Overland Travel – Legit Road Trips in South America

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Coen and I haven’t driven the North and Central American stretch, but we can say this about the Pan-American Highway, which is among the most popular road trips in South America: It’s easy to drive, asphalted, and does have its charms. It crosses a number of countries, so in relatively little time you will get an impression of a variety of landscapes and cultures.

However, if you want adventure and actually experience South America rather than just pass through it: take the first turn-off and hit the countryside. After having traveled on this continent for more than 7 years, having covered some 82,000 miles, we’d argue that the following are among the road trips in South America you’ll want to put on your Bucket List.

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Road trips in South America - the Pantanal

1. Ruta 40 in Argentina – The Most Famous Road in South America

Some 3,000 miles connect La Quiaca in the north to Rio Gallegos in the south. We photographed llamas and vicuñas on the altiplano and stopped for a wine tour in Argentina’s famous wine regions of Cafayate and Mendoza.

After the popular stretch through the Lake District down to El Bolsón, we traversed desolate Patagonian plains where nandus (a type of ostrich) raced along our Land Cruiser, and we spotted foxes and came across herds of sheep crossing the road.

Go now, as Argentina is asphalting Ruta 40 as I am writing, which will facilitate driving but take away the sense of adventure and magic that Ruta 40 is so famous for.

Travel Guides for Argentina

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Lonely Planet Travel Guide – Argentina

Lonely Planet Phrasebook & Dictionary – American Spanish

Insight Guides – Argentina

Products from Amazon

Read More: Stories about Argentina

Road trips in South America - Driving the Ruta 40
Road trips in South America – Driving the Ruta 40
Driving the Ruta 40, Argentina (©photocoen)

2. The Wetlands of the Pantanal in Brazil – South America’s Best Place for Wildlife Spotting

The Pantanal, the largest inland wetland in the world, is one of the most pristine and biologically rich environments on the planet. With more than 200 species of fish, 120 species of mammals, almost 100 different reptiles and at least 600 types of birds, it is a favorite among birdwatchers, wildlife spotters and lovers of fishing (read about piranha fishing here).

On the north side we drove the Transpantaneira, an unpaved road crossing some 120 bridges down to Porto Jofre. Along the south side we followed the Estrada Parque, popular with tours and the easiest to find affordable guesthouses along the way.

True adventurists as we are, we ventured deep into the Pantanal. If you like to do that, make sure you have permission from the fazendas (ranches) that you’re bound to cross and where a sturdy four-wheel drive is a must.

Travel Guides for Brazil

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Insight Guides – Brazil

Lonely Planet Phrasebook & Dictionary – Brazilian Portuguese

Lonely Planet – Brazil

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Read More: Behind the Fences in the Biggest Wetland in the World – The Pantanal

Road trips in South America - Driving in the Pantanal
Road trips in South America – Driving in the Pantanal
Driving in the Pantanal (©photocoen)

3. The Carretera Austral in Chile – The Sole Road Going Down Chile’s South

More than 600 miles of gravel road wind through a scenery of rainforests, glaciers, volcanoes, fjords and rivers. It is the sole road connecting north with south Chile (Carretera Austral means Southern Highway).

It was largely constructed under Pinochet’s regime in the 1980s and initially it bore the name of Carretera Presidente Pinochet.

We loved driving the Carretera Austral as we embrace nature and wilderness and don’t mind having to do without fresh food for a couple of days. In February there is a fair chance you’ll stumble across a rodeo.

Travel Guides for Chile

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Insight Guides – Chile

Fodor’s – Chile Highlights

Bradt Travel Guides – Chile: The Carretera Austral

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Read More: 5 of our Favorite Camping Spots in Patagonia

Road trips in South America - Driving the Carretera Austral, Chile (©photocoen)
Road trips in South America – Driving the Carretera Austral
Driving the Carretera Austral, Chile (©photocoen)
Driving the Carretera Austral, Chile (©photocoen)

4. The Death Road in Bolivia – The “Most Dangerous Road in the World”

Much has been written about the Death Road, especially with regard to cycling it with a tour agency in La Paz. Since Bolivia built a highway around it, the road is largely void of traffic and mostly used for tourism.

We loved driving here and stopped frequently to feel the solitude and take in magnificent views of the rainforest. The Death Road starts at an altitude of 9,800 feet, winds down into the rainforest and ends at the town of Coroico at 5,000 feet. If you’re going to drive it, leave after 11 am, when the cyclists have left.

Read More: Driving the World’s Most Dangerous Road 

Road trips in South America - Driving the Death Road in Bolivia (©photocoen)
Road trips in South America – Driving the Death Road
Driving the Death Road in Bolivia (©photocoen)
Driving the Death Road in Bolivia (©photocoen)

5. The Trans Chaco Highway in Paraguay – South America’s Most Unpredictable Road

Other famous roads mentioned here are known to be unpaved & rough or smooth & asphalted. Not the Trans Chaco Highway. For decades, roughly before 2009, it was called South America’s worst road. Cars and buses could get stuck for days on end, especially in the mud during the rainy season.

When we drove it the first time, it had just been asphalted and was so smooth you could roller-skate on it. However, the asphalt layer was so thin that within a year cracks and deep potholes were visible again. On this route we visited thriving Mennonite communities. They arrived here penniless early in the 20th century and within two or three generations have built affluent farming communities in the Chaco wilderness.

Note that not all communities are keen on receiving visitors so ask for permission before wandering about (e.g. with the mayor of the community).

Travel Guides for Paraguay

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Other Places Travel Guides – Paraguay

Bradt Travel Guides – Paraguay

The Paraguay Reader: History, Culture, Politics

Products from Amazon

Read More: A Glance into the Lives of the Mennonites in Paraguay

Road trips in South America - Driving the Trans-Chaco Highway, Paraguay (©photocoen)
Road trips in South America – Driving the Trans-Chaco Highway
Driving the Trans-Chaco Highway, Paraguay (©photocoen)

6. The Transamazônica in Brazil – The Longest Road Through the Amazon

The Trans-Amazonian Highway was built in the 1970s to open up the Amazon to the rest of Brazil. The name is somewhat misleading as part of this 4000-kilometer-stretch cuts through the dry interior of Northeast Brazil (the easternmost city is João Pessoa), which is uninspiring to drive.

The interesting part is the stretch through the Amazon, roughly speaking west from the infamous Belo Monte Dam project westbound to a village called Lábrea. Parts of this unpaved road may become impassable during the rainy season, when dust turns into slick red mud and bridges collapse. The best time of the year to drive it is July-Oct.

What shocked us was that apart from Amazonia National Park we didn’t see much untouched rainforest; most of the area has been deforested for cattle ranching. You may come across a traditional cattle drive, with cowboys driving more than 1,000 cows for months on end from fazendas to a slaughterhouse.

Travel Guides for the Amazon Region

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Unibanco Guides – Amazon Guide

Insight Guides – Brazil

Bradt Travel Guides – Amazon Highlights: Peru · Ecuador · Colombia

Products from Amazon

Read More: Driving the Transamazônica

Road trips in South America - Driving the Transamazônica in Brazil (©photocoen)
Road trips in South America – Driving the Transamazônica
Driving the Transamazônica in Brazil (©photocoen)
Driving the Transamazônica in Brazil (©photocoen)

7. The BR-319 in Brazil – South America’s Worst Highway

This 800-kilometer-long road runs from Porto Velho to Manaus. Like the Transamazônica, the BR319 was built by Brazil’s military regime in the 1970s with the intent to open up the Amazon Rainforest for economic purposes.

However, as it was one of the first roads through the Amazon, know-how was minimal and the road was built in a swamp. This, together with annual floods that washed away dozens of bridges, contributed to the road falling into disuse.

Nowadays, all trucks go by boat and only the adventurous rough it for a couple of days driving it and camping rough along the way. To give you an idea of the challenge: it took us 5 days to drive it.

Read More: Driving the BR319

Road trips in South America - The B319
Road trips in South America – The B319
Driving the BR319 in Brazil (©photocoen)
Driving the BR319 in Brazil (©photocoen)

8. The Interoceanic Highway in Brazil and Peru – A Multi-country Road Trip

This multi-billion, multi-country road runs from the Peruvian Coast on the Pacific via de Amazon to the Brazilian ports of Santos and Rio de Janeiro. Goal: to boost Peru’s economy and to give Brazil access to the Pacific Ocean. Of all road trips mentioned here, this one is the easiest to drive, as it’s the only one that’s entirely asphalted.

Together with the Transamazônica, the landscape stands in contrast to that of other road trips mentioned here. Don’t expect virgin forests, natural landscapes or an abundance of wildlife: this is a trip where we saw Brazil’s booming industry in São Paulo, its vast cattle and farming industry in Mato Grosso and Amazonas, and (relatively) small-scale agriculture in Peru.

Travel Guides for Peru

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Insight Guides – Peru

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – Peru

Lonely Planet Travel Guides – Peru

Products from Amazon

Read More: 10 Under-the-radar Spots in Western Brazil to Check Out

Road trips in South America - Driving the Interoceanic Highway in Brazil and Peru (©photocoen)
Road trips in South America – Driving the Interoceanic Highway
Driving the Interoceanic Highway in Brazil and Peru (©photocoen)
cbw_20070706_Brazil_05417

9. Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – South America’s Smoothest Road Surface

The world’s largest salt flat is technically not a road, but driving here does belong in the category mind-blowing road trips. The white ocean of salt is hemmed in by the Andes Mountains and looks like fresh snow which has not yet been disturbed by footsteps.

When we entered the Salar, the volcanic rock islands initially appeared black as ink, and only when we got closer did the color of the rock take on reddish-brown hues. With it the tall Cardon Cacti appeared into view as well, which grow on these islands in large numbers.

Most travelers visit the salt flat with an organized tour from Uyuni, but you can also rent a car and go on your own. The advantage is the opportunity you have to rough camp, which was one of our most overpowering experiences in South America. Note that Salar de Uyuni lies at 12,500 feet so take measures to prevent altitude sickness.

Travel Guides for Bolivia

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Rough Guides – Bolivia

Lonely Planet Travel Guides – Bolivia

Lonely Planet Phrasebook & Dictionary – American Spanish

Products from Amazon

Read More: Tips for Rough Camping at Salar de Uyuni

Road trips in South America - Driving on Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (©photocoen)
Driving on Salar de Uyuni
Driving in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (©photocoen)
Driving in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (©photocoen)
Driving in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (©photocoen)

The article was first published on Matador Network.

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2 thoughts on “Overland Travel – Legit Road Trips in South America”

  1. Stunning photography and so much adventure have to love these posts – we’re looking forward to being on the Pan Am in 2017 and hope to meet you some place some time along the way. Are you planning to visit USA & Canada next year?

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