About the author: Mike Joy is a prolific traveler, expert avoider of long-haul busses, and Community Manager at Couchsurfing.
If you are starting to plan your next backpacking trip, and South America is calling your name (¡Tú! ¡Sí tú! ¡Ven aca!), you will soon realize that the distances between some of your must-sees is quite a bit longer than you may have imagined. This is not Europe, where a three-hour train ride gets you between two capitals of culture. In South America three hours in a train, if there even is one, will take you around 100km, if you’re lucky. South America has many things going for it, but high speed trains is not one of them.
The majority of backpackers opt for the long-distance bus rides of 20+ hours; but if you don’t have that kind of time you’ll need to throw in an international flight or two. Unfortunately, that is when prices start to rise and puts the backpackers paradise of South America out of reach. Fortunately, for those who have just a little bit of flexibility in their schedule, there is a neat trick to make flights cheaper. It is going to seem so obvious but is still often overlooked.
Domestic flights are FAR cheaper than international flights.
I know, you are thinking ‘I already know that…’ but did you? When I flew into Quito, I hadn’t planned anything, I just needed to be in Rio two months later and had no idea where I would go. After bumming around Ecuador for two weeks it was time for me to get to Peru, at which point the cheapest flight I could find was well over US$300. And Ecuador is one of the countries blessed with TWO international airports with regular services to Lima. Of course, I was doing this last minute, but take a quick search of flights between Ecuador and Lima and you will find that they are well into the hundreds. As I began looking into a dreaded 18 hour bus ride to Lima, I happened to open Google Flights and was surprised to see the flight from Mancora, right over the border in Perú, to Lima was US$80. Still more than the bus, but saving me US$200 dollars. The bus from Guayaquil to Mancora is six hours, you get a couple days on one of the most beautiful beaches in Peru, and you get to Lima in far less time than that bus ride.
This isn’t a one-off either.
After exploring Perú for a few weeks, I ended up in Arequipa and all the flights had me stopping in Lima to continue to Chilé for a few hundred bucks. But again, a six-hour bus ride has you at the Chile/Peru border, and 30 minutes after you are in the gorgeous beach town of Arica, complete with hiking, nightlife and beaches galore. Flight from Arica to Santiago, again under US$100.
As anyone who has backpacked before can tell you, planning too much ahead will cause you to miss out on some of the greatest experiences you only find by talking to others on the road. If you can’t (or won’t) budget in multi-hour bus trips, but are still flexible enough to add in a city or two, bussing across borders and flying to the next major city is an excellent, underrated alternative.
Here are a few of the most affordable connections with a simple bus crossing:
Bus Guayaquil, Ecuador to Mancora, Perú. Fly on to Lima.
Bus Arequipa, Perú to Arica, Chilé. Fly on to Santiago.
Bus Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina. Fly on to Buenos Aires.
Bus Foz du Iguazu, Brazil to Iguazu Falls, Argentina. Fly on to Buenos Aires.
Bus Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (via Calama). Fly to Santiago.
Of course with these flights you are missing some gorgeous spots. The north of Perú has some of the most incredible hikes you’ll find in the Andes. Arica to Santiago bypasses the Atacama Desert, but when you only have a limited amount of time you have to make some cuts, and domestic flights can help you cram as much as possible most into your trip while not draining your savings account.