Ultimate South America bucket list: The best destinations and experiences

by Ale Werner

Ultimate South America bucket list: The best destinations and experiences

Southamerica has a lot to offer. You can find from cities in the desert to ancient glaciers. A continent full of activities that each year receive more and more travelers from all over the world that came to experience the vibrant Latin culture and enjoy the amazing landscapes and scenarios that each country has to offer. We have asked some travel bloggers about their favorite destinations and activities in Southamerica, putting together this Ultimate South America Bucket List.

BRAZIL

Carnaval in Brazil – Grateful Gypsies

I thought I knew how to party until I went to Brazil to celebrate Carnaval. Brazilians sure do know how to party! Celebrating Carnaval in Brazil was always on our bucket list and we finally got to check it off this year. Most travelers are familiar with Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro but the party actually goes on throughout the entire country and each one is different from the next. We decided to check out the celebrations in three different cities; Olinda, Recife, and Rio. 
 
Each city has its own traditions and characteristics. Olinda is a small village with a more traditional celebration. Their symbols for Carnaval are colorful umbrellas and oversized puppets that people carry through the streets. They also have themed “blocos” (block parties) in the days leading up to the main celebrations. Recife is just up the road from Olinda. Being that it is a capital city, their celebration is much bigger. In fact, they have the biggest Carnaval parade in the world. Rio de Janeiro is all about the Samba parade. There are hundreds of samba schools all over the city that spend the entire year preparing for the Carnaval parade. It is a huge event that goes all night from 9 pm to 4 am. 
 
The best part about Carnaval is seeing how important it is to Brazilians. Everyone comes together for the purpose of getting dressed up, cutting loose, and having a good time. It truly is the biggest party in the world and like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. If Carnaval in Brazil is something you’ve been on the fence about, trust us and just go next year. It’ll be the most fun you’ve ever had!

Iguazu Falls – Something of Freedom

Voted as one of the new 7 wonders of nature, the Iguazu falls are one of the most spectacular natural sights in South America, and a must-see on yourSouth America Bucket List. With over 275 powering waterfalls surrounded by dense rainforest, the sheer size and force of Iguazu Falls are overwhelming. Such a breath-taking place is worthy of any travel bucket list! 

Located on the border between Brazil and Argentina, the falls can be viewed from both sides. The Brazilian side of Iguazu falls is particularly impressive thanks to amazing panoramic views of the falls, which allow you to truly appreciate the scale of the falls – which in total amount to roughly three times the size of Niagara Falls.  An approximately hour-long trail on the Brazilian side leads you to various viewpoints of the falls, finishing close enough for you to feel the force of the falls and get soaked from the spray!

While in the area it’s just a short journey to cross the border to wander the many trails of the Argentinian side of Iguazu falls, which allow you to get closer to even more of the majestic waterfalls.

Seeing Rio de Janeiro from the Sugar Loaf Mountain – 197 Travel Stamps

The Sugar Loaf Mountain, or Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese, in Rio de Janeiro, is one of the top landmarks in South America. Rio is a city with several hills and beaches and there is no better place to enjoy a great panoramic view than from the Sugar Loaf Mountain.

The mountaintop can be easily reached with a short and comfortable cable car ride. Explorers that are more adventurous may opt to climb up the mountain – but that is not an ideal route for the average hiker. Try to get up there just before sunset and watch the sun disappear over the beautiful hills of Rio before taking the cable car down again. On a clear day, you can see the long stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema Beach as well as the hill with the famous Christ the Redeemer statue.

The only downside to the views from the Sugar Loaf Mountain is that you can’t see the famous landmark itself. For the best views, I would recommend heading up to the favela Santa Marta close to Ipanema Beach. This favela is safe to walk around and the viewpoint at the top offers great views over Botafogo Beach and the Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Wildlife Viewing in the Pantanal – Wander Libre

On a continent brimming with wildlife, Brazil’s Pantanal is truly unique. The world’s largest wetland, the Pantanal’s vast network of waterways, savannas, and gallery forests is home to South America’s greatest concentration of wildlife. It’s a biodiversity hotspot ripe with superlatives. A place where it’s possible to go on walking safaris, jeep tours, and boat trips in search of a diverse array of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Think giant ants eaters, caiman, capybara, anacondas, buffalo, tapir, giant river otters, toucans, and macaws to name but a few. But for many wildlife lovers, it’s the unparalleled opportunity to see jaguars in the wild that truly sets the Pantanal apart.

Famously elusive, the Pantanal has a deserved reputation for reliable dry season sightings. Arguably the crowning jewel in South America’s wildlife viewing crown, the Pantanal is a must for nature lovers, which presents some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities on earth.

BOLIVIA

Samaipata – My Turn to Travel

Samaipata is a village in Eastern Bolivia that best exemplifies the word “tranquility”. Compared to the chaotic cities of Santa Cruz and La Paz, Samaipata makes you stay longer than expected with its relaxed vibe. In Quechua, ‘Samaipata’ means ‘Rest in the Highlands’.

Samaipata’s claim to fame is the nearby ruins of “El Fuerte de Samaipata”, or “The Fort”, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This massive granite monolith is an archaeological site that celebrates pre-Hispanic beliefs and once acted as a ceremonial area and provincial capital for the Samaipata people.

There are carvings of animals, rituals and idol worship – giving this site a historical, cultural and somewhat magical feeling. It was later conquered by the Incas – who added their style of art – and later taken over by the Spanish forces.

Another nearby attraction is the Las Cuevas waterfalls – three small waterfalls in the jungle where locals go for a soak and a respite from the afternoon sun, like a hidden oasis in the jungle near Samaipata.

Isla del Sol – Jon is Travelling

One of the best day hikes that you must add to your South America Bucket List can be found on Isla del Sol, a stunning island in Lake Titicaca. In just a few hours you can see beaches and coastline views, ancient ruins, quiet villages and peaceful countryside. Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is an important place in Inca history and mythology and there are several sites to see around the island. Add in some spectacular sunrises (if it’s clear you’ll see the Andes Mountains in the distance) and some rustic but well-located accommodation and you have one of the best places to visit in South America. 

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Many people visit on a day trip or only spend a night there but it’s good to spend a few days on the island (I recommend staying in Yumani) so you can do the hike and have time to relax in the beautiful surroundings.

Uyuni Salt Flats – Universo Viajero

One of the most beautiful places in Bolivia is the Uyuni Salt Flats. Here, an ancient salt lake left millions of tons of salt left after his water evaporate. For man travelers, a visit to South America would not be complete if they don’t get to walk through this kilometers and kilometers long salt flat. To see it, you have to get into a jeep that drives through it. In the rainy season, the water that accumulates in it makes an amazing “reflexion” of the sky that would make you feel like walking on the clouds, especially on sunrise and sunset when the colors of the sky reflect on the floor.

Also, during the day and in the dry parts of the Uyuni Salt Flat, you can play with your camera on different perspectives, taking pictures that trick the human eye, where you can be on top of a beer can, on the had of some friend or fighting with toy dinosaurs. 

Guide to travel to Uyuni Salt Flats

COLOMBIA

Learn Salsa in Cali – Choosing Figs

While you can learn salsa or hit up a dance club just about anywhere in South America, THE place to pick up some moves or show off your skills is Cali, Colombia, “the salsa capital of the world”. It’s not hard to find salsa lessons in Cali: most hostels offer free classes and there are no shortages in dance schools, often with private instructors available for one-on-one sessions. During the day you can work on your cross-body leads and, at night, show off your skills while dancing the night away at one of the numerous salsa clubs in the city, like Tin Tin Deo, La Topa Tolondra, and Las Brisas.

Even if you have two left feet, going out in Cali is an experience: sit back at the bar and watch locals bust a move on the dance floor. Can’t get enough? Come in September and join dancers from around the world at the annual World Salsa Festival. If learning to salsa dance is on your bucket list, Cali, Colombia is the place to be.

Salento and Valle de Cocora – Gamin Traveler

Those who love coffee, art and nature will definitely find a home away from home in Salento, Colombia. Flocked by tourists who prefer a laid-back culture and those who love spectacular views, Salento is home to Valle del Cocora where you can find Los Nevados National Natural Park. The valley is a great place to go biking and hiking, and can even be explored while riding on a horse.

Salento is truly one of the most breathtaking places in South America. The hike around Valle de Cocora was incredible and is among the best things to do in Colombia. The tranquility and fresh air that Valle de Cocora offers is one of nature’s many gifts that we should all enjoy. Though the town itself is quite small, there’s plenty to explore like the Artisan Community and Colombian coffee shops. Salento’s natural areas are expansive and pristine. Here, you can take in the scents and sounds of nature that are unique to Colombia.

Salento may not be as grandiose or flamboyant as other Colombian towns, but it is definitely rich and colorful in its own way.

Cocora Valley in Salento (© kzoop – Flickr)

Cocora Valley in Salento (© kzoop – Flickr)

Tayrona National Park – German Backpacker

One of the most beautiful places to add to your South America Bucket List is Tayrona national park, on the northern coast of Colombia. This park is perfect for a 2-day visit and offers a lush rainforest, remote beaches and a chilled and laid-back atmosphere. Most travelers start their hike in the morning and walk through the jungle and along the coast until they reach “El Cabo San Juan”, the most popular beach in Tayrona. Keep in mind that there’s no proper tourist infrastructure besides a small restaurant and some campgrounds. You won’t find any hotels or shops here. However, there are plenty of hammocks to rent and that’s where people spend their nights. It’s a fun experience and great to sleep under the stars – so you should give it a try!

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On the next day, you can hike back or if you still have some energy, follow the hiking trail a bit up into the forest on the “Pueblito” trail, which will bring you to a local village. Keep in mind that this part is quite exhausting due to the heat and the steep path.

Tayrona is one of the most beautiful parks in South America and you should certainly visit!

ECUADOR

The Galapagos –  Travelgal Nicole 

The Galapagos is one of those places that is hard to explain to people.  Yes, we’ve all heard about the unique wildlife there but are you ready for unique plants and some of the most beautiful beaches?

The Galapagos is worth the hype and cost!  Yes, the flights are expensive and all of the taxes to visit the islands are expensive as well ($100 just to get on the plane plus another $25 to have your bag checked by biosecurity).  I swam with seals and turtles and sharks and sunbathed on deserted beaches and it was worth it.

One of the things that surprised me most was the stunning white sand beaches – some of them deserted, some lined with palm trees and some covered in sea lions.  No matter where you go on the islands you know you are visiting something special. 

My favorite experience of the trip was swimming with sea lions and turtles right near the shore of the beach.

CHILE

San Pedro de Atacama – The Globe Trotter GP

San Pedro De Atacama should definitely make it onto your South America Bucket List – it was one of my favorite places when I visited and somewhere I wished I’d had longer to explore. 

Situated in Northern Chile near the Chile-Bolivia border, it’s a great gateway to the Atacama Desert, Moon Valley, and even The Bolivia Altiplano. 
 
The town itself has a real rodeo feel to it with dusty roads and saloon-style bars. I was beyond excited when I saw a real live cowboy strutting down the road on his horse. 
 
The town is also great for shopping – especially if you like art or jewelry! It’s also a great place for foodies though prepare to dig deep into your purse – it’s not a budget destination. 
 
There are so many things to do In San Pedro De Atacama and nearby. It’s famous for star gazing and a top day trip is a trip into the Moon Valley. Climb a sand dune, admire the stunning scenery shimmering with rock salt then watch the sunset over the rocky scenery. 
 
 

Boat trip to Puerto Williams – Worldly Adventurer

A lot of travelers mistakenly believe that Ushuaia is the world’s southernmost community. It’s not: that accolade goes to Puerto Williams, a village some 46 kilometers southeast across the Beagle Channel and located on Isla Navarino. The island was originally inhabited by indigenous people who traveled around these remote waters in canoes – so what better way to get here than by the 32-hour Yaghan passenger ferry from the Chilean city of Punta Arenas.

This journey, through some of Patagonia’s most pristine waters, is mostly taken by residents of Puerto Williams, but it’s becoming increasingly popular among travelers, who are realizing that it’s the most unique way of exploring Patagonia. As you sail through untouched waters, you’ll pass verdant fjords, through glacier-lined channels and likely spot a whale or even ten. If you’re seeking unspoiled, Patagonian wilderness – with a healthy collection of marine wildlife thrown in –don’t miss this truly unique ferry. Find out more with this complete guide to traveling in Patagonia.

PERU

Apurimac River White Water Rafting – Travel Collecting

If you have a sense of adventure, are an adrenaline junkie or just want to experience the Peruvian Andes in a way that few people do, then a three-day trip white-water rafting the Apurimac River is a must-do.  After a five-hour drive from Cusco, lunch and a crash course in rafting commands, you’ll set off down the river.  The first day is an easy introduction to rafting.  Most rapids are Class I (‘barely a ripple’), Class II (‘slightly bumpy’) and Class III (‘your heart is pumping’).  This is a chance to enjoy the canyon – steep black cliffs rise on both sides, leaving a sliver of the sky with condors circling high above.  The night is spent in a tent on a tiny beach between the river and the canyon walls. 

Day Two is a series of Class III and IV rapids. For Class IV (‘things are getting serious’), you get a briefing beforehand and plan the strategy for navigating through them.  There is a lot of frantic paddling, water splashing, bumping, and adrenaline.  This is pure, unrestrained joy and excitement!  

The best, however, is left until the last day.  More Class IV rapids and two Class V rapids (‘this is totally insane!’) named “You First” and “Last Laugh”.  Everyone must get out, carefully examine the water and rocks and learn the tricks of navigating through them.  The rapids are a chaotic melee of paddling, water, and rocks.  This is not for the faint of heart (though it is possible to get out and walk around the Class V ones) but is one of the most exciting, fun things to do in Peru. 

Arequipa – Viajar y otras pasiones

The “White City” is the second most populous city in Peru… and maybe the prettiest!

Founded in the 16th century by the Spanish conquers, you can feel its colonial soul in every corner. You will not be surprised by the fact that its historical center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you may want to add it to your South America Bucket List.

Not white but orange, white and blue is the top landmark in Arequipa: Santa Catalina Monastery is just one of the most photogenic places in South America, just remember to be there early in the morning, in order to avoid the crowds.

If you are a curious traveler don’t miss the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries, where you can meet Juanita, the real mummy of a 15Th-century girl who was offered to the Gods.

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Don’t forget to visit its Basilica Cathedral and enjoy the atmosphere in its Plaza de Armas.

If you are still not sure about visiting Arequipa, you should know about its cuisine… Ok, Peruvian gastronomy is amazing everywhere, but you need to try the rocoto relleno, ocopa arequipeña or the Sunday specialty: pebre de lomos.  There are lots of nice rooftops around the main square where you can have an unforgettable dinner.

Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Trek – World of Travels with Kids

While the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is on many traveler’s bucket lists, those seeking an off the beaten track trekking experience in the Cusco region will be blown away by the Choquequirao to Machu Picchu trek.  This trek combines the ancient Incan cities of Choquequirao and Machu Picchu while following legit winding stone Inca trails through the Andes. Yep, you stumble upon ‘tambos’ (Inca resting houses) and silver mines while passing some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on earth!

Make no mistake – this is a challenging trek – done in between 7 and 9 days, but it is definitely for lovers of off the beaten track adventure! For several days while trekking we saw not one other tourist!

Courtesy Apus Peru TRAIL

Courtesy Apus Peru TRAIL

Puno – The World in a Weekend

Puno is the perfect stop point between Cusco and La Paz, situated right on the edge of Lake Titicaca – the worlds highest navigable body of water. For this reason, many people spend a day or two in this small town to take a boat trip to the man-made floating islands of Uros, constructed of totora reeds from the lake, to see how traditional Uros people live. You can continue to other islands on the lake including Taquile Island for beautiful views, traditional lunches and to learn about their textiles. Although a great experience, it is set up for tourists. 
 
To get off the beaten path there is an Andean ranch just 20 minutes from Puno called Fundo Chincheros, where you can have an authentic lunch from the “fogón”, an Andean wood stove, amongst the lamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. The views across the Altiplano are incredible and you can hike to a cactus forest, explore the shore of Lake Titicaca, learn about the animals on the farm or discover trails on horseback. After a day of adventures snuggle down by the BBQ with a glass of local wine and admire the stars.
 
Puno, Peru

ARGENTINA

Perito Moreno Glacier – The Wandering Queen

Perito Moreno Glacier is a world-class glacier located in Los Glaciares National Park, one of the most popular national parks in Argentina and a must in your South America Bucket List. Perito Moreno is located near the town El Calafate. You can travel to the town by taking a 3-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires, followed by a 1.5-hour (80km) bus ride from El Calafate to the National Park.
 
Perito Moreno is a sight absolutely worth experiencing. The glacier spans about  250 square km (97 square miles) making it the third largest freshwater reserve in the world!  Perito Moreno was named after the explorer Francisco Moreno who assisted in protecting Argentina’s territory. Even though most glaciers tend to dwindle, Perito Moreno is one of three glaciers in the world that is continuously growing.  
 
You can experience the glacier in several ways such as taking a boat tour for a close-up, hiking up to viewpoints, and/or trekking on the glacier in a guided tour. However you decide to spend time at this natural wonder, it will truly satisfy you. With views of surrounding mountains and turquoise blue waters, the pale blue, imposing glacier will certainly take your breath away. 
 
 

El Chalten – Map Made Memories

Three hours drive north of the busy tourist hotspot of El Calafate in southwest Argentina lies the small, charming town of El Chalten. Situated within Los Glaciares National Park, El Chalten is nestled in a valley surrounded by steep rocky peaks, the Rio De Las Vueltas and a backdrop featuring the imposing Fitzroy Range with the impossibly sheer Cerro Torre. The perfectly positioned El Chalten is a hikers paradise; whichever direction you choose there is a range of hikes to suit all abilities with each hike offering breathtaking views. The diverse hikes lead you along rocky paths in open scrub, through wooded forests, to secluded glacial lakes (the most famous of which is Laguna Torre) and to the foot of jaw-dropping glass blue glaciers. The paths are well signposted, easy to follow and our three children managed challenging long day hikes. After full days of awesome inspiring views, we were rewarded daily with cold drinks in El Chalten’s small, welcoming alpine style bars where the beers on tap are either ‘light, dark or red’ and cheaper than a can of soft drink! We rented a small house in this quiet, eclectic town, indulged in its delicious bakeries and several well-stocked shops – we enjoyed our first vegetables in weeks here! We were initially undecided as to whether to make the detour to beautiful El Chalten but we immediately fell in love with it and it remains our favorite location in Argentina. 

Uruguay

Colonia – Flight of the Educator

Colonia, Uruguay is a UNESCO World Heritage site located just across the river from Buenos Aires! It’s an easy day trip from either Buenos Aires or Montevideo (or even a stopover in between!) and is well worth it.  The old city is right against the water which is so vast that it looks like an ocean. The streets are lined with charming old-style buildings filled with restaurants, art, and museums.

The city is easily walkable, although there are also small carts for rent to zip you around the tree-lined thoroughfares.  Because of the frequent change in “ownership” between Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and then finally Uruguay, the architecture is a fun amalgamation of all those styles.

The cobbled streets of the old city flow into the more modern streets in a fun blend of new and old, but of course, that’s not all there is to see! Just north of Colonia is an abandoned Bull Fight Ring that’s slowly succumbing to time, and there’sis also a modern “COLONIA” sign which is a must for all you instagrammers!

 

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1 comment

viajaryotraspasiones August 23, 2018 - 12:34 am

Great post!

Thank you for letting us participate!

See you soon in South America ?

Reply

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