You’ve set off on your big trip, headed to the top places to visit in South America, but it wasn’t quite what you expected.
Everywhere you go on famous lists of unmissable destinations in South America has versions of the same backpackers drinking beer and asking you the same questions or making the same small-talk.
You had thought this trip would include a bit more adventure – it is South America after all! But where can you find it? Is it even a good idea to leave the well-trodden Gringo Trail in South America?
Yes and yes; but where do you start? Don’t worry, I’ll give you some tips to help you step off the trail, as well as some great out-of-the-way places to travel in South America to get you started.
So, lace up those boots and get ready for your own, unique adventure.
Six tips for getting off the Gringo Trail in South America
Getting off the Gringo trail is as much about your perspective as the places you go. Even in big tourist centres, you can try these tips for seeing places in a new and different way:
- Learn some Spanish: This is tip #1 for a reason – the most valuable investment you can make into your experience of traveling in South America. The moment you step foot off the Gringo Trail, you are going to need enough Spanish to find places to sleep, eat, even take a bus. Most importantly, learning Spanish will help you make friends and learn new things – the ultimate aims of travel.
- Take a bit more time: Having an itinerary may make you feel confident but travelling is about leaving your comfort zone. Spend longer in cities to give yourself a chance to explore; have enough time to say yes when new friends invite you on a spontaneous hiking trip; give yourself the space to really enjoy yourself as you get to delve deep into knowing the places you stay.
- Use Wikitravel.org: This is the Wikipedia of travel. All the information is supplied by travellers and is usually very up to date. There is a page on almost anywhere you could want to go that will tell you how to get there, what can be done and places to stay. It’s an invaluable resource for beyond-the-beaten-trail places that many websites don’t cover. It’s also brief and covers just the important bits, helping you quickly find the information you need.
- Don’t stay at the popular hostels: For a lot of people, this is completely the opposite of what they want. If you’re looking to meet travellers carving their own path in addition to other South American backpackers, stay in cheaper hostels. If you want to take the trail less travelled, you may need to sacrifice the nice showers but I promise you won’t regret it.
- Hitchhiking: This is an incredible way to see a country as it will give you a chance to see it from a different perspective while offering the opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise run into in your hostel or at popular tourist destinations. Of course, hitchhiking needs to be practised with caution and is not an option everywhere: learn more about it with this post about safe hitchhiking in South America.
- Use word of mouth: If you meet someone interesting, ask them for advice. Use them to find out about good places to stay or places to visit. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful. This, of course, goes both ways. Make sure to share any surprise wonders you find. Don’t forget to ask locals as well!
Places to visit in South America beyond the Gringo Trail
The best part about being adventurous is discovering your own gems. But to get you started, here are some great alternative destinations to help you decide where to go in South America.
Templo de la Luna, Cusco
The area around Cusco is packed with ancient sites that are a wonder to behold. But each one is filled with tour guides waving flags at crowds of headless tourists and require the expensive Boleto Turistico ($47 or S/. 130) to get in. If you are looking to do a little exploring on your own terms, Templo de la Luna (the Temple of the Moon) is a fantastic secret spot above Cusco and, best of all, it’s completely free!
The temple is about an hour’s walk from Plaza de Armas, located out in countryside surrounded by quinoa fields. The cave entrance has carvings of the holy Incan trilogy: the snake, the puma and a condor. Inside there is a cavern lit by a natural skylight.
Top South America travel tip: For a little more exploring, search among the boulders above the temple for caves that were used for Incan snake worship, but be sure to bring a torch. Find out how to get there with this article.
Attend a milonga, Buenos Aires
Everywhere you go in Buenos Aires, you can’t escape someone trying to sell you tickets to a tango show. Instead of watching people dance inside a room full of tourists, why not try it yourself?
A milonga is an informal social gathering where locals meet up to dance tango and comprises an open floor space organised by locals, for locals. Everyone is invited to dance and you have a chance to strut your stuff with some really great dancers.
Top South America travel tip: If you want to figure out the footwork first, try out La Catedral, where locals go to live and breathe tango. Classes kick off at 8pm and 10.30pm with live music and dancing later on. Remember, it is Argentina, so this milonga doesn’t get going until midnight.
Machu Picchu alternative: Choquequirao, Peru
When you think of Incan ruins in Peru, Machu Picchu jumps to mind. However, if imagining hundreds of tour groups circling around you makes you quiver, consider Choquequirao as an alternative “lost city of the Incas”.
Poised on the side of the Andes mountains, only a few hours west of Cusco, the only way to get to this site is through a four-day trek. The sweeping views of the Andean mountainside are breath-taking, and the small villages along the way are far friendlier than the bustling Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu.
With a sun gate, llama motifs, two-story buildings and complex irrigation systems, there is plenty to explore on your own. It is said to be larger than Machu Picchu but only about 30% has been rescued from overgrown jungle.
Currently, only a handful of visitors arrive per day but with the Peruvian government planning to build a cable car through the Apurímac Valley, this place will soon be packed.
Check out the full guide to hiking to Choquequirao, with or without a tour.
Top South America travel tip: Head to Choquequirao quickly while there is still some peace amongst the stones.
Alternative beach paradise: Bahía Solano, Colombia
Not many tourists consider visiting the spot where modern Colombia meets jungle paradise: The Pacific Coast. Here, rich biodiversity and Afro-Colombian culture meet the dark blue waters of the open ocean that lap deserted jungle shores.
While a lot of this coast is very under-developed, Bahía Solano is a lush gem, packed with beauty and adventure. The reason you have the stretches of dark sand beaches to yourself? Bahía Solano is only accessible by boat (from Buenaventura near Cali) or by air (from Medellin).
You can watch whales (from Jul-Oct) and turtles (from Aug-Dec). There is snorkelling, canoeing and many other adventure activities to be found. The nearby National Park Utría is accessible by boat but you’ll need a guide for the hiking trails. Check that your guide will come into the park with you, and not just take the boat around the edge.
Top South America travel tip: Make sure you take cash with you as Bahía Solano only has one ATM and it’s often out of service.
Death Road alternative: Quime, Bolivia
Bolivia is moving up on the list of places to go in South America. To go beyond-the-beaten-trail, try Quime, located between Cochabamba and La Paz. Surrounded by cloud forest and beautiful mountain views, this little town is perfect for hikers or those looking to relax.
The Death Road in Bolivia has become a world-famous attraction because of the jaw-dropping views and adrenaline rush of hurtling down a crazy road. If you’re looking for one with a bit more adventure, real danger and few other tourists, try the old mule trail (or Coca Trail), which has been fixed up for international biking competitions. The trail goes for 30 kilometres, starting at a staggering 5400m at Cumbre de Tres Cruces, with some cliffs dropping all the way to Quime, over 2000m below. The sheer roadside cliffs may be intimidating but the views will make it worth it.
Read on for more tips for South America travel.
Other than biking, activities abound including day hikes in the area. A great option is to Chambillaya, a primitive tungsten mine. The mine is about an hour from the town and if you bring some coca leaves with you, you’ll easily befriend some minors and be offered a tour of the mine. This isn’t a facilitated tour but a cheap and authentic alternative to the famous Potosi silver mines. Another great hike is to Naranjani Waterfall, an astounding place of waterfalls tumbling from a glacial lake into the forest below.
Top South America travel tip: Pick your biking company carefully as accidents happen unfortunately regularly on Death Road and around. Make sure that your bike has decent suspension and good, working brakes – you’re definitely going to need them!
Last words about getting off the Gringo Trail
All in all, getting off the gringo trail is a state of mind. Setting out into the less-known in South America is an exercise in trusting yourself and others. You never know what you will learn or who you will meet, so get excited about it! It is enormously rewarding to have faith that difficulties during travel are lessons and experiences, that they will ultimately lead you to new friends and adventures.
South America is so much more than a list of “10 Must-See Destinations”. It’s a continent rich in life, laughter and adventure. Tighten up the straps on your backpack and go see what you can find.