The best places to visit in South America Cartagena coloured streets

South America is huge, and it consists of 12 unique countries, each with its own diverse cultures and traditions. The fascinating history of these lands and civilizations will amaze you.

The tricky part is deciding on the best places to visit in South America because there are so many! 

But don’t get overwhelmed. We’ve got you covered.

After travelling around South America for six months, (and having the time of our lives), we’ve got first-hand knowledge, advice and tips to share with you. 

We’ve compiled this list of the best places to visit in South America so you don’t miss any essential bucket-list items. As a bonus, we will share our thoughts on the best country to visit in South America, too.

Let’s get to it! 15 of the Best Places to Visit in South America

1) Cusco, Peru

There’s no doubt about it, Cusco is a beautiful city. This destination must be on your list of the best places to visit in South America.

Cusco is an impressive city that sits high up in the Andes Mountains, at about 3,600m above sea level. 

The best places to visit in South America Cusco Peru
The best places to visit in South America – Cusco in Peru

There are so many fantastic things to do in Cusco, and the surrounding area too. In addition to that, you will find many great places to eat and enjoy a drink, all while gazing over the epic mountain range that surrounds you.

Be sure to visit the Plaza de Armas (the main square, you can’t miss it). 

Get lost as you zig-zag your way around the city, admiring woollen handicrafts made by local women and tasting tasty empanadas from the small street stalls along the way. 

Try and stop by Jack’s Cafe for some nourishing food in Cusco. We’ve got many memories of eating some great meals here during our time in this awesome city, some years ago now. 

Popular Day Trips and Tours from Cusco

The most popular day trip is the Sacred Valley Tour with Pisac and Ollantaytambo where you can spend a day in the Sacred Valley, one of the Incan empire’s most important centres. Visit Pisac market, Ollantaytambo and the village of Chinchero. 

This Full-Day Tour to Rainbow Mountain is another highlight from Cusco. Explore the incredible Rainbow Mountain in the region of Vinincunca. You get the opportunity to hike along the Andes while viewing the stunning scenery of the mountains and surrounding glaciers.

The Humantay Lake All-inclusive Full-day Tour also deserves a mention, you should try and plan this day into your Cusco itinerary too.

2) Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South America, and it certainly deserves its place on our list.

This magnificent site is one of the best places to visit in South America. It’s located in the Andes Mountains of Peru and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. 

The best places to visit in South America Machu Picchu Peru
The best places to visit in South America – Machu Picchu in Peru

Machu Picchu was constructed at the height of the Inca Empire, and according to historians, it dominated western South America in the 15th and 16th centuries. The empire’s administrative, political and military centre was in the city of Cusco.

Every traveller has seen the extraordinary photos of Machu Picchu, it’s the postcard picture for adventure and travel dreams! It’s a dream for many to stand here and imagine how incredible this empire was at that time.

I can tell you from experience that the journey to get here is worth it. 

How to get to Machu Picchu

Join a hiking tour

There are multiple ways you can reach Machu Picchu.

Many travellers reserve a place on a 4-day Hike to Machu Picchu via the Classic Inca Trail, or take the alternative Lares Trail Route on a 4-Day Trek to Machu Picchu.

The best places to visit in South America Machu Picchu Inca Trail tent
The best places to go in South America – Hike to Machu Picchu and camp with stunning views like this.

I’d agree that hiking to Machu Picchu is an exciting way to get there. But, if you’re not interested in hiking to Machu Picchu, you’re short on time, or you cannot do it for health reasons, then you have the option to take a train there.

Take the Train 

Machu Picchu by Train in 1 Day from Cusco

Book an Organised Day Tour from Cusco

Many people will visit Machu Picchu on an organised Day Tour from Cusco or purchase the entrance ticket for Machu Picchu and explore on their own.

2-Day Tour from Cusco: Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu by Train

Discover the best of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Visit key sites such as the Salt Mines, Moray, Urubamba, Maras, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu, and discover their individual archaeological sites with your guide. Spend the night in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, and rest before watching the sunrise at the incredible Inca citadel the next day.

I’d recommend staying in the nearby town of Agua Calientes to maximise your time at Machu Picchu. (this is also the town from where the bus departs).

NOTE: Roundtrip bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu cost about $30 per person/each way.

3) Salento, Colombia

Salento is the adventure capital of Colombia. The stunning Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) is a paradise for keen hikers or those wanting to get off the banana trail.

For context, the banana trail or gringo trail is a term to describe the popular route that tourists or ‘gringoes’ travel in South America. Gringo translates to a person who is not Hispanic or Latino.

The best places to visit in South America Salento Colombia
The best places to visit in South America – Salento in Colombia

Let’s get back to Salento and why it’s on my list of the best places to go in South America. 

There are many hiking trails available to explore the Cocora Valley. We recommend staying at Cabañas Valle del Cocora La Truchera, in the heart of all that stunning nature. Stay in a cosy chalet and make this your base for hiking, fishing, or just relaxing with pretty views of the valley.

If you plan to stay a few days in Salento, then EcoLodge Kasaguadua will take excellent care of you. It feels like you’re sleeping in the middle of the jungle, and don’t miss the fantastic breakfast included in the room rate.

Our post about the 10 Best Things to Do in Salento ensures you will have the best time ever!

4) Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena could be the most photographed colonial city in Colombia. Around every corner, you’ll discover beautiful architecture, vibrant and colourful streets, trendy bars and cafes, and an atmosphere that is hard to beat. 

So it’s no surprise that Cartagena has become a popular hub for digital nomads and entrepreneurs drawn to this happening city’s high energy and vibes!

This city had to be on our list of the best places to visit in South America; it’s fantastic!

While discussing cool cities in Colombia, we recommend spending a few days in Bogota. Our perfect itinerary for two days in Bogota has got you covered.

The best places to visit in South America Cartagena Colombia
The best places to go in South America is Cartagena in Colombia

There are so many awesome things to do in Cartagena; however, the day trips are fantastic too! I recommend joining Tayrona Park Hiking Tour for those of you seeking adventure and this day tour of the Rosario Islands is fantastic!

Want more adventure? The Santa Marta Multi-Day Trek to the Lost City cannot be missed!

The food is fantastic in Colombia

Oh, and let’s not forget about the food! The food in Cartagena is why this is one of the best places to visit in South America. I recommend joining this Street Food Tour of Cartagena, so much fantastic food is included!

But before you do that, read my post about what to eat in Colombia and 11 top dishes to try.

Colombia is the best country to visit in South America because of the beauty, the food and the fact that there are so many AMAZING things to do here.

Colombia ticks all the boxes, so plan accordingly; you won’t want to leave.

5) Medellin, Colombia

You can see mountains and stunning landscapes everywhere wherever you go in this gorgeous city. Medellin sits in a bowl in the Andes mountains, and its popularity has boomed over the years with tourism.

Why is this one of the best places to visit in South America? There are many top-rated things to do in Medellin: flawless weather, excellent coffee, world-class cuisine, exciting nightlife, and friendly people.

The best places to visit in South America Medellin Colombia
The best places to visit in South America – Medellin, Colombia

If you plan to visit for a few days, I can guarantee you will extend your stay. There’s something extraordinary about this city in Colombia that I can’t quite describe. 

Either way, it has to be one of the best places to visit in South America, so put it on your ‘yes’ list!

6) Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands are located off the coast of Ecuador. It’s one of the most famous destinations in the world because of its unique wildlife.

There are more than 1,000 species of birds alone.

The best places to visit in South America Galapagos Islands
The best places to visit in South America are – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands are best explored with a small-group tour. We recommend these small group tours by G Adventures to give you the best experience of this awesome place. 

The Galapagos Islands are like no other place on the continent. This is why we’ve included it in our round-up of the best places to visit in South America.

7) Quito, Ecuador

Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is one of the most unique cities in the world. It takes first place as the world’s highest capital city, 2850m above sea level. The Old Town of Quito is one of the best-preserved colonial cities and the largest in the Americas.

Located in Ecuador’s northern highlands, did you know that volcanoes surround the city? You can see them on a clear day, it’s quite spectacular.

The best places to visit in South America
The best places to visit in South America – Quito, Ecuador

Join a half-day Sightseeing tour of Quito or this full-day Quito City Tour, including the Teleférico (cable car). This is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising from 3,117m. And yes, you’ll feel the high altitude up there, so be prepared. The views are amazing so it’s totally worth it.

My Tip: Consider booking a space on this day tour to Cotopaxi National Park & Quilotoa for another day, it’s a good one!

8) Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

Guyana is one of the best places to visit in South America, for one particular highlight, Kaieteur Falls.

Many people have no idea where this country is on a map of South America. However, for travellers looking to explore an off-the-beaten trail destination, then this is it.

The best places to visit in South America Kaieteur Falls Guyana
The best places to visit in South America – Kaieteur Falls in Guyana

We’ve got to be honest here, before embarking on our crazy adventure to visit every country in the world, we hadn’t heard of Kaieteur Falls.

Read more about why you should visit Kaieteur Falls and also how to visit Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. This country doesn’t receive anywhere near the volume of tourists that other South American countries do.

For this reason, it’s a little more challenging to arrange a confirmed tour to attractions such as Kaieteur Falls.

Find everything you need to know about planning your visit to Kaieteur Falls in the two posts I’ve linked above.

9) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro is a city in Brazil with exceptional natural beauty. It’s no stranger to being voted one of the best places to visit in South America by some of the finest travel publications in the past. 

With so many things to do in Rio de Janeiro, you need at least 2-3 days just to uncover highlights. Of course, you need to take some time to relax on the spectacular Copacabana beach too.

We recommend you consider joining a half-day Rocinha Favela Walking Tour to learn about this side of the city you won’t hear about or see in the travel brochures.

The most popular tour in Rio is this day tour that covers Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf, Maracana & Selaron. 

These are the main attractions in this vast city, and they’re best explored with a guide and transportation. It’s nice to learn about the city from the guide as you visit the attractions too.

And, if you time your trip correctly, you could be rocking out at Rio Carnival, a world-renowned festival held annually. We visited Rio during this time, and it was a surreal experience. Click here to check when the next Carnival in Rio is on.

Want to attend the next festival? Find out more about Rio Carnival 2024: Samba Parade Tickets.

The best places to visit in South America Rio de Janeiro Brazil
The best places to go in South America – Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

10) The Amazon Rainforest

Want a once-in-a-lifetime experience? The Amazon Rainforest is one of the best places to visit in South America to learn about the fascinating Amazon culture. 

Many travellers will book a trip to explore a section of the Amazon Rainforest. Most Amazon tours include:

  • Visiting indigenous villages.
  • Jungle walks and night safaris.
  • Accommodation in a treehouse hotel/lodge.
  • Searching for Anaconda (giant semi-aquatic snakes). 
The best places to visit in South America Amazon Rainforest
The best places to visit in South America – The Amazon Rainforest

This vast region, about two-thirds the size of the USA, spans 8 countries, including Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname. It also crosses into French Guiana (the overseas territory of France).

We booked a 2 night/3 day trip to the Amazon Jungle in Peru after visiting Lima for a few days (read our recommended 2 days in Lima itinerary here).

Tours available in the Amazon Rainforest

11) Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

In the Andes, nearly 3,700 m above sea level, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It’s harsh terrain out here and provides a setting for some of the most fantastic photos you will ever take.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most unusual and best places to visit in South America. To get to Salar de Uyuni; you will first have to get to the town of Uyuni, which is the border town, sitting on the edge of the salt flat. 

The best places to visit in South America Salar de uyuni Bolivia
The best places to visit in South America – Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

There are several different Uyuni Salt Flat Tours to choose from and to be honest, they’re all running a similar program.

I recommend you book this popular 3-Day Tour to Salar de Uyuni to fully appreciate the area’s vibrant lakes and extraordinary landscapes. It’s the top choice for experiencing all the highlights of Salar de Uyuni.

12) Easter Island, Chile

The best places to visit in South America on this list are chosen for being incredible and memorable. Easter Island will be one of the stand-out highlights of a trip to South America.

Chile, as a nation is quite fascinating. For me, a contender for the best country in South America for its diversity.

It is one of the world’s most remote islands and is home to the famous Moai head statues of the Rapa Nui that spread across Easter Island.

The best places to visit in South America Easter Island Chile
The best places to visit in South America – Easter Island in Chile

Its fascinating culture, welcoming people and colourful landscapes are unique and quite different from other South American destinations.

TIP: If you can make it happen, schedule your trip to Easter Island at the beginning of February, during the annual Tapati Festival. This is the most important cultural and sporting event, which runs for about fifteen days. 

During the festival, all the family groups with their friends and guests compete in different sports and artistic activities – it makes for an exciting time to be visiting Easter Island. 

Even if you can’t visit during the Tapati Festival, Easter Island is still one of the best places to visit in South America.

13) Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park is one of Chile’s largest and most popular parks. This destination is spectacularly beautiful, and there are more reasons why it’s among the best places to go in South America.

The landscape is utterly breathtaking, the three peaks conquering the view of the Paine Mountains. And if you can take your eyes off that view for a moment, you can see that the rest of the park has ice-blue glaciers, woodlands and steppes, and gushing rivers—an absolute paradise for outdoor adventure lovers for sure. 

These mountains are just waiting for exploration! 

The best places to visit in South America Torres del Paine Chile
The best places to visit in South America -Torres del Paine in Chile

A popular day hike is to the 3 Towers Viewpoint, which will take you to the famous Torres del Paine peaks. It’s about a 5-6 hour return trek.

Another option is this guided tour – Puerto Natales: Base of the Towers Day Hike.

If you want to explore more trails longer, many travellers spend 1 – 5 days hiking inside the park. I recommend doing the popular W-Trek (4-5 days long, but you must arrange camping spots in advance, and they book out quite early, so be quick). 

Our Ultimate Guide for Torres del Paine National Park has everything you need to know.

Alternatively, these 5 different trips with G Adventures are epic! 

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14) Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina and the second-largest city in South America. It is located at the foot of the Andes Mountains and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s one of the world’s most vibrant and exciting cities, and that’s why it has earned a place among the best places to visit in South America. 

The best places to visit in South America Buenos Aires Argentina
The best country to visit in South America is Argentina. So much to see and do!

It’s also home to some of Latin America’s best museums, restaurants, and nightlife. So, if you’re looking for culture, art, and history, then Buenos Aires is the place to go.

We wrote this 2 Days in Buenos Aires Itinerary to help you get the most from your visit.

It’s an amazing city to explore in arguably the best country in South America.

Take advantage of the photogenic La Boca district, a colourful area to explore, and San Telmo, which is worth at least a few hours. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood full of cool cafes, artsy restaurants, craft beer, flea markets, fantastic street art and hipster hangouts. 

Are you a Food Lover? Don’t miss these 16 Best Restaurants in Buenos Aires 

While you’re here, don’t miss doing a Gaucho Day & Wine Tasting with lunch, dining out on fabulous Argentinian steak and red wine at Don Julio restaurant and enjoying a perfect cortado (coffee) in any of the cute cafes in the many great neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires.

15) El Calafate, Argentina

Most people head to the funky, small resort town of El Calafate for one reason. That is, to see one of South America’s largest glaciers, the famous Perito Moreno Glacier.

The glacier is approximately 80km from El Calafate, but this is the hub for visitors who plan to spend the day there.

You can choose to do an organised day tour to visit Perito Merino Glacier incl boat safari, or you can visit independently, take the bus and buy your entrance ticket separately.

For the latter, head to the main bus terminal in El Calafate to journey to Perito Moreno Glacier.

Our comprehensive guide to visiting Perito Moreno Glacier includes everything you need to know.

The bus tickets from El Calafate cost 800 ARS (USD 25) return. The journey time is approx 90 minutes.

Get ready for it because the Perito Moreno glacier stretches 30 km in length and over 5km wide. It is an incredible sight. 

The best places to visit in South America El Calafate Argentina
The best places to visit in South America – El Calafate, Argentina

The entrance fee to the park is approximately USD 17.50. Cash or cards are accepted.

Once you’ve paid the entrance fee, you can hike or walk easily around the park. It is one of the most popular parks in Argentina and well signposted. I recommend taking snacks or lunch with you.

Make sure you know the bus times to time your stay to catch the bus back to El Calafate after visiting the glacier.

If you’re taking a tour, I’d recommend this Full-Day Tour to Perito Merino Glacier. You can also trek on the glacier once you’re there, check out this option here.

TIP: We recommend accommodation at America Del Sur Hostel in Calafate. But remember that between Dec-Apr is high season, and it gets very busy here, so make sure to book ahead.

Travel Tips for South America

You may be interested in reading our post about Backpack vs Suitcase – Which one should you choose? And once you’ve decided on that, read our Ultimate Packing List for Travellers to help you pack for your big adventure to South America.

Read more about these 5 popular South American foods so you know what to expect or check out these 11 amazing dishes to try in Colombia.

Our 7 Tips for how to find the best food when travelling may be useful for you while travelling in this region.

Want to keep the budget down to travel further in South America? Here are the 5 Cheapest Countries to Visit in South America.

As you may be travelling to multiple countries in South America, I’d recommend you buy an eSIM to stay connected. Airalo has some awesome Data Plans for travel in South America, CLICK HERE to check them out.

We’ve got many useful posts to help you travel without hassle. Perhaps our 12 essential tips for safe travel, or how we save money to travel the world will be useful to help you prepare for a big trip.

Our expert tips from 20+ years of travel are a good source of practical information too.

For our best travel advice, products we love and tools to help us continue to live this lifestyle of travel, head to our Travel Resources Page.