Beaches, deserts, historic cities, islands, archaeological sites, natural parks, incredible people and sea lions… The list of best places to visit in South America is endless. But, besides the big cities, where could you go on this enchanting tropical continent for a dream vacation like no other before? Plan your itinerary with our list of the best places to visit in South America.
Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
Already on our list of the best destinations in Brazil, the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, accessible from Barreirinhas is a totally absurd place: a white desert full of water (yes, “desert” and “full of water”… it seems that in South America they do it on purpose to confuse us… almost worse than driving in England!) whose dunes change shape with every breath of wind.
Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia
In southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador, a place of worship and pilgrimage has also become one of the best places to visit in South America. It is easy to see why: the Sanctuary of Las Lajas is a place of extreme beauty, both because of its detailed architecture and the wonderful natural surroundings. The sanctuary is located within the canyon of the Guáitara River, in the village of Las Lajas, in the municipality of Ipiales. Surrounded by waterfalls, this beautiful Gothic basilica is 50 meters high and is full of surprising details, including arches, mosaics, towers and stone walls. And it is on one of these walls that the image of Our Lady of the Rosary, carved into the rock, is depicted. Just one piece of advice: every year on 16th September tens of thousands of devotees of the Virgin Mary go to the sanctuary to pray. So, unless this is your only purpose, try to avoid visiting this place that day.
Best places to visit in South America – Urubamba, Peru
It would be a foolish thing to think of preparing an itinerary for the best places to visit in South America without including a visit to the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Peruvian Andes. Very close to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, together they form a beautiful and long journey to discover mystical Peru. The valley was instrumental for the Incas, for its geographical and climatic qualities, since it was one of the main sources of wealth from their lands.
It is composed of important archaeological monuments and indigenous villages crossed by numerous rivers that flow down small valleys forming phenomenal landscapes. The main river in the region is the Urubamba, which gives its name to the largest city in the valley. This welcoming town, with a fair selection of hotels and restaurants, is a common stopover for adventurers who come or wish to continue on to other destinations in the valley such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero.
Read our Machu Picchu travel guide
It may be a bit far from the capital Santiago (780 km further south), but take a train to the friendly city of Pucón to explore one of Chile’s best regions: Araucanía. The city is surrounded by the Villarrica volcano, which alone is one of the best places to visit in South America and makes this place a must for lovers of extreme sports. Although it is not extinct, a visit around the volcano is quite common. In summer, tourist agencies offer guides and climbing equipment rental (or “Andinism” as it is known in the Andean countries), although we strongly recommend you join an official Villaricca group tour to go trekking with a qualified local person.
Ecotourists will be happy to find a wide choice of sports facilities and outdoor activities in Pucón, ranging from water skiing to hiking and rafting. Not to mention the fabulous ski complex on the slopes of the Villarrica volcano, which operates from July to September. Its excellent infrastructure has six chair lifts, 20 ski and snowboard slopes, a restaurant and a children’s recreation centre.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Imagine the landscape: 15,000 hectares of immaculate greenery, hundreds of animal species (many of them endangered), some of the bluest beaches in the Colombian Caribbean and the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. This is the view from Tayrone National Natural Park, probably one of the most beautiful places in Colombia. Transformed into a protected park in 1969, this site was home to the indigenous Tairona people until the mid 15th century. Still today you can visit their fascinating archaeological sites such as the Pueblito Chairama, considered a sacred place by the natives and and one of the best places to visit in South America. You can choose many paths in the park, all surrounded by beautiful landscapes and which can be explored on foot or on horseback (rent your stallion at the entrance of the park). And then, get ready to be surprised by the beautiful beaches you can visit in South America, such as Cabo San Juan, La Piscina and Playa Brava (the latter reserved for nudists).
Best places to visit in South America – Isla del Sol, Bolivia
It is likely that most travelers wishing to explore deep South America will want to take the Bolivia-Peru-Chile route. Lake Titicaca is one of its most shining pearls: the highest navigable lake in the world, with no less than 41 islands. But, given the variety of best places to visit in South America, the question remains: which ones to choose? For starters, Isla del Sol is an absolute must. Easily accessible from the city of Copacabana and with an area of 14.3 square kilometers, it is the largest and one of the most beautiful islands of Titicaca.
It is considered sacred by the Incas, because the site was home to the sanctuaries of the “virgins of the sun”, dedicated to the Sun god. The island is still inhabited by indigenous tribes such as Quechua and Aymara, who are dedicated to crafts and transhumance. Around the island you can find many archaeological sites, such as the museum of Challapampa, which also preserves historical pieces recovered from the island. The landscape is always breathtaking, with paths crossing the island from north to south, with deep blue water, green mountains and, of course, the inimitable Andes and their snowy peaks.
Los Roques, Venezuela
Welcome to one of the best places to visit in South America: the Los Roques archipelago has one of the most scenic landscapes on the continent. The set of 42 islands and 250 coral reefs has a total area of 27,000 hectares and you could spend whole days exploring every corner of it. Spend time relaxing and enjoying the unparalleled views by kayaking or sailing or get your adrenaline pumping with a few hours of windsurfing and scuba diving.
Few landscapes in the world combine coral reefs that protect the archipelago from the strongest currents, deserted beaches of warm sand, crystal clear waters and an incredible variety of marine species (98% of all coral species in the world are said to be found here!).
The islands are called “cayos”. On the main one, Gran Roque, there are hotels, as well as a small airport, a port and some shops. Two annual festivals warm the atmosphere for the locals: one in September (the “Virgin of the valley”) and another in November (the Lobster Festival).
The Seven Lakes Road, Argentina
A simple passage from one city to another has never been so beautiful: the 67 miles connecting San Martin de Los Andes to Villa La Angostura, Argentina, have been called the “Seven Lakes Road” and offer one of the most beautiful landscapes in Patagonia. Although its name refers to 7 lakes, there are actually 9 or 10 of them. The best known, however, are Correntoso, Escondido, Espejo, Falkner, Machónico, Villarino, and Lácar, all of incredible beauty, with waters ranging from bright green to deep blue. A good tip for travelers decided to explore the best places to visit in South America is to avoid taking the bus as there are not many stops along the way and the journey can get a bit expensive. The best option is to rent a car and share it with friends and fellow travelers.
Discover the best time to visit Argentina
Best places to visit in South America – Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
What if your next travel destination is a small village without electricity, internet or even paved roads? Hard to imagine? Yet in a charming place like Cabo Polonio, in Uruguay, you won’t miss much of any modern comfort. This peninsula is located 260 km from the capital Montevideo and is considered one of the best places to visit in South America. You can expect virtually deserted beaches, giant white sand dunes surrounding the city, sea lions lazing almost always around the islands of the coast and a starry sky following one of the most beautiful sunsets you have ever seen. Access to this village is rather limited: the nearest road is 7 km away and you can get there on horseback or on a 4×4. The sparse population is essentially made up of fishermen, craftsmen and employees of the local lighthouse. The less brave will be relieved to know that many locals in the region have their own power generator, so no one will remain completely in the dark.
With its growing reputation for beaches and carnival celebrations, Encarnación, the third most important city in Paraguay, has been nicknamed the “new Rio de Janeiro” by its inhabitants. Whether this is a truthful compliment or not, the city overflows with natural and cultural attractions that make it worth a visit. Encarnación is an important commercial and industrial center, directly connected to the city of Posadas, Argentina, by the San Roque González de Santa Cruz bridge that crosses the Paraná river.
The city has a beautiful tourist facility with many welcoming hotels and a good variety of restaurants. Its reputation as the “Carnival Capital” is explained every year in February, with all the lively celebrations of the “Carnaval Encarnaceno”. Don’t miss the chance to visit some of the best places in South America: the nearby ruins of the Jesuit mission of the Holy Trinity of Paraná, Jesus of Tavarangue (the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Paraguay) and the sanctuary of the Virgen de Itacuá.
Read also: Best things to do in Costa Rica
Here you will find a country and a capital that are hardly ever listed among the places to visit in South America, but which actually deserve more attention. At the northeastern end of the continent, a bit isolated but with a peculiar cosmopolitan environment, is the capital of Surinam, Paramaribo, with its rich colonial architecture and fascinating ethnic diversity. The population of the city, which barely exceeds 250,000 inhabitants, is a mix of indigenous, Indian, Javanese, African and Dutch descendants (who abandoned the official language after colonization). And there are traces of these cultures scattered throughout the capital. Among the best places to visit in South America is the old town, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its beautiful Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul (the largest wooden building in the Western Hemisphere), the Central Market, Fort Zeelandia, the Neve Shalom Synagogue and the Keizerstraat Mosque.
Best places to visit in South America – Salta, Argentina
“Salta, la linda” (in Spanish, “Salta, la bella”) is the nickname given by the Argentineans to this small town in the eastern Andes, in the Lerma Valley. And there are not many questions left about the name after a visit. One of the best places to visit in South America is located at an altitude of over a thousand metres. Its geographical position boasts enchanting natural elements such as red deserts, snow-capped mountains, rivers and valleys.
Salta is known for its strong colonial heritage, very present in traditional houses, narrow streets and monuments. It is also deeply marked by the folklore of northern Argentina, with its typical dances and songs (such as zamba and chacarera) and ethnic food. Clear signs of the colonial era are the Church and Convent of St. Bernard and the Cabildo, the oldest building in the city, dating back to 1780 and currently home to the Historical Museum of the North and the Colonial Museum and Fine Arts (closed on Mondays). The city is usually the starting point of the “Clouds Train” which follows a fascinating route through the La Puna region, crossing the slopes of the Andes to San Antonio de los Cobres.
Surrounded by three volcanoes, the small town of Baños de Agua Santa (or simply Baños) is among the best places to visit in South America for anyone looking for adventure and nature in Ecuador. It is located in the province of Tungurahua, in the heart of the country, and is known as the “Gateway to the Amazon”, as it lies on the border of the Pastaza River with the Amazon basin. Famous for its hot springs of mineral water, Baños is also a Catholic pilgrimage center, since the Virgin Mary is thought to have appeared once near the waterfall. Now the image of the Virgin of holy water can be found in the local cathedral. No visit to Baños is complete without a brief stop at “La Casa del Arbol”, the tree house that is famous throughout the world for “the swing at the end of the world”. Many paths lead to this private farm, all accessible by bus or taxi.
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The Huacachina Desert, Peru
Just over 5 kilometers from the town of Ica you will find in the middle of the desert an oasis where you can do trillions of adventure sports activities. Leaving the oasis and entering the desert, you will soon realize that the dunes are real peaks. So go back, rent a board (not a dining table, if possible), climb to the top of one of these (the peaks, not the boards) and surf on the sand.
Perito Moreno, Argentina
Do you know that you can take crampons and walk on the surface of the glacier? Ehm… every time it’s a matter of walking on the ice, we always have the inevitable paranoia of the classic movie scene with the mocking ice that cracks and the mocking protagonist who ends up cooling down in the water (usually leaving us the feathers).
Atacama Desert, Chile
When we say “dress like onions”: in the Atacama Desert there is a temperature range from 0 degrees at night to 30 degrees during the day… things that, just thinking about it, gave us a cold. The positive thing about one of the best places to visit in South America is that at least you won’t have to worry about carrying an umbrella: it’s the driest desert in the world… and it’s not that it rains in the deserts like in Ireland. For reasons that Giuliacci will explain better, it is practically impossible for clouds to form: before 1971 it hadn’t rained for 400 years.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Ah well! Bread and tomato… We are really full! Where were we? Ah, yes, at the last point of our “Best places to visit in South America! Look at the photo below: do you see that jeep on the ice? It’s not ice. We are once again in a desert, but a very special desert: everyone is good at finding a desert of sand, but deserts of salt, did you know of any? Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia: 10 billion tons of salt, eleven layers of which the surface is just… 10 meters thick. It also represents a third of the planet’s lithium reserves.