The Most Popular Travel Destinations in South America
From centuries-old civilizations and colonial sites to cosmopolitan cities and natural landscapes, this scenic region has an array of spectacular vacation spots. The hardest part is choosing where to visit first.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is South America’s most iconic archaeological site. Situated high in the Andes, above the Sacred Valley, the sprawling mountaintop ruins of the ancient Inca civilization draw millions of visitors each year. Built in 1450 and abandoned a century later, the mysterious citadel continues to intrigue with its mortar-free construction—temples, towers, terraces, walls, and ceremonial stones. June through August is peak season, so plan accordingly. Looking for more thrilling locales? Check out these adventurous getaways around the globe.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
While Americans may know it from the Frank Sinatra song “The Girl from Ipanema,” this city seduces with its beautiful beaches, majestic mountains, open-air markets, and pumping rhythms of the samba. It’s also famed for its 98-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer, the largest Art Deco statue in the world, and Carnaval, an annual festival of food, drink, music, dance, and festooned merriment.
This colorful, Colombian port city tantalizes travelers with its vivacious spirit, flavorful cuisine, and lingering colonial charm. The heartbeat of Cartagena is its walled Old Town—preserved Spanish forts, narrow cobblestone lanes, 16th-century residences cast in sun-kissed hues, carved wooden balconies with cascading bougainvillea, grand churches, quaint cafes, and lively squares filled with musicians, dancers, and artisans selling traditional woven bags and other crafts. Bonus: You don’t have to break the bank to visit. Colombia is one of the best budget-friendly travel destinations.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is intoxicating. This cosmopolitan capital pulsates with an indescribable energy. And when the sun goes down, things really heat up at the milongas (tango halls) and boliches (dance clubs). Equally irresistible as the late-night boogie sessions is the architecture—from Belle Epoque landmarks like Casa Rosada and Teatro Colón to the Kavanagh Building, a towering Art Deco skyscraper, to the florid facades of Caminito in La Boca—a visual storytelling of the city’s rich history. Don’t miss these the secrets to vacationing cheap, according to travel agents.
Trekking to Machu Picchu? Cusco is worth making a pit stop. Located 11,000 feet above sea level—3,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu—this former Incan capital delivers a major dose of tradition and old-world charm. Carve out some time for La Catedral, Sacsayhuamán, Coricancha, and Santo Domingo Convent. Feeling the effects of the high altitude? Sip a cup of cocoa leaf tea to help acclimate to the elevation. And don’t forget to follow these tips to help reduce your risk of headaches.
Lima has something for everyone. Where else can you find pre-Columbian temples and ancient Inca archaeological sites alongside Spanish colonial structures and modern high rises? Fans of ceramics should head to Museo Larco, in the Pueblo Libre district. There’s also many independent galleries and an emerging contemporary art scene. Hungry? Lima is among the top gourmet destinations. Plus, Peru is surprisingly affordable.
Located in Chile’s central valley and surrounded by the Andes, this resilient city is as picturesque as it is politically, financially, and culturally important. Your first stop: Parque Metropolitano, better known as Cerro San Cristóbal. Crowned by the towering Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción statue, it also boasts trails, public swimming pools, botanical gardens, and a zoo. Next up: Plaza de Armas, the main square, for a look at neoclassical landmarks including Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Poetry lovers will want to visit La Chascona, the former house-turned-museum of Pablo Neruda. These are the most populated cities on Earth today.
This gigantic, 3,200-square-mile Andean lake borders Bolivia in the east and Peru in the west. At 12,500 feet above sea level, it’s the highest navigable lake in the world, and is recognizable for its reflective waters, rare wildlife—such as the giant frog, which can reach a foot in length and weigh up to six pounds. Don’t miss the floating islands woven by the ancient Uros people from tortora reeds that grow in the shallows; the islands are prized for their splendor and pre-Colombian heritage. Take a peek at these heart-shaped islands and lakes around the world.
São Paulo, Brazil
This massive metropolis is home to 21 million people, making it one of the most populous cities in the world. You can trace São Paulo’s fascinating history through its architecture: The colonial Pátio do Colégio church, neo-gothic São Paulo Cathedral, the 1929 Martinelli skyscraper, and the modern curved Edifício Copan. Do some retail therapy at the shops along Avenida Paulista. Spend an afternoon exploring Parque do Ibirapuera, a massive urban park with leisure areas, monuments, museums, and music halls. Pro tip: Avoiding these travel mistakes will ensure you have the most awesome trip ever.
Once more synonymous with drugs and crime than vacations, Bogotá is on the upswing. Recent years have brought a revival in tourism. On the itinerary: Explore La Candelaria, the cobbled historic quarter, lined with colonial-era landmarks and museums including the Museo del Oro, acclaimed for its amazing collection of pre-Columbian gold. Refuel with a hearty bowl of ajiaco (a chicken-and-potato soup) at La Puerta Falsa. Book a Bogotá Graffiti Tour to see the eye-catching street art murals. Visit the ritzy Zona Rosa district for upscale shopping and hip nightlife.
Set in the heart of Argentina’s wine country, east of Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, Mendoza is an oenophile’s dream. The downtown is distinguished by its wide avenues, Art Deco buildings, and cultural attractions, such as Plaza Independencia and Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno. Vino enthusiasts will want to venture outside the city to the nearby bodegas (wineries) to taste world-class Malbecs. Brush up on these essential wine terms before you go.
Iguazú National Park, Argentina
This national park spans 190 square miles of subtropical rainforest in the northeast of Argentina. Its star, Iguazú Falls is among the world’s most incredible waterfalls. This unspoiled paradise also delights with its hiking trails and exotic wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might even spot jaguars and toucans! Love the great outdoors? There’s no better way to appreciate Mother Nature than spending a night under the stars at these incredible campsites.