South America is a continent that’s dazzling in its diversity. Vast and versatile, it lures adventurous and curious travellers with its abundance of natural, cultural, and historical wonders. This is a land of staggering mountain peaks, captivating colonial towns, glistening glaciers, Incan ruins, tropical rainforests, thundering waterfalls, and sprawling cities.
This continent is so massive that it can seem almost impossible to choose the most incredible places to visit. Home to 12 distinct countries, South America offers something for everyone, whether you’re into cultural breaks, nature tours, wildlife holidays, or buzzing city breaks. Plus, there are always plenty of great travel deals on offer.
To get you inspired and show you a glimpse of some of this continent’s most spectacular treasures, here are eight of the most unbelievable places in South America.
1. Cartagena, Colombia
Widely considered to be the Caribbean’s most beautiful city, Cartagena has it all.
Boasting colourful colonial buildings, flower-adorned balconies, grand palaces and plazas, gourmet dining, and imposing fortresses, this city is astonishingly photogenic. Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, it’s also home to sugar-white beaches and warm turquoise seas.
The best way to get a feel for Cartagena is to explore its Old Town, which is bordered by centuries-old stone walls. Built to protect the city and to instil fear in enemies, work began in 1614 and took 182 years to complete. Today, the walls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and inside are some of the best examples of preserved colonial architecture in Latin America.
Cartagena’s narrow streets are ideal for getting lost in. As you stroll, you can admire the bold colours of the buildings, their intricate wrought-iron detail, and the vibrant bougainvillaea that cascade from balconies. If you get hungry, visit the street food vendors and feast upon delicious arepas (stuffed corn cakes), carimañolas (fried yuca fritters), and patacones (fried green plantain).
You can learn more about the city’s grisly history in The Palace of the Inquisition, which is now a museum, and visit the formidable Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – the most impressive fortress ever built in the Spanish colonies. Or, if you’d prefer to relax, take a boat tour to Isla Barú, where you can swim in the crystalline Caribbean waters and kick back on the powder-white sand.
2. The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
South America is known for its fascinating nature and wildlife, and few places are as unique as the Galápagos Islands, which are located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that these 13 volcanic islands are unlike any other place in the world. In fact, it was the archipelago’s remarkable flora and fauna that famously led Charles Darwin to form his theory of natural selection.
In terms of landscape, the Galápagos Islands are extraordinarily diverse. You can hike along lunar-like lava fields, over rocky volcanic craters, and trek through soaring green highlands and dense, mist-shrouded forests. The sparkling blue sea is perfect for swimming and snorkelling, and after, you can dry off on magnificent red sand beaches.
But it’s the wildlife that makes the Galápagos Islands so special; both the land and sea teem with fascinating species. You can see colonies of sea lions, pelicans, and flamingos; admire iguanas and giant tortoises; and spot albatrosses, bats, and owls in the skies. The deep blue water is also home to sharks, whales, seals, penguins, and rays.
Because most Galápagos tours kick off in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, you’ll also get the chance to explore a vibrant Ecuadorian city. Located in the dramatic Andes mountains, Quito is another South American city with a UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town. You can stroll the lively streets, admiring the grand colonial buildings and sampling the delicious local chocolate.
3. Easter Island, Chile
Few places in the world are more shrouded in mystery than Easter Island, which is located more than 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile.
Cast adrift in the vastness of the South Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the most remote areas on the planet, and few travellers ever venture here. So, it’s unrivalled if you’re looking to go off the beaten track.
This tiny island – known as Rapa Nui to its indigenous Polynesian inhabitants – is most famous for its mysterious moai, the logic-defying monolithic stone statues built between 1250 and 1500. Carved directly from compacted volcanic ash, they’ve intrigued visitors for centuries, ever since the island was ‘discovered’ by the Dutch in 1722 and when Captain Cook arrived four years later.
Here, you can explore the volcano of Rano Raraku, which is known as ‘the nursery’. Strolling along the southern slopes and admiring the many statues rising from the ground will have you thinking you’ve stepped back into early Polynesian times. And from the summit, you can marvel at 360-degree views of the island and the gleaming blue lake hidden inside the crater.
Easter Island’s landscape is mesmerising and feels like a world unto itself. You can visit the sacred site of Orongo, which is dramatically situated 300 metres above Rano Kau – the island’s largest crater lake, with the cobalt-blue ocean crashing beneath.
Relax on the picture-perfect white-sand beach of Anakena, explore secret caves, or soak up the local culture in the town of Hanga Roa.
4. Machu Picchu, Peru
Few historic sites enjoy a backdrop quite as jaw-dropping as Peru’s Machu Picchu.
Often heralded as South America’s greatest tourist attraction, this high-altitude archaeological site will quite literally take your breath away. Located in Peru’s sacred valley, it’s an ancient Incan citadel that sprawls across steep escarpments and is set against a backdrop of soaring forest-covered peaks and lush vegetation.
Machu Picchu’s remoteness only adds to its appeal – as does the sense of mystery surrounding it. Located at an altitude of almost 8,000 ft, and shrouded in mist, the site was never discovered by the Spanish colonists; and while the locals were aware of it, they kept its existence a secret. Overgrown by dense jungle, it remained virtually forgotten for centuries.
It was rediscovered in 1911 when locals led explorer Hiram Bingham to the site, and the world finally became aware of Machu Picchu’s majesty.
Archaeologists believe construction began in 1450, and it wasn’t until 100 years later that the Incas abandoned the city. Fearing that the Spanish would find it, they burned the forest trails as they left, destroying the paths to the summit.
Exploring this lost mountain city is an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. The Incan civilisation was incredibly advanced, and Machu Picchu has an elaborate irrigation system, as well as plenty of houses, plazas, temples, and ceremonial and sacrificial areas.
You can hike to Machu Picchu or take the train up – just try to get there at sunrise for a truly magical experience.
5. Iguazú Falls, Argentina & Brazil
Iguazú Falls may not be the world’s tallest waterfall, but it’s arguably the most dramatic.
Made up of a system of 275 separate falls, visiting Iguazú Falls is a visceral experience that hits all your senses: you’ll feel the spray on your face, hear the thunder of the water, and smell the fresh scent of wet leaves. And, of course, the sight itself is extraordinary.
The scale, power, and noise of the waterfall are awe-inspiring. As the water cascades over a precipice almost two miles wide and 80 metres high, the clouds of spray create brilliant rainbows, making the view even more impressive. No wonder Eleanor Roosevelt could only manage to say “Poor Niagara” when she first got a glimpse of the falls!
Another perk of visiting Iguazú Falls is that it’s situated on the border of Brazil and Argentina, giving you the chance to visit both of these magnificent countries. The falls are located in a vast tropical forest home to around 80 different mammals, 500 bird species, and more than 2,000 types of plants, so you’ll have plenty of chances to explore the unique flora and fauna too.
One of the highlights of the falls is the Garganta del Diablo – the ‘Devil’s Throat’ – which is the most majestic of Iguazú’s cascades. From the lookout spot, you can marvel at the deafening falls plunging beneath you, and the smoke-like vapours can be seen from miles away.
Witnessing the falls, exploring the rainforest, and visiting both Brazil and Argentina in one day is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
6. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Thanks to its colonial towns, ancient ruins, national parks, and soaring volcanoes, Bolivia has long been one of the most popular countries on the South American backpacking trail. But parts of the country are also some of the least explored, and its authenticity and raw beauty mean many find it to be one of South America’s most captivating countries.
While Bolivia has many impressive sights and landscapes, one of the most striking and alien-like is Salar de Uyuni: the world’s largest salt flat. Located in a remote corner of southwestern Bolivia, Uyuni is a place of surreal contradictions – a chilly expanse of blinding whiteness surrounded by a dusty, desert-like landscape. It’s a place that looks like nowhere else on earth.
The size of this salt flat is difficult to grasp. Covering an area of over 12,000 sq km, high up in the Bolivian plains, the perfectly flat stretch of salt sprawls on as far as the eye can see, broken only by looming mountains in the distance. All you can see is the bright white ground and a dazzling blue sky. Driving across the flats can make it seem like you’re cruising right through the clouds above.
If you’re visiting Uyuni, you’ll want to make a full day of it. The beautiful bleakness of this landscape involves driving right out onto the flats, and at night, the white glow of the moon reflects eerily onto the salt. When there’s water on the flats, Salar de Uyuni is turned into a seemingly endless mirror, reflecting the sky, clouds, and mountains so perfectly that you might lose your sense of reality.
7. Los Lagos, Chile
Safe, developed, and affluent, Chile is another one of South America’s most popular countries – but it’s also known for its remarkable and diverse beauty.
Because most people live in the major cities, vast swathes of land here remain virtually untouched, and exploring the unspoilt wilderness will make you feel like an intrepid explorer.
While Patagonia in the south is probably Chile’s wildest region, there’s another contender for the most beautiful: Los Lagos. Commonly known as the Chilean Lake District, this is a land of glacial blue lakes, snow-dusted volcanoes, ancient rainforests, rushing rivers, and tranquil lakeside towns. If you’re looking for adventure, you’ll find it here.
Home to seven national parks, the hiking trails here are endless – but you can also go kayaking on pale green lakes, mountain bike down rugged peaks, and spot sea lions and dolphins in the pristine fjords.
One of the highlights of Los Lagos is Puerto Montt, the capital of the Chilean Lake District and gateway to the region’s imposing volcanoes and celestial glacial lakes.
Other must-visit places include the pretty lakeside town of Puerto Varas, which is overlooked by two ominous snow-capped volcanoes. From here, you’re perfectly situated to admire the gleaming lakes that dot the area, from Lagos Llanquihue to Puyehue. Head to the Río Cochamó Valley to go rock climbing, hike through temperate forests, spot rare wildlife, or explore rivers, waterfalls, and caves.
8. The Amazon Rainforest, Peru
Another destination that’s ideal for people who are fascinated by nature, wildlife, and unexplored areas is the Amazon Rainforest.
While the Amazon is mainly associated with Brazil, 13% of it is in Peru, and it’s here where the biodiversity is at its most spectacular. Covering nearly 60% of the country, this sweltering and seductive wilderness is home to 12,810 different species.
Although the Peruvian Amazon is the largest region of Peru, it’s also the least populated and where many indigenous communities have never had contact with outsiders. As one of the world’s most unexplored regions, ancient tribes and fascinating rare wildlife can live in peace here, protected from prying eyes and modern civilisation.
Perhaps the best way to explore the Peruvian Amazon is by boat, as this allows you to venture into the most remote depths of the jungle without disturbing any animals. You’ll be able to reach some of the most untouched regions of the Amazon, swim and kayak in the waters, and explore the ‘birthplace’ of the Amazon River, where the river begins and is most pristine.
Cruising through the Amazon also means you get to enjoy a higher level of comfort, so it’s ideal if you’re looking for an intrepid adventure but don’t want to hack your way through wild undergrowth! Keep your eyes peeled for red howler monkeys, tapirs, sloths, capybaras, pink river dolphins, caiman, poison dart frogs, anacondas, and exotic birds like toucans and macaws.
South America’s sheer size and astonishing diversity can make it difficult for travellers to decide which countries they’d like to visit. That’s one of the reasons why many people choose to go on extended backpacking trips around the continent, so they can see as much as they possibly can.
However, if you don’t have months of free time at your disposal – not to mention a pretty decent budget – you can just choose one or two places you want to explore. The good news is that South America’s so versatile that there’s a destination to suit everyone, whether you’re into nature, culture, or history.
If you’d like to go hiking and appreciate the Great Outdoors, then the Chilean Lakes are unrivalled. Wildlife enthusiasts will be spoilt for choice in the Peruvian Amazon or the Galápagos Islands, while Easter Island and Machu Picchu will tempt people fascinated by ancient cultures.
Alternatively, if you want to explore truly spectacular scenery, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni and Brazil and Argentina’s Iguazú Falls will take your breath away. And if you’re looking for a city break with a difference, Colombia’s colonial Cartagena can’t fail to impress.
Whether you’re interested in visiting any of these places or have other South American destinations in mind, we hope this article has inspired you. There are many reasons this continent is so beloved, and the places featured in this article barely scratch the surface of what this magical part of the world has to offer.
For more ideas and inspiration for your next adventure, head over to the travel section of our website.
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