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14 of the Best Places to Visit in South America (South America Travel Guide)

This is an aerial view of Rio de Janeiro.

It seems as though the most spectacular places on our planet are all cramped into this one continent. Here’s the thing; you can randomly visit every country or region on the continent and be pleased with your trip or disappointed that you didn’t experience what you expected.

So, to make things a bit easy, we present you with some of the best places to start your journey when visiting South America.

Ecuador and the Galapagos

It’s easy to imagine the country that sits right in the middle of the world – the equator – as one massive nation. But Ecuador straddles our planet, and yet it is a small country!

However, this small Andean nation is packed with lots of biodiversities, and it ranks among the 17 mega-diverse countries of the world. Also, the world’s first and second UNESCO World Heritage Sites are found in this unassuming country.

With its growing popularity, many visitors keep returning, and some have even their retirement home. The cost of living in Ecuador is practical. The quality of life is decent, the locals are friendly and warm, and there are lots of incredible visitor sites available, and it has almost-perfect all-year weather. Is it any surprise why many people wouldn’t want to settle down here?

Check out some of the locations that rank Ecuador among the best places to visit in South America.

San Francisco de Quito

The city of Quito is the capital of Ecuador, with a population of about two million people. Quito happens to be the first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also bagged the World Travel Awards as the “Best Leading Destination in South America” in 2013 and 2014.

A look at the facade of Plaza de San Francisco in Old Town Quito, Equador.

The capital city is well-known for having lots of grand cathedrals and churches – something that is not unconnected to the fact that the city was a former religious center of the Americas during the pre-Hispanic era. There are also a handful of renowned museums in Quito.

A visit to Quito puts you on one of the highest capital cities on the planet! But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The city is one of the rare places in the world where you can experience being in the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere simultaneously! Expect hot days and cold nights due to the Quito’s proximity to the equator.

The cosmopolitan vibes, coupled with its laidback atmosphere, makes the city an attraction all by itself. It is nestled among towering mountains from where beautiful volcanoes can be seen on the horizon.

Don’t miss the Train from Quito to Guayaquil and back if you want to see all the spectacular sights of active and dormant volcanoes, stunning scenery, panoramic landscapes, and quaint towns, as you traverse the near-vertical, hair-raising, famous Devil’s Nose.

The Galapagos Island

Marine iguanas at the beach of Galapagos Island.

The inviting Galapagos Islands can only be accessed through Ecuador. Like San Francisco de Quito, this is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that means the natural heritage here is well-preserved.

The nearly untouched wildlife attracts most visitors here in the area, which has now become a sort of living laboratory of evolution. Animals in the Galapagos National Park roam freely and peacefully as if in a cageless zoo!

Besides the endemic and fearless wildlife, the volcanic landscapes of the Galapagos Islands are enormous, out-of-this-world, and simply awe-inspiring.

Guayaquil

Guayaquil, aka Perl of the Pacific, is Ecuador’s second-largest city and the country’s main port. That means it is also the economic hotspot of the nation.

A church on a hill in Guayaquil, Equador.

While not your typical honeymoon spot, a trip to Guayaquil is best enjoyed as a couple or at least with a group of friends. Its special appeal comes from its coastal vibes that can be felt in the local delicacies, people, and nightlife.

Here, you’ll find romantic boardwalks, beautiful beaches, and ancient Spanish estates that make Guayaquil in Ecuador one of the best places to visit in South America.

Peru

Peru, a western South American country, is one of the cradles of Inca civilization. Here, you will find numerous historic sites, including ancient ruins and landmarks, that is almost impossible to believe unless seen physically.

Iconic scenery and historic landmarks aside, the people here are warm and welcoming, especially to visitors who wish to learn about their rich heritage and the extraordinary features of their country. Some of the spectacular visitor sites in Peru include the following.

Machu Picchu

An overlooking view of Machu Picchu with a llama.

Machu Picchu is definitely the major attraction for most visitors to Peru. It is almost unthinkable to visit Peru without a trip to the Lost City of Machu Picchu. The astonishing views and timeless beauty of this archeological wonder never cease to amaze visitors from all over the world.

In fact, even those who have visited the site a couple of times can’t shake off the jaw-dropping effect of the extraordinary vistas.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of the Inca Empire is the Machu Picchu, and it still stands tall to this day, attracting and wowing tourists from all around the globe with its near-perfect terraces, skillfully cut ramps, and gigantic walls.

Machu Picchu should definitely be high up on your bucket list if you are considering the best places to visit in South America.

Lima

An aerial view of the town of Miraflores by the sea in Lima, Peru.

Lima, also known as The City of Kings, is the capital of Peru. A trip to Lima brings you face to face with stunning panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and the entire capital city. There are a good number of museums and archeological sites to visit in Lima. But most of all, the city attracts chefs from all over the world because of its famed and unique cookery. Don’t miss some of the special cuisines while you are there.

Cuzco

This is Rainbow Mountain in Cuzco.

Okay, now this is starting to sound a bit cliché (and not that it’s a bad thing, though), but it seems as if every great city in Peru has a nickname, and Cuzco is not left out. Known as the Imperial City, Cuzco was once the capital of the Inca Empire.

As you’ll expect, the entire city is nothing less than a “museum” of an ancient civilization of some sort. It is packed with incredible remnants of architecture from the lost Inca civilization, many of which are still intact.

The Inca stonemasonry is not something you want to admire from afar. You need walking tours to get up close and personal with these fascinating works that were expertly pieced together.

The Sacred Valley 

This is the terraces of Pisac in the Sacred Valley.

The Incas once revered The Sacred Valley because the land was very fertile. It is not surprising, therefore, to find lots of archeological sites scattered all over the valley. Some of these sites have grown into small towns, including Ollantaytambo, Urubamba, Yucay, Chinchero, and Pisac.

Besides exploring pre-Hispanic archeological ruins in these towns, the markets in these places are worth checking out. You never know what colorful keepsake you can find here.

Colombia

The list of best places to visit in South America is incomplete without the mention of Colombia. There is a plethora of visitor sites here that are a must-see. The country has become widely known for its diverse culture, including festivals, foods, and its world-renowned coffee.

All these combined with a consistently stable government make Colombia an inviting and attractive country to many visitors worldwide.

Each region in Colombia has a different rhythm, which means you can choose a place that resonates most with you or the theme of your vacation and enjoy it as much as you want. Picking a region to visit in Colombia is like making a selection from a catalog that includes tourism, plenty of cultural activities, adventure, and excellent cookery. Each choice is sure to leave you with an unforgettable experience!

Here’s a small list of some places to visit in Colombia.

Bogota

Bogota – the largest city and capital of Colombia – is where the past meets the present! It is a confluence of rich history, culture, delicious cuisines, and businesses. Columbia’s national airport is situated in Bogota, making it easy and highly accessible.

Besides being a multicultural center, it is fast becoming a popular tourist destination with its abundant museums, excellent dining and bar culture, thriving nightlife, and an abundance of major shopping areas.

This is a view of Bolivar Simon Square and Cathedral in Bogota, Columbia.

You can learn about the history of the country by visiting the Primatial Cathedral and Plaza de Bolivar. Other tourist destinations include Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, the National Museum of Colombia, the Gold Museum, El Chico, Usaquen, and Monserrate.

You won’t want to miss the flea market in Usaquen on Sundays and public holidays. You will find lots of antiques, artisanal works, and other a vast array of other items that you can use as souvenirs.

San Andrés Island

There is definitely some exciting fun to be had in a place with almost forty scuba diving sites, a blue sea (that is green, too!), one of the top-rated beaches in the Caribbean, and people full of warmth and friendliness. No doubt, San Andrés Island has to be among the best places to visit in South America!

The tropical beach of San Andrés Island.

Tourists and visitors from all over the globe flock this “paradise” looking for white beaches with towering palm trees, the perfect sunset, plus a blend of rhythms, including calypso, soca, reggae, salsa, and vallenato. San Andrés is simply an excellent destination for a tropical vacation.

A visit to the neatly tucked away Sun Bay will isolate you from all the hustle and bustle of the island shopping district. If you’re vacationing with your family, you will find the serene environment and crystal-clear waters of Cocoplum beach the ideal spot for your kids.

The Coffee Triangle

This is an aerial view of one of the coffee plantations inside the coffee triangle.

Colombia’s main coffee-growing area is the Coffee Triangle (called “Zona Cafetera” in Spanish). It called so because the region (made up of three states) is shaped like an inverted triangle. The states are Risaralda, Quindio, and Caldas.

The triangle is adorned with magnificent natural beauty that shows in its exotic wildlife, lush green valleys, and an enjoyable climate. The coffee here is exceptionally fresh and tasty – like none you will ever taste! If you ever visit Colombia, Zona Cafetera is the choicest spot for relaxation and unwinding while sipping your fresh cup of coffee.

Chile

Why is Chile among the best places to visit in South America? Variety! The country is as vast as the gamut of interests and tastes that can be found here. The wide range of variety makes it a bit challenging to know where to start.

All sorts of visitors, including explorers, climbers, hikers, nature lovers, wine and food connoisseurs, and artists, will find something of interest to do in Chile. Some notable places to visit in Chile include the following.

The Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

A look inside the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.

Patagonia in the southern region of Chile is home to Torres del Paine National Park. A trip through the wilds of this park is no small feat at all. There’s a lot of driving, horseback riding, and hiking to be done in unpredictable conditions if you must have an authentic experience in the park.

However, the sunset on the lagoon, the beautiful and rugged landscape, the sweeping views that will definitely get your heart pounding as hard as ever, and the hikes to the edge of the glaciers all make it a rewarding experience.

There is no shortage of picture-perfect landscapes and sceneries in this park. The towering slabs of rocks are also prominent features that draw so many visitors here. In addition to all of these, there’s also considerable wildlife in the park.

The Atacama Desert

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like on the driest desert on our planet, a trip to the Atacama Desert will give you a first-hand experience! Part of this desert can go several years at a time without rain. But don’t get the wrong idea; it’s not just plain boring dry land here. There are huge pieces of colorful terrain that are simply astounding.

An aerial view of the Atacama Desert.

During the day, the blazing sun seems to continuously shine through the cloudless sky, but when night comes and the temperate drops, you will be amazed and dazzled by the sight of the starry skies that greet your eyes.

Bolivia

With lots of spectacular scenery, authentic culture, and a wide range of adventure activities, it is easy to see how Bolivia holds an enviable spot on the list of best places to visit in South America.

There are so many things to do in the country that is home to the world’s highest capital city, La Paz. Some of the places to spend time include the following.

Lake Titicaca

A look at Lake Titicaca and its locals wearing colorful garments.

Ever want to find out what it feels like to traverse the length of the world’s highest navigable lake? There’s no better place to have that experience than aboard a boat exploring all the tiny islands scattered all over Lake Titicaca.

The serenity is almost palpable as the deep blue color of the lake gently puts you into a relaxed state. Visitors to Lake Titicaca can enjoy the spectacular view of the Andean mountains that line the distant horizon as they spend time exploring the lake.

Salar de Uyuni

A group of people on the Uyuni Salt Desert.

Get your camera and head southwest to the largest salt flat on planet earth! For a really impressive photograph, wait until there’s a little rainfall (usually between February and March) before you visit Salar de Uyuni. You will be wowed by how the rains turn the salt flat into the largest mirror ever known to man!

If you’re lucky, you will also spot different species of birds, including flamingos that come out to feed on the lake.

An aerial view of Machu Picchu with tourists.

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