South America is vast. Expect brutal bus journeys. Plan for things not to go to plan. Leave yourself time to stop and delve beneath the surface. Talk to locals and other travellers. Quite simply, the best of South America isn’t always what you read in the guidebook. In truth, it can be that place or adventure that you just weren’t expecting.
Three years ago, I was a first time visitor. Now, although I may not get back for a while, I want to share the highlights of the continent. The locations are both on and off-the-beaten-track. From urban cool to rural rustic, these are experiences I’d like every traveller to have in South America. For me, personally, these places and experiences constitute the best of South America.
The Best of South America- Urban Cool
Buenos Aires, Argentina
A is for Argentina. BA is for Buenos Aires, a head-spinning introduction to the continent. Often the first port of call, BA is South America with an Italian twist. Soak in the vibrancy of San Telmo on a Sunday afternoon. Tango on El Caminito in La Boca. Down a coffee in the former theatre that has been voted one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops. Buenos Aires has something for everyone.
La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz has found its groove. Although the Lonely Planet made it sound like a hell hole, I visited in 2015. Yet, once there, it was a city that captured my imagination. Steep streets. An impossible location. A ‘witches’ market’. Colourful textiles. In short, the city was simply crazy. Today, it’s being touted as one of the best value urban destinations on the planet. Yeah, I agree. Did I mention all the adventure activities nearby?
Okay, it’s touristy! For example, the ‘Inka’ poses with tourists in front of the temple walls. However, it’s got panache once you scratch the surface. The barrio of San Blas, in particular, is a delightful maze of ancient stone alleyways. Vegans and vegetarians are spoiled for choice. D’Wasi is a delight for coffee lovers. Throw the truly local San Pedro market into the blend. You’ve just got to go to Cusco!
Old Town Quito, Ecuador
First, you may be afraid. Then, you may be petrified. Quito comes with a few travel warnings attached. However, it’s a city you’ll never forget. The Old Town has possibly some of the best preserved colonial architecture on the continent. The Cathedral, Basilica del Voto Naciónal- this city’s churches are surely among the best in South America…
Bogotá. It’s true that its mountainous location and cool climate can be a bit off-putting at first. Yet, like so much of Colombia, it’s got great coffee. A sprawling metropolis, see it all with the pilgrims and day-trippers on Montserrate. Bogotá is a city that slowly unveils its charms.
Once synonymous with murder and mayhem, contemporary Medellín has found its élan. Forget Escobar! The city today hosts a colourful Flower Festival. El Poblado attracts foreign visitors and upwardly mobile locals. In addition to this, the metro and the urban escalators make the city accessible to everyone. An example to the rest of South America, for travellers, it’s surely also among the best of South America.
The Best of South America- The Great Outdoors
Iguazú Falls, Argentina and Brazil
Straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, Iguazú Falls is perhaps one of the most striking sights on the face of the globe. In fact, the falls are so extensive that a cloud of mist hangs in the air all around them. Consequently, there are often rainbows at every angle. Aquatic adventures and hiking trails abound. See the panoramas from Brazil. Experience the falls up close in Argentina. One thing’s guaranteed. Iguazú Falls are unforgettable.
The lungs of the planet. Although the bulk of the rainforest is in Brazil, nine countries share the Amazon. In many ways, it’s a place apart. Stay in a traditional community and experience the beauty of nature at its rawest. Surely, all travellers to South America should visit the Amazon at least once…
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia and Peru
The birthplace of the Incas. Lake Titicaca is apparently the highest navigable lake in the world. Get an insight into local culture on the Uros Islands of Peru or get a bird’s eye view of everything from the top of Cerro Calvario in Copacabana, Bolivia. At 3,208m above sea level, this is a place that takes your breath away.
Quello Mayo, Peru
A tiny hamlet near a river, Quello Mayo is like a retreat. Take a walk upriver. Pick coffee, roast coffee and drink coffee. This is a haven for coffee lovers and those who just want to get off-the-beaten-track. The setting is idyllic. And it’s only a stone’s throw from Machu Picchu.
Mindo Cloud Forest, Ecuador
Mindo Cloud Forest is only a short ride from Quito. However, make no mistake, it’s a world away from the capital. Hike through cloud forest. Take in a frogs’ concert. Trek between waterfalls. This is another great place to get away from the world.
Coffee Country, Colombia
Trek to the fincas of Salento. Hike through national parks and see giant palm trees. Get your 360 degree views from the mirador in Filandia. Then, confront your vertigo at the top of Colombia’s tallest cathedral in Manizales before setting off to the heritage town of Salamina. Colombia’s one of the world’s hottest destinations right now. Visitors to Coffee Country know why.
The Best of South America- Small Town South America
Cobblestones. A town built on the Incan foundations with the ever-present tinkling of streams. A valley dominated by an impressive fortress. Ollantaytambo, it’s a place many pass through on the way to Machu Picchu or a quick stop on a bus tour of the Sacred Valley. Those who stay won’t regret their choice!
Even in a colourful country like Colombia, the bright pastels of Guatapé are simply dazzling. Climb the nearby Piedra del Peñol to get incredible views over the lake and the emerald green hues of the surrounding countryside. Whether you prefer zip lining over a lake or sipping down organic coffee, you’ll just love this spot.
Although it’s only a few hours from Manizales, the main hub of the Colombian Coffee Triangle, Salamina showcases the best of rural Colombia. A National Heritage town, it’s a place of colourful facades, quirky locals, and simply stunning nature. Make sure to do a day trip to San Felix to see the wax palm forest of La Samaria. Then, stop on the way back to see Salamina from the mirador. Of all the places I visited in South America, I can say that this was the one that stole my heart. Go before the crowds arrive!
Welcome to the Hotel California of South America! Travellers plan on spending a few days here, but days quickly become weeks. Think brilliant white buildings, markets, indigenous people and a lively central plaza. Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, may not be big like La Paz. However, it’s got charm and character. Put simply, Sucre seduces!
Quirky, thy name is Cotacachi! This small Ecuadorian town specialises in leather products. However, it’s also got a lively and authentic local market. A small but significant number of US retirees call Cotacachi home, so there’s a developing café scene. In addition, it’s also possible to stay with a local Kich’wa family under the shadow of a volcano outside town. Indeed, some of the best of South America unfolds in unexpected surprises. Cotacachi is surely that!
The Best of South America- Adventures
Death Road, Bolivia
Careening down a steep 54 km road might appear to be a strange vacation activity at the best of times. Nevertheless, with scenery that starts at an alpine lake in the high Andes and ends in a subtropical valley, El Camino de la Muerte is definitely one of the greatest adventures in South America. Indeed, it easily fits the tag- the best of South America.
Machu Picchu, Peru
These ruins are a symbol of international travel. Visit as part of a tour group or undertake a hike through the Sacred Valley. Regardless of the level of adventure involved, seeing a sunrise or a sunset over Machu Picchu will be a memory that lives on forever.
The Sacred Valley, Peru
Zooming around the Sacred Valley in colectivos or taxis is an unforgettable experience. Alternatively, as suggested above, hike it on the way to Machu Picchu. However, you must know one thing. The fort at Pisac, the salt ponds of Maras, the bizarre Inca crop circles at Moray, the textile markets of Chinchero- the Sacred Valley is so much more than just Machu Picchu. Along with the rest of the continent, discover it now!
The Best of South America- More Resources
iPeru, the country’s official tourist portal, is a great place to get started on planning your trip to the country.
Along Dusty Roads is an amazing introduction to Latin America- be inspired!
The Wandering Wagars have travelled quite a bit and they provide an insight into family travel on the continent.
Travel Independent is a warts and all view of independent travel- they love South America!
Have you been to South America? Have you got tips or experiences to share? If so, share them here! Leave a comment below or send your story to me by email at Unlatinoverde@gmail.com.
Next Post: Monday, January 29th, 2018