South America is a wholly underrated travel destination. Despite having the attractions and the low cost of travel to match Southeast Asia, the backpackers there are far fewer. But hey, all the better for you.
When it comes to travel, it's not just about going there and ticking off the 'seen it' box. It's also about what you can experience too. So, following my post about South America’s most chill towns, I'm delving into the opposite end of the spectrum with this post all about adventures, hikes, bicycle trails, food and some of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever seen.
Since I’ve only visited the west coast of South America, popular destinations like Rio de Janeiro will be absent but I had so many cool experiences in the countries that I saw, that I never felt like I missed out. You can get more detailed information about travel in South America here.
Here it is, my top 20 places to visit in South America:
20 - Photograph the street art in Valparaiso, Chile
There’s no other way to say it, Valparaiso is cool. The street art slathered over this jumbled city captures the spirit of South American culture. Take a free walking tour (tour for tips) to have a local guide you around all the hidden street art locations.
19 - Stand on the equator in Ecuador
You really can’t bypass the equator without putting one foot in the Northern and one in the Southern Hemisphere. US$3 entry fee plus bus tickets from Quito ($0.50 if memory serves correctly). There are funny little games you can play onsite like pouring water down a sink to see which direction the water runs or playing with magnets.
18 - Celebrate colour in Guatape, Colombia
This quirky but pretty little town is perfect for lazy days on the lake and cycle trips into town for street food. Like Valparaiso, this is a town for walking.
17 - Hike in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park
Beautiful beaches, monkeys swinging in trees, tropical weather and rustic hiking trails, I don’t really need to sell it to you, do I? Entrance fee US$13, plus hammock/tent rental on site for around $5 a night.
16 - Stargaze in Vicuña and drink Chilean wine from the Elqui Valley
The Elqui Valley boasts world class wines and we bought delicious bottles of red wine for just a few dollars a bottle. The lack of light pollution in Northern Chile allows for large and futuristic observatories and tranquil stargazing tours, so tranquil in fact that I was too caught up in the moment to take photographs. US$5 for the tour, US$7 for a bottle of wine.
15 - Explore the hummingbird and butterfly farms in Mindo, Ecuador
A moment of repose in Mindo allowed us to observe the hummingbirds flit around the trees outside our window, and hike in the nearby cloud forests. US$6 for cable car and transport to the cloud forest, US$5 for access to local butterfly farms.
14 - Lounge on the world largest hammock in Minca, Colombia
While not particularly comfortable, this hammock overlooks the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Casa Elemento was one of my favourite hostels in South America. Book online at Hostel World - dorm beds $15p/n, private room $40p/n.
13 - Cycle down Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador
Another experience that I emerged myself into so fully that I have few photographs to show. We jumped on our bicycles near the top of the volcano and cycled down the scree, our tires skidding on the loose pebbles, before rolling into the muddy but beautiful Cotopaxi National Park. US$50 includes lunch, bike rental and transport to the volcano. We booked our tour with The biking Dutchman.
12 - Hunt for alpaca knit clothes in South American markets
A crucial part of the South American experience, wearing woolly llama patterned jumpers and knitted hats with pom poms. Ponchos are US$15-20, hats US$7, socks US$5
11 - Swim in the Laguna Cejar, and cycle and horse ride around San Pedro de Atacama Desert, Chile
The lagoon is salty and freezing, but beautiful. Horse riding and cycling around the Atacama Desert is a great budget activity for expensive Chile. Laguna Cejar is US$20, 2hr horse riding US$15, bicycle rental $5
10 - Wander around Coroico’s La Senda Verde animal sanctuary in Bolivia
We were given a tour of the sanctuary by other volunteers, and met monkeys, macaws and turtles who were brought to the sanctuary after being sold on the black market and abused as pets. If you’re considering volunteering in South America, check these guys out US$15 for a basic tour.
9 - Sail to Lake Titicaca’s floating Uros Islands, Peru
The inhabited floating Islands surrounding Taquile Island are made with reeds and we spent an afternoon here dining on freshly caught lake trout, watched local dance, and hiked around the main island. $22 for the tour
8 - Hike, cycle, raft and zip line your way to Machu Picchu on the Jungle Tour, Peru
An alternative to the Inca Trail that doesn’t require months of advance bookings, the jungle tour is a three day combination of adventure activities that will get you to Machu Picchu in style. US$450 buys three days of accommodation, food, activities, entrance tickets and transport home again. I highly recommend it and you can book a tour at a travel agency when you get to Cuzco.
7 - Climb Machu Picchu Mountain, Peru
To really see Machu Picchu from sky high, you'll need to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. For $10 you can buy a ticket and climb to the top (although if you're doing the three day hike to get there, you might be a little too tired to do it). You can still see the famous ruins in this photo but they're pretty small from up high.
6 - Cycle Death Road in Bolivia
The most dangerous road in the world entices adrenaline junkies to try their hand at cycling it. I was extremely nervous about riding this but it was totally fine and so much fun! Just don’t do anything dumb and you’ll be okay. $90 buys breakfast, a three course lunch, transport to and from the road, a guide, bike rental and safety gear. We went with Gravity Tours.
5 - Hike at Colca Canyon, Peru
I came close to skipping this because it seemed like another tourist trap, but Colca Canyon is gorgeous and even though we joined a tour, we were left to our own devices to explore the area for the afternoon, and given a delicious buffet lunch of typical Peruvian dishes. $20 for one day tour
4 - Sand board the dunes in Huacachina oasis in Peru
Another one I was nervous about because I’ve never boarded in any context, but it was easy, we just lay on our stomachs and shrieked our way to the bottom. US$15 for board rental and buggy trip to the tops of the dunes with a local tour agency.
3 - Snorkel with sea turtles in Peru
Turtles have a new fan. These sea turtles off the coast of Mancora in Northern Peru are huge! Some were as big as me, head to toe in length! While we weren’t able to touch them, they often floated into us and it was surreal to watch them swim circles around us. US$30 for transport, Go Pro photographs, snorkel gear, wetsuit and lunch.
2 - Camp in the Amazon Jungle, Bolivia
The Amazon. Every feeling and image you conjure up at the name is true. It’s sweltering, full of bugs and the most fascinating creatures, and the first place I’ve been to where I’ve felt truly vulnerable as a human being. We hunted anaconda snakes, fished for piranha, hiked in the dark past glowing eyes, swam in caiman infested waters, and watched the large bulbous sun set over the jungle every evening. $65 for three days all inclusive – Bolivia is the cheapest country to access the Amazon
1 - Drive across the Salar de Uyuni Salt flats in a 4WD, Bolivia
For three days we rocked across the acrid plains of Bolivia’s desert. We zigzagged between crystal clear lakes of varying colours, around mountains and geysers and cacti to find flamingos in abundance. We froze at nights, thawed with hot cups of coca leaf teas, and played with perspective on the salt lakes. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. US$100 all-inclusive for three days.
There was so much more to add that I could have extended this list to 50! – Cities with stunning architecture, gruesome museums with mummies and shrunken heads, Andean soups, petting alpacas, hammocks and beaches and ruins and hikes and people.
When I asked him, Jack’s top experiences were less specific. As someone who had never backpacked before, he lived up the party life on the beaches of Colombia and enjoyed the social life of living in a hostel, and all the nature related activities like searching for wildlife in the amazon and petting the stray dogs.
It’s all comes down to personal experience. These activities were my favourite because they offered up some unusual photography experiences or pushed me out of my comfort zone. Sometimes they touched me in a way that I find difficult to explain, like I’d found the equivalent of a destinational soulmate; a town, a beach, a city that spoke to me and said:
Pin it to your South America travel board: