South America has something to offer everyone. From the stunning ruins of ancient civilizations to breathtaking natural wonders and cosmopolitan cities, the continent is a diverse landscape waiting to be explored. But where should you begin?
Keep reading for our list of the best places to visit in South America and to learn more about traveling in the continent.
Our Top Picks for Best Places to Visit in South America
- Medellin, Colombia – Best for Outdoor Enthusiasts
- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Best Natural Wonders
- Galapagos Islands, Ecuador – Best Islands
- Quito, Ecuador – Best Affordable Trip
- Lima, Peru – Best Ancient Archaeological Sites
Best Places to Visit in South America Reviews
Best for Outdoor Enthusiasts: Medellin, Colombia
- Affordable prices for lodging, food and transportation
- Temperate climate throughout most of the year
- Has a thriving nightlife scene – especially for live music and dancing
- The city is 5,000 feet above sea level, which can be challenging for some travelers to adjust to
- Fewer cultural and historical sites than other destinations on this list
Why we chose it: With its mild year-round climate, Medellin and its surrounding areas offer outdoor enthusiasts an impressive array of activities to enjoy, regardless of when they visit.
Medellin has always been a beautiful destination and also more affordable than many other South American cities. But it’s only recently that tourists have been flocking to the once infamous city to enjoy the attractions it has to offer. In addition to its numerous restaurants and vibrant nightlife, Medellin provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities.
The excellent climate makes it easy to get out and explore the city and region. Among the outdoor activities to participate in and nearby places to visit are:
- Arvi Park - Hiking, camping and bird watching are just some of the activities available in this nature preserve located in the northeast corner of the city.
- El Peñol and Guatape - About a two-hour ride from Medellin, El Peñol is a granite rock formation that provides panoramic views of the countryside to the brave souls who climb its 708 steps to the top. The Guatape reservoir is also a perfect place to do some kayaking or canoeing for a different perspective of the surrounding landscape.
- Paragliding - Spectacular aerial views are your reward for mustering up the courage to take flight. You can take tandem paragliding flights with experienced pilots if you’re nervous about going on your own.
- Mountain biking - There are miles of trails connecting the region, so bikers of all skill levels will be able to find a good fit.
Other activities for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy include rafting, ATVs, horseback riding and ziplining.
Best Natural Wonders: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Home to a variety of natural attractions including mountains, beaches and lush rainforests
- Enjoys warm weather year round
- Home to iconic attractions including the Christ the Redeemer statue, Copacabana Beach and Carnival
- Densely populated city, which can make it feel busy and crowded
- More expensive than other major cities in South America
Why we chose it: Brazil’s second-most populous city gives tourists easy access to stunning mountains, forests and beaches in a compact geographic area. It’s also home to moderate year-round temperatures, which makes it easier to visit the area’s many natural landmarks and attractions.
Rio de Janeiro is a vibrant city of over six million people. It’s home to the world-famous Carnival celebration (celebrated every year prior to Lent) and offers some of Brazil’s best options for nightlife, shopping and dining. These features tend to overshadow the fact that the city is also home to impressive natural wonders.
At Sugarloaf Mountain — which has a granite peak that rises 1,200 feet over the city’s scenic harbor — visitors can take a cable car to the top and enjoy sweeping views of the city and its beautiful coastline, including the white sands of Copacabana.
Rio de Janeiro is also home to Tijuca National Park, one of the largest urban forests in the world. Its canopies extend for miles and are home to a vibrant array of plant and animal species, including sloths, monkeys and parrots.
Best Islands: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
- Home to unique wildlife and volcanic landscapes
- Offers plentiful outdoor activities such as hiking, snorkeling and scuba diving
- Can be expensive
- There are limited facilities for dining, lodging and medical services on the islands
Why we chose it: The archipelago visited by Charles Darwin, and that inspired his theory of evolution, is still one of the most unique destinations on the planet with its diverse wildlife and dramatic landscapes.
The Galapagos Islands, an archipelago composed of 21 islands on the Eastern Pacific Ocean, are home to 9,000 different species of fauna spread across the territory and surrounding waters, including giant tortoises, sea lions and even Galapagos penguins. Visitors can explore the islands through hikes, diving expeditions and guided tours, which showcase the region’s many unique attractions.
Visitors often begin their journey in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city and the closest large city to the Galapagos. Guayaquil is about a two-hour flight from the islands and is home to museums, dining options and parks to explore, offering a balance of city life against the Galapagos’ wilderness.
Best Affordable Trip: Quito, Ecuador
- Plenty of free attractions to explore, including museums, markets and plazas
- Efficient public transportation system and a very walkable city
- Quito is 9,000 above sea level, which can give some visitors altitude sickness until they adjust
- Limited nightlife offerings compared to other South American cities
Why we chose it: Quito is Ecuador’s capital, its most-populous city and one of the oldest cities in South America. It’s also highly affordable compared to other South American destinations, offering low-cost options for lodging, dining and entertainment.
Quito is a more affordable place to visit than other popular destinations in South America such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. It’s also home to plenty of free attractions, including parks, plazas and markets. Getting around Quito is also inexpensive. Aside from being a very walkable city, Quito’s public transportation system is efficient, and taxis and ridesharing services are plentiful as well.
Quito’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features colonial-era architecture and numerous churches and museums to explore. There are plenty of Ecuadorian restaurants serving traditional dishes like ceviche, potato soup and encebollado. There’s also a cable car — the TeleferiQo — that takes you up into the region’s surrounding peaks, up to 13,000 feet above sea level.
Best Ancient Archaeological Sites: Lima, Peru
- Many archaeological sites to explore
- Can be a highly affordable destination, depending on how you prefer to travel
- U.S. visitors can remain in Peru visa-free for up to 183 days
- A very busy city that might not be a good fit for travelers interested in a quiet vacation.
Why we chose it: From adobe pyramids to monuments and ancient places of worship, Lima is an ideal place for history enthusiasts to visit.
Lima has been the home of several indigenous cultures, including the Limas, Waris, Ychsma and Incas. Each culture left behind monuments, buildings and art that make Lima an incredibly rich archaeological destination for modern visitors. Some of the most popular landmarks include:
- Huaca Pucllana – A large adobe pyramid created by the Lima culture that dates back to 200 to 700 AD.
- Pachacamac – Located about 25 miles southeast of the city, this is an important religious center for the Lima, Wari and Inca cultures. The village offers visitors the opportunity to explore remnants of temples, palaces and plazas.
- Museo Larco – Not an archaeological destination itself, but an art museum with an impressive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.
- Plaza de Armas – The historic city center of Lima is home to important buildings, such as the Government Palace and the Cathedral of Lima.
Lima is also home to unique restaurants which blend traditional Peruvian ingredients with influences from outside cultures. There are also plenty of parks and gardens to explore and even a vibrant nightlife scene to keep you busy when you’re not out exploring the area’s archaeological sites.
Other places to visit in South America we considered
South America is a large and diverse continent made up of 12 countries with many cities and towns worth visiting. Here are other destinations you may want to consider traveling to.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
- A major hub for music and the arts
- Home to many gardens, parks and green spaces
- More expensive than other South American destinations
Buenos Aires is a cosmopolitan city offering world-renowned restaurants, a busy nightlife scene and an extensive network of parks, landmarks and cultural attractions.
Why it didn’t make the list: Although Buenos Aires has a lot going for it, the city is also slightly more expensive to visit than most others in South America.
- Offers many outdoor activities thanks to its proximity to the Andes
- Enjoys a moderate climate throughout most of the year
- Home to many restaurants and cultural attractions
- Can be more expensive than other South American destinations
- Air pollution can be an issue, especially during the winter months
Santiago is surrounded by the majestic Andes Mountains, which offer plenty of opportunities for hiking, skiing and mountain biking. The city also offers a mild climate, plenty of restaurants and enough museums and landmarks to keep you busy for days on end.
Why it didn’t make the list: Santiago can be more expensive than other destinations in South America and air pollution during winter can negatively affect people with respiratory conditions.
- Offers plenty of options for hiking, mountain biking and other outdoor activities
- Hosts many cultural festivals throughout the year
- More expensive than other destinations
- Its high elevation can cause altitude sickness
Cusco — home to the iconic Machu Picchu — is a UNESCO World Heritage site and contains many other Incan ruins as well as colonial architecture including churches and plazas. The city is also a hub for adventure tourism and regularly hosts a variety of traditional Andean festivals.
Why it didn’t make the list: Cusco is an expensive South American destination and one that can be physically demanding for many travelers due to its 11,000-foot elevation.
Places to Visit in South America Guide
Researching the best cities to visit in South America is only the first step in planning your trip. It's also important to familiarize yourself with the weather, culture and activities you may want to try. The following guide will help with those aspects of planning your trip.
The basics of South America
South America is the fourth largest continent in the world, home to the largest rainforest (the Amazon), the longest continental mountain range (the Andes), thousands of miles of coastline on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, deserts, glaciers and dozens of other ecosystems.
Here’s some basic information that you should know while planning your trip to South America:
- No visa needed – U.S. citizens can travel to all South American countries without a visa, except for Bolivia, Venezuela and Suriname.
- The weather varies – Depending on where you travel to in South America, you can experience most every conceivable variety of weather. For some places you might only need to pack shorts and tank tops, while others require heavy rain gear or winter clothes. As with any trip, look up the weather for your intended destination to make sure you’re packing what you’ll need.
- Carry local currency – While some vendors accept debit cards and U.S. dollars, many will only take local currency. Look into currency exchange at the airport or other legitimate exchange place and make sure you have access to your bank funds with a viable debit card that’s accepted at the local ATMs.
Brazil is the largest country in South America — both in population and area — and covers almost half the continent. It’s also home to more than 60% of the Amazon rainforest. But the continent is also composed of 11 other sovereign states plus the overseas department of French Guiana.
South America is sometimes split into four political or geographical subregions:
- The Andean states - Countries that have the Andes range running through them — mainly Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and parts of Colombia.
- Caribbean South America - The Caribbean coasts of Colombia and Venezuela.
- The Guianas - The northeastern region of the continent, which includes the countries of Guyana and Suriname as well as French Guiana.
- The Southern Cone - Includes countries along the continent's southern tip, such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, and includes some of Brazil’s southern states. It also sometimes includes Paraguay.
The weather in South America is varied because of the continent's large size and diverse topography.
For example, there are desert conditions in Northern Chile, heavy rains along the continent’s southern coast, and hot and humid weather in the rainforests of the Amazon. You’ll even find plenty of ice and snow throughout the Andes.
You should carefully research the cities you’ll be visiting and plan your trip considering the varying climates and weather patterns you could encounter.
More on South American travel
The best time to visit South America
Springtime is when you’ll generally find the most comfortable temperatures in South America, as well as blooming flora throughout the continent.
Just remember that the seasons are flipped in the southern part of the continent, specifically in countries south of the equator like Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. This means that spring runs from September to November while summer takes place from late November to February.
However, this seasonal flip is not as marked in regions near the equator (Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay) and it’s not observed at all in South American countries above the equator (Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana, and Suriname).
Also, be aware of the rainy seasons, which vary due to the continent’s size. For example, Peru’s rainy season runs from January through March, while Colombia experiences its wettest months in April and May.
The best activities to try in South America
From outdoor experiences to cultural attractions, the continent of South America has no shortage of activities to experience.
Some of the most famous and visited natural wonders in South America include:
- The Amazon rainforest - mainly Brazil
- The Galapagos Islands - Ecuador
- Lake Titicaca - Peru/Bolivia
- Iguazu Falls - Argentina/Brazil
- The Atacama Desert - Chile
- Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia
- Perito Moreno Glacier - Argentina
- Caño Cristales - Colombia
- Angel Falls - Venezuela
- Colca Canyon - Peru
There are also endless cultural and historical attractions to experience, such as:
- Machu Picchu - Peru
- Plaza de Mayo - Argentina
- Christ the Redeemer - Brazil
- Quito’s Old Town - Ecuador
- Nazca Lines - Peru
- Cathedral of Brasilia - Brazil
- Fortifications in Cartagena - Colombia
- Museum of Memory and Human Rights - Chile
- City of Potosi - Bolivia
The best foods to try in South America
South America isn’t just a land of diverse cultures and regions; it’s also home to an impressive diversity of food. Here are some popular local dishes you might want to seek during your travels:
- Peruvian ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus juice and served with onions, peppers, and sweet potatoes)
- Argentinian asado (grilled meat)
- Arepas (flat, round patty with a crisp outer layer made from cornmeal)
- Empanadas (deep-fried or baked pastries filled with meats, cheeses and other ingredients)
- Chivito (a popular Uruguayan sandwich made with sliced beef, mozzarella, egg, tomatoes, olives and other savory ingredients)
- Encebollado (the national dish of Ecuador, a fish soup made with lots of onions)
Places to Visit in South America FAQ
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How We Chose the Best Places to Visit in South America
We evaluated the following factors to determine the best places to travel in South America:
- Affordability: Including lodging, dining and attractions
- Cultural offering: Including museums, architecture and historic sites
- Outdoor activities: Including natural wonders, hikes and other physical activities
- Safety statistics: Including crime rates and travel advisories
- Ease of travel: Including visa requirements and flight availability