Would you like to visit South America sometime soon? Or are you daydreaming about fun places to visit? Whichever it may be, this list of the best places to visit in South America is sure to inspire and strike up some wanderlust.
Some of the best countries to visit in South America are just a flight or two away. Home to beaches, waterfalls, the Amazon Rainforest, massive cities, ancient ruins, the Andes Mountains, glaciers, and more, South America has it all. Whatever you are looking for, you are likely to find it here! Keep reading to discover the top 25 South America travel destinations. Then, get ready for the trip of a lifetime!
Table of Contents
- Machu Picchu, Peru
- Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
- Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
- Cusco, Peru
- Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
- Easter Island, Chile
- El Calafate, Argentina
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- The Sacred Valley, Peru
- Buenos Aires, Argentina
- Torres del Paine, Chile
- Peruvian Amazon
- Mendoza, Argentina
- Lima, Peru
- Atacama Desert, Chile
- Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
- Quito, Ecuador
- Ushuaia, Argentina
- Arequipa, Peru
- La Paz, Bolivia
- Brazilian Amazon
- Bariloche, Argentina
- Cuenca, Ecuador
- Lake Titicaca, Bolivia and Peru
- Santiago, Chile
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
This masterpiece of the Inca civilization claims the title of the best place to visit in South America. There’s no question that Machu Picchu is visually stunning. But the more you start to learn about its backstory — how it was built and how it stayed intact for 500 years — the more amazed you’ll become.
Part of the reason why Machu Picchu still exists today is due to its hard to reach location in the rainy cloud forest about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Cusco. Researchers believe that Machu Picchu was the royal estate of the Emperor Pachacuti. He was the 15th-century king responsible for transforming the Inca civilization into the largest empire South America had ever seen. No one knows exactly why the Incas abandoned the site, but the conquering Spaniards never heard of it — or if they did, they never found it.
In contrast to the Incas’ palaces and temples of Cusco and the Sacred Valley which were plundered and dismantled, Machu Picchu remained intact. As such, it gives us tantalizing evidence of the Incas masterful building genius.
A tour of Machu Picchu brings the ruins to life. Walking through the narrow paths, you can start to imagine what daily life was like for inhabitants of the citadel. And you can see for yourself the incredible feats required to transform a mountain ridge into a walkable citadel.
Learn more about this incredible site in our complete Machu Picchu travel guide.
2. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands top the list of the best places to visit in Ecuador. This archipelago of 21 islands has one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Along with the incredible scenery, Galapagos tours also include snorkeling, kayaking, and nature walks to enhance your experience.
The islands are best known for aiding Charles Darwin’s research on evolution. To this day, the Galapagos boasts an impressive array of wildlife, and human disturbances are minimal. Sea lions, giant tortoises, sharks, and iguanas are some of the most frequently spotted creatures. In addition, the Galapagos offers some of the best birdwatching in South America. Red and blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, Darwin finches, mockingbirds, and Galapagos penguins are just some of the many bird species living on the islands.
The Galapagos are home to several incredible cruise options in addition to hotels on the main islands. Not sure whether to pick a cruise or a hotel? Read through these questions to help you decide what option is best for you.
Learn more about the awe-inspiring Galapagos Islands in our complete Galapagos travel guide.
3. Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil
One of the most beautiful places in Brazil and Argentina, the Iguazu Falls are a chain of 275 roaring cascades in the middle of a tropical forest. Shared between the two countries, the Iguazu Falls are one of the best places to travel in South America.
Spanning 1.6 miles (2.7 km) in length, Iguazu Falls is a top contender for the title of South America’s greatest natural wonder. The Devil’s Throat is the largest cascade. Shaped like a semicircle, it is 492 feet (150 m) in diameter, 2297 feet (700 m) from end to end, and boasts an 269 feet (82 m) drop. The roar of crashing water is so deafening it sends chills up your spine.
It’s worth seeing both sides of the falls. Argentina’s Iguazu National Park is a truly immersive experience. More than 70% of the falls are in Argentina and the trails here provide a close encounter with the natural landscape of the falls. The Brazilian Iguazu National Park provides beautiful panoramic views of the falls. As you follow the path, you can get up close to several falls, so be sure to pack a poncho and something to protect your camera.
For a real adrenaline rush, hop aboard a speed boat and ride over whirlpools, waves, and currents to the base of the crashing waters. No matter how you see the falls, be prepared to get fully drenched by the waterfall’s mists!
Looking to see Brazil, Argentina, and Peru all in one trip? Consider this 11-day World Wonders package! Yes, it’s a whirlwind. But you’ll be talking about the journey for years to come.
4. Cusco, Peru
One of the oldest cities in South America, Cusco was once the capital of the thriving Inca Empire. Today, Cusco is a melting pot of traditional Andean culture and international influences. Besides being the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco is also one of the top places to visit in Peru. The picturesque city of Cusco is absolutely one of the most beautiful places in South America.
With impressive ruins like Sacsayhuaman, the Temple of the Sun known as Coricancha, and many other historic sites, Cusco has plenty to see and do. There’s something for everyone, whether you are interested in history, architecture, culture, or hiking some of the best treks in Peru. From the bustling San Pedro Market to the bohemian San Blas neighborhood, Cusco is full of lovely colors, friendly people, and unique traditions.
No trip to South America is complete without a visit to Cusco. Learn all about this thriving city in our complete Cusco travel guide.
5. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Of all the tourist attractions in Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni is by far the most spectacular. Part of the year, massive, white salt flats stretch as far as the eye can see. However, during the wet season from November to March, a thin layer of water covers the salt flats. As a result, the salt flats turn into a perfect natural mirror, reflecting the sky and everything above.
Colorful lagoons, unique wildlife, and the nearby Salvador Dali Desert only add to the experience. The largest salt desert in the world, Uyuni has a remote location in the Potosi department in the southwest corner of the country. Daily flights connect Uyuni with La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.
6. Easter Island, Chile
Although Easter Island is about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from Chile’s coast, it is one of the most famous places in Chile. While legally a Chilean territory, Easter Island is a part of the Polynesian Islands. Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is a true archaeological gem of the Pacific. The island is home to 887 moai stone statues known for their distinct humanoid features.
The moai statues are the main attractions on the island and the most well known feature globally. Each statue represents an ancestor of the native Rapa Nui people. Made from volcanic ash found near the extinct Rano Raraku volcano, many statues never made it to their final destination. About half of the statues are still in the quarry, making it another unique site to visit on the island.
Did you know that you can also see volcanic craters, go scuba diving, and go horseback riding on Easter Island? With so much to see and do, why not add this destination to your South America trip?
7. El Calafate, Argentina
One of the best places to visit in Argentina, El Calafate is the hub to visit Los Glaciares National Park. 47 glaciers call this park home, and one of the most spectacular and well known is Perito Moreno. This glacier is a whopping 97 square miles (250 sq km) of ice. Snow-capped mountains and Lake Argentino, an icy blue lake, make a visit to Perito Moreno all the more stunning.
While many glaciers around the world are melting, the Perito Moreno glacier is in a state of equilibrium. It continues accumulating mass at about the same rate that it is losing mass. Scientists are still debating the reason, but this fact makes Perito Moreno stand out from other glaciers in the world.
While visiting, put on some crampons and hike on top of the glacier for a truly unique experience. Mini trekking allows you to hike for about two hours, passing waterfalls and icy lagoons. For those looking for an even more remote, adventurous experience, head out on a Big Ice tour for four hours of trekking. This is certainly more intense, but the views along the way are worth it. Read more about the hiking options on Perito Moreno here.
8. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
With some of the best beaches in South America, Rio de Janeiro is certainly one of our top travel destinations. While Brazil itself is huge – the largest country in South America – and full of awesome places to visit, Rio de Janeiro is very high on the list. In addition to its gorgeous beaches, Rio de Janeiro is a vibrant, cultural hub best known for its extravagant Carnival festival each February.
One of the most famous places in Brazil, the gargantuan statue of Christ the Redeemer towers over one of the most recognizable landscapes in the world. Brazil is a deeply Catholic country. In fact, the statue’s construction was funded entirely by donations from Catholic parishioners across Brazil. For residents of Rio de Janeiro, it is as symbolic of the city’s identity as Carnival, samba, and soccer (or football, as the locals call it).
From the top, you can soak in breathtaking views of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Guanabara Bay. This combination of city and mountains by the sea has bred an exceptional outdoor lifestyle unique to Rio — so unique it was recognized as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape in 2012.
What better place to visit on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to South America? Take a look at our suggested Rio de Janeiro tour packages here.
9. The Sacred Valley, Peru
Most travelers heading to Peru know of Cusco and Machu Picchu, but the area in between is a hidden gem. One of the must sees in Peru, the Sacred Valley is a quaint, picturesque region in the Peruvian Andes, characterized by small towns nestled in between the tall peaks.
The Sacred Valley is an adventure lover’s paradise. Activities like zip lining, trekking, mountain biking, and more draw travelers to the remote region. Inca ruins, artisan markets, and small Quechua villages across the valley only enhance the experience. Travelers can stay in one of many luxury hotels tucked between the mountains. Incredible spas, vast mountain landscapes, and clear skies full of stars await!
Learn more in our complete Sacred Valley travel guide.
10. Buenos Aires, Argentina
The capital and one of the most famous places in Argentina, Buenos Aires truly lives up to its nickname, “the Paris of South America.” A cosmopolitan, culturally rich city, Buenos Aires offers endless grand boulevards, eclectic architecture, a quaint cafe culture, and great shopping all reminiscent of Paris.
In addition, Buenos Aires is a hub for tango, art museums, and live theater, with the most active theaters of any city worldwide! Known for high quality meat, Argentinean restaurants pair delicious dishes with some of the best wine the world has to offer. From Buenos Aires, you can even check out Uruguay for a day or two.
11. Torres del Paine, Chile
Our top destination in Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is full of astounding peaks, icy blue lagoons, and endless hiking trails to explore. Trips to Torres del Paine can range anywhere from one day tours to 9-11 day trekking circuits. Best known for the 5-day W-trek, all the treks in the national park pass by impressive sights like volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls.
Trekking deep into the park adds even more to the once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, all visitors to the park can see beautiful mountain landscapes, massive icebergs, flower-filled valleys, and the dramatic, towering spires above.
A rather remote destination, most travelers take a combination of flight, bus, and car to reach the park. Puerto Natales, a small town just outside the park, is the typical launching point for Torres del Paine exploration with several quaint lodges. However, several lodges sit inside the national park itself.
For more information on our Torres del Paine packages, contact our team of expert Travel Advisors.
12. Peruvian Amazon
The Amazon Rainforest is one of the top places you should visit. Crossing the borders into nine countries in South America, this jungle is the largest and most biodiverse in the world. As a tourist destination, two cities in the Peruvian Amazon, Puerto Maldonado and Iquitos, offer travelers a unique, in depth visit to the rainforest.
Get up close and personal with the Amazon River, pink river dolphins, and plenty of unique animals in Iquitos. The main city in the northern part of the rainforest, Iquitos is rather far from other destinations. However, daily flights with Lima connect travelers to this remote location. Choose from luxury river cruises or all-inclusive jungle lodges for the best experience.
Puerto Maldonado, on the other hand, is closer to Cusco (with direct flights available daily) and has superior jungle lodges. The proximity to the Tambopata National Reserve enhances the chances of spotting unique jungle wildlife, including monkeys, giant river otters, and many colorful birds.
Check out our complete Peruvian Amazon travel guide here.
13. Mendoza, Argentina
Mendoza is one of the top places to see in Argentina. Home to many of the best vineyards in the country, Mendoza is the place to go to discover South American wines. While Mendoza is best known for high quality Malbec, some vineyards also offer other wine varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Chardonnay.
Besides the phenomenal wines, the landscape surrounding Mendoza is stunning. The city rests in the foothills of the Andes, near the highest peak in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres, the Aconcagua (22,837 ft / 6,960.8 m). While most travelers come for the wine, adventure activities like hiking, river rafting, and biking are also available.
Check out some insider tips about Mendoza here!
14. Lima, Peru
One of the major cities in South America, Lima sits on the Pacific coast and is best known as the gastronomic capital of South America. Due to its history, the Lima we know today is a fusion of indigenous, European, African, and Asian cultures and cuisines.
Today, Creole, Nikkei, and chifa cuisines dominate the food scene in Lima. With some of the best restaurants in the world, visitors can expect high quality, unique fusion bites all across the city. Take a look at our Lima restaurant guide here.
The second largest city in South America, Lima is only smaller than São Paulo, Brazil. As with any big city, there is always something happening and plenty of fun things to do.
To learn more about Lima, check out our extensive travel guide!
15. Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world. Stretching along Chile’s Pacific coast, penguins, flamingoes, and even sea lions call this desert home. The best desert in South America, Atacama is one of the top places to visit in Chile.
This desert has an array of geysers, colorful lagoons, incredible rock formations, and some of the clearest night skies in the world. A massive, expensive series of 66 telescopes draws many scientists to Atacama, one of the best stargazing locations on earth.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town in the north of the desert with just a few thousand inhabitants. However, it is an ideal launching point for Atacama Desert exploration. Near the El Tatio geyser field, the Atacama salt flats, and the out-of-this-world Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), San Pedro is close to some incredible landscapes and attractions.
For more information, check out our San Pedro de Atacama travel guide.
16. Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
Salvador de Bahia is among the best places to visit in Brazil. Considered the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, Salvador is known for its music, capoeira, cuisine, and incredibly friendly people. In addition, its beaches and Carnival celebrations might be some of the best in South America, rivaling those of Rio de Janeiro.
Indigenous, African, and European influences have shaped every aspect of Salvador’s culture, from cuisine and religion to literature and art. Once the capital of colonial Brazil, Salvador still has many remnants of that era. For example, the incredibly colorful houses, Portuguese-inspired architecture, and large churches in the historical center of town remain just as prominent as they were in the past.
To learn more about Salvador, the “Capital of Happiness”, check out this post!
17. Quito, Ecuador
A top place to visit in Ecuador is the capital city of Quito. Sitting at a lofty 9,350 feet (2,850 m) above sea level, Quito might take your breath away, literally and figuratively. UNESCO declared Quito one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1978. Its historic center is one of the best preserved in the world. Quaint plazas, massive churches, and varied architecture tells the colonial history of Quito to passersby. Learn more about Quito’s historic center here.
The equator sits just north of the city limits, offering another unique attraction for visitors. A large, 100 foot (30 m) tall monument sits in the “Middle of the World.” This monument sits where the equator was believed to be in the 1700s. However, with the creation of GPS technology, we learned this spot was close, but not accurate. Today, the Intiñan Museum sits on the GPS proven equator, with a line, sign, and other props for fun pictures. Additionally, interesting experiments help prove the exact location of the equator.
To learn more, check out our Quito travel guide here.
18. Ushuaia, Argentina
Ushuaia is among the best places to go in South America’s Patagonia region. At the southern tip of the continent, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. The capital city of the region known as Tierra del Fuego, or Land of Fire in English, Ushuaia is a picturesque, albeit rugged, destination. Despite its isolation, the city is comfortable and boasts many modern conveniences travelers are accustomed to.
A common launching point for cruises to Antarctica, Ushuaia has a similar, cold barrenness to what you expect of the Antarctic. Adventurous travelers can hike, trek, or ski. Animal and history lovers will also feel at home in Ushuaia. Head on a tour along the Beagle Channel to see a penguin colony up close and personal. Another great thing to do in Ushuaia is taking a ride on the End of the World Train. This ride explores the history of the town, all while passing by incredible Patagonian landscapes.
Learn more in our Ushuaia travel guide here.
19. Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa, known as the land of eternal spring, is the second most populous city in Peru. The churches and mansions in Arequipa were made using a white volcanic stone known as sillar. Because of this, Arequipa has also earned the nickname, the “White City”. A true architectural gem, Arequipa also has incredible cuisine, with tasty regional dishes like rocoto relleno (stuffed hot chili pepper) and chupe de camarones (shrimp soup). Take a look at our Arequipa restaurant guide here.
Arequipa is the main launching point for tours of the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. A hot spot for Andean condor sightings, a Colca Canyon tour allows travelers to see the natural beauty of the region. However, Arequipa itself offers breathtaking views of Andean mountains and three volcanoes surrounding the city.
Check out our complete Arequipa travel guide for more!
20. La Paz, Bolivia
One of the best places to visit in Bolivia is the capital city of La Paz. The highest capital in the world, La Paz sits 11,942 feet (3,640 m) above sea level. Surrounded by tall peaks of the Andes Mountains, views across the city are breathtaking.
Travelers will appreciate La Paz’s markets, including the one-of-a-kind Witches’ Market. Local witch doctors known as yatiris sell potions, medicinal plants, dried rats and frogs, and many other curious items. The Moon Valley is another key attraction found just outside the downtown area. The strange rock formations seem like they belong on the moon, hence the name ”Moon Valley”. The giant spires create intricate mazes and paths to explore the area, and they are a great backdrop for photos.
La Paz also boasts the largest urban cable car network in the world, Mi Teleférico. As of August 2020, ten lines currently operate, connecting neighborhoods within La Paz and even extending to neighboring cities, like El Alto.
21. Brazilian Amazon
The Amazon is a remarkable place to see in Brazil. About 60% of this massive rainforest belongs to Brazil. Manaus and Pantanal are two of the best places to go in the Brazilian Amazon. Both cities offer comfortable lodging and a great variety of wildlife to spot.
In Manaus, visitors travel along the Amazon River to see pink river dolphins and giant water lilies, among other wildlife. However, one of the main attractions is the Meeting of the Waters, where the Amazon and Rio Negro meet. The two rivers have different compositions, causing them to have different colors. The Rio Negro is a blackwater river and looks similar to black tea. The Amazon, however, is a whitewater river, and looks similar to coffee with cream. When they meet, these two rivers flow side by side without mixing, creating a unique spectacle.
Pantanal is another top destination in South America. A marshy wetland, the area is home to extremely diverse life. Hundreds of bird species, including the elusive hyacinth macaw and crowned solitary eagle, call Pantanal home. Pantanal also offers some of the best odds of spotting a jaguar.
In comparison with the Peruvian Amazon, Brazil offers a more remote, rustic experience. Accommodations are basic, whereas lodges in the Peruvian jungle generally are more comfortable and even luxurious. Manaus and Pantanal are far from major destinations, meaning longer travel times. For example, Manaus is a four hour flight away from Rio de Janeiro. Whichever jungle destination you choose, you will certainly have an incredible experience.
22. Bariloche, Argentina
One of the top places to visit in Argentina is Bariloche, the biggest city in the Nahuel Huapi National Park. The park itself sits in the Lakes District of Patagonia. This region has 20 gorgeous lakes including the strikingly blue Nahuel Huapi Lake just north of Bariloche. A visit here can easily combine with a visit to Puerto Varas, Chile. A stunning, full-day tour known as the Lakes Crossing passes through three of the breathtaking lakes in the area to connect the two cities.
Bariloche is close to Cerro Catedral, the biggest ski center in the Southern Hemisphere and the top destination for skiing in South America. Besides skiing, adventure travelers will love the trekking, mountaineering, and whitewater rafting in Bariloche. The town also offers high quality chocolate, cheese, and beer, primarily because of the German and Swiss immigrants that moved to Bariloche in the late 1800s.
Learn more about Bariloche in our travel guide!
23. Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca is a historical city in Ecuador’s highlands. After the Inca Empire conquered the region, they built up Cuenca. Then known as Tomebamba, Cuenca became the second major capital of their empire, just after Cusco. While not much remains from this time period, Cuenca today is a tremendous example of colonial architecture.
Cobblestoned streets and red-tiled roofs are characteristic of Cuenca. The Spanish built parks, squares, and churches, including two massive cathedrals. The Spaniards began plans to build the original cathedral in 1557, with sufficient space for all of the town’s residents. As the town’s population grew, they began plans for a new, much larger cathedral whose construction began in the 1800s. Today, its three blue domes pierce the Cuenca skyline.
In addition, Cuenca earned the nickname the “Athens of Ecuador” as many notable writers, philosophers, and artists have come from the city. Also known for its high quality artisan pieces, travelers can pick up fine leather goods, ceramics, and Panama hats, which are actually from Ecuador.
Learn more about the marvelous city of Cuenca here.
24. Lake Titicaca, Bolivia and Peru
One of the most famous places in Bolivia and Peru is Lake Titicaca. Sitting on the border between the two countries, this lake is the highest navigable lake in the world, reaching an altitude of 12,500 ft (3,800 m) above sea level. Its deep blue waters combined with the vibrant, friendly communities around the lake make it a truly wonderful place to visit.
Home to diverse indigenous communities, the islands across the lake invite visitors in for a glimpse into their unique lifestyles. From Puno, travelers can access the majestic, man-made floating Uros Islands and see an array of colorful textiles on Taquile Island.
On the other hand, Isla del Sol is the top attraction from Copacabana, the main city on the Bolivian side. Legend has it the creator of the Inca was born on Isla del Sol. Today, explore impressive ancient ruins surrounded by the natural beauty of the lake.
Check out more in our Lake Titicaca travel guide.
25. Santiago, Chile
The capital of Chile, Santiago, sits in the middle of the world’s narrowest country. Above all, Santiago is a culturally rich place to visit. The beautiful wine and coastal regions surrounding the city make a visit to Santiago even better.
Art and history museums dot the city, including the National Fine Arts Museum. The bohemian Barrio Bellavista neighborhood is full of colorful buildings, quaint cafes and restaurants. You can even find one of Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda’s homes here. For a beautiful view of Santiago, climb or take the cable car up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. This hill has a tall statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the city.
In addition, Santiago has easy access to the Chilean coast and wine regions for fun day trips. The vineyards of Maipo Valley in the outskirts of town produce mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends. The beautiful coastal cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar are a short drive away from Santiago. Valparaiso is full of picturesque, colorful views and bohemian vibes. Vina del Mar is a relaxing, seaside escape to spot sea lions or catch an incredible sunset over the water.
Learn more about Santiago here.
Ready to start exploring any of these best places to visit in South America? No matter which destinations you choose, you will get an exciting taste of what South America has to offer. Enthralling cultural, exquisite architecture, and geographical diversity await. Who knows? Maybe you’ll love what you see and decide to come back for more.
Contact our team to start customizing your dream trip to South America with an expert Travel Advisor today.
Latin America for Less is a group of travel experts who live, work, eat, and breathe all things South America. Their inspiration stems from a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity that make this continent so special.