South America is a land brimming with diversity, offering a wide array of experiences that cater to every traveler’s dream. From the vivacious rhythms of Caracas to the windswept solitude of Tierra del Fuego, this continent entices with its endless variety. Whether your passion lies in the immaculate natural reserves such as Brazil’s Pantanal or the thrumming urban mosaics of cities like Rio de Janeiro, South America holds a treasure trove of choices for you to discover.
As you chart your journey across this majestic land, you may find yourself amidst the relics of ancient civilizations or captivated by panoramic vistas that span every corner of the horizon. Your palate can embark on its own adventure, sampling the continent’s rich culinary traditions. With a landscape as expansive and eclectic as the cultures that have shaped it, South America invites you to embrace the multitude of paths that weave through its heart, each leading to unique encounters and memories to cherish.
Best Places to Visit in South America
1. Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena stands as a testament to Colombia’s historical tapestry, draped along the sun-kissed Caribbean shoreline. Here, antiquity blends with the pulse of a contemporary city. You’re greeted by the grandiosity of ancient ramparts, remnants of a time when they served as bulwarks against invaders, safeguarding the city’s storied past.
- Historic District: The age-old, encircled core is yours to explore, a maze where every turn yields yet another cultural gem.
- Cultural Celebrations: Engage with vibrant festivals that animate the city’s streets.
- Artistic Expression: Discover local artistry in many galleries that speckle the urban landscape.
- Hidden Accommodations: Seek out quaint stays that place you at the heart of Cartagena’s charm.
In this nexus of erstwhile glory and present-day vivacity, your journey through South America’s spirit remains incomplete without feeling the heartbeat of Cartagena.
2. Salvador, Brazil
Founded in the mid-16th century, Salvador stands as a historical beacon. Your travels through the maze-like streets of Pelourinho will whisper tales of a colonial past, colored by the vibrant energy of Africa’s legacy.
As Brazil’s third-largest urban area and the initial gateway for slaves in the Americas, you can savor the rich African influence in Salvador’s local dishes. Threading through the city’s exuberant life is the pulse of its annual Carnival—boasted as the globe’s grandest revelry.Explore Salvador, where every cobblestone is a footprint of history, and each rhythm and flavor tells the story of a diverse cultural tapestry.
3. Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
Dominate your understanding of raw natural beauty at Los Glaciares National Park, where the rugged terrains of Argentina unfold. This vast landscape houses an imposing ice field, the source for 47 colossal glaciers, with Perito Moreno Glacier standing out as it defies nature by growing, in stark contrast to the common recession of its kind.
- Size: Largest national park in Argentina
- Ice Cap: Second-largest in the world
- Key Highlights:
- Perito Moreno Glacier: Advancing glacier phenomenon
- Lake Argentino: Argentina’s largest lake
- Ecology & Biodiversity:
- Magellan Subpolar Forest: Pristine woodland
- Patagonian Steppe: Steppe of serene vastness
Your journey promises more than just scenic vistas; the ecological diversity breathes life into the park, capturing a ballet of flora and fauna exclusive to the region.
4. Pantanal, Brazil
Venture into the heart of South America and immerse yourself in the sprawling Pantanal, an ecological treasure trove. Brazil’s Pantanal extends far beyond its borders into Bolivia and Paraguay, making it the planet’s most expansive tropical wetland, akin in size to Washington State.
Getting there is an adventure itself, with most travelers arriving by air or water. Amidst these lush lands, your wildlife encounters will be unparalleled—nowhere else in South America are the elusive jaguars, playful capybaras, and other native fauna so abundantly within view.
5. Edge of the Southern World: Ushuaia, Argentina
- City Title: Ushuaia, the Southernmost City
- Location: Tierra del Fuego’s Capital
- Climate: Often cloudy or breezy
- History: Birthplace from a penal colony past
- Natural Displays: A picturesque bay set against mountains
- Wildlife Encounters: Home to penguins, orcas, seals
- Cultural Insights: Houses a museum chronicling its unique heritage
- Unique Journey: The ‘Train to the End of the World’ concludes here
Embrace the raw beauty of Ushuaia, where the distant whistle of the storied train fades into the silence of the profound south. Your adventure awaits where the world drops off into an expanse of ocean and history whispers through the relentless winds.
See Related: Best Destinations in the World
6. Colombia’s Coastal Jewel: Tayrona National Park
Nestled along Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, Tayrona National Park serves as a sanctuary where ecological preservation converges with breathtaking panoramas. You’ll wander through a haven brimming with biodiversity, a home to over 300 bird species, an abundance of mammals, and a symphony of 70 bat varieties echoing in the wind.
At Tayrona, your eyes will feast on the stunning contrast of mountains descending to meet the deep blue bays. Beaches here are shaded by coconut palms offering solace from the tropical sun.
Be mindful of the ocean’s currents; while inviting, many of these beaches are not safe for swimming. This illustrious marine reserve melds terrestrial beauty with aquatic mystery, promising an unforgettable exploration.
7. Majestic Quito, Ecuador
As you explore the heart of Ecuador, you find yourself in Quito, cradled by the Andes’ mighty arms. At 2,850 meters above sea level, your breath mingles with the crisp highland air, making this city the loftiest official capital on the globe, edged only by the sky-reaching La Paz which holds a different constitutional status. In the vibrant tapestry of South American history, Quito stands out; its Old Town—a UNESCO heritage jewel—is an exquisitely preserved testament to its 16th-century Spanish origins, unrivaled across the Americas in both its authenticity and scale.
Did you know?
- Position: Nearest capital to Earth’s waistline, the equator
- Inception: Spaniards established it in 1534
- Heritage: Its Old Town is a historical treasure trove
- Geography: Encircled by the watchful eyes of volcanoes
Remember, as you wander through its historic plazas, that Quito’s uniqueness is further underscored by the nearby active volcanoes, standing as silent sentinels, adding an element of awe to the city’s landscape.
8. Colca Canyon, Peru
As you wander through Peru’s Colca Canyon, the vastness commands your gaze. Deep ravines and sky-high cliffs eclipse the grandeur of the famed Grand Canyon of the United States, offering perspectives that dwarf even the most seasoned traveler’s expectations.
- Depth: Significantly surpasses the Grand Canyon
- Wildlife: Andean condors, giant hummingbirds
- Culture: Local villages with artisan crafts
In the expansive blue above, condors glide on thermals, their impressive wingspan a silhouette against the sun. Amidst the local villages, artisans weave stories into their handicrafts, vibrant threads intertwining tradition and livelihood. Here, the colossal natural splendor enhances every discovery, including the smallest of feathered residents—the region’s giant hummingbirds.
9. Atacama Desert, Chile
Traverse the unparalleled Atacama, the driest desert outside the polar regions with rare rainfall events. Spanning 1,600 km across Chile’s coast, bordered by the Andes and the Pacific, its uniqueness is undeniable.
- Terrain: Resembling Martian landscape, the Atacama has starred as an extraterrestrial stand-in for cinematic space voyages.
- Vast Salt Flats
- Energetic Geysers
- Striking Blue Lagoons
Your encounter with the Atacama might be the closest experience to exploring another planet while still on Earth.
10. Angel Falls, Venezuela
Venture to Venezuela’s Guayana Highlands and behold Angel Falls, the undisputed pinnacle of waterfalls. Its waters free fall an astounding 950 meters, dwarfing Niagara’s cascades with its sheer verticality.
- Height: More than 950 meters (3,200 feet)
- Location: Auyantepu Mountain
- River: Rio Kerepacupai Meru
Named to honor American aviator Jimmie Angel, a visit to the falls is an expedition—accessible by flight and boat through Venezuela’s wilderness.
11. Cusco, Peru
Perched high in the Andes at an invigorating elevation, Cusco is a city where the echoes of the past converge with the vivacity of the present. It’s a place where the remnants of the robust Inca civilization anchor the city’s soul, layered by Spanish colonial refinements etched into the Old Town’s architecture. As you stroll through the streets of Cusco, you’re tracing the footsteps of history—walking amid ruins that whisper tales of an empire unlike any other, then brushing past walls that recall the Spaniards’ arrival.
- Inca Heritage: Explore the time-weathered Inca sites scattered around the city.
- Spanish Legacy: Immerse in the colonial charm within Cusco’s Old Town.
- Historical Capital: Recognized in Peru’s constitution for its unparalleled historical significance.
12. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
- Altitude: Approximately 3,700 meters above sea level
- Location: Southwestern Bolivia
- Composition: Thick crust of salt overlaying a pool of brine
- Size: World’s most expansive salt flat
- Landscape: Notoriously flat and stark, morphs into a reflective surface after rainfall
- Flora and Fauna: Notable for flamingo populations
As you traverse the Bolivian highlands, you encounter the stark beauty of the Salar de Uyuni. This expansive salt desert, renowned as the planet’s largest, unfurls before you, its surface mirroring the sky post-rainfall.
Amidst this surreal, arid environment, where the horizon seems infinite, you might catch a glimpse of flamingos gracefully punctuating the white canvas—a sharp splash of color against the earthy monotone. Here, in the stillness, the lines between earth and sky blur, enveloping you in an otherworldly realm.
13. Lake Titicaca, Peru & Bolivia
Hovering at over 3,800 meters, Lake Titicaca – the world’s highest navigable body of water – extends its majestic expanse across Peru and Bolivia. This impressive lake hosts an array of life.
- Elevation: Over 3,800 meters
- Aquatic Life: Approx. 500 species
- Notable Islands: 41, including man-made reed islands
Venture out on its placid waters, home to waterfowl flocks and nurtured by indigenous cultures. Legends whisper here, declaring the sun’s birth at these coordinates. Encounter the Uros people’s floating reed islands, marvels of ancient ingenuity and resilience.
14. Easter Island, Chile
Venture to the world’s most secluded inhabited isle, Easter Island. A journey here promises a view into an ancient civilization’s legacy, the moai, massive stone guardians sculpted eons ago. These enigmatic figures, nearly 900 in number, stand as silent testaments to the island’s early Polynesian settlers.
Fashioned primarily from the island’s volcanic ash, the moai’s gaze, enhanced by obsidian, extends beyond the horizon, as if keeping watch over their creators’ land. Discover the deep-rooted mysteries these statues embody within this far-flung outpost of Chilean heritage.
15. Amazon Rainforest
Discover the Amazon Rainforest—an expansive green universe housing a staggering 390 billion trees. This verdant marvel spans most of the Amazon River basin, rightfully claiming the title of the planet’s largest tropical forest.
Brazil’s Green Heart: Holding 60% of this forest, Brazil forms your gateway into its depths, while Peru and Colombia offer substantial swaths of canopy. Neighboring countries cradle smaller portions of this biodiversity haven.
- Trees: Over 390 billion
- Dominant Nation Presence: Brazil (60%)
- Other Key Countries: Peru, Colombia
Your exploration here positions you amidst a living library of unparalleled flora and fauna, each organism whispering the ancient tales of Earth’s vibrant pulse.
16. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Nestled within the far reaches of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park beckons with its awe-inspiring landscapes. Here, the iconic Paine Towers rise majestically, their peaks a homage to the heavens. You’ll find yourself amidst a diverse tableau where glaciers, rivers, and vast steppes coexist with dense forests.
- Glacial Formations: Encounter the icy spectacles carving through the terrain.
- Flora & Fauna: Vibrant ecosystems playing host to rare wildlife, including an endangered deer species.
- Mountaineering Majesty: The three granite pillars, etching the park’s skyline, offer a striking contrast to the azure sky—Paine meaning ‘blue’ in the local tongue.
Immerse yourself in this natural mosaic, a testament to the untamed beauty of Chile’s wilderness.
17. Buenos Aires, Argentina
In the pulse of Buenos Aires, a city of 17 million souls, you find a meld of European elegance and Latin spirit. Here, on the banks of Rio de la Plata, the essence of the cosmopolitan breathes through historic neighborhoods and vibrant cultural expressions.
- Population: Approximately 17 million
- Location: Situated along the Rio de la Plata
- Cultural Claim to Fame: Top South American destination for its rich culture and compelling architecture
Your journey isn’t complete without wandering the storied streets of Recoleta, a quartier brimming with historical narratives. The famed Recoleta Cemetery stands as a sentinel, housing the remains of lauded figures like Eva Perón—its silent alleys narrate a city’s evolution.
See Related: Best Nature Destinations Around the World
18. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Immerse yourself in a realm where prehistoric creatures roam unfettered. On your journey to the Galapagos, you’ll meet the iconic giant tortoises and gaze upon the peculiar iguanas that seem plucked from a different epoch.
Picture yourself walking in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, whose encounters here sparked revolutionary insights into natural selection. These 18 principal islands rise starkly from the Pacific, a testament to the Earth’s fiery volcanic heart, located some 900 kilometers from Ecuador—a true marvel of ongoing geological artistry.
19. Iguazu Falls, Brazil & Argentina
Witness the grandeur of Iguazu Falls, a breathtaking cascade network rightfully hailed as “big water”. With 275 distinct falls, this natural wonder straddles the border between Brazil and Argentina. As you explore, discover that while the Iguazu River mainly traverses through Brazil, the Argentinian side plays host to the majority of these falls, including the stunning Devil’s Throat—the largest among them.
- Devil’s Throat: Majestic centerpiece
- 275 Waterfalls: A stunning array
- Location: Between Brazil and Argentina
20. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Immerse yourself in the rhythmic heartbeat of Rio de Janeiro through its iconic samba moves, a cultural staple that echoes through the vibrant streets of this seaside metropolis. Behold the Christ the Redeemer statue, an emblem of peace that towers over the city from Corcovado Mountain’s crest.
- Carnival: A dazzling spectacle of costumes and culture
- Music: From the sensual bossa nova to the electric beats of samba
- Beaches: The famed Copacabana invites sun-seekers
- Sports: Experience the fervor at Maracana Stadium, a mecca for football fans
- Olympics: The spirit of the 2016 games still lingers in the passionate support for athletic excellence
Discover the allure of Rio, a city that dances to the rhythm of its own drum.
21. Machu Picchu, Peru
Envision a citadel perched amidst the Andean mounts, where emperors once roamed, and sacred rituals honored the divine. Machu Picchu stands as a testament to the Inca’s architectural prowess, having eluded Spanish forces, and came to light once more under a 20th-century academic’s gaze.
- Function: Imperial retreat, military stronghold, and religious sanctuary
- Architecture: Polished dry stone construction
- Cultural Notes:
- A pinnacle of Inca engineering
- A locus for spiritual offerings
- Views: Panoramic vistas that captivate the modern traveler
- Visitation: Tops Peru’s chart of must-sees
Your footsteps echo on stone paths, as you trace the contours of history and wonder, untouched by conquistadors, preserved for the ages.