Assembling a succinct bucket list of unmissable things to do in South America is near impossible. With a total of 12 sovereign states and a handful of territories, the list of places to visit and wonders to experience is never ending – you could spend a lifetime discovering them all. If you (sadly) don’t have all of the time in the world to explore, our travel experts have risen to the challenge and narrowed down the options. Each country moves to its own distinct rhythm; whether you’re trekking to Peru’s ancient Incan citadel or exploring Colombia’s confetti-coloured city of Cartagena, it all promises to be equally epic.
Visit Iguazú Falls
Brazil & Argentina
The sheer power and splendour of the cascading chain of waterfalls make Iguazú Falls an unmissable experience and one that will remain forever in your memory. The falls extend across 1.85 miles, are 260 feet high and span the border between Brazil and Argentina (hence the two spellings: Spanish Iguazú in Argentina and Portuguese Iguaçu in Brazil). They can be visited from either country and are situated within national parks on both sides of the border, with an extraordinary array of flora, fauna and wildlife inhabiting the surrounding subtropical rainforest.
Wildlife Watching in the Galápagos Islands
Described by Darwin as ‘a little world within itself’, the Galápagos Islands are completely detached from mainland Ecuador, meaning each is inhabited by endemic species that are found nowhere else on the planet. Sail from island to island and witness unique wildlife sightings on each, from blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas, to fur sea lions and giant tortoises. For underwater explorers, the unspoilt coral reefs and azure ocean are home to a wealth of intriguing marine life.
Trek to Machu Picchu
As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is worthy of a place on every intrepid trekker’s bucket list and is certainly one of the most well-known things to do in South America. Located 7,970 feet above sea level, over a million visitors make the pilgrimage to the iconic Incan citadel each year. Heralded as the most incredible urban creation of the Inca Empire in the 15th century, the remaining structures and intricate architecture are soul-stirring tributes to the ancient civilisation.
Discover Otherworldly Landscapes in the Atacama Desert
Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in the north of Chile, you’ll find the driest non-polar desert in the world (which also happens to be home to the planet’s tallest volcano, the highest-altitude geysers and some breath-takingly clear skies). The Atacama Desert’s otherworldly appearance has allowed it to be used as an experimentation site for expedition simulations to Mars, so if you dream of exploring another planet, then the coastal desert may be as close as you’ll get to leaving Earth.
Visit Rio de Janeiro during Carnival
Brazil’s most famous city, Rio de Janeiro is jam-packed with bucket-list worthy sights and experiences. Rio Carnival is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in South America and timing your trip to coincide with the iconic festival is something that our travel experts can arrange. The seaside city is also famed for its beguiling beaches, most notably Copacabana and Ipanema, while Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue are other unmissable landmarks.
Explore the Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia may well rival the Atacama Desert when it comes to otherworldly landscapes, however here you’ll be greeted by an expanse of luminous white salt and cacti-studded islands. The remaining legacy of a dried-out prehistoric lake, the sprawling salt flat spans across nearly 4,500 square miles and is the world’s largest. Salar de Uyuni makes the list of unmissable things to do in South America for the photo opportunities alone, as the reflective nature of the flats and illusion this creates allow for some creative compositions.
City Life in Cartagena de las Indias
Bestowed with the apt moniker of the ‘Jewel of the Indies’, Cartagena’s colourful colonial facades and enchanting cobblestone streets are eminently photographable. The city was once the largest port in the Americas and has now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the iconic clocktower becoming one of the country’s most photographed views. Cartagena is also home to Castillo San Felipe, South America’s largest remaining Spanish colonial fortification, as well as an abundance of excellent restaurants, lively salsa bars and vibrant street art.
Hike through Torres del Paine National Park
Located within Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park contains a diversity of landscapes, from soaring mountains and shimmering glaciers, to golden grasslands and emerald woodland. The park is so-called for the three distinct granite peaks of the Paine mountain range which dominate the landscape, glowing peach and amber as the sun sets. Explore the park on a hiking holiday and keep an eye out for llama-like guanacos and Andean condors.
Marvel at Perito Moreno Glacier
Often referred to as the world’s most impressive glacier, Perito Moreno Glacier acts as a stunning centrepiece for the southern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It spans across 19 miles and is nearly 100 feet high, although the most extraordinary feature of this natural phenomenon is its constant advance (as much as six feet per day). An array of vantage points allow visitors to observe as giant icebergs calve from the face of the glacier.