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Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, the Galápagos Islands – South America is like a greatest-hits compilation of the best sights in the world. And there are many other, less familiar wonders just waiting to be explored. Whether you’re a veteran traveler to the continent or a total novice, you can’t go wrong with our list of the most beautiful places in South America.
There are only a handful of coral atolls beyond the Pacific, and they exist off Mexico and Belize and among the remote Los Roques archipelago in Venezuela. Protected since 1972 as a national park, the reefs here are pristine, busy with turtles and butterflyfish flickering about in waters as clear and calm as a summer’s day. Terns nest on the white-sand beaches, and the only village is on the largest island, Gran Roque, where a few cheap hotels await your visit.
Draped over a steep hill beside the glistening Bay of All Saints, Salvador, Brazil’s first capital, is a tapestry of cobbled streets lined with gold-filled churches and colonial buildings. Beaches fringe the suburbs, while the Afro-Brazilian rhythms of afoxé and axé pound like heartbeats at every corner. Elsewhere, street stalls sizzle with spicy acarajé (similar to falafel), served by Baiana women dressed in white. And the city hosts a carnival that’s bigger, brighter and brasher than Rio’s.
South America comes to ski in this faux-Alpine tourist town. The Andean slopes at Cerro Catedral are the busiest in the southern hemisphere, and between June and September, the pseudo-Swiss chalets and ice bars brim over with après-ski parties. During summer (December to February), you can hike in the pine forests, canoe on the endless lacework of brilliant-blue lakes and go whitewater rafting on rushing mountain rivers.
This misty cloud-forested valley sits where the Andes meet the moist air. Here, you’ll find beautiful orchids and trees dripping with moss, and wildlife is prolific. Brilliant green-and-blue hummingbirds the size of butterflies flit through the air, and arboreal, leopard-print cats – called margay – hunt small monkeys. Just a two-hour bus ride from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, Mindo is where you can access the cloud forest the easiest. Several accommodation options in the area offer wildlife watching, whitewater rafting, canopy cable-car rides and waterfall hikes.
Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.