For some, hitchhiking is a way of travelling that changes perspectives, allowing you to meet local people and really get underneath the skin of a new country; for others, it’s a dangerous, irresponsible act that they’d never, ever do.
It follows that there’s little agreement about whether it is safe to hitchhike in South America.
Speak to any Chileans or Argentineans, and you’ll notice a marked difference in their attitudes towards hitchhiking than those of the people in Europe.
Back at home in the UK, hitchhiking is so inextricably linked in everyone’s minds with psychopaths and serial killers, that your mum probably thinks you’d be safer riding on the back of a tiger pinched from a local zoo than thumbing a lift with a stranger.
But in my experience, hitchhiking in South America doesn’t have to be a recipe for disaster. It’s a way of meeting local people – as I found when I hitchhiked along the Carretera Austral in Chile.
In some countries, it’s sometimes the only way of actually getting to some of the most far-flung and adventurous places. In fact, in Cuba, further north, it’s known as “coger botella” and is very, very common – and something you can do even if you’re worrying about safety in Cuba.
So is it really ever safe to hitchhike in South America?
If you’re thinking of hitchhiking here for the first time, I strongly recommend you check out my top tips for safe hitchhiking in South America, particularly as rules about hitchhiking vary considerably between countries. I’ve also written a lot about personal experiences and moments that I’ve shared with local people thanks to hitchhiking, all of which you can find in the further reading section at the end of this article.
But I wanted to go beyond my own personal opinions of whether it’s safe to hitchhike in South America and asked that some top bloggers who’ve tried it give me their thoughts.
What you’ll see is that for all of us, we’ve experienced how yes, it is safe to hitchhike in South America and how it’s an exciting, thoroughly adventurous and unique way of travelling. Importantly, we’ve also learned that it won’t necessarily go to plan – but that’s half the fun anyway.
Experiences from the experts: hitchhiking in South America
So here are the stories of bloggers who’ve hitchhiked in South America – and lived to tell the tale.
Kristin from Be My Travel Muse
I always say that hitchhiking is one of the best ways to get a true insight into the culture of the country you’re visiting. Few things are as beautiful as openly asking for help from a perfect stranger who chooses to provide it – without expecting anything in return.
After hitchhiking by myself through China, and catching a few rides in Mozambique, Germany, and Costa Rica, I didn’t feel too daunted at the idea of hitchhiking in Patagonia. In fact, as a part of the world where buses are infrequent and the roads aren’t even paved, it’s the way that lots of people get around.
What I hadn’t bargained for is that I would have so much competition! Some days it took nine hours just to get a ride because there were plenty of other people with the same idea along the Carretera Austral in Chile.
It is actually a rite of passage for young Chileans to try to get as far as they can on the road by their thumb, so while it’s a not-so-scary and dangerous option, its popularity does make it a bit harder to do.
It was still an incredible experience, full of generosity and all kinds of amazing stories. My favorite is when a 10 wheeler truck stopped to pick me up and I climbed into the back to see about a dozen or so other travelers all passing around a bottle of wine and playing music. I couldn’t stop laughing while we bumped along that gravel road as the rain poured down and we sat in the remaining bits of asphalt in the dump truck.
You can offer me a fancy resort but I would take this any day. This is truly traveling; this is truly living.
Andrew and Emily from Along Dusty Roads
Raised on a healthy diet of fear and warnings that hitchhiking was a sure way to get yourself killed, it was something that neither of us had really attempted before we visited South America.
In fact, it wasn’t until encountering an Argentinian couple who had hitchhiked whilst 8 months pregnant and with a dog in tow that we realised it was something that we should try out for ourselves!
Whilst we never used it to cover large distances, it became our go-to option to reach remote places or head out for a day trip if there were no feasible or affordable alternatives.
Our experience was overwhelmingly positive and these short journeys with total strangers offered us the unique chance to actually speak Spanish with locals who weren’t bored of seeing or serving tourists, but were actually interested to exchange stories – that was the most rewarding part of hitchhiking in South America for us.
“Haciendo el dedo” (making the thumb), as hitchhiking is called in these parts, is not just encouraged but is actually the only way some people can negotiate expensive intercity routes in countries as vast as Argentina or Chile.
This means it is not uncommon to meet people who are travelling solely via this method in the region.
And, although the thought of depending on hitchhiking doesn’t appeal to us, we do enjoy it as a backup option which adds an extra dimension to any adventure.
In terms of safety tips? Always trying to do it with a travel buddy makes sense and gives you that extra peace of mind, whilst holding up a sign with the place name always helps shorten your waiting time!
Luke from Awe Around the Earth
I’ve been kicking around South America for two years now and have hitchhiked with great results in Ecuador, Chile and Argentina.
My first hitchhiking stories came on back to back days and were more accidental than anything.
In rural Ecuador, I got off a bus at a waterfall and got back to the road only to be told this town did not let buses stop, so, with no other options, I stuck my thumb out and 10 minutes later found myself in a minivan full of friendly hydroelectric workers.
Fast forward to the next day: I was waiting by the highway for my long distance bus and a truck driver stopped and called me over.
After an amazing 8 hours spent delivering Savila to pharmacies in tiny towns on my way to Lago Agrio, I’m still friends with my driver now, 2 years later . I think that is the huge advantage of hitchhiking in South America. It’s a surefire way to make local friends.
Another main region for hitchhiking is Patagonia in this southern end of the continent distances are vast and transport prices absurd.
Luckily, it’s super easy to hitchhike in Patagonia: just use common sense. The fact that so many backpackers do it there also means it’s fairly easy to buddy up which is a great move if you’re worried about safety.
In my travels I’ve met many women who’ve shared their hitching stories and never heard of a seriously bad experience; some mildly awkward rides yes, but nothing worse. Speaking some basic Spanish is an asset but is not absolutely necessary.
Hitchhiking in South America is a great reminder that no matter how bleak the media makes the world seem, people are generally good and want to help you.
Were I a woman, I wouldn’t hesitate to hitchhike in many regions of South America. Ask around at your hostel or with locals to check on safety in any particular region, but enjoy the rides, conversation, and new friends.
- Read my tips for how you can – and should – hitchhike in South America.
- Learn why I fell in love with hitchhiking in Chile, and what it taught me about the South American concept of time.
- Check out my article about how to travel safely in South America as a woman for more advice taken from my own experiences.