Nestled high in the mist-shrouded Andes Mountains, Machu Picchu is one of Peru’s most famous and iconic sites. Built sometime around the mid-15th century, this Incan citadel was abandoned after the invasion of Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century. Its ruins were not rediscovered until American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911. Today, Machu Picchu can be accessed easily by train, though the more adventurous traveler can hike to this site via the Inca Trail. Traversing more than 50 miles from Cusco at altitudes of up to 14,000 feet, it isn’t a journey for the fainthearted, but the sight of the stunning Incan ruins at the end makes it more than worth it.
Located on the border of Brazil and Argentina, the stunning Iguazu Falls are a series of 275 waterfalls – some as high as 260 feet tall – on the river of the same name. On both the Brazilian and Argentinian side, Iguazu Falls can be accessed by a series of catwalks, or visitors can get up close to the waterfalls on a boat trip. There are advantages to viewing the falls from both sides. Argentina has a larger section of the falls and a catwalk taking visitors directly over its most dramatic waterfall, the Devil’s Throat, but the Brazil side offers some absolutely breathtaking panoramic views.
You won’t find many destinations that are as far-flung as Easter Island. Located more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, it’s one of the world’s most remote islands, but its beautiful landscape, mysterious statues and Polynesian culture are more than worth the trek. Easter Island’s best-known landmark is its Moai statues, of which there are almost 900 scattered across the island. There are many other things to see and do here, from the volcanic craters and beautiful sandy beaches to the Tapati Festival, a two-week-long celebration of local Rapa Nui culture that takes place each February.
Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is a truly stunning slice of southern Patagonia. Covering nearly 1,000 square miles, its most recognizable feature are the three dramatic granite peaks that give the park its name and cut a jagged path across the sky. Here visitors will also find a breathtaking landscape populated by dramatic waterfalls, pristine lakes and a verdant forest. At the beautiful Lake Grey, intrepid explorers can kayak among its glacier and icebergs. Meanwhile nature lovers visiting Torres del Paine National Park might be lucky enough to spot guanacos, pumas and Andean condors.
As one of the planet’s most biodiverse locations, it’s not surprising that the Galápagos Islands – the very islands that, in part, inspired Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution after he studied its diverse wildlife in the early 19th century – is a top destination for nature lovers. Famous for its giant tortoises, the islands are also home to unusual species like the flightless cormorant, marine iguanas, and the large painted locust. Beyond its awe-inspiring wildlife, visitors will also find places of interest like the Lava Tunnels (a labyrinthine series of passages formed millions of years ago by molten lava) or the busy port of Puerto Ayora, the archipelago’s biggest town.
Encompassing more than 40,000 square miles in northern Chile (and parts of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina), the Atacama Desert is the driest region on the whole planet — there are even some particularly arid stretches where rainfall has never been recorded. Due to its sheer size, whittling down a list of must-see spots is hard, but the green waters of the Laguna Verde salt lake near the border with Argentina are truly stunning. Mano del Desierto – Chilean artist Mário Irarrázabal’s hand-shaped sculpture south of Antofagasta – is a perfect stop-off for lovers of quirky art. Also home to two major observatories thanks to the region’s high altitude and lack of cloud cover and light pollution, the Atacama Desert is a prime spot for stargazing, too.
Southwest Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, which at just over 4,000 square miles in size is the world’s largest salt flat, is one of South America’s most surreally beautiful landscapes. During the rainy season, a layer of water covers its surface and creates a mirror effect, making it hard to tell where the land ends and the sky begins. On the edges of the flats near the town of Uyuni lies a train cemetery, which is home to the rusting hulks of several antique trains formerly used to transport the region’s rich minerals. A trip out to the middle brings visitors to Isla Incahuasi, a rocky outpost and former island home to giant cacti and hiking trails.
Located in Venezuela’s Guayana highlands in the western reaches of Canaima National Park, Angel Falls is the world’s highest waterfall and is a truly breathtaking sight to behold. Cascading a staggering 3,230 feet from the edges of the Auyantepuy mountain, it is almost 20 times higher than Niagara Falls. The awe-inspiring waterfall can be seen in comfort from a sightseeing flight tour or a boat trip up the Carrao and Churún rivers. However, more intrepid adventurers can opt to trek to Angel Falls via the surrounding rainforests and canyons; an arduous but rewarding hike.
Built into a canyon of the Guáitara River in remote southwestern Colombia, Santuario de las Lajas – unsurprisingly referred to as ‘a miracle of God in the abyss’ – is an architectural jewel of South America. Perched 328 feet above the river below, this beautiful Gothic Revival-style church was built between 1916 and 1949, though its inspiration goes back much further. According to legend, in 1754, local woman María Mueses and her daughter Rosa took shelter in the canyon during a terrible storm and witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the rock face. The church remains a popular pilgrimage destination today.
This is an idyllic archipelago of 21 islands located 200 miles off the coast of Brazil. Adventurers who get the chance to visit Fernando de Noronha should consider themselves lucky. Since this space was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 thanks to its rich wildlife, only 420 tourists are allowed on the islands at any given time in an effort to preserve its natural wonders. Fernando de Noronha’s rugged, volcanic landscape is home to a contrast of scenery, wherein rugged mountains and tropical forest give way to pristine beaches with white sands and crystal-clear waters. Here, snorkelers and divers can see sharks, dolphins and sea turtles.
Scoffing in the face of global warming, unlike many of the world’s glaciers the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier (located in Patagonian Argentina’sLos Glaciares National Park) is actually growing. The glacier stretches three miles in length and rises 200 feet above Lago Argentino. Visitors during spring and summer months (that’s November to early March for non-Southern hemisphere residents) can witness parts of the glacier breaking from the safety of adjacent observation decks. For a truly exhilarating experience, adventurous travelers can hike across Perito Moreno during its more stable winter months.
The stunning Caño Cristales – a 62-mile-long tributary of Río Guayabero – is, thanks to its marine plant life, often nicknamed the ‘Liquid Rainbow’ or ‘River of Five Colors’. Home to the macarenia clavigera – a water plant endemic to Colombia’s remote Serranía de la Macarena region – the waters of Caño Cristales are a cacophony of color. This is especially true from June to November, when the plant turns from green to a bright reddish pink. Also home to a series of picturesque waterfalls and natural pools, visitors exploring Caño Cristales can take even take a dip in its vibrantly colored waters.