10 Best Places You Must Visit in South America
South America is a vast and geographically diverse territory with many different must-visit places, best destinations and not to miss natural, and cultural sites that it is impossible to cover them all. We've personally handpicked ten best places you must visit when traveling in South America.
South America is a captivating continent filled with mountains, glaciers, deserts, salt flats, volcanoes, colonial cities, archeological sites, Inca ruins or jungles.
As you can see, there is plenty to discover for every type of traveler - the one who wants to hear the history of every single ruin, and for outdoor adventurer as well. In the past decade, South America has been attracting more visitors than ever, and we can only say the continent deserves it.
No, South America (according to our opinion) cannot compete with South East Asia when it comes to food, but beautiful beaches, ancient cities nestled high in the mist-shrouded mountains, wildlife, indigenous Andean communities, vast plains or deep jungles are the reason why the continent is high on every backpacker's bucket list.
Do you want to take a tour around the best places everyone must visit when in South America?
We've put together a list of the ten destinations we enjoyed the most when traveling on the continent for several months.
The Galapagos Island
The Galapagos is unlike any other place on the continent, it is simply not possible, to compare it with any other destination.
When traveling long-term around South America, we often faced a decision if we want to see a beautiful but similar colonial city rather in Colombia, than in Ecuador, or if we want to see both. It usually depended on our mood and budget.
But there was no discussion when it came to traveling to the Galapagos Islands.
Although this destination belongs among the most expensive places in the world, we knew we couldn't miss this trip even we had to spend our last money here.
The Galapagos Islands is a unique destination, a one-of-a-kind many travelers visit only once in life and now, after seeing it, we can confirm, it is as spectacular as we hoped it would be.
The volcanic landscape, sparkling blue sea and white beaches with fine sand are amazing, and normally it would have been the factor why to visit the destination, but the main reason why the archipelago is so unusual is the wildlife - it is hard to describe it, you must see it yourself!
There is probably no one who's never heard about Machu Picchu, the mystical Incan city nestled in the mountains where the fog is rolling almost constantly from one side of the valley to the other one.
Some places are often over-hyped and not that great in person, but it is not the case of Machu Picchu.
We visited the place twice, and we are sure next time we'll go to South America, we will stop by there again.
We met a lot of backpackers on the road and even those who did not have any interest to visit Peru headed to see at least Machu Picchu, one of the seven world wonders.The sacred city was built in the 15th century, later was abandoned when Spaniards arrived and it was overgrown with grass and roots until the beginning of the 20th century.
Although before our visit we had seen pictures of Machu Picchu many times, we still stood in awe on the platform inside the walled city from where we could get the most iconic view. It is simply incredible how Inca people were able to drag and cut heavy stones and built such an incredible place with own hands.
Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia is often overlooked country in South America, but the salt flats close to the borders with Chile has put this country firmly on traveler's map, and even people who have never intended to visit Bolivia change their travel plans and adjust their Peru or Chile itineraries to fit Salar de Uyuni there.
Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat, and as almost every place in Bolivia, it is at altitude, so it is important to acclimatize before your visit. The tour starts around 3600 meters above sea level, but in the next three days (when taking the most popular three-day tour) you will get as high as 5000 meters above sea level.
Although it is possible to visit Salar de Uyuni on a sunrise tour, sunset tour or on a one-day tour, we recommend you to invest your time and money and spend there at least three days, because the landscape is absolutely stunning. You will cross the salt flat in a jeep, sleep in a hotel made of salt, see volcanoes, flamingos, geysers, all of that in dizzying heights.
Rio de Janeiro
We've never seen a city in a more beautiful setting than Rio de Janeiro in Brasil, and although we definitely prefer nature over cities and are not fans of city beaches, we had an absolute blast here.
Green hills, beaches, sparkling sea, and Christ the Redeemer overlooking it all are exactly the reasons why people are driven to visit Rio de Janeiro. We stayed in Rio for four days and did not have time to get bored. We took a cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain, train to the statue of the Christ, walked the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beach, drank caipirinha, and enjoyed the fine weather in one of the biggest cities of South America.
Despite its size, the city center was quiet on weekends (maybe suspiciously too quiet), but on weekdays we could feel the lively atmosphere, and it was not only because we were in Rio only a couple of days before the beginning of the carnival.
Rio de Janeiro doesn't have the best reputation safety-wise, but we did not have the slightest problem during our stay in the city, used our common sense, never walked out after dark and took a taxi almost everywhere we went.
Patagonia is a region which spans between Chile and Argentina, and undoubtedly deserves the place on our list of best places in South America.
Patagonia holds so many highlights that it is not possible to visit them all unless you have the luxury of unlimited time. Mountains, glaciers, and crystal clear lakes can be visited on both sides of Patagonia, but the must-visit places are over thousands of kilometers long Carretera Austral which is dotted with pristine national parks, hikes near El Chalten, glacier Perito Moreno, one of the most beautiful national parks in the world Torres del Paine and Ushuaia world's southernmost city.
The truth is that Patagonia is a quite specific destination in South America. Prices are high, weather conditions harsh, distances vast, public transport infrequent and the region is safe (we sometimes did not even get a key to lock our room).
All of that, in combination with the stunning raw landscape, perfect one-day or multi-day hikes creates a dream destination for every outdoorsy traveler.
Tayrona National Park
When traveling, we had a feeling that Colombia is the most popular country in South America among backpackers.
It is not that long time ago when the country suffered from violence and drug trafficking, and although we don't want to say this period is completely over and Colombia does not have any issues, we were surprised how much we enjoyed our time here.
One of the must-visit places in Colombia is Tayrona National Park on the Carribean Coast where you can enjoy pristine beaches, swimming in a rough sea and jungle walks. The park is overly popular among locals, so prepare you won't have it only for yourself. There are several options on where to stay in Tayrona. Either in fancy lodges or in campgrounds where it is even possible to rent a tent, so you do not need any equipment.
No matter what option you choose make sure to spend as much time as you can outside, and although the hot and humid weather can be tiring, don't skip the jungle hike to Pueblito.
The most popular multi-day trek in Ecuador is three-day Quilotoa Loop, and it was for sure one of the best things we've done in South America.
The hike leads through a picturesque landscape where you can see the rural life in Ecuador which is so different from life in the capital city of Quito, although those two places are not that far from each other.
The highlight of the trek is Quilotoa Crater filled with dark blue water you will reach on the last day of the trek.
To be honest, we did not expect much from Quilotoa Loop, but soon we found out it was an exceptional experience, and we are not afraid to include it on this list of ten best places you must visit in South America. The great thing about this loop is you can customize it.
It is possible to hike all three days (or longer if you want to take it slowly), skip the first day and trek only two days, but there is also the easy option to travel solely to Quilotoa Crater from Latacunga without the necessity to do any workout.
A large part of South America is covered by impermeable Amazon jungle.
Although Brasil holds the most of this area, you can choose in which country you want to explore Amazon - the most popular destinations apart from Brasil are Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. We spent a week in Peruvian Amazon, specifically in Pacaya Samiria Reserve, and we must say it was one of the most unique experiences we've ever had. We know that many people don't want to travel to the jungle because it is usually far and it is time-consuming as the connection is not usually great, but believe us, the experience is so unique that you won't regret your decision.
According to our opinion, no visit to South America is complete without an expedition to the Amazon jungle.
Traveling to Amazon can have many forms. You can either stay in a lodge and do one-day walks around or travel deeper into the jungle. We decided on camping, and although it was a challenging and pretty uncomfortable seven days, we could see a large number of animals in their natural habitat, and until today we keep fond memories on this Amazon adventure.
Visiting Iguazu Falls, one of the most jaw-dropping waterfalls in the world, from either Argentina or Brazil is a must when traveling South America. We must warn you here though. It is possible that after seeing Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfalls system in the world, you won't be excited by any other waterfall you'll see in the future.
We've seen our share of waterfalls around the world, but none of them can be quite compared to Iguazu Falls. The water falling down is incredibly powerful, so expect you won't be dry after the visit, even when walking only on the boardwalks.
We think it doesn't matter from which country you'll decide to visit Iguazu Falls, but people generally say that Brasil has the views, but Argentina has the waterfalls.
Among the top places to visit in South America must undoubtedly be the Atacama Desert and the gateway to the desert, a small but lively and touristy town San Pedro de Atacama.
It is possible to do Salar de Uyuni tour and cross the borders to Chile, so your first destination there will be San Pedro de Atacama.
When traveling on a budget, you might be upset, because this place is pretty expensive, but you can find here affordable things to do such as biking in Valle de la Luna.
The landscape around San Pedro de Atacama is absolutely stunning - cone-shaped volcanoes, colorful lagoons, geysers, colonies of flamingos, clear skies perfect for stargazing or other-worldly rugged valleys, that's in short what you can expect when visiting Atacama desert.
Have we inspired you to travel to South America and visit all of the unique and must-see places on the continent?
Here you can find links to all the services you might find useful when planning your big trip.
Firstly, you should read Everything You Need to Know Before Traveling to South America.
We've written a full post on What to Pack for South America to help you sort out what to pack and what to leave behind.
If safety is your biggest concern, check out this post Is It Safe to Travel to South America? where you will find safety tips and advice.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
Some of the countries are best to be explored by a rental car.
And what is your must-visit place in South America? Let us know in the comments below!
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