Best Places to Visit in South America
September 1, 2018
by Kelsea Pinkston
Now that I am home in the U.S. after spending a year in South America, the most common question I get is, “What was your favorite place?” This is a very difficult question because South America has it all. It ranges from tropical beaches to snowy mountains, from ancient ruins to stark modernity, and from tranquility to raucous chaos. Whatever interests you, you can find it in this enormous continent. In the news, South America gets a bad rep with some people feeling intimidated by an image of drugs, crime, and poverty. As a female solo traveler throughout the continent, I can tell you that this image could not be further from the truth. I was greeted by friendly people, some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and returned to the U.S. without ever being robbed or hurt. Of course, as a traveler, you need to have a developed sense of street smarts, but overall, I felt safe mostly everywhere. So, this is my answer to this common question. Here are the best places to visit in South America:
Cusco will always have a special place in my heart. I spent 6 of my 11 months traveling and living in this little city surrounded by the sacred valley and the Andes mountain range. Cusco has an interesting mix of Quechua (Incan) tradition and modernity as it welcomes more and more tourists every year. There’s a reason that tourism is so prevalent here. It has amazing food, a fascinating history, and is the gateway to the Modern Wonder of the World: Machu Picchu. In addition to Machu Picchu, don’t forget to climb Rainbow Mountain, explore the picturesque villages in the Sacred Valley, and check out the other amazing ruins of Choquequirao. Do not miss this incredible city on your South American trip.
You know the story of the person walking alone through the dry desert, almost to the point of exhaustion, when all of a sudden, an oasis pops up in the middle of nowhere? You might picture countries like Egypt, but this perfectly describes Huacachina in Peru! There aren’t any camels, but take a dune buggy tour driving up and down the enormous sandhills. Don’t forget to bring your sense of adventure as you ride a sandboard to the bottom. Cool off in town by the lagoon or at a hostel pool.
More than famous drug lord Pablo Escobar’s hometown and the setting for the hit show “Narcos,” Medellín is my favorite South American city I have visited. Medellín has become a digital nomad and retiree home base for many Americans and I can see why. Perfect weather year-round (not too hot and not too cold), great restaurants and museums, awesome public transit, and fascinating landscapes allow people to live a comfortable life. Medellín’s history is famous, but the reality is that this city has transformed into a safe, colorful, friendly place. Don’t miss a Comuna 13 Street Art tour. Most of them are tip-based and you get to explore an area of the city that was once a war zone. Now it is a charming place to hang out and look at art. Take some time to get out of the city and visit the town of Guatapé. Climb up El Peñol rock for some of the best views in Colombia.
Parque Tayrona, Colombia
If you dream of soaking up the sun on a tropical beach, head to Parque Tayrona near Santa Marta, Colombia. The entrance is not cheap at $60,000 Colombian Pesos ($20 USD), but it’s worth it. Take it slow as you swing in your hammock, stroll through the jungle, and relax on the warm beach. During my 2 days here, I saw plenty of monkeys, worked on my suntan, and swam in the warm sea. While there are crowded areas, it is easy to hike further in and escape the crowds. If you’re looking to relax, this is the place to do it.
Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Carnaval in Rio (and in Brazil) is a party like no other! If you love music, dancing, and partying in an urban environment that also happens to be next to incredible beaches, then don’t miss this experience. This might not be fun for everyone, but for me, it was one of the best experiences of my life. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by happy, dancing people at any time of day (or night). This 24/7 party lasts for about a week and while it is challenging and expensive to find accommodation, this is a festa like no other. While you’re here don’t forget to see a Wonder of the World: Christ the Redeemer, enjoy açai bowls everywhere and ride a cable car up Pão de Açúcar for breathtaking views of the city.
If I could describe this incredible landscape straddling the border of Brazil and Argentina in one word, I would use “magic.” In a tropical forest, you find yourself on a charming train surrounded by colorful butterflies until you reach the gigantic complex of raging waterfalls. That’s right it’s not just one or two pretty streams. There are waterfalls as far as the eye can see and they are huge. I personally prefer the Argentinian side, but seeing both sides is necessary. My jaw was on the floor the entire time I was here. I was dazed by the landscape, the flora, and the fauna. Everyone should stop here while traveling around South America.
At the southern end of South America in both Chile and Argentina, you will find some of the most beautiful places in the world. The region of Patagonia is hiking, backpacking, and photography heaven. Opposing most people’s stereotypical tropical visions of South America, Patagonia requires multiple layers, warm hats and socks, and snow coats. This area is expensive when it comes to public transportation. So, don’t be afraid to hacer el dedo (stick out a thumb) and ride along with locals. You really can’t go wrong. The entire region is filled with beauty and tranquility.