Robert Schrader in South America

How to Travel in South America

South America is one of the world’s largest and most mountainous landmasses, which makes it a paradise for travelers. Unfortunately, the continent’s transportation infrastructure leaves something to be desired, particularly when it comes to rail.

The good news is that getting around in South America is relatively simple once you get a hang of it—and, in most cases, rather affordable as well. The better news? My guide, which you’ll find below, puts everything you need to understand South America’s transport status quo in one convenient place.

Need help planning your trip to South America? Hire me as your Travel Coach!

Bus Travel in South America

High-quality tour buses with air-conditioning, reclining seats or beds and (usually) toilets are by-and-large the most popular way of intercity and international travel in South America, even for journeys longer than 24 hours. The quality and prices of buses in South America vary depending on the country you visit, so consider that before you plan your trip to South America around bus travel.

In Argentina, for example, you can purchase a “Suite” seat that features a completely flat bed, a three-course meal and complimentary wine or champagne for under $100 US, even on long journeys such as Mendoza to Buenos Aires. Buses in Bolivia, on the other hand, tend to be more basic, with only the most popular tourist routes (such as from the capital La Paz to the Salt Flats in Salar de Uyuni in the southwestern part of the country) seeing service from tour buses.

Comfort notwithstanding, a major advantage of overnight buses in South America is that they save you the cost of a night’s accommodation—and, in some cases, the cost of a meal. Daytime buses, meanwhile, permit you to take in fantastic, otherworldly scenery at ground level, rather than from 35,000 feet up.

Flights in South America

Speaking of 35,000 feet, what about flying in South America? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

North America has JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Volaris and WestJet. Europe has Ryan Air, Vueling and EasyJet. Asia has AirAsia, Jetstar and Tiger Airways, all of which also serve Australia. South America, unfortunately, is a bit behind in this department, although things have been getting better.

When I made my first trip to South America, in 2011, the situation was particularly dire, with low-cost South American airlines that are relatively large today (namely, Brazil’s GOL and the offshoots of Colombia’s Avianca that exist around the continent) still in their infancy. I remember searching for a one-way flight from Foz do Igauçu, Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and finding nothing cheaper than about R$800, which was worth about 400 USD at the time.

Thankfully, South America’s low-cost carriers become more ubiquitous—and more competitive—every year, which means you can often travel cheaply by air in South America. I recommend using Google Flights to search for cheap flights in South America.

Trains in South America

With the exception Peruvian tourist trains that travel to Machu Picchu and a few commuter routes in cities like Buenos Aires and São Paulo, trains in South America are all but nonexistent, in stark contrast to places in Europe and Japan, where train travel often dominates. With few exceptions, you shouldn’t plan on taking trains more than occasionally as you travel through South America.

Collectivos

While South America’s long-distance buses are spacious and modern, traveling shorter distances often requires some sacrifice—namely, of your personal space. As their name suggests, collectivos are collective mass transport, which usually takes the form of small, white vans that travel popular urban, local and regional routes.

On the other hand, what you lose in privacy and comfort by taking a collectivo, you gain in other areas. First of all, the small capacity of collectivo vehicles and the popularity of the routes they serve means frequency is high—if you miss one, you’re probably only a few minutes from another. Secondly, collectivos tend to be extremely cheap, usually similar to what you pay for a city bus, and always much less than a taxi.

The Bottom Line

Getting around in South America is different to just about anywhere else in the world—the rail network pales in comparison to the one you find in Europe and most parts of Asia; and while low-cost air carriers are becoming more popular, fares can still be high. Once you accept the idea that long-distance bus travel is not only feasible but quite enjoyable, however, and make peace with the fact that traveling short distances often requires some discomfort, I think you’ll find that South America travel is a piece of cake.

About The Author

is the author of 1088 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 14 comments }

Nicole Jaievsky Valtierra September 14, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Robert, you’ve inspired us!! we leave for Peru in December. We want to go to Bolivia (we plan to follow your steps) but we might have to skip Chile…how can I get from the south of Bolivia to Argentina?? flights are outrageous (as you’ve described) and we’d love to travel by land. Any suggestions?

Robert Schrader September 15, 2014 at 5:57 am

Hi Nicole:

Thank you for reading – it’s such an honor to have inspired you! Anyway, I would recommend concluding your salt flats tour in Chile and then taking a bus over the Andes from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta, Argentina. You can get directly from Bolivia to Argentina, but it’s pretty treacherous going.

Nicole Jaievsky Valtierra September 15, 2014 at 11:53 am

ok wonderful. we’ll do that. As I understand it, I need a visa to get into Bolivia, which you specify how to get and another to get into Brazil. You say I can get it in Buenos Aires. People have told me it is better to do it from the states. What do you think? I don’t need to be a Argentine citizen to get the Brazilian visa there, do I?

Adriana December 1, 2014 at 3:56 am

Hi Robert, I stumbled upon your site while researching for my trip to South America. I love what I have read so far,. Wanted to ask you if you encountered any safety problems by traveling by bus especially in Argentina or Brazil? Do you think it would be safe for a solo girl to do that ? Thank you

Robert Schrader December 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm

I think it’s safe, as long as you travel with a reputable bus company and keep your wits about you!

Bill December 9, 2014 at 1:23 am

Do
you know what is the cheapest way to travel within South America? I
want to get to Brasilia in Brazil (from NYC), but I can fly into Bogota or Lima for
a lot cheaper than into Brasilia, If there was someway that I could
take a bus from Bogota to Brasilia or some other cheaper form of
transportation then what I can find in airfares online, it would make a
life a lot cheaper, do you have any suggestions?

Robert Schrader December 9, 2014 at 7:22 am

Buses are basically the only cheap way to travel in SA – and sometimes they’re not very cheap at all!

Sarah May 31, 2015 at 3:47 am

Hi Robert,
My partner and I are planning to spend 10 weeks in South America next year, we can’t decide whether to book the majority of the time as a tour, or do it ourselves. The tour attracts us as it’ll all be taken care of and we’ll be in a group, but we also don’t want to miss out on experiences by having it all taken care off. What would you recommend? Thanks, Sarah.

Robert Schrader June 1, 2015 at 6:34 am

Hi Sarah:

If you want to travel independently (which IMO is the way to go), check out this page: https://leaveyourdailyhell.com/two-months-in-south-america/

Christina Turnbull June 13, 2015 at 6:45 am

Hi Robert,
Me and my friend are planning to travel South America from December this year for 3-4months. We’re actually starting in Cuba and going from there to Costa Rica and then more central SA after that. Once we’re central (perhaps Peru onwards) how is best to get to place to place? Flights seem expensive, are there buses travelling from city to city then onto the next country? And is it best to book them in advance or while youre actually there? Struggling to find proper bus information online. Thanks,
Christina.

Robert Schrader June 15, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Buses are definitely the way to go and while in most cases you don’t need to book in advance, you could always do so a couple days before departure for peace of mind.

Alex Howard June 17, 2015 at 11:47 am

http://thewanderingpony.com/ I found great insight for new time travelers to south america

Simone December 6, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Loved your blog. I am writing about Brazil, it`s not a travel blog, I just try to bring curious facts about my country, check it:
http://www.5thingsbrazil.wordpress.com

Nimit Sharma December 24, 2015 at 12:10 am

Are you guys already down there? I am planning on visiting South America in a month and could use some advise or general guidance.

Thanks,

Nimit

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