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Best Places to Visit on Your First Visit to South America

by Stacy D

Exploring South America can be an incredibly rewarding experience due to its diverse landscapes, rich culture, and unique history. But with the continent being so grand, planning your trip can feel overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Here’s our first-timer’s guide to South America to help you make the most of your exploration.

Machu Picchu, Peru

One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is a bucket list destination for many travellers. Explore the 15th-century ancient ruins of the Inca civilization, hike the Inca Trail, and immerse yourself in the stunning Andean landscapes. However, getting to Machu Picchu isn’t easy and will require some planning. After flying into Cusco, you can either trek or jump on the train to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the citadel, before getting a bus that will take you to Machu Picchu. From there, hike up the 2,430-metre (7,970 ft) mountain ridge until you reach the top, where unbeatable views await.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Experience the vibrant culture and stunning natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro. The second most populous city in Brazil, it is a pulsating metropolis like no other. Visit iconic landmarks such as Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain. Relax on world-famous beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema as the soundtrack of samba and bossa nova transports you. Soak up the lively atmosphere of the city’s neighbourhoods to get a real sense of the place by joining or watching a capoeira class and immersing in samba culture. If you’re visiting during February, make sure you participate in the party of a lifetime – carnival!

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its unique wildlife and pristine landscapes. 1,000 km from the South American continent, you’ll find 19 islands on the volcanic archipelago. Four of them are habitable and invite travellers to snorkel with sea lions, hike volcanic trails, and observe giant tortoises and marine iguanas up close. There are no direct flights to the Galapagos Islands, so you’ll have to fly from mainland Ecuador to get there. Your primary means of exploration will be through Galapagos cruises and land tours, so you must book beforehand. 

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Journey to the otherworldly landscapes of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. ​​Covering an area of over 10,000 square kilometres (about 3,900 square miles), it was formed as a result of prehistoric lakes evaporating and leaving behind a thick crust of salt, creating a surreal landscape. The natural wonder is characterised by its vast, flat expanse of white salt, which extends as far as the eye can see, creating a stunning optical illusion that blurs the boundaries between earth and sky. During the rainy season (November to March), a thin layer of water covers the salt flat, turning it into a giant mirror that reflects the sky in a mesmerising display. 

Cartagena, Colombia

Step back in time in Cartagena, with its colourful buildings and historic fortifications. Located on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, the historic port city is home to several archipelagos. As one of Colombia’s most popular cities, Cartagena is known for its well-preserved architecture, vibrant culture, and beautiful beaches. The Old Town (“Ciudad Vieja”), Cartagena’s historic centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its impeccably preserved colonial architecture. Wander through narrow cobblestone streets lined with colourful buildings adorned with balconies and bougainvillaea, offering a glimpse into the city’s rich history. Relax on nearby beaches, and savour delicious Colombian cuisine.

Patagonia, Argentina

Patagonia is renowned for its dramatic landscapes, characterised by towering mountains, expansive glaciers, crystal-clear lakes, and ancient forests. A nature lover’s dream, it’s home to numerous glaciers, including the famous Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. Marvel at the awe-inspiring beauty of places like the Andes Mountains, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and the iconic peaks of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Witness the spectacle of massive ice formations calving into turquoise-coloured lakes, take boat tours to get up close to the glaciers, and even hike on the ice with guided excursions. 

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