Why South America is closer than you think

Everyone wants to go to South America. I don't think I've met a single traveller who hasn't claimed to have that vast continent on their "places to go" list. That's because it's backpacker heaven.

And yet, the claim those people make always seem to come with the same caveat that I've heard over and over again: "I really want to go to South America. But you'd need, like, six months or so to do it properly wouldn't you? So I'm going to wait."

OK, that's partly true: you would need six months or more to see South America. But do you really have to see then entire thing right now? You don't even have to attempt to see one country. Or all of one city.

South America seems to suffer from this idea among a lot of Australians that it's prohibitively far away, and that the only way to have a holiday there is to quit your job and tour around the whole thing on one epic adventure. But it's really not that far, and you don't need that long to see it.

Consider the flights. You'd think seriously about going to LA for a week to just go outlet shopping, wouldn't you? You'd fly to Vancouver and go snowboarding in Whistler for a fortnight, no problem.

South America is no further away than that. Qantas has direct flights from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, that take 13 hours. LAN has daily flights on 787 Dreamliners to Santiago, via Auckland, that take 17 hours. And from December, Air New Zealand will be flying direct from Auckland to Buenos Aires, which will take about 14 hours.

It used to be that there was only one airline flying to South America, and the prices were sky-high. These days, however, with three carriers in the air, prices are down and accessibility is up.

So in no longer than the time it would take you to fly to LA, you're in Santiago, the gateway to Patagonia to the south, and the Atacama Desert to the north – and that's just in Chile. Skip over the Andes into Argentina, about a 40-minute flight away, and you're in the wine country of Mendoza. So there's your first South American trip taken care of.

But, as they say, there's more. Let's say you've got a standard two-week holiday from work. In about the same amount of time it would take you to fly from the east coast of Australia to Europe, you can be in Lima, eating amazing food and getting ready to tackle the Inca Trail over in Cusco. Get that done and you've still got time for a quick trip into the Amazon from Puerto Maldonado before heading home in time for a Monday morning start.

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Or maybe you prefer Buenos Aires, which is closer to Australia than New York, and a fair bit cheaper. Spend five or six days there, then head down into Patagonia for another week, and fly home via Santiago.

Or hang out in Rio and then go to the Pantanal. Or spend two weeks exploring Colombia, from Cartagena to Barranquilla to Cali. Or head out to the Galapagos before doing a foodie tour of Lima. Or explore Bolivia and then hang out in Valparaiso on your way home. Or go on a wine country crawl from Aconcagua in Chile to Mendoza and Salta in Argentina.

The point is that these are all legitimate two-week itineraries. You can do a huge amount in two weeks in South America, and it doesn't have to cost any more than a trip to Europe or the US or Canada. It also won't be any more difficult or time-consuming to achieve.

South America doesn't have to be a "six months" destination. You don't have to do the entire thing in one go. And it doesn't have to be the only time you'll ever get the chance to go there. You can keep going back, and back, and back.

If this amazing continent, with all of its great food, its history, its mountains, its deserts, its beaches, its culture and its people, is high up on your list of places to go, then I have just one piece of advice: go. Don't book another long-haul trip anywhere else. Just go to South America.

For as little or as much time as you can spare.

Have you been to South America? Do you think it can be done in small chunks? Or did you have an epic adventure?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also:

A first timer's guide to South America

Ten travel experiences you should never stop doing