Must See South America Attractions
1. Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is arguably the most recognizable and most well known attraction in South America. The ancient city hidden in the clouds of Andes in Peru has attracted travelers for years. This amazing site can be visited in a number of different ways, from day trips to challenging multi-day hikes to luxury train rides. However you choose to visit Machu Picchu is sure to leave you speechless.
2. Inca Trail
One of the most popular ways to get to Machu Picchu is via the Inca Trail. This ancient trek is a challenge, but generally doable if you are in basically good shape. Though it is ill-advised to attempt the Inca Trail after zero training. Make sure you have at least a few months of hiking or stairmaster under your belt! Ideally practicing in an area of high altitude.
The Inca Trail is a spectacular experience as you literally tread in the footsteps of the ancient Inca. Typically Inca Trail tours take between 3-4 days. It’s important to note that traffic along the trail is heavily restricted and highly regulated. Only 500 people a day are permitted on the Inca Trail - this includes porters and guides - leaving room for roughly 300 tourists.
3. Rio de Janeiro
Rio is a top “must see” destination for many traveling to South America. Known for the recognizable “Christ the Redeemer” statue at the top of Corcovado Mountain, as well as the famous “carnaval” festivities, Rio is widely considered as somewhere that the party doesn’t stop. Still dangerous in some neighborhoods, it’s definitely a place best visited on a tour. Nearby are the musically immortalized Copacabana and Ipanema beaches - heavily touristed yet still a fun outing.
4. Galapagos Islands
When one thinks of South America’s top attractions, one may only consider the mainland continent. But one should reconsider. The Galapagos are without a doubt one of the most fascinating destinations on earth. Home to incredible biodiversity, as well as historically significant, the Galapagos are best visited via small ship cruise.
The wildlife here has never had cause to fear humans, and have thrived for centuries - meaning that they literally roam about without ceremony (like they might if they had been trained). If wildlife photography is your thing, you couldn’t ask for a better situation.
Patagonia has grown rapidly in popularity among travelers. Serious hikers are going to enjoy traveling here the most - many South America travel companies offer (or even specialize in) intense camping journeys through Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park. Patagonia as a region covers Argentina and Chile, and is notable for stunning formations of and bright blue ice. Yet another attraction in South America that needs to be seen to be believed.
6. Amazon River
The enigmatic Amazon, with its miles upon miles of dense jungle, hidden tribes, and diverse wildlife, is a sight to behold. Often visited via river cruise, the Amazon rainforest is perfect for those travelers who are interested in nature, conservation, eco friendly travel, and of course wildlife.
You can visit The Amazon any time of year, but the wet season vs the dry season will make a difference in what you see. The wet season means more byways are open for your river cruise vessel to traverse, but conversely some hiking opportunities may not be available because the ground is too wet.
Like many cities in South America, Cartagena Colombia once held a reputation for being unsafe for travelers. Today the city has shaken it’s ugly past and is an extremely popular attraction in South America. Heavily influenced by Spanish colonialism, the Old Town of Cartagena is a small walled city with a distinctly European feel, right down to the cobblestones.
Shops, churches, restaurants and cafes mean you could spend your whole tour within these walls, but there’s so much more to see. Take a boat ride to the white sand beaches for an afternoon of bliss or venture outside the tourist district for a glimpse at local Colombian life (it is not advisable to do this without your guide).
8. Iguassu Falls
Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her awe at seeing Iguassu by saying “poor Niagara!” That should tell you something! This incredible waterfall is actually claimed by both Argentina and Brazil as it actually spans the border. Many walkways surround the falls offering many different vantage points for that perfect photograph. A common excursion for multi day tours in South America, this is one of those attractions you just have to see to believe.
9. Bolivian Salt Flats
You’ve seen the images. A sheer reflective surface flat and stretching to the horizon, reflecting the sky such that people appear to be walking on air...literally. This optical illusion also allows for countless forced perspective shots - and they can get pretty creative! The Bolivian salt flats are famous for their photographic potential, but are also great fun for jeep rides across the expansive empty landscape.
10. Easter Island
Another enigmatic archaeological site in South America, Easter Island has puzzled historians for centuries. Recent discoveries have revealed that the large stone heads rising out the ground, on an island off the coast of Chile, were even larger than previously thought. Tours to Easter Island are generally one or two day excursions, often part of a larger tours that include Patagonia and Chile.