Escape the Gringo Crowds on South America's Secret Backpacker Trail

Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
Photo by microgen/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Chris Moss, The Telegraph, October 24, 2018

The well-trodden South American backpacker route has a great heritage, but it’s as busy as a bus to Cuzco. Chris Moss offers gringos young and old a new way into the great overlanding continent.

Roads have DNA. It’s a compelling thing. That’s why the South American backpacker route is not some whimsical result of Lonely Planet reading and hippy culture. The most popular stretch of the route, from Quito down to Cuzco and on to La Paz and the Atacama desert follows the 18th century Spanish Camino Real – the Royal Highway, a busy mule-track used to shift silver and other loot – which in turn followed the Qhapaq Ñan, the Inca highway system, given Unesco World Heritage status in 2014.

No doubt, there’s a spiritual-cum-historical force at work. The problem is, when you follow that route, dubbed variously the “backpacker trail” or the “gringo trail”, you find yourself meeting, mainly, backpackers and gringos. This is especially true if you’re young and use hostels, but it’s also the case for older travellers, who are liable to find themselves in Machu Picchu, in the Salar de Uyuni and in Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes doing a kind of leisurely “commute”. Where is the discovery? Where is the lonely communing with the new and alien? Where is the encounter with native souls?

That’s why, having zipped up and down the above trail more times than I ought to, I’ve come up with a new low-budget overland trail for South America. It combines all the essentials: long bus journeys, pointless stopovers, amazing landscapes, hostels – and also has boats, trains, a plane journey, and lots of options for trekking.

Admittedly, it’s aimed at the time rich – I’d allow three weeks minimum to do the lot, and more like five if possible. But choose any section and I promise you’ll experience a variety of places, meet a lot of people, and not bump into anyone quite like you for several days at a time.

South American alternative backpacking trail 

Cayenne

Direct flights with Air France connect Paris Orly with French Guiana, an “overseas department” and hangover from empire. Bit of a backwater? I’m not so sure. It launches rockets and is part of the EU. It’s one of the most “original” capitals in South America – how many of your friends have been? – and while it’s pushing it to say it’s a petit Paree in the tropics, it does have nice gardens, croissants and decent steak bavette. The Musée Departmental Alexandre-Franconie is excellent and Devil’s Island has to be the best “dark tourism” excursion this side of the Atlantic. Buses run to...

Paramaribo

Another point-scoring, envy making place to have been. Once part of the Dutch empire – which swapped New York for Suriname in 1667 – it’s the best preserved of the cities in the three Guianas. Take a look round the Unesco-listed wooden houses of the centre and then hang out on the river with a cold beer. A day trip to Brownsmountain is a chance to stretch your legs, see some jungle-framed waterfalls and see monkeys and toucans.

Georgetown

A week in and you’re three countries up. The capital of the former British colony is the most dilapidated– surprise, surprise – but Stabroek market on the Demerara River is atmospheric and cricket fans can pay tribute at the old Bourda ground. Buses run south into the hinterland, where you can arrange to visit the Kaieteur Falls - the world’s tallest single drop fall – and spend a night or three in a jungle lodge. Cross the border to enter Brazil and make for...

Boa Vista

Described by Eveleyn Waugh as a “squalid camp of ramshackle cut-throats," Boa Vista is now a majorish northern city. It’s been in the news lately because of an influx of Venezuelan refugees and, frankly, it’s more of a transport hub than a major destination. Grab some tasty fodder at the open-air food court and make tracks. We could have continued via Angel Falls in Venezuela now – we still can if you want to ignore FCO advice – but if you want to play safe, head south, back on the road again, by bus (Eucatur is the local operator) to...

Manaus

After your 11-12 hour journey, welcome to the capital of Brazil’s Amazonia. Famous for its opera house, built 1882-1896, it’s a proper city, with smart hotels, plenty of hostels, great markets and restaurants and lots of adventurous options – from a float plane up the Rio Negro to 2-3 day cruises to see caiman, parrots, river dolphins and other species. From here, hop on a passenger ship to...

Leticia

For an all too brief glance at a classic Colombian river port, and then on by boat to...

Iquitos

The most important port in northern Peru, and great as a base to explore the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, an immense park comprising jungle, three river basins and wetlands and home to monkeys, rare river turtles, more dolphins, any number of bird species. As Iquitos is short on roads, we fly to...

Lima

To feed up on ceviche and other delights, down a few piscos and then set off on two trips into the Peruvian interior: one, to hike Huayhuash, a high-altitude Andean wonderland reachable by bus and boot from Lima; and then a big loop around to the Gocta falls and the Kuelap National Park, to see a cloud-topped ruin as impressive as Machu Picchu but not assailed by vast armies of hikers. Exiting the region via Cajamarca, we hop and skip down via Lima, Cuzco and Puno – yes, I know, we’ve joined the old trail, but you can’t miss...

Lake Titicaca

Because it’s just beautiful and dreamy, and the Andean altiplano has to be crossed at some stage if we want to get into...

Bolivia

Where I would spend a night or two in La Pazriding those fabulous cable-cars, taking in El Alto’s funky architecture, Zona Sur’s posh cafes and eateries, and the Hierro Brothers’ three bars and cafes in the downtown area, plus a lunch at Bolivian Popular on called Murillo – warning, you might meet a gringo here – and a dinner at vegan Ali Pacha, before catching a bus to Sucre, a pretty colonial town full of character, and a superb textile museum, before catching another bus to Tarija, to sample the fast-improving local wines. We leave Bolivia via Yacuiba and enter...

Argentina

Where, in a very original side-move, we don’t hurtle towards Buenos Aires, but head east to cross rarely visited Formosa province and, passing briefly through Asunción, capital of...

Paraguay

Where no one ever goes, and we are soon back in Argentina and at the...

Which is South America's least visited country? 

Iguazú Falls

Where you’ll meet non-backpacker tourists, for sure, but their iPad clicks and shutters will be drowned out by the most impressive waterfalls on Earth. You will get to warm up after all the high-plains chills here, and as you head south, take in San Ignacio Miní, the most striking of all the Jesuit mission estates in this region. We keep up the watery theme as we drop in at...

Iberá

To see wetlands as impressive as those in Brazil’s Pantanal, but far less hectic. Here you’ll see huge caiman, capybara, maybe a maned wolf, herons and storks galore, wattled jacana, monkeys. Saddle up to swim in the “esteros” – the ever-shifting wetland channels. Go via Entre Rios, a rich farming province to make a stop in...

Buenos Aires

To fuel up on city pleasures and good showers and a spot of tango, before catching a train – at last – to Bahia Blanca on the Atlantic coast. This is the doorway to...

Patagonia

We explore southwards, sticking to the coast, stopping off at the Valdés peninsula to see whales, seals, sea lions, maybe a penguin. We also stop off at Puerto San Julian, where Magellan and Drake made landfalls, as we continue all the way down to Monte Dinero estancia, at the “end of the world” or, at least, the bottom-right tip of the South American mainland. Here, with a lighthouse for company, we finally achieve splendid isolation. Not an Instagrammer in site, no one making flat whites, and no one with a guide book splayed or a notepad full of tiny sums... You’re still a gringo, but you’re your own man/woman.

 

This article was written by Chris Moss from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected]

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