South America is a continent filled with breathtaking scenery and endless adventures. It’s where visitors will find Patagonian glaciers, Andean peaks, Incan ruins, Amazonian rainforests, white sand beaches, colonial towns, and vibrant nightlife from one country to the next.
An eclectic mix of activities and attractions are featured throughout, from natural wonders like powerful Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands to cultural and historic sites like indigenous markets and colonial towns with cobblestone streets.
It’s home to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – Machu Picchu, the legendary Bolivian salt flats of Salar de Uyuni, Argentina’s stunning Perito Moreno Glacier, and several bustling cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, La Paz, and Cartagena.
1. Machu Picchu
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A vacation in Peru would not be complete without a hike up the rocky mountainside of Machu Picchu by way of the Inca Trail. Well known for its breathtaking hilltop views and its archeological significance, this ancient citadel lies more than 8,000 feet above sea level. Its location was kept hidden for many years until its “discovery” in 1911. Though its exact purposes are unknown to this day, the ruins are a tribute to the relationship the Incans had with their environment. Its mystery and majesty attract nearly one million people annually, making it the most-visited site in Peru. Visitors should keep in mind that Machu Picchu is a sacred site and should be explored accordingly.
Good to know: Best Time to Visit Peru, More places to explore near Lima, Peru
2. Galapagos Islands
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The Galapagos Islands are an isolated collection of volcanic islands located 620 miles off the South American country of Ecuador. The island itself and its surrounding waters, the point in which three ocean currents meet, are the foundation for the diverse and fascinating variety of animal species that can be found nowhere else on Earth. These include giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and flightless cormorants as well as varied species of finches. What’s even more intriguing about these islands is that although they all have comparable volcanic compositions, climate, and environments, each isle has its own unique creatures. A living laboratory, the Galapagos Islands offer visitors a comprehensive and interactive look into its unique biodiversity.
Vacation Idea: Rent a romantic beachfront bungalow in Tunquen, on the coast of Chile.
3. Buenos Aires
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Buenos Aires is a city of Latin passion and European grandeur. Its vibrant energy draws visitors in and keeps them enthralled with art, architecture, gastronomy, nightlife, and music. Known for its increasingly dynamic food scene, the city features an array of delectable parrillas (steakhouses) that have managed to master the art of deliciously flavorful steaks cooked to perfection. This is a city that never sleeps, with a thriving nightlife of diverse clubs, bars, and live-music venues, and is party central well into the morning hours. During the day the city shifts into a cultural and architectural haven with several opulent Italian and French-style palaces along streets boasting colorful murals, exquisite art galleries, and extraordinary museums. Buenos Aires Hotels
Vacation Idea: Rent a beachfront getaway on the coast of Chile in Tunquen.
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Aruba is an island located 15 miles north of Venezuela, surrounded by the warm and tranquil waters of the southern Caribbean. This nearly 20-mile-long and 6-mile-wide island spans roughly 70 square miles and features some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, many of which are located in Oranjestad, the country’s capital. The island’s location below the hurricane belt and dry climate are huge draws for tourists. It’s a sunny and breezy island destination with very few rainy days. Aruba is home to many natural and man-made attractions both inland and along its coast, including Arikok National Park, the Bubali Bird Sanctuary, Divi Village Golf Course, Alhambra Casino, and iconic beaches Divi, Drulf, Bushiri, and Eagle. Things to Do in Aruba
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Baños, Ecuador, is a mystical town nestled at the base of the Tungurahua volcano amidst majestic waterfalls, hot springs, and rivers. Frequently referred to as the “gateway to the Amazon,” it’s often the starting point for visitors who wish to explore the surrounding national parks. It’s known for its volcanos, including the active Tungurahua, which steadily flows lava and ash, as well as its numerous adventure activities. Visitors can mountain bike along the road from Baños to Punyo, soak in local hot springs, hike or horseback ride along Andean hills, and whitewater raft on the Patate and Pastaza rivers. Devil’s Cauldron (Pailon del Diablo) is a must-see, and the Swing at the End of the World, located at Casa de Arbol, is a must-do.
Vacation Idea: Rent a beachfront bungalow on the coast of Chile.
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Quintessentially Patagonian, Bariloche is a beautiful Argentinian city located in the country’s Rio Negro province and surrounded by a diverse natural landscape. Nestled within Nahuel Huapi National Park, neighboring the Andes, it’s encircled by thousand-year-old forests, crystal-clear lakes, and snow-covered mountains. The area’s stunning and varied landscape provides visitors with a multitude of outdoor activities and adventures, including hiking, trekking, skiing, snowmobiling, sailing, diving, and snorkeling. The city’s energetic and vibrant nightlife of clubs and pubs, extraordinary gastronomy, and cultural attractions such as Our Lady of Nahuel Huapi Cathedral, Railroad Station, Virgin of the Snows, and St. Edward’s Chapel, add to its appeal.
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The capital city of Columbia, Bogota is a multicultural metropolis with a colonial tradition. As the largest city in the country, it has a vibrant and engaging atmosphere in a sophisticated yet cool urban environment surrounded by snowy Andean peaks. There are several neighborhoods throughout the city, each offering their own unique style, ambiance, and activities, but one in particular is by far more popular than the others: La Candelaria. It’s the epicenter of most of Bogota’s traditional activities and attractions. The area is a potpourri of beautifully preserved and restored colonial era house museums, restaurants, hotels, and bars interspersed with 300-year-old churches, homes, and convents.
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Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Herida, Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its dynamic natural landscapes, magnificent beaches, and colonial architecture. A vibrant culinary scene, energetic nightlife, and numerous cultural festivals offer lots to see and do. Wrapping around the Bay of Cartagena, it is one of the most enchanting and best preserved cities in the world. Walking through the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, visitors will find a diverse collection of churches, parks, museums, squares, and castles. Must-see sights include the Castle of San Felipe, the Clock Tower, and the Palace of the Inquisition. Its many scenic beaches provide visitors with opportunities to enjoy various water activities, such as scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing.
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Commonly known as the “archaeological capital of the Americas,” Cusco is a high-altitude Andean city where influences from the modern Western world collide with Andean indigenous traditions. It’s this world of contrasts that makes the small city so unique. Visitors can catch a city tour bus at the Plaza de Armas, which is the best way to get an overview of the city. Must-see attractions include gorgeous La Catedral, Incan Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun), and Museo de Arte Precolombino. Considered the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco itself is often overlooked as simply a way station for those trekking the Inca Trail, but deserves its own exploration. The charming mountain villages of Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes between Cusco and Machu Picchu are other must-visit sites. More places to explore near Cusco, Peru
10. Easter Island
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One of the world’s most remote islands, Easter Island resides off the coast of Chile in the Pacific Ocean, nearly halfway to Tahiti. It is best known for its centuries-old moai, giant stone statues that reflect the dramatic history of one of the world’s most secluded Polynesian cultures. While this mysterious and magical island seems more like an open-air museum than anything else, it is also a prominent watersports activity center with exceptional surfing, diving, and snorkeling opportunities. Equally exciting, it’s a natural oasis with boundless beauty where exploring via horseback, bicycle, or on foot is sure to please any traveler.
11. Iguazu Falls
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Located on the border of Argentina and Brazil, the majestic Iguazu Falls are a beautiful collection of waterfalls featuring a whopping 275 individual dropping points. Emerging from and naturally dividing the Iguazu River into upper and lower areas, the Iguazu Falls is located in two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Brazil’s Iguacu National Park and Argentina’s Iguazu National Park. Benjamin Constant, Floriano, and Deodoro are among the most popular falls on the Brazilian, side while Salto San Martin, Salto Bossetti, and Isla San Martin are the most popular on the Argentinian side. Both sides have special walkways and viewing points that were built around the falls to allow visitors the most sensational views.
Good to know: Best Time to Visit Brazil
12. La Paz
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A city situated high in the sky, La Paz, Bolivia, is set in a canyon formed by the Choqueyapu River. It is an energetic and adventure-filled city that travelers may both love and find exasperating. As the country’s third largest city, visitors can expect a cacophony of activity and noise, from honking, fuel-spewing automobiles and persistent vendors to street marches and dancing parades. It’s an urban jungle that is rife with contradictions and is constantly reinventing itself. Cobblestone streets turn into paved concrete pathways, modern boutique hotels battle colonial architecture for attention, and peaceful plazas contrast bustling markets. It’s home to ancient ruins, museums, cathedrals, nature tours, and even a subway in the sky.
13. Lake Titicaca
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For a unique day trip, tourists can visit Lake Titicaca, considered by the Andean peoples to be the birthplace of the sun. This popular destination is the largest lake not only in Peru, but in all of South America. Dotted with floating “islands”, hand-woven by locals using totora reeds, and Isla Taquile, an actual island well-known for the textile art created by the native Taquileños, Lake Titicaca is a great place to immerse yourself in Peruvian culture. The indigenous communities offer tourists a sustainable travel experience by serving as local guides, cooking traditional meals, and sharing their cultural heritage. At an elevation of over 12,000 feet, visitors may want to acclimatize themselves to Arequipa’s lower elevation first.
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Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its pleasant climate, once-infamous Medellin has been transformed into a vibrant tourist destination. The city is filled with busy markets, cultural landmarks, and lively neighborhoods that are enjoyed by local residents, expats, and travelers from all over the world. Open-air restaurants are popular places to see and be seen before heading to one of the city’s many nightclubs. Inviting outdoor spaces including parks, botanical gardens, and zoos that are open to guests year-round. A modern transportation system, plentiful taxis, and an extensive bus network make it easy to visit Medellin’s many attractions.
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Visitors can experience Montevideo’s laidback vibe on a stroll along the promenade that connects all of the city’s beaches. After a day spent people watching, playing a game of beach volleyball, sunbathing, or taking in the picturesque views, beachgoers will appreciate having their choice of restaurants featuring a variety of local dishes and international cuisine. Many of the city’s monuments, museums, and markets can be found in nearby Ciudad Vieja. History buffs should be sure to visit the impressive National History Museum, and souvenir shoppers will want to browse through the stalls of handmade crafts at Mercado del Puerto.
16. Nazca Lines
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Fans of ancient mysteries will be intrigued by the Nazca Lines, geometric patterns and symbols that were long ago etched into the desert plain between the Inca and Nazca Valleys. Their purpose remains unknown to this day. Curiosity seekers can see a variety of plant and animal figures clustered together in one area of the plain as well as massive geoglyphs that stretch across the rest of the 37-mile-long area. The best way to view these mysterious patterns is from the air, and multiple agencies offer airplane and helicopter tours from area airports. Some of the figures can also be viewed from an observation tower along the Pan-American Highway.
More ideas: Beautiful Beaches in South America
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Situated between Peru’s southern highlands and its coast, Arequipa is known as the White City because of the volcanic sillar used to build its baroque buildings. It is surrounded by three picturesque volcanoes – El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. Arequipa is a great place to experience Peru’s renowned gastronomy, including ceviche, lomo saltado, and papas a la Huancaina. It’s a city rich in historical and cultural attractions. Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa on the Plaza de Armas and the Santa Catalina Monastery are among its most impressive architectural sites. It is also home to picturesque neighborhoods featuring interesting shops along narrow alleyways.
18. Perito Moreno Glacier
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Though many of the world’s glaciers are shrinking due to global warming, the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia’s Los Glaciares National Park is 121 square miles and growing. This stunning mass of ice is a popular tourist attraction in Argentina. Visitors can hear the roar of massive chunks of the glacier breaking off from the safety of viewing platforms off the walking paths that line Lake Argentino, or even go on a guided trek on the glacier itself. Another option for experiencing the glacier is a 45-minute boat trip that takes tourists close to the glacier’s 200-foot-tall southern wall.
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Built on the ruins of an ancient Incan city high in the Andes, Quito was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved town center. The Old City is rich in history and houses more than 100 churches, museums, and municipal buildings that tell the story of the city and its rise from the ashes. Its cobblestoned streets are lined with boutique hotels and courtyard cafés where guests can try some traditional Ecuadorian pastries. Art enthusiasts will enjoy the Bohemian atmosphere of Calle La Ronda, a street that many artists call home, much like New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
20. Rio de Janeiro
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Rio de Janeiro is so much more than the white sand beaches and Carnival culture for which it is best known. A city of breathtaking beauty, it is surrounded by hills and mountains that offer panoramic views of Rio’s natural coastline. Adventurers can try hang gliding or parasailing, while those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground can join a guided hike up one of the many trailheads for a bird’s eye view of the city. Taking an aerial cable car up the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain at sunset is a romantic way to see Rio’s skyline bathed in gold.
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Santiago is not only Chile’s capital, but its cultural center as well. A stroll down its pedestrian walkways will lead to plazas and parks where street musicians and artists entertain residents and tourists alike. Art exhibits, concerts, and dance performances are held throughout the city and showcase the talent of the Chilean people. A delicious meal at a casual bistro or upscale restaurant followed by a visit to one of Santiago’s many jazz clubs is the perfect way to spend an evening in this colorful city. Guests who want to dance the night away can choose from a wide variety of nightclubs that play anything from Latin American favorites to urban hip-hop.
22. Sao Paulo
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Sao Paulo is a diverse city filled with pockets of expat communities. Its international flavor is well represented in its cuisine and cultural activities. Dishes from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are served in restaurants across the city, but Brazilian coffee is a favorite drink with any meal. Cultural centers such as the British Cultural Centre, Germany’s Goethe Institute, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes, and Alliance Française showcase their country’s talents with events in their national languages. The city also celebrates religious, racial, gender, and sexual diversity in its places of worship and cultural institutions, such as the Museum of Sexual Diversity.
23. Tayrona National Park
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Colombia’s Tayrona National Park is a favored destination for tourists who want to experience the area’s unparalleled biodiversity. The park is on the Caribbean coast near Rodadero and has two ecosystems due to its location between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria foothills and the sea. Visitors can see monkeys, iguanas, marine animals, and over 400 species of birds. The park is ideal for hiking, surfing, swimming, and sunbathing. Guests can spend the night at the park in lodgings that range from hammocks in open-air huts to luxury Ecohabs. Vendors sell fresh seafood and fruit at stalls throughout the park, and there are several on-site restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
24. Torres del Paine National Park
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Torres del Paine National Park is on the southern end of the Andes mountain range in Chile. Named for its three-tiered rock formation, the park is an adventure traveler’s dream. A minivan shuttles guests from the main entrance to the base of the Las Torres peaks, where one of the most popular treks begins. Multi-day treks are common, but options for sightseeing also include catamaran and boat trips, horseback excursions, and even helicopter tours for perfect pictures from the air. Accommodations are available in the form of basic campsites and lodges, and supplies can be rented or purchased near many of the campsites.
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Known for being the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, is a resort town full of casinos, fine dining establishments, and luxury hotels. Its seaport is frequently busy with cruise ship passengers on their way to or from Antarctica, and the town serves as a base for hikers, winter sports enthusiasts, nature lovers, mountain bikers, kayakers, and divers. Golfers will be able to brag about playing nine holes at “the end of the world” when they tee up at the Ushuaia Golf Club. Sporting goods can be purchased from some of the smaller shops in town or at the Paseo del Fuego Shopping Center, a modern mall with many stores and entertainment options.
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