Backpacker Battle: South America vs. South East Asia

In my head the last few months I’ve been comparing South East Asia and South America. Not in terms of all that unquantifiable yet rewarding stuff: the culture, the amazing sites, the up close experiences. Obviously those things can’t be compared. I’ve been thinking instead about the backpacker experience and how it measures up between the two.

Both South East Asia and South America are popular backpacker destinations. It makes sense: they are both considered budget travel, they both offer a wide variation of cultures and they both can be traveled overland. I spent four months last year traveling around Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and I’ve now been in South America for four months as well. The differences between the two experiences have been much greater than I first expected.

Here’s how the two stack up:

Vietnam: $12 a night


South East Asia is the mecca of budget travelers for a reason. Despite it’s popularity, it’s still quite cheap. Even in high season in Thailand you can get a private bungalow by the beach for $20 or less and a good filling meal for a couple of dollars.

South America is definitely pricier, although it depends on where you are. Colombia was much more expensive than we’d imagined, and Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have prices on par with the United States. That said, there are bargains to be found, particularly in poorer countries like Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Advantage: SEA

Muddy self guided jungle hike in Tayrona, Colombia

Tourism Infrastructure

SEA has been catering to backpackers and vacationers for decades now. As a result a very well defined tourism trail has developed and all of the support systems that go along with it. Guest houses are plentiful, tour companies cater solely to foreigners and menus in English abound. It does make things easy but at times the experience can feel forced. Everything you do has been done before, many, many times and it takes some real effort to get off the beaten down track.

South America is not quite as with it on the tourism game, minus a few very popular spots like Buenos Aires, the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.  There’s no coordinated network of guest houses, bus schedules and taxi drivers to carry you along- instead you will spend a lot of time figuring things out for yourself, in broken Spanish (which luckily is easy to pick up unless you’re a moron like me). That said, the feeling of discovery is unbeatable.

Advantage: It’s a tie, depending on what you’re looking for.


Street Pad Thai, Bangkok


It’s no secret that SEA is home to some of the best food in the entire world. Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese are all world famous and for good reason. Not only is the food amazing (I still dream about it) but it’s super cheap as well, particularly if you are a fan of street food.

South America is a bit of a mixed bag.As I’ve mentioned before, the food in Colombia was nothing special, and Ecuador was slightly better but nothing to write home about. The highlight of South American cuisine is definitely the meat. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil seem to be the most delicious parts of the continent… unless you’re a vegetarian.

Advantage: SEA

New Years in Montanita, Ecuador

The Backpackers

I have mixed feelings on the backpackers of SEA. The majority of travelers there were young (teenage or early twenties), Australian or European, on gap year trips or one month holidays. We met people from many different places there and would often go weeks without seeing another American. The atmosphere was very party, party, sometimes to the point of a backpackers gone wild vibe. I definitely saw more tourists behaving badly there than anywhere in the world. At times it made me question whether tourism was doing more harm than good.

The backpacker demographic in SA has been very different. For starters there are many more Americans, Canadians and travelers from South America itself (in SEA it was very rare to see a local person backpacking the region). If anyone is wondering why Americans don’t travel: they do! They just all come to Latin America. In general the backpacking crowd here is older as well: an average of mid to late twenties. As a result perhaps, there are many, many more couples traveling together around the continent than I observed in SEA. People aren’t sedate, there are still party towns, but in general people seem a bit more mature and more interested in cultural experiences than partying their faces off.

Advantage: SA


“VIP” Bus, Laos


SEA was super easy to navigate. It’s smaller than SA of course, and has a well defined network of buses and boats to ferry you from point a to point b. The buses varied a lot in quality but at least there were night buses with actual reclining seats and they generally arrived at their destination when they said they would. It was easy to make last minute travel decisions or to even grab a cheap flight somewhere else.

South America of course is enormous, so the quality of the buses depends a lot on where you are. Colombian bus journeys were endless stretches of frozen misery and Bolivian chicken buses are the stuff of legends. However, bus journeys in Chile and Argentina are closer to flying: there’s a hostess, you get a meal etc.

The most frustrating thing about moving through South America is flights. As I’ve mentioned above this is a BIG continent, and a bus journey between say Guayaquil Ecuador and Buenos Aires could take up to a week. In these cases flying seems like a better option, but man, flying is pricey here. If you want to fly between one country and another it’s rare to find a deal under $700.

Advantage: SEA


Las Lejas, Colombia


SEA is home to many different and fascinating cultures, but in general the entire area is tropical, hot and steamy. The only major weather change is that sometimes it rains a lot and sometimes it doesn’t. There are cool jungles, dusty towns and amazing amazing beaches. If you like hot weather, it’s the place to be.

SA, being so very large, has just about every variation on climate imaginable. You have the vast jungles of the amazon and the freezing peaks of the Andes- and everything in between. There are some pretty great beaches (although not nearly as many) and some elegant cities. And, despite first appearances, there is a great deal of cultural variation, including the many indigenous tribes.

Advantage: Tie


Rolling solo at the Plain of Jars, Laos


In SEA we heard tales of petty theft- lost ipods and wallets, but not much else. I felt very safe traveling solo through Laos and Cambodia and never felt harasses or threatened. I’m sure there are incidents of serious crime (and there is political unrest in parts of Thailand and the Phillipines), but in general things were very relaxed. The biggest danger seemed to be partying accidents in places like Vang Vieng.

SA has been a different story. Although nothing whatsoever has happened to us (knock on wood), we’ve heard many, many stories of muggings and worse. I haven’t spent much time solo here but I get the feeling that women are subject to more harrasment on the streets. That said I don’t think traveling through South America is dangerous, it’s just a place where you have to keep your wits about you and know how to evaluate risks.

Advantage: SEA

If it sounds like I’m knocking South America, I promise I’m not. Traveling here has been an amazing experience. I’ve met so many backpackers on their third or fourth trip to the continent, something about it just captivates people. However I would definitely say that it’s more challenging to discover South America than it is to travel in Asia. It doesn’t cater to tourists the way that Thailand or Cambodia do. I’ll let you decide if that’s better or worse.

If you know me at all you know what I’m going to say now: both regions of the world have their good points and there bad. Both are worse serious exploration. In the end it depends on what you are looking for in your travel experience.


Do you need a backpack for your backpacking adventure? This post has our favorite recommendations for the best travel backpack!


Have you been to both regions? How do your experiences stack up?

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105 thoughts on “Backpacker Battle: South America vs. South East Asia”

  1. It seems you were biased towards SE from the start, nothing to be ashamed of. It is a safe place to enjoy vacation. They have beautiful beaches and the close relation to its neighbors is a major draw. Remember, SE (thailand alone) receives more tourist than all of the SA countries combined. It doesnt help that SA is more large and rugged to cover by buses, so flying is the preferred way to travel. But i just want to point out than there is no possibility that SE food is better than Peru. This country can pull punches by itself. Having voted world best culinary destination four years in row and their gourmet restaurants are more positioned than SE. Peru cuisine is more refined than Thailand food which is more spicy (like chili spiced). Peru flavor are more balanced for european palatte. Maybe thailand food is more acceptable for USA standards which i have eated here where i tasted more chili than the ginger, coconut instead. Also, Peru domesticated over 40% world crops including potatoes, sweet potatoes, maizes, peanuts, tobacco, chili, tomatoes, which SE never did. Only china and japan food can compete with peru but both will take some punches to beat him.. Just some facts to point out but overall, enjoy SE.

  2. The Rambler Man

    I have mixed feelings about this article. Yes I know it’s old and some of the stuff is questionable as an example not all people that ravel to these countries are backpakers nor all backpakers are the same either but that’s splitting hairs compare to the simple fact that SEA seems to be overburdened with the sex trade I mean I am sure a lot of guys have experienced the wink and the nod look when they mention that they are planning on going to Thailand, and I am sure we have more than our share heard the stories. I have found SA a lot more subtle about this. Yes there is prostituion there too and in fact in some places it’s even legal, but not as much in your face as in Asia.

    And also someone above has made a very good point about the music. Its seems that SA is much more in tune with the culture, salsa, singers, the dance everything is so sensual where as in SEA you just get the same ol garish pop that you hear back home and it seems that even the Thai version of that tried to replicate it.

    …and I guess my last point is if you are truly an adventurer, maybe not so much a backpacker, it’s much easier in SA to go “off map”, in fact in some places you can pretty much feel like Dr. Jones 🙂

    …I guess the moral of the story is, every place has their own pluses and minuses. Go to the place for you and enjoy the place for what it has to offer.

    The Rumbler Man

  3. I’ve traveled 1 year in South America and been living for 10 years here now… I’ve been only 2 weeks in Thailand, not the same experiences so can’t really compare… depends on what you are looking for…. There is an incredible food tradition in Colombia (the best experience was while staying and working with farmers in the Antioquia region, home made food and off the beaten track…) and great variety, as in Ecuador or in Bolivia and not to mention Peru which has an internationally known cuisine, specially regarding seafood, at the same level of fame as Thailand… I think South East Asia has altogether an more standard offer for massive backpacking tourism, while South America as a whole, has a much more unorganized approach, no global approach… The real experience in South America is to integrate in the culture, the mood, which is not so difficult really, being itself already a mix of influences, which helps get off the beaten track, where comparably it starts to be different and really exiting… ah forgot to say, regarding beaches, In South America, contrary to what is said in the article, you have the most complete range of beaches and seaside locations you can possibly imagine, from fjords south Chile to Mediterranean type, dry/desert, tropical humid pacific, Caribbean, tropical dry, temperate and all size, ambiance etc etc… you just choose!

  4. I know this post is old but I just now found it and thought the points were very informative and well made. That being said sometimes its not about a pros and cons list, the heart loves what the heart loves. My heart happened to fall in love with South America as a whole, the culture, the history, the people, the music! With a little patience, lots of time, and a slightly bigger budget I would recommend South America to anyone in a heart beat! Also Central America as well, Costa Rica is a must!!!

  5. I should add I’m not a fan of the Latin machismo culture, and much prefer the gentleness and tolerance of SE Asian Buddhist-Hindu societies. Latin America definitely has hotter women though. 🙂

  6. Interesting post but you missed a lot of SE Asia! You just went on the usual backpacker trail of Thai-Laos-Cambodia-Vietnam, nothing wrong with that but there is so much more to see. Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia… thousands of far-flung islands in that archipelago and so easy to get away from the party scene of the Thai islands.

    My humble opinion is that SE Asia wins by a landslide, especially if you’re a long-term resident/traveler.

    More diverse cultures and languages.
    SE food wins easily.
    Easier and better transportation options.
    Far more and better beach options.

    I’m biased because I lived in SE Asia (and will probably retire there). I speak Mandarin and some Malay, but very little Spanish (yeah I’m an American outlier). 😉

    SE just has amazing diversity, the more time you spend there and the more effort you make to remove yourself from the backpacker party scene, the more rewarding it becomes. SA has the Spanish colonial heritage and mestizo culture, but for me it is a bit same-same.

  7. I’m from Indonesia. Why you don’t come to my country?
    There are so many diversity here and Bali has the best beach 🙂

    1. i’m from indonesia, bali has the worst beaches in all of indonesia, so much trash…
      people come to bali for culture and cheap stuff…
      the rest of indonesia pretty much unknown deep jungle of borneo/sumatra and snowcap mountain range in papua there is so much more to see

  8. Very well written article. I’ve done a lot of travel in both locations and you were right on the money with your observations.

  9. Chip-the-way-past-20-something


    If your first love is wild nature, then go to South America. The mountains of Peru, the jungles of the Amazon, there is so much to see. For ancient civilizations, it is a toss-up — the Maya versus the Khmer, you will need to see both. For food, outside the foodie ghettos like Lima (which is awesome), SE Asia wins hands down. Beaches is a toss-up, but there is an ambience to the Pacific Islands (try Palau, Pohnpei, Raratonga, Fiji’s outer islands) that is ineffable and unique, pure magic. Now this is a real stereotype, but not without truth: More young backpackers are there for the party in SE Asia, while there are more explorers and nature lovers in South America, Now for music, though, head to Africa… For me, the savannas of southern Africa touch the soul more the anywhere else. Namibia, Botswana, and of course South Africa, the great hope and fear of the 21st century, the most amazing country of all perhaps. Final unasked for advice: Do what is most physically difficult and uncomfortable when you are young. Vienna, Prague, cruirsing Greenland or the Antarctic – they are al indispensable, but they will keep until you are older (and richer).

  10. Hi,
    I just found this website when I tried to google which side of the world would be the best for my first long-term backpack trip. I would never say I find an article that would refer to my needs as much as this one did.
    So happy to hear I am not the only one struggling with this question. I guess, there is no right answer to that and even though everything (in my case at least) is for SEA, I would stil love to see SA as well…how have you made the decision which one to go for first?

    1. Personally I headed towards SEA because it’s much less expensive and a bit easier to navigate for a first time backpacker. I’m really glad I’ve done both though.

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