Top 10 Bucket List Experiences In South America

From the Amazon rainforest, Incan ruins, Andean Peaks, to Patagonian glaciers South America has a lot to offer.

10 View of Yungas Road seen from the start of our ride. Bolivia
Photo: Jerry Leon

South America is more than just a continent comprised of thirteen countries – it’s a gateway to unparalleled adventure, a land of extraordinary natural wonder and seemingly endless possibility. From the Amazon rainforest, Incan ruins, Andean Peaks, Patagonian glaciers, beautiful white-sand beaches, unique and vibrant cultures, perfectly preserved colonial cities, delectable cuisine and unforgettable nightlife, South America has everything you need for the trip of a lifetime.

But with so many cities, towns, events, festivals and cultural sites to visit, how do you know which ones are worthwhile and what are the can’t-miss destinations to add to your itinerary? Regardless if you’re only able to cross one item off your list or all of them, here, in no particular order, are my top experiences you must undertake in South America!

1. Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Photo: Jerry Leon

For travelers to Peru, Machu Picchu is often THE anticipated highlight of their trip. Until its discovery in the early 20th century, this once forgotten city was never discovered by Spanish conquistadors and was mysteriously abandoned by the Incas several centuries ago. When you climb the steep peaks and walk though its stone temples and terraces, you’re venturing into a world that was left virtually untouched for centuries, thus making it a truly awe-inspiring experience. Today, the world-renowned ruins of Machu Picchu is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, drawing more than 2,500 daily visitors during high season (June-August).

2. The Amazon

The Amazon
Photo: Jerry Leon

Encompassing more than 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles), the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and covers 40% of the continent’s land mass. Several countries – including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela – share in this enormous swathe of biodiversity, which has more species of flora and fauna than any place in the world. There are so many ways to experience the Amazon, from rafting down meandering rivers, mesmerizing flights for incredible aerial views, trekking through dense jungle, lodging at jungle retreats, leisurely boat rides while visiting river villages, and more. If you happen to be in Peru, I highly recommend experiencing the Amazon through Manú National Park (who knows, maybe a random monkey will take an Uber ride atop your head!).

3. Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro
Photo: Jerry Leon

Few cities in the world can match the captivating charm and seductive allure of Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City). With white-sand beaches set in the beautiful and lush mountainous backdrop of surrounding rainforest, addictive beats and rhythms of bossa nova and samba-infused jams to keep you going throughout the night, ridiculously tasty good-eats paired with local cachaça drinks, a vibrant cityscape matched only by the beauty of its inhabitants, unbelievably stunning sunrises wrapped in a warm tropical embrace – Rio de Janeiro is a city as inspiring as it is enchanting.

If there’s one event you need to experience at least once in your life, look no further than the world’s greatest party, Carnival (February 24-28, 2017), which I promise will be an experience of a lifetime you will not soon forget! From the 2014 World Cup to the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has it going on!

4. Lake Titicaca

 Lake Titicaca in South America
Photo: Jerry Leon

Situated at more than 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable body of water. Bordered by Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is home to many Andean cultures and, according to Andean tradition, the lake is revered as the birthplace of the sun. The deep blue waters of the lake and light blue fresco tinge of the sky, accentuates the lovely scenery of Lake Titicaca’s picturesque surroundings.

Don’t forget to stop by and visit the beautiful lakeside cities that straddle the lake on either side: Copacabana (Bolivia) and Puno (Peru). And make sure to book a night on the infamous Isla del Sol island for perhaps the best sunrise you’ll ever experience; make sure the visit the amazing floating reeds islands made entirely of totora reeds, too.

5. Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires
Photo: Jerry Leon

What do you get when you mix gourmet cuisine, world-class dining, incredible shopping, heart-thumping nightlife, beautiful locals, stunning architecture and fútbol frenzied fans? Buenos Aires, of course! Cosmopolitan by design with an unmistakable European flair, Argentina’s capital city is the perfect confluence of two distinct worlds, making it a truly remarkable city that needs to be experienced firsthand. Check out San Telmo for it’s famous Sunday market and Palermo for good eats.

In the morning you can walk into any café and people watch with a delicious espresso in hand; in the afternoon catch a frenzied fútbol game and watch tens of thousands of passionate fans cheer their favorite club (if you’ve been to a Club Atlético Boca Juniors match, then you know exactly what I mean!); at night, dine on mouth watering steak and world-class wine that is simply divine, and don’t forget to dance the night away to the seductive rhythms of sultry tango. Need I say more?

6. Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats of Uyuni)

Salar de Uyuni
Photo: Jerry Leon

Situated at a lofty 3,653 meters (11,985 feet) above sea level and covering an area of more than 12,000 square kilometers (over 4,600 square miles), the salar de Uyuni (salt flats of Uyuni) in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat. For fours days and three nights, gather a group of your closest comrades and venture into this vast and seemingly boundless expanse of pure white land, which stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s no experience that can compare to the beautiful isolation you’ll experience here nor the close bonds you’ll create with your fellow salt flat mates. In fact, the salt flats of Uyuni are the reason why I wanted to come to South America in the first place and trust me it’s worth every penny!

But it’s not exactly empty here, either – there are natural hot springs that bubble up from below the ground at a spa-soothing temperature of 38 degree Celsius (100.4 degree Fahrenheit), which is an absolute must to help endure the frigid cold nights; incredible variations of distinct rock formations (all with their own unique names); obscure islands that dot the landscape (Isla Incahausi, also known as “Cactus Island”); a hotel made almost entirely of salt (that’s right!) – and yes, you can certainly lick the walls if you like, though it’s not too appetizing (I speak from experience, of course); and a spectacular sunrise that’s worth getting up at 5 a.m. for, and, not to mention, endure the unbearably mind-numbing and bone-chilling minus 15 degree Celsius (5 degree Fahrenheit) early morning temperatures (make sure to wear every layer you own!).

7. Torres del Paine

South America Torres del Paine
Photo: Jerry Leon

For adventurists and outdoor enthusiasts, Torres del Paine is often considered THE top bucket list destination in South America. Located in the Patagonian steppe near Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine is the centerpiece of Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Torres del Paine National Park), one of the largest (250,000 hectares), most famous and most visited national parks in the world (150,000 annual visitors).

As a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve</