Michael Turtle, TimeTravelTurtle.com

On my first trip to South America I gave myself six months to see the entire continent. By the end of the trip, I’d seen just four countries. That’s the thing about South America: once you’re in, it doesn’t let go. The more you see and do, the more you realize you’re only scratching the surface.

Every day in South America is an adventure. Every new encounter gives you a snapshot of life in a part of the world that feels mysterious and familiar at the same time. The small towns where you wait for an onward bus; the hawkers that jump aboard selling anything and everything you could possibly want (or not want!); the other backpackers you meet along the way; the locals you get talking to in terrible Spanish, but who are willing to chat all the same.

I’ve been lost in the streets of vast cities, desperately trying to find accommodation. I’ve stared blankly at an indecipherable menu and just pointed in blind optimism. I’ve walked into a bar alone and friendless and left with new friends. I’ve been drenched in rain, burnt by sun and frozen on mountainsides. But I wouldn’t do a second of it differently.

And all that happened just moving between the iconic sights and must-see landmarks. The thundering waterfalls at Iguazú; the ancient ruins of the Incas; the jagged glacial peaks in Patagonia; and the hectic colors of Valparaiso.

Each of them becomes etched in your mind forever--a lifetime of highlights in one journey.

A big part of backpacking in South America is the physical challenge. Hiking the Andes; climbing the volcanoes in Pucon; glacier trekking in Argentina. None of this is easy, but that just makes the whole thing more rewarding.

I’m happy to admit to nerves before I arrived in South America. It has a certain reputation that, in some places, is probably justified. But in all the months I’ve spent there, nothing bad has ever happened. With a bit of care, it's likely you'll find just the same. The majority of people you'll meet will go out of their way to look after you. I still remember the family in Uruguay who offered me dinner and drove me to a hotel when I was stranded one night. They are the kind of people I remember when I think back to my travels across South America.

One of my most fascinating lessons has been the continent’s true diversity. It’s easy to imagine all of Latin America as one big, European-descended family. But when you look beneath the surface you find indigenous cultures in the Andes, rich African heritage across the entire continent, and even more unlikely pockets elsewhere--blond descendants of German settlers in the Peruvian Amazon, Welsh speaking farmers in Patagonia. This is a continent that defines multiculturalism.

The last time I went to South America, I spent the entire five week trip in Peru alone. Even then--after beaches, deserts, mountains and jungle--I left feeling like I hadn't seen enough. That's the magic of the place. You always want to go back.

Enjoy your travels. I'm sure you'll feel the same as me when you're finished... well, finished for now, at least.

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