South America travel guide

South America travel guide


2 minute summary

Forget South America's mass market tourist clichés: sipping caipirinhas on a beach; pan-piping Peruvians; Carnival hedonism in Rio. Even if you think you know this vast continent of contrasts, you probably don't know the half of it. Our South America travel guide will pick out justly renowned highlights – the Inca Trail, Patagonia, Galapagos, Iguazu, the Amazon – each a global draw precisely because they're fantastically unlike anywhere else on earth. But we'll also shine a light on more off-the-beaten track places that will remain with you forever if you go. Chile's Atacama, the world's oldest and driest desert – yet dotted with snow-capped peaks and jetting geysers. In Bolivia, marvel at the high-altitude Andean setting of the vast Lake Titicaca. Discover Colombia's history-soaked Caribbean coast, the vibrant hill villages of mainland Ecuador, or Guyana's 'Lost World' wildernesses. South America's secret half and famous half make a breathtaking whole.
South America is...

a stunningly diverse mix of unforgettable nature and culture.
South America isn't...

a group of similar countries.

What we rate & what we don't


RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL'S BEST & WORST

Underrated

Atacama Mainland Ecuador Patagonia Pantanal

Atacama

The world's driest and oldest desert is a 1,000km-long plateau of unique otherworldly beauty – a place of salt flats and emerald lakes, ancient lava fields and far horizons, dotted with 6,000m peaks. Atmospheric settlements like San Pedro de Atacama – a lively traveler’s hub – contrast sharply with over 170 ghost towns. In September and October, rare spring rains can spark stunning floral blooms in southern Atacama.

Mainland Ecuador

Picture an area the size of the UK, with steamy Amazon jungle and high Andean páramo, bird-filled cloud forest and mangrove-lined coast. Add majestic colonial cities by snow-capped volcanoes, and the unique evolutionary wildlife lab of Galápagos. Ecuador's culture is equally diverse: colourfully-clad Quichua – descendants of the Incas; lowland tribes steeped in the lore of rainforest and shamans.

Patagonia

Patagonia would be a unique and wonderful country all by itself. Iconic sealife throngs its long coast: whales and elephant seals, albatross and penguins. Inland, lonely steppes mix with jewel-like lakes and epic peaks of national parks like Torres del Paine. Rustic mining and ranch towns complement old Welsh settlements like Gaiman and Dolovon for characterful human presence.

Pantanal

The world’s largest seasonal wetland – and Brazil’s wildlife spotting HQ – is home to almost 700 bird species and around 80 mammals, all easily viewed without the dense vegetation of its far more famous counterpart: the Amazon jungle. Enjoy night treks, canoe rides and horseback hacks to see capybaras, anacondas, monkeys and hyacinth macaws. Porto Jofre is also the world's top spot to see habituated jaguars.

Rated

Inca Trail Galapagos Islands Amazon Rainforest Iguazu/ Iguaçu Falls

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is a journey and a destination rolled into one, waymarked with natural and cultural rewards. High windswept tundra and humid cloud forest mix with hidden ruins reached by ancient paths. The legendary final destination of Machu Picchu is spectacular but the world of traditional Quechua villages traversed along the way is equally memorable.

Galapagos Islands

Ecuador's island offshoot was a pirate hideaway until its uniquely evolved bestiary provided an evolutionary bonanza for a spellbound Charles Darwin in the 19th century. The landscape – forest, smoking volcanic features, sweeping coast – is as breathtaking as its wildlife that shows no fear of humans – from seals and penguins to giant tortoises and salt-snorting iguanas. Each of the archipelago's islands offers varied geography and ecology.

Amazon Rainforest

Manaus is the base for the northern forest, including the wildlife and pristine jungle environment of Jaú National Park. Cruise past tropical archipelagos, looking for pink river dolphins and giant otters. Or encounter native culture canoeing to Yanomami and Tukano villages. In the southern forest, spot some of the 550 bird species and multiple types of monkey, as well as giant capybaras grazing the riverbanks.

Iguazu/ Iguaçu Falls

Straddling the Argentina-Brazil border, the world's finest cascades stretch 3km and tower higher than Niagara. There are over 270 falls, and you’ll need to border-hop for the full experience. The Brazilian side has rainforest walks and catwalks above the cascades, while Argentina allows you to cruise upriver on a zodiac – navigating rapids to reach the Devil’s Throat Canyon.

Overrated

Drug tourism All-inclusive Brazilian resorts Orphanage volunteering Fake culture

Drug tourism

Coca leaves are an important traditional crop in countries like Bolivia - a mild stimulant and excellent for altitude sickness. But it also makes the vile, weirdly glamorised drug cocaine. La Paz’s cocaine bar draws tourists, as do cocaine-themed drug tours in the Amazon. Please avoid. They are not only illegal but take money away from legitimate and far worthier initiatives.

All-inclusive Brazilian resorts

Brazil's vast coastline is fringed with spectacular beaches, but for years visitors opted for famous city beaches like Rio's, leave the idyllic secluded strands to beach bums. Now, all-inclusive resorts are springing up in places like Ceara, Bahia and Rio's Green Coast, which aim to keep visitors in the resort rather than out contributing directly to often struggling local communities. Avoid.

Orphanage volunteering

It sounds like a wonderful and worthy cause – but travelers are waking up to the fact that all may not be as ethical as it seems. A revolving door of short-term, unqualified volunteers mean that the children – many of whom may have emotional or mental problems – are abandoned again and again. Worse – when orphans become a “business” thanks to the availability of travelers’ cash, fake orphanages may be set up to lure well meaning volunteers in. Nasty stuff.

Fake culture

Hand-made indigenous crafts are brilliant mementoes – but they're also a target for fakers keen to get gringo dosh for mass-produced tat. Ditto fake 'indigenous' sites such as the floating reed island village in Lake Titicaca, where visitors are taken to be fleeced. Buy 'handicrafts' direct from makers in their own regions. That way, they get the money directly too.

Food, shopping & people


DISCOVER SOUTH AMERICA LIKE A LOCAL

Eating & drinking in South America

Quinoa is a tasty, protein-packed Andean grain, sacred to the Incas.
Giant king crab is a treat from Patagonia's cold southern oceans.
Carnivores will love herb-grazing flame-grilled Patagonian lamb as well as barbecued Argentine/Brazilian beef.
Compare superb Chilean wine from Colchaqua, Maipo, Aconcagua and Elqui with Argentinian gems from Mendoza, Salta and Jujuy, San Juan and La Rioja.
Spirit lovers can compare Brazilian cachaca with pisco from Peru or Chile.


Despite its name, Panama hats come from Ecuador! Strong and flexible, they can hold water – and be rolled up to pass through a ring.

People & language


South America mainly speaks Spanish, complemented by Portuguese-speaking Brazil – and English-speaking Guyana. But shared language doesn't mean shared local character. Chileans tend to be quite different to Argentinians, Bolivians from Peruvians, and Ecuadorians from Colombians. Add hundreds of indigenous peoples, each with their own rich traditions, from Inca-descended Quechua to African-influenced Bahia, and Amazon tribes barely touched by the modern world. Wherever you are, respect and support native traditions as best you can in your travel choices.

Gifts & shopping


Authentic Panama hats from Ecuador are easily-packed and very useful.
Shawls/ponchos/jumpers made from alpaca are soft and very warm.
Watch out for shoddy fake 'native crafts'. Buy from local makers in the actual native regions or ask about bona fide specialist shops, such as Amoa Konoya in Sao Paulo, which sells work by 60 Brazilian tribes.
Beautiful jewellery is widespread and distinctive, such as Chile's lapis lazuli pieces.

Fast facts




Brazil borders ten nations and is the world's longest country – 4,395km north-south, and spanning three time zones.

How much does it cost?


Plate of curanto in Chiloé (Chile): £6
Authentic Panama hat (Ecuador): £15 - £35
Entrance to Iguaçu Falls (Brazil/Argentina): £13
Torres del Paine Refugio with breakfast (Patagonia): £60
Budget train journey from Machu Picchu to Cuzco (Peru): £34

Wandering among South America's Scribes


South America inspired two of the most acclaimed travel journals of recent decades, with the 1970s publication of Paul Theroux's Old Patagonian Express and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. More recently, Hugh Thomson has written with gusto about ancient and modern Peru in books like The White Rock and Cochineal Red. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Drug tourism: Jimmy Harris] [All-inclusive Brazilian resorts: Jorge from Brazil] [Orphanage volunteering: James Southorn] [Fake culture: Emmanuel DYAN] [Eating & drinking: guilherme jofili] [People & language: Thomas Quine] [People & language: Repórter do Futuro] [Gifts & shopping: Elisabetta Stringhi] [How much: John Seb Barber]
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