South America is a region unlike any other. Although commonly linked with its northern neighbor, Central America, the south really has something unique going on. While the language and culture may be similar, what really sets South America apart is its unparalleled nature and biodiversity.
From the ancient civilizations like the Inca in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu to the Uros people of the floating islands today, South American culture captures every traveler's wanderlust at some point or other.
Although the first place I traveled abroad was Guatemala for a 3-month solo stint while I was 18, Ecuador was the first place I really lived abroad for 2.5 years as a Peace Corps volunteer. I quickly fell in love with everything this region has to offer and even spent the next few years exploring it more.
Eager to know the best places to visit in South America yourself? Whether this is your first time in the region or your 50th, I'm sure there are some stones you've left uncovered. Although incredibly difficult to narrow it down, this guide picks just 26 of the very top places to visit.
The best way to see as much as possible? Rent a car within each country and enjoy an epic road trip. It's even possible in most places to pick a car up in one city and drop it in another but if you do different pick-up and drop-off points, the convenience will come at an added cost.
South America is a land of superlatives with the world’s biggest jungle, the grandest glacier, the driest desert, and the highest waterfalls. So, whether you’re heading to Rio for Carnival, testing your head for heights by hiking in the Andes Mountains or exploring deep into the Amazon jungle, here are a few of the best places to visit in South America to add to your list.
The Best Places to Visit in Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
At 10,000 square kilometers, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. It’s an empty landscape that may be one of the flattest places on earth, but is also one of the most mesmerizing places in South America.
It's famous for perspective-altering photos (think a ginormous toy dinosaur eating tiny real humans), but there’s more to see than just the largest salt flat.
Take a multi day trip from Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama to see Isla de Incahuasi (an island of flowering cacti), Laguna Colorada, the train graveyard, and get a view of the Milky Way with zero light pollution.
It really is one of the most unique places on the planet and one of the best places to visit in South America.
La Paz, Bolivia
The highest (sort of) capital city in the world at more than 3600 meters above sea level, La Paz lies on the Andean Altiplano. It's an urban jungle sitting in a crater of the Cordillera Real mountains. Although it’s probably not one of the the best known places in South America, it’s definitely a must visit city.
If you're into cities with few tourists, you'll find significantly others here than you might in Medellin, Colombia or Buenos Aires, Argentina.
While you're there, you'll want to:
- Visit the Witches Market
- Hike the Valley of the Moon
- Bike Death Road
- Do a Red Cap walking tour of the city
- Visit the best café in the world: Café del Mundo.
Sucre and Potosi
Sucre is everything you want from a South American city. Whitewashed walls, colonial buildings, thriving culture, and cheap, delicious food. It shares the claim for being the country's capital, and has changed names many times over the years.
Sucre was once called La Plata after the silver mined from nearby Potosi that bankrolled the Spanish empire. You can tour these still-working mines today in an exhilarating (if not very safe) “tourist attraction,” and listen to dynamite going off beneath your feet.
Sucre is steeped in history and a must for anyone interested in Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Central and South America from colonialism; Bolivia was the first country in Latin America to declare independence, a moment that inspired the whole continent to follow.
The Best Places to Visit in Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru
The lost city of Machu Picchu dates back to the 15th-century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's one of the must-visit tourist attractions in South America, whether it's by train or by foot.
While I understand the desire to see Machu Picchu quickly and easily, to really get a grasp of the area, hiking is the way to go. You can hike the infamous 4 day Inca Trail to get a true sense of the isolation and work that was involved in creating this man made wonder. Or, you can opt for a quieter stroll on the 3-day Lares Trek.
The citadel is located near Cusco, Peru, a place you'll also enjoy visiting once in the area, and was the capital of the Inca Empire.
Lake Titicaca and the Floating Islands of Uros
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,810 meters above sea level. It stretches over two countries, Peru and Bolivia, high in the Andes Mountains.
Visit the people that call this lake home in over 40 self-constructed islands. Made simply of reeds, these floating houses were made by the Uros people as a mobile defense against the aggressive Inca and Colla tribes. These islands are accessible by boat trips from nearby Puno.
The Atacama Desert lies in the north of Chile, near Antofagasta and San Pedro de Atacama. The Martian-like landscape lays claim to being the driest desert in the world, but it’s not all parched.
Expect to see vast salt flats, active geysers, and intense blue-green lagoons filled with flamingos! You might even get to take a dip in some hot springs. At an altitude of 3500 meters, it will probably be the highest bath you will ever have!
The Torres del Paine National Park tops the list for every mountain lover. Although a day trip can be arranged, most hike the famous W trek (5 days), or the O-circuit (8 days) to fully experience this unique landscape. If you have the time, energy, and equipment, you certainly won't regret spending a few extra days in this incredible mountain range.
The three massive summits, or Torres del Paine, are gigantic granite monoliths that are UNESCO-declared biosphere reserves. Other attractions include Los Cuernos, French Valley, and Gray Glacier.
The port city of Valparaiso lies on the western coast of Chile. It's not as polished as the country's capital Santiago but there in lies it's charm.
It's bohemian, arty, somewhat dilapidated, and has an 'anything goes' kind of vibe. With its trademark colorful houses, mazes of alleyways, and youthful energy, Valparaiso is one of the best places to visit in Chile and a popular spot for digital nomads.
Easter Island, Chile
If you’re looking for a remote getaway, Easter Island in Chile is about as isolated as you can get. Also called Rapa Nui, it's an UNESCO world heritage site.
Famous for the centuries-old Moai stone statues scattered around, the Easter Islands are not just interesting for the Polynesian history. The island is well known for its land and sea life, too. The list of the best things to do there include activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, and horseback riding.
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After living in Ecuador for 2.5 years, I was able to discover some pretty amazing places to visit. Quito is Ecuador's capital, and the first stop for many for a visit to South America. The old town is well preserved, and you feel like you are in a living breathing city rather than a place to visit in South America that’s just for tourists.
Quito is located in Ecuador’s northern highlands and is surrounded by active volcanoes like Cotopaxi and Quilotoa. You can climb one for the thrill of a lifetime; they are some of the most active volcanoes in the world.
You can also visit the country's namesake located 26 km away from Quito. La Mitad del Mundo, or the Middle of the Earth, is dedicated to all things equator.
Cuenca is a magical city where the weather always feels like springtime and the architecture and flowing river inspire you to sit back, relax, and have a coffee or two. When I lived in Ecuador, I lived in a super small town on the Peruvian border. Cuenca was my city getaway and where a lot of us volunteers met for long weekends away.
While part of the reason it made the list is I'm sure from the fond memories I have of the place, the other part lies in the charm of the area itself. Although the heart of the old town has plenty to keep you entertained for days within its picturesque borders, for a bout of nature, visit nearby El Cajas National Park.
The landscape is otherworldly, with marshy-like plains, small rocks, hilly outcrops, and blue lakes. While you might not feel like you're in the mountains, the highest part of the park is at nearly 14,000 ft. so be prepared for ever-changing weather, cold nights, and potentially some shortness of breath.
Baños and the Amazon
The town of Baños is the “Gateway to the Amazon” and the center for adventure sports in Ecuador. Go white water rafting, rock climbing, canyoning, and enjoy many other activities in this fun backpacker town.
Baños is also home to more than 60 waterfalls, giving it its name “baths”. A fun way to explore these is by biking the Route of the Waterfalls or "Ruta de las Cascadas." You'll bike completely downhill stopping at waterfalls along the way and will be treated to a ride back up the mountain to Baños.
Travel by bus to Puyo to find indigenous community-led tourism initiatives that take you deep into the heart of the Amazon jungle. The Amazon isn’t for everyone; it’s hot, it’s sweaty, it's full of bugs.
But, if you can see past that, I've never stepped foot anywhere more incredible. The rich biodiversity and opportunities for wildlife spotting make it a must-visit. Plus, the chance for incredible outdoor activities, the most starry nights you've ever seen, and a true chance to get away from it all, make it an incredible place to stay a few nights on your trip. The deeper you go into the jungle, the more true this all becomes.
Galapagos Islands Ecuador
A trip to the Galapagos Islands feels like visiting the end of the world. These remote islands should be on every nature lover's bucket list. Charles Darwin drew attention to South America's wildlife through his expedition on the HMS Beagle.
The unusually friendly birds, tortoises, and marine life he encountered helped him to put together the Theory of Evolution.
Swim with hammerhead sharks at Kicker Rock, snorkel with sea lions at Lobos Island, and maybe even spot a penguin or two at Fernandina Island. Trips here aren’t cheap, but the wildlife encounters in the Galapagos are more than worth it.
Visiting the Galapagos has been one of my all-time favorite trips and one I'll hopefully be able to recreate in the near future.
Cartagena is the biggest city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Founded by the Spanish in 1533, it was named after Cartagena in Spain and became the center of politics and the economy for Spain's rule over South America.
This is another that might have been added to the list because of my personal bias towards the city. This is where my Colombian husband and I got married so my memories of Cartagena are blissful. While certainly one of the more tourist places to visit in Colombia, it was a great place to bring both of our families together, especially mine that doesn't speak Spanish.
Cartagena has some amazing colonial architecture and is famous for its beautiful doorways. You could spend hours wandering through the streets taking photos and never get bored. For a great view of the city, head to the rooftop of the Movich Hotel for a drink or dip in their pool. It’s the perfect place to relax after a trip to busier spots like Medellin or Bogota.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park is easily one of the best places to visit in Colombia. It was turned into a national park in 1969 to protect ecology and archaeology in Colombia. It is Colombia's most visited national park and is famous for its white-sand, palm fringed beaches.
Just on the outskirts of Santa Marta, it's easiest to visit the park while staying in town. It'll just be a quick ride into the park each day where you can enjoy some of the best nature Colombia has to offer.
Take the amazing hike in from the entrance at Cañaveral for a chance to spot the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin monkeys as well as all sorts of endemic flora and fauna.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentina's capital city is famous for one thing, Tango. The melancholic dance has working-class roots in African, Spanish, Italian, and Argentinian dance, which sums up the city pretty well. Although I tried for months to get the hang of tango while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, my two left feet couldn't lead the way. Regardless, taking a dance class or two is a really fun way to get to know the local culture.
Buenos Aires is a melting pot of cultures, food, and people. It has more similarities to Barcelona than anywhere in South America and the locals are quick to remind you of that. Buenos Aires is refined, arty, foodie, and not afraid to show off. To many, living in Buenos Aires is a dream come true.
Think Latin passion meets European grandeur. The parrillas (steak houses) and fine wines are famous the world over, and the city isn’t short of a museum or two to while away a rainy day.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The largest national park in Argentina, Los Glaciares National Park is home to the third largest reserve of freshwater on the planet. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field contains 48 large glaciers, the Perito Moreno Glacier is just one of them.
This glacier is a whopping 3 miles wide and is interestingly an advancing glacier, where most glaciers are retreating. Huge chunks can regularly be seen falling off. To get here take a bus trip about two hours north of El Calafate, then do a boat trip or ice hike to get up close to the glacier.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina
If you are looking for things on a grand scale, Iguazu Falls does not disappoint. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1984, it's truly one of the natural wonders of the world. Iguazu trumps more well-known waterfalls like Niagara in just about every comparison.
Iguazu Falls is actually split into two national parks across the border of Argentina and Brazil, one in Foz de Iguazu (Brazil) and the other one in Puerto Iguazu (Argentina). When I visited, I stayed on the Argentina side and had plenty of incredible views. From hiking to the upper limits to see the falls from above to getting into the rivers and seeing them from a boat, there's no shortage of beautiful vistas here.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It brings to mind images of Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Copacabana Beach, and Carnival, but there’s so much more to do here.
From the crowded favelas to the spacious boardwalks filled with bright street art, there’s something hiding around every corner in Rio. It may not be the country's capital anymore (now Brasilia) but it’s still a mandatory stop in South America.
The Amazon Jungle is an amazing place to visit in South America but it’s not always easy to see wildlife in the dense canopy. The open wetland system of the Pantanal makes spotting wildlife much easier.
Here you are likely to see capybaras, toucans, caimans, and piranhas. And if you are lucky (depending on your definition of lucky), you might spot one of nature's giants. Anacondas call this place home and can grow to a whopping 29 feet, weigh more than 550 pounds, and measure more than 12 inches in diameter. Jaguars also lurk here, but to see one you will need even more luck on your side.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
A place in South America that doesn't get the recognition it deserves, Angel Falls is the highest waterfall in the world. Known in Venezuela as "El Salto Angel," the waterfall is 19 times the height of Niagara Falls!
The giant prehistoric Tepuis shrouded in clouds are said to have been the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel "The Lost World". It's also the reference behind the waterfall in Up, if you need a more modern tie to the place. It's not easy to get to though, negotiating travel advisories and an Indiana Jones level of adventure is a step too far for most travelers. But it deserves to be on the list of places to visit in South America.
Colonia del Sacramento
Located just about an hour away by ferry from Buenos Aires, visiting Colonia is an easy addition to any trip that already has you in that area. Although, as one of the best places to visit in Uruguay, you might be tempted to stay longer than just a day after you begin to ample to the colonial streets of Colonia.
Walking through the old town you'll feel as though you've gone back in time but in all the best ways possible. The charming architecture, cobblestone streets, and antique cars might make you feel as though you've actually landed in Havana. Just be sure you have your camera ready, this town is a photographer's dream.
Paraguay is only one of two landlocked countries in South America (Bolivia being the other). Given it's remote location, not conveniently located near any other tourist draw in South America, Paraguay is still under the radar for most travelers.
That being said, if a remote trip is what you're after, Paraguay might just be your place. My recommendation: start in the country's capital, Asuncion. By starting your trip here, you'll be able to really get a sense of the country and dip your toes in before heading to more remote places. To really enjoy your trip to Paraguay, I'd recommend having a pretty good understanding of Spanish. Since they aren't as used to tourists, you might be hard-pressed to find many people who speak English.
Kaieteur National Park
If you love nature and biodiversity is what you crave, Guyana might just be the perfect place for you. Although covered in the south by the Amazon Rainforest, a majority of the country is covered by jungle. That means you won't lack beautiful sights and incredible plants and animals, including Kaieteur National Park.
The shining star of the national park is Kaieteur Falls. Incredibly remote and hard to get to, you'll have to work a bit harder to get to them but the pristine nature and complete remoteness is part of the draw.
As an added bonus, Guyana is an English-speaking destination so while it's not a tourist hotspot, you won't struggle to communicate with locals if English is your only language.
Suriname is an incredibly diverse country. Well off the typical travel radar, you'll most likely be surprised to see the ethnic and culinary diversity in the country. And the best place to really experience that is in the country's capital Paramaribo. Get ready to eat your way through this city, enjoying the unique architecture and landscape as you go.
Originally a Dutch colony, the Dutch and English first brought African slaves to the country. After slavery was abolished, they brought indentured servants from China, India, and Indonesia. Add that to the indigenous population and you can see it's now really a melting pot.
Last on our list is truly for the adventurer that wants to travel somewhere unlike any other. Although a territory of France, the comparisons between France and French Guiana stop after the fact they both speak French.
The Salvation Islands include Devil's Island, St. Joseph Island, Royale Island. You can reach these islands by boat, about an hour outside of the country's capital, Cayenne. In the past, these islands were prison islands for the country's most dangerous criminals and extreme revolutionaries.
Part of the appeal is the fact that the islands are a stunning tropical paradise but given its gruesome history, it's also a land of myth, violence, and eerie stories.
Time to Start Planning Your Trip to South America
Now that you know the best places to visit in South America, it's time to start planning your trip. Keep in mind that the region is incredibly big so visiting all these places in South America in one swoop will be hard to do unless you're a digital nomad with nothing but time on your hands.
If this is your first time in South America, you're in for a treat, but if it's not, welcome back!
Hero Photo by Mario Pais Cie.
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