semi-Cama, Leito or Cama. The level of comfort and amenities vary and so does the price. Leito (Cama) class is the most comfortable as it has reclining seats with lots of space between the rows. Still, it is only Convencional and Executivo class that actually operate within Brazil, unlike the previous two that take passengers internationally.
Another option to visit Argentina from Brazil is to combine air travel with the bus. That way you won’t miss out on fantastic landscapes as you drive by. For example, many travelers decide to fly from Rio to Iguazu where they can visit Iguazu Falls, one of the biggest attractions in Brazil. It is from Iguazu that you can reach Argentina easily.
Take a good look at all the available flight options from Rio to Puerto Iguazu as you can find cheap flights at some of the leading airline companies, such as Aerolineas Argentinas or Latam Airlines. The trip takes around 3 hours from Rio to Iguazu. As far as buses are concerned, you should buy the ticket directly at Foz de Iguazu as you will get the best price rather than by booking online. The ticket will cost you around $180 and the trip will probably be overnight, lasting around 18 hours.
Traveling from Argentina to Chile
The best way to mark your first checkpoint is to fly to Mendoza because this beautiful city is just 365 kilometers away from Santiago – Chile’s capital. This makes Mendoza an awesome starting point. Although it seems only logical that you should make Buenos Aires your base while staying in Argentina, keep in mind that the distance between Buenos Aires and Santiago is 1407 kilometers, almost five times bigger than Mendoza – Santiago. On top of that, you will have the chance to enjoy the stunning scenery as you take the winding highway along the Andes.
As Chile lies nestled between the Andes at east, Atacama desert to the north, and the Pacific to the west, there is only one border crossing between it and Argentina. For this reason, crossing the border often proves to be notoriously slow at times. The beautiful surrounding makes up for it, though.
As far as your means of transport is concerned, you have to be careful not to bite more than you can chew. If you’re traveling light, it makes no difference whether you’ll go by bus, car or plane. Still, there are significant differences cost-wise between these three, air travel being the costliest of all.
Argentinians travel by air much less than their neighbors which has lead to fewer airline companies operating above its territory. When we add other factors such as slow aviation growth to the mix, it only adds up that airfare is rather pricey in Argentina, especially if you travel to another country from it. Air passengers in Argentina actually pay three times as much for every 100 kilometers than their neighboring Chileans or Brazilians. While the only perk of air travel is speed and convenience, the disadvantages include fewer booking options, missing out on the breath-taking scenery along the way, and of course, money.
As there are no trains connecting these two cities, the best ways to travel are by bus or by car. The drive between the cities takes about five hours if you’re lucky enough not to get jammed at the border. Another thing to keep in mind when renting a car in Argentina is that some rental companies may not allow the cars to be driven out of state. Similarly, those that do usually charge additional fees.
Buses are by far the best option. Mendoza bus operating companies to choose from are aplenty – CATA, Nevada International, El Rapido, and Radiomovil being the most notable ones. The tickets are ridiculously cheap and they start at around $25.
Traveling from Brazil to Colombia or Venezuela
International flights from Brazil to Colombia may cost an arm and a leg ($800). In case you want to travel from Brazil to Colombia by bus, it’s better to skip Rio unless you have a lot of spare time, too. Why, you may wonder? Simply because it may take days to get to the Colombian border.
Those travelers who have been through thick and thin while visiting South America will likely tell you to take the boat from Manaus in Brazil to Leticia, a small city in Southern Colombia. Although you can take the slow boat, there are great chances that it departs only once a week and the trip takes around 7 days. The speed boat, however, can have you in Leticia in 3 days. Since the boats tend to fill up rather quickly, especially during the high season (between July and August), it’s always good to book the tickets a couple of days in advance.
Although Venezuela has had a bumpy political past, it has done no damage to its natural splendors. The land of the Mount Roraima and Angel Falls is definitely worth visiting. Similarly to traveling to Colombia, it’s best to cross the Venezuelan border by flying only this time you can also take a bus from Manaus. In any case, you will be headed to Boa Vista, the capital of Venezuelan state of Roraima.
Azul Lineas and LETAM Airlines offer cheap flights from Manaus to Boa Vista. The trip takes about 2 hours while the prices may fluctuate depending on the season (usually around $200). Of course, the cheaper alternative is the bus that connects these two places. The trip will take significantly longer, sometimes even as much as 11 hours. However, it’s much more cost-effective as the fares are usually around $100 and you will also have the chance to savor the amazing landscapes on your way to Boa Vista.
Once in Venezuela, there are plenty of options for getting around, taxis and private transfers being the best. Venezuela has suffered greatly in economic terms and the inflation has induced shockingly affordable prices. Since there are many unlicensed taxis in Venezuela, a great majority of them don’t even have meters so you can easily negotiate a fixed price.
Although it sounds like a great idea to take the train, rail doesn’t operate outside Caracas and its suburban areas. Still, there are great car rental options in all major cities and the roads are predominantly in a good state. Not only is this a great money-saving solution but it will also let you explore the country at your own pace.
Tempting though it may seem, opting for bus passes around South America is really not the best of solutions. While some agencies may offer them at seemingly lower prices than buying individual tickets with different operators, don’t fall for the trick. The notorious three you will come across are Samba, Southpass, and Green Toad, but users’ reviews testify against their actual feasibility and cost-effectiveness. The usual complaints include frequent disconnections between the passes and very poor customer service.
Important Things to Consider Before Traveling to South America
Crossing the borders between the countries of Latin America will pretty much depend on the country itself. Luckily, the majority of borders on the continent is nowhere near the blacklist of the world’s most difficult border crossings. Still, you have to bear in mind that Panama-Colombia border is notorious for drug-smuggling and hence has increased security regulations. It’s best to avoid it altogether.
On a similar note, visa requirements for South America also differ depending on the country you are traveling from i.e. on your citizenship. US citizens do not need a visa for Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Equador, Uruguay, and Guayana. On the other hand, they will need to provide one for Venezuela, Bolivia, Suriname, and Brazil. Some of them might also need you to pay additional taxes, such as departure tax so make sure to count that in when planning the budget.
Other than that, this lovely continent is likely to be your next dream oasis of breath-taking destinations, with stunning landscapes and friendly locals in every step of the way.
12 Tips For Planning A Multi-Country Trip To South America
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Travel With Confidence Find Out More
In my opinion, South America is one of the most extraordinary places on earth. One of the best parts about it is that many countries offer easy border-hopping opportunities. I grew up visiting Europe a lot and was always intrigued by how you could change countries in mere hours and within a short distance, everything from culture to money completely changed. South American countries, however, don’t offer a single visa entry to all countries. It’s important that you do some research and planning before attempting to do a multi-country trip between borders of the south.
1. Every Country Has Different Rules
This is why research is key. Even though you’re on one continent, you’re not traveling through countries with united economies. So that means paper currency will change, entry and exit rules will be different, and so will visa requirements. If you’re a U.S. citizen, Travel.State.Gov is a great resource to start your research.
Igauzú Falls in Argentina (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)
2. Rules Can Change
Things work very differently in South America. Governments can change rules at will, or at least that was my experience. Also, world conditions can impact your visa requirements. For example, when I was in Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, it cost $160 USD for a visa for Brazil. But they were ending the need for a visa three days later. It can literally pay to be aware of pending changes to visa situations. I skipped out of going to Uruguay because, while I was there, the U.S. government had offended the Brazilian government, so they responded by increasing the price for U.S. citizens to get a visa to enter the country.
3. Entry And Exit Rules Are Also Different From Country To Country
One thing I found intriguing is that in Argentina, for example, I got a 90-day visa which renewed every time I left and came back. I went to Chile for a few weeks, and when I returned to Argentina, got a new 90-day visa. The same thing happened when I entered Paraguay, but for a day trip. I haven’t encountered an official rule on how many times you can exit and return, legally, but I did have a friend that had done it more than five times, and it raised eyebrows with Argentinian immigration. So if you plan to do a lot of hopping in and out of South American countries, especially where a 90-day visa doesn’t cost anything, make sure you don’t take advantage, and do speak to fellow travelers about their experiences crossing borders.
4. Border Crossings And Fruit And Veggies
Border crossings are a big deal. I did most of mine by bus, and Chile was the harshest. They have very strict rules about not bringing fresh fruit or nuts into the country. I forgot I had a bag of nuts in my jacket pocket, which was searched. I narrowly got out of a $500 fine, only because the immigration officer attending to me had spent time in America and liked Americans, and gave me a warning. If you end up with any fruits and nuts with you, declare them immediately. They’ll be confiscated, but at least you won’t pay a fine. The form you have to fill out, at least in Chile, is a bit confusing, so just ask an officer for help (some do speak English well) and declare everything you think might be an issue to avoid fines and problems crossing. Most other countries were more concerned about paperwork and less about inspecting all your belongings. If you travel by air, it’s also much easier.
5. Don’t Overstay
Whatever amount of time your visa has, don’t overstay. I got the feeling that overstayers are not treated with kindness. Traveling by bus, especially in Argentina, we were often boarded by police as we crossed principalities, who requested to see our passport. It’s likely you’ll find yourself asked to show your passport to an official a few times while you wander in South America, so make sure you’re traveling legally.
6. Plan Your Trip With A Paper Map
As you plan out your amazing trip, I strongly advise a paper map. We’ve all gotten so used to technology and using apps like Google Maps and Maps.me, which are great for getting around a city. When it comes to creating an itinerary for travel throughout South America, however, you really need to look at everything all together, laid out flat. You’ll see how the geography means you’re likely to have an easier time flying, instead of driving, or crossing borders and back or not. For example, when I was in El Calafate, Argentina, I planned to take a bus to Ushuaia. Then I learned that the way the roads are laid out, you have to cross through Chile, and it’s about a 19-hour bus ride. The flight was roughly one hour.
The author in Lima, Peru (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)
7. It’s Always A Little Strange
From country to country, there always seems to be a little confusion on where to stand, which line to go to, and so forth. If you’re traveling with luggage by bus, you’ll have to bring the luggage into the immigration office (you’ll carry it yourself, so bear that in mind when you pack for your trip), get the luggage scanned or opened, and, separately, deal with the paperwork and getting your passport stamped. At some point, you’ll feel like you’re in the wrong place, or just waiting for someone to do something. Just be patient — it all sorts itself out.
Depending on the distances you travel and the duration of your stay, you’ll probably do a lot of flying, since South America is immense. Flying is definitely fast and more direct. Bus travel, however, gives you so much more of an understanding of the land and culture. The other thing about buses in South America, especially in Argentina, is they’re a bit more luxurious than companies like Greyhound. Because of inflation, it’s more than likely that you can afford a first-class seat for bus travel. This gets you a choice of seats from plain comfortable to business luxury. Seats recline, and, most importantly, you get fed! Outside of Argentina, I found meals were more often a cardboard box with a sandwich, but hey, food on a long bus ride is appreciated. I was stunned when I traveled from Posadas to Iguazu, however, to find the coach attendant wheel through the aisle with what looked like a first-class airplane cart, and serve us a piping hot meal, with wine! The catch is often that the bus will break down at some point, but, it’s all part of the experience!
Street corner in Valparaiso, Chile (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)
9. The Spanish Changes In Each Country
One of the difficulties I adapted to is that, even with intermediate Spanish, I had to get used to different accents and words every time I changed countries. In Chile, for example, some of their Spanish language is rooted in the Mapuche language, their first settlers. In Argentina, they speak a Catalan, but it’s entirely different from the Spanish you’d learn in Spain, which is normally what those of us taught in the U.S. learn. Be ready to re-learn Spanish at every turn. This will be important for your day-to-day interactions with locals.
Pisco in Chile (Photo Credit: Heather Markel)
10. Don’t Enter The Pisco Battle
There’s a rivalry between Peru and Chile as to who invented pisco. I recommend you don’t enter the battle, just drink the pisco. It’s delicious, and the pisco sours are some of the best I ever had. Lima, Peru, had the fancy ones down perfectly. In Chile, I loved visiting pisco distilleries the way you’d drink whisky through Scotland. So, in the end, it’s more important to taste pisco than to take sides.
11. Prepare For Altitude Sickness
This is going to affect your trip, somewhere. Depending on which countries and which cities you visit in South America, you are unlikely to escape this experience. If you’re traveling throughout South America, let me enlighten you on a few unfortunate aspects of it.
Being in an airplane at 30,000 feet does not give you immunity to altitude sickness, because the cabin is pressurized. Once you acclimate to, say, 15,000 feet in Peru, if you come back down to travel over to Bolivia, you don’t maintain your resilience. The symptoms start all over once you climb back up. Either get the prescription medication for it or try out the many herbal remedies available in each country. They’ll take longer to work, and relief is temporary, but it is possible to treat naturally.
12. If Flying Into Peru, It Will Be At Night
For my first time to Peru, I flew in from Buenos Aires. I was surprised that even coming from South America, and not the United States, the flights still arrive late at night. With the warnings to U.S. citizens traveling there, nighttime is not ideal, especially if you’re a solo traveler like I am. If you’re going to Peru, I’d suggest pre-booking pickup at the airport with your hotel. Safety is worth paying for as you travel.
South America is now one of my favorite continents, and I can’t wait to return. You’ll find amazing people, colors, foods, and history. The fact that you can so easily travel between countries, even by bus, is just another reason this area of the world is so desirable for travel. If you’re trying to choose your South American destinations, click the linked locations above, and also consider reading:
Heather may have started the Great Resignation movement. In 2017, she quit her job to travel the world full time. Since then, she’s been to six continents and 33 countries (and counting) enjoying adventures such as seeing the Big 5 in Africa, watching the sun rise and set over the Moai on Easter Island, ziplining in Costa Rica, drinking malbec in Mendoza, and getting stuck in New Zealand during the pandemic.
Heather is a full-time travel coach who is passionate about helping professionals seeking more freedom and flexibility to ditch their desk and discover their destiny through full-time travel. She provides her clients with the path to the mindset, money, and mastery to make a full-time travel lifestyle possible. Since quitting, she’s become an international best-selling author and is about to do her first TEDx talk! Learn more about Heather’s travel adventures on her website, Heather Begins.