How Much Time Do You Need to Visit South America’s BIG 5?
South America’s ‘Big Five’ is by no means an exhaustive list of the continent’s most alluring attractions, but they are the top 5 destinations most travellers seek, particularly if visiting the continent for the very first time. When planning a trip to one, two, three or all five of the continent’s star attractions, it helps to have a good idea about how much time is needed to experience them thoroughly, how easily accessible each destination is and what the best way would be to join them all up and create one totally EPIC tour of South America.
And that’s where we come in!
This guide will help you plan your own unforgettable, unique and personal journey of discovery, through South America’s most sough-after Big Five attractions.
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
The fabled Lost City of the Incas is cradled by vertiginous Andean peaks and hidden in a stunning high-altitude valley in southern Peru. Although its location is rather remote, its popularity has eased the logistical conundrum of reaching it, with the base town of Cusco offering direct flights from the capital, Lima, as well as other major cities across the continent. Machu Picchu is technically visited in just a single day, although acclimatization to the altitude, connecting transport and nearby exceptional attractions (which you really ought to include) means that to do this historical hub real justice you should realistically put aside between 5 and 7 days. The absolute minimum time needed is just 3 days (if catching the train) and if you plan on tackling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, then a whole week is warranted. With a flurry of other historical sights nearby, amazing architectural highlights in Cusco, fantastic food, great markets and several interesting museums, a week of your itinerary dedicated to Machu Picchu will be your best choice yet.
Check out our Machu Picchu tours here
The World Heritage Site of Peru, Machu Picchu. Photo credit: Shutterstock
2. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Unlike Machu Picchu, which is surrounded by a host of other attractions of their own right, the Galapagos Islands themselves hold all the appeal in the region and the time needed to visit the archipelago will depend solely on the duration of your chosen cruise. Most visitors choose either an 8 or 10 day cruise (with shorter and longer options also on offer) with cruise duration determining just how many of the dozen or so major islands you get to explore at length. Daily snorkelling, diving and on-land walks offer magnificent experiences and close-up encounters with endemic wildlife, with the main base town acting as a mere springboard. Flights connect the Galapagos to Ecuador’s major hubs of Quito and Guayaquil, and you can safely plan to fly in/fly out in accordance with your cruise, without the need to plan for extra days if you can’t fit them in. All the mesmerizing treasures of this incredible archipelago will be your companions for the duration of your Galapagos cruise.
Check out our Galapagos Islands tours here
Sea lions on one of the Galapagos Islands. Photo credit: Shutterstock
3. Amazon Rainforest, various destinations
The Amazon rainforest is a tremendous wilderness destination, one that is home to some of the most enticing animals on earth and, no matter where you go, your experience will be unforgettable. Of South America’s top travel highlights, the Amazon is the one you can juggle with most, due to its mind-boggling size and the fact that it is accessible from various points in several countries. The most popular areas are easily accessible from Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, with each specific region offering very particular sights and experiences. Some are especially great for Amazon River cruising whilst others offer more on-land hikes. Where you visit the Amazon can depend on your wishes, the time of year you travel, how much time you have at your disposal and where else you’ll be travelling. It is immensely easy to add an Amazon journey from any of the other included highlights on this guide. This natural wonderland may cover an astonishing 5.5 million square kilometres, but on a visit, you’ll be privy to just one enthralling corner of it. Plan on a one-week jaunt into the Amazon to really immerse yourself in the indescribable allure of it all.
Check out our Amazon rainforest tours here
Amzon Rainforest in Brazil. Take you time to enjoy this beautiful view. Photo credit: Shutterstock
4. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Spend but a day in Rio and you’ll be forgiven for wanting to move there permanently. The de-facto Brazilian capital (sorry, Brasilia!) is really THAT engaging. Rio de Janeiro’s list of attractions is nearly endless and trust us, even with a full week at your disposal, you’ll still leave with the feeling that you’ve barely scratched the surface. And you have. A fantastic springboard for visiting Iguazu Falls and the Amazon rainforest, Rio is deserving of a 3-day stay at the very least or a week-long sojourn if you wish to feel like you can actually take a breather along the way. Outstanding sights, smells, sounds and tastes await the discerning traveller in Rio, a city that has an uncanny way of getting right under your skin. A fantastic city even non-big-city people can’t help but adore.
Check out our Rio de Janeiro tours here
Beautiful view of Rio de Janeiro in the evening light. Photo credit: Shutterstock
5. Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil
The thunderous waterfalls of Iguazu are the only gem guaranteed to WOW all visitors to South America, even if they are at the tail-end of their journey and have already soaked up so much amazing natural beauty. Consider Iguazu Falls the ultimate cherry on the South America cake, if you will, the last hoorah that’ll shake you out of your boots even when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more left to shake. With a day dedicated to each of the two sides of the falls (Argentinian and Brazilian) and one day to cross the border and perhaps chillax in a nice hotel, a 3-day visit to Iguazu Falls is pure perfection.
Check out our Iguazu Falls tours here
The beautiful Iguazu Falls in both, Brazil and Argentina. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Want some help planning a whirlwind trip to South America’s Big Five highlights? We’re here to help! Contact us now and we’ll help you create a unique and personalised itinerary to include all your favourite destinations in the continent.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”
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.