South America is home to 12 countries, including the most biodiverse country in the world, Brazil. Colombia is not far behind, ranking as the third most in biodiversity. From party towns to festivals to iconic tourist destinations, here are South America’s top places to visit.
15 of the Best Places to Visit in South America
South America is pretty big, despite only having 12 countries. Air travel is the best way to get around the continent due to its size. While Spanish is the primary language in most countries, Brazil is a notable exception, with Portuguese as the national language.
Other languages include French, English, Dutch (in French Guyana, Guyana, and Suriname), and other indigenous languages.
Whether you enjoy the nightlife, beautiful mountainous terrains, or scorching-hot beaches, South America has it all. This article will examine cities, towns, and spots that are must-visits in South America.
1. Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most-visited cities in South America. There’s no surprise there, considering what it has to offer. From world-class hotels to quiet little cafés, Rio has something for everyone.
Iconic attractions include Christ the Redeemer and the famous Sugarloaf Mountain, both of which offer stunning views of the city and ocean.
The beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are always packed with people enjoying the ocean, swimming, and doing various water sports activities. Boat tours are available as well.
There are various food options, and there are also plenty of smaller towns within the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro if you need a break from city life. Rio offers a unique combination of hilly areas and the ocean, which is why it has such stunning views.
2. Machu Picchu, Peru
As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is one of the top tourist destinations in South America. These ancient Inca ruins are fascinating and provide a deeper look into indigenous South American culture and heritage.
Sitting at an elevation of over 7,700 feet, Machu Picchu offers out-of-this-world views to anyone who goes. Guided tours are available (and obligatory).
Since the number of permitted tourists per day is limited, it’s worth registering in advance. Machu Picchu is around 50 miles from the city of Cusco. Flights to Cusco are available from Lima, the capital.
3. Cusco, Peru
Most tourists combine a trip to Machu Picchu with a stay in Cusco, which offers an exciting experience.
From Spanish-language schools to small bars to delicious Peruvian cuisine to bustling markets, Cusco is worth a stay of at least a few days. However, it can sometimes get pretty cold, so take a jacket.
4. Medellín, Colombia
Medellín is one of the top destinations in Colombia. It features incredible nightlife and a fantastic opportunity to connect with other travelers through its language exchanges and hostels.
It is also a popular destination among digital nomads thanks to its many coffee shops with great internet and coworking spots. Take a day trip to Guatape and climb the 649 steps up the rock of Guatape, where you can see some beautiful views.
Medellín has many cozy hostels, Airbnbs, and hotels, ranging from budget options to luxury accommodations.
Other attractions include its world-class malls, numerous parks, and the famous Comuna 13 tour. Comuna 13 was once one of Medellín’s most dangerous neighborhoods, but the residents have cleaned it up, and it is now safe.
5. The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands offer a one-of-a-kind glimpse into wildlife and nature. From the iconic sea turtles to sea lions to manta rays, you can see all kinds of rare sea wildlife and fowl.
Charles Darwin made the Galápagos famous, as his visit significantly impacted his evolution theory. The Galápagos Islands are not cheap, so they’re not popular among budget travelers and backpackers, but they’re worth a visit.
The beautiful beaches and volcanoes are out of this world. Many travelers book a cruise, but cheaper tours exist as well. Trekking, snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving are some of the most popular activities there.
6. Manaus, Brazil
Manaus serves as a gateway to the Amazon region in Brazil, although the Amazon is also accessible from Colombia and Peru. A bustling city on the Amazon, Manaus is hot but offers an enjoyable nightlife scene and has friendly locals.
However, many people use Manaus as a stopover and book a tour or cruise down the Amazon. Many of these tours allow you to interact with indigenous tribes, giving you a glimpse into a culture most people never engage with.
You can also take a boat from Manaus to the twin towns of Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil).
The two cities are in different countries, but there is no border check between them, allowing for unrestricted access between the two. However, if you’d like to go further into any of the respective countries, you must pass through immigration.
7. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is a sophisticated city that bridges the divide between South American and European cultures. With some of the best restaurants in the world, wide boulevards, amazing clubs and bars, and a sophisticated metro system, Buenos Aires is the place to experience Argentinian culture and cuisine.
There are plenty of museums to visit, or you can take a tango class. You will never get bored in Buenos Aires — there are always new colorful neighborhoods to explore. Just walk around and let yourself get lost!
Patagonia is the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Part of it is in Chile, while the other is in Argentina. The views and landscapes will take your breath away. From icy glaciers to beautiful lakes and rivers, Patagonia is a nature lover’s paradise.
Various outdoor activities are also available, including horseback riding, kayaking, and trekking. You can watch penguins and visit the Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) National Park. Patagonia isn’t usually cheap, but it’s worth saving up money for.
9. Cartagena, Colombia
Another must-visit destination in Colombia is Cartagena, located on the Colombian coast. The coastal culture differs significantly from that in the Antioquia region, which includes Medellín.
People from the coastal region are Costeños, while people from the greater Medellín area are Paisas. The accent and cuisine are different as well. Cartagena is a touristic destination.
Its old city has great nightlife and is worth a walk-through. The various beaches and islands are easily accessible, and plenty of cheap seafood options exist. You haven’t really experienced Colombia if you haven’t visited the coastal region.
10. Santa Marta, Colombia
You can also visit Santa Marta, another city around five hours away from Cartagena by bus or car. Most people use Santa Marta as the gateway to the Parque Tayrona National Park.
Here, you can hike through the park or camp overnight in the designated camping spots. Others stay a night or two on the way to Minca, which is excellent for ecotourism lovers.
11. Bogotá, Colombia
Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, is also worth a short visit. The historical city center is worth walking through, although you shouldn’t wander around alone at night due to security concerns.
You can take the train or cable car up the Monserrate mountain, which offers stunning views of Colombia’s capital. Alternatively, visit Zona T, the nightlife area, where you’ll find clubs and bars.
More adventurous travelers can use the Transmilenio inter-city bus system for a local experience. However, since it can be complicated, you may be better off using Uber.
12. La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz is one of the most elevated capitals in the world, so be prepared for some elevation sickness before going. It’s worth it, though; you can use some local coca leaves or coca tea to ease the symptoms.
One reason to visit La Paz is to experience the indigenous culture, which is alive and well. Besides, it’s incredibly cheap and won’t break your budget.
13. Montevideo, Uruguay
Montevideo is the capital and largest city of the small country of Uruguay. It’s a historic city that has maintained its ancient feel, with beautiful architecture and fabulous festivals. In addition, it has a great music scene.
If you get bored, you can always visit Punta Del Este, Uruguay’s famous coastal city. It has crowded beaches and a bustling tourism scene.
14. São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo isn’t Brazil’s most beautiful city, but it’s worth a visit. The Greater São Paulo region has a population of over 22 million, and while many describe the city as a concrete jungle, it offers plenty of things to do.
Take a walk down bustling Avenida Paulista or try out some local Brazilian cuisine, which has influences from indigenous, African, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines.
15. Suriname and Guyana
Suriname and Guyana are the smallest countries in South America and receive very few visitors. While the capitals of Paramaribo and Georgetown can be dangerous at times, they’re usually safe to walk around during the day, especially if you have a tour guide.
One reason to visit either or both of these countries is that they are off the beaten track and give you a glimpse into the “other part” of South America with Dutch and English influence as opposed to those with Spanish and Portuguese influence.
Things to Consider
Is this your first time visiting South America? Let’s go over some things you should consider before your trip. First, it’s worth learning some Spanish (or Portuguese, if you’re visiting Brazil).
People tend not to speak English, so some basic Spanish will help you get around. Safety is always a concern in major Latin American cities. Carry a limited amount of cash with you, and don’t flaunt your wealth.
Avoid walking around at night or wandering into unknown neighborhoods. Other than that, have fun! There are a lot of misconceptions about Latin America, so it’s important not to make any judgments and go and experience it for yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most common questions we see from our readers about visiting South America:
What is the safest country in South America to visit?
Uruguay is the safest country to visit, with the lowest crime rates. However, in Latin America, being safe is more about knowing which area to stay in.
Which South American country is best to visit?
That depends on what you’re looking for. Colombia is often the first choice due to its biodiversity, tourism infrastructure, and flight availability to the US.
What is the best month to visit South America?
Most of South America is below the equator, so November to March are the best months to visit. However, many places are hot or cold all year round.
Is traveling to South America expensive?
Most of South America is relatively affordable, except for resort towns. However, some countries, like Brazil, tend to be more expensive than others, like Colombia.
Is it cheaper to travel to Asia or South America?
Asia, especially Southeast Asia, tends to be cheaper. That goes for food, accommodation, and transportation.
So, What’s the Best in South America?
The best countries to visit in South America are Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina. Since flying between countries can be expensive, you should only choose one to three countries per trip and hit the top spots in those countries.
Doing this will give you time to enjoy them to the fullest. So what are you waiting for — book your trip to South America today!