South America is such a massive continent; to be honest, 3 weeks here can be challenging. On the other hand, knowing what you want to do, see, and enjoy in South America will make your travel itinerary much easier to visualise and create.
3 weeks in South America, if you are coming from Europe, North America, or Asia, should be decided based on what you want to do. Remember, being in the southern hemisphere. The climate timeline is different here. For example, if you want to enjoy the stunning beaches of Brazil, you should come from December to April. If you want to go skiing, come visit from June to August.
In this guide about a 3 weeks South America itinerary, I will show you different options depending on the things you want to do and places you want to enjoy, from beach bumming to exploring the famous and so beautiful Andes Mountains.
ALSO READ: Smart packing for 3 weeks holiday trip
THINGS TO REMEMBER KNOW BEFORE GOING TO SOUTH AMERICA
To plan your trip better and assemble a more feasible itinerary, it’s vital that you know this basic information. Below are useful tips about when to go to South America, how to get around, cost, and more:
Best time to go to South America
Before diving in, let’s discuss a little about when to go to South America. As I mentioned before, you should know what you want to do here. Officially, summer starts in December and ends in March; winter begins in June and ends in September. This continent is massive, so the seasons varies per country.
The best time to go to South America for summer is around November to avoid the big crowds and the heat or late March. If you don’t mind the crowd, plan your trip from December to February.
The best time to visit South America for winter activities such as skiing is between July and August. If you want to avoid that but still enjoy bearable winter, plan your trip around June or the end of September.
Are 20 days enough for South America
The simple answer is no. South America is a huge continent, and 20 days won’t cover it. But, you can maximise your 3 weeks in South America if you plan well. Choose to cover 2-3 countries for this trip. When deciding, consider countries that are next to each other or has a direct flight for easier access.
This will save you time and make travelling more comfortable. Another thing that can help you make the most out of your trip is deciding how you plan to move around, which I will discuss on the next section below.
How to get around South America
There are various ways to get around in this region. This includes planes, buses, trains, boats, cars, and even horses. The buses are the most affordable mode of transportation. Trains can only be seen in limited areas.
Renting a car can be a good idea, but not 100%, since more than half of the region sits on the Andes Mountains, and the terrain can be challenging. In this way, taking a domestic flight or the train will be a better choice.
Average cost of 3 weeks South America trip
The cost of a 20-day trip in South America can be hard to predict. This is because the cost of living in each place varies a lot. But to give you some ideas, on average, around $2,000 will be a decent mid-range budget for 3 weeks South America vacation. You can stay in a private room, eat out once or twice a day, and book some mid-range tours.
On the other hand, if you are on a tight budget, you can go with $1,300 for three weeks in South America if you don’t mind staying in hostel dorm rooms, eating street food most of the time, and booking a more affordable group tour.
For those who plan to travel a bit in luxury, $4,000 will go a long way. You can book a few nights in a 5-star hotel, dine at nicer restaurants, and taxi/uber your way around. You could even sign up for private ground tours here and there.
These prices are for a single person and don’t include flights to and from South America.
Other basic travel tips
The travel websites below are my favourite places to book my travel arrangements. Most of these offers flexible cancellation and a wide selection depending on my budget. I highly recommend you book the accommodations first, especially if you plan to go during peak season. You can always cancel it later if you change your mind.
PINNED MAP OF THINGS TO SEE IN SOUTH AMERICA
The pins are colour-coded to help you identify each itinerary or trail. To enlarge the map, click the top right corner icon. Credit: Map data: Google
3 WEEKS SOUTH AMERICA ITINERARY
Now to the fun part! I made four different itineraries for 3 weeks South America trip depending on the places and activities you want to do. Check out which one you prefer below. I also added tips on visiting each place or country.
Every tourist, traveller, and holidaymaker is different. Some like to stay in one place for a longer time and explore as much as possible, Others don’t mind airports and like to see as many countries and cities as possible during their time off from work.
Some people also want to relax during a vacation, sit on the beach, read a book, or enjoy a cold drink. Some want to learn history, visit museums, and talk to the locals.
Others are the ones who find the outdoors more enjoyable. And, of course, the people who love to enjoy each country through its cousin.
I will try my best to accommodate all kinds of travellers. I hope you will find a thing or two to add to your 3 weeks South America itinerary.
Most people who want to do a DIY 20-day South America trip are often backpackers and younger people since they have the patience, energy, and looking to spend as little as possible. However, there are people who prefer a more relaxing and hassle-free trip.
If you’re this kind of traveller or simply looking to just pack your bags and show up at the airport, booking a package tour might be more suitable for you.
The tour company will handle all the booking from accommodation, transportation, food, activities, tour guides, and porters. All you have to do is not miss your flight from your home to the first destination. Here are a few package tours for 3 weeks in South America.
The Gringo Trail
The Gringo Trail is the counterpart of the famous Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia. It’s a famous backpacker’s trail because it highlights the top attractions of the countries in this region, but also attracts those looking for affordability.
This trail in Latin America involves up to 13 countries, from Mexico all the way down to Chile. There’s no specific trail though. What happens is each traveller would create their own itinerary featuring the countries on this trail and handpick the locations based on their budget, time frame, and style of travelling.
The countries along the Gringo Trail are Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Riva, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and also Brazil. If you look at the map, it’s basically the countries in the western part of Latin America.
When I did my first backpacking in South America, my Gringo Trail includes Brazil, Colombia, then Peru. This allows me to see the top sites in this region such as Rio, Medellin, and Machu Picchu.
Itinerary #1: Summer Trail (Ecuador, Peru, Chile)
If you want to escape the northern hemisphere’s winter and head down to South America, this beach trail for a 3-week trip is perfect. As you can see, I’ve listed three countries, but it doesn’t mean you should visit all of them.
You can either stay in one country and enjoy it or hop on planes if you have the energy and curiosity because you are visiting major summer destinations in South America.
I believe beaches in the west of South America are not as remarkable as the Caribbean, Brazil, or Southeast Asia, except for the Galapagos Islands. However, it has its own unique charm that will take your breath away not to mention these are affordable destinations.
Plus, there is less crowd here, meaning you can enjoy your peace and quiet during your vacation. If you prefer to explore the Caribbean, here’s our Central America 3 weeks itinerary.
As a country sitting right on top of the Andes Mountains, there are only a few places to go for some Vitamin Sea. Most tourists and locals head to the northwest part of Colombia. These beach spots face the stunning Caribbean Sea.
Barranquilla and Cartagena are the two most popular beach towns in Colombia. What I love the most about these places is how you enjoy the unbelievable beauty of the Caribbean without paying the price.
During your visit, the must-see places in Colombia for the summer holiday are Islas Del Rosario Catamaran for a snorkelling trip, La Boquilla and the Mangroves, Playa Blanca, Isla Grande, and Totumo mud volcano.
If we are talking about beaches in Ecuador, one place that will come to mind right away is the Galapagos Island, which is not only famous for its stunning beaches but for its marine animals such as marine iguanas, tortoises, penguins, and sea lions.
Another beach area you should add to your list is Salinas. It is an excellent spot for the surfer and other wind and water sports. If you are landing at Olmeda International Airport in Guayaquil, Salina is just an easy 144-kilometre (90 mi) drive.
If you want to avoid the crowd, just an hour north of Salina is Ayangue. It’s much quieter and more relaxing. Here, you can enjoy some small hiking trails, jump off the cliffs, or simply enjoy a book and a cold drink.
You can visit Puerto Cayo, Mompiche, General Villamil, and Playa Los Frailes for summer in Ecuador.
Peru has it all. The beauty of the Andes, great glacier lakes, bustling cities, old towns, and the cost. When I visited this country, I could literally go from freezing weather to a hot and perfect day for surfing on the same day. I flew from Cusco to Lima and experienced just that.
But let’s talk about the beach for now. Lima has so much to offer you if you enjoy the wind and water sports combo. You can visit Miraflores, where you can head out and catch some wind by windsurfing or paragliding or swimming with the wild sea lions at Palomino Islands.
You can also simply take a nice walk along the beach or by the boardwalk if you don’t like sand on your feet.
This area is very developed, you can find many restaurants to eat at, malls for shopping, and lots of little cafes by the shore.
If you prefer to be on your own and away from the crowd, head to Cabo Blanco, Los Organos, Huanchaco, and Las Pocitas. Where you can either go surfing or read a book at peace, these are the areas that are popular with the locals too.
Itinerary #2: Winter or Climbing Trip (Chile and Argentina)
Some people, especially children, get their long vacation off from work during summer to match the school break. If you are looking for some winter fun during the summer in Europe or Northern America, check out this 3 weeks South America itinerary for winter.
Because of the precious Andes Mountains, the countries of Chile and Argentina are all perfect for all winter activities, such as skiing and snowboarding. Ski resorts here are a bit cheaper than in North America or Europe, but nonetheless, magnificent.
The most popular ski resort in Chile is Valle Nevado, just outside Santiago. Sitting in the heart of Nevado mountain, you know you will get the best winter in Chile here. You can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, and heli-skiing.
If you are a beginner, don’t worry, you can get classes here as well. Valle Nevado also offers to lodge and hosts lots of events, but if you prefer to just stop by for one-day visit, you can do that as well.
If you want fewer crowds, La Parva, literally next to Valle Nevado, is probably more suitable for you. It is sitting in the middle of three valleys, giving you a handful of options for places to explore. They offer vast choices of winter activities, lodging, and other fun events to enjoy, from young children to adults.
The best time to go skiing in Chile is from July until mid-September. I recommend it towards the end since the crowd will be slimmer or in early July. You can also spend an entire 3 weeks in Chile itinerary.
Personally, I think Argentina is the best winter spot in South America. There are many options, whether you are looking for a fancy one, affordable, great for beginners, or a place for some challenging slopes.
Catedral Alta Patagonia is the most popular place for skiing, located near the border to Chile, southwest of Buenos Aires; it’s worth the travel, though. With 1,480 acres of fine snow, there is so much you can do here. No wonder they also host international skiing competitions and their own local matches.
Apart from skiing, you can go snowboarding, and bring your young children to the snow park, and play park. If you are a pro skier or looking for some challenges, there are many spots that expert skiers are only allowed to use.
You can definitely experiment and test your skills. They have accommodation, restaurants, and other activities. You can easily spend a week here.
If you don’t want to go too far from Buenos Aires, Las Lenas ski resort might be better for you. It’s also located near Santiago, just right at the border. However, this is a smaller ski resort and more suitable for beginners. They offer classes and courses for beginners at different levels.
The ski season in Argentina is from mid-June until later October, but I recommend you go between July and September. If you only want to see Argentina, we have a 3-week itinerary for Argentina.
Itinerary #3: The Andes (Peru, Bolivia, Chile)
The Andes or Andean is definitely my favourite part of South America. It’s beautiful like no other, massive, and offers such diverse places to see. A large portion of South America sits on the top of the Andes, you can’t visit this continent and not explore a bit of it.
In this part of the 3 weeks in South America itinerary, I will show you the places that you must not miss that feature the Andes region.
Both Peru and Chile are huge countries with so much to offer – from beaches, and old cities, to mountains. I won’t even blame you if you decide just to stay put and explore in either country instead of hopping off to another country.
Below are three itineraries – only Peru, only Chile, and a combination of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia.
You can enjoy many activities here whenever you decide to come. For example, if you are looking for beach time, Lima offers surfing or a simple lay on the beach, book on hand. There are literally dozens of mountains to climb and hundreds of hiking trails for hiking.
And for a historical visit, well, Peru has so much to tell you. If you want to hike to Machu Picchu, keep in mind to check different options for Inca Trail Hike depending on your preference. We also have an extensive 3 weeks in Peru itinerary.
- Day 1-7: Cusco – Spend 2 days acclimating yourself before heading to Machu Picchu. While in the city, you can enjoy some pico sour, traditional Peruvian meals such as ceviche, and visit many places and mountains around the city, such as Rainbow Mountain and Maras (for salt mine exploration, quad biking).
- Remember that for visiting Machu Picchu, for a short trip, you can do a day trip, if you want to hike, you can choose between 2 days to 4 days. What I did was I took a train, stayed for the night, hiked up to the citadel of Machu Picchu (where you can see the famous view), then hiked to the top of the mountain, and finally, hiked down to the town and took the train next day back to Cusco.
- Day 8-12: Arequipa – For history lovers, this part of Peru will blow your mind. Arequipa will show you Peru during the colonial era. It is also surrounded by 3 volcanoes, built with baroque-style buildings, and with a cherry on top, 17th-century neoclassical Basilica Cathedral.
- Make sure to visit the historic centre of Plaza de Armas, Iglesia de la Compania, and get out of the city to visit Colca Canyon, Peru’s version of the Grand Canyon.
- Day 13-15: Fly to Huascarán National Park (connect in Lima) – If you want to see some pretty impressive glacier lakes of South America courtesy of the Andes Mountains, then get yourself to Huascarán National Park.
- It is over 400 km (249 mi) north of Lima, and while it has an airport, you will have to connect to Lima. Huascarán National Park has so many glacier lakes, but the best is Lake 69, Laguna Cancaragá, and Laguna Paron.
- Day 15-21: Lima – Peru’s capital also has a lot to offer. From its fantastic beach where you can enjoy surfing and other water + wind sports combo, to fantastic outdoor activities such as repelling, canyoning, and sandboarding. Don’t forget to explore Malecon Miraflores, Barranco, and Huaca Pucllana. Get yourself a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off bus, which will make your city sightseeing much more convenient.
Chile’s most popular regions are the Patagonia and Atacama deserts. They are the opposite of each other, both in location and in things to offer. When you look at the map of Chile, you can easily say where the Atacama Desert is, the entire north of Chile is part of this desert. Santiago, the capital, is sitting at the border between these two regions.
REMEMBER: Direct flights to Chile are almost non-existent unless you are already in the region (coming from Argentina, Peru, etc). But if you are coming all the way from the US, Europe, or Asia, you might have to connect somewhere in between.
In a 3 weeks South America itinerary, you can cover both areas with plenty of time to enjoy both. I will start in the Atacama desert but if you want to start in the South, simply reverse the itinerary. Here is our recommended itinerary for 3 weeks in Chile only:
- Day 1-5: Arrive at Aeropuerto Andrés Sabella (ANF) and base yourself in a small town called San Pedro de Atacama. Even though it’s a small area, there are plenty of accommodations to choose from. I recommend you spend the first day acclimatising your body until you are ready to explore.
- From here, you can visit Valle de la Luna, the smoking and active Geysers del Tatio, and Lagunas Escondidas to cool off if you are feeling hot. It’s best if you book a tour to avoid some hassles. Don’t forget to visit the famous Los Flamencos National Reserve.
- Day 6-9: Make your way to Santiago, where you can explore the urban city and meet the old city. While Santiago is highly developed with lots of high-rise buildings, exploring the area long enough, you will come across the undisturbed part of the city.
- Visit the tallest skyscraper in Santiago called Costanera Centre, which also functions as a mall, especially floors 61 & 62. Explore Museo de Arte Pre-colombino, and join a delicious wine-tasting tour. You can also take a day trip from Santiago to Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, and Casablanca Valley.
- Day 10-15: Now, off to the Patagonia region. Head to Coyhaique, from here, you can visit El Fraile if you want to ski, but this place is mainly for young children and beginners.
- About 100 km away is the magnificent Marble Cages located in Rio Ibanez. Don’t miss the Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo for beautiful glacier lakes, hiking, and boating.
- Day 16-21: The last bit of your trip, we must make the most out of it. Make your way to Punta Arenas, also known as the gateway to Antarctica. This is where tourists and researchers leave to head to Antarctica.
- From here, you can enjoy a magnificent area filled with penguins at Isla Magdalena. A little bit up north, from Puerto Natales, you can hop into a Patagonian Fjords tour and, of course, visit Torres del Paine National Park.
Now, for our airport lovers, you can visit all these three countries in 3 weeks. However, remember that you will have to choose just one place in each country. Personally, I don’t recommend this because the distance is too much and you will spend so much time at the airport, connecting flights and buses.
If you really want to, the places I recommend you to combine are:
- Peru, Bolivia, Chile
- Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina
- Peru, Chile, Argentina
Itinerary #4: Southern Trail (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay)
If you are eager to enjoy the Southern part of this continent and, perhaps, reach the southernmost point, this 3 weeks in South America itinerary will be perfect for you. Maybe you are even considering getting on a boat and exploring stunning Antarctica.
The only thing I want you to remember about this trail is:
For Chile, choose between the Atacama Desert and Patagonia. If you have already visited Patagonian on the Chilean side, you can skip the Argentinian side and head to the north instead.
Then, stick to the coast in Uruguay and don’t miss Montevideo, Playa Balconada, and Uruguay National Park.
Itinerary #5: Exploring Brazil (Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, Amazon River)
Of course, I easily can’t justify 3 weeks in South America without talking about Brazil. It’s such a massive country that I can only recommend it if you decide to spend the entire 20-day holiday here because there is just so much to see. From world-class beaches to the gateway of the Amazon River.
Brazil is such a vast country that you can only visit these three significant places by taking flights. Regardless, you can definitely spend 3 weeks in Brazil. I recommend you spend about one week in each place and then take a flight to the next.
Remember that in the Amazon River, you must take a tour for your safety and ensure you have a fun time.
You can also head to Sao Paulo, not so far from Rio. In this city, you can visit the famous Museo de Futbol, and explore the areas of Santos, Sao Vicenta, and Guaruja. Make sure to book a city tour to make the most of your time there.
South America is a huge continent, and travelling here for 3 weeks is challenging. It’s best to focus on just 1-2 countries and then come back for another time. It’s not like Europe, where you can simply hop on an hour-long flight or a quick bus ride or train journey. The flights here take longer and are more expensive.
Instead of trying to visit more places, be present and enjoy each region you will be exploring. I hope you found this 3 weeks South America itinerary helpful.