Overland Travel in South America

One of the inevitable consequences of long journeys abroad is the period of adjustment afterwards. Everything that’s been put off or ignored while you’ve been off exploring must be dealt with on your return. I’ve done these kind of trips so often that I can mitigate the worst of it, but even so it took about two weeks after my return from South America before I felt that I’d caught up with the life I left behind.

Delivering write ups of my travels was part of that catching up, and that element of the checklist was ticked off about a week ago. Still, there are a few thoughts that never quite fit into the posts that I’ve already put up. So for the sake of completeness, here follow a few suggestions for anyone who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps.


Bring a Guidebook: First off, don’t rely on my words. Get yourself a guidebook. Lonely Planet usually serves me well, but your mileage may vary. Even though the Internet has usurped many of their functions, a collection of suggestions about places to stay, sights to see, and culinary delights to sample will serve as good bus or train reading in the space between places. Lonely Planet’s guidebook for South America added a hefty lump to my baggage, but it did what I needed (except perhaps in Rio, where its broad approach was spread a little too thin).

Pack According to Your Needs: This will depend heavily upon your habits and plans, but it’s possible to minimise what you’re carrying on a long overland trip. I generally go for a daily bag containing everything vital to the trip (passport, electronics, medicine, etc.) and a larger backpack containing clothes and anything I don’t need immediate access to. Judicious trimming of what you bring will make this even more functional: I only needed to use a laundry once during my three-week-plus trip, and I kept dirty clothes separated in waterproof internal bags.

Stray Dogs Everywhere: Start in the west and travel east and you’ll notice a change from canine to feline. Chile and Argentina both have stray dogs aplenty, though most of them look as though they’re well fed, and I didn’t come across any who were unfriendly. It wasn’t until I hit Buenos Aires’ main cemetery that I saw cats in the open. By the time you reach Rio, balance has been restored, though the marmosets on the Sugarloaf are surely an outlier.

Don’t Rely on WiFi: I did without buying a traveller’s SIM card for my phone, figuring that a bit of disconnection would be good for me, and that WiFi would fill any gaps that there were. Which was more or less true: wandering around cities is better if the world doesn’t intrude on your thoughts, and there’s WiFi aplenty in public spaces. However, be aware that most of these WiFi networks are unsecured, and even in hotels, where the networks are more secure, the strength of the signal may not be the best. In short, accept the disconnection and know what you’re going to need before you go online. (And don’t use data roaming except in an emergency—the 30 seconds that mine was active before I remembered to turn it off cost me about €20.)

The Roads are Pretty Good—Mostly: After driving north and south through Chile, my ambition to some day traverse the entire Panamerican Highway is stronger than ever. Probably not all of it will be as nice as the route between Santiago and La Serena, but what I experienced was exceptional in terms of quality and views available. I didn’t have much to complain about when it came to the main roads in Argentina and Uruguay either, so renting a car for travel is a definite possibility.

Don’t be a Competitive Driver: This is more of a general rule, as opposed to something specific to South America. Drivers who overtake at high speed, dive into the tightest of gaps between cars, and are allergic to the use of indicators, are best left to their own devices. Especially when you’re a foreign driver. If there’s going to be any consequences to that kind of behaviour, the further away you are from it, the better.

Carry Cash…: Many places will allow you to use debit and credit cards, especially in and around the major tourist sites, but it’s always handy to have some cash if you’re planning on exploring further afield or if the tourist stuff holds little interest. Of course, if you’re country hopping, that means you’ll need to make use of currency exchanges, either in banks or the smaller cambios. Also, the usual rules for travellers apply: don’t keep it all in one place, and don’t flash it around either. As always, be safe.

…but Beware of ATMs: If you need cash, you’ll likely need to turn to ATMs, of which there are plenty. Most of these will be in indoor lobbies, so they’re safe enough to use, though take the usual care. The major issue is that the fees for using them are not small. Limit your usage accordingly, because those fees do add up.

Trains are good, but buses are your friend: I’m as big a fan of train travel as you’re likely to find, but buses are the better option in South America. The passenger train network is disconnected, and the one I did take was a good bit slower than the bus alternative would have been. Buses go pretty much everywhere, and the major cities are connected by coaches run by multiple companies. Do your research and you can get where you need to go cheaply.

Go for comfort…: On the coach routes, you’ll often have the option to opt for “cama” or “semi-cama” seats. These will be on the lower tier of double decker coaches, and they’ll provide you with well-upholstered seats with lots of legroom and an ability to recline far enough to provide you with an opportunity for snoozing. Pick the right coach provider and you may even be offered snacks.

…but mind the view: The one problem with those cama or semi-cama seats is that since they’re on the lower deck of the coach, you’re going to lose out on some viewing opportunities. You can mitigate these problems a bit by selecting the right seat when booking your trip. For example, when crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, sit by the right window for the best views, and sit on the left when going the other way.

Avail of “las verduras” where you can: Especially in Argentina and Uruguay, meat is a way of life. Vegetarians are going to have to put a bit of extra effort in, and vegans might find themselves restricted in terms of their dietary choices. (Well … more restricted.) That said, there are some really good verduras and frutas to be had, and if you’re not aiming to pursue a purely carnivorous diet, you should grab them whenever you can.

Brazil is different: There’s a lot of commonality across the three Spanish-speaking nations I visited, but once I landed in Rio, there was enough of a change to inflict just a little culture shock. Whatever preparation I’d done for the start of the trip went out of the window, and I was more or less starting again. Language was a particular issue, with Spanish and Portuguese far enough apart that there was little knowledge to transfer, and few people speaking much or any English. In short, put the effort in to learn a little about the country that you’re visiting. But isn’t that always the way?

It’s absolutely worth it: Sticking to road and rail to cross a continent is something that I’ve done four times now. Seeing the landscape close up is a massive improvement over staring at it out of a tiny plane window. Getting outside of the big cities, or just walking around a city from dawn to dusk and knowing that just a week or two ago you were sat by a different ocean is an amazing feeling. Every trip generates thoughts of things that you could have done or moments that you might have missed, but focus on the good memories. Trips like this will generate plenty of them.

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Brazil—Rio de Janeiro, the Mountains and the Sea

Ah, Rio de Janeiro. City of blazing sunshine, sultry heat, and tropical mountains piled up around bays of crystal clear waters washing onto white sand beaches. Or, in my case, a city of clouds, rain, humidity, and walking. Lots and lots of walking.

Such are the problems of travelling in South America in winter, I suppose. I’d been lucky enough as far as Montevideo, but Rio was a lot further north and east. I’d planned to get there by bus, via São Paulo, but I’d already ditched that plan in favour of flights, accepting a bit of extra carbon guilt in exchange for more time to explore. Courtesy of Azul, a much nicer short-hop carrier than Ryanair, I was dropped first in Porto Alegre’s Salgado Filho International Airport, then into Rio’s city-centre Santos Dumont Airport.

So much detail, so little time.
The Escadaria Selarón

A nighttime landing meant the city was nice and cool, but plans for getting to my hotel ran into a non-functional metro card dispenser, so I ended up walking instead of taking the tram. Luckily, my hotel, the Lapa Ville in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood, was as central as could be, if a bit basic in its amenities. Stage one of my Rio visit successfully achieved, I chilled out for the evening and made plans for the next few days.

My first full day in Rio was the one with most of the walking. The first item on the menu though was the Escadaria Selarón, which was just around the corner from the hotel. This lesser-known sight of Rio is a fabulously colourful tiled staircase, the work of one artist, who has expanded it over the years with contributions from around the world. I also explored it on the best morning I’d see in the city, with sun and heat to match the best Irish summer.

Rio de Janeiro’s Metropolitan Cathedral
Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral

As Santa Teresa is so central, another short stroll took me to the Lapa Arches of the Carioca Aqueduct, and beyond them to the conical mountain of the Metropolitan Cathedral, far newer and more imposing than any of the cathedrals I’d seen so far on this trip, with its cavernous interior just about illuminated by the light pouring through great banks of stained glass. I peered in before moving on, doing a little more of a wander around the city centre and picking up both some cash and a USB charger to replace the one that went missing somewhere in Montevideo.

A brief visit to the Praça Quinze de Novembre (November is the month here, not July) waterfront was as far as that walk went though. I needed a few items from my hotel room (hat, sunglasses, extra sun cream), so I grabbed them and moved on after a short break.

A red carpet on a roller.
Sadly, they didn’t roll out the red carpet for me.

I should have known better than to tempt fate. On this pleasant day, I decided to walk down to the railway that climbs to the famous Cristo Redentor statue overlooking the city, but the long walk down Rua do Catata and up Rua das Laranjeiras was all the time that was needed for the rain to start falling. And keep falling. By the time I reached the Corcovado tram station, the top of the mountain and the statue were completely lost in rain and clouds. Somewhat reluctantly, given the length of the walk, I decided I’d try again later.

I did manage to salvage something from the trip, picking up a Rio Card for the city’s public transport system, which got me back to the Cinelandia stop near Santa Teresa. Lunch at a nearby restaurant was a let-down, but I wanted to get something out of the day, so I headed to the nearby Museum of Modern Art (after figuring out how to cross the lanes of traffic in between). The Museum was pleasantly air conditioned, and some of the exhibits were interesting enough, but I kept on moving, and before long I was on my first Rio beach.

The Sugarloaf from Flamengo Beach
I would get there. Eventually.

Flamengo Beach, unlike the more famous (and longer) Copacabana, faces the Baía de Guanabara instead of the Atlantic Ocean, but it shares the same white sand, and it was nice to take off my sandals and just walk in the surf. And get wet. Next day would be shorts, I decided then.

The day still had enough time to take another shot at either the Sugarloaf or the Cristo Redentor, so I had a decision to make. As it was a bit windy and I couldn’t see any cable cars crossing to the Sugarloaf, I decided that the Cristo was the way to go. I thought I might even be able to catch the sunset up there. Sadly, the rain and clouds had other plans, and by the time I made it to the tram, it had shut up shop for the evening. An offer of a taxi alternative didn’t seem that appealing, so I called it quits and headed for home base.

A streetside bar in Rio.
After a lot of walking, getting to sit down with a beer is a good thing.

Day One had been a bit of a bust, but at least my hotel was just around the corner from a range of bars and clubs. So I got to sit and chill out with beer and fries at a street side table and watch Rio’s (somewhat meagre) winter crowds wander by before it was time for sleep.

Given how badly day one had gone, my second and last full day in Rio had to be a busy one. I headed straight down to the Largo do Machado metro station and up the familiar road to the Corcovado tram. This time, despite warnings that I wouldn’t be able to see anything, I bought a ticket anyway, and after twenty minutes of ascending through the cloud forests that flank the Corcovado mountain on which the Cristo sits, I was dropped at the base of the mountaintop complex and climbed up to see Rio’s most famous face.

Selfie takers in front of the Cristo Redentor.
Selfie time with the star of the show.

Except that the big lad was being a bit shy, and by the time I was at his feet, his head was lost in the clouds. Everyone else was sheltering from the rain under plastic ponchos, whereas I had only an umbrella to keep the rain off my shorts, sandals, and t-shirt. Luckily, the clouds soon cleared to a round of cheers and the mountaintop became selfie central. We even got a view of the city and the bay below, though the clouds never quite cleared enough for that view to become as epic as it promised.

So that was one sight down, with one to go. I came down from my mountaintop meeting with god (sans tablets of stone but plus a couple of fridge magnets) and headed for Pao do Açucar, better known as the Sugarloaf. The metro dropped me off at the Botofago station, and I walked the rest of the way to the cable car. It’s a two-stage trip, first to the Morro da Urca and from there to the Sugarloaf itself. Not quite as tall as the Corcovado on which the Cristo stands, it offers just as good a view because it stands right at the mouth of the bay. Plus, taking the trip to the top gives you a chance to wander around the forest trails there, and to spot the marmosets begging for scraps from the tourists (you’re not supposed to feed them, but people do anyway). The best bit of it though was looking down on the planes as they approached Santos Dumont either through the mountains surrounding the city or from the mouth of the bay.

The Copacabana beach, as seen from the Sugarloaf.
From here to there required, yes, more walking.

Despite the rain, it had been a productive day, and there was plenty of daylight left. I wanted to make use of it, so I looked into the Museu de Ciencias da Terra, which seemed interesting (and had dinosaurs!) but was sadly closed. So instead, I walked some more. The Ladeira do Leme climbed over a saddle between two peaks, and beyond was the Copacabana. Not as deserted as the Flamengo had been the day before, it was washed by some serious Atlantic surf, and even my shorts weren’t enough to save me from getting a bit damp.

I passed by some foot-volleyball players showing serious skill, but I didn’t want to stick around too long, as evening was finally drawing in, so I went in search of the local metro stations. There were some issues with the Rio Card again, as I needed to top it up, but before too long I was back at Cinelandia, returning to the hotel to rest my feet before another evening of beer, fries, and cocktails, with samba music providing a backdrop at the Leviano Bar. I even dropped in on the local Irish bar, where decent beer wasn’t enough to make me take part in a session of death metal karaoke.

The Copacabana beach in winter.
Not exactly jammed with crowds, but the waves made up for it.

The last day in Rio was also the last day of the trip. So I dawdled over packing and made sure everything was in order before checking out. After two days of venturing south, I turned north instead, aiming for the Sao Cristóvão stop, where I had access to the Park Quinta da Boa Vista. The plan was to visit the National Museum, but it turned out to be closed. (Something of a theme for Rio in the winter.) Thoroughly closed, as in surrounded by scaffolding and gutted on the inside. So I wandered around the park instead and said hi to the cats.

Back across the road and a short stroll away was the Maracanã Stadium. If the Centenario in Montevideo had all the history, the Maracanã was a temple to football on a gigantic scale, having hosted both the Olympics and the World Cup. Runners were circling the entire complex as I walked widdershins, and I was getting a little sunshine for the first time in a few days, so all was going well enough.

The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio.
Yeah, it’s over-the-top, but I still like it.

I checked my travel plans for the evening at the train station before heading back into town, getting off at Central and heading down the Av. Marechal Floriano before angling north to the Museum of Tomorrow on the waterfront. If the rest of Rio’s attractions were underpopulated, this one was packed, with a queue that only got longer. A multimedia marvel in a building that looks like a spacecraft come in to land, it was an excellent way to use up what remained of the day, as was the restaurant underneath, where I enjoyed some grilled fish and a disturbingly alcoholic caipirinha as I enjoyed the view.

That was more or less it though. One last walk down the waterfront to the hotel and grabbing my bags, then a three-stage trip to the airport. That was the plan, at least. Except that on stage two, I was seized by a moment of fear. Had I screwed up the time difference and missed my flight? Rushing wouldn’t have solved the problem, but it did make me feel a bit better, so I used up some of the last of my cash to finish the trip in a taxi to Terminal 2. Was I too late?

The interior of Rio de Janeiro’s international airport.
At about this time, I was feeling a deep sense of relief.

No. No I wasn’t. Panic over, after double-checking the departures board. My long journey across South America was at an end, and British Airways was waiting to take me away. And that is as good a place as any to end. Thanks for listening, and farewell.

(Okay, there’ll be an epilogue later. But you’ll have to wait for that.)