Backpacking through South America is hands down the most thrilling and humbling travel experience I’ve ever had. Between 2017 and 2018, I spent four months traveling through the massive continent—the most time I spent on any continent during my round-the-word trip. My itinerary included stops in fascinating places like Machu Picchu in Peru, the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, which are all must-adds to any South America bucket list.
But there’s many, many more places in South America to travel to that’ll equally take your breath away. The South American continent offers unparalleled natural beauty, and each of its countries holds a culture as vibrant as the landscape surrounding it. It’s truly a haven for adventure-seeking travelers—offering enough thrills to satisfy even the most extreme adrenaline junkies.
It’s tough to narrow down the best experiences in South America because there really are so many to choose from. Yet even though South America has so much to offer, I still feel that the majority of people choose places like Europe or Southeast Asia to travel to instead. If you’re one of those people, here are 13 reasons why you should make South America your next trip.
| READ MORE: The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in South America
13 South America Bucket List Destinations
From the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil to the Andes Mountains in Peru; from a sparkling salt desert in Bolivia to the giant palm tree-filled Cocora Valley in Colombia; from an untouched archipelago in Brazil to the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, here are 13 places to add to your South America bucket list.
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 in the Amazon. From visiting local villages and learning about how people live off the land to floating along the river and hiking deep into the jungle, it’s easy to see why the Amazon is on every adventurer’s South America bucket list.
Cartagena is one of the most charming, colorful cities I’ve ever visited. Not many cities around the world are dripping in color, and when you come across one, it’s hard to forget it. Visitors flock to the coastal Colombian city for its historic Old Town, where pastel-colored buildings are as picturesque as the bougainvillea hanging from their balconies. The city offers a laidback yet lively Caribbean atmosphere, with delicious seafood and Colombian pastries available on every corner. There’s also no shortage of beaches to visit with tours available to several nearby islands.
Cocora Valley, Colombia
There are two reasons travelers visit Cocora Valley: the coffee and the palm trees. Cocora Valley is located in Salento, a small town in Colombia’s coffee region. Colombia’s coffee culture alone makes Salento worth a visit, especially if you’re a coffee enthusiast. 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, jungle and farmland.
Cusco and Sacred Valley, Peru
Machu Picchu isn’t the only reason to visit Peru. Odds are you’ll spend at least a couple of days in Cusco on your way out there—which gives you just enough time to explore the charming mountain town and nearby Sacred Valley. Cusco is an architectural gem, with many of its buildings displaying the Inca’s seemingly perfect (and mind-blowing) construction techniques. Cusco, which serves as a gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, also has its fair share of delicious Peruvian restaurants and eclectic artisan markets.
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, with sweeping views of the valley below accompanying hikers along the way.
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Fernando de Noronha is a national marine park lying 200 miles off Brazil’s northeast coast. I’m surprised more people haven’t heard of it, as the archipelago is home to several of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil. In fact, to keep the islands and their beaches perfectly preserved, the park limits the number of visitors each year. In doing so, Fernando de Noronha has remained an untouched paradise teeming with marine life like turtles, dolphins and sharks. And as expected, the islands offer excellent diving conditions.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The famous Galapagos Islands have been called a “‘living museum and showcase of evolution” by Unesco for their wildly diverse ecosystem and significant role in evolutionary science. The remote islands are home to pristine beaches set against a rocky landscape marked by volcanic activity. Here 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 different islands via an all-inclusive cruise, though cheaper land-based trips without a tour are also possible.
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
Los Glaciares National Park, the largest in Argentina, is a spectacular destination for outdoor and photography enthusiasts. The park is famous for its sweeping glacial lakes, snow-tipped mountains and massive glaciers—about half of the park is completely covered in ice. The Perito Moreno Glacier, an impressively large mass of ice towering over turquoise waters, can’t be missed. Big chunks of ice commonly fall off the face of the glacier into the water below, a truly unique sight that can be witnessed from nearby viewing platforms, or from a boat that takes you near the base of the giant.
Machu Picchu, Peru
It’s no secret that Peru is among one of the best places in South America to travel to, with the most famous attraction being Machu Picchu. 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.
Pucon is a small town in Chile’s Lake District that’s reminiscent of a ski village in Europe. It’s become an outdoor adventure hot spot for locals and travelers alike, mainly due to its location near the Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. The main draw is climbing the icy 9,000-foot volcano—a feat that hikers of all levels have tackled—but other outdoor activities like white water rafting, hiking through national parks and skiing are also big in the area.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
No trip to Brazil is complete without a visit to Rio de Janeiro, a tropical metropolis sandwiched between the ocean and a rainforest. It’s no wonder Brazilians call Rio “cidade maravilhosa,” or what translates to “a marvelous city.” The landscape is nothing short of stunning: Urban beaches stretch as far as the eye can see, with lush green mountains serving as a fascinating backdrop. Those mountains serve up some amazing hikes for thrill seekers. But one of the top reasons to add Rio de Janeiro to your bucket list is to experience the warm and lively Brazilian culture: Expect to encounter smiling locals, laidback beachside bars, delicious food and plenty of samba music.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world. Located deep in the Andes Mountains in southwest Bolivia, the desert-like landscape attracts adventurous travelers from near and far for its surreal setting. Over 4,000 miles of glistening white salt stretches endlessly into the horizon, creating an opportunity for unique photography. During the rainy season from January to April, a thin film of water lies across the entire salt flat and creates a stunning mirror effect as the sky reflects off of it. It’s one of the best experiences in South America—in fact, it’s one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve ever had.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most interesting towns 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.
Torres del Paine National Park, 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.
And there you have it: The ultimate South America bucket list. Have I convinced you to visit this impressive continent yet?
LIKE THIS POST? SAVE IT FOR LATER!