15 Stunning UNESCO Sites You Need to Visit in South America

Salto Hacha at Canaima Lagoon, Venezuela
Salto Hacha at Canaima Lagoon, Venezuela | © Stig Nygaard/Flickr
Photo of Sorcha O'Higgins
30 November 2017

South America is a huge continent with a wealth of incredible sites, both natural and manmade. There is no shortage of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit on this vast landmass; here’s our rundown of the best ones to head for.

Cusco, Peru

This Inca city is smack bang in the middle of the Peruvian Andes and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. When it was established, in the 15th century, it was unusual in that it had defined religious and administrative functions incorporated into its design. It was the capital of the Inca Empire and had a unique and unprecedented urban complexity, and this was preserved even after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Cusco is notable for its well-preserved colonial and baroque buildings as much as for the pre-Hispanic settlement.

Cusco cathedral | © Pedro Szekely/Flickr

Iguazu National Park, Argentina/Brazil

This national park straddles the border of Argentina and Brazil and is home to one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls, the Iguazu Falls. Over 250 waterfalls crash over the edge of a semicircular opening in the earth, surrounded by lush jungle that is home to a myriad of wildlife.

Iguazu National Park | © Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Flickr

Glaciers National Park, Argentina

This immense park is located in southern Argentine Patagonia and is home to the famous Perito Moreno glacier, one of the only glaciers in the world that is still advancing. Feeding into the Lago Argentino, the Perito Moreno is the area’s main tourist attraction, but there are plenty of other glaciers to be admired here, too. Witnessing the thunderous rupture of the Perito Moreno glacier is surely one of the most memorable things you can experience in your lifetime.

Glaciers National Park | © Jorge Láscar/Flickr

Cartagena, Colombia

This Caribbean city in Colombia was listed in 1984, owing to its impressive collection of ports, fortresses and monuments. The city’s claim to fame is its heavily developed military fortifications, which are among the most complex in South America. The port city is located strategically on a bay, and it was one of the finest examples of military architecture of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Cartagena was also an important point for explorers looking for the New World.

The leafy passageways of Cartagena, Colombia | © Reg Natarajan / Flickr

Easter Island, Chile

Rapa Nui to the locals, Easter Island to everyone else, this mythical island made it onto the UNESCO list only in 1995, but it has long been a popular destination for those wishing to experience the lore and legend of this unique island and national park. Home to the mind-bending Maoi heads, the island was inhabited by a Polynesian society around 3,000 AD, who established ritual sites all across Rapa Nui, many of which are still there today.

Easter Island, Chile | © Elsie Lin/Flickr

Nazca Lines, Peru

These otherworldly inscriptions into the surface of the Peruvian plains have mystified archaeologists for many years, their scale and uniformity evading categorisation. It is believed that the lines, which are etched into the earth and can be seen from space, had ritual astronomical functions. They depict animals, plants and geometric figures. The lines are several kilometres long and perfectly geometrical, which is incredible given the primitive resources of the pre-Hispanic cultures that created them.

The figure of a hummingbird, Nazca Lines, Peru | © Paul Williams / Flickr

Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina

This amazing rock formation has to be seen to be believed. Located in northern Argentina, this UNESCO Site follows the Camino Inca from the high Andean plains through a valley for around 150 kilometres (93 miles). It was the site of a trade route and of prehistoric and Inca settlements, and was also the site of numerous battles in the 19th and 20th centuries. The natural rupture of the earth has create jagged, colourful undulations in the mountains that form the valley, which is one of the most unique rock formations in the world.

Quebrada de Humahuaca | © Randal Sheppard/Flickr

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago drifting in isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, sits off the coast of Ecuador, and is well known for its incredible wildlife, much of which only exists on these islands. Living treasures such as the booby and the giant tortoise exist in harmony on the islands, which provide a veritable exhibition of evolution before a visitor’s eyes.

Galapagos Islands | © Christopher Dorobek/Flickr

Brasilia, Brazil

The Brazilian capital of Brasilia is considered a manmade wonder, owing in large part to its architectural grandeur. The city was built to be the capital in 1956, and under the masterful watch of landscape architect Lucio Costa and famed local architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia became the gold standard in urban planning and architecture, which is particularly expressed in the harmonious relationship between the buildings, the city’s layout and its administrative functions.

Sunset over the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, an architectural wonder | © seier+seier / Flickr

Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park, Brazil

This national park is home to one of the world’s oldest and most diverse biospheres. Known for its incredible wealth of flora and fauna, the plants, flowers and vegetation in particular are rigorously preserved, as this park helps to maintain the ecosystem of this vast area and is instrumental in the earth’s battle against climate change, having become a refuge for migrating plants and animals.

loquinhas | © Os Rúpias/Flickr

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

This collection of islands in the Brazilian Atlantic was incorporated into the UNESCO listing in 2001, and their waters provide a breeding ground for many marine species, including tuna, sharks and turtles. With pristine beaches and jagged volcanic peaks, the Fernando de Noronha islands are full of tidal pools and lagoons that are prime territory for mating and habitation.

Fernando de Noronha | © Rosanetur/Flickr

Canaima National Park, Venezuela

This vast park in southeastern Venezuela is home to a huge array of natural wonders, including Angel Falls, the tepui rock plateaus and the forests of the Guayanan Highlands. These spectacular landscapes are home to indigenous tribes, and most of the park is accessible only by dropping in from a helicopter or by canoe, so it really is a largely unexplored part of the world.

Canaima National Park | © Fernando Flores/Flickr

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps one of the best known UNESCO Sites in the world, Machu Picchu in Peru is located in the middle of a tropical rainforest, and was a pearl of the Inca Empire. A popular tourist destination and one that is on many people’s bucket lists, Machu Picchu defies belief with its amazing architectural achievements and natural beauty. There is nowhere else like it, and it is little wonder that it has been on the UNESCO list since 1983.

Machu Picchu | © trophygeek/Flickr

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

This national park in Chile is famous for its myriad trekking and hiking routes, the most popular being the W Trek, which draws both amateur and professional hikers to its peaks every year. Dense forests interspersed with rivers and streams open up into tranquil meadows, and imposing granite peaks rise up from behind the clouds to announce their inimitable presence. A must-visit.

Torres del Paine National Park | © Christopher Michel/Flickr

Valparaiso, Chile

This picturesque city is known for its quintessentially 19th-century architecture and is a wonderful example of how urban centres in Latin America were developed in the 1800s. The port was a bastion of marine industry, and many of the city’s features remain from that era, in particular the many lifts that still exist to take visitors and locals up and down the city’s steep hills.

Valparaiso | © [o] Rolando Vejar/Flickr

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