It’s no secret that South America is our favourite part of the world here at Career Gappers. How can you not love a continent that features such breathtaking natural phenomenon as the Amazon jungle, Bolivian salt flats and Patagonian granite towers? And such human-made icons as Machu Picchu, the Moai statues and Christ the Redeemer? If you’re dreaming of a trip to this land of colour and contrasts, this ultimate South America bucket list will help you visualise your journey.
In this article we’ve compiled some of the very best things to see and do in South America, listed in alphabetical order (as it would be an impossible task to rank them!). Putting this bucket list together reminded us how much we want to go back…
South America bucket list
1. Amazon River
The world’s largest river by volume flows through six countries and is the seedbed for so much of South America’s biodiversity. We explored the Amazon from the base of Iquitos in Peru, where we bathed in the river, saw pink dolphins splashing on the surface and fished for piranhas. We also learned that there’s no sunset like an Amazon river sunset! Other popular bases for exploring this beast of nature include Manaus in Brazil, Coca in Ecuador and Rurrenabaque in Bolivia.
2. Angel Falls, Venezuela
Another of South America’s superlatives of nature, Angel Falls stands nearly a kilometre tall and is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall. Set deep in the wilderness in Canaima National Park with no road network, the falls can only be visited by boat, air or foot. This guide to how to visit Angel Falls will help you find your way there.
3. Andean Explorer, Peru
One of the world’s great railway journeys, the Belmond Andean Explorer runs from the old Inca capital of Cusco to the White City of Arequipa. The luxurious train passes many of Peru’s great natural wonders along the way, beginning with the Andean highlands, taking in the Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca, before finally arriving at the foot of Misti Volcano. Tickets do not come cheap for the journey operated by PeruRail but it is truly the voyage of a lifetime.
4. Atacama Desert, Chile
This arid landscape in northern Chile is the driest place in the world outside Antarctica, and reputed as one of the greatest places on the planet for stargazing. If you time your trip right to avoid full moon, the desert night skies are breathtaking to behold. The remote town of San Pedro de Atacama is the ideal launchpad for exploring the desert’s many beauties such as Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte and nearby salt lagoons.
5. Carretera Austral road trip, Chile
Chilean Patagonia is the location for one of the great road trips, through rugged mountain terrain on the legendary Ruta 7 from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. The route stretches over a thousand kilometres, absorbing rainforests, volcanoes, fjords, lakes and glaciers through some of Chile’s most beautiful national parks. This one comes at the top of our personal bucket list, as we didn’t get the chance to do it while we were in the region. There will be a next time!
6. Cerro Rico mines, Bolivia
Known as the ‘mountain that eats men’, Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia has a grisly history. The network of mines that run deep into the mountain are estimated to have claimed 8 million lives over nearly 500 years. Its production heyday came during the Spanish colonial era when the mountain was mined for its silver, but the mines are still operational and today employ around 15,000 people. You can take a tour with ex-miners to see it first-hand.
7. Chapada Diamantina, Brazil
Covering a wild area of over 1,500 kilometres, Chapada Diamantina is one of Brazil’s most visually striking national parks, located in the Bahia state in the north-east. The park, which translates as the ‘diamond highlands’, is defined by its orange rocky cliffs that tower over a vast sprawl of vegetation, but there is more to it than meets the eye. An array of treasures lurk within; hiking trails lead to an extensive network of caves and underground pools of clear-blue water.
8. Christ the Redeemer, Brazil
On of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer might just be the world’s most famous statue. With arms spread wide it looks out across the city from high on Corcovado mountain. Variants of the statue can be found across South America, such as Cusco’s Cristo Blanco, but there’s nothing quite like the real thing. Mornings are perfect for the ride up to the statue, with the sun rising over the ocean to the east enshrouding the city in light.
9. Colca Canyon, Peru
The second-deepest canyon in the world, and twice as deep as the USA’s Grand Canyon, Peru’s Colca Canyon is adorned with mind-blowing vistas of steep, rocky faces and precarious winding pathways. As we discovered on our Colca Canyon trekking venture, descending to its sunken depths and climbing out again is no easy feat. But the test of endurance is worth it for the opportunity to witness such a glorious landscape.
10. Colonia sunset applause, Uruguay
On a short trip through Uruguay we encountered the most endearing of local customs. In the quaint riverside town of Colonia del Sacramento, people gather on the shore of an evening to applaud the sun going down. We hadn’t heard about this beforehand, so it caught us by surprise while we were sat on a river-beach with a bottle of wine watching the sunset. Playa El Alamo is the perfect spot for it, a short walk around to the north from the main port.See our guide to the best small group tours in South America
11. Cotopaxi stratovolcano, Ecuador
Looming in the distance behind Ecuador’s lofty capital Quito, Cotopaxi is one of the world’s highest volcanoes, and one of the country’s most active. Adventurous souls can climb up to the summit (with a guide) or take the more popular option of mountain-biking down it. While the risk of eruption is extremely low while you visit, other dangers lurk, including sulphur dioxide fumes, loose rocks, landslides, and altitude sickness – so take the greatest care.
12. Death Road, Bolivia
Adrenaline junkies may relish the challenge of mountain-biking down Bolivia’s notorious North Yungas Road, otherwise known as ‘Death Road’. In years past, the narrow mountain road – interspersed with frighteningly high cliff-drops – became reputed for its high mortality rate. This prompted a raft of security measures and the opening of a new paved bypass road, and today accidents are rare. Go with a reputed tour company, and triple check your brakes before setting off!
13. Devil’s Nose Train, Ecuador
In one of the most remarkable feats of construction in South America, engineers negotiated the almost impossibly steep faces of Devil’s Nose Mountain in Ecuador with a meandering railroad. The Devil’s Nose Train climbs and falls sharply, offering glorious views of the adjacent valleys and gorges. It runs only twice a day, so advance booking is essential.
14. Elqui Valley, Chile
The site of the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world, Chile’s Elqui Valley is another hotspot for stargazing. With over 300 days of sunshine per year, the shield of the nearby Andes and minimal light pollution, conditions couldn’t be better for clear night skies. The valley makes for a scenic quiet break, situated away from the standard tourist route in Chile. Our guide to Pisco Elqui, the valley’s main town, covers the essentials for visiting.
15. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The place where Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was spawned, the Galapagos Islands are a hotbed of biodiversity. The volcanic archipelago is located in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian mainland, comprising 19 islands enclosed within a marine reserve area. The islands are a jewel of nature and have played a vital role in our understanding of the world; they are not easy to reach, but for many they represent a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
16. Gorge of the Sea Shells, Argentina
The red-rock landscapes of north-west Argentina have been formed over many thousands of years, and nowhere can they be seen in greater glory than on a drive through the Quebrada de las Conchas, the ‘Gorge of the Sea Shells’. We passed through here during our road trip in the Salta region. The stretch of road on the Ruta 68 between Salta and Cafayate dissects the gorge, with various mirador points dotted throughout where you can stop, enjoy the view and take a photo.
17. Hill of Seven Colours, Argentina
To the north of Salta, as you enter the tural town of Purmamarca, the Hill of Seven Colours is perhaps the most eye-catching of all the rocky features in Argentina’s north-west. The impressive layers of colours on the hill’s rocky visage are the result of a series of natural processes; tectonic plate shifts, and the movement of water and marine sediment. You can reach it by taking a short detour off the Ruta 9 between Jujuy and Tilcara.
18. Huacachina desert oasis, Peru
Huacacahina has to be one of the most outlandish places we’ve stumbled across on our travels. A microcosm of adventure and party vibes, this oasis village amid the deserts of south-western Peru is built around a sleepy lagoon and surrounded by towering sand-dunes, which lend themselves perfectly to adrenaline-fuelled activities such as sand-boarding and dune-buggying. Check out our Huacachina travel guide to see what else you can get up to here.
19. Huayna Potosí, Bolivia
At slightly over 6,000 metres, Huayna Potosí is higher than any mountain in Europe, and is reputedly the easiest and most accessible peak at such heights for climbing. With the correct training, preparation and guidance, even novices can scale this beast, and in the process witness the awe of the Cordillera Real range near La Paz, Bolivia’s capital. If this is an exertion too far, then the nearby peak of Chacaltaya at just short of 5,500 metres can be reached by road.
20. Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
Straddling the border of Argentina and Brazil, the gargantuan Iguazu Falls are a true behemoth of nature. Spanning some 2.7 kilometres and comprising 275 separate cascades, it is the world’s largest waterfall system and a wonder to witness. We took two days to see the falls from both the Argentina and Brazil sides, each with its own special perspective and beauty. The Brazilian side offers the most impressive viewpoint, while the Argentina side is a more immersive experience.
21. Ilha Grande, Brazil
This island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil resembles a tropical paradise between the giant cities of Rio and São Paulo. Its highlight is arguably Praia de Lopes Mendes, one of Brazil’s most stunning beaches, recognised in our picks of the 20 best beaches in South America. The least strenuous way to reach the beach is by boat from Vila do Abraão, but we chose to take the alternative jungle hike, a tough eight kilometres in the oppressive heat but worth it for the hidden beaches, bonus views and rainforest scenery.
22. Inca Trail, Peru
The lost city of Machu Picchu tops any worthy South America bucket list, and the purest way to see it is by hiking the fabled Inca Trail. The sight of the 500-year-old ruins strewn across a jungle mountaintop is a worthy reward for trekking 42 kilometres at eye-watering altitude. We hiked the Inca Trail with G Adventures at the beginning of our South America journey, and can vouch that it is the experience of a lifetime.
23. Itaipu hydropower plant, Paraguay/Argentina
The border of Paraguay and Brazil features the world’s second-largest power plant, which not only represents a stunning engineering accomplishment but also the coming together of two warring nations. The Itaipu hydropower project is jointly owned by the two countries, and provides a staggering 76% of Paraguay’s energy consumption and 17% of Brazil’s. We visited in Paraguay, where you can take a free tour, see the remarkable site and learn the story behind its construction.
24. Kaieteur Falls, Guyana
Another marvel of the Amazonian rainforest is Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls, the world’s widest single-drop waterfall. Due to its extreme remoteness it can only be reached by a 90-minute flight from Georgetown, with daily tours departing sporadically. Check out Claudia Tavani’s guide to visiting Kaieteur Falls for everything you need to know.
25. Kuélap ruins, Peru
The ruins of Kuélap in Peru’s Chachapoya region have emerged as an alternative to Machu Picchu for ruin-seekers. Featured in our Peru trekking guide, the remains of the fortified mountaintop city can be reached via various trails, or by a new direct cable car. The popular return trail from the village of Tingo is a challenging day hike with an elevation gain of about 1,200 metres.
26. La Boca district of Buenos Aires, Argentina
The colourful neighbourhood of La Boca is emblematic of Buenos Aires’ artistic spirit and rich history of immigration. El Caminito, its main road, has morphed into an open-air museum and is always busy with markets, street performers and artists. Each building has its own vibrant colour, and around the corner is the world famous La Bombonera football stadium, home of Boca Juniors and the once-stomping-ground of Diego Maradona.
27. Lake Titicaca, Peru/Bolivia
The headline pick of the most beautiful lakes in South America, Lake Titicaca extends across Peru and Bolivia and is the world’s highest navigable lake, flanked by Andean mountains. The two most convenient points for exploring the lake are the towns of Puno in Peru and Copacabana in Bolivia (we preferred the latter). More than just a giant lake, Titicaca is also an important landmark in the history of the incas, with its various islands littered with ruins.
28. Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia
A cathedral built into a canyon isn’t something you see every day. Las Lajas Sanctuary, a basilica church located close to Colombia’s border with Ecuador, is one of the world’s most fascinating religious structures, standing 100 metres tall and conjoined with a bridge straddling the Guáitara river below. The nearby town of Ipiales is a convenient base for visiting the church.
29. Mendoza Wine Route, Argentina
Nearly two thirds of the wine in Argentina is produced in a single region: Mendoza. It’s the place where we really began to fall in love with wine, and now there’s something special about opening a bottle of Mendoza Malbec at home. Mendoza’s wineries are not only great to explore for the joy of the product, but the region’s setting underneath the shadow of the Andes makes it beautiful to see, especially when the vineyards are in full bloom from February to May.
30. Moai statues of Easter Island, Chile
One of the most remote places you can visit on the planet, Easter Island is nearly 2,000 kilometres from the nearest land mass. It’s over 3,500 kilometres from the coast of Chile, the nation to which the island belongs, and flights from Santiago operate only a few times a week. Many still make the journey to see the Moai statues, also known as the ‘Easter Island heads’ – human figures carved in stone by the Rapa Nui people, dating back between 500 and 750 years.
31. Morro de São Paulo, Brazil
Extenuating circumstances meant we had to cut our trip to Brazil short, and Morro de São Paulo – recommended to me by a very-well-travelled friend – is one of the places we sadly missed out on. Reputed as one of Brazil’s stunning coastal spots (and it’s not short of competition), Morro de São Paulo comprises 26 islands in the state of Bahia. Expect beaches drenched with turquoise waters and a wealth of activities, from hiking and ziplining to dolphin and whale spotting.
32. Mount Fitz Roy, Argentina
The mountain town of El Chaltén is the base for some of the very best hiking in Argentine Patagonia, on the doorstep of Los Glaciares National Park. The granite tower of Mount Fitz Roy is the area’s crown jewel, rising high above Laguna de los Tres – one of Patagonia’s iconic images. Our El Chaltén trekking guide explains how you can tackle the easy trail to the foot of the mountain, and the best way to see the famous sunrise view.
33. Nazca Lines, Peru
The mysterious Nazca Lines of Peru have baffled scientists and historians alike for decades since their discovery, and attract countless curious travellers every year. This series of giant carvings depicting animals, humans and other symbols can be seen in striking detail by taking a flight over the Nazca Desert. Our guide to flying over the Nazca Lines explains everything you need to know about visiting.
34. Ouro Preto, Brazil
Once the state capital of Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto is a gorgeous colonial city carved into the Serra do Espinhaço mountains of Brazil. It was Brazil’s first city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognising its remarkably preserved Baroque architecture. The gold-embellished 18th Century Church of Saint Francis of Assisi standing high over the city is the most outstanding example; check out this 360 view from outside the church.
35. Pelourinho district of Salvador, Brazil
Salvador is the embodiment of Brazil’s energetic spirit. The city is one of the liveliest places to experience February’s Carnaval celebrations, and indeed street festivals and outdoor music are a frequent occurrence throughout the year. The Pelourinho district is at the heart of this scene, characterised by its colourful colonial architecture and unabated street music and dancing. The Tuesday night street party is particularly exuberant, as we discovered when we arrived!
36. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
This mammoth glacier, a terminus of the vast South Patagonian Ice Field, is one of South America’s great natural icons. But while Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most photographed landmarks on the continent, pictures never do justice to its sheer magnitude (5 kilometres wide and 70 metres high at its face). The proportions only really hit home when you stand right underneath it. Nearby town El Calafate is the natural base for visiting.
37. Praia Lagoinha do Leste, Brazil
The city-island of Florianópolis – affectionately known as Floripa – is renowned for its downtown party scene, but it is also home to some of Brazil’s most gorgeous beaches. And not all of them are tourist traps. Praia Lagoinha do Leste, a crescent of golden sand encased by jungle, is cut off from the island’s roads and can only be reached by foot or boat. The hike there can be done in 90 minutes, and has the added benefit of a stunning aerial view of the beach as you arrive.
38. Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Peru’s Vinicunca Mountain was just another Andean peak until 2015, when the melting of glacial ice at its summit uncovered streaks of bright colours, the result of layered sediment and minerals. And thus Rainbow Mountain was born. Standing over 5,000 metres altitude, it takes a long day’s journey from Cusco and a tough hike to reach it, but the payoff at the end is spectacular – especially if you are blessed with clear weather conditions.
39. Route of the Seven Lakes, Argentina
Argentina’s Lake District is the setting for another classic South American road trip, which connects the remote cities of San Carlos de Bariloche and San Martin de Los Andes. The journey follows a particularly scenic section of Argentina’s iconic Ruta 40 – a 5,000-kilometre highway that runs from north to south hugging the Andes – meandering past the lakes of Nahuel Huapi, Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner and Machónico.
40. Rock of Guatape, Colombia
A two-hour drive from Colombia’s sprawling metropolis of Medellin, El Peñón de Guatapé (the Rock of Guatapé) is an eccentricity of nature. The magnificent bulk of rock stands forlornly high among blue-green surroundings, sprouting 200 metres above the ground below. A zig-zag of staircases is sculpted into the side of the rock, enabling a dizzying climb of some 700 steps to reach the top for a relentless view of rolling plains and emerald lakes. Here’s how you can take an easy day trip from Medellin to Guatapé.
41. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The world’s largest salt flat covers over an area the size of Jamaica in south-west Bolivia. But there is more to Salar de Uyuni than its size. This otherworldly landscape features the most pristine white-salt desert you will ever see, providing perfect conditions for the famous perspective photos that emanate from it. More natural wonders lie nearby, including the volcanoes of Ollagüe and Licancabur, and the impossibly red Laguna Colorada.
42. Sugarloaf Mountain, Brazil
Christ the Redeemer may be Rio de Janeiro’s most famous landmark, but we thought the view from Sugarloaf Mountain was even better on our two days in Rio. In fact, scroll up to number 8 in this list – guess where that photo was taken from? Sunsets from the top of Sugarloaf are an exceptional experience, looking westward over the city and mountains beyond. Time your ride up to the top for about an hour before the sun goes down for perfection.
43. Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Perched on the Caribbean coast in northernmost Colombia, Tayrona National Park is a labyrinth of dense rainforest, hidden hiking trails and sublime palm-tree beaches. From the turquoises waters the land rises sharply to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, creating a scene of dramatic natural contrasts. The ocean here is rich in coral and biodiversity and thus it is a haven for scuba divers.
44. Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina
A ‘land of fire’ at the end of the world, Tierra Del Fuego National Park occupies the southernmost reaches of South America in Argentine Patagonia. There is a bleakness to the scenery of Tierra Del Fuego that distinguishes it from other Patagonian parks; dark waters, unforgiving mountains and bare, misshapen trees cast a desolate beauty on the place. We felt completely disconnected here like nowhere else.
45. Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
Quite simply my favourite place on Earth. Long hikes can often involve pushing through barren views to reach a single impressive endpoint; but in Torres Del Paine National Park the beauty is relentless. Between the granite towers of Las Torres and the might of Grey Glacier, every step is met by picture-perfect lakes and dazzling mountains. See our newcomer’s guide to hiking the Torres Del Paine W Trek for all you need to prepare.
46. Tren a las Nubes, Argentina
The ‘train to the clouds’ is another classic rail journey that traverses the landscapes of north-west Argentina. The journey on Tren a las Nubes covers 430 kilometres and a series of bridges, tunnels and viaducts, climbing over 4,200 metres altitude at the canyon of La Polvorilla at its highest point. Careful trip timing and advance planning are essential, as the ride takes 12–16 hours and the train departs only once per week.
47. Tren del Fin del Mundo, Argentina
The last of four train journeys in this list, the ‘train to the end of the world’ runs on the world’s southernmost railway by the city of Ushuaia. The Southern Fuegian Railway was originally used to transport construction materials from Ushuaia prison to nearby Mount Susana. The 500mm steam engine has today been revived as a tourist experience, featuring a narration of its historical significance.
48. Valle de la Luna, Bolivia
This is one of two Valle de la Lunas (moon valleys) we have visited in South America (the other in Chile). The Bolivian version is a riddle of canyons and peculiar rock formations near La Paz. This bizarre phenomenon is the result of weather-eroded mountain, and a path has been carved to wander among the oddly shaped and coloured stalagmites. It is said that Neil Armstrong once visited and commented on the valley’s likeness to the moon, hence the name.
49. Valparaíso street art, Chile
The coastal city of Valparaíso has emerged from a chequered history as Chile’s cultural capital; and street art has been at the heart of its story. During the days of Pinochet’s regime, underground street art groups exploited the city’s steep and narrow concealed lanes to paint rebellious murals. Once the country was liberated, street art was legalised in the city, and now it is a hallmark of its identity. Our account of Valparaíso street art tells the story.
50. Villarica Volcano, Chile
Chile’s Lake District is a captivating natural transition point between the urbania of Santiago and the winderess of Patagonia. Its focal point is the lakeside town of Pucón, which stands beneath the ominous mass of Villarica Volcano, one of the most active in Chile. Its snowy glare can be seen from everywhere in and around the town. Pucón has grown into a mecca for adventure sports, and the challenge of hiking up Villarica is one of the main draws.
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