Filled with otherworldly landscapes, incredible weather and, bustling cultures, the colourful continent of South America has brought me back time and time again. Whether you’re looking for inspiration on where to go in South America or are already planning a trip, make sure you don’t miss out on this categorised list of the best places to visit in South America!
Best Cities to Visit in South America
The South American continent is filled with diverse cities, most are bustling and filled with colourful colonial architecture, making them a must see vacation spot in South America.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The lively city of Rio de Janeiro is a must see in South America. With epic views from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, and the Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro is like no other city. However if you want a unique birds eye view, make sure you try hand gliding over Rio! Other than the views, the city is home to a number of South American tourist attractions such as Ipanema and Copacabana beach as well as the mosaic covered steps of Selarón in Lapa and the Rio Carnival in February.
Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
The coastal city of Salvador, is the capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. It is known for its Portuguese colonial architecture, Afro-Brazilian culture and a tropical coastline. The Pelourinho neighbourhood is its historic heart, with cobblestone alleys opening onto large squares, colourful buildings and baroque churches such as São Francisco, featuring gilt woodwork. This city is a must if you are wondering where to visit in South America!
Cartagena de Indias is one of the best cities to visit in South America, with its Caribbean climate, colourful walled city and nearby white sand beaches, it’s no wonder so many tourists flock to the ‘Jewel of the Indies’. The neighbourhood of Getsemani is a wonderful contrast to the old city and houses some of the best street art I’ve come across anywhere in the world. Cartagena is also famed for incredible food, from market stalls to fresh juices on every corner and high-end eateries serving fresh seafood daily.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The combination of South American flair and European elegance make Buenos Aires, a one of a kind destination in South America. Famous things to do in the instagrammable city of Buenos Aires, include visiting the iconic presidential palace, Casa Rosada, and the grand opera house, Teatro Colón, as well as the colourful area of La Boca. No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without trying their tasty empanadas, and some Dulce de Leche ice cream.
La Paz, Bolivia
The highest capital city in the world, La Paz rests on the Andes’ Altiplano plateau at more than 3600m above sea level. The best places to visit in La Paz are Valle de la Luna, Death road, the Witches market and the lofty viewpoints of La Paz. Bolivia’s capital is also extremely connected to the rest of the country, so it’s easy to get a bus to Salar de Uyuni, Lake Tititcaca or to the Bolivian Amazon jungle.
The ‘City of Eternal Spring’, Medellin was once one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but is now a haven for tourists and digital nomads. Known for its nightlife, Medellin is a great place to spend a few days exploring and understanding quickly why it was named the most Innovative City in the World back in 2013. The modern buildings of Medellin are surrounded by the green hills, which are perfect for paragliding off. This was one of my favourite activities in South America, and only cost $30 for a tandem paraglide, a fraction of the cost anywhere else in the world.
The colourful and bohemian UNESCO World Heritage town of Valparaiso, is only an hour and a half from Santiago in Chile, making it perfect for a weekend break or even a day trip if you are short on time. Valparaiso is full of unique buildings, endless staircases, narrow streets and funicular elevators. I highly recommend searching out some of the lofty lookout points to get a panoramic view of Valparaiso, and it’s rainbow coloured buildings.
Best Places to Visit in South America on a Budget
As a whole the continent of South America is budget friendly however the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and the countries of Chile and Argentina (especially Patagonia) are a lot more expensive. The best places to visit in South America on a budget, include some of my favourites spots on the continent, including Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, Quito in Ecuador and Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sixteen thousand years ago, this area in the south of Bolivia was a high altitude salt lake. The water has since evaporated, leaving a unique and unforgettable landscape of flat white salt as far as the eye can see. Dotted somewhere in the middle of the twelve thousand square metres of salt, lies Incahuasi – a rock island covered in hundreds of flowering cacti, an unmissable spot on a trip to Bolivia.
Strangely unique, there’s not many places I could visit over and over again (the world is far too big for that!) but I’d happily return to Salar de Uyuni during the rainy season to capture the mirror image reflections on these salt flats.
Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat and best visited on the popular three day tour from Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama. During the multi day trip you will visit several lakes including one of the best places to visit in Latin America, Laguna Colorada.
The capital city of Quito, is the gateway to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, Pacific coast, Andes and the Amazon rainforest. Quito has everything from bustling cafes to volcano peaks, and there are plenty of things to do in Quito to keep you busy for at least three days. The must visit places in Quito and the old town are La Ronda – the cities cultural hub, and La Mitad del Mundo – the Equator line.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Lake Titicaca is a stunning and inspiring place to relax for a night or two on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Serene, sacred, and steeped in rich cultures past and present, the beautiful Lake Titicaca is easily one of South America’s most alluring destinations. Over forty islands are sprinkled throughout, the largest of which is Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), which has over 180 ancient Incan ruins. Spend a day hiking across the island and spend the evening relax in a hot tub at Las Olas.
Iguazu falls, Argentina and Brazil
Iguazú Falls are one of the best places to travel in South America, due to the sheer size of the waterfalls. Located on the border between Brazil and Argentina in a large expanse of national park, the falls are surrounded by unique flora and fauna. Visiting on the Argentinean side is recommended as you can hike along the waterfalls, but remember to bring a waterproof jacket as you will get wet!
Best Places to go Hiking in South America
If you are wondering where to travel in South America to go hiking, look no further. Here are a collection of a few of best hikes in South America ranging from one day to multi day hikes in some of the best South American countries to visit.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu has been voted one of the new seven Wonders of the World and is a must visit for all travellers in South America. These majestic ruins were built by the Inca Empire and are located in the scenic Andes mountain range, surrounded by beautiful cloud forests and mountain scenery. Machu Picchu is only accessible from the city of Cusco, which you can reach by bus or air travel. It’s worth staying a few days to enjoy all the things to do in Cusco before heading off to Machu Picchu. Whilst the ruins are impressive, I actually enjoyed the four day Inca Trail hike more than the final destination, due to the beautiful scenery and sereneness of the Inca trail.
Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia
Ancient forests, towering granite peaks, glaciers, lakes, rivers, and pampas, Torres del Paine National Park is the gem of Patagonia.
Named after the three iconic granite spires that rise out of the heart of the Paine Massif, Torres del Paine is located in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region of southern Chile. The hiking trails in Torres del Paine, like the W Trek draw in more than 250,000 visitors a year from Chile and abroad. The park was founded in 1959 and became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978 to protect the fragile landscapes, plants, and wildlife that call this place home.
Torres del Paine National Park is popular for its hiking trails, but there are plenty of other activities to be enjoyed like wildlife viewing, kayaking, boating, and cycling, making it one of the best places to visit South America.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Active geysers, coloured lagoons and breathtaking salt flats make up the landscape surrounding San Pedro de Atacama. It is one of the best adventure travel destinations in South America, especially if you enjoy mountain biking or sand boarding down the dunes. You can also relax in one of the natural hot springs and visit the Atacama desert at night to experience the endless stargazing in the driest desert in the world.
Easter Island, Chile
As one of the world’s most remote islands, Easter Island is on many peoples bucket lists. This island has 887 mythic moai stone statues, strewn across the 63 square-mile land constructed around 1200 to 1600 A.D. However the island is also full of volcanic craters, preserved stone villages, beaches, fantastic seafood and world-class diving. Rapa Nui, the native name of the Easter Island is a Chile-governed territory, but is 2,200 miles away from South America’s mainland.
El Calafate, Patagonia
El Calafate is just a short bus ride away from one of the continent’s last advancing glaciers, Perito Moreno Glacier. It is best to view the glacier from the walkways, and via boat before heading onto the ice for a memorable trekking adventure. I highly recommend doing the Big Ice experience, which involves walking through ice caves, and seeing the striking blue colour of the lagoons up close.
Colca Canyon, Peru
Peru has plenty of places to visit other than Machu Picchu, such as Colca Canyon. Located four hours from the city of Arequipa, it is the second deepest canyon in the world and one of the best places to visit in South America to see the Andean Condor. With a weight up to 12 kg and a wingspan of over three metres, they are an impressive bird to see up close.
Colca Canyon is also one of the most popular destinations for trekking in Peru. I did the overnight hike into the canyon, and spent the night in one of the villages at the base before hiking 1100 metres up to the ridge. It is a tough hike so for those looking to relax a bit more and take it slower you can do the three day version instead of the two day trip. Either way it’s easy to see why Colca Canyon is in the top South America places to visit.
Rainbow Mountain, Peru
A day trip from Cusco, the Rainbow Mountain takes only a few hours to climb. This site – which is also known as Vinicunca, Winikunka, Montaña de Siete Colores, and Montaña de Colores – was covered in thick snow and ice until the end of 2015, when the striped colours have now become visible. The summit is at 5200m so make sure you are acclimatised to the altitude in Cusco before setting off on this trek.
Best Places to Visit in South America for Wildlife
South America is filled with diverse wildlife from penguins and crocodiles to whales and flamingos, making it a great hotspot for nature lovers. Before embarking on your trip make sure you research wildlife photography tips so you can make the most of it.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
One of the most spectacular places to visit in South America has to be the Galapagos Islands. Although the islands aren’t the cheapest or the most accessible place in the world to visit, they still attract an extraordinary number of visitors. This number is however restricted, so a trip to these famed islands needs to be planned well in advance. Don’t let this put you off visiting one of the most diverse and unique places on the planet, as a visit to the Galapagos Islands are a chance to experience pristine beaches, incomparable wildlife, and volcanic landscapes like no other.
Laguna Colorada, Bolivia
Bolivia is home to one of the most surreal landscapes in South America. Located 4300m above sea level lies a distinct lake covered in a sheet of pink algae and white borax islands. Laguna Colorado is home to hundreds of rare flamingos that flock there to feed on the algae, which in turn helps the flamingos earn their unmistakable colour. As the wind blows, the algae is affected and the lake seems to change colour in front of your eyes from pink to red to a deep orange. A unique place to add to your South America bucket list.
Magdalena Island, Chile
Thousands of playful penguins can be found in their natural habitat on a tour of Magdalena Island from Punta Arenas. Cruise past stunning seaside scenery as you venture to a picturesque and protected nature reserve to observe the incredible creatures. Gain insight into the penguins physiology and behaviour with a knowledgeable guide and embark on a hike to a legendary lighthouse. Weather permitting, you can also sail to the shores of Isla Marta to witness sea lions and elephant seals splashing in the sea. It’s easy to see why Magdalena Island is one of the best vacation spots in South America.
Brazil’s best kept secret is the Pantanal. Located in the heart of South America and as the world’s largest tropical wetland area, it should be on everyones bucket list. The Pantanal stretches across the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul and also spills into Bolivia and Paraguay. While the Amazon gets more credit, the best opportunities for wildlife spotting are in the Pantanal so be sure to carve out a few days to visit. If you want to do some jaguar spotting, visit the Mato Grosso along the Cuiabá River from July to September.
Ballestas Islands, Peru
The Ballestas Islands are a group of rocky islands located off the Pacific coast of Peru near the town of Paracas, three hours south of Lima. Nicknamed “The Poor Man’s Galapagos”, the islands are a must see for all wildlife lovers as they are home to thousands of birds and mammals including penguins, sea lions, pelicans and dolphins. The islands, locally known as Las Islas Ballestas, are protected, meaning you cannot swim with the animals or walk on the islands themselves, but you can get very close to them on a boat tour.
Underrated Places to Visit in South America
Here are a list of the best hidden gems in South America, from jungles and deserts to mountains and beaches, as well as the most underrated city in South America!
Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
Located deep in the Colombian jungle lies Ciudad Perdida or “The Lost City”, it is one of the most underrated places to visit in South America. An archaeological site that was undiscovered for centuries until 1972. Ciudad Perdida is around 650 years older than Machu Picchu, however only around 10% of the site has been uncovered. Despite being accessible to tourists for the past 10+ years, the ruins are still surprisingly quiet, but well worth visiting for an authentic experience.
The ruins can be reached by hiking 4 – 6 days (46 km round trip) through the lush green humid jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains. River crossings, steep hills, and tropical heat make this trek a gruelling one. Compared to the infamous Inca trail, this adventurous trek involves sleeping in hammocks, swimming in crystal clear pools, visiting local indigenous communities and if you’re lucky, spotting a rare toucan. Visiting this part of Colombia, during dry season is advised (December to March) when the river crossings are knee height as oppose to chest height during wet season!
Located four hours south of Lima, close to the city of Ica. Huacachina is South America’s ONLY natural desert oasis and is home to the largest sand dunes in the continent. Huacachina is perfect for a two night stay, and a visit has to include exploring the sand dunes on foot at sunset or sunrise. Another great way to experience the desert is by joining a dune buggy tour and trying your hand at sand boarding.
Mount Roraima, Venezuela
Straddling on the border of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil, the table top mountain of Mount Roraima is located 2810 meters above sea level. Mount Roraima is the highest of the Pakaraima chain of tepui plateaus in South America. Few places on earth conjure up the feeling of a truly alien landscape, but Mount Roraima, with its lakes, strange shaped rocks and extraordinary panoramic views, perfectly encapsulates the “Lost World” of Victorian literature. The summit can be reached via a six day trek from Santa Elena, and the best time to visit Mount Roraima is between December and April when the weather is drier. The views from the top are why it’s one of the best places to visit in South America.
Tatacoa Desert, Colombia
The second largest arid zone, the Tatacoa Desert, in Colombia occupies more than 330 square kilometers. The landscape is covered in rocky canyons rather than sand. As the desert is located close to the Equator its possible to view both the Northern and Southern skies, coupled with no light population, this makes Tatacoa Desert one of the best places to star gaze in the world. Though small, there is an observatory with a team of knowledgeable astronomers who open the observatory doors each night to teach visitors, about constellations and use the telescopes to get a closer look. The easiest way to reach Tatacoa Desert is by getting a bus from the closest town Neiva to Villavieja.
Ilha Grande, Brazil
Ilha Grande, remains one of my all time favourite beach destinations in South America. Set in a National Park, Ilha Grande has gotten more popular over the years due to its proximity to Rio de Janiero, but if you want to get away from the crowds make sure you visit the hidden gem of Lopes Mendes. This beach is as secluded as it gets, there are no toilets, no restaurants, and likely no other tourists, as it takes two hours to hike to the beach, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s worth it.
The best day trip from Medellin, is the full day tour to Guatape. The trip includes walking 740 steps to the top of El Peñol for the panoramic views of the surrounding islands, (this sounds like a lot but it actually only takes about ten minutes at a medium pace). After the climb you should visit the colourful facades of Pueblo de Zócalos and see El Peñol from afar. Guatape is around two hours away from Medellin and the day tours include a boat ride through the emerald green waterways and past the home of Pablo Escobar, making it one of the great South America vacation spots.
A hidden gem and one of the best places to visit in South America is the laidback capital of Uruguay. Considered one of the safest cities on the continent, Montevideo is great for culture vultures. The pedestrian-only walkways of Ciudad Vieja are filled with colourful boutiques, cafes and markets, and the beaches of Montevideo are great for kite surfers. If you want to learn to dance the tango, the city is a great place to take lessons, and if you want to relax with a good glass of wine, make sure you don’t miss out on a tour to one of the cities wineries.
Has this list of the best places to visit in South America by category inspired you to visit the continent? Let me know in the comments and if you love hiking, check out the 15 best hikes in South America.