Travel Information for the Andes
This section contains some general information about flights, hotels, etc., for planning a trekking or climbing trip to the Andes.
For more specific information on each country in South America please see our Andes Trip Guide index page. For information on the best times to travel to each area see our Where and When page. For more specific information on planning a trekking or climbing trip see our Andes Trek Planner. For Rock Climbing information see that index page.
At present visas are not needed by UK, Canadian, Australian, NZ and US citizens for short stays (up to 60 days) in any of the Andean nations or Brazil. Several countries now charge citizens of NZ, the US etc., a "reciprocity fee" that can be as much as $100, payable on entry at the airport passport control.
Citizens of other countries may need visas, although most from the EU and EEA don't. The requirements may change so it is best to check with your tour operator or the relevant embassy a few months before your holiday.
Flights to South America from the UK start at about £600 for a return to Bogota, Rio de Janeiro or Lima. Buenos Aires and Santiago start from about £700-£900, La Paz in Bolivia from about £1000 and cities in Patagonia from £1200. In high season (Christmas, July and August) expect to pay up to £200-£300 more than these prices. it is generally better to book early, up to six months in advance to get the best choice of dates and fares. By October it will be very hard to get a flight at Christmas for a reasonable price.
From Britain there are three main options for getting to South America:-
1. Fly with a European airline via a European capital e.g. Air France via Paris, KLM via Amsterdam, Iberia via Madrid, or British Airways from London. This is often the best option in terms of service and economy and you can usually get connections from Scotland, Manchester, etc. through Paris or Amsterdam at no extra cost.
2. Fly with either Delta or American Airlines via the USA. This is usually more expensive than the other options, and the hassles of transferring between international flights in the USA make it a less good option (you'll need a US ESTA visa!), but you will often get a good, two piece, 46kg luggage allowance.
3. Fly with a South American airline - Avianca and LATAM are the only two who operate reasonably good quality and reliable services.
BUDGET AND MONEY
South America is not particularly cheap. You should expect to pay prices only a bit less than those at home for most services, particularly in the more expensive countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Chile is currently the most expensive country. Patagonia is particularly expensive, indeed more expensive than Europe. Public transport everywhere is usually a bargain. If you need to save money you can use budget hotels and eat from street stalls, but it can be counter-productive in the long term if you end up getting ill or have equipment stolen.
An average trip staying in clean and secure hotels, eating in reasonable restaurants and using some hired transport and mule services will work out at about $60-$80 per person per day, noticeably more for trips to Patagonia where the cost of living is higher, slightly less in Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. Budgeting carefully and always using public transport you could easily half this figure and still have a great time.
Take your money in a mixture of an ATM card, some US$ cash and credit cards. Cash dollars can be used directly in some countries. They are preferred by most tour agencies and they can almost always be used somewhere if you're stuck for the local currency. Credit cards are accepted widely by larger businesses in all cities and are widely used in most South American countries now. However there are two exceptions :- they can be hard to use in much of rural Argentina and in Venezuela. Cash machines (ATM's) can also be unreliable in these two countries.
In two countries, Venezuela and Argentina, it is worth having a lot of US$ cash to be able to change at the much more favourable unofficial exchange rates.
HEALTH AND HYGIENE
Most of South America is perfectly clean and hygienic. However it is still a good idea to avoid tap water, ice, unwashed fruit and all seafood in more remote areas.
Vaccinations for tetanus, typhoid, polio and hepatitis are needed for all countries. A rabies vaccine might be an idea if you will be away from medical help for several days. Malaria and yellow fever precautions are necessary if you plan to visit areas of tropical forest below about 2,500m. i.e. many parts of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador and the Amazon lowlands of Peru and Bolivia.
Biting insects are very common in the tropical lowlands but very rare in the mountains above 2500m. Shepherds dogs can be a nuisance up in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia - most dogs will back off if you throw a stone or even just pretend to throw a stone!
A basic medical kit should be carried with plasters, blister plasters, needle and thread, spare lip salve, scissors, strong safety pins and some pills for diarrhoea, headaches, coughs, purifying water and perhaps altitude sickness. On more remote trips consider antibiotics (but don't use them for diarrhoea!), antihistamine, strong painkillers, eye drops and an anti-inflammatory. Carry some bits and pieces for general repairs to non-body parts, e.g. string, wire, strong tape and super glue.
ACCLIMATISATION AND ALTITUDE
Anyone travelling to the Andes must make themselves aware of the symptoms and treatment of altitude sickness, because it can be fatal. More people die from altitude illnesses on relatively low level treks than on Everest, so read and absorb a good textbook such as 'Medical Handbook for Mountaineers' by Steele, or better still read one specifically on Altitude Illness such as 'High Altitude Medicine Handbook' by Pollard and Murdoch. Generally speaking 4-5 days should be spent over 3000m before trekking over a 5000m pass, and 4-5 days above 4000m before trying a 6000m peak. Many towns and cities in the Andes are around 3000m so while your body gets used to the altitude you can enjoy the cultural and archaeological sights that are numerous in the Andean nations or just relax and enjoy a few beers.
Experience suggests that the best method to avoid problems at altitude is to be fit before arrival and then do considerably less at altitude than you would do near sea level at home.
There's more information on our Altitude and Acclimatisation page
Spanish is the main language spoken in most areas of the Andes. In addition the native languages, Quechua and Aymarį, are spoken by many people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Spanish is a fairly easy language to learn for English speakers, and anyone travelling to South America independently should learn the basics. The more Spanish you speak the easier your holiday in South America will be.
Only in Cuzco and a few other tourist centres is much English spoken. Out in the mountains there is no chance of finding anyone who speaks English. If your Spanish is poor you are more likely to be taken advantage of by muleteers, 4x4 drivers etc. You need to be able to negotiate and make yourself understood to get good prices and good service from the locals.
If you don't speak much Spanish it is definitely better to make any arrangements with a big agency in a town or even book a package holiday from the UK.
Hotel accommodation varies enormously in price and you don't always get what you pay for, particularly when you start paying more. In most areas you'll get a comfortable bed, with private bathroom for about $50-$60 for two sharing. Accommodation down to about $15 per person can still be very reasonable, but really budget accommodation tends to be just that - shabby, insecure and with poor service. Camping is not a practical option in any South American cities.
CAMPING AND HUTS
Out in the mountains and on treks you'll mostly be camping. It is usually very easy to find a nice pitch with some running water nearby. If camping near a highland village you should ask someone for permission and be prepared to pay a small fee. There are mountain huts in only a few areas of South America such as on the volcanoes of Ecuador and in the Catedral range near Bariloche in Argentina.
Restaurants in South America are dependable but not exciting. You can buy chicken and chips in every town in South America and sometimes not a lot else. Pizzas, pasties and hot sandwiches make great lunch snacks. Soups, known as cazuelas, are very common and always good value. Steaks in Argentina and Chile are usually good and can be superb. Chinese food is also common in many places if you want a few more vegtables with your meal or a change from steak and chips. If you like seafood (I don't!) then coastal areas of Peru and Chile are said to be great, Ceviche is the national dish in both countries. Guinea pig is a local speciality in rural Peru, but it is not to everyone's taste!
TRAVEL AND TRANSPORT IN SOUTH AMERICA
Domestic air travel is reasonably cheap and may be the best way to get around within South America if you are short of time or travelling a long way. Buses between cities will always be cheaper but distances are huge everywhere and in Peru Colombia and Bolivia long bus journeys can be slow and very tiring. In Chile, Argentina and Brazil the roads are much better. Overnight sleeper buses (Salon Cama) are very comfortable and day buses are at least fast and efficient. Train services are much slower and only worth doing if you are an incurable railway romantic.
Most treks and areas featured on this website can be reached easily using public transport. In rural areas this can be forty year-old buses, lorries, minibuses or shared taxis. Particularly good areas to go to if you'll only be using public transport are the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash in Peru, parts of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia and the Lakes District of Chile. For details of transport connections and prices use a guide like the Rough Guide series, but remember things change frequently in South America
In more remote area you may need to hire a taxi or 4x4 from the nearest town to get to the start of your climb or trek. This is expensive and good bargaining skills are essential. Expect to pay about $100-$150 for a drop-off 100km away (and another $100-$150 to get picked up again). With a brief written contract and a written record of collection dates and times almost all drivers/agencies are very reliable. To find a driver in an unfamiliar town try either tourist agencies, car hire companies or trekking agencies. For short journeys on good roads just use the local taxi drivers but make sure you agree the price first.
Car hire is usually expensive. It is unlikely to be economical if you are spending long periods away from your vehicle in the mountains but can be very useful if you want the flexibility to do climbs and walks in many different areas in one week, e.g. in the Chilean Lakes District.
SAFETY AND SECURITY
South America is safer than its reputation.
Only a few remote parts of Colombia and Venezuela are really dangerous at the moment. You should also be careful in some remote parts of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, particularly in subtropical areas where drugs might be grown. The north of Chile, particularly around Calama is another area that seems to have a persistent problem with pick-pocketing and bag snatching. Violence against people is very rare, probably less likely than at home.
In all areas thieves steal from the easiest targets so stay alert and stay (mostly) sober. Don't walk down dark streets at night or through poor suburbs alone and keep valuables such as jewellery and cameras well concealed, or in your hotel safe. Be especially alert and very careful in busy public areas such as markets and bus stations and also anywhere there are lots of tourists. Never put a bag down in the street.
Armed robbery and banditry, including "express" kidnappings, often linked to the drug trade, does occur occasionally in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Banditry is not a problem that should stop anyone going to South America but always seek local advice about the current situation.
Good sources of up to date security information are the UK government FCO travel advice website, not nearly as paranoid as the US Government equivalent.!