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There are hundreds of stories of backpackers crisscrossing the countries of Europe and Southeast Asia. The appeals of these places are obvious: Europe has profound cultural significance to Western backpackers, and Southeast Asia offers a completely foreign experience within any budget.

However, there exists another continent, much closer to prospective American backpackers, that offers the culture and exoticism of these more common travel destinations but has largely been ignored to the detriment of travelers everywhere: South America.

Our neighbor to the south has long been advertised in the media as dangerous or undeveloped, but in just the past decade, governments all over South America have made strides to craft their countries into safe and desirable destinations. The benefits of backpacking South America are almost innumerable — so consider the following while you plan your next (or first) backpacking adventure.

Proximity

American backpackers looking to travel around the eastern hemisphere are looking at hours if not days of commuting — just to get started. The shortest flight to Europe from the U.S. is around six hours, from New York to the U.K., and trips to the Far East will take at least 10 hours of flight time, from Seattle to Tokyo, but most travelers aren’t located on the coasts and must factor in additional hours to traverse America alone. Plus, short, direct flights are obviously in the highest demand, which makes them the most expensive plane tickets available; most backpackers aren’t willing to spare the expense a straight shot into travels.

Conversely, travels in Latin America can start after a quick trip south of the border. Though Mexico is technically a country in North America, its culture is closely connected with its southern Latin neighbors. You can journey all the way through Mexico and Central America for an even more thrilling and immediate vacation.

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Cost

Depending on how lavishly you live, you can expect to spend about $20 to $40 per day in most South American countries. This budget includes lodging, meals, and daily activities. As a comparison, about $30 per day in Europe is an absolute shoestring budget, requiring backpackers to eat meagerly and take ice-cold showers.

However, backpackers be warned: Just as you can find low-cost areas in expensive places like Europe — consider the cheapness of Hungary compared to the rest of the continent — pricey destinations are interspersed throughout inexpensive South America; to avoid paying top dollar, steer clear of urban Brazil, the touristy Galapagos Islands, and the lavish resort beaches in Uruguay.

Language

Europe hosts dozens of different languages, and Southeast Asia boasts hundreds. Meanwhile, the bulk of people in South American countries speak one of two: Spanish and Portuguese. Though there are regional dialects that may cause initial confusion, most backpackers are comfortable getting around with just a few language classes under their belts. Plus, English is widely spoken in big cities and tourist spots.

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Diversity

It is difficult to put into words how fantastically diverse South America is, in its landscape and its culture. Containing rich rainforests, cloud forests, tropical islands, sub-Antarctic coasts, wetlands, arid deserts, mountain ranges, and more, the continent can offer you any climate and terrain you want with an ecosystem to match. You can find some of the world’s greatest scenery in these South American destinations:

  • Patagonia. Lonely and wild, the wide open spaces in Argentina and Chile are beautiful in a magical and fantastic way. It is no wonder Flights.com claims the region will change your life.
  • Salar de Uyuni. Bolivia claims the world’s largest salt flat, which covers more than 4,000 square miles. The area is desolate and stunning and makes for some creatively gorgeous photography.
  • Angel Falls. This waterfall in Venezuela’s most stunning national park is the tallest in the world at 3,211 feet. Surrounded by lush rainforest, the natural wonder is truly inspiring.

Additionally, the cultures of South America are unlike anywhere else in the world. The fusion of invading Spanish, French, and African philosophies with indigenous beliefs and customs has inspired a bevy of art, music, and cuisine that vary from region to region. No matter which countries you backpack through, you’ll remember each one for its distinct culture and landscape.

Safety

In many ways, South American cities simply suffer from historical bad press when it comes to the safety of travelers; though Medellin, Colombia was infamous more than a decade ago, today it presents crime rates lower than many American cities. Any place can be dangerous under the right circumstances; most people know not to walk alone down a dark alley in a bad part of town. The same can be said for South America: Generally, it is a safe place to travel, as long as you don’t put yourself in harm’s way.