Places to visit in South America
Make the most of your time
“Somewhere on a continent of wonders will offer your perfect mix of pleasures.”
Activity and landscape preferences, time available and weather all help decide places to visit in South America. For example, the Inca Trail and Patagonia are hiking beacons – but couldn't be more different. South America's distances will also have an impact – best to explore one big country or combine a couple of smaller neighbouring places. In Brazil, many itineraries require internal flights, while Amazon trips usually involve boats. In Argentina and Chile, internal flights are often slotted into shorter itineraries – but overnight buses are affordable and comfortable, with seats that recline into beds! Itineraries anywhere can be disrupted by road problems or bad weather – so be adaptable!
The world's driest and oldest desert is a 1,000km-long plateau of unique other-worldly beauty – a place of salt flats and emerald lakes, ancient lava fields and far horizons, dotted with 6000m peaks. Atmospheric settlements like San Pedro de Atacama contrast sharply with over 170 ghost towns. In September and October, rare spring rains can spark stunning floral blooms in southern Atacama. More on Chile here >
Ringed by Andean peaks, 3,800m Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake – deemed the birthplace of the sun, moon and the first humans in Inca myth. But Bolivia is full of such beauty. Sucre and Potosi are ravishing historic towns, contrasted by the tropical Oriente region, the dramatically sparse Altiplano and a vast slice of mesmerising Amazon rainforest. More on Bolivia here >
Forget Colombia's coke-and-conflict past – this is one of South America's more secret jewels. Cartagena's gorgeously preserved old city contrasts with cobblestoned rural villages and a stunning history-soaked Caribbean coast. Inland, the dense jungle of the Darien Gap is a biodiversity mecca that contrasts thrillingly with the dramatic desert vistas of La Guajira.
Crammed into an area the size of the UK, Ecuador's habitats include steamy Amazon jungle, high Andean páramo, bird-filled cloud forest and mangrove-lined coast. Add majestic colonial cities beside snow-capped volcanoes, and the unique wildlife of Galápagos. Ecuador's culture is equally diverse, from the Inca-descended Quichua to lowland rainforest tribes where shamans guide and forest plants heal. More on Ecuador here >
Isolation 1,000km out in the Pacific from Ecuador has shaped Galapagos' wildlife into a unique menagerie of amazing animals, a living exhibit of evolution bustling amid forest, lava fields and smoking volcanoes. Lack of fear lets you admire these scenes without disturbing their protagonists: giant tortoises, salt-snorting iguanas, penguins and sea lions. Explore in the footsteps of Darwin (and pirates) with our comprehensive guide here >
Stunning landscapes, awesome biodiversity and charmingly rough-edged colonial history in the capital Georgetown give Guyana a concentrated blast of South American draws. The Kaieteur NP features gorgeous eponymous waterfalls plus fantastic rainforest and savannah, while the Rupununi region is home to atmospheric cowboy and old mining towns by the Brazilian border. Amerindian villages offer fascinating indigenous culture.
Straddling the Argentina-Brazil border, the mighty Iguazu Falls stretch 3km and tower higher than Niagara. There are actually 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. More on Argentina here > More on Brazil here >
This high-altitude hike takes brave trekkers through extraordinary Andean scenery, with mountain passes, Quechua villages, Alpine tundra and humid cloud forests. There are several routes to choose from; the 43km classic route is usually completed in four or five days. Most of the trail follows original Incan stone paths, and leads to the "Sun Gate" - the most dramatic entry point to Machu Picchu. Read our comprehensive Inca Trail guide here >
The vast Amazonian city of Manaus is the leaping off point for tours into the northern region of this rainforest, including the waterfall, wildlife and pristine jungle environment of Jaú National Park. Take a cruise past tropical archipelagos, looking out for pink river dolphins and giant otters. Or encounter true native culture by canoeing to Yanomami and Tukano villages.
The world’s largest seasonal wetland – and Brazil’s wildlife spotting HQ – is home to 700 bird species and nearly 100 mammals, more easily viewed thanks to the lack of jungle. Choose from 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. More on Brazil here >
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 steppe overflown by condors mixes with jewel-like lakes and epic peaks in national parks like Torres del Paine. Rustic mining and ranch towns complement old Welsh settlements and indigenous communities. More on Patagonia here >
While many of the Amazon’s thousands of species stay concealed by dense greenery, guides can help you spot some of the 550 bird species and multiple types of monkey – and if you don’t see howler monkeys you’re sure to hear them, even amid the startling natural crescendo of the world's largest jungle. Capybaras – giant rodents – graze the riverbanks.
Travel times in South America
The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in South America.
Rio de Janeiro – Salvador (Brazil): 2 hours by plane
Rio de Janeiro – Manaus (Brazil): 4 hours by plane
The 'W' circuit in Torres del Paine (Chile): 4 days on foot
Santiago – Calama (for San Pedro de Atacama) (Chile): 2 hours by air, then 1 hr by car
Buenos Aires – Bariloche (Argentina): 2 hours by air
Round trip on Salta's 'Train To The Clouds': 13 1/2 hours by train
Lima – Nazca (Peru): 6hrs 30mins by road
Cuzco - Machu Picchu: 3hrs 15mins by train
La Paz – Sucre (Bolivia): 12 hours by bus (sleeper options available)
Guayaquil – Galápagos (Ecuador): 2 hours by air
Quito – Otavalo (Ecuador): 2 hours 30 minutes by road