Yes, You Should Go Backpacking Through South America Why I'm a firm believer that backpacking through "the gringo trail" should be a right of passage for every young traveller.

Words by Lou Blair

By Lou Blair, 19/12/2018
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Full disclosure, I’m that stereotypical Aussie girl who “found herself” by travelling through South America and still loves to bring it up every chance she can… even four years later. I hiked to Machu Picchu, I took silly photos at the salt flats. I decided against risking my life on Death Road, but made up for the danger by swimming in a piranha-infested river in the Amazon Rainforest.

My first trip to Latin America was so incredibly special that since then I’ve visited the continent twice more, and hope to go on many more trips in my lifetime. And as many of my friends who have travelled there feel the same way, I’m a firm believer that backpacking through “the gringo trail” should be a rite of passage for every young Australian.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image: Poswiecie / Pixabay

So before you go and Google “What the hell is a gringo trail?!”… don’t worry guys, I’ve got you covered.

What exactly is a/the “gringo trail”?

The word “gringo” or “gringa” is a Spanish word used in the Americas to describe a foreigner, especially foreigners from the United States, and is often used in a playful way.

 

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Quick geography lesson: The Americas does not mean the United States. The Americas comprise North America, Central America, and South America. If you want to get super technical then we could start talking about all the countries, sovereign states, non-sovereign states etc, or we can move along, trusting that there’s a whole lot more going on in that part of the world.

Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico. Image: Albert Dezetter / Pixabay

The gringo trail refers to a string of places, or the typical path that travellers usually visit when they travel through Latin America (Central and South America). This can be a bit confusing, as most “backpackers” like to brag about how they like to travel “off the beaten path”… but there is totally a general route that people follow on their Into The Wild fantasy adventure.

Your trip is totally malleable to what your interests are, but here are some of the typical destination that people visit on the gringo trail:

  • The Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico
  • Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
  • The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • San Blas Islands, between Panama and Colombia
  • Tayrona National Natural Park, Colombia
  • Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
  • Machu Picchu, Peru
  • Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), Bolivia
  • Easter Island, Chile
  • Patagonia, Chile and Argentina.

Honestly, this is just a handful of places to give you a sense of how much there is to see and explore, and how there really isn’t just one way to “do” Central and South America.

Wait, all these countries aren’t in South America?

No my friend, they are not.

Do you remember our quick geography lesson we had a moment ago? A common misconception is that South America includes all the warm and tropical countries of Central America, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself in chilly climates when exploring South America.

Cristo Redentor, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image: Licenerenck / Pixabay

I naively ignored every person who told me this and decided against investing in some proper climate-friendly travel gear. I’ll never forget the time my friend and I took a two-hour boat ride in the pouring rain with nothing but a sarong for protection while everyone else had rainproof jackets on.

I have since learnt my lesson, and I’ve realised the most fun holidays are often selfie free – unless it’s just to remember how ridiculous you look!

And isn’t it dangerous?

Okay, so this question seems to be thrown around a lot.

Yes, there certainly are areas of Central and South America that can be dangerous for a number of reasons, such as economic and political instability that can occur from time to time. But this is true of many places in the world, including dark alleys in every major city. As long as you’re aware, sensible and safe, you shouldn’t have any problems.

A corner on the Yungas Road (AKA “Death Road”) in Bolivia. Image: Jimmy Harris / Flickr

In fact, seeing some of these places for yourself may give you a greater understanding of why they are the way they are. As with anywhere in the world, the people who commit crimes are a small part of the population and, by contrast, most of the people Latin countries I have travelled to are among the friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met.

And then there’s the traveller community. Everyone does their best to look out for one another. I’ve seen countless scenarios where total strangers have done their best to care for fellow travellers; whether it was a couple of people at a bus stop who asked me if I wanted to hang out with them while I was waiting alone, or a group of people who helped someone get to a hospital after a fall. There is a sense of community and care that you just don’t feel in everyday life when you’re back home.

A local woman in Cusco, Peru. Image: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos / Unsplash

The best part of backpacking on a popular route is you start to recognise and bump into people you met in previous places, and sharing such memorable experiences (or on the contrast, crazy long bus rides) together means that you quickly form a bond and often find yourself in a cosy little “travel family” – if that’s the type of experience you want to have. I spent last Christmas in Edinburgh, the home town of a friend I met on a trip in 2014. Where else can you make these kinds of friendships?

Shouldn’t I just go to Bali? Or somewhere I don’t have to travel as much?

It all comes down to what you want to get out of this experience.

I love a holiday to Bali just as much as the next beach-loving millennial, but backpacking through South America isn’t just a holiday. As cliche as it sounds, it isn’t just about the destination, it’s about the journey.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil. Image: Gerold Fessler / Pixabay

You will be faced with difficult situations like language barriers, differing levels of operational safety, and not always having the comfort of flying from destination to destination. But when you look back at all the unique experiences you had, the hilarious stories you have to tell, and the lifelong friendships you have made… the time and money you invested in this journey will be the greatest bargain of your life.

Well, where do I start and how long do I go for?

Technically, you can start anywhere. But personally, I would recommend starting in the south. I started travelling from Los Angeles and made my way down, but I wish I made the journey in reverse. Generally speaking there are a lot more adventure-type destinations, hiking and trekking in South America, and more of the beach, surfing and partying destinations in Central America. If you were to do a longer journey, then there is no better way to end in this region with your new travel family.

Starting in the south is also convenient with Qantas flying directly to Santiago from Sydney.

Santiago, Chile. Image: Pablo García Saldaña / Unsplash

In terms of time, it’s really up to you and what your budget is. If this your first time travelling, then I’d suggest planning a two- to three-month trip focused on a few countries in South America, such as Chile, Argentina and Peru. But if you have the time and experience to do a longer trip I cannot urge you enough to go for as long as you can and make it all the way to the top.

Yes, it may be a significant amount of time and money, but travel really is one of the best ways you can invest in your personal development. And the most fun way, too.

(Lead image: Skeeze / Pixabay)