Whatever you do, get to backpacker paradise

I don't usually do this. I find overly gushing travel stories a bit suspicious. You always think to yourself: everything couldn't possibly be that good. Tone it down a little.

But bugger it. Stand back people, I'm about to gush.

South America. I remember talking to another traveller way back in the day, before I'd seen much of the world, and the guy found out I'd never been to South America. He looked shocked.

"Whatever you do man," he said, dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "get to South America. It's backpacker paradise."

It took me another couple of years before I found out that he was absolutely right. South America is backpacker paradise.

Those who've been there will be nodding their heads. Those who haven't should stop what they're doing right now and book a ticket, or plan to stow away in a ship, or practice their long-distance swimming.

I'm not saying you can't have an amazing time in other continents. But South America? The. Greatest.

Do you like good food? Or wine? Or beer? Or dancing? Or football? Or ancient cultures? Or beautiful landscapes? Or beaches? Or forests? Or glaciers? Or ruins? Or wildlife? Or trekking? Or horse-riding? Or warm, friendly people? Or a touch of adventure?

If you don't, we can no longer be friends. If you do, however, then have I got the place for you.

(I apologise for lumping the whole continent into one – there are a million differences from country to country, but for the purposes of a short post I'm going with the similarities.)

Even when you combine all of those elements above, you still don't get close to explaining just what it is that makes South America such a perfect place for backpackers.

OK, so it's cheap – some countries ridiculously so (Bolivia), others disappointingly not so much (Brazil). But by and large it's a super-affordable place to travel around, and relatively easy.

There's the sort of cheap, comfortable public transport that you'd pay anything for in Africa (but won't find). There's decent accommodation, priced at a point that makes Europe – and Australia – look insanely expensive. And the standard of experiences is difficult to compare.

You can have the best meal of your life for peanuts in Lima. Or set off on a life-changing adventure for next to nothing in Ecuador.

Language isn't so much a barrier as an adventure. Spanish and Portuguese aren't that difficult to understand – take a phrase book and you'll easily get by.

And you want variety in a destination? Try telling a Uruguayan that his country is similar to neighbouring Argentina. You won't make many friends. And remember, this is the continent that spawned Che Guevara, Lionel Messi, Eva Peron, Pablo Escobar and Shakira. Homogenous it ain't.

There are some incredible attractions in South America, but its people are its greatest asset. You might come for the Pantanal or Patagonia, for the Amazon or the Andes, but you'll leave thinking about the people. There's a genuine warmth to South Americans that you'll rarely find elsewhere.

They're open, friendly. They'll grab your hand and ask you to dance. Invite you back to their mother's place for dinner. Teach you some local words, accept you as a friend.

But they can also be dangerous. The whole continent might be a huge serving of joy, but South American countries often come topped with a dollop of scary. There's danger throughout – muggings; sometimes violent crime. Maybe that just adds to the thrill.

But still, it's more than that. There's something almost hard to put your finger on about South America.

Somewhere in the chaos, in the occasional violence, in the beauty, in the passion, in the continent's pulsating blend of cultures and peoples, there seems to be a shared love of the things that make life great. An understanding that enjoyment is the highest priority.

South America is a long night at a Buenos Aires club. It's a party on a beach in Colombia. It's a football game in Rio. It's a pisco sour in Santiago. It's a street-cart snack in Salvador. It's a festival in Peru. It's a hike in Patagonia. It's a family meal in Uruguay.

It's backpacker paradise. Go there. Now.

Have you been to South America? Do you agree that it's backpacker paradise? What's your favourite destination there?

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