There are so many incredible places in South America and I firmly believe this is the best continent in the world to visit! The landscapes are so varied, from glaciers to cloud forests to vast mountain ranges, volcanoes and even deserts! With 12 unique different countries here, there is a big variety in culture here too, from the European-descent Argentinians to the indigenous people living in the rainforest to the ancestors of black slaves brought across to Brazil from Africa.
Welcome to South America – probably the most biodiverse continent on the planet! There are so many bucket list things to do here, whether that is visiting ancient Inca ruins, spotting leopards in the Pantanal or even dancing salsa on the streets of Colombia. Let’s discover all the best places to visit in South America!
But first… Is South America safe?
I have travelled around South America several times as a female solo traveller. I have fair skin and red hair so look like a typical ‘gringa’. Despite this I have never experienced any problems regarding safety in South America. Of course unfortunate incidents can happen, but just exercise caution (here are some great backpacking in South America travel tips to help you out). Especially petty crime is common so don’t walk around with your phone in your hand or valuables on display. It also really helps if you are able to speak Spanish as many of the local people in South America do not speak English so well. If you would like tips for learning a foreign language click here.
Brazil takes up about half of the South American continent, making it the fifth biggest country in the world! Brazil is the only Portuguese speaking country in South America and is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. White sand beaches and beautiful colonial towns spread along the coastline, whereas waterfalls, wetlands and rainforests make up a large part of the interior of the country. With so many incredible tourist places to visit, Brazil is one of the best countries to visit in South America!
Rio de Janeiro
Visiting Rio de Janeiro is high on most people’s lists who head to South America. There is something for everyone here, whether it be the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, the world-class partying in Lapa, sightseeing or diving into the unique African-European culture of this city. Rio is surrounded by lots of mountains and peaks that the views across the city are simply stunning. Make sure to head to Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ The Redeemer whilst you are here. You can even go on a walking tour of Rocinha favela if you wish – click here for details.
Alternatively, if you want to visit a big Brazilian metropolis that is not so touristy yet is equally full of life, head to Sao Paolo and visit Beco do Batman, Paulista Avenue and the many rooftop bars across the city!
Whilst most people searching for wildlife will head to the Amazon, the lesser known Pantanal is actually the best place in Brazil to experience wildlife! It has the largest tropical wetland area in the world and is often referred to as Brazil’s best kept secret! I took a trip here 3 years ago and saw so many species of unique wildlife including leopards in the wild! I totally recommend a trip to the Pantanal – definitely one of the best places to visit in South America! Gaspare Tour is the company I used and I would use them again if I ever go back. Please not this is my opinion and it is not sponsored by Gaspare Tour in any way.
The mighty Iguazu Falls spans Brazil and Argentina and is another bucket list item for your South America itinerary. It is one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World and is regarded by many as the most impressive waterfall in the world! Iguazu Falls is actually made up of many different waterfalls, with Brazil on one side and Argentina on the other. It is incredibly impressive whether you are on the Brazilian or the Argentinian side and I strongly recommend you to spend a day on each side as they offer very different but equally stunning perspectives and panoramic views. Even your can do a helicopter ride over the falls from the Brazilian side which for me was such a highlight of the trip. Click here to plan your trip to Iguazu Falls.
From the Brazilian town of Foz do Iguacu you can also take a short bus ride across the border and visit Paraguay. Click here for all the information you need to know!
The Argentinian side is a lot bigger than the Brazilian side and there are lots of walking trails you can go on that all offer unique and spectacular viewpoints of the falls. One trail even takes you over the top of ‘Devil’s Throat- – the largest and most impressive of the falls at Iguazu at 80 metres high. From here you can look down at the drop as the path takes you right over the top of the falls. You’ll get an incredible aerial view of the falls and the sound of the water crashing down the falls from here is so loud and so incredible to witness! You will really get a sense of how powerful the waterfall is and the spray is pretty strong – you are bound to get wet! You can even go for a boat ride under the falls which was so fun!
Perito Moreno Glacier (Patagonia)
Located at the bottom of South America is Patagonia – an area of land shared by both Argentina and Chile and divided by the southern tip of the Andes Mountains. The mighty Perito Moreno Glacier is located on the Aregntinian side. At 19 miles long and rising on average 240 feet above water, many people who visit Perito Moreno glacier feel it is one of the best and most jaw-dropping places to visit in South America.
Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires is such an exciting lively city and is the most European city in South America! From elegant squares to passionate Tango shows and plenty of parrillas (BBQ steakhouses!) there is so much to keep you entertained here in one of South America’s largest cities. Visit the colourful buildings in La Boca and head over to Plaza de Mayo to see the iconic Casa Rosada, where Eva Peron addressed the crowds. Buenos Aires also has some really lively neighbourhoods such as San Telmo and Palermo, which offers a unique bohemian vibe and is the perfect place to visit in the evenings.
You can even take a day trip across to Uruguay on the ferry from Buenos Aires to the beautiful town of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. The ferry ride just takes one hour! Click here for all the information you need to plan your trip.
Colonia del Sacramento
Colonia Del Sacramento is one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in Uruguay and you can easily visit on a day trip from Buenos Aires! The well-preserved historical quarter of Colonia Del Sacramento has earned itself UNESCO World Heritage status. The laid-back town is full of vintage cars lining the streets, colourful buildings and picturesque vines draped around doorways. A trip to Colonia will really make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Alternatively if you want to explore more of this beautiful country, head to the capital Montevideo or inland where you can help on a working ranch!
Chile is an incredibly diverse country, from the world’s driest desert in the north to the glaciers in the south and the bustling capital in the centre of this long thin country. Chile is also home to the volcanic island Easter Island located in the South East Pacific Ocean, famous for it’s hundreds of monumental statues created by inhabitants several hundred years ago.
Torres del Paine National Park (Patagonia)
At the southern tip of Chile lies Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. It boasts some of South America’s most stunning views! The landscapes are simply breathtaking with glaciers, fjords, milky blue lakes and incredible towering granite peaks. There are many glaciers here and it is always cold so make sure you bring adequate clothing!
Santiago de Chile
Chile’s capital is a large but picturesque city set in a valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains. Santiago is actually voted the safest city for foreign tourists in Latin America and there are lots of touristic things to do here such as heading up to San Cristobal Hill to get a panoramic view of the mountains, visiting Plaza de Armas, Santa Lucia Hill or La Moneda Palace. You can also take a day trip to the beautiful coastal colourful city of Valparaiso, known for it’s beautiful bright houses and steep funiculars.
The Atacama Desert, the world’s driest desert is in the north of Chile and is a must see on any trip to Chile! It is not just about sand dunes – there are geysers, salt lakes, volcanoes and high altitude lagoons here so it is definitely worth it to spend a few days here! Also up here stargazing is incredible (one of the best places in the world infact!) due to the lack of light pollution. You can also see some incredible sunsets at Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte, both of which have some incredible rock formations.
The area around Chile’s San Pedro De Atacama is absolutely stunning but due to the high altitudes here you should to plan your itinerary carefully to minimise any chances of getting altitude sickness. Click here to help you plan your trip to San Pedro de Atacama.
From San Pedro de Atacama many people choose to cross the border into Bolivia on a 3 day trip across the Bolivian salt flats.
Bolivia is a beautiful land locked country in South America and many travellers who had visited Bolivia believe it is one of the best places to visit on the continent. Partly due to the beautiful colonial towns and stunning natural landscapes but also because the local indigenous people in Bolivia are some of the friendliest in the world! Click here to view my complete Bolivia itinerary where you can find much more in-depth information on the locations below and more.
Salar de Uyuni
At over 10,000 square kilometres the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Here you’ll not only see the impressively vast salt flat but also colourful lagoons, looming volcanoes, unique land formations and beautiful wildlife. It genuinely feels like you are in a different world.
The salt flats stretch for miles, meaning you can have lots of fun creating fun photographs of different perspectives on the salt flats! If you visit between January to March the salt flats will be wet and covered with a few centimetres of rain, creating a magnificent reflection and the world’s largest mirror! The salt flats are a very popular bucket list activity to do in South America and definitely shouldn’t be missed on any trip to Bolivia. Many people choose to do a 3 day trip which takes them from the Bolivian town of Uyuni through the salt flats and flamingo filled lagunas to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and is an incredibly fascinating place! It is home to many indigenous Quechua people who still preserve their ancient language and traditions. You’ll find the local witch market here selling a variety of alternative medicines and seemingly bizarre objects. It is fascinating and unlike anything you’ve experienced. You’ll also see dried out llama foetus’ everywhere at the market. Whilst this may seem very strange and confronting to many tourists, it is actually an important cultural tradition for the people of Bolivia and brings good fortune. Alternatively take a bike ride tour out to Death Road – one of the most dangerous roads in the world!
Isla del Sol
Isla del Sol is located on Lake Titicaca, the continent’s largest lake and the world’s highest navigable lake. It spans Bolivia and Peru and is so big it literally feels like an ocean! Take the boat across to Isla del Sol from Copacabana and then there are some really nice walks you can do on the island! The island is of spiritual importance to the local people here and it has such stunning views, especially at sunrise and sunset!
Peru is one of South America’s most visited countries due to it’s incredible ancient Inca ruins and impressive landscapes.
Lake Titicaca – Islas Flotantes
On the Peruvian waters of Lake Titicaca live the indigenous Uros people. Their way of life is very unusual and fascinating – they live on islas flotantes: floating islands they have created themselves. In recent years they have opened up their islands to welcome tourists to come and experience their way of life. There are a few different ways you can see the islands, from visiting on a day trip to staying overnight on the floating islands with the local families. Click here to learn more about this experience!
The Colonial City of Cusco was once the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and is the gateway to Machu Picchu. Cusco mixes Spanish Colonial architecture and indigenous traditions and you will really get an insight into the Inca civilisation here before heading on to Machu Picchu.
Many people choose to base themselves in Cusco for a few days as there is so much to do here and in the vicinity, including visiting The Sacred Valley. The Incas built many archeological sites on the Sacred Valley as the land was so rich and fertile. You can visit unique places such as Moray (archeological terrace) and Maras (salt mines) and small towns such as Pisac and Ollantytambo before or after heading on to Machu Picchu. Vinicunca (The Rainbow Mountain) is also a very popular day trip from here.
Top of everyone’s Peru bucket list is Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is absolutely a must see when you are here! It always makes it into the top 10 of best places to visit in South America – it is completely breathtaking. The ancient city is a great archeological wonder from the Incas. Machu Picchu is also known as the ‘Lost City’ as it was built in the 1450’s high up in the mountains by the Incas and then became abandoned due to the Spanish conquest. It was then ‘found’ again just over 100 years ago by an America explorer. The views and the architecture here are out of this world.
To read my Peru Bolivia itinerary that covers all the above places click here.
As it’s name suggest, Ecuador lies on the equator. Despite being a fairly small country it is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world! Popular places to visit on an Ecuador backpacking itinerary include Cuenca, Quito, Guayaquil, Otavalo and Baños. But the most famous place in Ecuador definitely has to be The Galapagos Islands. They have some of the world’s most incredible wildlife. Due the absence of human or animal predators for thousands of years, wildlife has been able to evolve here and this was actually the place where Charles Darwin developed The Theory of Evolution. Visitor regulations and preservation efforts help to keep this wildlife untouched. The Galapagos Islands have stunning volcanic landscapes too.
The Galapagos Islands can only be reached by flying to them from Ecuador – no other countries operate flights into The Galapagos Islands. And trips here can be very expensive but it is an incredible experience you will never forget! Click here for vacation options.
Colombia is known for it’s coffee, salsa, Shakira and stunning Caribbean beaches! Colombia is no longer a country grappled by drug wars and is a really great country to visit for female solo travellers.
Colombia is known for growing some of the best coffee in the world, so make sure to head to a coffee plantation to taste some fresh coffee during your time here! When visiting the coffee plantations you’ll get to learn all about the history as well as the process involved in producing coffee. A perfect place to visit a coffee plantation is Salento. From here you can visit the beautiful Cocora Valley that has some of the highest palm trees in the world! The climate is really nice and there are superb views looking out onto the perfect valleys.
Not too long ago, the city of Medellin suffered from terrible drug-war related violence. Nowadays however Medellin is a much safer city. It has really reinvented itself and here you will learn lot about Colombian culture and it’s recent turbulent history. One place in Medellin you should definitely visit is Comuna 13. Comuna 13 is a Colombian neighbourhood that was once considered the most dangerous place in the world’s most dangerous city. It has transformed itself and is rapidly becoming a very popular tourist destination. Take a visit and learn how this commune has turned itself around and why it is quickly becoming the number 1 attraction in Medellin!
Cartagena is a stunning Colonial city founded in the 16th Century. Wander around the cobblestone streets of the Old Town and see all the incredibly preserved colourful buildings. There are some beautiful beaches nearby that are within very easy reach too, such as Isla de Baru and Islas del Rosario, both easily reachable by boat.
Of course the stunning Angel Falls in Venezuela is so spectacular. At almost 1000 metres high, this is the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfalls. However due to the ongoing civil unrest in Venezuela tourism is strongly not advised in the current situation.
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