Discover the Best Travel Destinations in South America: From the Atacama Desert to Easter Island
Are you ready for an unforgettable adventure through the best travel destinations in South America? From the breathtaking landscapes of the Atacama Desert in Chile to the vibrant streets of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, this continent is a treasure trove of awe-inspiring experiences. Get ready to immerse yourself in the vibrant cultures, explore stunning natural wonders, and discover the hidden gems that make South America a bucket-list-worthy destination. Join us as we journey through the most captivating places that will leave you in awe at every turn.
Our Top Picks for the Best Places to Visit in South America
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Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert in Chile is truly unique. It holds the title of being the driest non-polar desert in the world, with rainfall occurring only about once every four years. Stretching for approximately 1,600 km (1,000 miles) along Chile's coast, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the desert features soil that resembles that of Mars. In fact, parts of the desert have even served as a stand-in for Mars in the movie "Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets." Visitors to the Atacama Desert can expect to witness breathtaking sights such as vast salt flats, active geysers, and stunning blue lagoons.
Cartagena is a major city located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Founded by the Spanish in 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain, it was once the political and economic center of Spanish domination in South America. Today, Cartagena is a modern city with a preserved walled historic center and a fortress that stands as the largest fortification in South America. The city boasts a vibrant cultural scene, hosting festivals throughout the year, as well as numerous museums and art galleries.
Salvador da Bahia, also known as Salvador, is a city in Brazil with a rich history. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1548, making it one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas. Salvador is renowned for its well-preserved historic center, known as Pelourinho, named after the whipping post where enslaved people were beaten. As the first slave port in the Americas, Salvador holds a significant African heritage, which can be seen in its local culture and cuisine. The city is also famous for hosting the world's largest party, its annual Carnival celebration.
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina is a place of grandeur. Not only is it the largest national park in the country, but it also houses the largest ice cap outside of Greenland and Antarctica. This ice cap feeds 47 large glaciers, with the most famous being the Perito Moreno glacier. What sets Perito Moreno apart from other glaciers is its unique phenomenon of advancing while other glaciers around the world are receding. The park also encompasses Lake Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina, and is known for its diverse ecology and well-preserved Magellan Subpolar forest and Patagonian Steppe.
The Pantanal is a nature lover's paradise, located mostly in Brazil and partially in Bolivia and Paraguay. It is the world's largest tropical wetland, covering an area equivalent to the size of Washington State. Access to the Pantanal may be challenging, with transportation options limited to planes or boats. However, the journey is worth it. The Pantanal offers unparalleled opportunities to observe wildlife, ranging from majestic jaguars to adorable capybaras. While it may not be as famous as the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal is regarded as the best place in South America for wildlife sightings.
For those seeking remote and picturesque destinations, Ushuaia should be on the bucket list. Located in Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia is considered the southernmost city in the world. Nestled among mountains along a bay, the city offers stunning views, especially when the weather is clear and calm. As the former site of a penal colony, Ushuaia also has a museum that reflects its historical background. Additionally, it serves as a great place for wildlife enthusiasts, providing opportunities to see penguins, orca whales, and seals.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Tayrona National Park, situated along Colombia's Caribbean coast, offers a unique blend of environmental preservation and breathtaking views. As the country's second most visited national park, it encompasses both land and sea, serving as a protected marine reserve. Visitors to Tayrona can expect to witness an abundance of biodiversity, including over 300 species of birds, more than 100 mammal species, and various bat species. The park is renowned for its stunning beaches, nestled in deep bays and surrounded by mountains and coconut palms. However, it's important to note that strong currents make most of the beaches unsuitable for swimming.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, holds the distinction of being the highest capital in the world in terms of elevation. Located in Ecuador's northern highlands, the city is surrounded by stunning volcanic peaks that can be seen on clear days. Its colorful old town is one of the largest and best-preserved historical centers in the Americas. Quito is also unique in its proximity to the equator, making it the closest capital city to this geographical line. It's worth mentioning that active volcanoes pose a threat to the city, adding to its unique character.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
Angel Falls, located in Venezuela's Guayana Highlands, is an awe-inspiring natural wonder. As the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world, it stands 15 times taller than Niagara Falls. Water cascades over 950 meters (3,200 feet) down Auyantepu Mountain into the Rio Kerepacupai Meru. The falls are named after American aviator Jimmy Angel, who was the first to fly over the site in 1937. Visiting Angel Falls requires an adventurous journey consisting of plane and river boat rides, but the experience is truly unforgettable.
Cocora Valley, Salento, Colombia
Cocora Valley, located west of Bogota in Colombia, is a renowned hiking destination that should not be missed. Visitors can embark on a day trip from the nearby town of Salento or opt for a multi-day hike throughout the valley. The valley is famous for its towering wax palm trees, which can reach heights of over 195 feet and live for up to 200 years. The lush green hills surrounding the valley create a mesmerizing and almost oversaturated landscape. For the best views, it is recommended to visit during "golden hour," either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Lake Titicaca, Peru & Bolivia
Lake Titicaca, straddling the border of Bolivia and Peru, holds the title of being South America's largest lake. With an elevation of over 3,800 meters (12,500 feet), it is considered the highest navigable lake in the world, although there are smaller lakes at higher altitudes. This beautiful lake is home to 41 islands, some of which are inhabited, including unique floating islands created by the native people using reeds. Lake Titicaca boasts a rich aquatic life, with over 500 species and a significant population of water birds. According to local beliefs, the sun was born at Lake Titicaca.
The Amazon Rainforest is a true natural wonder, covering about three-quarters of the Amazon River basin. It is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, with 60% of its expanse located in Brazil, along with significant portions in Peru and Colombia. The rainforest is home to an enormous number of trees, estimated to be around 390 billion. Its vast size and unique ecosystem support an incredible array of flora and fauna that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. Exploring the Amazon Rainforest provides an opportunity to witness the wonders of nature in its purest form.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Located in the remote region of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts. As one of Chile's largest and most visited parks, it offers awe-inspiring scenery. The park's namesake, the Torres del Paine, refers to three imposing peaks that dominate the Paine Mountains landscape. Visitors to the park can explore a variety of natural wonders, including glaciers, rivers, forests, and steppes. It is a popular destination for outdoor activities such as hiking and is also home to an endangered deer species.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are a living testament to the wonders of our planet's biodiversity. These islands are famous for their unique and endemic wildlife, which played a crucial role in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Visitors to the Galapagos Islands can observe prehistoric-looking creatures such as giant tortoises and unique iguanas found nowhere else on Earth. The archipelago consists of 18 major islands, located around 900 km (550 miles) off the coast of Ecuador. The islands are the result of ongoing volcanic activity, providing a fascinating glimpse into the Earth's geological processes.
Iguazu Falls, Brazil & Argentina
Iguazu Falls is a true marvel that must be witnessed firsthand. Located on the border between Brazil and Argentina, it is the largest waterfalls system in the world. Consisting of 275 waterfalls of varying sizes, it includes the majestic Devil's Throat, the largest of them all. Most of the falls are situated in Argentina, despite the majority of the Iguazu River's journey being through Brazil. The sheer power and beauty of this natural wonder are beyond comparison, making it one of the best places to visit in South America.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When you think of Rio de Janeiro, you envision vibrant culture, stunning beaches, and lively celebrations. This cosmopolitan city in Brazil is famous for its samba music and dance, with the rhythmic movements captivating locals and visitors alike. Rio's most notable landmark is the Christ the Redeemer statue, perched atop Corcovado Mountain. The city hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics and boasts one of the world's largest soccer stadiums, Maracanã Stadium. With its beautiful beaches, iconic landmarks, and lively atmosphere, Rio de Janeiro is a must-visit destination.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Situated in the Andes Mountains at an elevation of nearly 3,700 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. Covering a vast area, the salt flat features a thick crust of salt that provides salt deposits and covers a brine. Its remarkably flat surface, combined with the rugged terrain surrounding it, creates an otherworldly landscape. After rainfall, the Salar de Uyuni transforms into a giant mirror, reflecting the sky above. This surreal destination also serves as a major breeding ground for flamingos, adding to its uniqueness.
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Valparaíso, a coastal city in Chile, holds a unique charm that captivates visitors. Located less than a two-hour drive from Santiago, it is famous for its colorful homes and being the former residence of renowned poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda. Valparaíso is a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasting excellent architecture and numerous hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The city is connected to Viña del Mar, known for its stunning beaches, offering a perfect combination of beach and cultural experiences. Its vibrant atmosphere and rich cultural heritage make Valparaíso a must-visit destination.
Colca Canyon, Peru
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Colca Canyon, often referred to as one of the world's deepest canyons, is a breathtaking tourist attraction in Peru. Surpassing the Grand Canyon in depth, it offers spectacular views that leave visitors in awe. Travelers can choose between a day trip from Arequipa, during which they can appreciate the canyon's beauty, or a multi-day trek to fully immerse themselves in its magnificence. In addition to the stunning scenery, Colca Canyon is home to rare native plants and wildlife, providing an adventurous journey amidst nature's wonders.
The Lost City, Magdalena, Colombia
The Lost City, known as Ciudad Perdida in Spanish, is a historical treasure located near Santa Marta in northern Colombia. Founded between the 8th and 9th centuries, it predates Machu Picchu by several hundred years. The Lost City once housed a population ranging from 1,400 to 3,000 people and consists of approximately 170 terraces, including areas for living, working, and religious practices. To reach this ancient marvel, visitors must embark on a three- to six-day trek with a tour company. Along the way, they will encounter rare native plants and wildlife, making the journey as incredible as the destination.
The Rock of Guatapé, Guatapé, Colombia
Guatapé is a town in northern Colombia, located east of Medellín. It is famous for the Rock of Guatapé, a massive rock formation that can be reached by climbing more than 740 steps. Upon reaching the top, visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of the town and the picturesque islands in Guatapé Lake. Guatapé is easily accessible via a bus ride of less than two hours from Medellín, making it a perfect weekend getaway. The town embraces visitors with warm hospitality, and the cheerful faces of locals contribute to its vibrant and welcoming atmosphere.
San Rafael, Antioqua, Colombia
San Rafael offers a unique connection with nature and oneself, making it an ideal destination for those seeking tranquility. The town is renowned for its natural beauty, including mountains, waterfalls, and rivers. Visitors can engage in activities such as birdwatching, hiking, or simply immersing themselves in the serene environment. For those interested in practicing yoga, Vanadurga Ashram, a yoga sanctuary, is recommended. San Rafael's magical charm and the opportunity for personal introspection make it a place worth exploring.
Cusco, once the capital of the mighty Inca Empire, holds a colorful historic past. Located at an elevation of 3,400 meters (11,000 feet) in the Andes Mountains, it bears witness to the rich Inca heritage that was later impacted by Spanish colonization. The city features remnants of many Inca sites in its surrounding areas, while its Old Town showcases Spanish colonial architecture. Cusco is regarded as the historical capital of Peru, providing a glimpse into the country's fascinating past.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is an iconic symbol of ancient civilizations and remains one of the most famous places on Earth. This Inca citadel, often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas," is located about 50 miles from Cusco. To reach Machu Picchu, visitors must first take a train to Aguas Calientes and then a bus to the site. It is necessary to explore Machu Picchu with a tour guide, and reservations should be made well in advance. The mysterious nature of Machu Picchu is enhanced by different climatic factors, making it a year-round destination. For those seeking dates with less rain, April to October is recommended.
Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, Peru
Close to Cusco in the Andes Mountains lies Vinicunca, also known as Rainbow Mountain. This natural wonder showcases colorful stripes created by different mineral layers and melted ice. The combination of reds, yellows, purples, and greens gives Rainbow Mountain its vibrant appearance. Hiking to Rainbow Mountain offers an opportunity to witness this geological phenomenon up close and immerse oneself in the surrounding beauty.
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Huacachina is a small oasis nestled in the middle of the desert, offering a unique experience for visitors. Located south of Lima and near the city of Ica, Huacachina is a desert village surrounded by rolling sand dunes. Though swimming is not allowed in Huacachina Lagoon, visitors can rent paddle boats to glide across the water. It is the only natural oasis in all of South America, formed by underground aquifers. Huacachina allows travelers to appreciate both the desert landscape and the refreshing ambiance of a lagoon, creating an unforgettable contrast.
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Christ the Redeemer is recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and is an absolute must-visit for those traveling to Brazil. This incredible statue of Jesus stands at an impressive height of nearly 125 feet and overlooks the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro. When you visit this marvel, you can expect to be treated to breathtaking views of the city. Balardjischvili recommends taking the train to reach the statue and suggests booking your ticket in advance for convenience.
Pantanal Wetland, Brazil
Spanning over 40 million acres, the Pantanal Wetland is the largest wetland on Earth. It boasts an incredible biodiversity, with over 4,700 species of plants and animals, including majestic jaguars and crocodiles. It is truly one of the most diverse destinations on our planet. Balardjischvili suggests that visitors come prepared with insect repellent, a light raincoat, and a sweatshirt, and always remember to stay hydrated.
The Imperial City of Petropolis, Brazil
Located in the mountains outside of Rio de Janeiro, Petropolis is a charming mountain resort renowned for its palaces, stunning architecture, and delectable cuisine. To fully enjoy the historical aspects of Petropolis, Balardjischvili recommends taking a guided tour and ensuring you book with reputable and well-reviewed tour companies.
Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Sugarloaf Mountain is a prominent and iconic landmark in Brazil, famous for providing visitors with stunning panoramic views of the city. The mountain is home to Brazil's first cable car system, which was established in 1912 and was only the third of its kind in the world at the time. Balardjischvili advises visiting Sugarloaf Mountain in the morning for a fresher experience, as it can get quite crowded during sunset. If you are visiting during the high season, it is recommended to purchase a skip-the-line ticket. With its peak sitting at an elevation of nearly 1,300 feet, you'll certainly appreciate the convenience of the cable car.
When asked about the best time to visit Rio de Janeiro, Balardjischvili suggests May or June, as these months offer beautiful sunny days with no rain and temperatures around 77 degrees.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
With a population of 17 million people, Buenos Aires ranks as the fourth largest city in the Americas. Situated on the Rio de la Plata on the coast of Argentina, the city is renowned for its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Thanks to its stunning architecture and vibrant cultural scene, Buenos Aires is a top destination in South America. A visit to the Recoleta, a historic residential neighborhood, is a must. The Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried, is a particularly famous attraction in the district.
Zuccardi Winery, Uco Valley, Argentina
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The award-winning Zuccardi Valle de Uco winery is a magnificent destination that I had the pleasure of visiting this past January. It truly lives up to its reputation, offering fantastic wines amidst the stunning backdrop of the Andes Mountains and extensive vineyards. Reservations for tastings and tours can be conveniently made online.
Iguazú Falls, Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
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Located on the border between Argentina and Brazil, Iguazú Falls is an incredibly breathtaking natural wonder consisting of approximately 275 individual waterfalls. This makes it the largest waterfall system on Earth. While the majority of the falls are on the Argentina side, the tallest one can be found on the Brazilian side. Iguazú Falls is an absolute must-see for anyone exploring South America.
Located in both Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is a vast and stunning region that is larger than many countries. Each city within Patagonia offers a unique experience, with popular destinations in Argentinian Patagonia including El Calafate, Ushuaia, and El Chaltén. Whether you visit the Patagonia Brewery in San Carlos de Bariloche or explore one of the 300 glaciers that span the region, you are guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience.
Punta del Este Beaches, Uruguay
Uruguay, while still somewhat underrated, is a fantastic destination for international travelers. It is just a short ferry ride away from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. From there, it's only a two-hour drive to Punta del Este, a coastal resort city known for its stunning beaches, upscale shopping, and outstanding steakhouses.
Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island, a territory of Chile, is located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It is famous for its collection of nearly 900 stone statues known as moai. These human figures are believed to have been created between the 11th and 17th centuries. To reach Easter Island, it takes approximately a 5.5-hour flight from Santiago, the capital of Chile.
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These incredible destinations in South America offer a diverse and awe-inspiring array of landscapes, cultures, and experiences. From the otherworldly beauty of the Atacama Desert in Chile to the vibrant streets of Cartagena in Colombia, there is something for every traveler. Whether you want to immerse yourself in the lush Amazon rainforest, witness the majestic Iguazu Falls, or explore the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, South America has it all. So pack your bags, embark on an unforgettable journey, and discover the wonders that await you in this breathtaking continent.
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