Looking for the must-see places in South America? You’ve come to the right place.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“Amber, you’re more of a ‘stumble-across places clumsily’ kind of girl”.
Yes, I am. But I also give the people what they want!
So, here’s the thing: If I were to go to the continent now that I’m more the wiser, I would definitely leave a few attractions off my list.
Here are ten places that still hit the mark for my South America bucket list:
The Ultimate South America Bucket List
1. Machu Picchu
I’m not one for clichés, but Machu Picchu is one of the most breathtaking things I have ever seen in my life. I was also surprised to learn that although this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the citadel was discovered just one century ago!
Where to find it: Peru, set high in the Andes Mountains.
Amber’s Tip: Save money by opting to do the three-hour hike from Hydroelectrico to Aguas Calientes (The Machu Picchu “Town”). Also, avoid looking at too many pictures before you go! The fewer photographs you see, the more gobsmacked you’ll be when it’s in front of you.
2. Iguazú Falls
Wowzers. Niagara falls ain’t got nothing on this.
Iguazú Falls (or Iguaçu Falls) is the largest waterfall system in the world. I often wonder why travellers haven’t caught up on this.
Where to find them: You’ll find the Iguazu River on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná.
Amber’s tip: The consensus is that it’s better to see the ‘falls on the Argentine side. Although the Brazilian side offers panoramic views, there are more viewpoints and trails on the Argentine side.
3. Salar de Uyuni
The Bolivian Salt Flats are one of the strangest, most unique places on earth. From pink lakes to bubbling geysers, smoking volcanoes and multi-colour lakes, a trip to the Salar is guaranteed to blow your mind. Interestingly, the setting – which is known for its “Martian” look – is also used to test Mars rovers in simulations.
Where to find them: Just outside the little town of Uyuni, about 10-12 hours’ drive from La Paz.
Amber’s tip: Take a three-day jeep tour and ask your driver to drop you off at the Chilean border.
For more on the Salar and how to do it the RIGHT way, click here.
4. Huacachina Oasis
As South America’s only natural desert oasis, Huacachina is a fascinating town.
You’ll be captivated by the green waters of the Huacachina Lagoon, which, might I add, are thought to have therapeutic properties. If this doesn’t sound cool enough already, the lagoon’s shores are dotted with palm trees, bars and clubs. A wonderfully bizarre place.
Adventurers will also be pleased to hear that they can tear up and down the dunes on a Dune Buggy or Sandboarding tour.
Regardless of what you do when you’re there, I really do think that this is one of the most magical places in South America. But, like me, you might be wondering how it came to be in the first place.
Peruvian legend says the oasis formed when a beautiful princess was caught bathing in the waters by a local hunter. Humiliated, she dove into the water and wept. Her tears formed the oasis, but her humiliation has continued to curse the land, turning everything to sand. They say she still lives in the bottom of the oasis…
Where to find it: Four hours south of Lima, Peru.
5. Rio Carnaval
Rio really knows how to throw the best parties! The city itself should be on anyone’s bucket list, but Rio “Carnaval” deserves its own spot. Two million people fill the streets for days of parades, parties and open-air performances. It really is the biggest carnival in the world!
6. Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar)
Looking for the most breath-taking viewpoint in Brazil? Look no further than Sugarloaf Mountain. I’ll certainly be making another stop here one day. Make your way up to the summit with the two-stage cable car system – you’ll immediately understand why Rio was nicknamed the “Marvellous City”.
Amber’s tip: If you’re wondering how this compares to the view from Christ the Redeemer, it’s better! And much less crowded. The best time to go is in the evening to see the city light up.
7. Baños, Ecuador
Baños has a lot to offer visitors including lush cloud forests, wildlife, and activities such as zip lining, rafting and beautiful hikes. There also happens to be two must-see attractions here: “The Devil’s Cauldron” and “The Swing at the End of the World”.
The Swing at the End of the World
Venture up into the lush mountains in Baños, Ecuador, to find Casa del Arbol. The swing offers incredible views of Mt. Tungurahua, the nearby active volcano. But don’t worry, it’s only one of the most active volcanoes in South America!
Apparently, the volcano erupts once every couple of hundred years, killing the town’s population. Then, more people move in and the cycle begins again. Logical.
The Devil’s Cauldron
“El Pailón del Diablo” is a thunderous waterfall located along the Rio Pastaza, a tributary of the upper Amazon River Basin. It’s also a favourite of photographers. You don’t want to miss this natural wonder!
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8. Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine is one of the best treks in the world. Located in Chile’s Patagonia region, the park takes its name from its granite towers and horn-shaped peaks called Cuernos del Paine. During summer, there are 17 hours of daylight to explore the bright blue icebergs and the grasslands sheltering rare wildlife. It’s a spectacular place.
Amber’s tip: Be there for sunrise to see the horns glow purple and red.
9. The Amazon Jungle
Also known as the “lungs of the earth”, the Amazon Jungle is the biggest in the world. Although the majority of the forest is contained in Brazil (60%), it also extends into Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Go swimming with Pink River dolphins, go kayaking or paddle boarding, or explore the wildlife on a jungle walk.
10. The Quilotoa Loop
Quilotoa is an extinct volcano that blew up over 800 years ago, leaving behind the most beautiful crater lake in South America. The surrounding mountains have since become the most popular trek in Ecuador – for a good reason.
Spend two to four days walking the ring-shaped road from the Panamericana to the backcountry of Cotopaxi province. Along the way, you’ll encounter snow-capped volcanoes, a crystal-blue lake (that the local people believe has no bottom), and colourful indigenous markets. But perhaps the best thing about the loop’s isolation is that it brings you into contact with the Kichwa-speaking indigenous people and their centuries-old way of life. For many, the Quilotoa Loop is a highlight of their trip.
Amber’s tip: You don’t need a tour guide, but it is a nice way to support the local economy. I would also advise taking a stick to fight off the dogs. Click here for more on that.
The Ultimate South America Bucket List
You might be a little surprised right now. Why did I leave so many hotspots off the list? What about Isla del Sol? The Galapagos Islands?
If you want to know why, drop me a comment below.
What’s your favourite spot in South America?