From the Amazon rainforest, Incan ruins, Andean Peaks, to Patagonian glaciers South America has a lot to offer.
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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, you’ll experience everything from gigantic granite spires that soar high into the air, gorgeous vistas, stunning glaciers and lush greenery, diverse weather conditions (it’s possible to experience all four seasons in one day), the freshest and cleanest water you’ll ever taste in your life (I’ve never tasted water as delicious as here), see rare and endemic wildlife, including the massive Andean condor (11-foot wingspan), and epic trekking and rugged hiking on the infamous weeklong W and O trails, which remains the go-to outdoor excursion for adventurous travelers looking to cap off their Patagonian experience with a bang.
8. Iguazú Falls
Imagine the scene: you’re walking along a metal grated walkway surrounded by a lush-green tropical rainforest and all you see in your purview, from one side to another, are towering cascades of massive waterfalls, each producing deafening and thunderous roars of unimaginable force as its cool spray passes through the air and washes over your body in a wonderful and refreshing mist. There really is no place like Iguazú Falls!
Located at the tri-border of three countries (Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay), Iguazú Falls has no equal that can match its scope, scale and sheer breadth. Accessible via two national parks – Iguazú National Park (Argentina) and Iguaçu National Park (Brazil) – I highly recommend visiting both the Argentinian side and Brazilian side for a complete and satisfying experience of the waterfalls. Whether you happen to visit only one side or both sides, however, Brazil and Argentina each share in the honor of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. And for travelers who only have a day to spend, it’s possible to visit both sides in one day and all without the need of a visa (just your passport).
9. Galápagos Islands*
It’s hard to imagine a trip to South America without a stop at Galápagos Islands. When I think of Galápagos Islands, I think of magic, mystery and a delicate ecosystem that simply does not exist anywhere else in the world. More than 20% of the flora and fauna species found in the area are endemic and can only be found here. Nineteen islands comprise the Galápagos, which is where Charles Darwin first developed his groundbreaking scientific experiments in support of the theory of evolution.
Scuba dive in world-class waters off the coast of Wolf Volcano, snorkel and swim with 100-year-old tortoises in the warm waters off of Isla Isabela, and visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn more about the work Darwin started almost 200 years ago, whose importance continues to resonate today. Whether you experience the islands by way of cruise ship or independent tour, there is simply never enough time to properly explore and appreciate just how amazing and life-altering a trip to Galapagos Islands can be.
*Technically, the islands are located some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador (obviously not on the continent) and six hours away by flight from the mainland. The Galápagos Islands do, however, fall under the sovereignty of Ecuador and the only way to reach the islands is from either Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador via Avianca Ecuador (formerly AeroGal) and LATAM (formerly TAME and LAN airlines, respectively). For this reason, I included it on the list. Similarly, Easter Island falls under the sovereignty of Chile, which could easily have been placed on this list, as well.
10. Glacier Perito Moreno
If you think you see one glacier then you’ve seen them all, I urge you to think again! Located in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981), Glacier Perito Moreno is one of only three glaciers in the world that grows rather than recedes (more than two meters or 6.5 feet per day). This makes for thrilling, must-see action as huge shards of glacier fall with thunderous effect into the chilly water below (on average every 30 minutes you’re guaranteed to see something fall!).
A labyrinth of steel walkways are built to capture almost angle you can think of for the big moment, as everyone waits by their particular spot on the railing with bated breath to capture the awesome moment in action. The best time to go is during the summer months and at mid-day, when the sun is strong and the heat will melt and break off shards of the glacier in greater frequency.