The Best Backpacking Destinations in South America

Peru, Machu Picchu region, Female traveler looking at Machu Picchu citadel and Huayna mountain with three llamas
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South America is a backpacker’s dream: cheap accommodation, multiple natural wonders, nightlife that lasts until morning, world-famous hiking trails, markets galore, well-priced spa services, and memorable street food. Below, you’ll find destinations in major cities, beach and mountain towns, national parks, and art hubs. While some have pricier activities like multi-day hikes or soccer games, all of them have a slew of free, engaging activities are generally good gateways to meeting locals or fellow travelers, as the journey’s about expanding your relationships and not just adding mementos to your pack.

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Buenos Aires, Argentina

Aerial view of Buenos Aires cityscape and public park
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Cultured yet gritty, Buenos Aires is home to infamous soccer teams like Boca and River, has a slew of unique museums, and boasts one of the most highly developed gastronomy scenes in South America. Stroll past neoclassical, art nouveau, and art deco buildings, and wander into El Ateneo, a stunning theater-turned-bookstore. It’s easy to mix and match saving and splurging in Buenos Aires.

See a free street tango show and book a night at an estancia. Go to a free concert, art show, or talk at one of the many centros culturales (cultural centers) and treat yourself to a meal at a famed parilla like Don Julio, or eat a dinner of empanadas and buy first-rate soccer tickets. Whatever you do, make sure to bring US dollars in cash and exchange them for the blue rate (the unofficial rate). Stay in San Telmo for a historic barrio, or book a hostel in Palermo to be closer to the clubbing scene.

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Medellín, Colombia

Metro Cable Cars in Medellin Colombia that run from the mountains to the city
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History, salsa, and a strong digital nomad presence make Medellín one of the most sought-after destinations in Colombia, especially for backpackers wanting low-cost worthwhile activities. Learn salsa dancing at free meetups in the parks or head to the bar Son Havana and pay a small cover for a lesson. Take pictures at Plaza Botero with Botero’s famous statues of plump women and fat cats. Order fresh-squeezed juices, filling arepas, or sample fruits from street vendors.

The metro line (the only one in all of Colombia) is cheap and connects to cable cars that provide 360-degree views of the city’s insanely steep hills. For nightlife, dance at El Poblado’s rooftop bars or drink beer on the streets by Lleras Park with locals. El Polado has plenty of hostels and is also one of the most centrally located, safest neighborhoods to stay in. Finally, to learn more about Medellín’s complicated history  (including narco trafficking), spend a few hours at Museo Casa de la Memoria.

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Cuenca, Ecuador

New Cathedral, Cuenca, Ecuador
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The cobblestone streets of Cuenca’s historic center offer plenty of hostels alongside New and Old Cathedrals with iconic domes, all above the Tomebamba River. Framed by green spaces and walking trails, bars with locally micro-brewed beer can be found throughout the city, as well as restaurants serving some of the country’s best soups, like caldo de bolas, made with plantains and beef dumplings. If you take a 10-minute taxi ride, there are several spas that offer mud baths and hot spring pools for soaking for just $12. Other activities outside the city center include hiking the green valleys of Parque Nacional Las Cajas and swinging out over the city at Mirador Turi’s makeshift swing.

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Rio de Janiero, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro Sunrise
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Approach Rio just as Christ the Redeemer does: with open arms. Swim and tan on world-famous beaches like Copacabana or Ipanema. When you get hungry eat an acai bowl or order a mini-feast of feijoada (a meat and black bean dish) with a caipirinha. If you’re lucky enough to come during Carnival, dress up and take to the streets for a rhythmic, colorful, tipsy good time. Ride the train up to visit Christ the Redeemer and gaze at one of the best views of the city from the platform. Many of Rio’s main attractions can be reached by metro or walking, especially if you stay in Ipanema, Copacabana, or Botafogo.

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Montañita, Ecuador

Beach front evening landscape in the small resort town of Montanita, Ecuador
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Surfers riding the right point break of La Punta and backpackers clinking glasses together in Cocktail Alley are common scenes in Montañita, Ecuador’s surf capital. The town is small (the main drag’s only about nine blocks), making it easy to orient yourself quickly. When not surfing or partying you can book creative Spanish classes at Montañita Spanish School, like the Spanish and scuba diving class, or stock up on cheap beachwear at one of the clothing stalls. An hour’s bus ride away in Ayampe, you can find yoga classes in English, less crowded beaches, and delicious (though far pricier) restaurants. Montañita can also be a base for a day trip to Isla La Plata, which shares some of the same wildlife as the Galapagos (think blue-footed boobies), but at a fraction of the cost to get there. Anywhere you stay will be close to the water, though some hostels offer beachfront-facing rooms.

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Cusco, Peru

Historic architecture of Cusco along steep street northwest of Plaza de Armas, Peru
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Base yourself out of here to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, raft the Sacred Valley, or see the rainbow dirt of Vincuna or Palcoyo Mountains. In Cusco proper, shop at the Central Market for ceviche, fresh fruit juices, chocolates, tinctures, and remedies for altitude sickness (the city is 11,152 feet above sea level). Invest in the Boleto Turistico, a type of tourist pass, if you want to visit nearby ruins, some of the museums, and cultural shows. No matter what you do, try a pisco sour, the favored cocktail of Peru. Stay in the Centro Historico, full of hostels, ruins, and dining options, it’s also easy to walk to many of Cusco’s main attractions from here. Once night falls, head to nearby Plaza de Armas for some of the city’s best-known bars and clubs.

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Torres del Paine, Chile

Man hiking in Torres del Paine

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See massive condors glide above you as you kayak around Grey Glacier and hike up to the centerpiece of this Chilean national park: the granite towers of the Cuernos del Paine. While Torres del Paine isn’t known as a cheap spot, it is possible to hike there on a budget far below the $1,000 price tag a multi-day group tour will charge you for the W (the most popular trek in the park). If you take your own gear, camp, and cook your own food, your only costs will be a few camping fees, transportation, and the park entrance fee (the equivalent of $27). Kayaking and glacier-walking will be extra, but you can easily cut costs to just a few hundred dollars if you plan accordingly and stick to your budget.

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Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso, Chile - Sep 19, 2018: Street arts, graffiti along a street in Valparaiso, Chile. The historic quarter of the city was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Get lost in Valparaiso’s 42 hills and discover a community of artists, hippies, and seafarers. A city as quirky as its residents, Valpo sprawls over 42 hills jumbled together next to the cold shores of the Pacific Ocean. Famous for both large and small-scale street art and as a home base of Pablo Neruda's (you can visit his house, La Sebastiana), it’s a city where art and functionality meet: think piano key stairs and public slides to get down hills. Ride the funiculars (train car elevators) and go during one of the city’s many festivals to experience it at its liveliest. Stay in the historic quarter of the seaport, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Valpo's main lodging and dining hub.

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Bariloche, Argentina

Lake View from Cerro Campanario, Bariloche
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A major stop for those biking the length of South America, Bariloche has the feel of a candy land surrounded by shimmering lakes ripe for wild swimming. While the shop windows of Mitre's main street display some of the country’s best chocolatiers, like Rappa Nui and Mamushka’s, the nearby mountains of Nahuel Huapi National Park offer a different type of sweetness: short trails and multi-day through hikes. Visit the historic Llao Llao Hotel (maybe even book lunch in their hydroponic dome) and rent a bike to ride Circuito Chico.

You'll see some of the area's most famous viewpoints, such as the deck from the Patagonia Brewery, as well as famous lakes, and pristine forests. This is also a prime spot for rock climbing in Argentina, especially up by Refugio Frey and Cerro Lopez. Public transportation is decently priced, though hitchhiking is the cheapest and often most convenient option. Stay at one of the many hostels located along the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi.

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Punta del Este, Uruguay

Club Hotel Casapueblo in Punta del Este
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Though Punta del Este has a reputation of wealth and decadence, it’s a surprisingly convenient and affordable place to backpack, if you know where to look (and go in low season). The city is easily reached from Montevideo and Colonia Sacramento by bus. Stay in one of the hostels by Brava Beach to easily walk to sights such as La Mano, the massive hand sculpture rising out of the sand, or the graffiti-decorated shrine to Punta’s patron saint Our Lady of the Candelaria on El Emir Beach. Buy seafood from the fishermen at the harbor and do your own cooking. When not tanning, swimming, or surfing, get a bike (some hostels lend them for free) and cycle the 10.5 miles to Casapueblo, a gleaming stucco white Seusian construction perched on a sea cliff built by hand by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró.

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