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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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