Wondering where to go in South America? Let’s discover the best countries in South America — and the best places to go in each.
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There’s something so raw about traveling in South America.
If you’ve ever spent some time in the vast continent, you know exactly what I mean. Everything from the landscapes to the food is so untamed, with flavors and mountains alike leaving visitors utterly speechless.
You’ll find experiences for travelers of all kinds across the best countries to visit in South America — but it’s an especially inviting place for adventurous souls.
If one thing’s for certain, it’s that South America holds the cure for off-the-beaten-path adventurers who have been confined to their hometowns for the past year.
In 2018, I spent four months backpacking across seven incredible countries in South America.
Back then, I had no idea I’d one day call this continent home. Now, I want to inspire you to explore this wildly beautiful part of the world with me.
Why Visit The Best Countries in South America?
It’s hard to fathom why anyone wouldn’t want to visit South America.
Yet many of the best places to visit in South America are among the least explored in the world, especially when compared to their European or Southeast Asian counterparts.
So, why should you visit? To start, South America is a cornucopia of natural wonders.
South America is home to the Andes, the globe’s longest continental mountain range; the Amazon River, the world’s largest by volume; the Amazon Rainforest, the largest of its kind; the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat; and La Paz, the highest capital city in the world.
Beyond its gargantuan mountains and sprawling rainforests, South America is also home to a number of thriving metropolitan areas.
São Paulo, Brazil can very well hold its own against New York in the culinary, entertainment and history departments. Over in Peru, Lima has long been considered one of the best food cities in the world. Then you have Santiago in Chile, with all the urban comforts of a modern city coupled with the Andes in its backyard.
Each South American country’s culture and cuisine is as rich as its geographical landscapes. Better yet, many remote places in South America remain sheltered from mainstream tourism.
If you’re looking for a place to feel inspired, to reconnect with yourself in nature, to feel the groundbreaking forces of culture shock in the best way possible — consider booking your next trip to one of the best countries in South America.
| READ MORE: The Full Guide to Backpacking in South America
10 Things To Know Before Traveling to South America
Traveling in South America is always an adventure. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you’re planning your trip to one of the best countries to visit in South America.
- Knowing a bit of Spanish goes a long way. South America is a primarily Spanish-speaking continent, and English isn’t widely spoken. Knowing a few phrases can really help you get around.
- Flights are expensive. Flying in between countries in South America can be expensive. Most people who spend a good amount of time on the continent choose to travel by land.
- That being said, bus travel is widely available and extremely popular. You can travel everywhere in South America by bus. The longest bus journey I took was a grueling 23 hours from Santiago, Chile to the Atacama Desert!
- It’s not as dangerous as you may have read online. Bigger cities are generally less safe than smaller towns and mountain villages, but I never felt particularly unsafe during my trip. Just be mindful of your surroundings and belongings, especially expensive items like cameras and iPhones.
- Bargaining is part of the culture. You can bargain for nearly everything in South America, just be mindful about supporting (not hurting) local businesses.
- Pack lots of layers. The constant change in altitude can bring about all kinds of weather. And don’t forget the seasons are opposite of the Northern Hemisphere.
- Don’t forget the sunblock. Sunblock can actually be really expensive in South America. Trust me when I say you’ll need plenty of it!
- Carry cash with you. You can use your credit card and withdraw cash easily in big cities like Rio de Janeiro. But you’ll find that cash is the preferred method of payment in more remote parts of the continent.
- Be careful with the food and water. Depending on where you’re traveling, you’ll want to avoid tap water. You may also find yourself adjusting to the bold flavors of South American cuisine, which may or not cause a few bouts of traveler’s diarrhea (sorry — I had to warn ya)
- WiFi isn’t always a given. Don’t expect to have reliable WiFi everywhere.
How To Get Around South America
One of the most striking differences between backpacking in South America versus other continents is the vast distance between countries.
Traveling within massive countries like Brazil, Peru and Chile can also take up a lot of time, especially by land. I remember the time I spent 23 hours on a bus within the same country.
If you’re planning to travel to more than one of the best countries to visit in South America, note that flying can be expensive. While flying to different cities within the same country might not break the bank, flying between countries can add up really quickly.
During the four months I spent in South America, I think I only took about three or four flights. I actually traveled from Chile to Bolivia to Peru to Ecuador to Colombia all by land.
Buses are the most popular way to travel in South America. Both private and public buses are easily accessible and readily available throughout the entire continent.
Night buses are extremely common, and many of them are actually quite comfortable. Every country has at least a few reputable companies that offer “luxury” long-distance buses equipped with beds and bathrooms. Some even offer meal service.
However, you should always bring snacks on board to be safe! Sometimes certain long-distance buses don’t offer many bathroom or meal breaks.
Travel Tip: The best way to book your bus tickets is to book in-person at the city’s local bus station.
5 Things You Must Pack For Your Trip To South America
- Good pair of hiking boots
- Rain jacket
- Lightweight thermal down jacket
- eBags packing cubes
- A conspicuous camera bag
The Best Countries To Visit in South America
Backpacking through South America was hands down the most thrilling and humbling travel experience I’ve ever had. I was fortunate enough to spend time in each of the seven countries below.
Each offer their own set of exciting bucket list experiences, and I’m so excited to inspire you to get to know them yourself.
From a sparkling salt desert in Bolivia to an untouched archipelago in Brazil, here are the best places to visit in South America.
Note: The best countries to visit in South America are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked from first to last.
Argentina: Best Places to Visit in South America
First up on the list of best countries to visit in South America is Argentina, a country known for its streetside tango dances, the incredible Patagonia region and, of course, its sophisticated capital city of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is Argentina’s big capital city. It’s probably the most European-like city I visited in South America. Buenos Aires is divided up into different eclectic neighborhoods, each with its own personality and charm. It’s easy to drink and eat well there: Argentinian-style steak, savory empanadas and milanesa (breaded and fried chicken or veal) are must-eats. Don’t skip out on a tango performance either.
How To Get To Buenos Aires: You’ll fly into the city’s international airport, Ezeiza Ministro Pistarini.
Stay: Browse Buenos Aires hotel deals here.
Bariloche is Argentina’s premier ski destination, reminiscent of a European winter village. While snow sports are the main attraction in the winter, Bariloche is also a great pace to visit in the summer, spring and fall. You can hike through the beautiful scenery at Nahuel Huapi National Park, as well as explore other scenic attractions on a day trip from the city.
How To Get To Bariloche: You can fly there from Buenos Aires or take a 24-hour coach bus from the capital.
Stay: Browse Bariloche hotel deals here.
Wine lovers can head to Mendoza, a region recognized as a leader in Malbec production worldwide. Spend your days touring as many bodegas (wineries) as possible, visit an olive grove, ski or hike at Los Penitentes ski resort, and take a sunset horseback ride at the foot of the Andes.
How To Get To Mendoza: You can fly there from Buenos Aires or take a long-distance bus that takes about 14 hours each way.
Stay: Browse Mendoza hotel deals here.
El Calafate, Argentina
El Calafate is considered the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park and home to the massive Perito Moreno Glacier. Come here to walk along a boardwalk that faces the impressive glacier, which constantly wows visitors by shedding huge chunks of ice into the frozen water below. You can get up close and personal with the glacier by taking a cruise, which picks you up at your hotel and features lunch with glacier views onboard a catamaran. Or you can strap on your crampons and hike on the glacier itself with this exciting trekking tour.
How To Get To El Calafate: You can fly there from Buenos Aires, Ushuaia or Bariloche.
Stay: Browse El Calafate hotel deals here.
Bolivia: Best Countries to Visit in South America
Bolivia is a country rich in otherworldly landscapes, adventures of all kinds and vibrant cultural festivals. It may not be the first South American country that comes to mind when you think of planning a trip down south, but here are three epic reasons to add it to your list.
La Paz, Bolivia
Arriving in La Paz already brings on a rush of emotions: It’s the highest capital of the world, sitting comfortably on a plateau 3,500 meters (11,482 feet) above sea level. It’s quite literally a city in the sky. Surrounded by even taller mountains, including the 6,438-meter snow-capped Mt. Illimani, the scenery in La Paz is absolutely striking. A suspended cable car system (the teleférico) is one of the main modes of transportation in the city, connecting the lower levels of the valley to the looming mountain peaks around it. Make sure to swing by the Witches’ Market for all kinds of spooky superstitious items.
How To Get To La Paz: You can fly to El Alto International Airport, the highest international airport in the world!
Stay: Browse La Paz hotel deals here.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest in South America. The deep blue body of water sits on the border between Peru and Bolivia, and is known for being the birthplace of the Incas. On the Bolivian side you’ll first arrive in the town of Copacabana, where there are plenty of hotels, restaurants and shops. From there you can take a boat to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna to visit the ancient civilizations that have called the islands home for thousands of years.
How To Get To Lake Titicaca: You can only reach Lake Titicaca by bus or car, from both the Peruvian or Bolivian sides.
Stay: Browse Copacabana hotel deals here.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
One of the main attractions in Bolivia is the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. It’s 11,000 square kilometers of glistening white salt, an endless horizon that appears to have no ending or beginning. The journey there is an adventure in and of itself. The most popular way to visit the salt flat is to join a three- to four-night tour that takes you through Bolivia’s striking desert landscape. Along the course of the tour you’ll swim in hot springs, drive by towering volcanoes and visit local villages. It’s a pretty rugged trip, but the experience is beyond incredible. If that’s sounds too adventurous for you, this luxury tour includes a short flight from La Paz to Uyuni, allowing you to explore the salt flat in ultimate comfort.
How To Get To Salar de Uyuni: You can fly, take a bus or join a multi-day tour to get to Uyuni, where you’ll drive to the salt flat nearby.
Brazil: Best Places To Visit in South America
Brazil is home to several of the most exciting places to visit in South America. Untouched virgin beaches, tropical rainforests, rhythmic cities and a vibrant population await in South America’s largest country.
The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, covering much of northwestern Brazil and reaching into Colombia, Peru and other South American countries. The biodiversity alone makes this one of the most unique places in South America to visit; one in every 10 known species can be found within the rainforest. You can visit local villages, learn from the indegineous people who live off the land, swim in the Amazon River and get in touch with nature with guided hikes through the rainforest.
How To Get To The Amazon Rainforest: You can fly into Manaus in northern Brazil, which will be your base to explore the Brazilian Amazon.
Stay: Browse Manaus hotel deals here.
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
This idyllic archipelago in the north of Brazil is barely known outside the country — yet it’s home to Praia do Sancho, often voted the most beautiful beach in the world. Brazil’s secret paradise is composed of 21 islands off the country’s northeastern coast. It’s a national marine park, and the number of visitors allowed on the islands is limited to protect the natural environment. Because of this, Fernando de Noronha is a haven for sea life, which makes it one of the best scuba diving destinations in Brazil.
How To Get To Fernando de Noronha: Flights depart from Brazilian mainland towns of Recife in Pernambuco and Natal in Rio Grande do Norte.
Stay: Browse Fernando de Noronha hotel deals here.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Ah, Rio de Janeiro, my new home! Rio de Janeiro is surely one of the livliest cities you’ll ever visit. The city vibrates to the tunes of summer, and you can count on finding local cariocas on the beach all year long. Rio’s white sandy beaches are surrounded by towering mountains and the colorful favelas that call them home. It’s all part of what makes Rio’s culture so rich and full of energy. No matter where you are, you’ll always find a friendly face ready to show you the best of his or her city.
How To Get To Rio de Janeiro: You’ll fly into Rio’s international airport, Aeroporto Internacional Tom Jobim, also known as Galeão.
Stay: Browse Fernando de Noronha hotel deals here.
São Paulo, Brazil
Down south, this is the city that never sleeps. São Paulo is the business and financial center of the country. It’s home to a whopping 12.3 million people, making it one of the most populated cities in the world. Museums and theaters are aplenty, and the city is renowned worldwide for its culinary scene. Brazil’s very own concrete jungle is the ideal place for city lovers.
How To Get To São Paulo: You’ll fly into São Paulo’s international airport, Governador André Franco Montoro International Airport, more commonly known as Guarulhos.
Stay: Browse São Paulo hotel deals here.
Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
Another little known destination outside of Brazil is Lencois Maranhenses, a national park marked by tall white sand dunes and the fresh water lagoons that form between them. The turquoise lagoons are at their fullest in June, July and August, the most popular times to visit the park. The best way to explore the park is by walking, or joining a tour that can drive you across the dunes in a 4×4 Jeep authorized to enter the park.
How To Get To Lençóis Maranhenses: You’ll first fly into the São Luís International Airport. From there, you’ll drive, take a bus or a private van to Barreirinhas or Santo Amaro do Maranhão, the two main entry points of the park.
Chile: Best Countries To Visit in South America
Home to more than 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) of Pacific Ocean coastline, the Andes Mountains, the driest place on earth and expansive glacial fields: This is Chile. The incredibly diverse landscape of Chile is a joy to explore, and many places will remind you why you fell in love with travel in the first place.
Pucón is the best small mountain town you’ve never heard of. Located in Chile’s Lake District, Pucón is reminiscent of a European ski village — except there’s a 2,800-meter (9,000-foot) volcano looming in the background. It’s become an outdoor adventure hotspot for locals and travelers alike, mainly due to its location near Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. The main draw is climbing the giant, a feat that hikers of all levels have tackled. Other outdoor activities like white-water rafting, hiking through national parks and skiing are also big in the area.
How To Get To Pucón: You can fly into Temuco airport, or Aeropuerto de la Araucania, and take a shuttle to Pucón. You can also take a 10-hour overnight bus from Santiago, or drive yourself.
Stay: Browse Pucon hotel deals here.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most unique places in South America I’ve ever visited. San Pedro is a backpacker’s haven located in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. It’s so dry that it’s recommended to carry 2 liters of water with you at all times. Backpackers flock here for the towering volcanoes, active geysers, hot springs, emerald-blue lagoons and a moon-like valley, all of which can be explored on day trips from San Pedro. Visitors looking to experience the Salar de Uyuni can also do so from San Pedro de Atacama, with three- to four-day trips available.
How To Get To San Pedro de Atacama: The closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is Calama’s El Loa Airport, or you can take a (very long) bus from Santiago.
Stay: Browse San Pedro de Atacama hotel deals here.
Torres del Paine, Chile
Chile’s iconic Torres del Paine National Park is a hiker’s dream. The park takes up more than 700 square miles in the Chilean Patagonia, and has become so popular that visitor numbers are now restricted. It’s probably the most scenic place to visit in all of Chile. The park offers some of the best hiking in the world, including the famous “W Circuit,” a four- to six-day trek that leads you through a dizzying mix of glaciers, forests, waterfalls and turquoise lakes.
How To Get To Torres del Paine: You can fly into Punta Arenas, the nearest airport to Torres del Paine National Park, and from there take a bus or rent a car to get to the park.
Stay: Browse Torres del Paine hotel deals here.
Colombia: Best Places to Visit in South America
Colombia might be my favorite country in South America, aside from my family’s native country of Brazil. I encountered the warmest culture and most comforting cuisine. Its unique geographical location also makes it incredibly diverse: You have Caribbean beaches, the Amazon Rainforest, the Andes Mountains, and Cocora Valley, a cloud forest studded with giant palm trees.
The colorful city of Cartagena is molded by both Colombian and Caribbean cultures. Its location on the Caribbean coast gives way to a giddy, laidback island vibe. Visitors love to wander the historic Old Town, where pastel-colored buildings are as picturesque as the bougainvillea hanging from their balconies. Delicious seafood and Colombian pastries are available on every corner, and there’s also no shortage of beaches to visit, with tours leaving daily to nearby islands.
How To Get To Cartagena: You can fly into Rafael Núñez International Airport, which is actually only three hours from Miami.
Stay: Browse Cartagena hotel deals here.
Medellin is Colombia’s second largest city, and it’s come a long way from its violent history with drug warfare. The city once ranked among the most dangerous in the world is now buzzing with tourists, fresh food markets in tree-shaded neighborhoods, digital nomad-friendly communities like El Poblado, and the best of Colombian restaurants. Tip: Take a day trip to Peñón de Guatapé for an epic view over the region and to get to know the colorful town of Guatapé.
How To Get To Medellin: You can fly into José María Córdova International Airport.
Stay: Browse Medellin hotel deals here.
Salento & Cocora Valley, Colombia
There are two reasons travelers visit Salento: to see the palm trees in Cocora Valley and the coffee. Cocora Valley is located near Salento, a small town in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region. Colombia’s coffee culture alone makes Salento worth a visit, especially if you’re a coffee lover like myself. You can visit nearby coffee plantations, or fincas, to learn about the coffee-making process. Or simply enjoy a fresh cup of joe at one of the many cafes and restaurants in town. After you’ve had your caffeine fix, head over to Cocora Valley to see the tallest palm trees on earth. You can hike the valley too, with a trail cutting through the tall palms and surrounding cloud forest, characterized by persistent low cloud coverage.
How To Get To Salento: The easiest way to get to Salento is by bus. You can also fly into one of the nearby airports in Pereira (PEI) or Armenia (AXM), and then take a bus from there.
Stay: Browse Salento hotel deals here.
Tayrona National Park
The most beautiful beaches in Colombia can be found in Tayrona National Park, a lush, tropical park located on the country’s Caribbean coast. It’s one of the most popular destinations in Colombia for its untouched beaches, incredible biodiversity and jungle hikes. The park is definitely a hotspot for adventure travelers and backpackers, as facilities and accommodation in the park are very basic. Those who rough it out say it’s worth it!
How To Get To Tayrona National Park: The best way to get to the park is by bus.
Stay: Most people rent a hammock to sleep in or camp on the beach, though cabins are also available. Accommodation is booked on-site.
Best Countries to Visit in South America: Ecuador
Ecuador straddles the equator on South America’s west coast, meaning when you visit, you’re quite literally in the middle of the world. In fact, you can actually visit latitude 0 longitude 0 in Quito, known as Mitad del Mundo. Even more fascinating is the Galapagos Islands, which is so rich in wildlife that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The county is much smaller than others on this list, making traveling to several different points of interest a lot easier.
Baños is Ecuador’s established backpacker town. There’s an adventure around every corner, as well as all the amenities that fit a backpacker’s needs — affordable restaurants, cheap hostels and tons of tour agencies. Zip-lining, rafting, hot springs, the Ecuadorian Amazon and hiking make Baños is the adventure capital of the country. Tip: Make sure to take a swing at the “end of the world” at the Casa del Árbol.
How To Get To Baños: The best way to get to Banos is by bus.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in Baños here.
The famous Galapagos Islands have been called a “living museum and showcase of evolution” by Unesco. Their wildly diverse ecosystem has played a significant role in evolutionary science. The remote islands are home to pristine beaches set against a rocky landscape marked by volcanic activity. There you can catch a glimpse of the endangered giant tortoises, dive with whale sharks and eagle rays, snorkel alongside sea lions and hike along volcano craters. The most popular way to visit the islands is via an all-inclusive cruise, though cheaper land-based trips without a tour are also possible.
How To Get To The Galapagos: First, you’ll fly into either Quito or Guayaquil. Then, you can fly to Baltra Island before taking a bus and ferry ride to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the most popular tourist hub. You can also fly into the capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, but most cruises start in Santa Cruz.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in the Galapagos.
While not as high as La Paz, at 2,700 meters (9,000 feet) above sea level Quito is also among the highest capital cities in the world. Located in the midst of the beautiful Andes mountains, Quito has the largest and most well preserved historic center in Latin America. It’s also home to the “Middle of the World,” or 0 latitude 0 longitude. From learning about the country’s vibrant history and culture to riding a sky-high gondola up a volcano — and then hiking it — Quito offers a number of exciting adventures.
Read more: Hiking Rucu Pichincha in Quito
How To Get To Quito: You can fly into Mariscal Sucre International Airport, the main gateway into Ecuador.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in Quito here.
Best Places To Visit in South America: Peru
Peru is a massive country with countless incredible places to visit. While Machu Picchu gains most of the attention, historic, culture-rich cities like Lima and Cuzco are just as worthy of a visit. Consider adding these other destinations to your Peru bucket list, along with the famed Incan citadel in the clouds.
Machu Picchu isn’t the only reason to visit Peru. Odds are you’ll spend at least a couple of days in Cuzco on your way out there, which gives you just enough time to explore the charming mountain town. Cuzco is an architectural gem, with many of its buildings displaying the Inca’s seemingly perfect construction techniques. Cuzco serves as the main gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, though it also has its fair share of delicious Peruvian restaurants and eclectic artisan markets.
Read more: Traveling From La Paz To Cuzco By Bus
Huacachina is a literal oasis in the middle of the Peruvian desert. Anchored by a green lagoon surrounded by palm trees, the town is a popular stop on longer travel itineraries through the country. You can now find hotels, restaurants and bars along the lagoon’s shores.
How To Get To Huacachina: The best way to get to Huacachina is via the Peru Hop private bus service.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in Huacachina here.
Lima is one of the largest cities in South America, and one of the most fun to eat and drink your way through. The restaurant scene in Lima is absolutely fantastic, so much so that it’s been repeatedly ranked among the top food cities in the world. Wander through its historic center, surf the rocky coastline and eat all the ceviche imaginable.
How To Get To Lima: You can fly into Jorge Chavez International Airport.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in Lima here.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The magnificent Incan citadel hidden deep inside the Andes Mountains rightfully attracts millions of visitors every year. Aside from its extraordinarily beautiful location, Machu Picchu is one of the greatest architectural feats known to man. It’s the most significant piece of history tied to the mystifying Inca civilization. Plus, the journey to get there is an adventure in and of itself, with everything from multi-day hikes to luxury glass-domed trains available.
How To Get To Machu Picchu: The only way to get to Machu Picchu is to take a train or hike to Aguas Calientes, the city at the bse of Machu Picchu.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in Machu Picchu here.
The Sacred Valley, Peru
The Sacred Valley is home to the mountain village of Ollantaytambo, where the Inca trail begins to Machu Picchu. Mountainside Incan ruins tower over Ollantaytambo, and they’re open for exploration. Several hiking trails lead deep into the Andes, where you’ll find more forgotten ruins, sweeping views of the valley and gigantic snow-capped mountain peaks.
How To Get To The Sacred Valley: The only way to get to Machu Picchu is to take a train or hike to Aguas Calientes.
Stay: Browse hotel deals in The Sacred Valley here.
There you have it: The very best countries to visit in South America, and where to go in each.
Now tell me, which one is the first on your list?