With a landmass of 17.84 million km², there’s no denying that South America is a big place; in all honesty, the continent is massive! With so much to explore and so much land to cover, itinerary planning can very quickly start to feel more than a little overwhelming.
After six months spent covering a great deal of South America, we’ve narrowed down our top 12 highlights to help you plan your own visit.
Just so you know: Though we tried to put this list in order from our very favourite, it proved next to impossible to compare one to the next. With that in mind, our list is very loosely organised from absolute must-see down. Remember though, everyone will have different preferences (including us on the day you ask) and we really recommend all of the stops on this post as very best activities in South America!
1. Galapagos Islands: Ecuador
Our absolute South American highlight, the Galapagos Islands aren’t to be missed!
A visit to this incredible archipelago will take a sizeable dent out of your travel budget but it will be worth every single cent. Our visit to the Galapagos was genuinely the best travel experience we’ve ever had – how can you put a dollar value on that?
We made the decision to sail in luxury with Ecoventura on the MV Origin and really believe this small-vessel expedition cruise to be the best way to see this unique ecosystem. Ecoventura will get you away from the busier tourist spots and out to where the real magic begins (check out Itinerary B – we loved it), plus they’ll do it in style every step of the way!
For those of you travelling on a bit of a budget, we did make the time to join a standalone day trip and can hand-on-heart say it’s worth saving to join a cruise. Flights to the island group aren’t cheap, then you’ve got taxes and fees to pay before you even consider the day trips which will set you back a fair chunk. The cruises do cost more but they include incredible food, activities, naturalist guides and will ensure your visit is really one to remember.
Get yourself to the Galapagos!
2. Hiking: Huaraz, Peru
An overnight bus from Lima, Huaraz offers what we believe to be the best hiking in Peru and the most affordable, bang-for-your-buck hiking in all of South America.
Without doubt, Patagonia was amazing (don’t worry, you’ll find the region on our ‘best of’ list shortly) but we loved that the day hikes out of Huaraz were so incredibly beautiful and that they didn’t break the bank.
Staying in affordable accommodation in Huaraz, it was easy to catch a local colectivo to Laguna Churup and to join a tour to Laguna 69. Both were beyond beautiful and must-sees whilst in Peru. Too many people don’t go North from Lima but they’re seriously missing out – the two hikes we enjoyed here far surpassed any of the hiking we did elsewhere in South America (with the exception of Patagonia of course). Be sure to hit up Huaraz (just remember to allow a day or two to acclimatize before taking on the tracks.
3. Machu Picchu & the Inca Jungle Trek: Cusco, Peru
The undisputed icon of South America, this ancient Incan citadel draws tourists in from all over the world.
On a few occasions throughout our travels we heard people say that they’d be avoiding Machu Picchu due to its reputation as being ‘too touristy’. Were they right in doing so? In our opinion, absolutely not.
To stand in Machu Picchu was absolutely mindblowing and though it didn’t end up right on the top of our list, we’ll never regret having spent the time and money to visit the historic site.
There are a number of ways in which you can access Machu Picchu but no matter which way you do, a visit to the site will cost you a fair bit of money. Hikes include the Inca Trail, Salkantay and Lares Trek, whilst the Inca Jungle Trek will see you take in a variety of activities on the way (including rafting, mountain biking, hiking and ziplining). Alternatively, you’re able to catch a bus or train to Aguas Caliente and make your own way up to the citadel from there.
We were incredibly happy with our choice to take on the Inca Jungle Trek and would recommend it to anyone not looking to hike for days at a time, but still wanting to turn their Machu Picchu visit into a real experience.
Whatever you choose though, don’t skip past Machu Picchu!
4. Exploring Patagonia: Chile & Argentina
Wild, untamed and unmatched, Patagonia is a special place.
The only reason it’s #4 on our list? The expense of spending time in the region. Is it money well spent though? You bet!
Patagonia is an area spread between southern Chile and Argentina and though it envelops a large area, there are three key spots that we’d consider must-see.
Torres del Paine (accessed through Puerto Natales): Chile
The poster child of Patagonia, it was the Base of the Towers hike that first drew us to the region. Torres del Paine is of course much more than its most famous day hike though!
We suggest you book accommodation around the W Trek and an additional stay at EcoCamp so you can really soak up the beauty that is this national park. With a roaring fire and memorable eco-domes, EcoCamp will forever go down as one of the most unique, special spots in which we’ve ever had the pleasure of staying.
The Perito Moreno Glacier (accessed through El Calafate): Argentina
Due to the cost of crossing over into Argentinian Patagonian and the expense of seeing Perito Moreno, we very almost didn’t make the trip. We were so pleased we did though!
78 kilometres out of El Calafate, this icefield is home to the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. Whilst every other glacier in the world is retreating, Perito Moreno is actually advancing, making it particularly special.
Walkways weave around the glacier, allowing visitors to take it in from a range of heights and angles. Boat rides are also on offer but as they need to allow a certain amount of space to ride clear of the calving ice, you don’t get a heck of a lot closer (and it’s expensive). For those with especially deep pockets, you’re also able to hike on the ice – as much as we’d have loved to have done this, we just couldn’t see value considering the price (instead we’re going to do it down south in New Zealand where you can actually get into the ice).
We were more than happy spending the day observing the glacier from the platforms and were so pleased we made the choice to cross the border into Southern Argentina.
Laguna de los Tres Hike (accessed through El Chaltén): Argentina
At 26km (16miles), Laguna de los Tres is a fairly demanding day hike (especially once you get to the base of the Fitz Roy) but with an adventurous spirit and firm feet, it’s achievable for most able-bodied people.
If I made it up in snow like this, you can too!
The views at the top rivalled the hike we did to the Base of the Towers in Torres del Paine but this hike is a lot cheaper. Accommodation in El Chaltén is affordable and the hike itself is free so all in all, it makes for a really well-priced visit.
Fun Fact: Did you know the Fitz Roy inspired the Patagonia logo?
5. Salt Flats: Uyuni, Bolivia
The Bolivian Salt Flats are seriously good fun! We elected to spend three nights exploring the area and though the accommodation and food was incredibly basic, the landscape more than made up for it.
Over the course of your tour, you’ll visit multi-coloured lagoons, mountains and of course the salt flats. You’ll meet flamingos, enjoy star-laden skies and warm yourself up in geothermal hot pools.
For all of the spots they manage to squeeze in, we believe this to be one of the best value tours in all of Latin America!
6. Iguazu Falls: Puerto Iguazu, Argentina
Spanning Brazil and Argentina, the Iguazu Falls are the largest waterfall system anywhere in the world and unsurprisingly, they’re incredible!
Accessible from both sides, the Argentinian side is the real standout. Plan to go early and spend the whole day weaving your way around the walkways, spotting tropical animals and birds and riding the boat under the falls.
7. Death Road; La Paz, Bolivia
Our main reason for heading to La Paz didn’t disappoint! The Death Road was slightly easier than we’d expected it to be, making it within reach of most people.
After being loaded up and driving for a few hours, we warmed up on our bikes on a tarsealed road before taking to the original Death Road. These days an alternative route is used for general traffic, making what was the most dangerous road in the world a whole lot safer. You’ll still come across the odd big truck making its way up from the villages below but generally, the traffic is pretty tame – the opposite can be said for those cliff-faces though!
8. Into the Jungle
When we started planning our adventure through South America we knew we wanted to pay a visit to the jungle, we just weren’t quite sure where. In the end, we elected to visit the jungle in both Ecuador and Peru and loved both experiences for different reasons.
Mashpi Cloud Forest: Mashpi, Ecuador
If you’re looking for absolute luxury in the midst of the jungle, Masphi Lodge is the place. With delicious food, gorgeous rooms and dedicated guides, these guys know how to ensure you’ll have the visit of a lifetime.
With a number of fabulous rides (like the skybike pictured below – Nathan doesn’t love heights, can you tell?) and bird watching better than we found anywhere else the cloud forest offers lots of opportunities to spot the little creatures that make the Ecuadorian jungle so special.
The Amazon Jungle: Puerto Maldonado, Peru
The most famous jungle in the world, the Amazon is a hotbed of biodiversity.
Knowing we wanted to stay right where the action was we booked into Amazon Planet where we soon found ourselves hunting out tarantulas, snakes and monkeys whilst making friends in the middle of the jungle!
9. Canyoning and Rafting: Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador
So far, Nathan and I have agreed on most of this list. Baños was the one place that divided us though!
If you ask Nath, he recons rafting in the area is an absolute must-do activity. Me though? I really rated the canyoning. Either way though, these activities in Baños were affordable and amazing fun – no matter who you ask, we’ll both say they’re both worth doing!
10. Via Ferrata: Sacred Valley, Peru
By now you’ve probably seen the Skylodge Adventure Suites in Peru; the little cliff-side pods boast some of the best views around. Unfortunately though, they’re often heavily booked and come with a price tag to reflect their uniqueness!
There’s good news though – if like us, you left it too late to consider booking a pod, the team takes day trips out from Cusco, allowing visitors to climb the via ferrata up past the pods and then zipline your way back down.
We thought the day trip offered great value for money and with spectacular views of the Sacred Valley, we really enjoyed it
Not quite brave enough to take on the via ferrata? There is an option to hike up to the zipline. Most of our group chose to do this with only three of us climbing. The via ferrata was a real highlight though so if you can push yourself to climb, we really suggest you do.
11. Sandboarding: Huacachina, Peru
The only natural oasis in all of South America, Huacachina is undeniably touristy. It’s also undeniably fun!
For a bargain-basement price, you can jump into a dune buggy for a good blat around the sand dunes before sandboarding your way back down some mammoth slopes.
Word to the wise – wear pants that you don’t mind getting damaged; Nathan went so fast down the dunes that he wore holes in his shorts!
12. Paragliding: Medellín, Colombia
Though a lot of Colombia left us wanting (if we’re entirely honest, which we always are), we really enjoyed our visit to beautiful Medellín.
I find paragliding to be incredibly peaceful – with beautiful views and just a little dose of adrenaline, I really do believe it’s something everyone should have a crack at. By comparison, Nathan (who we already know isn’t the biggest fan of heights) found it to be a little more nerve-racking.
Though our experiences were quite different, we both consider it a worthwhile activity whilst in the city.
And there you have it, our top 12 South American experiences!
Our six months on the continent exposed us to so much fun, adventure, culture and of course, incredible nature. Having seen and done so many amazing things (we didn’t even mention our visit to the Swing at the End of the World, our visit to Valle de Cocora, swimming with bioluminescent plankton or that time we went paintballing at Pablo Escobar’s crumbling old mansion, did we?) it wasn’t an easy list to put together but we can say hand-on-heart that you can’t go wrong including any of these amazing spots on your travel itinerary.
Which of these activities look like they’d spin your wheels?
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