Reviews of Gap Year Programs in South America

Photo Credit: Marinera Dancers in Peru

Having a hard time deciding where in the world to take your gap year? Then answer this simple question: Do you want to taste a little bit of everything and experience all you can during this adventure? In that case, South America is the place for you!

This region has it all - beautifully diverse landscapes, exotic wildlife, ancient cultures, and all types of adventure opportunities. Whether you're there for the hiking or trekking, to learn a new language, to immerse yourself in a rich culture, or to dance the night away, South America has you covered. So let's get going!

  • Population: 389,860,000
  • Popular Countries: Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina
  • Popular Cities: Rio de Janeiro, Cuzco, Quito, Buenos Aires
  • Popular Destinations for those on a gap year: Inca Trail & Machu Picchu/Galapagos Islands/Amazon Rainforest/Andes mountains
  • Visa: Tourist Visa valid for 30-90 days upon arrival
  • Fun Facts: Home to the world's biggest rainforest (Amazon), longest mountain range, (Andes), tallest waterfall (Angel Falls), and largest river by volume (Amazon)
  • South America has a wide variety of options for gap-year seekers. Whatever your interests may be, you'll find something here to pique them. Want to learn how to communicate with native Spanish speakers? Experience life in a remote rainforest village? Give love and care to children in need? Learn the history of a fascinating culture? Or maybe just take on some epic travel adventures? All of these opportunities are up for grabs when you choose South America for your gap year destination.

    Some of the most popular types of gap year programs are:

    Language Learning/Cultural Immersion: Stay with a local host family and observe how they live. Eat what they eat, do what they do, and learn to interact with them in their language by helping them with daily tasks and chores. Learn how to cook some of the staple foods in their diet. The indigenous communities of the Peruvian Andes make for an ideal host location offering a blend of history, culture, tradition, and immersion.

    Machu Picchu
    Hiking the Machu Picchu Trail

    Adventure Travel: South America is a land ripe with adventure, and has enough variety to meet any traveler's needs. In Peru, you can explore the sacred ruins of Machu Picchu after hiking the world-famous Inca Trail.

    Those into nature can marvel at some of the world's biggest waterfalls; Kaieteur Falls in Guyana, Angel Falls in Venezuela, and Iquazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. You can trek through the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, or even dive in the world-renowned Galapagos Islands. You can learn to salsa in Argentina, or just party all night in Rio de Janeiro. Whatever you choose, it's sure to be an adventure that won't disappoint!

    Environmental/Wildlife Conservation: Home to both the Amazon Rainforest and the Galapagos Islands, it's no surprise that South America has astounding numbers of exotic wildlife, many of which need to be protected to ensure their continued survival.

    This type of gap year program could involve planting trees, rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in the Amazon, helping conserve the ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, or developing education programs for nature conservation. Whatever you choose, you'll be helping to preserve some of the most important ecosystems on our planet.

    Wildlife in the Galapagos
    Wildlife in the Galapagos

    Volunteering with Children: Many countries in South America are still developing, meaning that some families don't have enough to provide for their children. A volunteer placement of this type could involve a number of opportunities such as teaching children English in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, caring for young children in daycare facilities or orphanages in Quito, or working with street children in Lima.

    Once you've nailed down the location and type of gap year you'd like to take on, the hardest part is done! Now it's time to prepare for your upcoming adventure. This means doing things like saving money, getting necessary vaccinations, applying for visas, and arranging travel insurance.

    Visas: Nationals of the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK will receive a Tourist Visa upon arrival that is valid for a range of 30-90 days in most South American countries. Visas can be renewed for a fee for those wishing to stay longer. In countries like Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, citizens of certain countries need to pay an entry fee, which varies depending on the country. Check at your local embassy for more detailed information.

    Cost of living: If you are taking a gap year with a certified organization, costs such as transportation and accommodation are likely to be included in the total program fare. For independent travelers, though, the amount you'll need to budget per month or per day varies depending on the country and city you're in.

    In general, the cost of living in this region is much cheaper in comparison to the USA or Europe. In many destinations in South America, you can live comfortably on 800 USD per month. See South America Living for the full list. Daily living costs in USD range from low in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador (22 USD/day), to midrange in places like Peru (27-31 USD/day), to high in countries like Argentina and Brazil (45-53 USD/day). For more information and to get the breakdown of prices, see The Price of Travel's 2014 Backpacker Index.

    Dancing the Tango in Argentina

    If you start to run low on cash, searching for an English Teaching job is a good option, especially in countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador, where tourism continues to increase.

    Health: General health tips include

    • drink only purified or bottled water
    • wash your hands frequently, especially before and after eating
    • take extra precautions in mosquito-ridden areas (dress appropriately, use a mosquito net, and wear insect repellent)

    One of the most common minor illnesses a visitor to this region may experience is traveler's diarrhea, due to dietary changes. Bring a supply of oral rehydration tablets with you just in case.

    Vaccinations: Many vaccinations may be applicable to travelers of South America, depending on your immunization history. Some of the most common include Hepatitis A and B, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, and Tetanus. In some countries, vaccination against Yellow Fever is compulsory. Anti-malarial medications may also be necessary, especially when traveling to the Amazon Basin.

    For the most accurate advice, it's best to consult a doctor trained in travel health before departure.

    Safety: South America tends to get a bit of a bad rap when it comes to safety, but following a few simple guidelines can greatly increase your chances of having a safe and enjoyable experience.

    The main safety tips include:

    • Conceal valuables
    • Dress modestly and conservatively
    • Always remain alert and aware of your surroundings
    • Avoid traveling alone when possible
    • Avoid remote, poorly lit areas at night
    • Take taxis rather than walking around the streets at night

    South America is a continent not to be missed by anyone with an appetite for adventure. Unique opportunities abound that you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Rich culture, breathtaking scenery, and friendly locals await you. So, what are you waiting for? Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are ready for you in this land of fun, sun, and adventure!

    Contributed by Allison Burney

    Allison is an aspiring writer and freelance travel journalist currently living and teaching English in South Korea. In recent years she's developed a growing passion for all things related to travel and adventure. With a strong desire to learn about the world, she plans to keep traveling and experiencing what life has to offer. Follow along with her on her travel blog, Adventure Awaits! or connect with her on Twitter @alleycat_b.

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