The Most Beautiful Places in South America

Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca citadel high in the Peruvian Andes
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca citadel high in the Peruvian Andes | © Vadim Nefedov / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Helen Armitage
16 April 2021

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.

Marble Caves, Chile

Natural Feature
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The surreal Marble Caves (Capilla de Marmol), Rio Tranquilo, Aysen, Patagonia, Chile
© dave stamboulis / Alamy Stock Photo
Over millions of years, the glacial water of General Carrera Lake in Patagonia has sculpted gothic-like arches and columns from the calcium-carbonate cliffs that line its shore, creating the unique Marble Caves. Boating among the spectacle is extraordinary. As the engine cuts, everyone goes silent, and the only sound is the splash of wavelets echoing off the striated blue-and-gold stone walls. What’s more, as the caves are so remote, there are only ever a few visitors.

Los Roques Archipelago, Venezuela

Natural Feature
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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.

Salvador, Brazil

Building, Church, Natural Feature
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Salvador cityscape, Bahia, Brazil.
© R.M. Nunes / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Bariloche, Argentina

Natural Feature, Ski Resort
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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.

Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Forest, Natural Feature
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Panoramic view from Mindo Valley, Ecuador. Many rivers, big mountains, little towns and green vegetation can be appreciated.
© Ripio PV / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Archaeological site
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High in the mist-shrouded Peruvian Andes, Machu Picchu is one of the most famous sites in South America – and the world. The Incas abandoned the 15th-century citadel after the invasion of Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century. It only resurfaced when explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911. Visiting today, you can access it easily by train. If you’ve got a masochistic streak, you might attempt the Inca Trail. At 25mi (40km), this steep route isn’t for the fainthearted, but completing it is pure exhilaration.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil/Argentina

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Iguazu Falls, Argentina
© David Noton Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
On the Argentina-Brazil border, the Iguazu Falls certainly make their presence felt, with 275 waterfalls, some as high as 269ft (82m), gushing into the river of the same name. On both sides of the border, you can get up close and personal via a series of catwalks – possibly even closer if you sign up for a boat trip. There are advantages to viewing the falls from both sides. Argentina has a larger section of the falls and a walkway that takes you directly over its most dramatic cataract, the Devil’s Throat. All the same, Brazil reveals some incredible panoramic views.

Easter Island, Chile

Archaeological site
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Moai Statues of Ahu Tongariki - Easter Island, Chile
© Diego Grandi / Alamy Stock Photo
If you want to visit a far-flung destination, you won’t get more remote than Easter Island, or rather Rapa Nui, more than 2,000mi (3,219km) off the coast of Chile. It’s known around the world for its mysterious moai (monolithic head statues) and the apocryphal backstory of the vanished culture that built them. Did they eat each other? Die of starvation? Of disease? It might not look so in photographs, but Rapa Nui is far from lifeless, visited by small ships cruising up from the South Pacific. The main town, Hanga Roa, has cafes and bars and a surfy, laid-back young scene. Meanwhile, the Tapati Festival, a two-week celebration of local Rapa Nui culture, takes place each February.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Park
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Chile, Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park (UNESCO Site), Cuernos del Paine peaks and Lake Pehoe
© Michele Falzone / Alamy Stock Photo
Covering approximately 597,995 acres (242,000ha), Torres del Paine National Park is a gorgeous, unreal slice of southern Patagonia with truly standout features. The park gets its name from the three towering granite peaks that cut a jagged path across the sky – torres means towers. You’ll also find dramatic waterfalls, pristine lakes and vast forests. At the beautiful Grey Lake, you can kayak about its glacier and icebergs if you’re feeling adventurous. And if you train your eyes on the horizon, you might see Andean condors wheeling on high, along with pumas and guanacos – related to the llama.

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Natural Feature
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Say hello to the flightless cormorant, the marine iguana and the large painted locust. The what, you ask? They’re among the more unusual species found on the Galápagos Islands, 600mi (966km) from mainland Ecuador, out in the Pacific. You’ll be more familiar with the giant tortoises, no doubt – particularly if you’re au fait with Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution, based on his 19th-century studies of the diverse wildlife here. The volcanic archipelago has more in store, including a labyrinthine series of passages formed millions of years ago by molten lava and the bustling Puerto Ayora, the biggest town.

Atacama Desert, Chile

Natural Feature
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Valley of the Moon - Atacama Desert - Chile
© Adrian Wojcik / Alamy Stock Photo
The Atacama Desert is the driest region on the whole planet, covering more than 40,000sqmi (103,600sqkm) in northern Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Peru, too. It’s almost inconceivable that rainfall has never been recorded in some areas. While the desert’s sheer vastness makes whittling down a list of must-see spots challenging, the green waters of the Laguna Verde salt lake are spectacular. If quirky art appeals, Mano del Desierto – Chilean artist Mario Irarrázabal’s hand-shaped sculpture, south of Antofagasta – is a must-see. And stargazers are in luck; with no cloud cover or light pollution, the heavens above make for a scintillating experience.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Natural Feature
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Salar de Uyuni. Salt flats. Bolivia
© Chris Pancewicz / Alamy Stock Photo
One of South America’s most surreally beautiful landscapes is Salar de Uyuni, in southwest Bolivia. At more than 4,000sqmi (10,360sqkm), it’s the largest salt flat in the world. The rainy season covers its surface in water, creating a magnificent mirror effect – you can hardly tell where the land ends and the sky begins. On the perimeter, near the town of Uyuni, lie more curiosities, including the rusting hulks of several antique trains, once used to transport the region’s rich minerals and long ago abandoned. Take a trip out to the middle of the flats to find the rocky Isla Incahuasi, a former island home to giant cacti and hiking trails.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Natural Feature
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Angel falls - view to the tallest waterfall on Earth in early morning
© Alice Nerr / Alamy Stock Photo
Can you imagine a cascade 20 times higher than Niagara Falls? You’ll find it in Venezuela’s Guiana Highlands, in the western reaches of Canaima National Park. Angel Falls is the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world, thundering 3,212ft (979m) from the edges of the Auyán-tepui (a table-top mountain), and you can see it in comfort by joining a sightseeing flight tour or a boat trip up the Carrao and Churún rivers. But if you’re feeling more intrepid, you can make the trek there through rainforests and canyons. It’s an arduous hike, but imagine the bragging rights you’ll enjoy when you’re safely back home.

Santuario de las Lajas, Colombia

Church
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Santuario de las Lajas, Pilgrim, church, gothic, style, Las Lajas, Colombia, South America
© Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
“A miracle of God in the abyss” is what Colombians call this rare architectural jewel, built into a canyon of the flowing Guáitara River, in remote southwestern Colombia. Santuario de las Lajas, an extraordinary Gothic Revival-style church built between 1916 and 1949, hovers more than 300ft (91m) above the river. While it’s a 20th-century structure, its inspiration came from an 18th-century local legend. In 1754, Maria Meneses de Quiñones 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. Today, the church remains a popular pilgrimage destination.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Natural Feature
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Baia do Sancho, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. Image shot 2012. Exact date unknown.
© Diane Stoney / Alamy Stock Photo
You’ll be lucky if you make it to Fernando de Noronha – an idyllic archipelago 217mi (350km) off the coast of Brazil – and not because of its remoteness. Only 420 people are allowed to visit at any given time to protect the archipelago’s wealth of precious wildlife and natural beauty, which earned the 21 islands Unesco World Heritage site status in 2001. The landscape is a contradictory tapestry of rugged mountains and tropical forest, pristine white-sand beaches and glassy waters. Snorkel or dive to see sharks, dolphins and sea turtles.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Natural Feature
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Perito Moreno glacier ice bridge, Patagonia, Argentina
© dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo
Flouting the threats of global warming, the Perito Moreno Glacier is actually growing. One of the star attractions in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinian Patagonia, it’s 19mi (31km) long and 3mi (5km) wide and rises about 240ft (73m) above the waters of Argentino Lake. If you visit in the spring and summer months (November to early March for non-southern hemisphere residents), you can check it out from the adjacent observation decks and witness parts breaking off. For even more exhilaration, it’s possible to hike across the glacier during its more stable winter months.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Natural Feature
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River, Flow, brook, body of water, nature, water, South America, Latin America, Colombia, red, colorful, canyon, Cano Cristales,
© Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
The stunning Caño Cristales is a 62mi-long (100km) tributary of the Guayabero River. Due to its marine plant life, it’s also known as 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 are a riot of color, especially from June to November when the plant turns from green to a bright reddish-pink. There is a series of picturesque waterfalls and natural pools, and you can take a dip in the vibrant depths.

Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on April 16, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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