Machu Picchu, the Galapagos & other must-see South American destinations


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Without a doubt, South America is one of my favorite continents on this planet. South America has some of the most diverse scenery in the world, which is why it has been said on many occasions that South America is an explorer’s paradise. And I completely agree with that assertion.

With our time on this earth being limited, one of the best ways to spend it is by venturing out to this spectacular region on our planet. So the burning question is, What should I not miss when I go to South America? In this blog post, I narrow down my 10 favorite must-see bucket-list attractions so that you can prioritize which sites to visit based on your (limited) time and interest. Indeed, all of these phenomenal sites blew me away.

My travels across this incredible region have led me to discover so many extraordinary highlights – marvelous towering peaks, iconic lost ancient empires, wondrously scrumptious cuisine, and pristinely lush jungles – splattered everywhere in this spectacularly scenic and geographically diverse continent.

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Stunning South America

In the past decade, my love affair with this continent made me return at least eigh times, providing me with countless opportunities to travel extensively all over – from its northernmost tip in Colombia to the southernmost region of Patagonia. I still have quite a lot of ground to cover, but for now, I’d like to list out the creme de la creme or the best of the best in this breathtaking continent and absolutely worthy of every traveler’s bucket list! These are the sites that you should not miss when venturing out to this enthralling continent.

While I have to underscore that my choices are subjective, I have also devoted an inordinate amount of time reading travel blogs and browsing travel guides about South America that certainly give merit to my selections.

With that said, I would be remiss if I do not mention that I have not visited all the countries on this continent. Therefore, please use this list simply as a reference or a jumping-off point to assist you with your trip planning, rather than the definitive guide to South America.

  • Countries Visited:  Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay
  • I have yet to visit the following countries: Venezuela, Paraguay, Suriname, French Guiana, and Guyana

Image Credit: StreetFlash/istockphoto.

1. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

It is quite fitting that my first destination in South America lands the top spot on my top 10 list. The Galapagos Islands are a cluster of volcanic islets located about 600 miles west of South America’s western shore and belonging to Ecuador. They’ve been labeled a natural wonder because of the incredible variety of plant and animal life that thrive there – most of which has never been documented elsewhere.

The islands were listed as a World Heritage site because they contain some of the world’s greatest examples of biological diversity, with many endemic flora and fauna. If you love viewing wildlife in their natural habitat, these islands should not be missed.  It is also the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The opportunity to observe various animals here in close proximity is totally unparalleled.

Here, I got to witness fearless endangered birds mating at point-blank, snorkel with sharks and somersaulting sea lions and walk alongside humungous tortoises and hundreds of iguanas. Yet a lot of travelers make the mistake of visiting only one island and then swiftly flying back to the mainland. Sadly, this is tantamount to flying to Africa only to see elephants; it barely scratches the surface.

My recommendation is to take a multi-day cruise with a naturalist on board. These wildlife experts give so much vital information about the critical history of the islands and why they matter in the context of understanding the metamorphosis of living beings. The cruise also provides an opportunity to visit far-flung secluded islands for a chance to see endangered wildlife that can only be found in this part of the globe.

There are about 18 main islands that make up the Galapagos. But most flights from the mainland arrive at Baltra Island. The cruise I took had an eight-day itinerary that visited 10 islands. Suffice to say, it was worth every penny!

Image Credit: Konstik / iStock.

My Galapagos Islands Cruise Itinerary

  • Day 1: Baltra – North Seymour for the blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.
  • Day 2: Chinese Hat for red Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, lava lizards and sealions / BARTOLOMÉ ISLAND for Galapagos penguins.
  • Day 3: Genovese: Prince Phillips Steps – Darwin Bay for birds and snorkeling (and a chance to see hammerhead sharks)
  • Day 4: Puerto Egas – Rabida for pelicans and finches
  • Day 5:  Darwin Station – Highlands of Santa Cruz for giant tortoises
  • Day 6: Española: Pta. Suarez – Playa Gardner for waved albatrosses, blue-footed boobies, and amazing snorkeling.
  • Day 7: Santa Fe – South Plaza for marine and land iguanas and geckos.
  • Day 8: Black Turtle Cove for green turtles, sharks, and manta rays (only accessible via panga or motorized dinghy)

My favorite island: bird sanctuary Genovesa, where endemic Galapagos owls and red-footed boobies reside.

Image Credit: LFPuntel / iStock.

2. Chilean Patagonia (W-Trek)

Patagonia is one of my favorite outdoor destinations in the world, so much so that I had already visited twice. The iconic five-day “W-Trek” through Torres Del Paine National Park remains my most memorable multi-day hike ever.

There are not enough superlatives to sufficiently encapsulate our experience here. Hence, it is not a surprise that the W-Trek is consistently ranked as one of South America’s spellbinding highlights.

Arguably, Torres Del Paine National Park is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, with its rolling hills, endless lakes and snowcapped peaks. And I’ve hiked everywhere. The colors are so vivid that you feel as if you’re in a middle of a dream or in a movie. But this isn’t just some tourist attraction- there are plenty of things to do here for all different types of travelers.

Whether you want to backpack through Patagonian forests or take in the views from a boat tour on Lake Pehoe, the World Trek has an outdoor adventure waiting for you!

Nevertheless, the main tourist draw here is the W-trek. This spectacular mountain circuit should not be missed; however, it is certainly no walk in the park though. But if you’re seeking a thrilling adventure and willing to hike great distances, this will undoubtedly be an experience you will remember for a lifetime.

At any rate, Torres del Paine National Park has also been designated as a World Heritage Site, and it’s not too hard to see why. It’s an adventurer’s dreamland.

While the weather can be unpredictable due to its geographical location, your odds of getting fantastic trekking conditions increase when you visit during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season, which is between November and February.

Blessed with relatively calm weather and unusually uncrowded trails, my friends and I cherished splendid views of glistening glaciers, scenic valleys, and majestic peaks since we trekked in December.

Despite the generally sunny climate, however, there were a few hours of rain and periodic strong winds so it is better to come prepared. I suggest packing a rain jacket and layers of extra clothing.

My other recommendation is to book refugios (shared accommodations) the moment they open for reservations around April or May to cut costs. Otherwise, all alternative accommodations will be high-end and thus astronomically expensive.

Image Credit: kavram / istockphoto.

Suggested 5-day W-Trek Itinerary

How To Get To Patagonia: There are frequent direct flights from Santiago, Chile to Punta Arenas, the gateway to Chilean Patagonia.

Day 1:

  • AM: Leave Puerto Natales. Take the early bus to the Park Entrance. Take the Catamaran across Lago (Lake) Pehoe.
  • PM: Hike north towards Glacier Grey.
  • Sleep: Refugio Glacier Grey.

Day 2:

  • AM – Walk up to Glacier Grey for stupendous views. Check-out.
  • PM – Hike south towards the Catamaran dock where Refugio Paine Grande is located.
  • Sleep: Refugio Paine Grande.

Day 3:

  • AM: Early Check-Out. Hike to Campo Italiano & leave backpacks at the camp. Hike the French Valley to Mirador Britanico.
  • PM: Return to Campo Italiano to grab backpacks. Hike to Refugio Los Cuernos.
  • Sleep: Refugio Los Cuernos

Day 4:

  • AM: Hike towards Refugio Los Chilenos. Check-in at the Refugio.
  • PM: Sunset hike to Torres Del Paine.
  • Sleep: Refugio Los Chilenos

Day 5:

  • AM: Optional Sunrise hike to Torres Del Paine. Check-out. Hike back to the park entrance.
  • PM: Take the bus back to Puerto Natales
  • Do not miss: Glacier Grey, the French Valley, and the astonishing Torres.

Image Credit: Encrier / iStock.

3. Iguazu Falls

Straddling between Argentina and Brazil, the mighty Iguazu Falls will certainly exceed all of a traveler’s many expectations. It is considered to be one of South America’s bucket-list destinations because it gives tourists a chance to witness one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls in person.

Tne Iguazu Falls are located on the border between Argentina and Brazil, with over 275 individual falls that stretch across 2 kilometers. The amount of water flowing over these falls is staggering, with some days seeing more than 10 million gallons cascading down. To put it into perspective, that’s enough water to fill up an Olympic-sized swimming pool every second!

Iguazu Falls also offer visitors amazing views from above as well as below. Visitors can take a helicopter tour or walk along catwalks suspended high above the torrential waters to get an aerial view of the Falls. The Argentine side of the falls flows over a long canyon with no obstructions standing between the water and onlookers. Strategically positioned walkways wrap around the waterfalls even reaching within arm’s length of the principal highlight, the astounding Devil’s Throat.

The Devil’s Throat is a narrow canyon in Iguazu, where the water plunges over a cliff and down into an abyss. The name comes from one of its most interesting features: it seems to be shaped like a devil’s mouth, with two rows of sharp teeth that hang off either side. If you only have one day to spend at Iguazu falls, definitely make a beeline for this breathtaking section of the park. Devil’s Throat should not be missed on your trip to South America.

Other than flying above and walking alongside these exhilarating falls, there are also boat tours that perilously approach the point where the falls hit the river if you are so adventurously inclined. On the other hand, the Brazilian side of the falls pours over cliffs carved out by subterranean lava flows. This bedrock has eroded over time, leaving behind several unique viewing points each with its own perspective of the waterfalls.

You can reach the Brazilian side by taking a public bus. I highly recommend crossing over to the Brazilian side for the mere opportunity to see a panoramic view of the falls in all its glory, if you have the luxury of time.

There are also junctures where you can see all three South American countries at once: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay! In short, it might seem like there are no words to describe this sight but we assure you that the beauty of this waterfall is just as jaw-dropping.

Spend a minimum of 2 nights to give yourself ample time to thoroughly explore this astounding natural wonder. Do not miss both sides!

How To Get to Iguazu Falls:

  • Argentina: Fly from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu
  • Brazil: Fly from any city in Brazil to Foz Do Iguazu

Image Credit: ivotheeditors/ istockphoto.

4. Argentinian Patagonia

The Argentinian side of Patagonia pales a little bit in comparison to its more popular brother across the border, but do not think twice about including this on your bucket list.

The showstopper here is the Perito Moreno Glacier. Numerous tours are on offer including hiking on top of it and through it. There is also a walkway that ushers you in the front row of the glacier to witness one of the most breathtaking shows on this continent – the roaring collapse of the glacier’s facade and its eventual union with the ocean.

If you do not have time for a multi-day trek, I’d consider going to Argentinian Patagonia instead. In fact, you can’t really go to Patagonia without seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier. This glacier is over 60 kilometers in length and is one of the most well-known sights in South America. The ice field around it also provides a beautiful backdrop for hiking, skiing, biking, or just relaxing with friends.

It also has an interesting history that you might find interesting if you are into geology! The name “Perito Moreno” comes from Francisco Pascasio Moreno who was born on March 4th 1854 near Buenos Aires Argentina. He grew up to be a renowned explorer and naturalist who traveled through many parts of the world including Antarctica where he discovered new species of animals and helped map out territory for Argentina’s government by exploring much of the South American continent. Perito Moreno is located in the massive Los Glaciares National Park, where ice covers almost 50% of the surface land.

We flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate to get here. As previously mentioned, Southern Hemisphere’s summer (North America’s winter) is the recommended season to visit although it’s also the most crowded. Bravely, we visited this region during the tail end of winter (August), so despite the freezing temperatures, the landscape was a tad more surreal because of the absence of the proverbial tourist flock.

Another recommended tour is to go up close to Upsala Glacier, firstly, for bragging rights, Upsala is the largest glacier in South America. But not for long: It is rapidly receding at an unstoppable rate because of global warming. Visit now while you still can.

Another highlight in this area is El Chalten, the trekking capital of Argentian Patagonia. Located about 220 km from El Calafate, this is a must-visit if you love hiking. Popular trekking spots include Laguna Torre and the base of Fitz Roy.

Image Credit: marktucan/istockphoto.

5. The Inca Trail: Machu Picchu

Machu Pichu in Peru is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South America. It’s also been voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and it’s not hard to see why this archeological site should not be missed. The city was built around 1450 by the Inca people, who were highly advanced for their time, with roads paved with stones that we still marvel at today.

Machu Pichu means “the old town,” and its significance isn’t just because it’s so old, but also because it’s so well preserved. Many buildings are still standing, despite centuries of earthquakes and natural disasters that destroyed other structures nearby. That makes Machu Picchu an even more valuable site for historians and archaeologists to study than if it had crumbled into dust.

The classic four-day Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu was no easy feat, but visiting crumbling Incan ruins in the middle of the Andes highlands made the effort and sweat worthwhile.

Machu Picchu and its cousin Huayna Picchu are a must-see. If you plan to embark on the Inca Trek, avoid the month of February. Not only is it the wettest month of the year, but the government also closes the trail for repair. For those who are not into multi-day treks, Machu Pichu can also be comfortably accessed via train, which is available year-round.

All Inca treks originate from charming Cusco, the former Incan capital and Spanish colonial town. With layers of rich history visible at every corner, Cusco deserves a minimum of two nights, with the first night entirely devoted to acclimation since it is located 11,152 feet above sea level. Cusco is also near the famed Sacred Valley, which boasts a few well-preserved archaeological sites.

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6. Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

Travelers from all over the world are instantly drawn to this bucket list destination in South America. Salar De Uyuni is a surreal landscape of salt flats that stretch as far as the eye can see, and it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.

To say that Salar De Uyuni is otherworldly is an understatement. There is nothing like this anywhere in the world. Salar de Uyuni is a high-altitude salt flat in Bolivia, the world’s largest. It sits at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level and covers 10,582 square kilometers.

Vast, surreal and magical, Salar does not disappoint those who decide to embark on this brutally demanding trip across high-altitude terrain. If you have the tolerance to endure some discomfort and inconveniences, then you should not be miss Salar De Uyuni when your travels take you to South America. Salar de Uyuni is also home to some fascinating wildlife, including flamingos and Andean foxes, which live here year-round.

While there isn’t much to do at Salar de Uyuni besides take pictures or go for walks across its infinite expanse, travelers who come here often end up saying it was one of their favorite trips ever!

Be aware, though, that altitude sickness and hypothermia are not uncommon in this region of the globe, so appropriate caution is recommended. The elements at this altitude are incredibly harsh, almost bordering at unbearable, so manage your expectations accordingly.

The gateway to this breathtaking natural phenomenon is the Bolivian city of Uyuni, located in Bolivia’s antiplano (high plains). Various tours are marketed at virtually every storefront in Uyuni’s main drag, from day trips to cross-country voyages that terminate in Chile. If you have the motivation and the lungs to rough it out, I recommend taking the three-day tour to San Pedro Atacama. Along the way, you’ll see stunning volcanos, colorful lakes and hundreds of flamingos. For tips on how to prepare for this journey, here’s my post on 5 Essential Tips to Survive Salar De Uyuni.

Image Credit: pabliscua/istockphoto.

7. Easter Island

Easter Island or Rapa Nui is famous for its 887 extant monumental statues, called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people. But what makes this island so special?

Easter Island is a bucket list destination because it has something to offer everyone! Whether you are looking to explore or relax on your vacation, there is plenty to do and see. The natural beauty of this island will leave you breathless with awe as you take in the sights like volcanoes and beaches made out of black sand!

But the chief tourist magnets are the majestic moais. The moais were carved from volcanic rock and erected on ceremonial sites around the island. Not a lot is known as to why they were constructed so this mystery just adds to the allure of the islands.

But how did these ancient people manage to create such incredible works of art? It turns out, they had help. The Rapa Nui people most likely used trees as a guide in order to find straight lines and create symmetrical shapes with their stone tools. This is a feat that modern-day artists struggle with! To this day, no one knows why the Rapa Nui stopped carving these statues or what caused them to disappear, but there’s still plenty left to explore on this beautiful bucket list destination.

The moais are not the only reason to visit these islands, though; there are also plenty of hiking and swimming opportunities, including a chance to dip in Anakena beach with moais standing by ashore like lifeguards.

Devote about three to four days to thoroughly explore the island. Public transport is almost non-existent in the islands so prepare to hitchhike or join a private tour. We also rented a car for a day to explore the hard-to-reach moais.

Do not miss: Sunrise in Ahu Tongariki.

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8. Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Rio De Janeiro is one of the most iconic cities in the world. With its white-sand beaches, tropical climate and lively culture, Rio has long been a bucket list destination for many travelers. Idyllically set where the mountains and the ocean converge, Rio De Janeiro is the only urban center that made it to my top to list, and deservedly so.

There are plenty of things to do and places to see while visiting this city. With mile-long, world-famous beaches that are also household names, Rio also boasts the spectacular Sugar Loaf and the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. As one of the most iconic landmarks of Rio De Janeiro, “Christ The Redeemer” is a statue at the top of Corcovado Mountain that has become one of the main symbols of not only the city but also the whole country. In fact, it has been named one of the new Seven Wonders Of The World, which makes it a must-see in Rio De Janeiro.

Another major attraction in Rio De Janeiro is Sugarloaf Mountain. This mountain contains two peaks that together form an unlikely shape that resembles an old-fashioned loaf of sugar. Sugarloaf is the quintessential trademark of Rio’s landscape and a bucket list destination for many. It offers spectacular views of Rio’s world-famous beaches and urban sprawl. The best way to get there is by cable car which takes you through lush foliage before settling at its breathtaking summit in just seven minutes.

For those who are curious, Buenos Aires, Medellin, Cartagena and Santiago are all phenomenal cities in their own right, but Rio easily blows all of the competition out of the water.

Pro Tip: Don’t let these astounding sites distract you though as petty thieves abound. Enjoy your trip in this exhilarating city, but exercise caution so you do not lose your phone and your amazing Rio pictures!

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9. Atacama Desert, Chile

South America is majestically blessed with enigmatic landscapes, and Atacama Desert in the northern tip of slender Chile fits this description well.

The Atacama Desert has long been considered as one of the best travel destinations in South America. This desert has become a prime tourist destination due to its vast array of attractions. Activities like hiking, climbing volcanoes, stargazing, observing wildlife (such as llamas, pumas and flamingos), and visiting geysers are among the top things to do here.

It’s one of the driest places on Earth and, as such, has some of the oldest living organisms on Earth, including five-million-year-old trees. The region also features numerous volcanoes and lava fields that are fueled by geothermal activity deep below the surface. It’s an ideal place for those who want to explore the untouched wilderness without having to venture too far from civilization.

San Pedro De Atacama, a tourist hub, is where all the tours and gourmet restaurants are located.

Frugal Tip: The tours are all negotiable. Haggle and shop around. This trip can be combined with No. 6 (Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia).

Do Not Miss: El Tatio Geyser

Take the tour that goes to El Tatio Geyser. This is a must-see destination for anyone who loves geothermal activity and places that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. This geothermal field is located at the feet of the Andes Mountains, some 12 kilometers from Chile’s border with Argentina. Tours typically leave Atacama an hour before sunrise and is only available seasonally due to its extreme weather conditions.

However, that doesn’t stop people from making the visit when it’s possible because this place has some fascinating features like steam vents that shoot boiling water up into the air as high as 100 meters tall! Its unique geological formations are also worth exploring on foot if you have the time, which you should definitely budget if planning an extended stay in the Atacama Desert.

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10. Isla Magdalena, Chile

Isla Magdalena is a small, remote island off the southern tip of Chile. It’s not easy to get there but it was worth every second. This island is technically still within Chilean Patagonia, but since this was such an indelible experience, I prefer that it occupies its own mark inside the top 10. This sanctuary is one of the best spots in the world to witness Magellanic penguins, hundreds of them, waddling and going about their daily routine.

The island can be accessed via organized boat tours from Punta Arenas, Chile, a highly recommended detour before or after trekking the terrific W-Trek (see No. 2).


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