The Complete Travel Guide to South America: Top Bucket-List-Worthy Destinations
Impressive is an understatement when you visit the sparkling gems of South America. A spectacle of engineering brilliance and diverse flora and fauna, this otherworldly continent has everything for every traveler. But with endless traveling opportunities out there, how do you start mapping out a great South American adventure? From the virgin islands of Galapagos to the snow-capped Peruvian mountains, our travel guide to South America is here to help you create a personalized travel plan.
How to Start Planning a South American Trip
As the 4th largest continent, South America is brimming with natural and man-made gifts. But its huge size can also present challenges, planning-wise. To get you started on the right foot, you can filter the top South American destinations by making three major considerations: travel interests, location, and travel duration.
Planning by Travel Interests
Any seasoned traveler would agree that diversity is the secret ingredient to a bucket-list-worthy trip. Like a cup of latte, the perfect vacation comes with a dash of sight-seeing, food tripping, shopping, and hiking.
But let’s be honest: out of a full spectrum of activities, we all have our personal favorites. And when it comes to planning a South American trip, narrowing down your options is as good as letting your personal preferences take the front seat.
Are you the outdoorsy type who loves taking your hiking boots to popular trails? Or maybe awe-inspiring architecture gives you the ultimate adrenaline rush! By identifying your travel priorities and “non-negotiables,” you can cross out some of the South American countries that don’t fit the mold–your mold, to be exact.
To help you filter travel sites, here are the top South American destinations based on points of interests:
- Top Cityscapes: South America is home to electrifying metropolises. These include Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, Chile’s Santiago, Brazil’s São Paulo, and Argentina’s Buenos Aires. These bustling cities offer a great mix of arts, architecture, and culture, making them a great travel destination.
- Top South American Beaches: Be it snorkeling, whale watching, or skinny dipping, the beautiful stretch of beaches in South America can convince you to pack an extra swimwear. You can spot some of its scenic wonders in Ecuador, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile.
- Top Countries for Outdoor Activities: It’s hard to bump off Peru, Bolivia, the Galapagos Islands, and Chile when we talk about the best countries for outdoor activities. Peru’s Machu Picchu alone is already a dream for many hikers and backpackers. But if wildlife watching is your thing, you can head out to the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon. Either way, you’d surely be in for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
- Top Archeological Sites: No travel guide to South America can be complete without touching areas where you can find the best archeological sites. The well-preserved architecture in Peru, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina is a great reflection of ancient history. So if a trip down memory lane fits your shoe, don’t miss out on these top South American destinations.
Planning by Location and Travel Duration
Planning a South American trip is like running a maze–it is as fun and exciting as it can be confusing, especially if you don’t work your way around a map. Once you create a list of your travel priorities, pick a specific country that matches your itinerary.
Now, if you have limited travel time, don’t try to squeeze multiple countries into one trip. Doing so can make you lose sight of the overflowing cultural heritage of top South American destinations. You don’t want to simply drop by a tourist spot, take quick IG-worthy shots, and jump to another, do you? Choose one country, research about its must-visit sites, and plan your vacation based on proximity and weather.
If, on the other hand, you’re planning a month-long vacation, you can create a multi-country travel plan by mapping out the countries near your travel destination. For instance, from Peru, you can easily pop over to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, or Colombia. Thankfully, you don’t need a sit-down geography class to create a realistic plan. You just need the mighty Internet and a bit of mindfulness as you draw out your itinerary.
Travel Guide to South America: Prime Locations for Different Points of Interests
Top Cityscapes and Archeological Sites
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Vibrant and festive, Rio de Janeiro is on every traveler’s radar for its natural geography and its electrifying culture. A bustling city resting on a marvelous seaside, this Brazilian metropolis gives you the best of both worlds. From the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue to the famed Ipanema beaches, there’s so much in the city that can keep you coming back for more.
Rio de Janeiro is notorious for its yearly festivities, but it is equally-beautiful even outside the festival season. Think of grandiose costumes, huge parade boats, and energetic samba dancers, and you’d know why its carnival is amongst the most celebrated in the world.
To get the best views of the city and the seascapes, drop by the Sugar Loaf Mountain, which is accessible by a cog train. From here, you can see the most amazing sunset views! If you’re done sight-seeing some of its famous landmarks, you can get refreshments and enjoy the Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, along with the city’s lively food scene. From a cultural trip to a walk on the beach to a diverse gastronomic experience, Rio de Janeiro gives you the all-in-one package to an unforgettable South American trip.
Cusco is a staple in every travel guide to South America for a good reason. While many consider it as a jump-off point to the famous Peruvian landmarks like Machu Picchu, Inca Trail, and Sacred Valley, Cusco is actually a legacy on its own.
Located in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco, also called Cuzco, is a testimony to early Inca civilization. Famous for its Spanish colonial architecture and its stunning archeological relics, the city takes you back to the early era while giving you a mix of modernistic experiences.
Some of the must-visit sites in Cusco include Plaza de Armas and the church of Santo Domingo. Anywhere you go in the city, you’d see Inca sites that continue to breathe life into Cusco’s cultural heritage.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by Santiago’s beauty, but if you’re in Chile, don’t forget to spend some time knowing the colorful and poetic city of Valparaiso. Resembling a blissful canvas from afar, Valparaiso is all about merging culture and arts. Its hilly landscape is made remarkable by its wall arts, great architecture, and its awe-inspiring buildings.
Frankly speaking, if you’re looking for something prim-and-proper, you won’t find it here. But if you want to draw inspiration in arts and in a chaotic kind of beauty, Valparaiso is the city that can get you out of your shell.
Top Spots for Outdoor Activities and Wildlife Watching
Machu Picchu and Inca Trail, Peru
Machu Picchu is a wish-list-staple for hikers and engineering enthusiasts. Sitting 2,430 meters above sea level, this Incan empire combines ancient architecture with a stunning mountains cape. It is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. But aside from its natural beauty, what makes it more enchanting is its history. Up to now, how it was made during the pre-metal era and what it is made for remains a mystery to locals, making it even more interesting for travelers.
Along with the Machu Picchu is the majestic Inca Trail that effortlessly draws thousands of hikers and backpackers to Peru. These, along with other Peruvian destinations, continue to dominate the top landmarks in every travel guide to South America. Just one glimpse at its jaw-dropping beauty is enough to convince you to take a trip to this continent.
A word of caution: the hike to the Inca Trail takes days, and the incline and descent aren’t easy. It’s a good thing though that guided tours can make the hiking process more tolerable, not to mention the incredible views that welcome you as you make your way to Machu Picchu.
Mount Fitz Roy, Argentina
The hike to Mount Fitz Roy isn’t for first-time hikers, that’s for sure. But what you get in exchange for the long, exhausting trails is a towering sense of fulfillment. As the highest peak in the entire Glacier National Park, this granite-walled mountain is a challenge even to intrepid hikers. It stands over 11,000 feet above sea level, and it borders Argentina and Chile.
Named after Sir Robert Fitz Roy, the sailor who accompanied Charles Darwin, this sky-high mountain gets you astounding views of Southern Patagonia. If you aren’t a hiker, you can easily find a great picnic area around Mount Fitz Roy, which is visible even from miles away.
The Amazon Rainforest
The largest tropical rainforest in the world is a long stretch of lush greenery and biodiversity–a stretch that includes parts of Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, to be exact. So if you’re planning a South American trip, the Amazon rainforest is one for the books.
From a canopy walk in Peru to a river cruise that takes you to remote villages, the Amazon is a world full of adventures. You can book packages that offer you rare encounters with different species. Be it a night hike or a chance to spot an anaconda, everything is possible when you’re in this jungle. And when you’re done spotting pink dolphins and colorful macaws, you can also engage in other activities like zip-lining.
What’s more, the Amazon being one of the top South American destinations paved the way for developments in the area. Aside from an overnight stay at one of its beautiful huts, you can also take advantage of its spas and recreation centers. Hike, pause, and get a massage–a day spent at the Amazon is always a day to remember.
Top Spots for Sight-Seeing and Water Activities
The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Over 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast is a paradise that was once a secret to travelers. The Galapagos Islands, which is home to the friendliest wildlife, is made up of the most picturesque islands and islets. But getting to this archipelago isn’t as easy as it seems. And as far as our travel guide to South America goes, you can explore these islands in two ways: book a yacht or find a hotel on one of its islands.
Booking a yacht will grant you unparalleled convenience, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than backpacking to its islands. Either way, stepping foot on the Galapagos Islands is always a priceless experience. Since natural predators are rare in this part of the Pacific Ocean, you get to play with sea lions and tortoises. If you’re lucky enough, you can also see rare marine species like albatrosses and marine iguanas.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil
There’s always sunshine after the rain, they say. And in South America’s case, that sunshine is the Iguazu Falls. Formed after a devastating volcanic eruption, this stunning waterfall lies beneath the Argentinian and Brazilian jungle. The area is approximately 2.7 kilometers wide, and it consists of over 250 waterfalls. The tallest, which is called the Devil’s Throat, is 82 meters high, making it one of the top South American destinations you should add to your bucket list.
While you can get great views from Brazil, Iguazu is best viewed in the Argentinian jungle. Here, you can get a closer look at this amazing landmark. A shining gem of Argentina, this waterfall is an attraction on its own, but you can also find other natural wonders in this 252,982-hectare park–185,262 in Brazil and 67,720 in Argentina. Its lush natural flora and fauna attract travelers who want to soak dip into nature, making it a must-visit spot if you’re planning a South American trip.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
A waterfall that stands true to its name, the Angel Falls is a sky-perching landmark that looks like a scene that went straight out of Indiana Jones. Standing 979 meters high, it is the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the world. Since it is buried deep in the jungle of Venezuela, there’s no way you can reach it by car.
So to complete our travel guide to South America, we suggest booking a package that includes tours, food, and accommodation. But if you want to save up, you can also ask around to see the best travel options that fit your budget.
The way to this scenic waterfall requires a bit of leg work. But If you don’t mind walking on trails, the Angel Falls is worth every mud that gets on your boots. As a bonus, most travel packages also include tours to its surrounding landmarks, so adding Angel Falls to your itinerary is always a win-win.
Pailón del Diablo, Ecuador
Exaggeration aside, Pailón del Diablo, also called Devil’s Cauldron, is your ticket to an out-of-this-world experience. As if the impressive view of the waterfall isn’t enough, you can walk through its pathway and enjoy the scenic views of clear mountain waters cascading over its beautiful rock formations. Talk about up close and personal and there you have it.
The Pailón del Diablo lies in Baños de Agua Santa in Ecuadorian Andes. It bears proximity to the Amazon Basin, which explains its rugged terrain and its rich forestry. Once you’re at the waterfall edge, you’d see a wide view of herbaceous tropical plants. Just make sure your wetsuit is on as you ascend and descend because you’re going to be in for a wet-and-wild experience.
After your trip to Pailón del Diablo, you may also want to swing by “The Swing at the End of the World,” which is also located in Baños. It’s a world-renowned treehouse that gets you passes to another rare experience–a swing ride that’s perched at a mountain edge. So if you’re looking for a heart-pumping adventure in our travel guide to South America, look no further because Baños got you covered.
Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island shows the world why it deserves to be named as one of the top South American destinations to date. Wrapped with mystery and architectural beauty, this island is home to century-old moai statues meticulously carved by the Rapa Nui. Throughout the years, these stone statues have survived and weathered every possible storm that hit the islands. And today, they are not just a remembrance of the past, but a great legacy of the Rapa Nui.
The Easter Island is nestled in the Pacific Ocean, making it an enticing landmark not just for art and culture enthusiasts, but surfers as well. Once you hop onto the island, you can either explore its archeological sites on foot or by bike. Come mid-day, you can snorkel, surf, or simply bask under the sun to make the most out of your trip.
Now, when you’re planning a South American trip, you’d find Easter Island more expensive than other destinations. Just imagine a cultural heritage sitting somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and you’d understand why. But if you want to save up, you can get to this island by plane instead of booking a cruise ship.
Playa Roja, Peru
No travel guide to South America is complete without the Peruvian, ombre-colored beach located amid a desert. Playa Roja, which sits in the Paracas National Reserve, is a world full of wonder. You won’t find pristine, white sand here, but you’d see something better–red-colored sand that goes in contrast with ocher-colored cliffs and bluish waters.
A meeting point of the desert and the sea, Playa Roja’s sand gets its color from the erosion of pink, solid-magma-filled granodiorite rock. This unbelievable seascape is just around three hours away from Lima, and it is one of the top South American destinations on our list because of its unique story and beauty.
Other than its unexpected yet inspiring mix of colors, its wildlife is also a major highlight among travelers. Here, you can see a rich assortment of bird species flying over its shores, making it even more remarkable.
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Situated at the north-eastern coast of Brazil are 21 picture-perfect islands collectively called the Fernando de Noronha. Out of all these islands, only one is inhabited to give way to a diverse array of reptiles, seabirds, and rare aquatic animals. So if wildlife sightings and fun water activities are your thing, this island won’t disappoint.
Fernando de Noronha’s seascapes are a combination of dramatic rock formations, clear turquoise waters, and pristine white sand. To preserve its natural beauty, only 420 visitors at a time are allowed on its main island. Considered the best beach (and recreational spot) in Brazil, Fernando de Noronha is, hands-down, the most bucket-list-worthy beach in South America.
But as you probably know by now, a visit to paradise comes at an expensive price. You won’t find budget hotels in the area, but you wouldn’t want to book hotels far from the island and miss all the fun, either. Otherwise, you’d spend most of your time traveling back and forth, which can be too stressful. So if you plan to visit this Brazilian paradise, get your pockets ready because it can cost you.
Now, the big question: Is it worth it? Well, just imagine squeezing yourself in Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” and you’d get the point.
Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
Capping off our travel guide to South America is the breathtaking Lençóis Maranhenses. Giving you a complete pinch-me moment, this national park is like a surreal work-of-art. There’s quite nothing in the world like it, making it one of the most-visited Brazilian landmarks.
The area is protected by the North Atlantic coast of Brazil. Once you arrive at this national park, you’d be swept away by powder-like sand dunes that are dancing harmoniously with vivid rainwater lagoons. It has two main lagoons: the Lagoa Bonita and the Lagoa Azul. And along with this are mangrove swamps that are home to a diverse ecosystem.
Final tip: when visiting Lençóis Maranhenses, timing is everything. To get the best views, visit anytime between May to September, when the sun is up and the lagoons are full.