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This 3-month South America travel route includes Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia.
1. Considerations For Planning An Itinerary In South America
When planning a 3-month itinerary to South America, it is important to consider:
- How long do you have?
- Do you speak any Spanish? What about Portuguese?
- Do you know which vaccinations you need?
- What is your budget?
- What is the weather like?
- How long does it take to travel between destinations?
- Are you travelling by bus?
- Are you taking any flights? If so do you have exit tickets booked?
- Where is your heart is set on exploring?
Whatever type of trip you are looking for, South America will deliver. Remember to leave some room in your itinerary for spontaneity and flexibility.
Read More: Check out my tips on planning your travels.
Read More: Are you a solo female traveller? Read my article on travel in Solo South America Is It Safe?
2. South America Travel Route: Peru
Why I Started in Peru: The starting point of this 3 months in South America itinerary was a weather-based decision. It was November and already the start of the rainy season. If I had started in Colombia and worked my way south, I would have been in southern Peru in the height of the wet season. Thus, Peru became the starting point.
The altitude is lower in Ollantaytambo, Peru than Cusco, so it is a good idea to head there first and acclimatize to the altitude and avoid altitude sickness.
Don’t make this mistake: On the way to Ollantaytambo, I stopped at several sights in the Sacred Valley Chinchero, Moray and the Maras Salt mines. The altitude at these sites is even higher than Cusco. By the time I arrived in Ollantaytambo I was suffering from altitude sickness.
Ollantaytambo is the perfect introduction to solo travel in South America. It is a small, easy to navigate town, where irrigation canals babble with running water and two massive Inca archaeological sites tower over the town.
I used Ollantaytambo as a base to recover from altitude sickness, gain my confidence in South American solo travel and, of course, take the train to Agua Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu.
Read More: Ollantaytambo Peru | A Traveller’s Guide
Machu Picchu, Peru
A South America travel route through Peru just has to include Machu Picchu and it is easy to get there from Ollantaytambo. Take PeruRail direct to Agua Calientes.
To stand in awe amidst the soaring Andes, shrouded in misty clouds and marvel at the humans who created this Inca citadel is a highlight of any South America itinerary.
Despite the crowds, even in low season, and the rules (you can’t circle back or re-enter to take photos or have another look) soaking up the ruins of Machu Picchu and hanging with the llamas is a memorable experience.
The lively city of Cusco, the Inca empire’s ancient capital, brims with steep cobbled streets, historic architecture and antique churches. Today the tourism trappings are overwhelming but somehow the delights of this centuries-old city shine through and it is a mandatory stop any backpacking to South America trip.
Built in the shape of a puma, this city will have you constantly out of breath between the hilly streets and the high altitude. It’s the perfect place to be an urban explorer but be prepared to be inundated with ladies offering massages (minimum 25 times a day), to pay for a photo with llamas and to roll your eyes at the Mcdonalds in the main square, Plaza de Armas. Peel back the layers and discover the essence of ancient Cusco.
The Sacred Valley, Peru
The Sacred Valley with the Rio Urubamba twisting and turning and the soaring Andes rising on either side is breathtaking. Full of sights worth visiting, purchase the “boleto touristico” (the tourist ticket) which gives a reduced entry fee to multiple sights. Pisac and Ollantaytambo sit in the Sacred Valley along with other Inca sites and villages. Don’t miss Chinchero, Moray and the Maras Salt mines.
I travelled independently to Pisac from Cusco on the local buses and by collectivo. Read about the Pisac ruins and the bustling Pisac market.
Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicuna, is a relatively new tourist destination and a must on a 3-months in South America itinerary. If you like a little challenge and adventure, plan a trip to Rainbow Mountain! It’s a full-day trip from Cusco and the journey through the Andes is jaw-droppingly stunning. My nose was pressed to the window as we passed through minuscule Andean towns and watched llamas grazing on the hillsides. The blizzard on the hike down from the summit was unexpected!
Lake Titicaca: the Islands of Uros, Amantani & Taquile
Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, is definitely worth adding to any South America itinerary. Head to Puno, and from there book either a day trip or an overnight homestay on one of the islands.
If you are looking to stay with a family, read this post on what to expect in a homestay on Amantani Island.
Uros, the closest island to Puno is worth a visit if you only have a short amount of time. Taquile is quite a long boat ride away but much less visited. Read about travelling to both of these islands: Islas Uros and Taquile: Step Back in Time.
3. South America Travel Route: Border Crossing Peru to Bolivia
Getting from one destination to the next requires careful consideration on a South America travel route. I really wanted to cross the border solo by taking public buses but in the end, decided on Bolivia Hop. The organized bus service called Bolivia Hop picks up passengers in Puno, facilitates the border crossing from Peru into Bolivia and drops everyone off in La Paz.
4.South America Travel Route: Bolivia
Isla del Sol, Bolivia
After visiting Lake Titicaca from the Peru side, Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca was the first stop in Bolivia with Bolivia Hop. There was enough time in little hippie town to scrounge up a bite to eat and take a boat to Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the sun. Inca ruins, tiny villages, terraced field and witnessing rural life are all highlights as you hike from one side of the island to the other.
I flew from La Paz to Sucre, Bolivia to start Spanish school.
All through my travels in Central and South America, I have enrolled in Spanish language schools and lived with families to enhance the immersion experience.
Sucre was no different. Living in a family compound was a great chance to improve my Spanish, gain a different perspective on life in Bolivia and stay in one place for ten days on this South America itinerary.
After researching how to book a tour across the Uyuni Salt Flats, I booked my tour in Sucre. There are plenty of tour operators in Uyuni and it is possible to book a tour with a tour operator in Uyuni once you arrive.
The local bus from Sucre to Uyuni is an 8-hour bus ride through very unfamiliar lunar type landscapes. There was absolutely nowhere to go to the bathroom, except a rock at the side of the road which was deemed a bathroom stop. I declined.
I was not overly impressed with Uyuni. I would not recommend Uyuni except as a starting point for the Salt Flats tour.
The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
If you have time, this is a must on a South America itinerary. The largest salt flats in the world, the Uyuni Salt Flats, was a non-negotiable for me on this South America travel route. The unique landscape of infinite whiteness, the lack of perspective and standing on an ancient, ocean floor are unforgettable experiences.
It is possible to do a day tour from Uyuni. Choosing a 3 day-2 night tour to cross the Salt Flats and the uninhabited desert and mountainous landscapes that cover the southwest corner of Bolivia is quite the adventure. Geysers, flamingoes, overnight in a salt hotel. Yes, these highlights are all part of the tour. Could backpacking in South America get any better?
5. South America Travel Route: Border Crossing Bolivia to Chile
On this part of the South America itinerary, one has to decide to cross into Chile or return to Uyuni.
On the 3-day 2-night Uyuni Salt Flat Tour, there is an option to be dropped off at the Chilean border. There is a shuttle from Chile that picks you up in Bolivia, facilitates the border crossing into Chile and drives you to San Pedro de Atacama.
Some passengers decided en route that they were not up for the long drive back to Uyuni. The landscapes are outstanding but it is a long, rough ride. At the last minute, they were able to pay and join the group crossing the border.
6.South America Travel Route: Chile
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro de Atacama is a hub for exploring the Atacama Desert. The town is full of foreign tourists and Chileans exploring their own country. Despite the overabundance of tour operators, San Pedro is a chill and hip little town. Make sure it is on your 3-month itinerary in South America.
From San Pedro, there are incredible landscapes to explore, including one of the clearest night skies in the world. Read about the wondrous things to discover.
El Tatio Geysers, Chile
The El Tatio Geysers, the highest geyser field in the world, are a half-day trip from San Pedro de Atacama and well worth the early leaving time.
The price to travel by plane or by bus from San Pedro to Santiago were not significantly different. So I and opted for a flight to Santiago instead of a long bus ride.
Most people pass through Santiago at one point or another on their trip to Chile. Make sure you stay awhile and explore Chile’s capital city.
Read 15 Impressive Things to do in Santiago, Chile. Of course, there are more than 15 things to do in this vibrant city but these 15 will get you started.
Valparaiso is full of stunning street art, historical monuments and funiculars that ease the climb up the steep streets. Valpo, as the locals call it, is a must-see destination. I would rank it as one of the best places to go in South America!
7. South America Travel Route: Border Crossing: Chile to Colombia
Chilling at the airport waiting for my flight, I was completely unprepared when asked by the airline for my proof of onward travel.
Read this post, Proof of Onward Travel: Don’t Make This Mistake, to avoid hassles and use a valid travel hack.
8.South America Travel Route: Colombia
Medellin is known as a hub for digital nomads. It is also known as the former most dangerous city in the world. Comuna 13 was the most dangerous neighbourhood in the city.
Today the community is rebuilding and carving a new path. Find out more by reading this post: Comuna 13: Why it Should Be on Your Medellin Itinerary
Guatapé is the perfect day trip from Medellin. This town, full of colourfully painted houses and a lively main square, sits on the shore of a huge artificial lake.
Climb the nearby Piedra del Peñol which is just outside of Guatapé. The bus from Medellin will drop you at “La Piedra.” From Piedra del Peñol, there are plenty of tuktuks to take you to Guatapé.
If you are taking the 2-hour public bus to Guatapé, be sure to purchase your return bus ticket when you arrive.
If you have time in Colombia, add Salento to your South America travel route. Salento is the perfect place to visit a coffee farm and take a Willy’s jeep out to the Cocora Valley to hike amidst Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm.
Find out all the details right here: Salento Colombia: My Favourite Town in Colombia.
It is a journey to get to Jardin way up in the Andes Mountains and an unforgettable destination. If you like authentic villages, this one is for you.
Here are the details: The 5 Reasons You Just Have to Visit Jardin
Santa Marta & Minca, Colombia
From Santa Marta take the bus to Minca. It’s 600 m up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s cool (both rustically hip with cooler temperatures), has organic coffee farms, gorgeous birds and stunning views.
Most people travel through Santa Marta as it is the gateway to Tayrona National Park. It’s not really posted anywhere that Tayrona National Park is closed in February. Oops.
Another must-see on your South America itinerary is Cartagena. Cartagena is Colombia’s gem sitting on the Caribbean Sea. The UNESCO city is the perfect place to get lost amidst colourful façades on twisting cobblestone streets. Wandering the streets of Getsemani, camera in hand, was one of my favourite things to do in Cartagena.
Read this full guide on Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia: The Take it Slow Guide
This South America travel route checked all the boxes. You’re going to fall in love with South America.
More Travel Info
If you’re travelling as a solo female traveller read my post: Solo Travel in South America | Is it Safe?
Need packing inspiration? I travelled for 3 months with changing temperatures (yes, Rainbow Mountain was cold at the top) and took a carry-on sized suitcase for all my belongings. Read how here: Wondering How to Pack Light? Tips from a Minimalist Traveller