There is no one way to tour South America.
Important factors to consider are the age, interests and financial circumstances of the traveler plus the time available. Also, is this a first visit to the continent or are you returning to fill in the gaps where you have not ventured before?
South America has been one of my favorite places to roam from top to bottom over the past 15 years. Therefore I feel that I can provide some useful input about how to do it and how to get the most out of your adventure.
There are two main ways of touring South America and these are not mutually exclusive. You can happily do both and many of my friends have done so.
Firstly, you can sign up for a package bus tour of a few days or weeks, even up to 150 days traveling through many countries. The possibilities are considerable. For example, study the tours offered by Tucan Travel and Trafalgar Tours. This is a very sensible way of seeing the major tourist hot spots for a first visit and is recommended.
Secondly, there is DIY travel where you fly into a major city, like Buenos Aires, Santiago or Lima etc. and start roaming to where your interest takes you. Many backpackers do this, for South America is a backpackers’ paradise. Don’t necessarily equate backpackers with the youthful traveler. Today there are increasing numbers of retired people of age 55 to 75 years who are exploring South America by DIY travel and they are usually more financially viable.
How to combine both means of travel to your advantage?: One summer (southern) my friend Philippa said that she must see South America and signed up for a package tour starting in Lima and going on to visit Machu Picchu and La Paz, and (optional) ending up in Buenos Aires. This is a very good way of first tasting the South American scene.
I had no desire to visit Machu Picchu again, having been there three times before but arranged to meet up with her in La Paz. We then traveled together DIY southwards for the next two months going to where our interests lay. We traveled through Bolivia and Chile and ended up at Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, not far from Cape Horn. We arrived safely back home, although I had an extra month checking out a few places of interest in South Africa.
Another time I had the desire to go on a ship cruise to Tierra del Fuego, from Punta Arenas (Chile) to Ushuaia (Argentina) and return which takes a week. Several times I had admired the cruise ship “Terra Australis” when in port at Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams. This I must do …. as economically as possible, I thought. I explored the Internet and discovered that I needed a travel companion in order to avoid the single supplement surcharge, and that the low season rates finished at the end of October. None of my Adelaide friends could oblige so, not to worry, I posted my plan on the Lonely Planet web site, “Older Travelers’ Section” and within a week my problem was solved. It must have been the perfect advertisement because I had only one reply and it worked out admirably.
Ruth, a lady living in Montreal, Canada, replied that this sounded like a good idea. Over the next few weeks we booked our cruise excursion paying for it over the Internet. We arranged to meet up in Santiago, Chile, just two weeks before the cruise started in the last week of October.
My new travel companion was an experienced world traveler having previously worked for an airline. She was a couple of years older than me which means that she was in the low 70’s, but even so she out walked me on shore excursions!
An advantage of a DIY tour of South America is its flexibility. You decide where to go and how long to stay in one place. No longer do you have to pack up every day and catch the tour bus to go onto the next stopover. This new freedom is counterbalanced by the extra work of organizing your own transport and accommodation which can be fun, but requires a certain temperament and at least a basic understanding of Spanish. It can be easier and safer having a sensible travel companion and so combine one’s knowledge and talents.
Package tours are the in-thing today and I look favorably upon them for all age groups but you don’t have to travel by bus. The up-market version of the package tour is a ship cruise of the continent. You can start from Fort Lauderdale, or the Caribbean, and almost circumnavigate South America, first exploring the Amazon River as far as Manaus, followed by stop overs in Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Punta Arenas (possibly Antarctica), Valparaiso, Lima, Guayaquil, Copacabana and return to the US at Los Angeles.
Ship cruises are attractive to the affluent and less mobile traveler who likes to have the same cabin, or “hotel room”, for the whole trip. At least 11 major cruise lines go to South America each year. At port stop overs there are organized day trips to nearby tourist attractions. Even longer visits to more inland tourist sites can be accommodated with , such as the Iguazu Falls, Torres del Paine National Park and Machu Picchu, by subsequently flying the excursionists to the ship’s next port of call.
Which ever way you choose to tour South America I assure you that you will not be disappointed. Like me, you will keep going back as often as possible. Buen viaje!