Choose Your Continent: Traveling in South America versus Europe

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While many people choose to backpack around Europe, surrounding themselves with more history than one could ever find in Canada or the United States, there is also the opportunity to explore the extraordinary landscapes of South America, a continent often reduced to a singular name but, in reality, is so culturally rich and unique.  Here is a comparison of what it’s like to travel in these two very different places, and what differences and similarities one can expect.

Infographic comparing travel in Europe and South America

1. Cost

Lodging, Transportation, and Meals. Flight deals to major cities within South America don’t come up nearly as often as flight deals to London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin. However, while the flight across the equator may be more expensive, it’s evened out by how inexpensive everything is once you’re there. In South America, even in touristy areas, it’s very possible to survive on less than $20 per day; decent hostels can cost as little as $7/night, you can get a satisfying meal for under 10 soles (roughly $4), and transportation via cab or local bus is relatively cheap.

In Europe, you’d be lucky to find a decent hostel in a popular location for a nightly rate under $20; in fact, $20 may only be enough to cover your dinner for the day! Less “popular” areas, such as Belgium, as well as smaller towns within popular countries, can be cheaply navigated, but food and accommodation in major cities will run your budget up quickly. 

The Sites. Ready for the good news? Many museums in Europe are subsidized by the government and some offer students and those under 26 years old discounts. Some major cities, such as London, offer "Attractions Passes" for those interested in saving small amounts of money while seeing a lot of the sites. On the other hand, treks that compose the bulk of the really popular attractions in South America can be costly. An excursion to the Galapagos will run nearly $1000, hiking the four day Inca Trail will be close to $600 USD, and jungle treks in the Amazon can be high depending on the tour company.  

That said, if you’re the adventurous type, there are a lot of self-guided hikes and treks you can do instead with only a park’s minimal entrance fee as a major cost, such as through Torres del Paine in Patagonia, Chile, or the Colca Canyon in Peru. Museums and cathedrals in South America are also fairly inexpensive, and many sites just operate on visitor donations.

Bottom Line. It is important not to rob yourself of a bucket-list item because it’s more expensive than something less famous. When else are you going to get back to this place and have this chance? If you have to, skimp on accommodations and transportation, but indulge yourself in food and attractions; you can have a comfortable bed and a quiet bus ride when you’re back home. If you budget smartly, you will be able to do everything you want to do, no matter what continent you’re visiting.

2. Getting Around

Smooth and Fast. Inter-city connectivity by train lines such as EuroRail and TGV make getting around Europe extremely quick and easy, not to mention inexpensive flights offered by Ryanair. It’s perfectly feasible to be in Germany one day and France the next, with travel time reduced to a minimum. Plus, there are plenty of beautiful places to stop along the way while taking a train through Europe in order to ensure more time on foot and less time in a train cab.

Bumpy and Long. You might not truly appreciate this interconnectivity and convenience until you experience the painstaking alternative. For example, in Peru, there are no high speed trains in between cities, flying is expensive, and the Andes mountains hinder road efficiency. You can spend a little more money for a tourist bus that makes several stops along the way to smaller off-the-radar attractions, but due to the lengthy time it takes to get anywhere, it’s better to book night buses so you don’t lose precious days to travel time.

Bottom Line. You will never complain about an annoying connecting train in Brussels again once you’ve sat, or most likely stood, on a local Peruvian night bus for 13 hours, squished in by locals while an overzealous Spanish missionary yells to all the passengers about how you’re all going to Hell. Transportation in South America is an adventure on its own.

3. Language

Choosing to Learn, vs. Learning is the Only Choice. You’re more likely to run into a local in Europe that speaks English than one in South America. Unless you’re in a smaller city or a place that doesn’t see a lot of tourists, most Europeans will do their best to speak English if you’re really struggling with their language. So, Europe is a good place to go if you’re just beginning your mastery of a plethora of second languages from French to German

On the other hand, South America is an ideal place to really immerse yourself in Spanish and Portuguese. There are not nearly as many people that speak English, or if they do, it is more often fragmented. This is especially true in more rural areas and smaller towns. Contrary to popular belief, South America offers great diversity in languages. There are many local dialects and native languages still used prevalently, such as Quechua in the Cusco region of Peru or Aymara in Bolivia, which is actually spoken so prevalently it is one of the country’s official languages.

Bottom Line. No matter what, don’t be ashamed to bring a phrasebook even if it makes you look like a tourist; you don’t want to be stuck in a situation where you desperately need a bandaid and, having no idea how to ask for one, end up with a pharmacist interpreting your awkward hand signals as a need for feminine hygiene products. Plus, it’s polite to at least try.

4. Sightseeing

Man vs. Nature. South America is a continent filled with some of the most amazing natural sights in the world; from Iguazu Falls to the Amazonian jungle and the jagged peaks of Patagonia to the canyons of the Andes to the Bolivian salt flats to the desert dunes of Peru, there are many sights of natural wonders to bring viewers to their knees. 

While there are several incredible man made structures in South America, like Machu Picchu and Christ the Redeemer, it’s almost like every other street in Europe features an architectural triumph. Rome alone houses the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, and St. Peter’s Basilica, architectural wonders that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. The streets of pretty much every major city are sprinkled with cathedrals that took centuries to complete or the remains of city walls; one building in the French city of Lille still has cannon balls from a long-ago war lodged into its walls! 

Bottom Line. There are some beautiful European natural sites, such as the Alps in Switzerland, the flower fields of France, and the Italian coast, but it’s generally the history and the architecture you go there to see. Ultimately, the type of sightseeing you enjoy, be it historical or natural wonders of the world, will determine whether you’ll prefer Europe or South America for your next travel destination.

5. Safety

Common Sense No Matter the Continent. There’s a conception that in terms of safety, South America is more dangerous than Europe. But, like all places in the world, there are areas you avoid because you know they’re unsafe. Walking back to your hostel alone at night, no matter the city, is never a good idea. Petty theft occurs even in the safest of cities in the world, and like any smart traveler, it’s best to always have your belongings secure and to be aware of your new surroundings that, no matter where you are, will differ from the comfort of home. Plus, it’s always entertaining when, after wrapping every backpack strap around various limbs to prevent theft while sleeping, you have to untangle yourself from your own trap in the morning.

6. People

The North American concept of personal space dissipates the minute you cross international borders. Having less space to work with than the United States and Canada, Europeans and South Americans even more so, are used to living on top of each other and stuffing in more people per square foot than what we are used to. Moreover, South Americans, and many Europeans by nature, like to be close to another person while in a conversation, though to a typical North American this may seem rude and intrusive. No one is intentionally trying to make you uncomfortable when they’re standing extra close to you on the London Tube; for them it’s normal and commonplace to not allow another person their meter’s-width of free air.

South Americans are also generally not as obsessive about germs and anti-bacterial soap as we are, and thus will have no qualms over kissing the faces and hands of strange tourists they’ve just met. Conversely, in a place like New York, you may find that a simple brush against a local’s arm will make them want to beat you with a crowbar. Such an attitude will get you nowhere in South America nor Europe – if you want ample personal space for miles and miles, perhaps give Antarctica a shot (though you may be crowded by penguins)!

Bottom Line. There are a lot of stereotypes about people in various parts of the world – the French are snobs, the Brits are gloomy, and the Spanish are loud. These may or may not be the case, and it’s important to approach everything with an open mind. Chances are, if you are willing to be respectful and accepting of another person’s culture and country, they will welcome travelers with open arms rather than scorn.

Which is for You?

Europe and South America are such vastly different places that it’s difficult to compare them; neither is better than the other, and both will offer you very different traveling experiences. Only you can decide what’s right for your budget, your sightseeing desires, and your comfort zone – though isn’t the major benefit of traveling to coax yourself out of that comfort zone?  

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