12 Best Places to Visit in South America
South America, the continent of nature. From the highest mountains outside the Himalayas to the driest desert in the world, from the largest tropical rainforest to pristine Patagonian glaciers. For the outdoor inclined the continent as it all. There are also beautiful beaches, cities full of culture and some of the best skiing in the southern hemisphere. While still fairly unpopular compared to the likes of North America, Europe and Asia South America has so many gems just waiting to be explored and discovered. If you’re not yet convinced and South America isn’t on your radar then here are 12 of the best places to visit in South America that you simply cannot miss off any upcoming itinerary.
WHEN TO GO
When to go really does depend on which country or region you’re visiting. South America is a huge continent and climates vary dramatically. Remember that seasons in the southern hemisphere are reversed so away from the countries of the tropics like Chile and Argentina’s summer season is in Dec/Jan. The best time to visit the tropics are all year round, except for the rainy season and the best time to visit southern Brazil, Chile and Argentina is in the summer or autumn. Generally speaking, if you are planning a huge bucket list trip across the continent the best time to visit is the southern hemisphere autumn or April to June and March for Patagonia.
THE BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN SOUTH AMERICA
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
As one of two of South America’s Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan citadel nestled high in the Andes Mountains. Often shrouded in thick fog this city dates back to the 15th Century, which, only a century later became abandoned after the invasion of the Spanish in Peru. Machu Picchu can be accessed by train or travellers can opt to do the multi-day Incan trail which takes you high into the Andes mountains to the citadel itself. It’s well worth every one of the fifty miles you’ll cross to get to the Incan site. After seeing the ruins, which can all be done in one day, don’t miss 2 Days in Cusco, Peru to explore more Incan culture, beautiful colonial architecture and delicious food.
If you’re plant-based then don’t miss our Best Plant-Based Restaurants in Cusco, Peru guide.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
The city of endless beaches, caipirinhas, samba, football and açai, Rio de Janeiro is one of South America’s most beautiful and fascinating cities. With so many viewpoints in the city, one of the best things to do is get yourself up high to really realise the beauty of this coastline, pristine waters and golden beaches. It’s also one of the only cities in the world with a national park inside the city itself, so why not walk up through it to the world-famous Christ the Redeemer? During the day spend your time on the beach eating açai by the cup-full, exploring the historical centre, seeing landmarks like Sugarloaf Mountain and Lage Park and by night dance away to Brazilian samba while sipping on caipirinhas. If you love to party then you might also want to visit in February as the city shuts down and takes to the streets for the largest multi-day street party in the world, carnival.
LOS GLACIARES NATIONAL PARK, ARGENTINA
If you love trekking and the outdoors then don’t miss the opportunity to visit Argentina’s answer to the Dolomites. Los Glaciares National Park contains the Fitz Roy Range, one of the most famous and well-known places to trek in Patagonia and quite easily one of the best places to visit in South America. Make the town of El Chalten your base and explore the area through a wide range of day treks or, if you have your own camping gear, organise a few multi-day treks through the valleys and up to the purest glacial lakes. Trek to the base of ’the towers’ and through the untouched native forests in the area and prepare for the purest experience with nature possible.
ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE
Spanning much of northern Chile and some of Bolivia and Argentina too, the Atacama Desert is a vast land of salt, rock and dirt. It’s the driest desert in the world but it might not be as sandy as you think. There are so many things to see and do in the Atacama Desert including the famous ‘Hand of the Desert’ sculpture just south of Antofagasta, high-altitude Andean lakes, massive expanses of salt-flats and indigenous villages. Base yourself in San Pedro de Atacama, rent a car and explore this stunning landscape on your own terms. Don’t forget to check out The Ultimate Self-Driving Itinerary for Atacama Desert, Chile + Must-See Spots for the perfect Atacama itinerary which takes into account the high altitudes in the area.
UYUNI SALT FLATS, BOLIVIA
Just across the border from the Atacama Desert lie the Bolivian salt flats of Uyuni, one of the most unique places in the world. Visit during the wet season and be taken aback by the large expanses of high altitude nothingness; only a reflective, salt-encrusted ground. While there isn’t that much to do on the salt flats themselves apart from a jeep tour to visit various landscape features in the area, the surrounding towns and oasis’ are definitely worth a look.
ROSARIO ISLANDS, COLOMBIA
The Rosario Islands are a small set of islands located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. The largest island, Isla Grande is the perfect place to hang up a hammock for a few days and let life simply pass by. There is nothing much to do on the islands apart from relaxing, swim in the crystal Caribbean waters, eat delicious, fresh foods, snorkel and kayak through the mangroves. The islands are so small they can be easily walked or kayaked around. It’s truly a place to really relax, meet people and forget about your problems.
For more on Colombia’s beaches check out The Best Beaches in Colombia (on the Caribbean Coast) and The Essential Guide to Tayrona National Park, Colombia
The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon encompasses 5.5 million square kilometres and while most of it lies in Brazil it can also be visited in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. A trip to the Amazon is a once in a lifetime experience, a chance to see nature at it’s very best and a chance to discover creatures, ingredients and ways of living you never thought existed. Its a part of the world that still holds so many secrets; we really know so little about the people that live there, the properties of all the plants that grow there and the wildlife that roam deep inside the rainforests. Some of the most unmissable things to do are to take a boat tour and spot the pink Amazon river dolphins, go on a walking tour through the jungle, visit a local village and spend a night under the stars (under a mosquito net of course). The best places to head for your Amazon adventure are Iquitos in Peru, Leticia in Colombia and Manaus in Brazil.
TORRES DEL PAINE, CHILE
The Torres del Paine National Park is one of Chile’s and Patagonia’s true gems. This wild, rugged national park is the perfect place for trekking and spending some much needed time outdoors. The three jagged granite peaks that tower over the skyline give the park its name and can be seen from most places in the park, thus making stunning photography opportunities pretty common. Visitors can enjoy driving around and staying in some of the most luxurious hotels as well as doing boat and kayak tours on Grey Lake where you’ll be surrounded by icebergs all around you as they break off Grey Glacier. For the more adventurous don’t miss the shorter ‘W’ or the longer ‘O’ trek which will take you past wind-battered native forest, pristine glacial lakes, monstrous glaciers and dramatic waterfalls. Keep your eyes peeled for the wildlife too, you’ll be sure to encounter guanacos and possibly even condors and pumas.
IGUAZU FALLS, BRAZIL
Easily one of the best places to visit in South America, Iguazu Falls straddles Brazil and Argentina forming a natural border between the two giants. Iguazu is the biggest waterfall in the world flowing at a rate of 300 cubic metres per second. The falls can be visited and enjoyed from either Argentina or Brazil, however if possible it’s best to see it from both- each country has a completely different view and perspective to offer. There isn’t much too do in the area apart from stay, relax, dine and view the falls in the day time so you can really use this time to relax and slow down.
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Quite easily the best city in South America for many, Buenos Aires is a little slice of Europe in South America. Home to many world-class museums, theatres and tango shows it’s a city that will keep you entertained for much longer than a weekend. It has some of the best plant-based restaurants in South America, plenty of green space right in the city centre and both colonial and modern architecture that give character to the skyline. Unique neighbourhoods to explore include Recoleta and it’s monumental cemetery, Palermo and Palermo Soho for their restaurant and cafe scene and boho San Telmo for their amazing Sunday kitsch market. If you’re a football fan, make sure to also get tickets for a game- Argentinians take two things very seriously football and pizza.
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
For nature lovers the Galapagos Islands are heaven on earth- there is literally no place quite like it on earth. It’s no surprise then that it was these small biodiverse islands that were the inspiration and evidence behind Darwin’s evolution theories. There are many ways to see the islands and come into close contact with its resident wildlife. Opt for a sailboat tour that will whisk you away from one island to the next for 5 days or simply base yourself in Puerto Ayora and see some of the closer islands. Either way, you’ll be able to catch glimpses of the islands’ most unusual species like the marine iguana, giant tortoise, blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants as well as turtles, swarms of species of fish and reef sharks. You’ll be able to go kayaking, snorkelling and visit the islands via a group tour. Need more convincing? Check out 50 Photos To Inspire You To Visit the Galapagos Islands
PERITO MORENO GLACIER, ARGENTINA
One of the best places to visit in South America and Patagonia, the Perito Moreno Glacier symbolises the pure power of nature. The only glacier in the world thats actually advancing and not retreating, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the natural environment. From the tourist hub of El Calafate you can visit the glacier in a day and walk around the well-thought out pathways that allow visitors to get as close as possible this constantly advancing piece of ice. If this doesn’t quite cut it for you make sure to book yourself on a glacier walking tour where you can actually put on some crampons and go for a walk on it. Stick around at the glacier long enough and you’ll be able to see huge chunks of ice breaking off and crashing into the lake below; a rare sight that puts the icing on the cake to this incredible natural place.
What are your best places to visit in South America? Let me know below!
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