South America Backpacking Itinerary: 4-6 Weeks in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile
You have a few weeks off work – or even better and have quit your job to travel – and are looking for an itinerary. You’ve come to the right place! This blog post started as an email to one of my best friends. She was taking a break before starting her MBA and wanted to travel South America solo, but felt a little overwhelmed by it all.
Where to go? Where to stay? What to do in each location?
I thought up an epic 4-6 week South America itinerary for her, taking in the best parts of my six months in South America. The itinerary is rich in culture, mind-blowing nature, and is specifically geared to budget-conscious backpacking travelers who want to meet new people.
Table of Contents
1. Overview: 1 Month to 6 Weeks South America Itinerary
2. Lima, Peru
3. Huaraz, Peru
4. Paracas, Huacachina, Nazca (all Peru)
5. Arequipa, Peru
6. Cusco, Machu Picchu, Salkantay Trek, Amazon (all Peru)
7. La Paz, Bolivia
8. Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
9. San Pedro de Atamaca, Chile
10. Summary Table
11. Got more time? Additional Destinations You Can’t Miss
12. How much do I need to plan in advance?
13. A final word…
overview: 1 month to 6 weeks South America Itinerary
This itinerary covers three countries: Peru, Boliva, and Chile. Use this as a rough guide for your own travels. Important: see my note below about not booking anything in advance.
The itinerary is written in chronological order and follows a logical travel route. I provide a recommended amount of time to spend in each destination to see all the main sights, but I have included comments about how long we stayed in each location (usually much longer as we had unlimited time).
Recommended time: 1-2 days
Lima is pretty blah and I wouldn't spend more than a day or two. That said, it is the smartest place to fly in to start your trip as flights from the U.S. start as low as $300 one-way from major U.S. airports. The two things I enjoyed the most were the free walking tour and ice cream at Blu Gelateria in Barranco.
Stay: Alpes Lima in Miraflores is the only hostel in Lima I would recommend (stayed at some really horrible ones in Barranco!). It’s a decent option for one or two nights. Book Alpes Lima using our Booking.com link to receive $25 off your stay!
Recommended time: 5-7 days
We spent two weeks in Huaraz and loved it! Huaraz is a town in northern Peru that is used as a base for exploring Huascaran National Park. It has some on the best hiking in South America, showcasing glaciers, electric-blue lakes, jagged peaks, and cow-filled meadows.
Spend your first two days doing acclimation hikes to get used to the altitude; I recommend the hikes to Laguna Wilcacocha and Laguna Churup. After these, you’re ready to embark on a longer hike, like the Santa Cruz trek (3 nights/4 days). Those looking to do a longer, harder hike should do the Huayhuash trek (12 days).
Stay: Akilpo Hostel is run by three friendly, knowledgeable brothers who will help you plan your hikes. For those looking to do a guided hike or tour, they are one of the most reputable operators in town. Book Akilpo Hostel using our Booking.com link to receive $25 off your stay!
Tip: Take the bus back to Lima and head south! For people with a time restriction or strict itinerary, or those who want to travel a bit easier, I recommend buying a Peru Hop Pass. Matt and I did not use Peru Hop and instead opted for local buses – this was fine for us, but I realize we travel a bit rougher than others.
paracas / huacachina / nazca, Peru
Recommended time: 3 days
I want to preface that I did not go to any of these places. Why? I don’t love paid tours, and all the activities in these places involve paying for guided tours. That said, I’ve included it on this itinerary as most travellers do go to these places enjoy the activities provided. You’ll have to opportunity to explore an oasis in the desert (Huacachina), coastal park with wildlife (Paracas), and some funky lines in the desert (Nazca).
Recommended time: 2-3 days
Arequipa is one of my favorite cities in South America. The town is a mix of beautiful baroque architecture set amidst a ring of three volcanoes. The city has been kept in great condition and has a laid back vibe that will make you want to stay forever. Do the free walking tour, enjoy some delicious food from Ratatouille, and sample street food at Mercado San Camilo. I was also treated to an amazing chocolate-making class on my birthday (thanks, Matt!) at Chaqchao Chocolates. Chaqchao also serves scrumptious cakes, artisan chocolate, and they have a relaxed rooftop where you can enjoy local craft beer.
From Arequipa you can do a trip to Colca Canyon. I did a two-night hike in the canyon and didn't love it. Coming from Huaraz, Colca Canyon doesn't seem that impressive and was just three days of switchbacks – brutal on the knees!
Stay: I stayed at Vallecito Backpackers and really loved it – free pancakes with dulce de leche and bananas for breakfast. Book Vallecito Backpackers using our Booking.com link to receive $25 off your stay!
Tip: Go straight to Cusco from Arequipa. DO NOT go to Puno or Lake Titicaca; both are a huge tourist trap and a waste of time in my opinion.
Recommended time: 4-6 days in Cusco City, but 2 weeks in the area
Most people breeze through Cusco and only use it as a base for visiting Machu Picchu. But this ancient city has so much more to offer and deserves a few days for itself! Make the most of your time in Cusco by using my Ultimate Cusco City Guide, which includes the best place to eat, see, and explore (minus the overly touristy stuff).
Use Cusco as a base for your visit to Machu Picchu and the Amazon. After each side-trip, come back to Cusco and recuperate before setting out on your next adventure.
I recommend visiting Machu Picchu by doing the Salkantay Trek, and I wrote a comprehensive guide on how to do the Salkantay Trek without a guide for less than $100. For those who don’t want to do the trek unguided, you can book a tour in Cusco.
You can also do a trip to the Amazon from Cusco. I did not do this as I was short on time, but I believe this would take up to six extra days. The reason why this is a longer side-trip is because it takes a while to get to the best bits of the Amazon. The deeper you go, the more wild and wonderful the Amazon gets.
Stay: Magic Packers in Cusco is a fantastic hostel, with breakfast inlcluded, new dorms, and a helpful owner that’s always willing to share his knowledge. Book Magic Packers using our Booking.com link to receive $25 off your stay!
la paz, Bolivia
Recommended time: 4 days
Leave Peru and get a bus to La Paz, Bolivia. Sitting at 3,640m (11,900 ft), La Paz is one of the most geographically interesting cities I have ever visited. The city center is set in a crack in the Andean plateau, which climbs on all sides with a chaotic mess of buildings. People reach the upper levels by riding cable cars perched precariously on the slopes.
As always, I recommend you take one of the free walking tour (tips not included), which will provide local insights and take you to the main sights, such as Penal de San Pedro, Plaza Murillo, and The Witches’ Market. For one of the best panoramas in the city, take the Red Line cable car to Jach’a Qhathu (16 de Julio). Great eating options include Higher Ground (Australian coffee and brunch) and Cafe del Mundo.
Can’t miss day trips from La Paz include biking Death Road and climbing Huayna Potosí. I did not do either of these trips as are they are on the more expensive side and the weather wasn’t great when I was there in January. If you’re set on biking/climbing, make sure you time your trip for May thru September when the weather is best.
Important: If you’re a U.S. or Israeli passport holder, you have to prepare a lot of paperwork for your Bolivian visa, which you get at the border crossing. You’ll need to start preparing for this before you leave the U.S., as it involves getting vaccinations and other random documents. See Matt’s (my partner) personal blog post about his experiences. Most other countries can enter easily without a visa — I’m Australian and it took me less than 30 seconds at the border!
salar de uyuni salt flats tour, Bolivia
Recommended time: 3 days
From La Paz, get a bus to Uyuni for the spectacular Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour. Hop aboard a 4WD for three days, and experience a surreal salt flat, hot mud pools, geysers, alien red rock formations, and some of the best stargazing in the world. Get a tour that drops you in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) at the end. We used the tour operator Cordillera Traveller and had a good experience (seat belts, clean car, professional driver).
It is possible to do Salar de Uyuni without a tour operator, but this will require a 4WD and very skilled driving. Also be prepared to damage your car with salt (we met a few people who were fined by car rental companies for returning their car in poor condition).
Tip: Bring lots of props for photo opps on the salt flats! My group came unprepared and we were not able to take full advantage of the reflections and optical illusions. The best props are soda cans, packaged food, and toy animals (like dinosaurs).
san pedro de atacama, Chile
Recommended time: 2 days
Crossing over into Chile is culturally shocking: you go from seriously roughing it in Bolivia to the developed, put-together, paved roads of San Pedro de Atacama. The landscape is otherworldly, with some areas having never received rain. One of my favorite activities in Chile was biking Valle de la Luna; for a few dollars you can rent a bike at various shops in town. You can also sign up for an astronomy experience and see the stars through some of the clearest skies in the world.
San Pedro also harbors some delicious food, which is a welcome treat after days eating out of the back of a car on the Salar de Uyuni tour. Franchuteria has quite possibly the best French pastries outside of France (don’t miss the chocolate croissant!); and Sol Inti has the greatest (and largest) sandwiches I have ever consumed.
From San Pedro, you can access Calama airport with regular bus connections, which links you to Santiago (Chile’s main international airport) and other locations across Chile.
This itinerary comes out to about 5 ½ weeks, and assumes you spend the upper number of days recommended. As mentioned, I spent A LOT more time in each of these locations, and I strongly recommend you take it slowly and really immerse yourself in each destination. That said, I realize most people have a time limit and slow-travel is not always realistic!
|Day 1 - 2||Lima, Peru|
|Day 3 - 9||Huaraz, Peru|
|Day 10 - 12||Huacachina/Paracas/Nazca, Peru|
|Day 13 - 15||Arequipa, Peru|
|Day 16 - 17||Cusco, Peru|
|Day 18 - 20||Salkantay Trek / Machu Picchu, Peru|
|Day 21 - 22||Cusco, Peru|
|Day 23 - 28||Amazon, Peru|
|Day 29 - 30||Cusco, Peru|
|Day 31 - 34||La Paz, Bolivia|
|Day 35 - 37||Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia|
|Day 38 - 39||San Pedro de Atacama, Chile|
Got more time? Additional Destinations you can’t miss
cargo ship to iquitos, peru
Time required: 3-4 days
Easily one of the most memorable experiences of my trip to date. Sling a hammock on a working cargo ship, and float through the Amazon to Iquitos, the world’s largest city only accessible by boat and plane (no roads!). Iquitos is another place where you can access the Amazon for jungle trips.
Learn more about this great experience in my post, World’s Greatest Experiences: How to Catch the Cargo Ship to Iquitos.
Recommended time: 4 days
From San Pedro de Atacama, get a flight from Calama to Santiago, then a quick bus to Valparaíso. This laid-back coastal town is wall-to-wall street art, culture, and fantastic Chilean food.
Valparaíso is best seen by foot, and the most visually stunning areas to explore are Cerro Alegre, Museo a Cielo Abierto (an area with lots of street art, not an actual museum), and Parque Cultural de Valparaíso. For a great view at any time of day, hike up to Plaza Bismarck. I also really enjoyed the free walking tour by Free Tour Valparaiso.
Must-eats include Mercado Alegre, with its phenomenal carrot cake (I kid you not, Matt and I ate a slice of this every day). Just up the street is Taller de Masas, which serves up my favorite empanadas in South America. Their unique offerings boast plenty of vegetarian options, whole-wheat pastry, and homemade sausage. Get there early, as these sell out before the end of the day. For seasonal, modern, no-fuss cuisine, El Peral has a creative menu that changes daily. Fauna Valparaiso is great for a sunset cocktail and Western-style food (sandwiches, burgers, etc).
Viña del Mar is just a short bus away and gets a lot of praise from the locals, but in contrast to Valpo, Viña is the worst, most boring, bland city I have ever been to – avoid it at all costs (unless you like Florida…)
Recommended time: 3+ days
Sucre is one of South America’s language hubs, with backpackers descending on the Bolivian capital to hone in on their Español. We stayed for two weeks learning at Sucre Spanish School, studying after class, and eating fresh fruits and veg from the Mercado Central. It’s a great place to chill out and flex your brain muscle after being on the road for a few weeks. If you’re looking to indulge in Bolivia’s version of the empanada, make sure you try the salteñas at Salteneria Flores. For the best view in the city and stunning white-washed architecture, take a stroll up to the Recoleta area.
Stay: Villa Oropeza Guest House is a grand, white mansion located ideally in town. It attracts a study-focused backpacker clientele, which make for really productive homework sessions. Book Villa Oropeza Guest House using our Booking.com link to receive $25 off your stay!
how much do i need to plan in advance?
The only thing you need to book in advance is your flight to South America. Other than that, I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING IN ADVANCE. Accommodation, tours, transfers, buses – you should not book anything until you’re in the town that relates to that activity.
Why? When you’re looking to book things online for travel in developing countries (almost all of South America, Asia, Eastern Europe), there is a very small selection of options available online. These options are targeted at foreign tourists that have (relatively) more money, so you’ll get ripped off for a product that is inferior. By booking at the source, you can ensure you’re meeting legitimate tour operators and cutting out any unnecessary middlemen. A classic example of this is booking the Salkantay Trek in Peru: we met people who paid $500+ USD or Euros for their tour online, while people who booked the same tour in Cusco paid $250. Note: We paid less than $100 for our entire Salkantay Trek and visit to Machu Picchu– learn how to do that here.
a final word...
South America is huge and you could spend years backpacking and cover less than half of it. With four to six weeks, you will get a good taste of long-term travel, but you’re just scratching the surface. I guarantee you will wish you had more time (now may be the time to quit your job to travel…)
My advice is to not plan, go with the flow, and listen to your fellow backpackers when deciding where to go next. This itinerary is a great start, but one of the best things about this style of travel is being open to winging it.
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If you have any questions, shoot us a comment below! You can also check out @nutritiontraveller for photos and videos from all the places I mentioned in this post.
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Post updated on January 15, 2019.