How to travel around South America: Your best transport options

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When organising a multi-destination trip, it can be easy just to get excited about the flights in and out of the region, and not think about the nitty gritty journeys until later on. This post aims to help you understand all the different options for how to travel around South America, so that you can start to plan how you might get between cities once you’re on the continent.

Down here, you won’t be seeing the famous Central America chicken buses, which are United States yellow schoolbuses that have been adopted, widened and often beautifully repainted to use as public transport.

Instead, there are all sorts of ways to get across the continent when you’re backpacking in South America. Let’s take a look at the best transport options for you…

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How to travel around South America

By flying

International flights aren’t a too economical way to travel around South America, but within some countries you can find really cost-effective air travel (Colombia probably the cheapest, Brazil or Argentina the most expensive). Avianca is a pretty good place to start for good price-to-quality ratio.

Just remember that while it seems like you’re saving time, you still have to get to the airport, check in and then find your way out at the other side.

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By bus

The cheapest transport option to travel large portions of South America is usually a bus, and it’s a really great way to see the more rural parts of the country between big cities rather than just popping up at a new airport. As a cultural experience bonus, mid-journey meal stops at roadside shack kitchens are always interesting!

Around South America, the best place to book buses is BusBud; you’ll have the full timetable and all the info you need to know the what, where and when of your journey.

While there are alway day buses, to traverse large sections of the region I strongly recommend night buses.  saving money on having to buy accommodation. Don’t miss my guide to keeping safe and comfortable on night buses before you book & travel on one.

By colectivo

These are usually minivans that go to more local places (but they can also be bigger buses, cars or just trucks), but rather than departing according to a timetable, they only leave once full. This can of course make it difficult to plan your journey (if in doubt, get there early!), but it also has its advantages, as you never have to wait on a packed bus for 30 minutes until the timetabled departure. Colectivos are often plentiful, and tend to be very well-supplied to meet demand.

Taking an extra seat up with your bag obviously takes away revenue from the driver, so expect to pay for the bag as if it were a passenger, and if you’ve been waiting for ages and its obvious there are no other people coming, there is always the option to buy the remaining seats to get things going.

Colectivos are cheap, but always check the price before you get on. It’s normal to not have to pay the assistant until the journey has begun, but some more official colectivo companies will have you buy a ticket from a kiosk beforehand.

backpacking transport options: how to travel around South America: what is a colectivo bus

By hiring a car

Can be cost-effective, but not great for border-crossing. Lots of larger companies will offer you the opportunity to pick a hire car up from city X and drop it off in city Y. Make sure you check all the small print about extra charges, additional insurance and minimum driver ages.

From experience, by far the best place to find car hire bargains in South America is

With a tour group

These are becoming more and more popular as South America becomes a more mainstream destination for all types of travellers.

Away from the stereotypical view of hundreds of socks-and-sandaled people with huge hats and selfie sticks piling off a coach to descend on a place for 20 minutes with little care for what they’re really seeing, mutliple companies are now offering an answer for how to travel around South America for a younger, more experience-led cohort.

backpacking transport options: how to travel around South America: car hire

Popular mid- and long-term tour group options for those backpacking in South America are Peru Hop (a hop-on-hop-off as you please bus that’s also available in Ecuador and Bolivia!) and G Adventures, both of which will give you the opportunity to meet and really get to know like-minded travellers and you toot around South America together, stopping at the sights as you go.

You can also find shorter small-group tours on trusted sites such as Viator and Get Your Guide. These sites are US- and Germany-based respectively, but the tours listed are usually locally-led; they’re like comparison sites.

By taxi

Yellow taxis (or the equivalent colour) are usually fine to use. Always ask for them to turn the meter on, get a rough estimate of price before you get in, and in Argentina make sure you’re actually getting into an official taxi as there are some scammers out there with extortionate rates.

Uber, Cabify and Beat are used in many countries, though there are some of the usual legal disputes over these peer-driven services. In these countries, (such as Colombia), it’s quite common when using a peer-to-peer taxi app that the driver will decide they either don’t like the risk of police catching them using an app (at airports, etc.), or that they don’t want to go that far, so cancellations happen a lot. You need to factor in extra time to use a taxi app in South America.

By tuktuk

You won’t see these a huge amount of tuktuks when backpacking in South America, but they pop up here and there. Make sure you always negotiate the price before getting into the tuktuk, and before exploring the destination, try to check with your hotel or a tour guide what kind of rate you should be expected if that’s possible.

backpacking transport options: how to travel around South America: tuk tuk

By mototaxi

These are motorbikes than allow for one (or more!) passenger on the back. You don’t always get a helmet, and it’s a lot riskier than a typical car taxi in South America, so this isn’t really recommended.

Definitely not to be done with a big rucksack on your back; I tried doing it with a backpack once in Brazil when there were no other options after reaching a new city in the dark of night. Despite having passed my motorbike test back in the UK, I really thought I was going to die; fortunately only lost a flip-flop.

Mototaxi Maragogi taxi ride

By boat

Since most of the countries in South America have a coastline, you can expect at some point to find yourself floating on water.

Unless you’re paying out of your arse for the sailboats of the Galapagos or a yacht in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the quality of boats for transport rather than tourism in South America is generally quite low.

Some, such as the boat that goes up Colombia’s Chocó coast or the one from Manaus to Leticia, require you to sleep in hammocks or on the boat deck (and some don’t even supply the hammock!).

backpacking transport options: how to travel around South America: boat

Note: If you’re prone to travel sickness, I recommend buying anti-sickness tablets at a pharmacy or bringing them from your home country to use during any mountain-winding bus rides or smaller boats. I’m not usually a sufferer of this, but have felt the lurches a few times during my travel around South America.

By hitch-hiking

I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite here… Having hitch-hiked safely around some parts of South America, I’m still not going to recommend it to anyone else. It was a bit stupid and only felt ok because I was backpacking alongside a man who was fluent in Spanish.

Yes, you’ll probably survive hitch-hiking just fine, but really, why risk it when you can get around South America for so cheaply on paid forms of transport?

There you have it! Hopefully post this has clued you up on the options for how to travel around South America and explained some of the watch-outs and nuances compared to elsewhere in the world. If you have any worries about safety whilst you’re taking any of these types of transport, check out my Big Book of Safety in South America.


Now that you’ve reached the end of this guide on how to travel around South America, don’t miss these posts:

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how to travel around south america backpacking transport options


Last Updated on 6 June 2023 by Cuppa to Copa Travels

1 thought on “How to travel around South America: Your best transport options”

  1. From my experience in South America, it’s best to fly if you’re pushed for time. However, if you don’t want to spend too much money and have a bit more time then taking the bus is the better option.

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