When it comes to truly epic bucket list destinations, some of the best places to visit in South America top it! From glorious mountain ranges, wildlife, explainable placements, out of this world landscapes, and so much more. This list has it all!
Best places to visit in South America – The ULTIMATE bucket list
There are plenty of activities to do on the island and it has some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll see in Brazil and maybe the world. You can relax on a beach close to the main town, but the more secluded beaches can be reached by hiking, ferry or taxi-boat too. Just to mention a few of the activities there available on Ilha Grande you can hike your way through the island, cool down in beautiful waterfalls, go diving or go on a boat tour. If you get tired of beach and hiking you can rent a bike or go walking to the Islands second town, Dois Rios. The town has, of course, more beaches, but also an abandoned prison, now a free museum. With all this said, Ilha Grande is a must-visit destination for everyone who likes secluded nature, hiking, beach, and beautiful blue waters.
The Lencois Maranhenses National Park in the North East of Brazil is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever seen during my travels – and I would highly recommend putting it on your South America Bucket List. Easily one of the best places to visit in South America and one of the most interesting.
Located in the state of Maranhao, Lencois Maranhenses is home to vast desert landscapes with tall, white sand dunes – and blue water lagoons after the long rain season. While this part of the National Park is the most famous – you can also find mangrove swamps.
I visited Lencois Maranhenses in July and was able to see the wonderful sand dunes filled with rain water – which was honestly an experience out of this world. Hiking on the huge dunes, enjoying the views and afterwards take a dip in the refreshing water – it is something I will never forget.
For me, I’ve never seen a place like this before, and I’m happy I made it there!
While the Amazon rainforest is probably the most famous destination in South America for viewing wildlife and communing with nature, it’s actually not where you have the best chance of seeing the continent’s native wild animals. That distinction goes to the Pantanal, which lies on the opposite end of the continent, straddling southern Brazil and Bolivia.
The Brazilian side is where all the tourism infrastructure is, so this is where you’ll want to go for your Pantanal tour. But what is the Pantanal? It’s the biggest wetland in the world, and within this swampy ecosystem live anteaters, armadillos, giant otters and many other mammals. The most famous of these is the jaguar.
The reason the Pantanal is such a great place for wildlife viewing is because of its wide-open spaces. Unlike in the rainforest, the animals here don’t have many places to hide, so it’s much easier to spot them.
It’s also a paradise for birdwatchers, and, during the dry season especially, many different bird species come here to nest and breed. Some of the most well-known and colorful species that you can expect to see include toucans, hyacinth macaws and the jabiru stork, who has become the symbol of the Pantanal.
Due to climate change, the seasons have become a bit unpredictable here lately. The dry season used to start in July and finish in October, but nowadays it seems the rains are coming much earlier. September is still the best month for a Pantanal trip, as it means avoiding the rains as well as the hordes of Brazilian tourists who take their holidays in July.
Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the world, and its image among the clouds is an icon of world travel, making it one of the best places to visit in South America. Built in the 13th century, the complex is considered one of humanity’s greatest engineering feats. On the Inca Trail you follow in the footsteps of the thousands of Inca people who carried dry stone bricks and rocks across high altitude to make its construction possible.
Hiking the Inca Trail is no easy feat, however, and requires careful preparation. But the reward for achieving it is a memory to last for a lifetime. Although you can visit Machu Picchu by train from the city of Cusco, only via the Inca Trail can you descend to it from the Sun Gate at the first light of dawn for a truly unique perspective.
South America is full of destinations that deserve to be on any traveler’s bucket list, but one of our favorites and one that is particularly suitable for anybody that loves the great outdoors and hiking is the small town of Huaraz in Northern Peru.
Huaraz is a bit off the beaten path and to be honest, the city isn’t particularly beautiful, but the busy city serves as the gateway to Peru’s stunningly beautiful Cordillera Blanca mountain range. These mountains make Huaraz a world-class destination for hiking and trekking, worthy of any nature lover’s bucket list. The Cordillera Blanca features several mountains that reach over 6,000m, including Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru at 6,768m.
Some of the most popular hikes are the 3-4 day Santa Cruz trek and Laguna 69 but there are many other lesser-known treks that are just as beautiful as well. For instance, Mt Mateo at 5,165m is a fairly easily attainable peak given its altitude and it provides a nice introduction to glacier travel. If you have lots of time at your disposable, the 8+ day Huayhuash trek is a serious bucket list contender as it covers a lot of ground in the mountain range.
The hiking in Huaraz (https://www.zentravellers.com/huaraz-trekking/) is some of the best in the world, so put this destination on your bucket list!
The rainbow mountain, or the montaña de siete colores, has not always been a tourists attraction in Peru. In 2015, no one knew about the rainbow mountain. But shortly after 2015, the snow cap that was covering the mountain has melted and making it one of the best places to visit in South America if you can make the trek.
Underneath the snowcap was a mountain unlike others. The specific weathering patterns and mineral deposit on this mountain has given it many different colors. Hence the local started calling it the mountain of seven colors, or rainbow mountain. This unique feature is something that needs to be your South American bucket list.
One thing to know is that this mountain is not just for anyone to visit. It sits at an elevation of 5,200 meters about sea level. At that altitude, oxygen level is about half of what it is at sea level. But if you are asking me, this is what is going to make your hike to rainbow mountain even more memorable. Make sure you reward yourself with one of the traditional foods you must try in Peru after the hike.
There’s nothing quite as unique and exciting as taking a sightseeing flight over the Nazca Lines in Peru. From above, these lines etched into the dry landscape take the form of ancient geoglyphs. Several animals and human figures are represented including a whale, hummingbird, spider, and what appears to be an astronaut.
The Nazca Lines are surrounded by mystery, no one knowing for sure the meaning and purpose of the lines. During a flight, contemplating the different theories is a welcomed distraction from the motion sickness brought on by the sharp banks the pilot makes to give passengers the best views of the lines.
In an effort to protect these intriguing creations from the Nazca civilization, the lines were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The geoglyphs are scattered between the towns of Nazca and Palpa in southern Peru. Sightseeing flights leave from several locations including Nazca, Ica and Pisco.
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Colca Canyon Trek
The Colca Canyon trek in Peru might not be as famous as the Inca trail or Machu pichu, but it is equally impressive. It is twice as deep as the grand canyon in the US and home to the Andean condor. One of the biggest birds in the world. The Colca Canyon is the best place to see them.
The Colca Canyon trek is a challenging, but rewarding hike that can be done in 2 or 3 days. Even more if you like to spend time in the villages you come through. The people who live here often still wear their colourful traditional clothes. Especially the dresses that the women wear are very beautiful.
The Colca Canyon is therefore interesting for those that love both culture and nature. The Colca Canyon has a rich flora and fauna and besides the Andean condor there are more than 100 bird species. Other animals include wild cats, andean foxes, rodents and lizards.
It’s a long and steep climb in and out of the canyon, but you will enjoy each and every minute. The landscape is quite different from the rest of Peru and the views are spectacular. There is no better way to explore the Colca Canyon than hiking through it. The Colca Canyon trek should definitely be on your South America bucket list.
The spectacular Iguazu waterfalls is 275 individual drops stretching for 2700m make up the largest waterfall system in the world. This is one of the most popular tourist sites in South America, similar to Machu Picchu there will be thousands of tourists, but it is such a breathtaking site you forget about all the other visitors.
The waterfall system connects the Misiones state in Argentina and the Brazilian state of Paraná. Visitors can reach the falls from; Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, Puerto Iguazú in Argentina or from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. The Iguazu Falls are owned by the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Iguazú National Park in Argentina and the Iguaçu National Park in Brazil.
The Iguazu river flows through Brazil for most of its course but the majority of the falls are on the Argentine side. Below where it joins the San Antonio River, the Iguazu River forms the boundary between Argentina and Brazil. Many travelers want to know which side is better to visit, Brazil or Argentina.
Difficult question, but from either side it is a definite bucket list item. I thought the panoramic views on the Brazil side is unreal, a network of 275 waterfalls with rainbows everywhere and walking right into Devil’s throat, be ready to get wet! The Argentine side is a fantastic experience with 15km of trails to some spectacular views. Walking to the edge of the Devil’s throat, seeing that mass of water tumbling down right in front of you was spectacular.
Perito Moreno is part of a much larger ice field, including multiple glaciers in both Argentina and Chile. However, what makes this glacier in particular so special is its accessibility. Anyone can reach it by simply taking a bus from El Calafate. No expensive catamaran tour or difficult hike required.
Once there, one can’t miss a walk down the system of catwalks and platforms built in front of the glacier. Bring a bottle of wine to enjoy as you watch iceberg-sized chunks of ice break off Perito Moreno’s face and collapse into the water in an explosion of sound. This happens because Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing. As it grows, the front of the glacier becomes unstable and massive chunks of ice calve off. It is an unforgettable show to experience.
For a true bucket list experience, go trekking on Perito Moreno. The Big Ice tour will take you deep into the glacier itself for hours, ending the day with a boat ride across the lake while you sip on a whiskey poured over glacial ice.
The Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) is one of the South America bucket list items that you cannot miss. Situated in Bolivia at about 3600m (12000 ft), the Uyuni Salt flats is the largest salt flats in the world at 11000 sq km. It used to be a lake millions of years ago, and after it went dry, what was left behind is a desert like salt flat.
One of the most famous features of the Uyuni Salt Flats is its perfect reflection during rainy season. Many call it the world’s largest mirror and visitors fly in from all over the world during rainy season just for this perfect reflection. There are tours you can take to witness this stunning sight either on a 1 day tour or 3 day tour. Besides the endless white salt flat itself, there are unique rock formations, cactus islands and interesting caves you can explore with these Slat Flats tours.
There aren’t many places in the world like the Uyuni Salt Flats and to visit this place is a once in a lifetime experience. The tour industry is still young and there aren’t many hotels near the Salt Flats. You will truly experience something unique and beautiful when you visit the Bolivia Salt Flats.
Geographically, Easter Island is not located on the South American continent, but it is part of Chile. It’s a six hour flight to Hanga Roa from Santiago de Chile, and while Easter Island is pleasant to visit in its own right, there’s a few bucket list activities that you can do here.
One of the unique things to do here is to participate in the Easter Island Marathon. This event happens in early June each year, and the 250 available running spots quickly fill from applicants all around the world. One of the easiest ways to join is via a travel group like Marathon Tours and Travel, but you can also arrange it independently.
Running the Easter Island Marathon is one of the coolest races a runner can experience. On race day, runners can attend a unique Catholic Mass at 8 am. At this church, they hold a Polynesian mass with Rapa Nui songs. The service is officiated by the head priest with feather head dress and attended by locals in their Sunday best hats. Following the Mass, runners make their way to the island’s only soccer field to start the race.
The Rapa Nui Marathon course follows a 13.1 mile (21km) route from Hanga Roa to Anakena Beach on the other side of the island. Then, you turn around to run back to the finish line at the town center. At the finish line in Hanga Roa harbor, runners are welcomed back by an iconic moai stone head before they attend the awards celebration at the local atrium.
San Pedro de Atacama
There are only a handful of places on the earth that have a fair go at making you feel like you’ve somehow transposed yourself to the moon. The landscapes surrounding the town of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile is one of them.
It’s not just the blinding white salt flats that stretch out towards the horizon like a whitewashed pavement nor the gently steaming El Tatio geysers, where a fug of vapor dissipates into the air. It’s just something about the endless landscapes of rolling desert, where, beyond the edges of the plain, the earth noses upwards into the rounded peaks of distant volcanoes.
Not only is it a truly spellbinding place to see, it’s also quite the adventure playground. Sand board down the wind-scoured slopes of the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) before hitting up Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) for a spectacular sunset. The next day, float in highly-saline pools or admire flamingos feeding in salt-rimmed lagoons before heading out to an observatory to watch stars that seem so close here light up the sky like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
The only downside to this incredible destination is how popular it is among other travelers. Avoid December through February when the hordes arrive; July through August can be quieter, but winter weather can cause roads to close. All accommodation, dining options and tour companies are located in San Pedro de Atacama and those with an adventurous spirit will find the trip enhanced by hiring a car and touring the area under their own steam.
Tayrona National park
One of the best places to visit in South America that should be on your bucket is the Tayrona National Park in Colombia! Located on the Caribbean coast in the north of the country, this national park is the perfect place to go for a long hike in the lush jungle as well as to enjoy the beautiful beaches and coastlines.
While you can do a day trip from Santa Marta, I highly recommend visiting Tayrona for two days while spending one night inside of the park.
After a few hours of hiking from the entrance of the park, you will arrive on the main beach (called El Cabo San Juan). Don’t expect any hotels or other facilities here. While there’s one restaurant selling drinks and food, the way to spend the night here is by renting one of the hammocks or tents, which are located right at the beach.
Make sure to arrive not too late in the afternoon at the beach, since the hammocks are rented on a “first come first serve” basis and cannot be pre-booked in advance. Once you get there and once you reserved your hammock for the night, you can enjoy the beaches, go for some other hikes or get to know other travelers, since the beach is a pretty social place. The night in the hammock was a fun experience and I highly recommend visiting Tayrona when backpacking in Colombia!
I’ve often described hiking the Cocora Valley in Colombia as exploring a world that is a cross between Ireland and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax–and with a description like that, there’s no doubt that this valley belongs on the best places to visit in South America list!
Located near Salento in Colombia’s stunning coffee triangle, the Cocora Valley is characterized by its soaring wax palm trees, which grow up to 200 feet tall and are considered the tallest palm trees in the world.
Hiking the Cocora Valley can be done in about five hours, give or take, and the views are nothing short of breathtaking. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch, as there are plenty of places to rest up and enjoy the views with a quick meal in hand.
There are multiple trail options, but if you’re up for it, the harder trails that allow you to climb higher and see the valley from above are absolutely worth the exertion.
Not the hiking type? No worries–if you’d like to add the Cocora Valley to your Colombia itinerary but don’t want to hike, horseback rides are also available and make an absolutely delightful addition to your time in Colombia’s coffee triangle.
One of the most colorful and best places to visit in South America is Cartagena, Colombia. The city is thriving with a culture of beauty, beaches, incredible food, history, and is lined with colorful streets that will keep your camera clicking all day long.
Cruise down the Amazon
Taking a cruise down the Amazon River should be on your South America bucket list if you love wildlife and nature. As the world’s largest tropical rain forest, the Amazon is famous for its biodiversity of plants and wildlife, making it one of the best places to visit in South America for viewing.
Spreading across 9 countries in South America, there are many options for experiencing the Amazon. Ecuador is a great choice given its eco-friendly lodges and affordable cruises down the Amazon river. Another great way is the Amazon through Peru.
As one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, taking a river cruise through the Ecuador Amazon is a great way to see the incredible flora, fauna, and wildlife. During my cruise down the river, we spotted 6 species of monkeys, anacondas, crocodiles, river dolphins, macaws, toucans, and sloths! Cruising down the Amazon river in Ecuador was a highlight of my time in South America, and an experience I’ll never forget.
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The Galapagos is an incredible destination and one of the best places to visit in South America. Exploring this group of islands off the coast of Ecuador is such a captivating experience, both above and below the water. The landscapes, seascapes, and endemic wildlife found throughout the Galapagos Islands is like nowhere else on earth.
This National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site completely lives up to its reputation as a living museum. Simply walking around the islands, visitors may nearly trip over the many iguanas and sea lions that abound. The volcanic terrain and lava tunnels are fascinating to trek through, and you may even find the islands’ iconic giant tortoises or blue-footed boobies along the way.
Yet going snorkeling and scuba diving in the Galapagos reveals a fascinating world under the sea. An abundance of tropical fish, sea turtles, and even hammerhead sharks are all regularly sighted. It’s even possible to swim with penguins frolicking in the sea near the shoreline of some islands!
To travel to the Galapagos, there are daily flights from mainland Ecuador that fly over the Pacific to the Galapagos. That’s where many visitors can transfer to liveaboard boats for in-depth explorations throughout the 19 islands that form the Galapagos Archipelago. For a more budget-friendly alternative to Galapagos cruises, it’s also possible to explore four islands independently and then take day trips to further flung islands.
Yet however you choose to discover Galapagos, it’s definitely an astonishing place that is so worthy of having firmly on your South America bucket list.
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