My South America Bucket list – an unforgettable journey

Backpacking  South America has been on top of my list forever.  Since I was a kid I have been daydreaming about a South American trip itinerary roaming around those remote places, by myself and in total freedom and I had my South America bucket list printed in my mind.

And I want to share it with you in this post, together with my story, with the hope to inspire you to leave for your own adventure.

At the age of 46, I left my amazing job in Cancun and left for this journey, but I skipped Central America and I only reached Peru and for some reason, I had to go back to square one! I will tell you why in another post.

I am sure you can relate to that. We all have childhood dreams, but when we grow up we get carried away with our daily routine and we are so busy making life actually happen, that we forget about what our dreams were.

While I am updating this post, I have been living my dream of roaming around freely for 3 years now but I never made it to the end of the world, one of the main reasons being that damn COVID. I haven’t stopped traveling, to be honest, but I am doing it safely and within territories where it’s allowed.

I am presently in Guatemala for the second time where I am housesitting and, so far, I have been traveling around Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, in total freedom, doing exactly what I have always wanted, traveling while working from my laptop and being anywhere.

Besides the COVID issue, I also travel slowly because I love to know the country and having the chance to live like a local, staying in Airbnb homes when I am not housesitting and alternating working with exploring.

My South America bucket list

In this article, I wanted to share with you my South America bucket list and how I have planned my South American backpacking route. And I am not a backpacker, by all means.  But this itinerary is a bit of a mix between adventure and comfort. I am not going to camp on my own, but I will join a brief trekking trip when possible, I will stay in luxury places every now and then, and I will hike as much as I can, taking as many pictures as I can and enjoying the journey.

I hope this South America travel itinerary that I have prepared for myself will help you to craft your own or, even better, I hope it will inspire you to go for whatever you have been procrastinating for so long, be it a trip, a resignation letter, an assignment pitch, a proposal. Whatever scares you from making your first move, I dare you to embrace your fear and go get what you want. That’s my wish for your new year. It’s a bit early, but I was inspired. 🙂

Although I am not properly a backpacker and I have written this funny post to explain why. But I need to pack wisely and make sure I have everything I need for the different climates.

I am so thrilled that I get goosebumps just at the thought of it.

Also being such a design and luxury hotel lover I have also searched for amazing places where I would love to stay per each destination. 

Whether you are planning a trip there or you are dreaming about it I hope this post will inspire you. 

My South America travel itinerary on the map


South America itinerary checklist

Before leaving for such a memorable journey, I decided I want it to be memorable for the right things.

Therefore I have decided to prepare a Checklist of the things to do before leaving and I want to share it with you.

Check out blogs

In order to prepare my itinerary, I have been browsing the web in search for the best South America travel blog, or at least the best 5 blogs and compare them and find out information about:

  • the best hiking spots, lakes and adventure trips
  • connections between countries
  • documentation required
  • best flight deals as I will have to fly from Guatemala to Quito

Buy an insurance

For a technical reason, I couldn’t buy a travel insurance in Mexico because I am a resident there. I was praying that nothing serious happened while I was there and every time I felt somewhat wrong with me phisically, I freaked out. What if something happens and I am not insured? How dare I ask my parents to help me out? That was the last thing I wanted.

Therefore the day before I left Mexico I registered for what I considered the best travel insurance ever, after all the research I have done and also listening to various reviews.

I signed up with world nomads for an entire year and I am super happy with that. I just feel safe and protected. If you have any doubts about why you should purchase insurance. Check out my post “Do I really need travel insurance?

Check out safety situation  of the different countries where I am traveling

To put it in a context you need to know that I have lived for the last 8 years in Mexico, a country that has always been labeled as super dangerous especially by the US tabloids and where I have always felt safe and secured. Therefore I never believe 100% of what I read in the news about safety in a country. I always go directly to the sources.

In this case, I just want to have an idea of what people say and read safety statistics and I found this post about the safest countries in Latin America by a fellow blogger very interesting.

Backpacking South America packing list

Although I am not a hardcore backpacker, nor I want to be, I love to hike and sleep in the mountains in a million stars “hotel”. I did it a couple of times, one hiking Mt Kilimanjaro and the other one to Machu Picchu only and one of the reasons I can’t wait to get to South America is to be able to do it again. But we need a Backpacking list to make sure I have everything before getting there, especially to Chile which I know to be super expensive. I will write about my Backpacking South America packing list in a different post. So stay tuned. 

If you are planning to drive on a RV around South America or anywhere else you will love this essential camper packing check list!

 Mandatory Vaccines

God forbids! I am totally against vaccines and I really need to find out which country has vaccination as a necessary requirement to enter. I don’t really want to put any poison in my body, so I am looking around but I am not really finding anything certain. I know that Yellow fever is the most requested, but I am not sure if compulsory. I will check it out and will definitely share the information as soon as I find some reliable source.

South America Travel Itinerary

Here you can find my South America bucket list, where  I put together all my dream places that I want to visit during my South America itinerary. I get goosebumps as I write as I can’t believe my dreams are becoming a reality soon. But planning is also part of the excitement, not only actually being there. I also enjoy the journey, in everything I do. Getting there is only the final reward of an amazing trip, even in a metaphorical way. But let’s cut to the chase and start planning.

Disclaimer note: this is actually the first time in my life that I am doing real planning as I normally pack up and go with the flow. Let’s see which one is better.

Ecuador Bucket list

Ecuador was my first South American destination. I flew from Guatemala City to Quito and from there we will start exploring. Quito itself is full of exciting things to do.

Ecuador is mainly known for the unique Galapagos Islands, but the richness of the country goes beyond the fascinating islands. Here is what I found for my bucket list and the places what we want to cover:

  • Explore Quito visiting the historical center, take a selfie on the Equator line, try the local food, and take a free walking tour of the city.
  • Visit Otavalo and its amazing hikes in the surrounding, including the spectacular Cuicocha crater lake.
  • Hiking to Cotopaxi Vulcano – I have an obsession for heights and hiking in general although I realize that the more I age the harder it gets, I don’t care, I just want to get to the top. As I am writing this I am in Guatemala where I will practice climbing the Acatenango and Pacaya volcanoes and hopefully doing some exercising in between. Ecuador here I come.
  • Hike to Laguna Quilotoa – and admire the emerald green lake on the volcano crater.
  • Hike to the summit of Fuya Fuya from Lagunas de Mojanda – another stunning hike not to miss, from what I can see.
  • Cruising through the Galapagos Island – this is everybody’s dream or at least of those who love nature. I know prices are quite inaccessible, however, I will find a way to get there. I am thinking about working on a cruise or joining an exchange program. I also read that it is possible to actually travel through Galapagos without splurging so I will check out that option as well and I will keep you posted. Finger crossed for me.
  • Visit Cuenca – The colonial city of Cuenca has been always one of my targeted destinations as it has been evoking a nostalgic cultural feeling for me.  It’s no surprise that UNESCO declared Cuenca a World Heritage Site, with all it has to offer, colonial churches, beautiful parks, museums and it’s also home of the original factory where they produce the famous Panama hats. No, they are not from Panama. One of the main producers is The Homero Ortega P. & Hijos, right in Cuenca. Go Figure!  The Panama hats have always been traditionally handmade by the indigenous people and have become a strong part of the local culture.
  • Get to Peru through the Amazon Forest – Those guys from Roaming Around the World really inspired me with their story on the adventure they experienced navigating the Napo River from Coca to Iquito in Peru. The idea of traveling alongside anacondas and pirañas is at the same time thrilling and terrifying. You need to know that I have had a real phobia for snakes, since I was a kid, and it has never gone away. But I really believe this is an unforgettable lifetime experience, something I really want to talk about and remember if I come out alive…
  • Visit the Amazon in the Yasuni national park or the Cuyabeno National Park.

You can check out my Ecuador Travel Guide for more travel inspiration

For further reading on Ecuador

Peru Bucket list

I have been to Peru in March 2013 and hiked the spectacular Inka trail. This time I will skip it because I want to save time and resources for other amazing spots in Peru that I didn’t make it to see last time. On my priority list, there are:

  • Explore the lesser-known Chachapoyas region, hike to the hidden waterfalls, and discover the ancient cities and pre-Incan cultures.
  • Hiking Rainbow Mountain, better known as Ausangate Trek I have found this awesome site that explains all the best hikes available in Peru and this is my first priority. The tour promises spectacular views encounters with unique local fauna and mingling with the Quechua culture. It’s 7 days trek in the mountains. I couldn’t ask for more.
  • Santa Cruz Trek  I didn’t know about it until I did some research online. It seems like it’s one of the most popular trekking trails of Cordillera Blanca in northern and therefore more crowded. I might want to do it.
  • Vilcabamba Trek I just found out about this trek and it sounds exciting – It’s one of the alternative hikes to the Inca trail but it is described as extremely remote trek, attempted by few tourists, challenging and rewarding at the same time. You will pass by unexplored ruins in the deep jungle. Also, Vilcabamba is known to be the last refuge of the Incas before the Spanish ultimately conquered them. I believe I will include in my hiking list! I love remote and unknown places 🙂 
  • Cotahuasi trek  This trek has been in my plans since the first time I went to Peru but I didn’t make it because I decided last minute to stay in Cuzco and do voluntary work. This time I really want to do it. The trek starts off in Arequipa which is also a town that I  am curious to visit.
  • Arequipa – This is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Peru, even more, charming than Cuzco, which has become a little overrated and touristy. There are a plethora of things to do in Arequipa either in town and the entire region. The stunning views of the surrounding mountain chains, including the towering Volcano El Misti, colored monasteries, and precious colonial churches, witness its history and culture. Arequipa is also the starting point of 2 interesting treks, one to the Cotahuasi Canyon and the other to the more popular Colca Canyon.
  • Cuzco – I am really tempted to go back to Cuzco although I don’t really like to go back to places where I have been already. The world is so big. However, the altitude in Cuzco is 4000 mt (12000ft) and that’s the perfect place to acclimatize if you want to train for some serious hiking. So I might go for a week or so. Besides, there are so many day trips from Cuzco that you can do and that  I haven’t had the time to explore back then. I have written a very useful and complete guide about what to see and do in Cuzco. You can find it here.
  • Sandboarding in the desert of Oasis of Huachachina 

I believe I will need to stay at least a couple of months if I want to tick off all my must-see places from the list.

Guides suggest I should do all the trekkings in the dry season from May to September, which is not exactly when I was intended to go. So I wrote to some companies and I will see what they say. Here is a specific guide on the best time to travel to Machu Picchu.

From Peru, you could cross the Bolivian border from Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, and visit Copacabana first and then move south.

For further reading on Peru

Bolivia Bucket List

Bolivia has always been such a fascinating country for me. What gets my curiosity is the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world talking over more than 11,000 sq.-km of Bolivian territory. An infinite carpet of crystallized salt formed hexagonal tiles and pyramids of salt scattered around the flat land. It’s one of the infinite ways nature manifests its extraordinary beauty

However, Bolivia is much more than that. Although I am other than a backpacker, backpacking in Bolivia is one of the things I am most excited about.

With all the amazing things to do in La Paz, Bolivia will be my home for about 2 months, exploring the culture and getting to know the people. I was also thinking about volunteering there. I will check the options once I will get to the city. Here are the things to see in Bolivia that I would love to cover during my trip:

  • The Valley of the moon, situated about 10 km southwest from La Paz, near the small town of Mallasa, it’s a unique land apparently made of stalactites but it’s actually the remaining of a clay and sandstone mountain eroded by winds and time. The result is a spectacular moonlike landscape. Definitely worth a visit. 
  • The Laguna Colorada, right by the salt flat I don’t want to miss this spectacular pink lake home of the James’s Flamingo, also called the puna flamingo, a native spices of the Andes which was thought to be disappeared.  Although we can still see families of this beautiful bird roaming around, it’s no secret that it an endangered spice in constant threat of extinction. I have seen a lot of Flamingos in Mexico and it’s always fun to watch them.
  • Valle de las Animas ( valley of the souls) – It’s a fascinating area with long and sharp rock formations pointing to the sky. The first visitors thought they looked like petrified souls, hence the name. The 15000 (5000mt) feet Illimani is towering over the beautiful and mystique valley, which makes the visit even more intriguing and worth it. 
  • Biking on the death road – It’s the road that connects La Paz, the capital city to the region of Yungas the getaway to the Amazonian rainforest. It’s a winding narrow road that climbs up to 4.650mt at La Cumbre pass and then makes a tremendous drop in a continuous downhill ride. It’s actually the longest continuous downhill of the world. They have registered a huge amount of deadly accidents every year and although the government is looking at improving the road safety conditions, it seems to be a difficult and costly task. Although I am a little scared I don’t really want to miss it, especially for the spectacular views you get.
  • Visit the Orca del Inca – Despite the deceiving name, the construction is what remains of a pre-Incan astronomical observatory, built during the 14th century by the Chiripa population and destroyed afterward by the Spanish conqueror. During the visit, besides learning about the history you will be able to enjoy the stunning views over Lake Titicaca and Copacabana. 
  • Visit the Hotel Palacio de Sal, although it’s not anymore the only hotel made of salt, it’s been the first to be built with the original idea. The hotel was actually closed in 2002 and then rebuilt again in a more luxurious style.
  • Hiking the Trascordillera, a 13 days hike, that can become 17covering 200km across the entire range, from Sorata at the northern face of Illampu to the eastern side of Huayna Potosi in the village of Chacapampa. It must be amazing and I have goosebumps as I am writing about it.

Chile bucket list

Is it so unaffordable as they say?

As much as Bolivia, Chile has always been in my head, for ages. The idea is to travel from the Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama and explore the Atacama desert and the Salar de Atacama and I know most of the tours are organized so that it’s doable.

Although I really want to visit and see as much as I can, I really need to check how much it’s going to cost me, and I will probably consider taking a  work exchange program so that I can stay longer and live like a local, which I love.

How to organize my trip to the Atacama Desert? There are tons of activities you can do from San Pedro de Atacama and I want to see as much as possible. 

Torres del Paine – I know there are many hikes in Chile but having to choose among all of them I am going with the most popular one first. Having seen so many amazing pictures I want to take some too. 🙂

Besides the hikes, here are my other must-visit spots:

  • Valparaiso and its colorful streets
  • The remote island of Chiloe
  • Bike around  the General Carrera Lake and see the marvelous marble caves 
  • Explore Easter Island and the enchanting history and traditions of Rapa Nui
  • Get to The Tierra del Fuego and meet the local Penguins population besides looking for humpback whales, sea lions, and dolphins.
  • Visit Puerto Varas and the lake district
  • Walk over  Glacier Grey
  • I know there is a lot more to add to my list, but I would be happy if I manage to see all the above.

Where to stay in Chile

Ecocamp Patagonia

Glamping is the new luxury trend and so is the Stunning Ecocamp Patagonia. The luxury domes, inspired by the Kaweskars, a group of nomads living in the area, are located at the foot of the most famous Chilean mountains Torres del Paine, well known for its amazing hikes.

You will be able to enjoy the comforts and the outstanding service of the finest 5-star retreat,  in full immersion with nature.  Ecocamp Patagonia prides to be  100% sustainable, relying on solar/hydro energy and composting toilets among other things.

Follow this link to check out TripAdvisor reviews and ratings.

Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, San Pedro de Atacama

Sharing the company philosophy that luxury is all about the experience rather than appearance, you stay reassured that in the stunning Tierra resort you get both. The simple and yet elegant design of the room perfectly in harmony with the deserted surrounding offer a spacious and private environment where to rest peacefully after a whole day exploring the desert. A team of experts and knowledgeable guides will be available to take you on a lifetime adventure in the Atacama desert. And then, why don’t indulge in a rejuvenating spa treatment or relax in the ambient temperature pools, while enjoying the silence of the desert?

The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa

This one-of-a-kind luxury property is the only lodge in the region that has been built in total synergy with the natural environment, inspired by the architecture of the local village. One of the most evident features is, in fact, the terracotta color of the resort resembling the surrounding red mountains. The unique architecture, the sophisticated and yet cozy interior design, the strict environmentally sustainable practices, and a seamless customer service make the unique property a destination on its own. 

The Cliffs Preserve 

Located in the Patagonian region of Puerto Vara The Cliffs is the perfect combination of sustainable practices and luxury living. The lodge offers beautifully decorated private accommodations, outdoor hot tubs, fine dining options and much more, in a unique setting provided by an overwhelming nature including breathtaking views of the Chilean coast. The hotel provides also a cluster of outdoors activities to explore the staggering surroundings with expert guides.

Argentina Bucket list

Ok, I have to be honest here. I have always wanted to go to Patagonia, but I have never actually researched what is there to see, besides glaciers and penguins.

Now that I am doing some browsing and checking out blogs and magazine I am literally freaking out! the number of places to explore, mountains to hike, lakes to bike around, is endless. I am totally overwhelmed.

Besides I have the feeling that I will go back and forth between Chile and Argentina in the south.

But hey, here is what I am planning.

  • Mendoza – Although I appreciate good wine I am not so much of a drinker. However, I would love to rent a bike and ride around the city of vineyards soaking up the beautiful landscapes.
  • Bariloche and the lake district – Bariloche is a very popular ski resort in winter while during the summer it becomes an unmissable spot for outdoor lovers. Biking around the lakes, take a swim, if you dare, hike and enjoy the breathtaking views. I really cannot miss it.
  • El Chalten – It’s a small town at the feet of Mt Fitz Roy but I have read that it’s a must-stop for everyone, party lovers and foodies and outdoorsy, there is everything for everyone. Of course, I will try to hike the towering mountain, before trying the local specialties.  I can’t wait to tell you all about it.
  • Perito Moreno Glacier, the third biggest freshwater reserve on the planet, covering an area of 250 km2. It’s one of the biggest Glacier that you can visit by booking a tour from the quaint little town of El Calafate. The Glacier sits in the Lago Argentino the forth largest lake in South America
  • Ushuaia – So popular for being the most southern town, is also called the end of the world. I cannot miss that spot.
  • See the Penguins in Punta Tambo – They are coming from Brazil in September and stay until April. I cannot miss them. It’s been forever since I want to see a penguin, like a real one.
  • Buenos Aires – I can’t wait to explore the vibrant city of Buenos Aires. I am fortunate to have close relatives and friends living there so I am sure they will take me to visit the most picturesque and less touristy places.
  • Yucumã Falls – They are not as spectacular and famous as the Iguassu Falls, but from the pictures I have seen, they are really worth a visit. There are also spectacular lodges in the surroundings to make your experience even more magical. Like the Mocona Virgin Lodge, by DON. It looks spectacular.
  • Iguaçu Falls – Of course, I cannot go to Argentina and miss the Iguassu Falls – I would like to stay there for a couple of nights and explore the entire area inside out,  walk around and take all the possible tours.

Uruguay Bucket list

I have to say the only thing I know about Uruguay is Mujica, the amazing president that had. Other than that,  there are 3 things I don’t want to miss in Uruguay.

Montevideo – The vibrant eclectic capital definitely deserves a visit, for its 18th-century churches and mansions scattered around the cobbled streets of the historic center.

Punta del Este – The posh beach in South America where the rich and famous arrive on their yacht, bringing their glamour to the shore, and enjoy the vibes in the funky bars and restaurants. The sand statues are worth a picture for sure.

Cabo Polonia – It’s a remote deserted beach that you can reach either by a 4×4 or walking. It became popular for the presence of a huge colony of sea lions. There you can take pleasant walks, have a drink in the beach shack or chill in the hammocks enjoy the peaceful views.

Brasil Bucket list

Brazil is going to be the last country I visit n Latin America, probably, you never know!

I have just started the investigation on the things I want to see in Brazil but it’s not comprehensive and I will add more and more. This post is not meant to be concluded.  It’s a work in progress, so if you wish to suggest anything I should not miss please feel free to give me a shout. I will also add new places as I discover them.

I would like to live for a couple of months in Brazil and learn some Portuguese and I was thinking about volunteering there.

For the moment here is my main Bucket list for Brazil:

  • Explore and get to the Cristo del Corcovado and take pictures like this one below.
  • Lay on one of the endless beautiful beaches
  • Visit the colorful Salvador de Bahia
  • Visit the national park of Lençóis Maranhenses  – Located on the north coast of Brazil, this protected area is a paradise for Ecotourism. Sand dunes. It extends for 70 km of coastline, while the interior is made of pinkish Sand Dunes interrupted in the rainy season by lagoons of emerald green water which is kept on the surface by the impermeable rock bed. The visitor can’t help but fall in love with the staggering views of the contrasts of colors and reflections. I can’t wait to take my camera there!

As I mentioned before this is not the end. It’s a very open and interactive article that I will update as soon as I find anything interesting I wish to add to my itinerary of South America.

Besides, if you follow me you know how much I love to change plans and let life surprise me.

Therefore stay tuned and subscribe to my newsletter (here below is the link) if you wish to follow my journey!

And of course, if you think I am missing something unmissable, please do let me know in the comments below.

For further reading

Planning a trip soon? Here are My Recommended Travel Resources.